THE BLOG

Shadow Elite: Neocons, The Holocaust & Emergency Powers

07/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After a break last week, the Shadow Elite column resumes its look at the rise of executive power, and the cost to democracy. Today, how the Holocaust shaped neoconservative belief in the need for constant vigilance. The aftermath of 9/11 offered a small group I call in my book the "Neocon core" a politically receptive climate to wage war against the threat of terrorism and to link it with the perceived threat of Saddam Hussein, a threat they had long been warning about. In doing so, they abetted the increase in executive power.

-----------------------------

"For us, terrorism remains the great evil of our time, and the war against this evil, our generation's great cause. . . . There is no middle way for Americans: it is victory or holocaust." -Richard Perle, co-author, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror, 2004

Note the small "h" on the word "holocaust" from the book co-authored by Bush White House advisor Richard Perle, one of the most influential instigators of the war in Iraq. It suggests that to Perle and his ideological allies, the Holocaust was not a singular event, but rather the first of other potential holocausts that must be prevented.

As I detail in Shadow Elite, Perle is the linchpin of the Neocon core, an informal group of a dozen or so members of the far bigger and more diverse neoconservative movement, who've worked with each other in various incarnations for some thirty years to realize their goals for American foreign policy through the assertion of military power.

In their conviction that the U.S. must identify and eliminate future Hitlers or potentially murderous regimes, they were willing to bend and even break the rules of democracy and traditional procedure. And they sidelined checks and balances, helping to expand executive powers in the process.

The thinking of the neoconservative movement about foreign policy was significantly shaped by their interpretation of World War II, America's role in it, and the age of American preeminence that followed. As Perle puts it,

For ... my generation, the defining moment of our history was certainly the Holocaust. ....[I]t was the failure to respond in a timely fashion to a threat that was clearly gathering.

Neoconservatives thus promote a defense strategy that prefers military intervention--indeed, preemption--and confrontation with enemies. Their sense that constant vigilance is necessary to avert the next Nazi-type threat mandates that it is America's right--even duty--to export organized violence. In the years after World War II, the fight was directed against the threat of communism.

And just as victory over fascism during World War II was achieved far from U.S. soil, without the trauma of war at home, so can America triumph in war abroad without endangering security at home. This faith in U.S. might was bolstered by the post-World War II experience of American dominance, buoyed by notions of progress and democracy, which further honed the view that America can, and should, refashion the world.

But carrying out that goal meant fostering a sense of a permanent emergency. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late senator from New York and onetime neoconservative, put it this way:

They wished for a military posture approaching mobilisation; they would create or invent whatever crises were required to bring this about.

Moynihan suggested that the tactics utilized by the Neocon core - a kind of suspension of rules and processes - was what motivated him to part ways with the movement in the 1980s. In the endeavors the core undertook beginning in the mid-1970s, they employed methods ranging from the creation of alternative intelligence; to might-be-authorized, might-not-be authorized diplomacy; to setting up pressure organizations and "think tanks"; to suspending standard government process, always contesting government information, assessments, and expertise.

Most if not all of these subverting tactics served to increase the power of the executive branch, at a time when the perceived menace was world communism. On 9/11 that menace became global terrorism. And the Neocon core was quick to recast the ominous rhetoric of World War II to drum up support for the "war on terror" and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the same breath. Journalist Jim Lobe, a longtime student of the neoconservatives, notes:

The Nazi Holocaust . . . lies at the core of the neo-conservative worldview that has animated and given coherence to much of the Bush administration's post-9/11 foreign policy that itself is changing the world.

This terrorist enemy is, as Neocon core member Paul Wolfowitz put it when he was deputy defense secretary, "a fascist totalitarianism not fundamentally different from the way it was in the last century--no more God fearing than [the Nazis and communists] were." In fighting the war on terror, and mobilizing for the invasion of Iraq, the core perfected the same rule-busting tactics they had used in the past, further expanding the role of the executive branch, undermining standards of democracy, transparency, and accountability.

There is an inescapable irony in the fact that ideological warriors committed to preventing another Holocaust, and who fought for years against communism, might cede the moral high ground, with behavior that is antithetical to the American traditions they claim to want to spread around the world. Democracy must be counted as one of the casualties of this new century's wars, and more broadly, of an era where an elite few have become masters at pressing their own self-interested agendas with impunity.

Linda Keenan edits the Shadow Elite column.