The NeoCons: What Were They Thinking?

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Purple Finger

Is this what they were after? [hbushra, The Junior Bushra’s Blog ]

Remind me now — in what look and feel like the ruins of our excellent Iraq adventure: who were those Neo-Cons, and what in the world were they thinking?

On Emerson’s advice that “there is properly no history; only biography,” we are taking a very personal tour of the subject with George Packer, who has covered the war in the field and in the think tanks for The New Yorker. Once upon a time he was a half-way enthusiast. At the start of the US invasion of Iraq, Packer put himself, as he writes, among the “ambivalently prowar liberals.” But reading his book, The Assassins’ Gate, you sense he smelled something fishy from the beginning. And he kept careful notes, all the while, on the bullies and the naifs that were maneuvering the American government into a magic kingdom of illusion. That’s who we’re talking about tonight, also with Steve Walt of the Kennedy School and Gary Rosen of Commentary magazine.

George Packer is more than just a book writer for me. He’s not quite a close friend but he’s a searcher I’ve known and admired for a decade or so, from his African memoir The Village of Waiting to his Cambridge novel, Central Square. Strange as it sounds, I’ve worried about George Packer’s heart and soul in every piece of his journalism–every flirtation, as it seemed to me, with the illusion of war. It may be important to say also that George Packer begins and end his new book on Iraq in conversation with our mutual friend, the passionate and charismatic Iraqi democrat, Kanan Makiya, who gave us an unforgettable hour on the radio last June. Makiya was the first definitive chronicler of Saddam Hussein’s evil–in The Republic of Fear (1989), which I read when it was new. Makiya went on to become an ardent cheerleader for the US invasion in 2003. No one forecast a brighter Iraqi shower of candy and flowers for the GIs than Kanan Makiya did. He wrote that he heard “church bells” when the bombs burst on Saddam’s Baghdad.

So whose idea was it that the United States could deliver democracy on the wings of bombers? How did it become a gesture of idealism to try it? Even now, have we seen through the idea. Who has a better one?

George Packer

Staff writer at the New Yorker magazine. Author, most recently, of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq.

Stephen Walt

Professor of international relations and academic dean at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Author of Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy.

Gary Rosen

Managing editor of Commentary magazine. Editor of The Right War?: The Conservative Debate on Iraq.

Update, 7:55

Just recommended on the show, Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History

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  • For all the neo-cons high goals, it comes down to one thing. Money. Follow the money and you will find out who was for the war and who wasnt. With oil companies making record profits, and haliburton and brown and root and black water making millions. Its clear who got the most from the war. It wasnt the troops, and it wasnt the iraq people and it wasnt the american people. it was a small group of very rich people, who are now even richer. these dollars are soaked in the blood of the american soldier and the iraq civilian.

  • Chris, thanks for your intro above: this was the first time I realized that the author of Central Square, which I read a few years back, is one and the same George Packer as the war correspondent and guest this evening.

    I’m still where I am in December 2002 (when Jack Shafer first brought Judith Miller’s sloppy sourcing to the attention of Slate‘s readers); I’m sitting on fence on this war (it helps that by luck of birth I lived my draft-age years through Pax Clintonia). So I’m going to split with your party line a bit. I do think we are realizing democracy in Iraq– by virtue of the vote on the Constitution. Obviously, to sustain democracy a society needs domestic tranquility and civic institutions. Question for the guests– how have the Iraqi civic institutions been coming back to life in the last couple of years?

    Delivery democracy on the wings of bombers– it could work. But on the wings of tax cuts, lies, guile, mischief, corruption, and arrogance? Might as well take off with ice on our wings and jammed landing gear.

