Probably a lot of the misunderstanding begins with the word “neoconservative” itself. This was originally a teasing term, coined by Michael Harrington to embarrass his former leftist friends. (Harrington was the moral and political leader of the Democratic Socialists of America: a force that it would not be too rude or crude to describe as a part of “actually non-existing socialism.”) Harrington mostly failed in his campaign to change the world, whereas the worst enemy of the neocons would have to say that they have succeeded somewhat in theirs. When the left hears the term “regime change,” and responds with anxious whimpers about “destabilization,” do we not detect a hint of what Marxists call negation? Who are the radicals here?
I was invited recently to neocon central in Chicago, the Committee on Social Thought, to discuss the question, and ended my talk rather lamely by citing Hegel, who said that the authenticity of a movement was never decided until it had undergone a schism. I looked forward, I said, to a public fight among neocons on several questions, from Israel to economics. My host, professor Nathan Tarcov, has a near-perfect Straussian pedigree (and a picture of Leon Trotsky on the wall of his office, to which he drew my attention), but he remains a skeptic on the Iraq war and is disproof in himself of the stupid idea of a Jewish “cabal.” And the split came sooner than I had thought, with the defection of many senior neocons from the editorial board of their historic home at the National Interest. It seems that the forces of the Nixon Center have decided to preach a new, unsentimental “realism” from that perch. Commenting on the row on the Doug Ireland Web site, my old Nation and New Left Review comrade Norman Birnbaum makes my point for me by preferring the stolid pragmatism of Nixon, Kissinger, and Scowcroft to the Utopian schemes and dreams of the neocons. In such a conservative worldview, what’s the need for a left in the first place?
The position of Paul Wolfowitz in this contest is rather harder to read than many people suppose. For one thing, he is practically what we used to call a “Third Worlder.” He has long had a close relationship with centrist democrats in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and though centrist democrats might not sound very exciting, they are an improvement on the democratic centralists of Tiananmen Square (loved by the Kissinger crowd) or the pseudo-democrats such as Ferdinand Marcos or Gen. Suharto, favored by the more Cold War neocons. Wolfowitz was one of the first to go ashore in the tsunami relief operation mounted by the U.S. Navy, an operation widely and rightly accounted a major success. He prizes his Asian contacts and the relationship with moderate Islam that they symbolize.
On the excruciating question of Israel/Palestine, Wolfowitz is not at all the “Likud” fan that his defamers portray. He almost went out of his way to be jeered and hooted at a pro-Israel rally in Washington in the early days of the Bush administration, by telling the gung-ho crowd not to forget the suffering of the Palestinians. He has spoken quite clearly of linkage between the demolition of Arab rejectionism and the demolition of Jewish settlements. I can’t exactly say that I know the man, but on the occasions that I have met him I have been very struck by the difference between his manner and the amazing volleys of obloquy and abuse that have been flung at him. (This is made easier, for savants such as Maureen Dowd, by the fact that the first four letters of his surname spell an animal that is known in nursery rhymes to be big and bad. How satirical can one possibly get?) The truth is, he’s a bit bleeding heart for my taste, even though I know some very tough Kurdish and Iraqi and Iranian and Lebanese antifascist militants who would welcome him as a blood-brother. No shame in that, I think.
For all this, I don’t take it for granted that the nomination for leadership of the World Bank is in the gift of the president of the United States. How and why does this come to be? Like many of the institutions of the future United Nations, the concept of a World Bank and International Monetary Fund took shape while World War II was still being fought. Keynes made the first stab at a solution in 1942, with his Proposals for an International Clearing Union:
We need a system possessed of an internal stabilizing mechanism, by which pressure is exercised on any country whose balance of payments with the rest of the world is departing from equilibrium in either direction, so as to prevent movements which must create for its neighbors an equal but opposite want of balance. [Emphasis in original.]
This essay, cited in my book International Territory: The United Nations 1945-1995, provided the framework of the Bretton Woods agreement and the eventual establishment of a World Bank in the first place. It was Keynes’ belief that the bank and the IMF should be responsible to the United Nations. That was idealistic, but then so was the whole design. Even so, it wasn’t for some time that the bank and the fund surreptitiously migrated to Washington and became wards of a superpower.
Now even the supreme and magnificent United States is hostage to debts held by others, while poor countries are mired in an even worse debt trap and the U.N.bureaucracy is a sweltering, corrupt banana republic in its own right. Who can guess the way out of these dilemmas? But with the Wolfowitz and even the John Bolton nomination to the United Nations, the Bush administration retains its capacity to startle, mainly because it has redefined the lazy term “conservative” to mean someone who is impatient with the status quo.