The neocons are suffering one humiliation after another
Paul Wolfowitz is hanging on to his job at the World Bank by his fingernails. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a Wolfowitz protégé, is facing prison; Douglas Feith, who worked with Mr Wolfowitz at the Pentagon, is an “untouchable” who is floating around the margins of academia.
As for their patrons, Donald Rumsfeld, Mr Wolfowitz's patron, was sacked from the Pentagon amid accusations that he had lost the Republicans their majority. Dick Cheney is so unpopular that he has provoked protests even at Brigham Young University, a Mormon redoubt which is as conservative as they come. Conrad Black, one of the movement's most generous sugar daddies, is on trial for fraud. It seems that those whom the gods wish to punish they first make neocons.
Not all the neocons have been humiliated quite as badly as Mr Wolfowitz, let alone Mr Libby. Many of them—including Richard Perle, who is widely known as the Prince of Darkness, and David Frum, the man who co-coined the phrase “axis of evil”—are safely on board the starship American Enterprise Institute. Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol are as ubiquitous as ever in the media; indeed, Mr Kristol has been given a column in Time magazine to go along with his self-constructed platform at the Weekly Standard. Robert Kagan is in the middle of writing an ambitious history of American foreign policy.
And neoconservativism is not entirely finished as a political force. George Bush rejected the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq, which favoured early withdrawal and diplomacy, in favour of the neocon-designed “surge”. Elliott Abrams is a deputy at the National Security Council. Mr Cheney is proving no more destructible than Lord Voldemort. John McCain is blowing loudly on the neocon trumpet; Rudy Giuliani, having flirted with “realists”, has decided to stick with neocon foreign-policy advisers.
But the movement's implosion is nevertheless astonishing. One neocon sums up the prevailing mood in the movement. The neocons are a “laughing stock”. Their “embrace of power” has been “a disaster”. Once upon a time they commanded an audience among Arab democrats and European conservatives. But now they cannot make themselves heard above the din of criticisms of Iraq. The “surge” is a desperate response to failure. Many people see Messrs Kristol and Krauthammer as exhibits in a Ripley's Believe It or Not exhibition: they marvel that they can ever have been so influential, rather than want to follow their advice again.
The neocons are being relentlessly marginalised in Washington. Condoleezza Rice is returning to her “realist” roots at the State Department, now that Mr Rumsfeld is out of her hair and Mr Cheney is weakened. She has embraced “shuttle diplomacy” in Israel-Palestine, signalled her willingness to talk to Syria and Iran, and has even been polite about the United Nations. The rising generation of policy intellectuals regards a reputation for neoconservatism as professional death.
They are also being marginalised—or at least slapped down a bit—within the conservative movement. The “paleocons” have always disliked the neocons, sometimes (disgracefully) just because they are Jewish. But now they are being joined by conservatives of almost every other stripe. Realists dislike them for their destabilising foreign policy. Small-government types dislike them for their indifference to government spending. Libertarians dislike them for their preoccupation with using the state to impose virtue. Neoconservatism could well return to where it started—the intellectual property of a handful of families called Kristol, Podhoretz and Kagan.
Why does the movement seem so discredited? Partly for practical reasons. They misread intelligence about WMD and links between al-Qaeda and Saddam (though some still believe in both notions). They bungled the war in Iraq. They had little real experience of either the Arab world or soldiering. Many of them were even poor managers. Gary Schmitt, a fellow neocon, complained of Mr Feith that he “can't manage anything, and he doesn't trust anyone else's judgment”. General Tommy Franks describes him as the “dumbest fucking guy on the planet”.
Will there be life after Wolfowitz?