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Neocons and Bush deserve each other

JONATHAN CHAIT

December 24, 2006|JONATHAN CHAIT | jchait@latimescolumnists.com

FOR A LONG TIME now, President Bush's critics -- and even many of his erstwhile admirers -- have been wondering why he let the neoconservatives fool him on Iraq. "All [the neoconservatives] care about is ideology," complained MSNBC's Chris Matthews a few months ago. "The president bought it hook, line and sinker."

There's a lot of truth to that. Neoconservatives had been gung-ho for years on the idea of invading Iraq, establishing a democracy and watching the transformative power of liberty work its magic. It is indeed curious how and why Bush let the neocons sucker him.

But fewer people seemed to have noticed that the reverse is also true: Bush suckered the neocons.

On the surface, to be sure, they appear to be getting their way once again. News reports are suggesting that Bush plans to send more troops to Iraq. Neoconservatives have been urging this very course of action for a long time. Indeed, they've been advocating more troops in general for years -- even before the war started. And that's not surprising. If you believe in expanding the worldwide application of American power, you need a military to do it. If you read old issues of the Weekly Standard, which is the bulletin board of neoconservatism, you can find calls for a bigger military going back to the Clinton administration

It's probably too late to make a difference in Iraq. Bush may have come to believe in the neoconservative mission for the nation's military. But he never accepted the corollary about increasing the military. So he ended up pursuing Dick Cheney's foreign policy with Bill Clinton's army.

In hindsight, we can see that the neocons made two huge blunders. The first was to go along with Bush's enormous tax cuts. When Bush took office in 2001, any halfway honest budget analyst would tell you that he was making a lot of promises that didn't add up. The neocons calculated that, if they supported the tax cuts like good party soldiers, Bush would grant them their defense budget increases later on.

So the Standard enthusiastically boosted the tax cuts. Neoconservative defense hawk Frank Gaffney concurred in a fawning open letter to Bush. "Those of us who look forward to helping you succeed in your efforts to rebuild our defense posture appreciate that your success in reducing taxes is a first and highly synergistic step toward that goal," he wrote. "Consequently, you can count on us in the national security community to support you in both of these important endeavors."

Whoops. It turned out there wasn't any money left over for a big troop increase, an eventuality nobody could have foreseen unless they knew how to add and subtract. Enraged at the lack of a defense hike, the Standard published an editorial calling on then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to resign in protest of "the impending evisceration of the military."

The Standard lamented its own gullibility. "Those of us who expressed concern about the Bush administration's shorting of the military were told not to worry," the editors wrote. "Bush had to pass his tax cut first. Then the damage would be repaired in the [fiscal year] 2002 and FY 2003 budgets. But that's not the way things have turned out."

Let me translate this passage: We thought Bush was just lying to the American public, but now we discover he was lying to us also!

Let me quote one more passage from that editorial, because it's really incredible. The Standard warned that Bush's budget would make an invasion of Iraq all but impossible: "In practice, assembling a heavy armored force of even four divisions to defeat Saddam's army and then occupy Iraq would require every heavy unit based in Korea, Europe and the United States." Yet, just a few months later, the neocons demanded the very war that they said would be impossible, to be waged by that same eviscerated military.

But if they had only withdrawn their support earlier, before the big tax cut and before Bush invaded with too small of an army to win, the United States would be in much better shape today -- and so would the neocons.

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