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The Neocon Movement Deconstructed

It is January 2009 and President Bush has left office after a successful two terms. Former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz has been appointed secretary of Defense, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been won. Critics such as Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff have gone so far as to admit they were wrong for ever questioning either invasion.

This, says author Jacob Heilbrunn, is how neoconservatives once imagined the future. But it is increasingly clear that their vision won’t be realized.

“Instead, the opposite occurred,” Heilbrunn wrote in his debut book, released last month. “Iraq is a quagmire. Iran has been emboldened and Syria empowered. Terrorism is up, not down.”

In “They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons,” Heilbrunn traces the neoconservative movement from its roots to its current state.

“I think that [neocons] obviously helped to reformulate American foreign policy — decisively reformat it,” Heilbrunn said in an interview last week. “I think unfortunately the consequences have been largely disastrous in Iraq. The neocons’ view was that invading Iraq would be the trigger for spreading democracy in the Middle East. In fact, the reverse has occurred.”

The idea for the book first came to Heilbrunn a few years ago when he watched as many of his friends were catapulted into the public eye. This included Wolfowitz.

Heilbrunn, a senior editor at the National Interest, began work on the 300-plus page tome several years ago. He conducted many interviews and read newspapers and magazines dating as far back as the 1930s. In doing this research, Heilbrunn found that many neocons joined the movement at an early age.

“One of the most surprising things I found was a letter from Douglas Feith to The New York Times,” Heilbrunn said.

Feith, who served as undersecretary of Defense for policy under Bush from 2001 to 2005, wrote the denunciation of a plan for peace between Israel and Palestine at the age of 15.

“I showed him the letter and he was shocked,” Heilbrunn recalled. “To me that showed how set in stone his views were on Israel, even as a child.”

Heilbrunn characterizes Weekly Standard Editor and New York Times columnist William Kristol as the most influential neocon today.

“If you notice, his columns have been devoted to defending [Arizona Sen.] John McCain and stating that conservatives need to rally around him as their new leader,” Heilbrunn said. “I think ultimately Kristol is correct that McCain will be the [Republican presidential] nominee and that his strong stance in continuing the fight in Iraq will cause conservatives to rally around him.”

When asked what the upcoming election will mean for neocons, Heilbrunn presented two potential outcomes.

“If John McCain wins the presidency it will be a new golden age for the neocons,” Heilbrunn said. “McCain is an ardent supporter of the war on terror and I think believes in it even more than George W. Bush does.”

On the flip side, a Democratic win would return neocons to the role they play best, Heilbrunn said: that of a “noisy opposition group.”

“They really love bashing away at conventional wisdom,” he said. “They’re intellectuals even more than they’re policymakers so they enjoy making strident arguments and engaging in ideological warfare. That’s their true calling.”

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