The Big Idea

Party of Defeat

AEI’s weird celebration.

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Bernard Lewis

The term neoconservative has many meanings, including “former liberal” and “Jewish conservative.” In recent years, however, it has taken on clearer definition as a philosophy of aggressive unilateralism and the effort to impose democratic ideas, especially in the Arab world. The neoconservatives are also a distinct group in and around the Bush administration, which includes Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy secretary of defense, and Scooter Libby, the former aide to the vice president who was convicted last week on multiple counts of perjury. These men pushed for the invasion of Iraq and remain identified with hard-line positions on Iran, Syria, and North Korea.

Outside of the administration, the chief fulcrum of neoconservatism is the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. The day after the Libby verdict, AEI held its annual black-tie gala at the Washington Hilton, and for some reason, they invited me. I did not go expecting contrition, but under the circumstances, it seemed possible that self-examination might be featured on the menu. Once a lazy pasture for moderate Republicans hurtled into the private sector by Gerald Ford’s 1976 defeat, AEI took a right turn during the Reagan years and emerged under George W. Bush as a kind of Cheney-family think tank.

It had not been a good week, year, or second term for any of these people, and I thought a few cocktails might provoke them to consider their predicament. This was fantasy on my part. Richard Perle and John Bolton might have looked slightly more saturnine than usual, but the overall mood of self-celebration was unabated. From the stage, one caught no hint that matters were not working out as anticipated. All rose to salute the arrival of Dick and Lynne Cheney, herself a longtime fellow at the institute. The vice president looked on from the head table as his friend Bernard Lewis, perhaps the most significant intellectual influence behind the invasion of Iraq, came up to accept the Irving Kristol Award.

In his address, the 90-year-old Lewis did not revisit his argument that regime change in Iraq would provide the jolt needed to modernize the Middle East. Instead, he spoke at length about the millennial struggle between Christianity and Islam. Lewis argues that Muslims have adopted migration, along with terror, as the latest strategy in their “cosmic struggle for world domination.” This is a familiar framework from the original author of the phrase “the clash of civilizations”—made more famous by Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington. What did surprise me was Lewis’ denunciation of Pope John Paul II’s 2000 apology for the Crusades as political correctness run amok. This drew applause. Lewis’ view is that the Muslims started it by invading Europe in the eighth century. The Crusades were merely a failed imitation of Muslim jihad in an endless see-saw of conquest and re-conquest.

Were you to start counting the ironies here, where would you stop? Here was a Jewish scholar criticizing the pope for apologizing to Muslims for a holy war against Muslims, which was also a massacre of the Jews. Here were the theorists of the invasion of Iraq, many of them also Jewish, applauding the notion that the Crusades were not so terrible and embracing a time horizon that makes it impossible to judge them wrong. And here was the clubhouse of the neocons throwing itself a lavish ‘do, when the biggest question in American politics is how to escape the hole they’ve dug. Reality seemed to have taken up residence elsewhere for the evening.

But whether or not the neocons are ready to face it, their moment has passed. At the Defense Department, their apostles and allies are largely gone. Donald Rumsfeld has been replaced by Robert M. Gates, a member of the Iraq Study Group and of the realist school associated with the previous President Bush. Paul Wolfowitz, the architect who tried to raise a new Middle East on Saddam’s rubble, has moved to the World Bank, where he observes a McNamara-like silence on the failure of his war. Another formerly key official, Douglas Feith, is under investigation from Sen. Carl Levin’s armed services committee for misrepresenting intelligence data to make the case for the invasion.

Over at the State Department, where the neocons never were (other than a few moles like Bolton), Condi Rice is returning to her realist roots and taking charge of foreign policy. She has adopted gingerly some of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, which the Bush team spurned last fall, embracing shuttle diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and even raising the possibility of conversation with Syria and Iran. She has empowered career diplomats blackballed previously by Cheney and Rumsfeld and even made a nuclear deal with North Korea. These steps signify a broader shift away from what the neocon defector Francis Fukuyama calls “hard Wilsonian” ideas, and back toward the less principled, more effective pragmatism associated with Bush 41, Brent Scowcroft, and James Baker.

The most important change may be the fading influence of Cheney, who for six years dominated foreign policy in a way no previous vice president ever has. Those dining on fat steaks and sipping California wine with him at the AEI dinner cannot have failed to notice that Cheney is now discredited, unwell, and facing various congressional inquisitions. He was damaged by the Libby trial, first by seeming to let his flunky take the fall, and second by the exposure of his ruthless mania to justify a war gone wrong.

But the largest factor in Cheney’s demise is that his neoconservative hypotheses have been falsified by events. Invading Iraq did not catalyze a new Middle East. Isolating North Korea did not retard but advance its nuclear program. High-handed unilateralism reduced American power and prestige. At the outset of his presidency, Bush thought himself lucky to have a No. 2 who did not aspire to his job. He may now grasp the hazard of lending so much power to someone with no incentive to test his views in the political marketplace.

As disciples of Bernard Lewis, it is unlikely that Cheney and the neocon crusaders will offer apologies for what they’ve wrought. Like Bush, they are looking to the long span of history for vindication. It will indeed be eons before anyone trusts them again.