Abu Ghraib. L'Affaire Chalabi. George Tenet's resignation. More conservative defections from the war enterprise. A circular firing squad of feuds -- between John McCain and Denny Hastert, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay.
These have been, to state the obvious, a rough couple of months for the Republicans. Talk of the administration's "wheels coming off" abounds. Consider these recent developments:
And that's just what's been reported in the press. Republican anxieties and grumblings go considerably deeper.
In the May issue of The American Prospect, I discussed the emerging alliance of conservatives -- realists, libertarians, and paleocons -- opposed to the Iraq War and to the expanding American empire [see "Realistpolitik," page 11]. But conservative estrangement from the administration has now spread well beyond that circle, into the ranks of Republicans who supported the war but have either changed their minds or grown increasingly weary of the occupation -- and who are concerned that it could cost Bush the election.
In the past few weeks, I've spoken with a myriad of conservative intellectuals, strategists, and insiders about the widening schism in the GOP and its implications for November and beyond. Much of what they told me was off the record or on background -- not surprising, given the explosive and recriminatory thrust of the conversations. And given the stakes: A gathering storm now threatens to rupture the conservative coalition that came together around Ronald Reagan and has held firm for almost two generations. The already fragile mosaic of free-marketeers, religious and cultural conservatives, foreign-policy establishment types, and neoconservatives (think Milton Friedman, Pat Robertson, Brent Scowcroft, and Paul Wolfowitz) has been rattled to its core by the Iraq War. Indeed, many conservatives are contemplating seismic shifts in their coalition's architecture—whether Bush wins in November or loses.
The Morning After
Consider the following (not at all implausible) scenario. Bush loses the election. Polls show that Iraq was the decisive issue for swing voters, who were the determining factor in the outcome. In going over the film, as it were, Republican strategists and party operatives meditate on what went wrong. They -- especially the ones who went along with the war but were never really gung ho about it -- ask, whose idea was this thing, anyway?
The war, one Republican strategist stressed to me, was "a completely inside-the-Beltway deal. … There was no grass-roots pressure to go into Iraq." To be sure, he says, most Republicans supported the idea once Bush made the case for war. "When the president said this is important, 90 percent of the party said, 'OK,'" he continues. "You had a handful of intellectuals pushing it, and a handful of intellectuals opposing it. If the president had said, 'We're not doing Iraq,' everyone would have said, 'We're not doing Iraq.' If the Democrats had insisted on doing Iraq … Republicans would be against it."
Columnist Thomas Friedman put the point this way in an interview in Ha'aretz: "I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom are at this moment within a five-block radius of this office) who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and a half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened."
The election is still four months away, but the questions -- about how this small group managed to incubate and hatch this war, about why other conservatives let it happen, about how the administration got so wrapped up with a character like Ahmad Chalabi -- are already being asked. My discussions with conservatives reveal that should Bush lose the election and Iraq prove to be the deal breaker, the elements are in place for the GOP to undergo a major house cleaning. In a sense, that process has already begun -- think of Chalabigate as the first strike in a much larger intra-Republican turf war.
The arguments are front and center in conservative foreign-policy circles at the moment. In late May I attended a party thrown by a young neoconservative writer in Washington and was struck by the endgame-scenario mind-set: the sense of an imminent showdown, not between Republicans and Democrats, but between the neocons and the Republican establishment. Neocon Brahmin Lawrence Kaplan, writing in the June 21 New Republic, laments the waning influence of the necons and admits, "It appears nearly everyone in Washington is a realist now."
Neocon true believers dismiss such talk, insisting the party is solidly united. "Truth is, for better or worse, W has a stronger grip on his party than any Republican since Nixon, or possibly Theodore Roosevelt," says David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter. But others interviewed for this article assert that the showdown is real -- real enough that establishment strategists are already mapping out a purge. "If the neocons cost Bush the election," one high-level party insider tells me, there will be a major shake-up in the Republican Party, with moves to neutralize the influence of the neocons in the party and in the configuration of any future Republican administration.
This insider, who had serious reservations about the war from the start but kept them to himself, acknowledges that if Bush does lose, the neocons will go into overdrive to spin the story their way. "[The American Enterprise Institute (AEI)] will go into a huddle and spend four years issuing a slew of papers justifying everything that was done -- arguing that the war was a heroic effort, that the Bush administration did a great thing, and that the American people, just like the British after World War II, threw out Churchill." The neocons, the insider says, "think they're right but think the American people are too stupid to see it."
Leopards in the Temple
The idea of cutting the neocons loose is nothing new in the Republican intellectual cosmos. The stakes are dramatically higher now, with the neocons inside the corridors of power rather than breathing fire from the sidelines, as they did during most of the last decade. But the Republican view of the neocons as loose cannons and ideological zealots has a history.
Though the neocons had their sights set on Iraq as long ago as the now-famous 1998 letter to President Clinton from the Project for the New American Century (and some neocons, to be sure, as soon as the Gulf War ended), it's largely forgotten that for most of the 1990s they were spoiling for a fight with another country. The central focus of neocon commotion during that period was a showdown with China. The Weekly Standard ran one saber-rattling polemic after another in the mid-1990s about the need for a confrontation with Beijing. Not only did these yowls fall on deaf ears in the Clinton White House; they were -- and are -- an embarrassment to most Republicans. Many of the conservatives I've spoken to emphasize this chapter in neocon history -- call it the China syndrome -- as a reminder of the unruliness of neocon thinking. The China syndrome extended into 2001: When Bush apologized to Beijing for the shooting down of a Chinese plane that spring, Kristol and Robert Kagan complained in The Weekly Standard that the president had brought a "profound national humiliation" upon the United States and enjoined it to rescind China's trade benefits.
