By Matt Taibbi / Substack
Neoconservative intellectual, former Reagan speechwriter, and onetime Jeopardy champ John Podhoretz penned a triumphant column the other day. Titled, “Neoconservatism: A Vindication,” the Commentary piece declared architects of the War on Terror like himself back on top, world events having proven them correct about everything from community policing to war. Not only are they back on top, they’ve conquered their primary “hip liberal” foes, leaving just one pocket of dissenters remaining:
The key foes the neoconservatives face when it comes to the moral frame of deterrence—the idea that America is and should be a force for good—are no longer hip liberals but rather “traditional conservatives” who have taken their place as the leading anti-American voices of our time.
Anti-American. Let the sheer balls of that sink in. Podhoretz and the rest of the overgrown Risk-playing lunatics in his neocon treehouse — people like Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams, Richard Perle, Bill Kristol, Max Boot, David Frum, and Robert Kagan, husband to Joe Biden’s current Undersecretary of Global Dominance Victoria Nuland — spent most of the last twenty years trying to set the Bill of Rights on fire, over the objections of the very people he now decries as “foes” to the American way. In a just world he’d be wedged naked in an innertube and dropped in the Bering Strait just for allowing himself to think he gets to decide who is and isn’t American, much less publishing the idea.
Liberals and peace activists, look at the face at the top of this page and summon a memory of the Bush years: this emissary from the past just called you his bitch. To the eternal shame of anyone who’s ever held a Nation subscription or read a Carlos Castaneda novel, he’s right, as many onetime Iraq war opponents are now locking arms behind Podhoretz and his pals. If you’re a “traditional conservative” — meaning someone who probably voted for neoconservative policies most of your life — he’s fingering you as the last “anti-Americans” in the population needing taming. Haughty stuff, from the mouthpiece of a niche crew of armchair hawks who’ve been deader than Tupac politically since Iraq, a country Podhoretz conveniently neglects to mention in his “Vindication” tale.
Podhoretz the younger is probably best known (as the Chapo Traphouse crew pointed out) for being the slob who used Twitter to complain his Schnipper’s hamburger delivery was late. Visually he’s an uncanny cross of Eric “Butterbean” Esch and the McDonaldland character Grimace, who like the neocons also went through many a forgotten makeover. In 1971 McDonald’s rolled out “Evil” Grimace, a gluttonous purple mass who used an extra pair of arms to steal milkshakes, only to be stopped at Filet-O-Fish lake by Ronald McDonald. A year later Grimace was reintroduced as a good guy, allowed in 1974 to downsize to a single set of arms, and eventually given a family history, beginning with Uncle O’Grimacey, who coincidentally arrived once a year today, on St. Patrick’s Day, to deliver Shamrock Shakes.
Neoconservatism is also a family business. Many were originally disaffected ex-Marxists and Democrats, who defected to Ronald Reagan’s GOP, among other things in protest over Jimmy Carter’s détente policy. Neocons then and now pitched themselves as a “defiantly unfashionable” minority blessed with the gift of moral leadership — a vanguard if you will, who’d steer conservatives away from what Podhoretz calls the “Failure of Nerve” that cursed Democrats after Vietnam. The key figures were Podhoretz’s father Norman, and Bill Kristol’s father Irving, who posed for a 1979 Esquire cover story called “The Godfather of Neoconservatism.”
The group was distinguished by belief in a binary universe broken down into “good” and “evil” poles. On the world stage they lauded Reagan for aggressive confrontation with the “evil empire,” and on the streets, theorists like James Q. Wilson unleashed constitutionally dubious “Broken Windows” policing on criminals.
Wilson in 1993 wrote a book called “The Moral Sense” that argued “ordinary men and women” probably “knew better” than intellectuals because “they relied on moral sentiments instead of changeable academic fads such as multiculturalist relativism, feminism or critical race theory.” This argument was used to push for stiffer prison sentences, opposition to gay marriage, and other conservative causes. There would be a huge irony in this later on.
In 1996, in the July/August edition of Foreign Affairs, Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol published a seminal article entitled, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy.” They argued the collapse of the Soviet Union did not mean the United States could abandon “vast responsibilities” globally to enjoy a “peace dividend” at home. Instead, it needed to project enough force to “make clear that it is futile to compete with American power,” and achieve “benevolent hegemony.” Your basic world domination plan, which relied on preserving/expanding NATO and eschewing any policy permitting the long-term survival of nations not under de facto U.S. control. This not only meant America had to topple “rogue” states like Iraq, but would also eventually need to “change the regime in Beijing.”
