The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, May 12, 2003  

Conspiracy, Cabal, Cult, Clique, or None of the Above?

Two more voices recently have weighed in on the seemingly endless debate over the influence of the neoconservatives on the Bush administration's foreign and defense policy, generally, and the war on Iraq, specifically.

Joshua Muravchik, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a self-identified neoconservative and protégé of Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, writing in the International Herald-Tribune ("The Neoconservatives Unmasked," May 6), goes only so far as to say this:

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, are certainly not neocons, at least not in their histories. Who knows how [President] Bush decides? All that can be said is that his policies resemble things advocated by neocons, a loose group with a distinct history and well-publicized ideas, not at all a shadowy cabal.

The title of Robert J. Lieber's recent article in The Chronicle, "The Neoconservative-Conspiracy Theory: Pure Myth," speaks for itself. Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University, writes, with unconcealed praise, even awe:

Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, and Rice are among the most experienced, tough-minded, and strong-willed foreign-policy makers in at least a generation, and the conspiracy theory fails utterly to take into account their own assessments of American grand strategy in the aftermath of 9/11.

The theory also wrongly presumes that Bush himself is an empty vessel, a latter-day equivalent of Czarina Alexandra, somehow fallen under the influence of Wolfowitz/Rasputin. Condescension toward Bush has been a hallmark of liberal and leftist discourse ever since the disputed 2000 presidential election, and there can be few readers of this publication who have not heard conversations about the president that did not begin with offhand dismissals of him as "stupid," a "cowboy," or worse….That kind of disparagement has left critics ill prepared to think analytically about the administration or the foreign-policy imperatives facing the United States after 9/11.

Whether one favors or opposes the Bush policies, the former Texas governor has proved himself to be an effective wartime leader….

Ultimately, the neocon-conspiracy theory misinterprets as a policy coup a reasoned shift in grand strategy that the Bush administration has adopted in responding to an ominous form of external threat. Whether that strategy and its component parts prove to be as robust and effective as containment of hostile Middle Eastern states linked to terrorism remains to be seen. But to characterize it in conspiratorial terms is not only a failure to weigh policy choices on their merits, but represents a detour into the fever swamps of political demagoguery.

In his IHT essay Muravchik calls neoconservatism "an obscure ideological label, the stuff of doctoral dissertations." In my case, he's almost right about that. Neoconservatism and American foreign policy was the subject of my master's thesis. But surely Muravchik knows the term has been bandied about in political magazines and on editorial pages for a generation. I'm not convinced "obscure" is the correct word here.

And while Secretary Rumsfeld's resumé is not that of the typical neoconservative intellectual, he has been known at least to have consorted with the neocons: He was a founding member of the Committee on the Present Danger and served as chairman of the Committee for the Free World.

Given the amount of time I spent on that paper, though it was many years ago, this is a subject to which I should devote more thought and consideration than I have in recent weeks. For now, though, I'll just ask a simple question:

Why are the neoconservatives today denying any particular influence on U.S. foreign and defense policy when in the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, they could hardly contain their gleeful boasts of having accomplished the very same thing?

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