That wasn't the only time however, the neocons (several of them, anyway) rammed heads with the party leadership. During the last presidential election, Kristol and his fellow travelers managed to invite the wrath of the Republican establishment upon them when they threw their support behind John McCain's presidential candidacy -- seeing in the Arizona senator the sort of muscular interventionist they'd long hankered for, the embodiment of the national greatness conservatism Kristol and David Brooks had theorized. But the McCain juggernaut abated, and GOP forces had Kristol and friends lined up like bowling pins. "After McCain loses," said one conservative at the time, "it's Bill Kristol who's finished."
But Kristol, who did not return several of my calls, embraced the persona of the party outsider. "Isn't it about time," he asked wistfully, "for another rebellion -- or two? Couldn't this apparently drab and uninspiring moment turn out to be the precursor to a decade like the 1960s? Do we have no political diehards, out of step with the times, ready to reinvigorate our politics?
"Most Republicans," he confessed, strutting his iconoclastic and marginalized stuff, "don't want to see my face."
How times can change. Although the Bush foreign-policy team was designed as a balance of power, if you will, between neocons and old-school realists of the George Bush Senior variety (with the former in the Pentagon and the latter in the State Department), September 11 allowed the Vulcans, led by Paul Wolfowitz and the Ford-administration sleeper cell of Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (in Eliot Weinberger's felicitous phrase), to commandeer the ship of state.
The neocons "got to" Bush after 9-11, a senior Republican strategist says, because "they were the only guys with a plan." He continues: "After you do Afghanistan, and the bloodlust wasn't sated, what do you do? Afghanistan wasn't enough. There were no big buildings -- nothing went 'boom!' It wasn't a big enough response to September 11. We needed something bigger. And these guys came in with Iraq."
They got the administration to take up their Iraq plan. And for a while, as Baghdad was taken so quickly and at such minimal cost, it looked as if maybe the neocons did know the great secrets of history. But today, of course, the tables have turned yet again. And the establishment types are hoping to make the neocons feel their pain.
Win or Lose
The specter of an intraparty backlash against the neocons, says more than one Republican strategist I talked to, doesn't necessarily depend on a Bush loss in November. "I doubt, even if Bush wins," says one, "that anyone's going to say, 'Boy, oh boy, [Bush] won because everybody was so excited about Iraq.'" On the contrary, he stresses, if Bush wins, "It will be despite of Iraq."
In that event, he says, the party will likely move to neutralize the neocons and the president will "return to his true self" -- that is, to the "humbler," less ambitious Bush of the 2000 race who criticized nation building in the debates with Al Gore. To admit, in other words, that his "dad was right."
In fact, this strategist lays out a scenario by which a narrow Bush victory could make a purge easier to pull off. "If you almost lose," he says, "you have power and you can settle scores more easily than if you lose. If you lose, how do you expel the neocons? Where do you expel them from? From AEI? From the magazines [they publish]? You can't fire them from those jobs."
But if the GOP retains the White House, he continues, the neocons can be quietly frozen out. "All it really takes," the strategist says, is to stop listening. "You don't have to stop taking people's calls," he says. "You can just stop taking their advice. The way to do it is to invite them in for tea more than usual, and not take their advice." No one would notice they were being purged, he says, because the neocons "would never admit they were on the outs."
Freezing out the neocons wouldn't be as big a deal politically, he points out, as, say, freezing out the anti-abortion movement or the tax cutters, because those movements have troops behind them, people who can be mobilized. Freezing them out would mean "having a fight on your hands," whereas the neocons are too few in number to put up a real fight. Call it a bloodless purge. "Bush gets re-elected," says the strategist, "and these guys just dissipate."
Too Late for a Clean Break?
But such speculation raises the question of whether it is actually possible for the Republicans to put the neocon genie back in the bottle. It may be more difficult than these strategists think. Rick Perlstein, author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, notes that the conservative movement has displayed great dexterity in "policing its ideological borders" and "purging mavericks" from its ranks, as it did to the John Birch Society and the Ayn Rand people in the 1960s.
But if neoconservatism, as its founder, Irving Kristol, wrote in his 1995 Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, has been "pretty much absorbed into a larger, more comprehensive conservatism," a purge might not be so simple, says Perlstein. "How can you hive off a part of your coalition that's become such an essential part of your conception of who you are?" he asks. "The extraction process might kill the patient."
Of course, it's still possible that the extraction process might not occur. For one thing, Republicans have been nothing if not disciplined; surely they will apply whatever Scotch tape and glue they need to in order to keep these rifts from becoming too public before November. For another, Iraq could yet "work out," at least in the sense that the situation will settle down a bit and elections will be held as scheduled.
But whatever the future brings, something dramatic has already happened -- and continues to happen every day behind closed doors in conservatism's rarefied redoubts, where the quiet whir of confident manifestoes being typed out on computers has been replaced by the more insistent buzz of knives being sharpened. Irving Kristol famously defined a neoconservative as "a liberal who has been mugged by reality." Many Republicans -- reaching the point of critical mass -- are now coming to define themselves as conservatives who have been mugged by neoconservatives. If Bush loses the election over Iraq, their ranks will only grow more critical and more massive. But even if he wins, listen closely for the sounds of silence.