  • Nikos

    One thing everyone seems to forget is this: both the Saudis and the Americans had already recently agreed that basing the US military in the medieval desert kingdom was increasingly problematic. Nevertheless, the Saudis and the Kuwaitis and the neocons could all agree that American presence in the region was desirable — well, in a NIMBY sort of way, anyhow. The neocons wanted ongoing easy access to Middle East oil, the Saudis wanted the Americans to leave their domain but to hang around nearby, and the Kuwaitis wanted to immolate Saddam. So, the Bushies simply moved the “American strategic presence” a few hundred kilometers north. And hey, what’s a hundred thousand civilian casualties when there’s so much to gain from the move? (It’s not like the “collateral damage” were god-fearing white christians after all.) Especially when an entire media network (the Fox News flacks) stand ready and eager to legitimate the illegitimate aggression to our ignorant nation of tuned out video-gamers called the American polity? Come on! It was WAY too tempting! And remember, it was supposed to be easy too. Effortless. Say, Chris, why don’t you and and the crew do a show on how ideology (of any stripe) hampers critical, fact-based thinking?

  • Hold on. The show is about neo-conservative thinking today.

    And, indepedent of Operation Iraq Fubar, the U.S. has been moving the bases out of Saudi Arabia to UAE, Qatar, etc. see

  • Ok, so Cohen’s reasoning right now on the radio is that “assuming that the WMD threat was real…” umm, but haven’t we covered that before?

  • Oops, sorry– that would be Gary Rosen, not Cohen. My mom’s family are Rosens, I should know better.

  • lasitter

    You erect a straw man for neocon thinking, and then trash it. That’s exactly what I’d expect from the ultra left leaning folks behind public radio.

    You completely ignore the fact that the real fight in Iraq is coming from Syria and Iran. They are enormously threatened by the prospect of democracy on their border. It is enormously destabalizing for these regimes.

    Your guest and your program seem not to mind all the things that were wrong with Iraq before Saddam was ousted. Torture? Rape rooms? Gassing of Iranians and Iraquis? You ignore the current progressing efforts to install a working democracy, and focus on every setback.

    I’d love to know what threat you’d approve of using force against. Would it be the invasion of New York or perhaps even Boston by a foreign power? Perhaps we’d be ready to move after seeing a mushroom cloud over San Francisco?

  • all crusades based on faith fail sooner or later, and that is what has happened here. we have a drummed up religous war backed by large corporate money interests and now we have a giant cluster fuck…i just hope that we dont reinstate the draft.

  • lasitter you mistake iraq for alqueda…iraq didnt attack us. and didnt have the capacity to. under your line of reasoning we would invade any country that doesnt agree with us. have you ever thought that maybe throwing gas on a fire isnt not the best way to put it out? why couldnt we do with iraq what we have done with south africa and india and other places where forceful political pressure combined with non-violent resistance leads to more or less stable countries…every armed invasion to “build a nation” after ww2 has failed. violence begets violence.

  • Hold on, lasitter, who are you addressing?

    Yes, the neocon side of the show is a little weak right now, given that Rosen has conceded a little bit of disappointment.

    But the “mushroom cloud” reason has been utterly refuted.

    And yes, Hussein was an oppresive dictator. But why Iraq and nowhere else?

  • plaintext

    Does the NEOCON philosophy require us to be lenient to the Saudis but not to the Iraqis? Has this been beneficial in some way to any but a select number of oil company stock holders?

  • Nikos

    plaintext, the recent book Sleeping With The Devil (by former CIA agent Bob Baer) answers your query. It’s a quick read too.

  • plaintext, you dont mess with the people who have all of your oil…oil to us is as important to our culture as the buffelo was to the native plains dwellers of north america…yet they worshiped the buffelo and had an intricate reverence for it, we on the other hand just bitch when gas prices get too high.

  • plaintext

    The NEOCONS are the new poster boys for human rights? I guess that makes Kim Jong Il – Mother Theresa.

  • A little yellow bird

    Which early US president said that “…we do not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy…”? What are we doing in Iraq and fourscore and seven other countries around the globe? Why are we in Okinawa sixty years after WWII? Or Germany? Can we please give Diego Garcia back to the people we stole it from? Oh, no…we can’t–they’re dead. Why is a single US service member anywhere other than within the legal borders of the US? Is it because of a desire for a kind of international corporate hegemony with a US brand on its haunches? By the way, no partisanship intended, but Slick Willie Clinton killed a lot more people with the Iraq trade sanctions than W., the trust-fund legacy, has–although that will change soon, when the Lonestar Yankee nukes Iran…

  • lasitter, I find it interesting (read: laughable) that you complain about an apparent straw man argument, yet seemingly find no problem with a justtification for war that is ever shifting.

