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Neo-conservatism and the politics of paranoia

The founders and first generation of the neo-conservatism movement that now dominates Washington are either deceased or older than the septuagenarian US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In decades past neo-con believers remained off-stage, occasionally appearing in moments of crisis or opportunity. These appearances were brief and failed to attract sufficient attention to provoke public debate.

June 1, 2003
10 min read

The movement is now over 60 years old. It is neither a conspiracy nor a cabal operating on US foreign policy. It is a robust, well-funded ideological movement with representatives in charge of leading think-tanks, global media outlets, universities and the Bush presidency. There is no cover-up; information on the movement is easy to attain.

Rejection of multiculturalism, hostility to European ‘soft’ power politics and a deep belief in the moral imperative of a certain kind of liberty drive the neo-cons. Their rise is intertwined with the rightward shift of the US. Their long march to power has coincided with rising tides of Christian and free-market fundamentalisms. Serious division exists in these ranks, but the tensions between the US and much of the rest of the world today can be traced to neo-con ideology.

The neo-Rons

The presidency of Ronald Reagan united and empowered the neo-con generation now ensconced in the US departments of state and defence. This group’s imprint is most visible in the doctrine of preventative war and in US policy in Israel-Palestine and North Korea. The conservatives rest assured in US dominance of the globe; militarily and economically the US must fulfill its responsibility, remake a troubled world, confront enemies, prevent rivals and seize the opportunities offered it as freedom’s superpower.

Freedom and liberty have very specific associations in this world-view: the limited set of rights established or intended by the framers of the US constitution. Some adherents to this ideology are fond of likening masses to Lilliputians and leaders to Gulliver. This conception reveals a moral comfort in deception and strong-arm tactics – when the giant must act in the interest of little people.

Leo Strauss was an inspirational guru. His belief in powerful, aggressive policy was shaped in reaction to his personal experience of Weimar Germany. Permissive democracy is naturally weak. Military strength and sacrifice of excessive personal freedom are required to combat tyranny and avoid defeat. A cast of menacing internal and external enemies perpetually threatens. Supremacy of Western culture, US constitutional democracy and individualism are melded with free enterprise. The US is the embodiment of strength, morality and civilisation. Opponents are either deluded (as in the case of the Europeans) or threatening aggressors. Diplomacy and compromise reveal weakness, menace freedom and encourage tyranny, relativism and chaos. Survival demands martial mastery of myriad threats. The great texts of Western philosophy are not simply the expressions of one system of human organisation; they contain the true guide to supremely meritorious society. Alternative philosophies and political structures are inferior and threatening. Philosophy and ideology lead human activity, determine society’s success and failure. The majority of people see only shadows on the walls of Socrates’ cave; an enlightened vanguard must lead.

Strauss handed down an ideology of fear to the first neo-cons. Steeped in the paranoia of red scares, the Great Depression, Cold War hysteria and the New York immigrant experience, a group of anti-communist liberals groped towards an acceptably patriotic world-view. Fearful of democracy’s weaknesses and contradictions, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Norman Podhoretz and Daniel Bell (see the box ‘First-generation neo-cons’) strove to motivate US primacy as a bulwark against Soviet aggression. Disturbed by the pilloried leftism of family members and their ethnic Brooklyn neighbours, these success-oriented young men found solace and acceptability by celebrating the morality of US power.

Suspicion of leftists and creeping communists ruled supreme during the neo-cons’ formative years. Hysterical fear justified attack, which was trumpeted as defence of imperiled morality and liberty. Compromise was veiled aid to mortal enemies. Arms reduction and trade normalisation marked surrender. The neo-cons’ alliance with Rand Corporation heavyweight Albert Wohlstetter (see box, below) symbolised their entrance into Republican power circles.

Wohlstetter worked with longtime Rumsfeld ally Kenneth Adelman and influenced and introduced Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle to each other. Wohlstetter’s charge to influence policy through think-tank activity and association with Washington elites offered the neo-cons a potent model. Their struggles against arms reduction facilitated rapid ascension to prominent roles in policy research and implementation.

Neo-conservatism is defined by Straussian logic, Wohlstetter method and Republican interest. The neo-cons’ proximity to power, academic position and media reach are now unrivalled. The media component of neo-conservatism is important. Hundreds of books, periodicals, lectures and appearances are undertaken annually. Irving Kristol, Glazier, Norman Podheretz and Bell have written more than 14 books, many very successful, and founded or edited at least eight magazines between them. There are presently nine avowedly neo-con periodicals and seven major neo-con think-tanks or lobbies.

The neo-con think-tanks include the American Enterprise, Hudson and Manhattan institutes, the John M Olin Foundation and the infamous Project For The New American Century (Pnac). Books are published, articles penned and thousands of radio and television appearances scheduled. Newsweek International is run by neo-conservative fellow traveller Fareed Zakaria. The Wall Street Journal editorial page is staffed by prominent neo-con evangelists. The New York Times editorial staff also includes sympathisers, and The New York Post, The Weekly Standard, and the US journals New Republic, Commentary and The Public Interest are all edited by movement activists. Rupert Murdoch’s vast media empire is similarly populated by neo-con editors, guests and leading lights. Proponents of the ideology are heard every day by millions of Americans.

Neo-con intellectual activity in social science departments, think-tanks and lobbies is cutting edge and highly influential. The movement’s think-tanks operate well-funded lobbies, write policy papers and host conferences attended by the top tier of the Bush administration.

