The neo-cons’ route to disaster

By Gideon Rachman

Financial Times

Published: January 16 2007

President George W. Bush’s decision to send more troops to Iraq demonstrates the remarkable durability of neo-conservative foreign policy. Just a couple of months ago, the neo-cons were being written off. The Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq was advertised as signalling the triumphant return of the “grown-ups” and the “reality-based community”. But the president chose to ignore Baker-Hamilton, reportedly dismissing the document as a “flaming turd”.

Instead he turned for succour and advice to his old neo-con allies. The “surge” idea was developed and promoted at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think-tank that has long served as neo-con central. The neo-cons, like President Bush, are getting another throw of the dice in Iraq.

Obituary writers are, however, already preparing the death notices for neo-conservatism. The neo-cons stand accused of many errors: imperialism, Leninism, Trotskyism (New York school), militarism. Some believe that the real problem is that so many of them are Jewish – this is an alarmingly popular theme, to judge by my e-mails. But the problem with the neo-cons is not that so many of them are Jews. The problem is that so many of them are journalists.

In making this point, I hope that I do not come across as some sort of self-hating journalist. The best opinion journalism has a clarity and readability that far surpasses most academic papers or diplomatic telegrams. But opinion journalism also has its characteristic vices. An editor of The Economist in the 1950s once advised his journalists to “simplify, then exaggerate”. This formula is almost second nature for newspaper columnists and can make for excellent reading. But it is a lousy guide to the making of foreign policy.

The fingerprints of simplifying and exaggerating journalists are all over the Iraq debacle. Take a look at The Neocon Reader, which is edited and introduced by Irwin Stelzer, who writes a column for The Sunday Times. The book brings together essays by political figures, academics and journalists, but the last are the most numerous. Ten of the 22 contributors are columnists or editors.

The neo-cons that mattered most in shaping the “war on terror” served in the Pentagon and the White House. But the journalists are a vital part of a neo-con network that formulated and sold the ideas that took the US to war in Iraq and that is now pressing for confrontation with Iran. The links between journalists, think-tanks and decision-makers in the neo-con world are tight and there is plenty of movement from one area to the other. For example, David Frum, a former journalist, served as a White House speech-writer and helped coin the most famous over-simplification of the Bush era – the phrase “axis of evil”. He is now at the AEI.

Less than a year after the fall of Baghdad, it fell to Charles Krauthammer, a columnist for The Washington Post, to give a triumphal address on America’s role in the world to the annual dinner of the AEI. The elevated status of the Washington punditocracy was underlined by the fact that Mr Krauthammer was introduced by none other than Dick Cheney. In a previous era, it might have seemed more fitting for the journalist to serve as the warm-up act for the vice-president.

Mr Krauthammer’s speech was a masterpiece of simplification and exaggeration. He told the assembled grandees of Washington: “On December 26 1991, the Soviet Union died and something new was born, something utterly new – a unipolar world dominated by a single superpower unchecked by any rival and with decisive reach in every corner of the globe.” Mr Krauthammer made the familiar analogy between the war on terror and the heroic days of the second world war: “Establishing civilised, decent, non-belligerent, pro-western polities in Afghanistan and Iraq” would be as important as the US-led regime change in Japan and Germany in the 1940s. Then he proclaimed: “Yes, as in Germany and Japan, the undertaking is enormous, ambitious and arrogant. It may yet fail. But we cannot afford not to try. There is not a single, remotely plausible alternative strategy for attacking the monster behind 9/11.”

You can only admire the writing. The unexpected use of the word “arrogant” is arresting. The deployment of short and long sentences is mellifluous. But run that by me one more time. Was there really no “remotely plausible alternative strategy”?

You get the same combination of overstatement and ancestor-worship in Mr Stelzer’s introduction to The Neocon Reader, when he writes of the “formidable intellectual firepower behind neo-conservative foreign policy”, which “has probably not been seen since George Kennan led a team that formulated America’s response to the threat of Soviet expansionism”.

The comparison with Kennan is instructive but not in the way Mr Stelzer intends. The main difference is that Kennan had a profound knowledge of the part of the world he was writing about. When he wrote his “long telegram” on the sources of Soviet conduct in 1946, he had many years’ experience as a diplomat in Moscow. The mixed bag of journalists and policymakers in Mr Stelzer’s book are intelligent people. But there is not an Arabist among them.

Neo-conservative columnists have tended to follow the trial lawyers’ approach to expertise. First, decide what you want to argue then find an expert who agrees with you. Most academic specialists on the Middle East were adamantly opposed to the invasion of Iraq. But Bernard Lewis of Princeton University was in favour of toppling Saddam Hussein. So it was he who was routinely and reverentially cited by the neo-cons.

The same attitude to expertise has been applied in pressing for a new military “surge” into Iraq. Most of the top brass of the US military were sceptical about sending more troops to Iraq. But Jack Keane, a retired army general, believes in it. So it is Gen Keane who is quoted approvingly in a recent article by William Kristol, the editor of the neo-con bible, The Weekly Standard; as well as by editorials in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times.

Unfortunately, the experience of recent years should caution against basing policy on the urgings of neo-conservative journalists, no matter how persuasively they write.

The current debacle in Iraq is what you get when you turn op-ed columns into foreign policy. Does that conclusion strike you as simplified and exaggerated? Maybe so – but that’s journalism.