After 9/11, 40 neocons — practically all of them, I think — signed a letter to George W. Bush, arguing that “even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack… American military force should be used” to depose Saddam Hussein. They then spent much of the 2000s arguing for mass suspension of American constitutional ideals in pursuit of such “evildoers.”
Kristol and Kagan birthed thousands of future centrist Twitter memes when they poo-poohed those who said we should focus on bin Laden before going after Iraq, saying, “The United States can, after all, walk and chew gum at the same time.” They called the ACLU “Al Qaeda’s Civil Liberties Union” for seeking due process for Gitmo detainees and said their real desire to “disseminate propaganda on behalf of our jihadist enemies.” As Glenn Greenwald just pointed out, now-beloved mainstream figure Rick Wilson spent part of the War on Terror producing a campaign ad that morphed bin Laden’s face onto that of Democrat Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam, claiming he lacked “the courage” to lead.
When the Iraq invasion turned to shit precisely as everyone with half a brain knew it would, with Iraqis quickly coming to view us as insane, godless torturers competent at nothing beyond inspiring converts to al-Qaeda, Podhoretz sputtered excuses. In 2006 he argued the West was unfairly constrained in war, that both Israel and the United States were perhaps “too nice to win,” that no country forced to concern itself with trivialities like civilian deaths could prevail. “Could World War II have been won by Britain and the United States,” he whined, “if the two countries did not have it in them to firebomb Dresden and nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” Remember: this from the same person now decrying “bad conduct” in Ukraine.
By 2008, the force-first fanatics in this little scout troop were universally derided as the dumbest people on earth. Consider just this: they ran a Murdoch-backed conservative media outlet that couldn’t make money in America during the Obama years. Even other Republicans thought they were pathetic. The newsroom of the Washington Times is said to have read Podhoretz columns aloud, to laugh at his “shortcomings as a writer, thinker, and human being,” in a tradition called Podenfreude. The Weekly Standardsuffered double-digit declines to its subscriber base in every year between 2013 and its closure in 2018, and somehow lost between $2-$4 million a year during a period when Republicanism in general was on the march everywhere, famously gaining a thousand legislative seats during Obama’s two terms.
This is nearly impossible to pull off, unless your contributors self-describe as imperious elites while offering wisdom like this line from Weekly Standard Columnist Fred Barnes:
I’d like to see one other thing in Iraq, an outbreak of gratitude for the greatest act of benevolence one country has ever done for another.
The neocons’ War on Terror tear-down of everything from habeas corpus to due process to the Geneva Convention to prohibitions against illegal searches and seizures, cruel and unusual punishment, and assassination not only doomed Republicans but ruined Hillary Clinton’s 2008 chances. Democrats that year voted en masse for a constitutional lawyer named Barack Obama specifically hoping (in vain, as it turned out) he would undo years of neoconservative assaults on American values. The stench of the neocons’ influence persisted across the next eight years, long enough that they helped elect the next president, too.
In 2016, the likes of Podhoretz were horrified when Donald Trump ridiculed their Iraq war as a “Big, fat mistake” and even took the heretical position of pledging to be “a neutral guy” in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Neocons declared Trump the #1 threat to American national security, and people like Kagan swore that if Republican voters didn’t snap out of it right now and nominate someone they approved of like Marco Rubio, their “only choice” would be to vote for Hillary Clinton. Go ahead and see if they wouldn’t do it! Republicans ignored them and voted Trump in.
The post-invasion ingratitude of Iraqis was one thing, but the mass rejection of their ideas in 2016 by a red-state lumpenproletariat that had been ordered for years on Fox to revere their giant brains was a betrayal neocons would never forget.
After being booted out of Trump’s GOP, the Podhoretz sect raced to publicly self-flagellate, in a desperate effort to set themselves up as useful courtier-appendages to the Democratic Party, the last bastion of the non-populist establishment. True, they’d botched every actual policy initiative they’d ever tried, and defamed the last party they’d advised to the point where 60 million of its voters fled to a game show host who was trying to lose, but they were at least willing to ram their tongues all the way up the right places.
Gelatinous mediocrity Max Boot laid out the template in an amazing 2017 Foreign Policy article entitled, “2017 Was the Year I Learned About My White Privilege.” From a man whose book Out of Order argued that judges got the desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education wrong, and said Miranda just “set the guilty free,” it was rich stuff.
“He just saw how easy it would be to launder his reputation,” says writer Wesley Yang, “by writing this column about how after Charlottesville, he’s been introspecting and realizes he’s a privileged white man.”
Tens of neocon peers followed Boot in showing fealty to new masters, usually by denouncing former Republican allies in required lingo. Bill Kristol saying Trumpian sex scandals are “bringing out my inner feminist” or calling Steve King a “white supremacist” hit correct notes, as did former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, the man who coined the “soft bigotry of low expectations” phrase, writing a Washington Post column called, “The GOP is now just the party of white grievance.”
