Daily Archives: August 23, 2006

Podhoretz and the Triumph of Politics

Posted by Cutler on August 23, 2006
Isolationism, Right Zionists / 1 Comment

Norman Podhoretz–a figure whose views I have previously identified as a key benchmark for defining a Right Zionist agenda for US foreign policy–has weighed in at the Wall Street Journal “Opinion Journal” with a full-scale review of factionalism on the Right and the fate of the Bush Doctrine. He asks, “Is the Bush Doctrine Dead?

I will not provide a blow-by-blow review of his argument (it is well worth reading in its entirety–including the section on neoconservative splits over Iran and the relative merits of military action vs popular insurrection).

The simple version of his answer is, “No.” The Bush Doctrine is not dead.

For much of the essay, Podhoretz proposes to answer this question with reference to “the president’s speeches, as well as by his unscripted remarks at press conferences and other venues.”

But Podhoretz is no fool and he understands that his real interlocutors are not so-called realists, or liberal internationalists, or paleocons, or lefists. The Podhoretz essay is best understood as a response to a different audience: his own best friends.

[T]hose neoconservatives who have been pressing for a more aggressive implementation of the Bush Doctrine. I even think that there is at least some merit in many, or perhaps even most, of the arguments they offer to explain why they have concluded that American foreign policy is no longer true to the doctrine’s promises. Without denying that the president is still talking the talk, they contend that his actions demonstrate that he has ceased walking the walk; and it is by stacking those actions up against his own language that they seek to justify the charge of, at best, a loss of nerve and, at worst, an outright betrayal of the goals they formerly believed he meant to pursue and to which they themselves are as dedicated as ever.

It is at this point that the Podhoretz essay makes its most “original” contribution–one with extraordinarily wonderful connections to my recent speculations about a rift between Right Zionists and Karl Rove–what one commenter has called (with an implicit nod to David Stockman) a “Triumph of Politics” over ideology.

Without overreaching (I do not think the Podhoretz essay provides a “smoking gun” that signals tension between Right Zionists and Karl Rove), I do think it is quite interesting that Podhoretz does not deny a gap between Bush’s “best” talk and his “worst” walk.

Instead, Podhoretz comes to the heart of his essay:

To begin with, the neoconservatives who have given up on Mr. Bush or are in the process of doing so overlook one simple consideration: that he is a politician. This ridiculously obvious truth has been obscured by the fact that Mr. Bush so often sounds like an ideologue, or perhaps idealist would be a better word…

In pointing this out, I am not suggesting that those of us who share Mr. Bush’s ideas and ideals… are barred from questioning the soundness of his prudential judgment in this or that instance.

But I am suggesting that, by the same token, we have an intellectual responsibility to recognize and acknowledge that he has already taken those ideas and ideals much further than might have been thought possible, especially given the ferocity of the opposition they have encountered from all sides and the difficulties they have also met with in the field. Indeed, it is a measure of his enormous political skills that–at a time in 2004 when things were not looking at all good for the Bush Doctrine’s prospects in Iraq–he succeeded in mobilizing enough support for its wildly controversial principles to run on them for a second term and win.

In other words: Right Zionists need to shut up and be grateful for what they get from Karl Rove.

Not only does this analysis suggest that there has been a kind of “triumph of politics” at work, but it also points to the necessity–from the perspective of Podhoretz–of subordinating Right Zionist ideals to political pragmatism: Rove does what is necessary to keep Bush in office and Right Zionists live within those boundaries.

Note well: Podhoretz offers no such peace pipe his ideological opponents. Scowcroft, for example, comes in for stinging rebuke as a figure “whose political purposes as an enemy of Israel are even [worse] than are those of the old foreign-policy establishment.”

Surely this makes it far more difficult to trace the splits between Right Zionists and Rove than it is to track parallel splits between Right Zionists and Right Arabists.

Perhaps the “peacekeeping” work of Podhoretz–aimed to quell the Right Zionist insurgency–is the best evidence we have of ongoing tensions between ideology and the triumph of politics.