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Friday, May 16, 2003
So I get my TNR newsletter as usual this week (which has gotten a lot less interesting since they put little "$" signs besides most of the articles) and I see something that looks kind of promising:

Et Tu, Kristol?
by Daniel W. Drezner

Why the latest foreign policy conspiracy theories don't add up.

So I figure it'll be pretty good--certainly I've been hearing a lot of questionable, wild-eyed conspiracy theories from the left as of late. And he starts off pretty good, quoting Hofstadter's seminal "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." So far, so good. I figure he's going to use this on the "no blood for oil" argument, or Chomskyites, or whatever. But then the targets he picks are just, well, weird:

And yet critics of neocon foreign policy embrace the rhetoric of conspiracy with an even greater vengeance. "Cabal" has become the word of the day. For Patrick Buchanan, neocons are a "cabal of intellectuals" luring President Bush into assuming that "what's good for Israel is good for America." Britain's longest-serving MP, Tam Dalyell, believes that Tony Blair was "being unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers." The Washington Post writes that many in Europe and the Middle East believe that the neocons have "hijacked U.S. foreign policy."

So wait--is simply using the term "hijacked" conspiracy-theoryish? (Obviously all the creepy pseudo-antisemitic stuff falls under that heading, and good catch there.) Because I think it's a decent description of what seems to have happened. The status quo policy apparatus, represented best by State and, to a lesser degree, the Pentagon, has been constantly at odds with the administration's foreign policy goals. To say that this represents an administration "conspiracy" is obviously going too far, but Drezner doesn't quote anyone doing that--they're just saying it's been hijacked, and seeing as how they took a razor-thin mandate and used it to overturn years of policy, I don't think that's an inaccurate description. I mean, that's politics, but it still sucks.

Interestingly, the conspiracy seems to narrow with the passage of time. First, it was neoconservatives in general who had taken over the American foreign policy apparatus. Now it's Straussian neoconservatives. Recently, the New York Times breathlessly revealed, "The Bush administration is rife with Straussians." Seymour Hersh wrote earlier this month in The New Yorker, "The Straussian movement has many adherents in and around the Bush Administration."

But these conspiracy theories about neoconservatives suffer from multiple logical flaws. First, the ideologies involved don't mix well together. Neoconservatives are fundamentally optimistic about the future--Straussians are not. Second, as evidenced by the fact that most of the Straussians mentioned by name in the Times article do not hold official government positions, the conspiracy theories tend to vastly overestimate the influence of adherents to these ideologies. If nothing else, it's worth remembering that many of these neocons preferred John McCain to George W. Bush in the 2000 election.

Huh? OK, re: "most of the Straussians mentioned by name in the Times article do not hold official government positions," I think it's been fairly well demonstrated that non-governmental officials can have a vast influence on government policy. Look at Richard Pearle, for instance--his fondest dreams have basically come true. This is not to say that he is calling President Bush and telling him what to do (well, at least not that Bush then does it), but that this ideology drives policy. Straussianism is a very questionable creed, and, like the neoconservatives themselves, is much further outside the mainstream than their public rhetoric would represent. Identifying members of the policy apparatus as such simply allows us to have a clearer view of their motivations.

But yes, I think it is fair to say that Straussianism is here only important mainly because it's one of the few strong, named, ideological touchpoints that most conservatives have, and this is, if nothing else, a very ideologically-driven administration. Neoconservativism is a far better name for the ideology that's presently at the forefront of governmental policy. But as for the idea that the Bush administration can't be neoconservative because the neocons backed McCain--uh, what? You can line up and tick off neoconservative rhetoric against the policy choices of the Bush cabinet, and it all lines up pretty well. They successfully jumped on that boat.

The notion that such a conspiracy exists rests on the belief that the administration's foreign policy principals--Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and Bush himself--have somehow been duped by the neoconservatives into acting in a manner contrary to their beliefs. But while critics have never lacked for accusations against these officials, being weak-willed is not among them. In the end, it's far more likely that Bush is exploiting the neoconservatives' ideological arsenal to advance his preferred set of policies than vice versa.

The problem here is the well-documented phenomenon of candidate Bush's views being wildly different from President Bush's views, especially as regards foreign policy, and it's hard to blame this switch on anything besides the neocons that ended up populating the administration. It is an excellent point that Bush does sometimes use neocon rhetoric for exploiting his policy choices, and props to Karl Rove for that, but I don't think it's fundamentally those choices that these sorts of complaints are aimed at. The tax cuts thing, for instance--leftists know that's stupid (pretty much everyone but Bush seems to know that's stupid), so we're not really worried because it'll end up helping him, we're worried that we'll lose our jobs because the economy's in the toilet, not to mention the troubling fact that they might be able to push through an unashamedly inaccurate policy. (We're also pretty mad at the Democrats for this.) But as regards foreign policy--yeah, it does seem like Bush is being pushed around. He's to put this...OK, I know I shouldn't say this, and it hurts the cause, but lord help me, the guy just doesn't seem very bright. I mean, bright or not, he came from being the governor of Texas, a position that involves a lot less governance than almost any other Governorship in the nation, so I think it's obvious his foreign policy is going to be strongly (if not totally) influenced by his advisers, who are predominantly neo-conservative.

Colin Powell's authority has been constantly undermined by the neo-conservatives in the administration--it's not that he's been duped, he's been very consciously outmaneuvered. Condoleezza Rice is a sycophant and a hanger-on. Rumsfeld is mainly a thug interested in making the military cheaper, but his foreign policy colleagues are neo-con, so he is, too--as long as they give him a chance to fight, he's happy. Cheney's been a neo-con for many years now.

Finally, all the conspiracy rhetoric suggests that U.S. foreign policy has been hijacked in secret, behind closed doors. Of all the charges leveled against neocons, this is the most absurd. Neocons have been so prolific in their writings that critics would have a much easier time accusing them of anti-environmentalism--for having destroyed entire forests to advance their cause.

He's contradicting himself here. First he says that lib'ral conspiracy theories aren't valid because neocons aren't running the government, then he says that there's an open-door foreign policy because it's all being run according to neo-con rhetoric, which is all made public. Which is it? Because if neo-cons aren't influencing policy, then it really is fairly secretive. Regardless, I think he's (willfully?) misinterpreting "behind closed doors." It's not that they're making these decisions in private--I mean, they are, they're the executive branch, and that's fine--it's that their stated goals and motivations seem so willfully at odds with the ones, as he says, published elsewhere. And very few people are policy nerds like me and Professor Drezner--I just don't think they know about this stuff. So, basically, it's that the administration is lying, and critics (such as Alterman) are trying to at least get the facts out there. I'm all with him that this often goes too far, especially as regards the "Politician X used to work for Company Y which owns subsidiary Z which just got a contract to do Q in Iraq!" arguments, but I think it is true that a certain amount of evangelical fervor and personal greed is going into our collective foreign policy decisions, and it's important that this be visible, don't you think?