Democrat-friendly media reciprocated with fawning portraits of “Woke Bill Kristol” (in an inspired homage to cross-species friendship videos, MSNBC showed “Woke” Bill out on the town with Fat Joe) as well as ballwashing paeans to once-hated George W. Bush as a symbol of lost “norms.” Mother Jones went so far as to lionize “hero” Liz Cheney, forgiving her for having once called DOJ lawyers who represented Gitmo detainees the “Al Qaeda Seven,” and even for having sought “to undermine bedrock Democratic institutions like the rule of law.”
The frictionlessness of the new woke-neocon alliance was predictable. Both groups are fundamentally hostile to civil liberties and see the world as an endless conflict between pure good and all-encompassing evil: “marginalized groups” versus “whiteness” on the new left, “freedom” versus
communism terrorism autocracy for neocons. The inevitable synthesis was obvious: social justice at home plus neocon interventionism abroad equals woke militarism everywhere. Interrogating whiteness, but with bombs! Putin, Canadian truckers, Tucker Carlson, Tulsi Gabbard, the “dirtbag left,” the unvaccinated, “de-escalationists” in both the red (Mike Braun) and blue (Ilhan Omar) congressional caucuses, Jill Stein, Bernie Sanders, and countless others are all now part of the same fascist-enabling matrix.
All neocons needed to regain leading roles fighting the new “Axis of Evil” was an event that would allow everyone to forget the many legacies they’d bestowed on the world, from stop-and-frisk to the Islamic State to Trump’s conquest of the GOP. Now that they have it in the form of the Ukraine war, they can’t wait to start denouncing old foes as traitors again.
“The neocons hate American populism more than they hate Putin. It’s not even close,” says Carlson, who’s become their public enemy #1. “Wars are the perfect moment to settle scores, and they plan to.”
Podhoretz’s “Vindication” column rewrites history as a catalogue of all the times neocons were right and their enemies underestimated the pure evil of, say, the Soviet Union. The only way to beat the U.S.S.R. was to “deter its ambitions,” he says. “You could not do so by entering into agreements with it.” Moreover:
If they invade Afghanistan, you arm the Afghan rebels. If they seek beachheads in the Americas, you arm the Nicaraguan rebels even as you support the El Salvadorean government against their Communist rebels.
He uses the term “Afghan rebels” so as to excise memory of the “Arab Afghans” who also received assistance and training in that war, including a Saudi adventurer named Osama bin Laden. He uses “Nicaraguan rebels” instead of “Contras” because the latter term awakens memories of murders of non-combatants, kidnapping of civilians, torture of prisoners, and other horrors. As for El Salvador, where 75,000 were killed in the civil war, better to forget that according to the U.N., “more than 85 percent of the killings, kidnappings, and torture” were “the work of government forces, which included paramilitaries, death squads, and army units trained by the United States.”
Podhoretz wants the world to believe that being “American” means using force to “defend and protect our liberties, at home and abroad.” He would have you believe that “hip liberals” like me hate America because we’re reluctant to use force to expand our “benevolent hegemony” around the world.
He has it backwards. Precisely because I love this country, or at least the idea of it — due process, rights, democracy — I don’t think you can expand the “American way” through torture, kidnapping, civilian massacres, mass spying, algorithmic assassination, bombing hospitals and weddings (yes, we did it, too), and arming dictatorships like the U.A.E. I was in Iraq and saw what the neocon vision of spreading “benevolence” looked like: an archipelago of super-armed garrisons, where the reputation of Americans was degraded to the point where any citizen or “third-country national” who stepped Kevlar-free out of a Forward Operating Base expected to be skeletonized in seconds by furious locals. In Afghanistan, “collaborators” are still being hunted down. But sure, neoconservatism is vindicated.
The neocons’ resurgence is one of the great inside plays of all time. A microscopic group of verbose pinheads with zero popular support and an unbroken record of spectacular failure regaining influence this quickly is nothing to sneeze at. But watch: disbelief in “live and let live” politics means they won’t stop with opposing Putin in Ukraine or tweeting the odd accusation of treason. They’ll push for regime change in Moscow and sooner or later seek a more permanent solution to “ingratitude” at home, probably by tearing out the chunks of the constitution they missed the last time.
Apart from certainty that they belong at the seat of power in a unipolar world, these people have no beliefs, or none they wouldn’t be willing to shed in a heartbeat in order to maintain influence. This makes them repulsive, but hardier than mold. If you didn’t like the first movie, brace yourself. The sequel is here.