Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Imitable David Brooks

From the archives: January 21, 2004

A friend forwarded this to Alexander Cockburn for possible inclusion in Counterpunch. This was his reply: "Astonishing crap. Brooks is a total asshole. I'm shocked that you liked this." He didn't know it was a satire!

Conservative Columnist Brooks Takes Dead Aim at Neocon Conspiracy Myth

It seems the disarmingly impish, droll, often self-deprecating but always razor-sharp conservative columnist David Brooks is to be found everywhere in the media these days. More often than not the irrepressible Brooks will pop up in some liberal bastion, always looking cheerfully at home. Brooks' engaging columns appear twice a week in the op-ed pages of the leftist New York Times; he's seen every Friday night on PBS's "News Hour with Jim Lehrer," genially goading the grimly dogged Mark Shields; and he's heard every Thursday afternoon on NPR's "All Things Considered," merrily slicing through the liberal banalities of the oh-so-serious E. J. Dionne.

Last week, in a Times column aptly titled "The Era of Distortion," Brooks wittily skewered what is perhaps the biggest peacenik-left shibboleth of our era, the notion that somehow a conspiratorial league of neoconservatives has hi-jacked American foreign policy by taking us into an unnecessary war with Iraq, partly, it is darkly hinted, to serve the interests of the expansionist Israeli government of Ariel Sharon.

"Do you ever get the feeling that the whole world is becoming unhinged from reality?" the bemused Brooks began the column. "I started feeling that way awhile ago, when..all these articles began appearing about how Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Doug Feith..and a bunch of 'neoconservatives'..had taken over U.S. foreign policy." Every day, it seemed, "Le Monde or some deep-thinking German paper would have an expose on the neocon cabal, complete with charts connecting all the conspirators." The usually good-natured but now more than a little ticked columnist had never heard of anything so wacky.

Brooks, speaking as a former staffer at William Kristol's Weekly Standard, where this conspiracy was allegedly nurtured with the formation of the Project for the New American Century in 1997, candidly tells us that "we'd sit around the magazine guffawing at the ludicrous stories that kept spouting" about the PNAC's sinister influence.

Take, for example, the one about arch neocon Richard Perle's insidious power over Bush administration policy towards Iraq and Israel. Brooks---surely aware that this will give the knee-jerk "hate Bush" crowd apoplexy---boldly denies that Perle has any influence at all!

This may give us pause. It does seem a bit, well, counter-intuitive. Richard Perle not influential?

Wasn't he, as Assistant Secretary of Defense under Reagan twenty years ago, called the "Prince of Darkness" for his unyielding hostility to any treaties with the Soviets and his tireless advocacy of the Strategic Defense Initiative, now morphed under Bush II into the National Missile Defense system? Didn't Perle create the nexus between the American Enterprise Institute and the Department of Defense which led to the vacuuming up of a dozen or more AEI hawks to key positions in today's DOD? Didn't Perle's aide in the Reagan years, Douglas Feith, once he was appointed Undersecretary of Defense for Policy by Bush, turn around and appoint Perle chairman of the Defense Policy Board, over, among others, Newt Gingrich and former CIA Director James Woolsey? Wasn't Perle's protege at the Pentagon in the 80s, Abram Shulsky, moved into the Paul Wolfowitz's super-secret Office of Special Plans to generate "intelligence data" supporting a war with Iraq, data the hapless CIA wasn't able to provide? Didn't Perle handpick Natan Sharansky, Israeli cabinet minister and settler advocate, to give the keynote address to the AEI 2002 annual conference, an address in which Sharansky laid down the "Arafat Must Go" line which Bush then obligingly made Stop One on the Road Map to Peace? Wasn't it Perle who pushed his old pal Ahmad Chalabi forward as the guy to head up the DOD-financed Iraqi National Congress, Wolfowitz's Iraqi government-in-waiting? And hasn't Perle been conspicuous for two years as Don Rumsfeld's point man roundly and very publicly dissing such DOD enemies as the CIA, the State Department, Schroder of Germany, Chirac of France, and Kofi Annan?

Perhaps. But now Brooks drops this bombshell: "I've been told by senior administration officials that Perle has had no significant meetings with Bush or Cheney since they assumed office." Period. End of story. With that astonishing revelation and a flick of his finger, Brooks collapses Perle the Menace like the liberal house of cards it always was.

Having disposed of that bogey, Brooks goes on to assert that while "the people labeled neocons agree that Saddam Hussein represented a unique threat to world peace...they disagree vitpuratively on just about everything else. (If you ever read a story that starts with 'Neocons believe,' there is a 99.44 percent chance that everything else in that story will be false.)"

At first blush this would seem almost stunningly dubious. Skeptics must be forgiven for muttering "Well, you gotta give it to the guy for chutzpah."

