Neoconservatism As A Betrayal Of Jewish Values
Compounding the pathology of terrorism.
— Dr. Paul Maltby
Compassion and justice shine out as core values in Jewish ethics. Consider the obligation of tzedakah, which in Hebrew means both charity and justice, and which, when dutifully practiced, is esteemed for its redemptive power: “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by tzedakah;” “By tzedakah shalt thou be established” (Isaiah 1:27; 54:14. See also Genesis 18:19; Proverbs 21:3.). The injunction in Leviticus to “love your neighbor as yourself” (19.18) is understood not only as a moral precept but as a rule of conduct that yields practical benefits. (Famously, Rabbi Hillel defended this “golden rule” as “the whole Torah; the rest is explanation.”) T. H. Huxley, though Victorian England’s pre-eminent agnostic, could, with the Torah in mind, write: “The Bible has been the Magna Charta of the poor and the oppressed; down to modern times no State has had a constitution in which the interests of the people are so largely taken into account…as that drawn up for Israel in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.” And recall the oft-cited principle of tikkun olam – healing the world – voiced both in prayer and in the Mishnah; a principle which may be advanced through the performance of mitzvot, and which is venerated as a force that counters social chaos.
Compassion and justice have long served as guides to action among many American Jews who, for decades, have been committed to progressive social causes: the labor struggles of the early 20th Century; the Civil Rights movement; the anti-war protests of the Sixties; the fight for women’s rights – causes that helped “heal” America. Then, in the Reagan era, neoconservatism was strategically developed as a counterforce to the radically democratic trends of the Sixties and Seventies. The policies of this movement have conspicuously flouted and betrayed the very principles that have inspired the activism of generations of American Jews. Moreover, alas, neoconservativism is the creation of Jewish intellectuals and, today, the movement flourishes largely (though not exclusively) under Jewish leadership. Here, the point is to see how neoconservative doctrine deviates from the Jewish values outlined above.
In his editorial Were They Really So Wrong?, Jonathan Tobin, Editor of the weekly Jewish Exponent, argues the virtues of Bush’s neoconservative foreign policy advisors. In particular, he defends the belligerent stance of Norman Podhoretz, seen by many as the godfather of neoconservatism. Tobin approvingly cites Podhoretz’s use of the term “Islamofascism” (a term trumpeted in the title of the latter’s 2007 book, World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism). Yet, he misses the paradox that, as a key signatory to the manifesto of the Project for a New American Century, Podhoretz himself may be accused of adherence to fascist principles. Indeed, a review of the PNAC’s “Statement of Principles” (1997) and its other statements will reveal the project’s extreme-right tendencies: the militarism, whereby force, in particular pre-emptive strikes, is favored over diplomacy; a gung-ho readiness to keep America on a perpetual war-footing; a military budget that exceeds that of all other nations combined; and an ultra-nationalism that aspires to nothing less than unchallengeable American global dominance. The goal is to “shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests;” to pursue “a Reaganite policy of military strength…to ensure…[American] greatness in the next [century].” Such a brazenly hegemonic ambition does not take into account that other cultures do not necessarily respect or want America’s free-market system. American interests, as secured by the imposition of American principles abroad, are the chief concern of the neocons; the welfare of non-Americans, whose countries may be attacked and occupied, is wholly subordinate to this concern.
A symptom of how far to the right the political consensus has shifted is the comfort many feel in referring to such thinking by the polite epithet “neoconservative;” in the 60s and 70s, “neo-fascist” would have been deemed the appropriate designation for such militarism and ultra-nationalism.
Tobin buys into the neocons’ fraudulent claim that the Iraq war is all about spreading democracy. He forgets that the neocons originally made their case for war by claiming, first, that Saddam Hussein had links to Al-Qaeda and, later, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. And when both these claims were exposed as deceits, the neocons had to invoke the “spread of democracy” as their fallback pretext for war. Yet this argument is the least convincing of all. In his 2007 memoir, The Age of Turbulence, Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Chair (and hardly an advocate of left-wing critique), wrote: “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” Moreover, in the classified but leaked “Defense Policy Guidance” draft of 1992, leading neocon Paul Wolfowitz, then-Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, outlined plans for US intervention in Iraq, to ensure, among other things, “access to vital raw material, primarily Persian Gulf oil.” A PNAC document of 2000 discussed a plan to take military control of the Gulf region as part of its “blueprint for maintaining global US pre-eminence.” And in The Shock Doctrine (2007), Naomi Klein adduces a good deal of evidence to argue that the “rebuilding of Iraq” has, above all else, provided an opportunity to establish a free market: that is, destroy the country’s public sector in order to contract out its services and projects to private US companies. In short, “spreading democracy” is just the current version of a much older imperialist rhetoric: the Conquistadores spoke of their “evangelizing” mission, while European colonialism spoke of its “civilizing” mission.
Next, consider the scandal-laden careers of some leading neocons, whom Tobin conveniently omits to mention:
- Elliott Abrams, convicted in 1991 of lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra Affair. As Reagan’s Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs, he was criticized by human rights groups for covering up mass killings of peasants, in Nicaragua and El Salvador, carried out by military personnel and death squads under the auspices of US-backed dictatorships. This “specialist in massacre denial” was rehabilitated by Bush junior and, since 2001, has served on the National Security Council.
- Lewis Libby, served from 2001-2005 as Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff. In 2007, a federal grand jury investigation into his role in the vindictive leak of a CIA agent’s identity (the “Plame Affair”) led to his conviction on four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice.