At a February American Enterprise Institute (AEI )conference, Bush thanked the neo-cons for their work and spoke of their massed ranks in his administration. On its website Pnac boasts of its influence and refers to Bush as a neo-con. In a September 2001 letter to Bush, Pnac advocated pursuit of the following: first, capture or kill Osama bin Laden through military action in Afghanistan; second, remove Saddam Hussein regardless of any linkage between him and 11 September; third, pressurise Syria and Iran into ceasing all support for Hezbollah (‘appropriate measures of retaliation’ were urged in the event of resistance); fourth, support Israel and offer no support to the Palestinian Authority until it moves against terror; fifth, expand military funding to sustain the above actions while projecting influence and preparing for larger looming confrontation. The letter was signed by 41 prominent neo-cons.

Specific policy suggestions aside, the content of the Bush letter is very similar to Pnac’s June 1997 ‘Statement of Principles’. Of the 25 signatories to the ‘Statement of Principles’ at least five (Cheney, the US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and US Middle East envoy, convicted perjurer and Iran-Contra veteran Elliot Abrams) now serve in the Bush administration. Also on the list is the president’s brother – the Florida governor Jeb Bush.

The potency of Pnac and similar think-tanks is enormous. Above all else they concentrate on fear and vulnerability to cataclysmic attack. The cast of threats and methods of confrontation has evolved, but the ethical mandate for pre-emptive action has survived the test of time. The neo-cons’ sense of their own success in the Cold War invigorates their certainty of method and aggression of action. Domestic and foreign opponents feel the sting of bold impatience with dissent. Conflicts conceived as confrontations with evil allow little room for polite debate.

Neo-conservatism has long struggled for the influence it now commands. It seeks to control mortal threats (real or imagined) before destruction is unleashed. The revolution in military affairs offered by Bush, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz was designed by Wohlstetter and friends at the Rand Institute in the 1970s; the neo-cons waited in the wings ever since. The two Gulf wars, Venezuela and Afghanistan have been the test phases of a ‘new’ strategic disposition. The UN, Nato, strategic alliances and military assets are being reshuffled to advance US power.

Why now? Globalisation, emerging rivals, economic weakness and multiculturalism menace. Alongside goods, services and wealth flow people, cultures and ideologies. This process has stretched inequalities – fuelling outrage, resistance and chaos. It also furnishes great fortunes and business opportunities. Neo-con anger feeds on the disorder, opposition, risk and danger that globalisation fosters. The flows of trade and wealth are embraced as civilising and positive. The proliferation of cultures and forms of resistance is hated and feared. Multilateral policy-making, perpetual compromise and tolerance of disorder and dysfunction are perceived to be lurking everywhere.

The neo-cons recommend impassioned reaction. They offer an alternative vision of globalisation in which the US takes control of a chaotic world. Opponents, rival ideas and rising powers are brought to heel.

The collapse of the USSR and the less developed state of EU and Chinese power offer a unique and fleeting opportunity – to be seized by force if necessary. The US can and must act to forestall the emergence of rival powers. Otherwise a flood of alien ideas, cultures and agendas will subvert US liberty, ‘civilisation’ and stability. Strength of purpose, economic primacy and a monopoly on military prowess can be used to harvest the good while restricting or destroying evil.

Modern America is open to this approach. Primed by a conservative corporate media and more than 20 years of rightward drift, Americans are profoundly frightened. They are scared of economic forces exporting good jobs, bringing waves of immigrants, lowering wages and raising global instability. The US middle class is under crushing pressure. Wages are not keeping up with spending. Debts are rising and profound insecurity besets personal, professional and financial life. The promises of new technologies and stock market wealth were false. The economy is weak and the 2000 presidential election called basic understandings of democracy into question. Rounds of corporate scandal tarnish captains of industry. The 11 September attacks and waves of arrests, rumours and threats terrify. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, terror alerts and climbing unemployment keep fear levels high. Proliferating police power and receding civil liberty worry many.

Neo-cons offer a world remade. Media pundits and politicians share and feed off fear, offering neo-con foreign policy as the solution. But rival voices, most on the right, compete fiercely with the neo-cons; the latter do not sit alone at the tables of power. So, conservative Christian and business interests must be accommodated, thus convoluting and complicating policy.

Meanwhile, Europeans struggle with the alterations required for union. Different theories, cultures and traditions coexist, influencing each other. US adventures are seen as crude, militaristic, brutal and anachronistic. Fear of US influence and threat permeate the European air. None of this is to deny that millions of Americans see their own country’s actions much the same way. But alternative opinions get little publicity. Thus, conservative conceptions are potent, ubiquitous and little examined in mainstream US discourse.

This results in a growing assessment gap. Understandings of events and actions, particularly US actions, are increasingly divergent. The coverage of the war in Iraq is only the most glaring example. Where others see US failings, Americans hear of triumph. Neo-cons play a role in this process, but are not the only factor. US mass media offer a narrow range of opinion. Criticism is rare and tends to be dismissed or drowned out by the chorus of voices supporting official action and opinion. Critics are frightened – with increasingly good reason. The rise of an ideology of absolute good engaged in fierce combat with uncivilised and driven forces of evil is aiding the decline of internal debate. It remains to be seen how much further this process can run without provoking greater conflict.Max Fraad Wolff is a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst

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