I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The paramountcy of neoconservatism and Joe Lieberman

American political conflicts are usually described in terms of "liberal versus conservative," but that is really no longer the division which drives our most important political debates. The predominant political conflicts over the last five years have been driven by a different dichotomy -- those who believe in neoconservatism versus those who do not. Neoconservatism is responsible for virtually every significant political controversy during the Bush administration -- from our invasion of Iraq to the array constitutional abuses perpetrated in the name of fighting terrorism -- and that ideological dispute is even what is driving the war over Joe Lieberman's Senate seat. It is not traditional conservatism or liberalism, but rather one's views on neoconservativsm, which have become the single most important factor in where one falls on the political spectrum.

Like a bad satire of The First Two Rules of The Fight Club, neoconservatives used to vehemently deny that there even was such thing as "neoconservatism," even going so far as to smear anyone who used the term as being anti-semitic. But with every aspect of their foreign policy in shambles, and due to (an understandable) fear that they will be blamed for these disasters, neoconservatives are assertively coming out of the closet -- for self-defense reasons if no other. They are insisting that neoconservatism hasn't failed, but rather, it has been failed, by those who lack the necessary resolve, courage and brutality to do the dirty work that has to be done. In short, they are demanding more war, more militarism, and more barbarism, and are claiming that the reason for our foreign policy failures is because -- thanks to the Chamberlian-like cowardice of virtually everyone other than them -- we don't have nearly enough of all of that.

Bill Kristol yesterday complained in The Weekly Standard that the Bush administration is getting pushed around by Iran, Syria, North Korea and even that dove-ish General Casey, who wants slowly to withdraw from Iraq. Because of this collective weakness, our enemies "must be feeling even less intimidated," and as a result, the lines drawn by American foreign policy are no longer drawn in warrior red, but instead are weak, effeminate "pink lines and mauve lines." Kristol has a long roster of other countries on whom we have to wage war, or at least credibly threaten to wage war, and our cowardice and lack of resolve is responsible for every failure, from Bush's political collapse at home to anti-American animosity around the world:

But hey, we're in sync with the EU-3 and the U.N.-192. And our secretary of state--really, the whole State Department--is more popular abroad than ever. Too bad the cost has been so high: a decline in the president's credibility around the world and sinking support for his foreign policy at home.

A few weeks ago, Michael Rubin lamented in this magazine that Bush's second term foreign policy had taken a Clintonian turn. But to be Clintonian in a post-9/11 world is to invite even more danger than Clinton's policies did in the 1990s.

To neoconservatives like Kristol, Americans have abandoned the President and the U.S. has lost credibility around the world because we have been insufficiently militaristic and belligerent. We haven't threatened and invaded enough countries, and we are too eager to leave Iraq. To underscore the claim that the Bush administration's failure is a lack of commitment to neoconservative principles, Kristol even hurls the ultimate insult: Bush has become "Clintonian" in his foreign policy because he is too weak and eager to negotiate with the long list of countries on whom we need to wage more war.

Whether coordinated or not, neoconservatives are swarming in droves to voice this same blame-assigning complaint -- that their policies are failing not because they were so misguided, but because the country, and even President Bush, lack the spine and the heroic neoconservative-warrior courage necessary to see them through. In a despicable column widely hailed by neoconservatives -- John Hinderaker, for instance, admitted that it "says out loud what many have been thinking about 'our prisoner problem' in the wake of Hamdan, Abu Ghraib" -- Ralph Peters argued in The New York Post that our biggest mistake has been detaining people rather than putting bullets in their heads. The column, headlined "Kill, Don't Capture," argues that the detainees we capture are "living vermin" who should be "executed promptly, without trial":

No more Guantanamos! Every terrorist mission should be a suicide mission. With our help.

We need to clarify the rules of conflict. But integrity and courage have fled Washington. Nobody will state bluntly that we're in a fight for our lives, that war is hell, and that we must do what it takes to win.

Our enemies will remind us of what's necessary, though. When we've been punished horribly enough, we'll come to our senses and do what must be done. . . . The ultimate act of humanity in the War on Terror is to win. To do so, we must kill our enemies wherever we encounter them.

Only tough neoconservatives like Peters and Hinderaker are strong and courageous enough to do what needs to be done. The real problem of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo is not that we are mistreating terrorist suspects, including many who have been proven to be innocent. It's that we allow our Muslim enemies to live at all. The only real way to end all of these irritating, whiny controversies about whether the U.S. is violating the core ideals which it has long advocated is to stop taking prisoners and just summarily execute them all instead.

Pushing this theme of excess American weakness even further, The New York Sun yesterday published an admirably honest editorial entitled "Bring Back the Neocons," which argues that American foreign policy is failing becasue we stopped listening to warrior-genuises like Richard Perle, Doug Feith and Scooter Libby. As a result of America's failures to live up to the demands of neoconservatism, we have become weak and ineffectual:

So look where President Bush's decision to sideline the neoconservatives has gotten him. Instead of worrying about America, Iran now holds the upper hand, choosing which U.N. officials will inspect it as America begs Tehran to accept an offer of negotiations and "incentives" that include civilian airline parts. North Korea is as belligerent as ever, test-firing medium range missiles. Iraq's capital is a bloodbath of sectarian violence. Israel is under fire from a Hamas state in Gaza. Russia and Communist China are blocking American action at the U.N. Security Council. . . .

