Washington — The audience was a receptive one at the Brookings Institution during a recent presentation on foreign policy recommendations for the incoming president. Experts explained in detail their view of the Bush administration’s blunders and how the Obama team should reverse almost every policy the outgoing administration has set in place over the past eight years.
Still, as the litany of criticism continued, one person in the back row of the Brookings briefing room seemed to draw attention. It was Elliott Abrams, President Bush’s deputy national security adviser and probably the last neoconservative still serving in a senior position in the current administration.
By the end of January 2009, the tables will turn. Many of the outside experts, with their bold new ideas, will become part of the government, and current officials such as Abrams will look for their place in the capital’s think-tank scene.
The neoconservatives made up only a tiny fraction of the Bush policy team, but in the public eye they are seen as more responsible than others for setting the team’s course on foreign policy and national security.
Most of those who share Abrams’s views are already out of government. They left feeling bitter toward, and frustrated with, the outgoing administration for, as they saw it, making them scapegoats for the Iraq War. They had the same feelings for the liberals and the media who chose to side with their critics.
Now, neocons feel it is time to set the record straight and move on.
“We will go to the public. We will show a massive amount of documentation and explanation of what really went on,” declared David Wurmser, former Middle East adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. “This will start the process of rewriting history, which up to now was written based on leaks against us. From our point our view, the past four years were miserable because we had to muzzle ourselves and remain loyal.”
The process, in fact, has already begun. In the beginning of 2008, Douglas Feith, who served in the Pentagon as under secretary of defense for policy, served up the opening volley with the publication of his memoir, “War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism.” If nothing else, the book makes good on Wurmser’s promise of copious documentation.
Feith, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Lewis “Scooter” Libby, then Cheney’s chief of staff and national security adviser, were seen as the hard core of neoconservatism in the
Bush administration. Feith’s book, published in April 2008, tried to debunk the myth of neoconservative influence on the decision-making process leading up to the Iraq War. This is one of the main points that neocons are now trying to make.
“When the records get opened, no one will subscribe to these views anymore. Almost everything that is believed about us is wrong,” Feith said in an interview with the Forward. Richard Perle, who served on the Pentagon’s advisory board, added: “They called me the architect of the Iraq War. This is complete rubbish.” Perle is publishing an article in January that he hopes “will help set the record straight.”
While the neocons are in exile from power, articles and books remain the main arena for the neoconservative battle of ideas.
“Maybe the moral of our experience with the Bush administration is that we should stay in magazines and think tanks and not in government,” said Joshua Muravchik, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Muravchik sees himself as a neoconservative and has written extensively about the ideology.
Muravchik has also written articles defending the neoconservative viewpoint (“This is how I fight,” he said. “I won’t throw bombs”). He believes that life will be easier now that neocons are out of government. “We’re going back to a happier place,” he said. “We were always more comfortable being critics than endorsers.”
Thus, the neocon action now moves from the corridors of power back to the pages of Commentary magazine and The Weekly Standard, and to The Wall Street Journal’s opinion page. A refuge for those neocons leaving the Bush administration is now also found in the halls of supportive think tanks, mainly AEI, home base for Wolfowitz and Perle, and Hudson Institute, where Feith serves as a scholar.
Libby, however, resigned his Hudson position in 2007, after being convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. Bush later commuted his jail sentence, meted out because of Libby’s false testimony to a grand jury investigating the public disclosure of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity after Plame’s husband publicly contradicted administration justifications for the Iraq War.
“This is a good place to take some time and reflect,” said Wurmser’s wife, Meyrav Wurmser, a Middle East scholar at Hudson. “People came out of this administration battered, and now they want to sit and think what went wrong,”
In mid-December 2008, Hudson threw its annual holiday party. It was themed as a dance club, and guests were treated to disco lights and to lighted margarita glasses. Participants reported that very few people actually took to the dance floor. Neoconservatives may feel relieved, but they are far from being in a partying mood.
