Margie Burns

What Makes a 'Neocon'?

According to a college classmate, Clarence Thomas was once a very different man, back before he became one of the "neocons." In those days, as described by someone who graduated from College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., with him, the future Mr. Justice Thomas wore a dashiki, had an Afro out to here, joined the black student organizations and attended and participated in their rallies and events. He was active and energetic; he also indulged in the occasional substances, married young, had a child, opposed the war and resisted being in any way personally induced into combat in Vietnam. You name it, he did it, if we're talking about fairly typical undergraduate political and social activities in the years leading up to 1970.

Thomas' former classmate, a man who went on to graduate school in English literature, got a Ph.D. and then got another advanced degree in library science, speculates that somewhere along the way, but before Thomas got too much older, someone sat Thomas down and said to him, in effect, "I'm going to show you how you can make a lot of money here."

Could be. Even if the turning point was less linked to filthy lucre than this hypothesis suggests and more some other kind of epiphany, Thomas's would still be one of the more flamboyant turns to the right among the neocons, along with commentator Charles Krauthammer's progression from speechwriter for Walter Mondale in 1984 to fill-in on Fox News Sunday, etc.

Thomas is still representative of part of his generation, the Vietnam generation. In taking his turn to the right when he was safely past draft age himself, he was like several other notable neoconservatives. And when they switched, the neoconservatives all veered safely into a more expansive terrain &endash;- a future career of rightwing think tanks, publications, and conferences &endash;- where there was not only substantially more money but also significantly less intellectual competition. The rest is history.

Now, with the development of the Iraq war, we know what the term "neocon" means. These people were about as "liberal" during Vietnam as they are "conservative" now. They were never deeply progressive, much less populist. They were never fiery humanitarians, determined to restore the nation in the waning Cold War from the bottom up; the underdog never had them on the leash. In the Vietnam generation, they opposed the Vietnam War, but not as others did, because it was based on untruths; because it harmed the disadvantaged in our society disproportionately, finding every fault line of race, income level, or educational inequality with vapor-like precision; and fundamentally because it was a thinly disguised war of aggression.

Neoconservatives like aggression. Safely past draft age themselves, now they're gung-ho for war, almost any war and for continual increases in military spending, with its gigantic contracts and convoluted sideline in think tanks, publications and conferences to justify the biggest military budget in world history. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, it now becomes clear that they opposed the Vietnam War for less altruistic reasons than others did: because (1) otherwise they would have been hopelessly out of sync with other brainiacs of their generation; (2) they were astute enough to see that if they didn't go themselves, they had to oppose the war to retain credibility; and, most of all, (3) they didn't want to go. Like Vice President Cheney, they "had other priorities at the time," but unlike George W. Bush and Dan Quayle, they lacked the connections to fix themselves safer spots. Hence anti-war then, pro-war now.

This is not "hypocrisy;" it is something deeper: a fixed if inchoate belief that some people matter and the rest of the people don't. The little problem that this belief is fundamentally inimical to democracy seems not to trouble them.

Out of this belief came the 2000 election campaign. Like it or not, it should be clear by now that "Team Bush" had an agenda of staggering arrogance, to embed America in the Middle East (further than we were), and the agenda was pursued with a covertness even more staggering in its arrogance toward the American people. Remember how the Bush campaign pooh-poohed the idea of "nation building"? Not once during the 2000 election cycle did Bush enunciate a position favoring invasion. Admittedly that position could have been detected, had the political press dug into the neocons' continual campaign regarding Iraq since 1992. But it was never volunteered and the news media apparently wrote off Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and the rest as the usual fringe, disregarded their connections to Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, and unwittingly papered over the magnitude of the differences between Bush and Gore on empire-building.

Out of the same belief came the disaster of 9/11. At best (putting this nicely), the Bush administration appointed people to sensitive intelligence positions who so firmly believed disaster to be inevitable that they didn't bother to try to prevent it. Instead, they bent all their energies to capitalizing on it once it happened.

Out of the same belief, above all, came the invasion of Iraq. Had Bush floated the idea of invading Iraq, much less occupying Iraq afterward, during the campaign, it would have sunk like a lead balloon. But from the moment the Bush team entered the White House, even before the inauguration, he began putting the neocon war boosters into place, often leaving comparable positions in other sectors unfilled.

The results veer from laughable to tragic. We've got an immoral, illegal, unconstitutional war, run by people with no military experience, except for Rumsfeld. We have intelligence being directed by people with no intelligence experience, like neocon Stephen Cambone, who recently testified before Congress about the prison scandal and is placed over the National Security Agency among other agencies. For context: a retired former NSA employee told me, not jokingly, "Remember Enemy of the State [the Will Smith movie]? Everything they say we can do in that movie is true." The NSA can do everything pictured in a summer popcorn movie, an intelligence-gathering capacity probably unequalled around the globe, yet it's dominated by officials who apparently got their ideas of intelligence from Fox Television? The TV show 24 portrayed a successful use of torture, but genuine spy experts don't think much of it.

Margie Burns, a native Texan, lives in Cheverly, Md. Email

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