    It was the WMD, now it’s because Hussein was bad. Well that was not how the war was sold to congress. A detail that is _important_.

    I like the way you then sell your argument in much the way our Big Brother adminsitration does — through scare tactics and hyperbole.

    Mushroom cloud? what’s the connection? The 9/11 commision, diluted by GOP pap, still managed to come up with the banal finding that there was no connection between nukes and Iraq. Must not have made it onto

  • desertrose

    What seems to be missing from the discussion about Iraq is the US is not a charity organization that just loves to do good other nations, by deploying troops in every corner of the planet. And maintaining military bases in more than thirty countries in any given time. The truth is, the US is a superpower that looks out for its own interests, whether locals in those countries like it or not, through supporting corrupt elite governments that rule their people with an iron fist.

    How would American citizens feel if they are bombed day and night? And would they have been happy to see foreign troops from countries, many can’t even locate on the map, rooming their streets, searching their pockets, homes, and every facets of their lives. Setting check points in many streets, people arrested and thrown into prisons without due process. Practically, transforming the country into a big prison.

    Iraqi people don’t suffer amentia! it was only recent history when the British colonials said the same thing – we here to spread democracy /sh*tocracy. Surely they have not forgotten that. Whether the executer of those policies are Neo cons or others, that’s totally irrelevant to the folks who are at the receiving end of the bombs, oppression …because those policies have existed and executed for the past fifty years – A continuation of where others have left off.

    The losers here are the American people are Iraqis

  • Raymond

    As I listened to George Packer challenge Chris based on George’s personal experience on the ground in Iraq, I could not help but think that group think is not isolated among the neo-cons.

  • Mark Mantho


    adding to Mr. Packer’s analysis — a bit old by now, yet perhaps of value,

  • jimbob3450

    I think that the question of why the Bush administration chose the particular time to start rattling their sabers is aparticularly significant one.

    While I think it is clear that individuals within the administration had plans for Iraq before 911, I think that the timing of the push has an obvious cause. There was no new intelligence that suggested that a crisis was coming, so what was the trigger?

    I think it is clear that the proximal cause was the US mid-term elections. While I don’t remember the particular show, I remember a neo-con Bush insider saying on “Fresh Air” something to the effect that the “American people were losing will to fight the War On Terror” and started focusing on things like health-care and other domestic issues. This created the risk that the Republican party might lose the support that they enjoyed as a consequence of the population pulling together behind their leaders after 911.

    Pulling the “patiot card” at that time trumped all other arguments. I do not believe that the Democrats were so much “deceived” by the Bush administration as they were cowed by the prospect of trying to justify opposition to an American public that was not inclined to use critical judgement. I hold the Democrats and the American people to blame as much as the administration. Even without access to any classified material it was obvious to anyone who cared to look that the arguments for war were not only unlikely to be true, but that there was no current intelligence suggesting a crisis. The first consequence of the “war talk” was a continued Republican majority, which I would argue was the initial purpose.

    As to what the real reasons why the Bush administration wanted to invade Iraq, my guess is that besides the obvious (oil, construction projects for US corporations, etc.) I believe there were a few “noble” reasons (or at least rationalizations). I believe that the players truly believe in the virtues of unfettered capitalism and consumerism (not democracy which they may believe is an unfortunate necessity to allow capitalism). This was truly a “Holy War”, not necessarily a Christian vs. Moslem conflict but a Free-market vs. “any other alternative” war. I believe that the Bush administration unrealistically believed that they could install, not just a democracy, but a particular form of free-market economy which they truly believe would be best for everyone. This is also witnessed by the Bush domestic policies which are desperately attempting to undo every “liberal” economic and environmental policy in place. The desperation is due to their fear that they could not trust the American people to re-elect them.

    As to WMD, I think they figured they would probably find some and it would justify the war to the voters. The more they talked about it, the better the idea sounded (easy victory, oil, reconstruction money, elimination of Saddam so that sanctions could be lifted, etc.). Since they don’t listen to anyone outside their own circle these arguments just sounded better and better the more they were repeated.

    Anyway the topic for a new discussion is “Why then”.