By and large, many have decided that the path to rehabilitation and return to power can be completed by denouncing the outgoing presidential administration. The main target for neocons is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose ideology of “realism” was a counterweight to neoconservatism in the administration. “My greatest frustration is with Condi Rice,” David Wurmser said. “I thought she would get it, that ultimately her approach would melt down. But it didn’t.”
Feith added: “The State Department and CIA people who opposed our views did so by leaking to the press stories that were not consistent with what went on inside the situation room. One of their themes was that there is a group of militaristic neocons pushing for war.”
The next step back to public life seems obvious to most neoconservatives: Once the record is fixed, it will be clear that the failure was due not to a faulty ideology, but to the fact that the administration failed to fully adopt and implement this ideology.
“The feeling of ‘America under attack’ that shaped the neoconservative view did not go away,” Meyrav Wurmser said. This view is also reflected in articles written by leading neoconservatives, who argue that the basics of neoconservatism are still valid: the need to protect America from Islamic extremism — seen as an imminent threat of the first order; the need to use pre-emptive force, if necessary, as a tool of achieving foreign policy goals, and the belief in putting promotion of democracy in the Arab and Muslim world at the top of America’s foreign policy agenda, above traditional American realpolitik interests.
Only one leading conservative thinker broke ranks with the group. Kenneth Adelman, who is considered a neocon by many but refers to himself as a “con-con,” publicly announced during the recent presidential campaign that he was voting for Barack Obama. He cited the Bush administration’s failures and his fear that McCain would bring more of the same. Adelman, who was an administration official for President Reagan, argued that McCain’s decisions were “plain weird.” Adelman also said he feared that another failed conservative president would be worse than a Democrat.
But for most neoconservatives, being critical of Bush’s conduct does not mean switching sides or giving up their ideology.
Moreover, they hope that the Iraq War, which was a focal point for anti-neocon criticism, is ripe for being revisited. The decline in violence and relative stability has given neocons a sense of vindication. “The fact the war — even though it was very costly — may actually end with quite good results might change the attitude toward those who were involved in the analysis process,” Feith said. “The premise of a lot of the criticism will be exposed to be wrong.”
Still, some of the criticism is based on facts already documented and open to the public. Such is the case with the close contacts that neoconservatives had with Iraqi opposition figure Ahmed Chalabi, who later turned his back on the Americans and was accused of cooperating with Iran against American forces in Iraq.
Neoconservatives also came under fire for scorning as unrealistic an assessment of Eric Shinseki, then an army chief of staff general, that the war would require “several hundred thousand soldiers,” and for scorning White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey’s estimate that the war would cost Americans some $100 billion to $200 billion. Wolfowitz predicted that the war would be financed by Iraq oil revenues and cost the United States virtually nothing.
The surge later brought the number of American troop members in Iraq close to Shinseki’s prediction. The retired general was recently chosen to be President-elect Obama’s veteran affairs secretary. Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, told The Washington Post, “If Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith had listened to Shinseki, there wouldn’t be as many wounded veterans to take care of.”
According to a 2006 Congressional Research Service study, by that point the war had cost $261 billion. The study estimated that the ultimate total would reach higher than $549 billion.
The lengthy process for the rehabilitation of Iraq can fit well with the political timeline, perhaps in time for the next presidential campaign. But for some neocons, the idea of re-entering the political system does not have much appeal. (“I’m not a Republican,” Perle said.) Others are trying to look ahead and reframe the political future of neoconservative ideology.
This future, according to David Wurmser, is as far out of Washington as possible. “I can see neocons reaching out to governors and seeing them as the future hard-line leaders,” he said. Some names already thrown out include Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, a 2008 vice presidential candidate. “She is very smart,” Wurmser said, though he admits she needs “to acquire more foreign policy understanding.”
The neoconservatives seeking rehabilitation are facing a tough battle. The broader foreign policy community, made up of both Republican-leaning realists and liberal critics of the hard-line approach, has largely rejected the neoconservative narrative. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former White House national security adviser and a guru of foreign policy realism, warned that “if neocon policies continue to be pursued, the United States will be expelled from the region.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.