“One of the favorite canards that Obama activists and surrogates hurl at Mitt Romney is that he is surrounded by a group of wild-eyed George W. Bush neo-cons who cannot wait to bomb Iran and bring America into yet another Middle Eastern conflict….”
“None of the staunchest ‘architects and advocates’ of the Iraq war, I repeat, none, is advising Governor Romney. Not Donald Rumsfeld. Not Dick Cheney. Not Paul Wolfowitz. Not Doug Feith. And none of their camp followers. None.”
Zakheim modestly leaves out … himself. Yet he has long been a key link in the chain that has bound Republican policymakers to that noxious little sect known as the neoconservatives.
Alongside the very neocons he denies have any influence in RomneyWorld, Zakheim joined the Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf, a neocon front group organized in 1990 to support the first Gulf war: in 1998, CPSG issued a new clarion call for an invasion of Iraq addressed to President Bill, with the Usual Suspects (including Zakheim) as co-signers. Zakheim’s career as an up-and-comer in neoconservative precincts continued with the formation of the Project for a New American Century – Bill Kristol’s interventionist pressure group – on whose behalf he signed a series of open letters calling for war with Iraq. As recently as February, Zakheim continued his letter-signing spree, demanding – along with dozens of fellow neocon “camp followers” – that the President intervene in a vague-but-more-muscular fashion in Syria. In 2000, he co-authored a PNAC position paper on defense spending which called for a huge increase on the grounds that “the best defense is a good offense.” He shared credit for this proposal with Wolfowitz, Cohen, John Bolton, and Rumsfeld advisors Devon Cross and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. As Undersecretary of State and Pentagon comptroller during the Bush administration – during which time the Pentagon lost track of $1 trillion — he was a key cog in a foreign policy shop dominated by his fellow neocons.
Aside from that, however, there are plenty of neocon “camp followers” – i.e. fellow travelers, as we McCarthyites used to say – serving the Romneyite cause. I won’t bother compiling a comprehensive list, since others have taken up that task. As Ari Berman noted in The Nation way back in May:
“Romney’s team is notable for including Bush aides tarnished by the Iraq fiasco: Robert Joseph, the National Security Council official who inserted the infamous ‘sixteen words’ in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union message claiming that Iraq had tried to buy enriched uranium from Niger; Dan Senor, former spokesman for the hapless Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremer in Iraq; and Eric Edelman, a top official at the Pentagon under Bush.”
And then there’s always this guy. Yes, I have in my hands a list! However, let’s brush aside Zakheim’s disingenuous denial as just another one of those “noble lies” and move along to the really interesting point (you knew we’d get to that, didn’t you?), and it is this: the neocons have gone underground! After lying us into Iraq, and acquiring a well-deserved reputation as irresponsible, arrogant, incompetent war-mongers, the neocons have fled to the catacombs, waiting for the statute of limitations to absolve them of the public’s ire.
This represents progress, of a sort: you’ll recall the neocons used to deny their very existence, disdaining the “neocon” appellation as an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory no Serious Person ought to repeat. That clearly hasn’t worked, however, and the record of the Bush years leaves them in the untenable position of Zakheim and his fellow “advisors,” who have to resort to denying the undeniable.
In the public mind, the word “neocon” is unalterably associated with war, and further: with a losing, futile, disastrous war. For any candidate for the presidency to be associated with them and their failed policies is electoral poison. No wonder they’ve gone back into the closet, so to speak, although they certainly have not folded up their tents and stolen into the night: far from it, as their penetration of RomneyWorld underscores.
What the neocons are hoping to get out of Romney is the same sort of hegemony they enjoyed during the Bush era: after all, how hard would it be to fill the empty vessel of Romney’s mind just as they did Dubya’s? In order to get into that position, however, it’s necessary to utilize stealth tactics, and Zakheim (as well as his candidate) understands that. Far from being nonplussed over Romney’s Gandhi imitation during the foreign policy debate, the neocons hailed his performance, with Charles Krauthammer proffering this advice:
“Don’t quarrel. Speak softly. Meet the threshold.”
The bombing will come later.
I’ll say right here and now that Romney is on course to a well-earned defeat, although I’ll refrain from calling it a landslide. I’m with Nate Silver on the numbers. Romney’s personal characteristics and history aside, what might have made a difference for the Republicans was a candidate who deviated from neoconservative foreign policy orthodoxy. It wouldn’t even have to have been a candidate as relatively radical as Ron Paul: someone along the lines of Paul’s faded carbon copy of a son would have sufficed.
As it is, the GOP will be dragged down to defeat by the same neocons whose policies pushed us to the brink of bankruptcy and made us hated around the world. Will Republicans walk away from this election having learned their lesson? I have my doubts: after all, they don’t call the GOP the Stupid Party for nothing.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
Check out my contribution to an election symposium published by The American Conservative magazine, here.
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He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (ISI, 2008), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is a contributing editor for The American Conservative, a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, and an adjunct scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.