North America Being a Neocon Means Never Having to Say You’re...

Being a Neocon Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

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These guys were wrong about every aspect of Iraq. Why do we still have to listen to them?

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

From 2001 until sometime around 2006, the United States followed the core neoconservative foreign-policy program. The disastrous results of this vast social science experiment could not be clearer. The neoconservative program cost the United States several trillion dollars and thousands dead and wounded American soldiers, and it sowed carnage and chaos in Iraq and elsewhere.

One would think that these devastating results would have discredited the neoconservatives forever, just as isolationists like Charles Lindbergh or Robert McCormick were discredited by World War II, and men like former Secretary of State Dean Rusk were largely marginalized after Vietnam. Even if the neoconservative architects of folly are undaunted by failure and continue to stick to their guns, one might expect a reasonably rational society would pay them scant attention.

Yet to the dismay of many commentators — including Andrew BacevichJuan Cole, Paul WaldmanAndrew SullivanSimon Jenkinsand James Fallows — neoconservative punditry is alive and well today. Casual viewers of CNN and other news channels are being treated to the vacuous analysis of Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, and Bill Kristol.

More worrisome still: It seems to be having some impact, insofar as President Barack Obama appears to have bowed to pressure and dispatched 300 U.S. military advisors to help the incompetent and beleaguered Maliki government in Iraq. As usual, Obama seems wary of a new quagmire and seeking to limit U.S. involvement, but he’s taken the first step onto the slippery slope and will face additional pressure to do more if this initial move does not succeed.

What’s going on here? Others have eviscerated the logic of the neocons’ latest campaign for war, and you can read any of the commentaries listed above for powerful rejoinders to the neocons’ latest spate of bad advice. Or you could take a quick look at Barry Posen’s recent piece in Politico, which provides a useful caution to the neocons’ all-too-familiar saber-rattling.

But given their past failures, what explains neoconservatism’s apparent immunity from any degree of accountability? How can a group of people be so wrong so often and at such high cost, yet still retain considerable respect and influence in high circles? 

For America to pay the slightest heed to neoconservatives is like asking Wile E. Coyote how to catch the Road Runner, seeking marital advice from the late Mickey Rooney, or letting Bernie Madoff handle your retirement portfolio.

As near as I can tell, the strange mind-boggling persistence of neoconservatism is due to four interrelated factors.

No. 1: Shamelessness

One reason neoconservatism survives is that its members don’t care how wrong they’ve been, or even about right and wrong itself. True to their Trotskyite and Straussian roots, neoconservatives have always been willing to play fast and loose with the truth in order to advance political goals. We know that they were willing to cook the books on intelligence and make outrageously false claims in order to sell the Iraq war, for example, and today they construct equally false narratives that deny their own responsibility for the current mess in Iraq and portray their war as a great success that was squandered by Obama. And the entire movement seems congenitally incapable of admitting error, or apologizing to the thousands of people whose lives they have squandered or damaged irreparably.

Stephen M. Walt
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