The Sun complains that we are working too closely with the United Nations, that we have caved into the "softer line" urged by the State Department, and that we have been too cowardly in confronting the evil nations of the world. But there is still time to rectify those errors by returning to the glorious neoconservative aggression which has served this nation so well:

But time makes it ever more clear that the right strategies going forward are those offered by the neoconservative camp. Mr. Bush has time to turn things around, and, if he truly has the freedom agenda ingrained on his soul, he'll know where to turn to rectify the errors of the "softer line" . . . .

Writing in New Republic, Lawrence Kaplan similarly laments that the real cause of the disaster and failure in Iraq isn't that we embarked upon the invasion and war which Kaplan so urgently craved, but that we now lack the resolve to do the hard, dirty work to get the job done.

Neoconservativsm is rarely defined but its central tenets are, by now, quite clear. At its core, neoconservatism maintains that the greatest threat to America is hostile Muslims in the Middle East, and the only real solution to that problem is increased militarism and belligerence, usually with war as the necessary course of action. Our mistake has been excessive restraint, a lack of courage, and a naive and cowardly belief that measures short of war and all-out aggression are effective in dealing with this problem. This threat is not just uniquely dangerous, but unprecedentedly so, such that Islamic extremists render prior American ideals and principles -- both foreign and domestic -- obsolete, and only radically more militaristic approaches have any chance of saving us from destruction at their hands.

This is the neoconservative mentality -- the bloodthirsty, militaristic, largely authoritarian world-view -- which has been driving not only our foreign policy since the September 11 attacks, but also the bulk of our most controversial domestic policies undertaken in the name of fighting terrorists. Over the last five years, neoconservatism has been the central force of American political life, and it has resulted in a fundamental ideological realignment. Far more important than one's views on traditional matters of political controversy is the extent to which one supports or opposes neoconservative theories.

Throughout the 1990s, one's political orientation was determined by a finite set of primarily domestic issues -- social spending, affirmative action, government regulation, gun control, welfare reform, abortion, gay rights. One's position on those issues determined whether one was conservative, liberal, moderate, etc. But those issues have become entirely secondary, at most, in our political debates. They are barely discussed any longer. Instead, what has dominated our political conflicts over the last five years are terrorism-related issues -- Iraq, U.S. treatment of detainees, domestic surveillance, attacks on press freedoms, executive power abuses, Iran, the equating of dissent with treason.

It is one's positions on those issues -- and, more specifically, whether one agrees with the neoconservative approach which has dominated the Bush administration's approach to those issues -- which now determines one's political orientation. That is why so many traditional conservatives who reject neoconservatism-- the Pat Buchanans and Bob Barrs and George Wills and a long roster of military generals -- have broken with the Bush administration. And it is also why so many so-called traditional liberals -- the Ed Kochs, The New Republic, and Joe Lieberman -- have become some of the administration's most vocal supporters and reliable allies. Individuals who have traditionally conservative views on those 1990s issues are considered "liberals" by virtue of their opposition to the administration's neoconservative agenda.

More than anything else, this ideological realignment is what accounts for the intense passions ignited by the Joe Lieberman Senate seat. Despite his history as a life-long Democrat and a "liberal"on the predominant 1990s issues, Joe Lieberman is a pure neoconservative, which now matters much more. On the predominant issues of the day, his political comrades are Bill Kristol, Lawrence Kaplan, National Review, The New York Sun, and Dick Cheney.

Those who are most supportive of Lieberman and angry about the challenge he faces are people like David Frum and David Brooks. Why would hard-core Republican neoconservatives be so emotionally attached to defending Democrat Joe Lieberman? Why do pro-Bush, highly conservative Republicans such as blogger Mark Coffey proclaim themselves to be "huge fans" of Lieberman? Because far more than he is a Democrat or a "liberal," Joe Lieberman is a neoconservative and therefore -- on the issues that matter most -- is their ideological and political compatriot. In the 1990s, Joe Lieberman's positions on the dominant issues of the day may have rendered him "moderate to conservative," but on the issues that matter most now -- in light of the ideological realignment we have had in the wake of 9/11 -- he is nothing of the sort. He is a neoconservative, and therefore the political enemy of those who oppose that philosophy. Why would opponents of neoconservatism possibly support the re-election of a neconservative?

Much of the criticism directed at the challenge to Joe Lieberman is based on the premise that dissatisfaction with Lieberman is driven merely by one little issue - Iraq. But that argument is at once both factually false and absurd. Lieberman is supportive of the neonconservative agenda almost across the board. And this ideological conflict, far from being one little issue, is really the issue, and Joe Lieberman is on the other side, politically and ideologically, from those who are opposing his re-election. He has even adopted the neoconservative rhetoric of equating criticisms of George Bush with undermining American interests and national security. What could be more legitimate than urging the defeat of an elected official who has enthusiastically embraced and promoted a disastrous and destructive philosophical approach to the most significant foreign and domestic issues our country faces?

Whether the U.S. will continue to follow the increasingly militaristic and authoritarian approach advocated by neoconservates is the predominant political question we face. More than anything else, one's views on that question are the primary determinant of one's political orientation. And anything which fuels a political resolution to that fundamental ideological conflict, such as the Lieberman challenge is doing, is something which ought to be encouraged by anyone who believes in democratic debate.

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