Respond to this Article March 2004

Twilight of the Neocons

Richard Perle has begun to panic.

By Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke

Since 9/11 a cascade of books purveying instant analysis on the ramifications has hit the bookstores. A deep fault line runs between them. Those with "evil" or "jihad" in the title lie on one side of the divide; those with "empire" or "lies" are found on the other. Their mutually antagonistic readerships snarl at each other across the chasm. So it is with David Frum and Richard Perle's new book An End to Evil: What's Next in the War on Terrorism, in which they reinforce the thesis--now usually described as neoconservative--that American interests and values are best pursued with a maximum of military stick and minimum of negotiating carrot. It makes little difference whether the issue is Libya, Iran, or North Korea. The authors believe market-democracy is best delivered on the back of a Tomahawk missile.

An End to Evil
by David Frum and Richard Perle
Random House, $25.95

The book's argument is easy to follow, consisting of three main propositions: America is an immense force for good in the world (who would disagree?); American military might is preeminent (again, universal agreement); therefore, the way to project American values is through American force of arms. Ah, there's the rub. And underlying these propositions is the authors' absolute certitude about the correctness of their solutions and the unreliability of what are darkly called the "accommodationists in the foreign-policy establishment."

Ideology informs the book like an iron spine. The authors seem less interested in imparting new information than in reminding the faithful about what they should be thinking. This may be the book's most interesting aspect, in as much as the authors betray a mild note of panic. They write that "the will to win is ebbing in Washington" and warn against "a reversion to the bad old habits of complacency and denial." It is as though they fear that, given the so-far fragile progress in both Afghanistan and Iraq and in their misconceived recommendations for North Korea, their 15 minutes of fame may be coming to an end. They are right to worry. The twilight of neoconservatism has arrived.

Tally the faithful

This book is essentially an attempt to plug leaks in what the authors feel may be a sinking ship. As such it has the shrill tone of a political manifesto. In the case of Frum, a former White House speechwriter who is more a political jingle-writer with an ear for a polemical catch phrase than a foreign-policy expert, the book's bludgeoning tone is unsurprising. Perle, however, a member of the administration's Defense Policy Board, has a record of real accomplishment in international affairs, having played a widely praised role in arms control negotiations under Ronald Reagan. He might have brought his experience to bear on the vexing dilemmas of a post-9/11 world--for instance, how to push democratic reform on resistant tyrants whose cooperation we need to apprehend terrorists. Instead he has chosen to put his name to a work that overlooks the existence of such quandaries, that oversimplifies the craft of international relations, and that betrays a worrying indifference to how the real world works.

The authors keep things simple, focusing on potential waverers from the cause and reminding readers of the sources of their discontent in the form of the familiar demons: President George H.W. Bush's blunder at the end of Desert Storm; Clinton's fecklessness; the State Department's relationship-mongering; the CIA's liberal political correctness; Chirac's duplicity; the futility of the United Nations; the BBC's defamations; and the bad faith, defeatism, or worse of anyone who disagrees. Some weasel wording aside, the book comes perilously close to embracing a religious war against Islam. These targets surely have charges to answer, but one wishes that the criticisms were less routine and more historically accurate. The first President Bush, for example, whose exquisite management of the Cold War endgame is one of the all-time gems of American statesmanship, may be surprised by the book's accusation that he favored keeping the Soviet Union intact--and the CIA's Bill Casey (the scourge of the Sandinistas) would certainly chuckle at being called liberal.

The real world makes only cameo appearances in the book. Readers are not asked to clutter their minds with the actual outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan--the continuing American casualties, the burgeoning heroin production or unsavory deals with despots in Central Asia. No. Electricity is back. Schools are reopening. Mission accomplished. Time to move on. Problems with Syria, Iran, North Korea, China? It's simple. Straight talk and a whiff of grapeshot. Terrorism? More of the same. The authors speak only of force. It is the only dimension, they say, through which the terrorist challenge can be approached. And, by implication, it is the only thing that the authors trust their readers to understand.

