Thomas L. Knapp
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AEI of Newt: This is your brain on neo-conservatism
by Thomas L. Knapp

I'm not, generally speaking, a conspiracy-minded fellow. The peccadillos of the state seem more aptly attributed to fortuitous coincidences of small-scale venality and incompetence than to the efficacy of large-scale connivance.

Thus did Harry Anslinger's full-employment program for downsized Prohibition agents metastasize into the War on Drugs, for example; thus did the CIA's sloppy choice of an anti-Soviet force to back in Afghanistan lead inexorably to the destruction of the World Trade Center. Not because of shadowy conspiracies guiding the hands of Anslinger or of the CIA to those ends, but because the unintended consequences of venality and incompetence will, eventually, out.

It's difficult, however, to avoid the conclusion that the neo-conservative cabal now holding the White House in thrall to its Trotskyite vision of permanent worldwide revolution is anything less than than the genuine article: an active, organized conspiracy alongside which the worst John Birch Society nightmare scenario seems downright benign.

It may even be axiomatic that those things which look like conspiracies often aren't, and that the real appearance of a conspiracy is the seemingly -- maybe even artfully so -- disjointed, scattergun effort now playing out as the cabal attempts to tighten its grip on the reins of power.

It pays to be careful and specific when describing this phenomenon, so let me begin by excluding certain items and individuals from it. I do not regard opportunistic loosing of the rhetorical dogs of war -- I'm referring, of course, to the ravings of Jonah Goldberg and friends -- as evidence of conspiracy.

Polemicists like Goldberg don't create wars even if, in private moments of hubris before drifting off to sleep at night, they credit themselves with such influence. A polemicist's reason for living is the illusion that his words carry weight with others, especially those in the centers of power. It's what makes our lives worth living. It's also largely wishful thinking.

A polemicist isn't so much the man pulling the lanyard on the artillery piece of public policy, wreaking havoc on the body politic, as he is the maggot which infests the wound -- an opportunistic parasite who happens, ugly as he may be, to serve the function of cleaning up the pus and flying away, leaving the trauma caused by the true actors less smelly and more presentable. The neo-conservative rabble-rousers at National Review, the Weekly Standard and FrontPage are credited with -- and credit themselves with -- far more influence than they actually possess.

This is not true, however, of Newt Gingrich. The folks at the American Enterprise Institute aren't stupid, and when they call in Gingrich to take on the State Department, they're not playing at polemic. They're really out for blood, and they're rolling out the big guns to chew up some mud in No Man's Land, turning new dirt over the casualties of the last assault's failure and hoping to gain a few yards of terrain in their battle for dominance of the nation's institutions.

There's a lot to cover up.

The "splendid little war" in Afghanistan has turned into the quagmire that anyone might have predicted.

The military victory in Iraq is going south even more quickly, as the Shiite majority moves to create an Islamist Republic (albeit one opposed to Osama bin Laden's Wahabe beliefs) -- the prevention of which has been the neo-cons' raison d'etre since 9/11 -- and the neo-cons, in turn, find themselves in the position of begging their former enemies, the Ba'athists, to come back and get the trains running on time.

Someone has to be blamed, and it's sure as hell not going to be the people who created the situation in the first place.

The neo-con policymakers got in on the ground floor of the Bush administration (thanks to Dick Cheney's handling of the transition in 2001); after 9/11, they had the State Department by the short hairs and set it to work justifying the war they wanted, under the guise of a diplomacy with failure penciled into the blueprint.

Secretary of State Colin Powell tramped around the world for six months, throwing unsupported accusations at every wall to see if any would stick. His distaste for the task often visible on his face, he soldiered tirelessly on behalf of those who had hijacked America's foreign policy from beneath him.

We can now add insult to injury. Their projects having turned out badly, the neo-cons now propose to make Colin Powell the fall guy.

But who bells the cat? The neo-con polemicists are, of necessity, committed to ignoring the failure of their ideas in Afghanistan and Iraq. Goldberg et al aren't light enough on their feet to credibly trumpet victory while simultaneously blaming the State Department for defeat.

And even if they were, they're loose cannons ... er, maggots ... whose activities lie beyond the control of a Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz (much to those functionaries' chagrin -- there's probably nobody in the Defense Department who, given the opportunity, wouldn't use David Horowitz or Ann Coulter as fill in a New Jersey offramp in retribution for the sin of making the defense establishment look like a bunch of loons).

It had to be an "outsider," because people like Richard Perle and Dick Cheney don't risk their necks. Taking on Colin Powell is dangerous work. But it couldn't be somebody from too far outside ... because this, folks, is a conspiracy, a palace coup in midstream, a fundamental reorientation of the nation's politics by an iconoclastic, identifiable clique.

This clique has a long history, going back to its Trotskyite roots, and that history was all uphill until they actually got a taste of true power in the 1980s. Neo-con influence in the Republican Party resulted in the actualization of some of their goals ... and that, in turn, resulted in the rejection of those goals by both the GOP power structure and the American public. Having grasped the brass ring once more, under the auspices of Cheney's creative hiring decisions, they're in no mood to lose their grip on it again. Think of them as the DC chapter of the Ba'ath Party, and you're getting warm.

Enter Newt Gingrich: an "outsider" by virtue of having left Congress; but still a powerful public voice by virtue of having led the Republican charge for control of Capitol Hill in the mid-1990s. Someone who can speak, and be heard; but someone who, holding no office at the moment, doesn't have to contend with the spectre of an undated letter of resignation in a drawer in George W. Bush's desk against a moment of presidential displeasure over his treatment of a Genuine American Hero.

As the neo-cons prepare for their next splendid little fiasco -- the jury still isn't in on whether it will be Syria, Iraq or North Korea, although Kim Jong Il seems determined to force their hand -- they're already busy at work, like a cat in its box trying to cover up a debacle which has yet to fully emerge from its furry little ass. They propose to use Powell as the litter, simultaneously hiding their failures and firming up their grasp on the levers of power.

May 25, 2003