- Richard Perle, who in 2003 was forced to resign as Chair of the Defense Policy Board under accusations of being bribed by a defense contractor to use his government appointment to promote the sale of armaments to the Pentagon. Through the shady dealings of Trireme, a private investment company in which Perle is a senior partner, he has been linked to the crooked Saudi arms dealer, Adnan Khashoggi. He has also been “main booster and patron” of the fraudster, Ahmed Chalabi (Alan Weisman, Prince of Darkness: Richard Perle, 2007).
- Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Chalabi had to flee Jordan when an audit of his Petra Bank revealed that around $200 million of investors’ money had been transferred to Chalabi family holdings in Switzerland and the UK. In Jordan, in 1997, he was tried and convicted in absentia and sentenced to prison. Though already widely known as an embezzler, the neocons found in Chalabi a loyal political ally and used the INC’s mendacious reports about Saddam’s WMDs and ties to Al-Qaeda as a pretext for war with Iraq.
- Paul Wolfowitz, forced to resign as President of the World Bank, in 2007, on a corruption charge. As State Department Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Wolfowitz vigorously opposed a drive by Congress to halt military aid to the regime of Philippines dictator and embezzler, Ferdinand Marcos. And as ambassador to Indonesia during Suharto’s regime, he was widely criticized for his silence in the face of the dictator’s mass murder of East Timorese and the plundering of his own country’s treasury.
- Douglas Feith, forced, in 2005, to resign as head of the Office of Special Plans at the Pentagon (2002-2003) after a report from the Defense Department exposed his role in fabricating information about Saddam’s stockpiles of WMDs and the latter’s links to Al- Qaeda in order to build support for war with Iraq. For ideological reasons, he discredited realistic estimates of the threat posed by Saddam produced by the CIA and other far more dependable intelligence-gathering units.
- Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under Bush, from 2001 until he was forced to resign for incompetent handling of the Iraq War in 2006. Even after his claim that Saddam harboured WMDs was exposed as a lie, he urged Pentagon officials, in a 2006 memo, to “keep elevating the threat.” The Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay torture scandals occurred on his watch, when he worked hard to circumvent the limits to interrogation techniques and conditions of incarceration upheld by the humanitarian code of the Geneva Convention.
Tobin remains silent in the face of the indisputable fact that many leading neocons are guilty of malfeasance and/or mired in sleaze. Indeed, his list of neocons looks sanitized: Podhoretz, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, William Bennett. Conspicuously absent from his roll-call are all the above controversial figures.
Tobin is concerned – and rightly so – to remind us that not all neocons are Jewish. Yet surely, if he believes so much in the virtues of neoconservatism, would he not want proudly to proclaim the leading role of Jews in the movement? The implication is that there is something embarrassing about the prominence of so many Jewish neocons.. Their presence in the public domain as intellectuals and definers of public policy is conspicuous, the names all-too-familiar: Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Donald Kagan, Elliott Abrams, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Lewis Libby …the list goes on. At least 11 of the 25 signatories to the PNAC’s “Statement of Principles” are Jewish.
Perhaps one way to address the issue of the disproportionately large Jewish presence among the neoconservative leadership is to sweep it under the carpet, but that kind of cover-up only abets antisemites with their theories about Jewish plotting in high places. (Search the Web under “Jewish neocons” and you’ll find numerous websites devoted to this theme.) Instead, a more effective way to confront the problem would be for Jewish community leaders to come forward and publicly denounce neoconservative thinking as a betrayal of Jewish values. Indeed, such a denunciation would also serve as an opportunity to reaffirm the values on which Judaism has long prided itself: compassion and justice.
To invoke values like compassion may appear naive from the neoconservative standpoint of realpolitik. Yet, as Chalmers Johnson has persuasively argued, through his concept of “blowback,” seeking military solutions to economic and political problems generates more terrorism against America, undermines democracy at home, and critically weakens the economy. and places an even greater burden on the economically disadvantaged. Indeed, neoconservative thinking has failed both in moral and practical terms. Belligerent foreign policy initiatives have generated more enmity toward, and contempt for, America than at any other time in her history. The trumped-up case for war with Iraq has had catastrophic effects: hundreds of thousands killed or maimed; two million Iraqis uprooted from their homes; a whole generation of children traumatized by war. Not to mention the obscenely high costs of financing the war, bothin in economic and human terms: estimates vary from $400-700 million a day, enough to purchase a year’s worth of healthcare for hundreds of thousands of uninsured American children, and the vast majority of American casualties come from the working class and poor communities.
I concede that a clash of ideologies is a problem: a small minority of Islamic extremists simply hate Western culture (although this clash largely boils down to Islamic fundamentalism vs. free-market fundamentalism). However, popular support for this minority would quickly be defused if the US stopped propping up regimes that manage their countries’ resources on behalf of American corporate interests as opposed to the interests of the indigenous populations. In short, American foreign and defense policies that do not callously disregard the needs of the world’s poor would be just, compassionate, and wise.
Tobin lauds the neocons as stout defenders of democracy. Yet, in an editorial that lacks any serious socio-political analysis, he fails to see that the pathology of extremism (Islamic or otherwise) is a structural problem of a world economic order that robs hundreds of millions of the means necessary for a decent and dignified life. However, insofar as the neocons allow self-serving ultra-nationalist interests to override all moral considerations, they merely compound the pathology.
Dr. Paul Maltby teaches in the English Department at West Chester University.