Neoconservatives? Never heard of them…


The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, in his inimitable style, writes today of the strange appearance yesterday at the Nixon Center in Washington of Richard Perle, widely seen as a leading voice of neoconservatism. Apparently, Perle is trying to deny that, or change his image, or something….:

In real life, Perle was the ideological architect of the Iraq war and of the Bush doctrine of preemptive attack. But at yesterday’s forum of foreign policy intellectuals, he created a fantastic world in which:

1. Perle is not a neoconservative.

2. Neoconservatives do not exist.

3. Even if neoconservatives did exist, they certainly couldn’t be blamed for the disasters of the past eight years.

"There is no such thing as a neoconservative foreign policy," Perle informed the gathering, hosted by National Interest magazine. "It is a left critique of what is believed by the commentator to be a right-wing policy."

So what about the 1996 report he co-authored that is widely seen as the cornerstone of neoconservative foreign policy? "My name was on it because I signed up for the study group," Perle explained. "I didn’t approve it. I didn’t read it."

Mm-hmm. And the two letters to the president, signed by Perle, giving a "moral" basis to Middle East policy and demanding military means to remove Saddam Hussein? "I don’t have the letters in front of me," Perle replied.

Right. And the Bush administration National Security Strategy, enshrining the neoconservative themes of preemptive war and using American power to spread freedom? "I don’t know whether President Bush ever read any of those statements," Perle maintained. "My guess is he didn’t."

One of the most entertaining moments came when Perle was asked about his book:

Jacob Heilbrunn of National Interest asked Perle to square his newfound realism with the rather idealistic title of his book, "An End to Evil."

"We had a publisher who chose the title," Perle claimed, adding: "There’s hardly an ideology in that book." (An excerpt: "There is no middle way for Americans: It is victory or holocaust. This book is a manual for victory.")

Regardless of the title, Heilbrunn pursued, how could so many people — including lapsed neoconservative Francis Fukuyama — all be so wrong about what neoconservatives represent?

"It’s not surprising that a lot of people get something wrong," Perle reasoned.

(Milbank also has a video report from the event.)

One can certainly argue that neoconservatives such as Perle have received too much of the blame for failures in the Iraq invasion. Whether Perle came up with the ideology or not, men named Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld — none of whom anyone would have called a neoconservative before 2001 — were the ones who actually decided to implement the policy. But it’s hard to argue that a neoconservative foreign policy never existed.

In fact, a quick Google search turned up a transcripts of a 2004 PBS interview of Perle by Ben Wattenberg. Its title? "Richard Perle: The Making of a Neoconservative." And Perle didn’t seem to have much problem with the word back then. Here’s a portion of the interview:

Ben Wattenberg: Now, Scoop was surrounded by people who then and certainly now are called neoconservatives. It’s become a fashionable word now thanks to you and your colleagues because you’re all categorized that way. How did that come into your life, that whole school of thought?
Richard Perle: Well, I think the term has something to do with the sense that those of us who are now called neo-conservatives were at one time liberals, and in this…
Ben Wattenberg: Irving Kristol said a neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality.
Richard Perle: Right. And I think that’s a fair description, and I suppose all of us were liberal at one time. I was liberal in high school and a little bit into college. But reality and rigor are important tonics, and if you got into the world of international affairs and you looked with some rigor at what was going on in the world, it was really hard to be liberal and naïve..

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