But it is a testable assertion. Is Brooks simply "blowing smoke"? After an exhaustive Lexis and Google search through the usual neoconservative venues over the last several years--occasional publications from the AEI, the Cato Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, articles in Commentary, the National Review, the New Republic, and the Weekly Standard, op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, etc., and the listed publications over the same years of the fifty or so leading neocons, ranging from prominent government officials to academics, columnists, and institute fellows, a tentative conclusion suggests itself, and, as they say in those teasers before commercial breaks on local TV news shows, the results may surprise you.

Here is a review of our examination of neocon views regarding major foreign policy issues which Brooks would surely include in that category "just about everything else."

Israel and the Palestinians. Here is the issue about which Brooks is most sensitive, and naturally so (anticipating the usual charges, he jokes that "con is short for 'conservative' and neo is short for 'Jewish'"). Commentary and The New Republic, both under Jewish editorship, have for decades been staunch defenders not only of Israel's "right to exist," but of Israel's right to hold onto and to expand settlements in what they call "the disputed territories." Then too, Richard Perle (him again) is only one of several neocons who have served as advisers to the Likud party. Douglas Feith is not only Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, but also a fierce Zionist and sworn enemy of the Oslo Accords. And so forth.

But if you examine the record more closely, you will find that, just as Brooks says, far from being an ideological Flying V Wedge on the subject of Israel and the Palestinians, neocons are all over the lot, some thorough Israeli hawks, some considerably more dovish, and many openly sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. William Safire, for example, long typecast as a savage Likudnik, has written some impassioned columns over the years championing the right of Palestinian farmers to their ground water, and sternly indicting successive Israeli governments for slanting wells into aquifers under Palestinian land. Charles Krauthammer, although perceived as an unyielding Israeli hawk, fully ten years ago called for the recognition of an independent Palestinian state and has never retreated from that early---and at the time deeply unpopular---stand. Book editor Adam Bellow, son of the novelist Saul, recently joined the board of Americans for Peace Now. The list of neocon "renegades" from the pro-Israel camp is in fact a rather lengthy one.

American Unilateralism and the United Nations It is said that if anything unites neocons, it's their contempt for the United Nations and all its works, and their anger, particularly, with the Security Council and the member states within it that blocked the war resolution in 2002, France and Germany. It was during the fateful autumn of that year that neocon columnists--Thomas J. Friedman, Jim Hoagland, William Safire, on and on--fired broadside after broadside at those craven, pampered idiots in New York. Richard Perle, in a notorious column in the London Guardian, of all places, gleefully anticipated the imminent collapse of the entire damnable institution.

Yet, again, a closer look reveals a rather different picture. While it is true that some neocons openly call for the destruction of the U.N., others just as passionately insist that the U.N. is merely irrelevant and should simply be by-passed.

The Abrogation of the ABM Treaty and the Building of NMD It has been said since the days of Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson and the Committee for the Present Danger thirty years ago that if anything characterizes the true neocon, it is his hatred for the late ABM Treaty and his fanatical determination to prevent that "space Pearl Harbor" so feared by Donald Rumsfeld. On the necessity of getting a Star Wars capability up there, we know, all neocons are as one. Well, it's simply not true. The guys at the Weekly Standard may all join in the guffaws at conspiracy theories, but they are bitterly, yes vituperatively, divided into warring camps over this issue, and have been for years.

One might go on to consider other foreign policy matters, the unratified Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, for example, over which some neocons are not on speaking terms with one another, but the point has been made: just as David Brooks insists, there is a plurality of opinions on all important issues within the neocon community---if, in view of these deep divisions, it can be called a "community" at all.

If we look to domestic issues, the same "let it all hang out" debates over fundamentals are to be found, in no small measure because the American Enterprise Institute has always pursued a "big tent" philosophy of inclusiveness, welcoming the contributions of free marketers and Keynesians alike. Arguments over the wisdom of President Bush's 2.5 trillion dollar tax cuts within the AEI have been known to descend into raw shouting matches. And who would guess that the Weekly Standard staff, bankrolled though the journal may be by far-right mogul Rupert Murdoch, is deeply divided over this crucial issue too?

`Finally, if there were any danger of the neocons forming a "cabal," it would be obviated by the fact that they are, truth to tell, simply not very good at networking. As David Brooks says, they "travel in widely different circles and don't actually have much contact with one another." It will probably amaze conspiracy theorists to learn, for example, that Midge Decter and Gertrude Himmelfarb, the two ur-matriarchs of neoconservatism, have in fact never laid eyes on one another. Elliott Abrams probably wouldn't know William Kristol if he walked into him.

As the amazed Brooks asked, "Do you ever get the sense the whole world is becoming unhinged from reality?" I hear you, buddy. Tell me about it. I know where you're coming from.