The End of the Neocons? Probably Not

Decline and fall of the neocons
Sarah Baxter

Paul Wolfowitz’s departure from the World Bank signals the end of an ideological era in Washington

As Tony Blair was bidding farewell to President George W Bush in the Rose Garden on Thursday, the World Bank was preparing to kick out Paul Wolfowitz as president. Allies to the left and right in the Iraq war were falling by the wayside that day.

Was he responsible for Blair’s departure from office, Bush was asked. There had to be a reason why a prime minister who had never lost an election was being dumped. “Could be . . . I don’t know,” the president mused above the distant chant of war protesters outside the White House gates.

And what did he make of Wolfowitz’s likely resignation? “I respect him a lot and I’m sorry it has come to this,” Bush said, leaving the World Bank head to his fate.

If Bush and Dick Cheney, his vice-president, are the last men standing with responsibility for the Iraq war it is only because they are protected by their four-year terms of office. One former Bush stalwart told me: “If we had a parliamentary system, Bush would have lost a vote of confidence and have resigned by now.”

Away from the Rose Garden the funeral cortege for the fundamentalist Rev Jerry Falwell was being assembled in the heart of Bush country in Lynchburg, Virginia. The portly 73-year-old televangelist had done his utmost to assemble the coalition of conservative Christians that went on to provide Bush with two presidential victories. Now he is dead and the government sustained by his followers is looking more and more like a corpse.

The writer Christopher Hitchens, a friend of Wolfowitz and foe of Falwell, says: “The main noise in Washington right now is that of collapsing scenery. The Republican party is in total disarray. They’ve been dropping their most intelligent people over the side while the presidential candidates are all outbidding each other to be nice about the revolting carcass of Falwell.”

Wolfowitz, the cerebral neocon, and Falwell, the braying theocon, had nothing in common personally. Indeed, Falwell blamed “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians” for provoking the 9/11 attacks, an explanation uncomfortably close to the views of the Taliban. But the unlikely alliance between their two movements provided the brains and the brawn behind Bush. Now the neocons have been ousted, one by one, from their positions of influence and trust while the Republican party base is desperately thrashing around for a successor to Bush that it can back in 2008.

The cleavage between the two marks the end of an era in which Bible Belt conservatives became the surprise champions of radical nation-building in the Middle East in the hope of crushing terrorism and halting the march of militant Islam. After Bush, such reforming zeal is unlikely to be repeated.

The fall of Wolfowitz is already entering the annals as a morality fable for the Bush administration in which the arrogant, narcissistic former Pentagon official and a handful of his cronies were foisted on an unwilling international institution until it finally found a way to spit them out. By this reckoning, Wolfowitz’s appointment as president of the World Bank in 2005 was an “Up yours” similar to the way the Iraq war was imposed by Bush against the wishes of the international community – with predictably dire results.

According to Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan and a persistent critic of the Iraq war: “Wolfowitz has demonstrated a penchant for cronyism and for smearing and marginalising perceived rivals as tactics for getting his way. Indeed, these tactics are typical of what might be called the neoconservative style.”

However, his ousting can also be read as a tale in which the vaunted international community would prefer the World Bank to allow rampant corruption to flourish in developing nations than see a reviled neocon succeed as its president – just as there are plenty of opponents of the Iraq war who would rather let a murderous civil war rip than give Bush the satisfaction of seeing democracy take root in place of a dreaded tyranny. In their own way they are both uncomfortable versions of the truth.

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