Opinion

The neocons aren't back. They never left.

Despite the debacle of the Iraq War, the neocons have decided to stick around

Will we ever learn the lessons of Iraq? Of course not. After all, the neoconservatives are back. So warned a Salon headline this week.

But I thought they already were back. My confreres at The American Conservative saw their return when Syria was a potential hot war last September. Reason magazine spied them on the scene last year in the abortive senatorial run of Liz Cheney. A year before that, Maureen Dowd spotted them, too: "Neocons Slither Back."

Maybe they're always coming back. Come to think of it, five years ago this month, I wrote a piece about their "return" from oblivion.

The truth is neoconservative foreign policy never really went away. There's no reason to believe that it will anytime soon — and least of all that the neocons will feel shame or embarrassment about the Iraq War.

Sure, there is some circumspection. In a fun, spoiling-for-a-fight column, Reihan Salam said that he is still a neocon, despite all the bad stuff that happened in Iraq.

At a bare minimum, those of us who favored the war might have hoped for a democratic Iraq in which the rights of ethnic and religious minorities were respected and that was more closely aligned with the United States than Iran. The new Iraq fails on both of these counts. [Slate]

Why should failure of an idea's implementation refute the idea, or the premises underlying it? That's a serious question. Every ideology is a ready-made excuse machine. They all have an escape hatch from history: you can always say that the problem was in the execution, or in some infidelity to the ideal. Like communism or laissez-faire capitalism, neoconservatism has never really been tried. It's not like the top editors at the Weekly Standard were drawing up the actual war plans.

Can you really blame neocons like Michael Ledeen, who supported the Iraq War, but wanted to confront Iran first? Donald Rumsfeld was always too much of a realist, and too enamored with his small-footprint military. Then Condi Rice, Bob Gates, and all the other realists spoiled the fun. Neoconservatism, why, that's just a set of ideals; the Iraq War, that was all George W.

Certainly the electorate is never going to come to a square judgment about the Iraq War. Recent polling has shown that even though 75 percent of Americans thought invading Iraq was the right decision in 2003, half the country now says that it was the wrong call. Slightly more than that think the United States failed in its objectives in Iraq.

Unfortunately, this is far short of the unanimity that committed anti-neoconservatives would like. Polling about the Iraq War is negative, sure. But try to get a room full of average focus-group participants to agree that the Iraq War was "unjust." Or, more to the point, that it was a criminally unjust war of aggression, and that the politicians who led the effort are morally and legally culpable.

In truth, the war was popular before it started, as most American wars are. Are Americans to blame for being suckers? Or are their leaders and ideologues to blame for suckering them? Or for being suckered themselves? You see, our republic's intellectual and political life is pretty complicated if you give it more than a cursory glance.

And even if the public were in a more accusatory mood, ideologues can move back to sweeter-sounding premises. Neoconservatism isn't about the invasion of Iraq. It's about the benign nature of American power. It's about the superiority of democracy to tyranny. It's about shoring up the world order that allows trade and relative peace. What's your problem, bub? You gonna deny the good intentions of freedom-fry-eating Americans?

I'm not pleased about this. I not only believed that the Iraq War was wrong; I believed that Republicans would run away from neoconservatism in a big way, especially after their 2006 thumpin'. That is to say, I was young, dumb, and thought they'd succumb.

But stable nations are not in the habit of settling a debate once and for all time. They just move on to other ones: a financial crisis, a big health-care law, religious liberty. It's rare in the history of democracy that a group of ideologues returns to the scene wearing sackcloth and ashes. Just a lapel pin on a Brooks Brothers suit, as per usual.

Leading contenders for the GOP's 2016 nomination do include one anti-neocon in Rand Paul. Maybe that's progress. But that field also has another Bush, and a tag team of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz who won't even fake devotion to "a humble foreign policy." And Rick Santorum's talons are so sharp, he freaks out the other war hawks.

The only questions I have are these: Who could have ever convinced themselves the neoconservatives went away? Or that we have learned anything at all?

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