Why do so many neoconservatives lack the courage of their convictions?

Those who desire war with Iran and punishment for domestic political opponents typically avoid stating their views clearly.

Published March 1, 2007 2:15PM (EST)

(updated below)

There is a fascinating (and increasingly vitriolic) argument bubbling over in National Review's Corner between Andrew Stuttaford, on the one hand, and the roster of tough-guy Cornerite Warriors (Andy McCarthy, Mark Steyn, and Iran-obsessed Michael Rubin of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute) on the other, concerning the Bush administration's participation in an upcoming regional diplomatic conference to include both Syria and Iran. And just incidentally, Brit Hume last night eagerly sought to assuage the concerns of worried Fox viewers by conveying his colleague Tony Snow's assurances that this was all planned long ago.

Over at the Corner, Stuttaford has been arguing for the wisdom of negotiating with the Iranians, the gravest neoconservative sin there is. And the Churchillian Warriors, of course, have declared this to be the ultimate act of Chamberlain-ish appeasement -- it's the same as sponsoring a group hug with bin Laden and Hitler at the same time, etc. -- and are mocking Stuttaford for failing to realize that Iran represents such Pure Evil that no negotiations with them are possible. That is all standard warmonger fare.

But what is so notable here -- and what one finds in almost every debate about Iran -- is that while the Warriors will mock and oppose every attempt to resolve the U.S.-Iranian conflicts short of war, they never have the courage to expressly say what it is that they actually favor. The reason for that refusal is clear: they oppose negotiations because they crave full-on military confrontation with Iran (or, at the very least, the use of force to bring about regime change), but they know that expressly advocating that will cause them to be stigmatized as the dangerous radicals that they are. So they keep using code to talk about the need to show strength and toughness towards Iran and never appease them -- and they mock every option designed to avoid war -- while lacking the courage of their convictions to say what they actually think.

For that reason, Stuttaford has been repeatedly asking the Warriors what they think we ought to do about Iran if negotiations are so misguided, and they keep refusing to answer. Finally Rubin was forced to address the question, and he began this way: "What would I suggest? When it comes to economic measures, Patrick Clawson provides some useful suggestions." He does not, of course, say that we should confine ourselves to those "economic measures," because that's not what he believes. He thus proceeds to reject various other measures (while never saying which ones he favors) and then finishes with this pronouncement:

Nor do I believe it in U.S. interests to acquiesce to the Revolutionary Guard and Office of the Supreme Leader with nuclear arms. Their ideology matters; it would be unwise to project our own values upon those circles in Iran which would control such capability. With regard to much more precise options, such things are better discussed in private, and I would be glad to do so.

So Rubin is unwilling to say publicly what he thinks the U.S. should do with regard to Iran. He is willing to unveil his great insights only in secret, closed-door meetings at the AEI at shadowy gatherings of our nation's neoconservative foreign policy geniuses, but is not willing to advocate those ideas to his fellow citizens in public forums.

What could possibly account for such timidity? Rubin is not a government official. He resigned from the Baker-Hamilton Commission in petulant protest over the Commission's bizarre and oh-so-inexplicable refusal to follow his neoconservative wisdom in light of all the great things it has accomplished in Iraq and elsewhere (as Greg Djerejian put it at the time: "James Baker and Lee Hamilton, doubtless, must have been crushed--that the penetrating insights Rubin would have brought to bear are now lost forever").

Rubin is just a private citizen. His opinions are not classified. If he really believes so much in the grave threat posed by Iran to the U.S., why wouldn't he be willing -- even eager -- to use his platform at National Review and the AEI to publicly advocate to his fellow citizens what he thinks we ought to do about Iran? Why keep his special insights a secret?

Many neoconservatives lack the courage of their convictions this way about many topics -- they hint at their extremist ideas without having the courage or honesty to expressly state them. That practice is consistent with the founding principles of neoconservative theory. Neoconservatism does not believe in the virtues of democratic debate, but instead views itself as the vanguard of a superior elite which formulates wise policy in secret and then deceitfully packages it in digestible Manichean form to the idiot masses (that is how we travel from a long-standing, pre-9/11 desire to invade Iraq for all sorts of geopolitical reasons to a marketing product "justifying" that invasion based on the claim that 9/11 Changed Everything, Saddam was connected to those attacks, he would give his Bad Weapons to the Terrorists, and Freedom is On The March).

This sort of intellectual cowardice and deceit is illustrated by another example. Several days ago, Mark Levin, writing at National Review, complained about a New York Times article reporting on U.S. actions against Al Qaeda in the Horn of Africa, claiming that the Times "gives up more of our strategic secrets." After excerpting part of the article, Levin -- following the "kill-the-traitor" code which Frank Gaffney has been urging -- concluded as follows:

Oh, do I long for the good old days when Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president, punished such acts of betrayal. And no, I am not joking. This is a wholly gratuitous assault on our national security by the reckless Times corporate management. There is simply no public interest in disclosing any of it. For all the liberal talk about the need to build coalitions and work more closely with other countries, when we do the Times and media outlets like it are the first to try to destroy those relationships. The Washington Post did the same with black sites in Europe.

