Purging the Neocons from the American Soul [Steve Clemons]

Jamie Kirchik has just published a missive about the lessons that the modern political left should be drawing from Bayard Rustin's life and twisting political course, and I need to respond to him more fully later today as I think he's fundamentally mistaken about the tectonics of today's foreign policy/national security establishments.

But what needs to be said up front is that this nation's neoconservative moment has yielded the most serious abandonment of the principles and ideals that comprise America's sense of self.  The neocons, for whom I think Kirchik provides a sideways defense, have been complicit in helping to justify the massive expansion of executive branch authority in our government and have promulgated rationales that have led to abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the inclusion of torture as a tool in interrogations, extraordinary rendition, suspension of habeas corpus for those accused but not found guilty of being enemy combatants, and the assertion that the unitary executive can't really be held accountable for these historically  un-American acts.

To be fair to Kirchik, he doesn't say he is a neocon and suggests that Rustin was not either, but the article he wrote both tells the story of a socially-liberal political nomad who nonetheless was the liberal-turned-hawk kind of Scoop Jackson democrat on national security issues that many other neocons would look like as well.  And the fact is that the neocon crowd that took far too easily the helm of the foreign policy establishment away from the realist and liberal internationalist players in this game are almost entirely responsible for the dramatic erosion of America's national security portfolio.

There are so many levels of failure during what has largely been an alliance of pugnacious Jesse Helms-revering nationalists like Dick Cheney and John Bolton and ideological neoconservatives like Scooter Libby, Douglas Feith, and Paul Wolfowitz that it is hard to run through it all here.

But to sum up the disaster, the Bush/Cheney neocon gamble of showing all the world our limits in taking on a classic thug like Saddam Hussein punctured the mystique of American power.  Superpowers achieve their goals by leveraging mystique and the possibility of what they might do or not do.  Shorn of that mystique, America has become far weaker.  Allies are now not counting on America as much as they once were -- and enemies are moving their agendas.

The global equilibrium has been thrown off, and to fill the voids left by the collapse of confidence in America's ability to achieve its objectives, other nations are rushing in to maximize their security or to try and restore balance.  Whether its Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, or South Korea -- all allies in one way or another -- all are changing their behavior.  And the neocons (or neocon-sympathizers) -- who Jamie Kirchik  thinks are somehow the ones who understan d "grit" better than the rest of us -- are responsible.

One thing that gives me some hope is that America's civil servants -- whether working at the CIA, the State Department, the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, or within the Department of Justice broadly -- want out of the "Darkness at Noon" detainee practices promulgated by Vice President Cheney and his team and embraced by numerous neocons.

Scott Horton at No Comment provides a DoJ example and gives a great follow-up to Emma Schwartz's expose at US News & World Report that "a large part of the attorney staff at the Department of Justice are refusing to appear on behalf of the Department and make arguments or write briefs connectied with Guantanamo."

Horton also writes:

Under the Code of Professional Responsibility, there are certain circumstances when a lawyer is not ethically permitted to appear and advance arguments that a client wants him to make. One is when the client is appearing in court advancing claims of fact that the lawyer knows to be untrue. Another is when the client wants to make arguments as to law which are not well grounded in the law, or in a good-faith argument for its reversal, modification or reinterpretation.

In connection with Guantanamo, the Justice Department already has a very long track record of prevarication in submissions to courts. So much so that the Fourth Circuit, the most conservative Court of Appeals in the country, recently raked it over the goals for making misleading statements. And indeed, Judge Michael Luttig, often considered high on the short list for a Supreme Court appointment under the Bush Administration for his tightly held and extremely conservative judicial values, went out of his way to indicate that he felt Justice Department lawyers had been misleading the court over detainee treatment issues. Similarly, on the law, the Justice Department has lost three straight cases before an extremely conservative Supreme Court on detainee treatment issues, and is preparing to lose a fourth.

Jamie Kirchik bemoans the rise of the "liberal realists" as a counter to the neocons -- but what may be happening is that the Bill Kristol-led neocons harmed this nation during their time at the wheel and those with a conscience, those who understand what checks and balances are about, what habeas corpus means in a justice system, who understand accountability for tragedies like Abu Ghraib are bouncing back to the norms this country has traditionally embraced.

The norms of a nation aren't really "knowable" unless observed under stress.  Our recent history has tarnished our ability to motivate and animate others on everything from human rights to transparent and just government.

It's easy to be for the rights of victims when there is no crime to consider.  It's easy to wax on about democracy, the rights of minorities, and checks and balances in government -- but unless America itself demonstrates these when shocked and challenged, then the rest of the world won't believe them when we are out "promoting democracy".

Most conservative and liberal idealists understand that.  So do conservative and liberal realists.  It's the neocons, Jamie, that have taken this nation down a good number of notches.

-- Steve Clemons

(for those at the American Political Science Association Annual Conference in Chicago or in the city, I'm blogging in the fantastic lounge of the Sheraton Hotel next to the Chicago River.  I've met a number of folks here today who noticed that I was guest-blogging for Andrew this week, or who were familiar with The Washington Note.  Stop by if you like.)