Podhoretz and the Triumph of Politics

Posted by Cutler on August 23, 2006
Isolationism, Right Zionists

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.

1 Comment to Podhoretz and the Triumph of Politics

  • A timely comment by our friend Norm–perhaps he reads this blog?

    I went back for reference to one of the central Project for a New American Century documents, the letter to the President in the wake of 9/11. Its section on Hezbollah states:
    We believe the administration should demand that Iran and Syria immediately cease all military, financial, and political support for Hezbollah and its operations. Should Iran and Syria refuse to comply, the administration should consider appropriate measures of retaliation against these known state sponsors of terrorism.

    The Neocon response would then seem generally in line with their self-professed ideology. Hezbollah should be addressed by focusing on Iran and Syria. Messianiac universalism tends to resist restraint–thus William Kristol muses on July 24th that:
    We might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait? Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained? That the current regime will negotiate in good faith? It would be easier to act sooner rather than later. Yes, there would be repercussions—and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.”

    The surprise turn of events, for me at least, has been how the debates over an international force in southern Lebanon have proceeded. My sense had been that Israel would either 1) accomplish substantial portions of its stated military goals through the occupation of southern Lebanon or 2) in the face of international pressure for a resolution accept an international force with a strong mandate. Israeli goals would then be partially accomplished under a penumbra of international “legitimacy.” Had the second case occurred then I believe that there very well could have been a push for a US contingent (precipitating the specific Rovian/Neocon rift detailed here). Hezbollah presented one obstacle to this, but an equal part, at least in the eyes of the Neocons, was Bush.

    If the Neocons do want US troops in Lebanon, but are not saying so, it is because they muzzle themselves. Yet the administration/neocon rift continues over Lebanon—Neocons are not happy about the situation and they are saying so. Center for Security Policy director Frank Gaffney openly scoffs at the Bush approach to the current conflict, writing that:
    Once the campaign to eliminate al Qaeda was launched, there was no consideration given to negotiating with the terrorists or the government that afforded them protection. The United States would not have contemplated a UN-mandated ceasefire, let alone the insertion of an international peacekeeping force under a Chapter 7 mandate from the Security Council — whose purpose, inevitably, would have been to protect the terrorists from our military, not the other way around…
    Even more problematic is the prospect that the United Nations will shortly mandate — with U.S. backing and Israel’s acquiescence — the insertion into southern Lebanon of an armed international force. Its purpose, ostensibly, will be to enforce a ceasefire pursuant to a new Chapter 7 Security Council resolution. If its job is to “keep” the peace, not make it, such a force will by definition require Hezbollah’s assent to enter.
    (http://www.renewamerica.us/columns/gaffney/060731)

    In a later article he quotes Center for Security Policy fellow Caroline Glick as writing:
    “…In practice, [the resolution] makes it all but impossible for Israel to defend itself against Hezbollah aggression without being exposed to international condemnation on an unprecedented scale.”

    “The resolution makes absolutely no mention of either Syria or Iran, without whose support Hezbollah could neither exist nor wage an illegal war against Israel. In so ignoring Hezbollah’s sponsors, it ignores the regional aspect of the current war…” (http://www.renewamerica.us/columns/gaffney/060814 )

    From these I take two things. First, the Neocons see this as a regional conflict. Second, in the view of the Neocons, Hezbollah is essentially a foreign creation, a proxy for Iran and Syria. If Lebanon is being treated as a proxy war between the US and Iran (and Kristol’s confirm it is viewed that way by Neocons) then the Neocons can still be seen as supporting military action by proxy. The US should adopt an aggressive stance and back its regional proxy first in the war and then in the peace.

    The wrench is that Israel did not succeed in its mission and pressure built to get the US to use its leverage. The cessation of hostilities that resulted was thus a profoundly different character than what the Neocons wanted. Thus I would argue that the rift is not a quiet one between Rove and the Neocons, but a continuing and open one between a political faction and an administration that has largely sidelined it.

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