As usual for neoconservatives, Levin is brave enough only to talk in code. He "longs" for the day when our government "punished such acts of betrayal" -- by the Times and Dana Priest of the Post -- but he stops short of specifying what he means. What punishment would he like to see, and against whom? After I read Levin's piece, I wrote him the following e-mail (with the subject: "Interview Request - Salon"):

Mr. Levin - I'm working on a piece for Salon about the argument being made by some conservatives that the Bush administration should follow the steps taken by Abraham Lincoln with regard to those who undermine our military missions (either generally in the war on terror or in Iraq), and that the administration should take more aggressive steps to punish disclosure of classified information.

I'm focusing on several articles written lately by Frank Gaffney in The Washington Times about Lincoln and treason, and I would like to include your post from several days ago (this one) in which you say: "Oh, do I long for the good old days when Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president, punished such acts of betrayal. And no, I am not joking."

Would you be available for an interview, or even just by e-mail, could you specify which specific punishments you think are appropriate here for the NYT? And which types of punishments do you think are appropriate for similar instances of prior disclosures of classified information by the Times (NSA, Swift, etc.) and those of other papers (such as the Post's disclosures of the secret Eastern European prisons for terrorists).

Thanks -

Glenn Greenwald

It's been a couple of days and Levin has not responded (I sent a similar email to Frank Gaffney asking about similar remarks in his last Washington Times column, and he has also not responded). There may be several reasons for the lack of response -- time constraints, an unwillingness (for whatever reasons) to be interviewed by me, etc. But whatever the explanation is, people who advocate things like Michael Rubin, Andy McCarthy, and Mark Levin always find ways to evade saying expressly what they are really advocating. They like to speak in code and stir up extremist sentiments but lack the courage to follow through on their argument and say what they mean.

If an American believes that our country is being gravely threatened by the New Nazi Germany in Iran and that nothing short of military action will save us, I would think they would be eager -- even feel compelled -- to go out and make that case and try to awaken their fellow citizens from their slumber in the face of this Great Persian Threat. And if someone believes that there are traitors in our media -- or in our Congress -- who should be prosecuted, convicted, and hanged, I would think they would be out making that case by specifcally fingering the Media or Congressional Traitors and specifying the fate they deserve. Those who believe that there are influential people in our political institutions breaking the law and who deserve prosecution ought to make that case clearly.

One of the principal reasons why political extremists are able to masquerade as mainstream figures is because they are permitted to engage in this intellectually dishonest exercise where they advance radical and contemptible ideas only through innuendo and code. Their meaning is clear, but they are able to maintain a safe distance from the arguments they are pushing because they lack the courage to embrace them openly (Michael Rubin: "such things are better discussed in private, and I would be glad to do so") and are never pressed to be more explicit.

Anyone who mocks the idea of negotiating with Iran while insisting that it is "intolerable" to allow them to acquire nuclear weapons or continue to "meddle" in Iraq should be pressed to say clearly what they do advocate. And those who spew dirty little innuendo about "punishment" and "accountability" for those who "undermine" the war and troop morale or who "give comfort to the enemy" ought to be asked precisely who they mean and what "accountability" they favor exactly.

The fact that an idea is radical or held by a tiny fringe does not prove that it is wrong. But when advocates of such ideas are too afraid to express their ideas honestly and out in the open, that is a pretty compelling sign that even they know how rancid and repugnant those ideas are.

UPDATE: Kudos to Andrew Stuttaford for refusing to tolerate Warrior Andy McCarthy's evasion games: "And, So, Andy - What would *you* do?"

In response, McCarthy finally came out with his multi-point plan for dealing with Iran. The summary follows; see the post for the full plan in all of its warmongering glory:

* First and foremost, I would have a clear policy of regime change . . .

* I would make a point of hitting the terrorist camps and the IRGC/Qods Force/Intelligence facilities inside their borders if (a) they don't desist in Iraq, (b) Hezbollah hits anything, or (c) the IRGC/Qods hits anyone.

* I would not invade Iran, but I would make clear that I was prepared to invade Iran if it did not modify its behavior -- and I would not even consider negotiations until it established a record of modified good behavior

* I would provide aid to dissidents and democracy movements. Overt aid because I'd want the mullahs to know, every day, that I wanted them gone

* Finally, to make most of the above both possible and credible during wartime, when we are stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, I would follow the advice of my friend Mark Levin, among others, to increase defense spending.

* [quoting Mark Levin]: "I'd prepare for war with Iran. The UN, the Europeans, Jimmy Carter, et al, have been talking to the Iranian terrorists for decades, to no avail. So, if we can't topple the regime from within, we need to be prepared to destroy it by other means. I know this is considered controversial in the post-Vietnam era, but if this is a world war, as many of us believe (including the enemy), then it must be treated as such."

So, to recap: bombing campaigns inside Iran; openly engineering an overthrow of its government; and an even more massive military build-up in order to "prepare for war with Iran," all the while threatening them with an full-on invasion. That's all very realistic and wise (see here for a compilation expert opinion consensus that good military options against Iran are non-existent). Now you know why they don't ever want to say what they are really after.

Notice, too, that McCarthy's plan has little to do with Iran's nuclear program, the alleged principal cause of our tensions. As was true with Saddam, the real goal is a change of government, regardless of what they do with their weapons programs. The scary nuclear rhetoric is just the pretext.

The more they are forced to put their real views out in the open like this, the better it will be.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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