The Last of the Neo-Cons

NEW YORK – With George W. Bush’s presidency about to end, what will happen to the neo-conservatives? Rarely in the history of American politics has a small number of bookish intellectuals had so much influence on foreign policy as the neo-cons had under Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, neither of whom are noted for their deep intellectual interests. Most presidents hope to attach some special meaning to their time in office. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, gave neo-con intellectuals the chance to lend their brand of revolutionary idealism to the Bush/Cheney enterprise.

Writing for such journals as The Weekly Standard , and using the pulpits of think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute, neo-cons offered an intellectual boost to the invasion of Iraq. The logic of the American mission to spread freedom around the globe – rooted, it was argued, in US history since the Founding Fathers – demanded nothing less. Objections from European and Asian allies were brushed away as old-fashioned, unimaginative, cowardly reactions to the dawn of a new age of worldwide democracy, enforced by unassailable US military power.

The neo-cons will not be missed by many. They made their last stand in the presidential election campaign of John McCain, whose foreign policy advisers included some prominent members of the fraternity (most were men). None, so far, seem to have found much favor in the ranks of Barack Obama’s consultants.

Such clout as the neo-cons wielded under Bush is unusual in the political culture of the US, which is noted for its skepticism toward intellectual experiments. A certain degree of philistinism in politics is not a bad thing. Intellectuals, usually powerless themselves outside the rarified preserves of think tanks and universities, are sometimes too easily attracted to powerful leaders, in the hope that such leaders might actually carry out their ideas.