WASHINGTON - For seven long years, Bill
Kristol agitated for a U.S. coup against Saddam Hussein, and argued
that America should remake the world to serve its own interests. Few
bothered to listen at the time. So how does he feel now?
In his office the other day, he grinned without smirking. That's
how most of the hawkish defense intellectuals - better known as
neoconservatives - are behaving these days. Although they're sitting
pretty in wartime Washington, they're trying not to preen.
Kristol refuses to strut his stuff, because he knows how fast the
high and mighty can be brought low in this town; after all, he was
once Vice President Dan Quayle's chief of staff. Still, he can't
resist contending that Sept. 11 made all the "neocons" look like
"We saw, earlier than most people, that the world was very
dangerous, that America's drift during the `90s was very dangerous,"
he said Wednesday at the Weekly Standard, the Rupert
Murdoch-financed magazine he edits that promotes the neocon credo.
"We were alarmed; we tried to call attention to all that. So I don't
want to say we feel vindicated, but we do feel our analysis was
The neocons - think-tank warriors and commentators, all of whom
cite Ronald Reagan's moral clarity - are hot these days because they
emerged from the political wilderness to alter the course of
American foreign policy. And Iraq is just the beginning, as Kristol
cheerily contended: "President Bush is committed, pretty far down
the road. The logic of events says you can't go halfway. You can't
liberate Iraq, then quit."
The neocons care little about domestic policy; they think
globally. They don't believe in peaceful coexistence with hostile,
undemocratic states; rather, they want an "unapologetic, idealistic,
assertive" America (in Kristol's words) that will foment
pro-democratic revolutions around the world, if necessary at the
point of a gun.
The neocon assumption - that the American way is best for
everybody, whether foreigners know it or not - is not shared by
their numerous critics. Establishment Republicans, many of whom
worked for Bush's father, worry that the fomenting of new "regime
changes" will sow more global terrorism against Americans. Liberals
simply say that the neocons have captured Bush's brain.
Historian Allan Lichtman said that regardless of whether one
agrees with the neocons, "they are historically important, because,
in the post-Cold War world, they are providing an intellectual
justification for the continuation of the national security
Others talk darkly about a "neocon cabal" that includes a media
empire (Murdoch also owns Fox News), policy shops (notably the
American Enterprise Institute, home to many neocon scholars and
Kristol's Project for a New American Century), and revenue sources
(particularly the Bradley Foundation, which has helped finance the
In a sense, it is tight-knit. The institute, Kristol's Project
for a New American Century, and the Weekly Standard are all housed
in the same Washington office building, a square slab of concrete 12
stories high. During Gulf War II, it was the place to be; every
Tuesday morning, the institute hosted public "black-coffee
briefings" led by Tom Donnelly, an institute scholar who once worked
for the Project for a New American Century.
The neocons move between these groups and Bush's government. In
1998, the Project for a New American Century sent an open letter to
President Bill Clinton, urging that he overthrow Saddam; 10 of the
signatories now work for Bush. And when Bush spoke in February at
the institute (Lynne Cheney, the vice president's wife, is a board
member), he said that his team had borrowed 20 of its scholars.
Neocon Richard Perle, a Pentagon adviser, was an institute
scholar; so was John Bolton, who now has a key undersecretary post
in the State Department. Today, the institute still has hawks who
were hawks before the neocon label became hip; witness ex-Reagan
Pentagon adviser Michael Ledeen, who, while puffing on a fat cigar
the other day, said: "Americans believe that peace is normal, but
that's not true. Life isn't like that. Peace is abnormal."
But is this a cabal? Networking is a way of life in Washington;
Democrats do it, too. Max Boot, another prominent neocon (and a
think-tank scholar who writes for Kristol's magazine), said: "The
liberals have plenty of well-organized and well-funded groups. The
problem is that they don't have any good ideas to sell, at least not
on foreign policy. To judge from their recent antiwar invective, a
large part of the party is still in cloud cuckoo land."
Marshall Wittmann, a close observer of the neocons and a friend
of Kristol's, said: "The neocons are all about ideas. They
understand how to promote those ideas. They get a lot of bang for
the buck. It's the way they frame their arguments, and into whose
hands they put those arguments. Also, while a fair number of
conservatives shun the mainstream press, Bill participates in
In the `90s, the neocons were also relentless. Paul Wolfowitz,
now the deputy defense secretary, was a Pentagon underling in 1992
under Dick Cheney when he drafted a document declaring that America
should move against potential rivals, even if forced to act alone:
"The United States should be postured to act independently when
collective action cannot be orchestrated."
The document was deemed too radical; it was watered down. But
four years later, in a foreign-policy journal, Kristol and colleague
Robert Kagan tried again, writing that America, in pursuit of
"benevolent global hegemony," should be willing to confront hostile
countries and "bring about a change of regime."
But, as Kristol now recalls, "that article was pretty much
ignored." So was his magazine's special issue of Dec. 1, 1997,
titled Saddam Must Go. In fact, most Republicans didn't care; on
Capitol Hill, they were talking about a lower U.S. profile in the
world. And Bush, during his 2000 campaign, talked of showing
It was Sept. 11 that put the neocons in play; until that day,
they had been castigating Bush for not being tough enough overseas.
And now, looking back, they freely admit that Bush embraced their
national-security strategy only because he had been jolted by
Gary Schmitt, a former Reagan administration intelligence expert
who now runs Kristol's think tank, said: "Without 9-11, Bush might
have been off wandering in the desert, in terms of foreign policy.
He might have been looking for a minimal foreign-policy voice so
that he could concentrate on domestic matters. So we (neocons) might
not have been in a good position at all.
"Even now, do we feel triumphant? No. We've been around this town
too long. Our job is to continue to push."
The neocon crusade for a democratic Middle East, abetted by
American might, has just begun. Last week, Kristol's magazine
rebuked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for refusing to commit
himself to building a military base in Iraq, and tweaked Bush for
being "too hasty" in praising Syria for its vow to expel Saddam's
henchmen. The neocons, fearing that monetary constraints could
hamper their vision, also want a defense budget much bigger than
what the Bush team has proposed.
And if people overseas don't like the more imperious America, the
neocon response is basically: So what? Boot said: "Being number one
will always elicit a certain amount of resentment; lots of people
outside New York hate the Yankees, just as lots of people outside
Dallas have always hated the Cowboys. That doesn't mean the Yankees
and Cowboys can't go on winning."
Kristol shrugged, "We're going to get criticized for being an
imperial power anyway, so you might as well make sure that the good
"But there will be obstacles, and I'm worried about them. Iraq is
going to be messy, there's no easy solution to North Korea, and
there are risks in confronting Iran. Some things can go wrong. But
it's always better to err on the side of strength. The pressures
will be great, but this is what it means to live in a genuinely