Perle and Frum set a low value on regional expertise (language skills, knowledge of foreign cultures and mores, foreign contacts, etc.) and propose a vast expansion of political appointments in the foreign affairs agencies. Every administration struggles with inevitable tensions between ideology at the center and expertise in the field. But the degree to which the authors embrace ideology as the core of the policy process sometimes leaves the impression that they spend little time actually following international developments, let alone analyzing them. In the short section on the Middle East peace process--this appears between obligatory quotation marks to signal the authors' disapproval of non-force-based tactics--there is no mention of the burgeoning initiatives on both the political left and right in Israel and within the military to come up with new thinking. Through clenched teeth, Perle and Frum concede their acceptance of what they call a Palestinian "mini-state." But they are silent on what happens if the Palestinians decide to reject this prospect and instead allow their birthrate to become the main pressure point upon Israel. Once again, the authors seem concerned that if they make any concessions to negotiation-based efforts, they will strengthen the hands of those seeking negotiated outcomes with Iran, Syria, or North Korea.

The few new ideas offered in this book rush by so quickly as to make it impossible to judge their merits. On North Korea, for example, once the authors have got out of their system the absurd (outside certain Strangeloveesque circles) option of a first strike on Yongbyon even at the cost of the certain destruction of Seoul (it's the South Koreans' fault, the authors argue, for not protecting themselves adequately), they propose an option short of war that may be worth considering: an air and naval blockade. This would have been the place to mention the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI)--a multilateral agreement crafted by the State Department with many of the United States' principal allies--which, aggressively interpreted, might usefully ratchet up multilateral pressure on North Korea. Perhaps the multilateral dimensions were too much for the authors to stomach. Similarly, with their suggestion of dismembering Saudi Arabia if it does not close down the Wahhabi madrasas. Is this a serious idea, with all the implications (the impact on Iraq and Jordan, the empowerment of Iran, the energy aspects etc.) thought through? Or is it just a bit of agitprop that bubbled up at an AEI "black coffee" teach-in? We are not given enough information to judge.

Underinformation and fear of real, fact-based debate are the lasting impressions that the book leaves. When the authors speak about a "war of ideas," they do not have in mind a search for common ground or an attempt to persuade, but total capitulation. As such, this book is one for true believers. If you loathe Clinton, despise the CIA, scorn the State Department, hate the French, or just generally feel contempt for most foreigners, and if you have nothing better to do on the Metroliner to New York, this book will deliver you at Penn Station if not wiser, at least with your anger fortified.

Which reinforces the thesis that the real purpose of the book is to ward off a policy shift by the administration. The dustcover claims that it "will define the conservative point of view on foreign policy for a new generation." The suspicion lingers, however, that the authors know full well that it will do nothing of the kind. As Ronald Reagan's worldview evolved, he, too, moved away from the neoconservatives whom he had accommodated in his first administration. The authors discern something similar in train with Bush. They detect "fatigue" in Washington and sense, probably correctly, that the fatigue is with their brand of zany, one-size-fits-all belligerence.

Dissent is indeed breaking out inside the neoconservative tent. One of their colleagues, Robert Kagan, recently wrote in The New York Times that the net result of U.S. policy since 9/11 has been that "America, for the first time since World War II, is suffering a crisis of international legitimacy. Americans will find that they cannot ignore this problem." This is a significant departure from neoconservative triumphalist orthodoxy. Circumstances have also prompted the Bush administration to take actions that are hard to square with neoconservative rectitude: turning to the United Nations to help cope with the Shi'ite demand for elections in Iraq; seeing the Joint Chiefs admit that U.S. forces are dangerously overstretched; relying on China to be our intermediary in negotiations with North Korea.

Allies of Perle and Frum still occupy powerful positions in the Bush administration, and the ideas and worldview expressed in their book remain influential there. Still, there is a growing sense within the GOP in Washington that the neoconservative agenda may have created problems whose solutions are elusive--or worse. As guardians of the flame, the authors see their book as a preemptive strike against potential backsliders in their own ranks, an effort--a sort of sting in the dying scorpion's tail--to rally the troops against the looming reassertion of mainstream, rational conservatism.

Stefan Halper, a senior fellow at The Centre of International Studies at Cambridge University, served in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations, and Jonathan Clarke, a foreign-affairs scholar at the CATO Institute, are co-authors of America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and Global Order to be published by Cambridge University Press in the summer of 2004.


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