Day after day, these dedicated public intellectuals and hardworking federal officials are calumnied from coast to coast, accused of every crime under the sun. Who misled us into the bloodsoaked mire of Iraq? Who's pulling strings to foment a new war with Iran? Who's fanning the flames of Israel's assault on Lebanon, hoping to turn the entire Middle East into an arc of "creative destruction" that will transform the region into a pacified, profitable oasis of American power? Why, the neo-cons, of course, guilty on every count – or so we're told.
It's certainly a pretty tale, satisfyingly simple like most cartoons, well-suited for a stirring film adaptation, a la "V for Vendetta." (Given the religious heritage of many neo-cons, perhaps Mel Gibson could be induced to take it on.) We'd watch the sinister Machiavels plot in the shadows, pouring their leperous distilments into the ears of government leaders who, zombified by this dark enchantment, mindlessly drive the nation into ruin. Yet if these dastards can be routed in the last act by some hero – a "straight-talking" senator from Arizona, say, or a tough and savvy former First Lady, or even a clean-limbed knight stepping forth from the mists of the blogosphere – then all will be well with the Republic.
Well, as Brick Pollit told Maggie the Cat: "Wouldn't it be funny if that was true?" Unfortunately, the reality of our political and moral predicament is not so neat and tidy, nor so easily resolved. If the neo-cons all hopped a spaceship for the Hale-Bopp comet tomorrow – indeed, if the cult had never arisen at all – we would still be right where we are today: neck-deep in the Big Muddy.
That's not to say, of course, that we weren't misled into Iraq, or that strings aren't being pulled for a war on Iran, or that flames aren't being fanned to widen the Middle East war – or that the gaggle of third-rate thinkers and first-class troublemakers loosely grouped under the rubric "neo-con" aren't intimately involved in all of these affairs. They are, in spades. But to accuse them of playing the central role in America's on-going Götterdämmerung gives them an importance they don't deserve – and unduly mitigates the guilt of the true culprits: the good old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon boardroom buccaneers of the American Establishment, bred for generations to feast on war and rumors of war, and to regard the hoi polloi as mere cannon fodder and cash cows to be mulched and milked as needed.
For what's the underlying implication of the "neo-cons über alles" meme? It's that hard-core, down-and-dirty inside operators like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld – who have spent their entire adult lives at the dark heart of the government-corporate-warbiz-spygame power nexus – are actually innocent lambkins led astray by the wicked blandishments of Richard Perle. It's that the world-striding oil barons, Wall Street dynasts and CIA scions of the Bush Faction are just wide-eyed rubes bamboozled into acting against their own interests by the dazzling sophistry of William Kristol and Michael Leeden. It's that no U.S. administration would ever undertake the kind of rapacious policies we've seen in the last five years – unless they'd been tricked into it by wily Zionists and their ideological outriders. It is, in short, our old friend "American exceptionalism," decked out in dissident drag.
Shakespeare pegged the neo-cons' true place in the scheme of things more than 400 years ago in Julius Caesar. Listen to Marc Antony dismissing his fellow triumvir Lepidus, and you will hear the authentic voice of Great Gamesters like Cheney, Rumsfeld and James Baker, dicing for world empire and using anything at hand – neo-cons, evangelicals, Caucasian despots, Arab tyrants, Israeli proxies, British lapdogs, Shiite death squads – to further their ambitions:
"This is a slight unmeritable man, meet to be sent on errands…and though we lay these honours on this man, to ease ourselves of divers slanderous loads, he shall but bear them as the ass bears gold, to groan and sweat under the business, either led or driven as we point the way. And having brought our treasure where we will, then we take down his load and turn him off, like to the empty ass, to shake his ears and graze in commons." Or at the World Bank, as the case may be.
Again, this is not to deny that neo-con fingerprints are all over the various shivs and bludgeons that the Bush Regime has used in its whack jobs on the Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, the UN Charter, the Magna Carta and the Ten Commandments. After all, the veritable blueprint for the whole godawful shebang – the infamous "Rebuilding America's Defenses" document of September 2000 – was concocted under the aegis of that quintessentially neo-con think tank, the Project for the New American Century. It was all spelled out there, long before 9/11: the invasion of Iraq (regardless of whether Saddam Hussein was still in power); the vast explosion in military spending; planting new U.S. bases in Central Asia and the Middle East to secure dominance over world energy sources; embracing aggressive war as national policy – and the openly stated notion that only a "new Pearl Harbor" could "catalyze" the American people into readily accepting the need for these radical measures.
Damning stuff. But without the presence of long-time Establishment power players like Cheney and Rumsfeld on the PNAC board, the plan would have remained the pipe dream of a few curdled academics and comb-licking policy wonks. Indeed, it was the Great Gamesters themselves who set the neo-cons to work on devising ways to extend the "unipolar moment" of unchallenged American power that arose after the collapse of the Soviet Union; the first version of the PNAC plan was drawn up at Cheney's order by Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter "Leaker" Libby in 1992, in the last months of the Bush I administration.
Under Bush II, the neo-cons were brought in as shock troops; their mindless zealotry was a perfect tool for implementing the plans drawn up by the real players in the new regime: Cheney's notorious "Energy Task Force" and the much lesser-known "Joint Task Force on Petroleum" formed by the Council on Foreign Relations and – who else? – the James Baker Institute at Rice University. It was here that the final solution for Iraq was hammered out: regime change with the aim of locking up – not unleashing – Iraq's massive oil reserves, to keep energy prices high and steady (Saddam was mischievously bouncing them all over the place) and to preserve the power of OPEC under the leadership of those time-honored pals and business partners of the American Establishment, the Saudi royals.
Greg Palast, as usual, has the goods on this in his new book Armed Madhouse, where he also points out one salient fact for our purposes here: there were no neo-cons at the task force tables, where the real action was. No, those useful asses were left out in the paddock, waiting for their loads.
These are dark days, serious times. The whiff of apocalypse is in the air. For it will be virtually impossible for the Gamesters to carry off their next immediate goal, subduing Iran – much less their long-range aim of dominating the world throughout a "new American century" – without the use of nuclear weapons. So let's be done with baby talk and comic books, with the comforting fairy tale that the vast crimes we are witnessing are the work of a few cranks who have somehow hijacked the noble U.S. government and are using it for their own purposes, or Israel's purposes, or whatever.
The reality is that Iraq was invaded because a powerful faction of the old-line American Establishment wanted to do it and the rest of the Establishment – the Democrats, the media, the "respectable" intelligentsia – countenanced the crime. The belligerence and oppression of the hardline Israeli government in Lebanon and Palestine are receiving unquestioned – and armed – support from the United States because this suits the larger strategic purposes of the "global dominance" faction of the Establishment, and the domestic political purposes both of the Democrats, heavily reliant on Jewish-American backing, and the Republicans, dependent on their rabidly pro-Israel evangelical base.
It is the American elite – pursuing, as always, the enhancement of its own power and privilege, heedless of the consent of the governed or the genuine interests of the American people (or the Palestinian people or the Israeli people or the Lebanese people or the Iraqi people) – that bedevils us. The emergence of the cretinous neo-conservative cult is just a symptom of a deeper moral corruption coursing through the dominant institutions and structures of American society. The body politic is rotting from the head.
This column originally appeared on CounterPunch. ***