by Ali Gharib
When Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who just won the Iowa caucus and is vying for the top place in the GOP presidential primaries, went after neocons, it raised a lot of eyebrows. Now, however, he seems to be enjoying a resurgence among the hawkish ideologues that have come to dominate his party. Rosie Gray reports in BuzzFeed that, despite hitting Cruz hard when he disparaged them, the neocons are not actually very mad about it. He can be forgiven, we’re told, for his sins. He’s even receiving, as Gray put it, some “soft support.”
But first let’s rewind and look at this from the beginning. Last November, the news held this tidbit about Cruz:
At a town hall Monday morning in Coralville, Cruz rejected the “binary” framing of a choice between a foreign policy philosophy where “we want to retreat from the world and be isolationist and leave everyone alone, or we’ve got to be these crazy neo-con invade-every-country-on-earth and send our kids to die in the Middle East.”
“Most people I know don’t agree with either one of those,” he said. “They think both of those are nuts.”
That was reported by Bloomberg where, in an interview, Cruz lashed out at least two other times against neocons, charging that they “have consistently mis-perceived the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and have advocated military adventurism that has had the effect of benefiting radical Islamic terrorists” and that “If the Obama administration and the Washington neo-cons succeed in toppling [Bashar al-] Assad, Syria will be handed over to radical Islamic terrorists. ISIS will rule Syria.”
Those remarks raised the hackles of—who else?—neoconservatives. “He knows that the term in the usual far-left and far-right parlance means warmonger, if not warmongering Jewish advisers, so it is not something he should’ve done,” Elliott Abrams told National Review. Another neoconservative, Eliot Cohen, late of the George W. Bush State Department and now at Johns Hopkins, told the right-wing magazine, “It’s an epithet. It’s always used pejoratively. And the main thing I resent about it is, it’s a label, it’s a way of avoiding arguments.” Said another Bush Defense official, this time unnamed, “It was a dog whistle.”
Let’s take a closer look at these statements. Abrams has a record of making spurious accusations of anti-Semitism—I chronicled one such instance, blow by blow, during the flap over Chuck Hagel’s appointment as Defense Secretary—so it was a little surprising that he went so soft on Cruz. Here’s a guy who is knowingly appealing to the “usual far-left and far-right” corners of American politics to make disparaging statements about “warmongering Jewish advisers,” but Abrams just drops it there! Where is the free-swinging anti-anti-Semitism warrior of the Hagel fight? I certainly don’t know.
Then there’s Cohen’s statement. I was not surprised so much as shocked. Cohen says the “main thing (he) resent(s) about” the use of the word neoconservative is that “it’s a way of avoiding arguments.” That’s strange. It wasn’t the main thing that bothered him about the word 13 years ago when just uttering the word itself probably meant you were an anti-Semite. “Sometimes the word ‘neoconservative’ is used when what they really would like to say is ‘Jew,'” Cohen told the BBC way back when. The host asks who “they” are. “People who use that kind of language,” Cohen replies, matter-of-factly. “And as a Jew, I find it offensive. There are two things I find despicable about it. The first is the imputation of dual loyalties,” Cohen goes on. “And the other thing I find deeply offensive about it is it contains a very old anti-Semitic canard”—that Jews control everything in the world by occult powers. So, in summary, a phrase that, to Cohen, once inspired accusations of the most horrific kind of anti-Semitism now merits only a wrist-slapping for being a mark of poor sportsmanship in the debate club.
The notion that Cruz’s neocon-bashing was a “dog whistle” sums up Abrams’s point and Cohen’s old point, before he softened it: this was an anti-Semitic attack against those neoconservatives who had gotten a bum rap all because their efforts, while in the Bush administration, to launch a war against Iraq had gone south.
An Old Ploy
This defensive tack by neoconservatives is not at all new. In 2012, I summed up a few examples of neoconservatives (and their allies) contending that any criticism of neoconservatism as an ideology was anti-Semitic:
[…T]he conflation of Jewishness and neoconservatism only serves to hamper salient criticisms of the movement by claiming any focus on neocons is anti-Semitic. To be sure, some critics are anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists; they should be ignored or ridiculed. But to entirely dismiss the influence—not control, but influence—of a number of prominent neoconservatives during the Bush administration and the push for the Iraq war is to deny history; and to dismiss any and all criticisms of an ideology is to transgress intellectual honesty. That hasn’t stopped neoconservative writers and some of their liberal hawk allies from doing just those things since the invasion in 2003.
Supporters of the war claimed that its critics’ focus on neocons amounted to a “sinister stereotype” about “Jewish neoconservatives” running the Bush administration (cf. the Maureen Dowd “puppet masters” non-controversy). In David Brooks’s 2004 New York Times column absolving neoconservatism, as an intellectual movement, of any responsibility for the now-discredited invasion of Iraq, he wrote: “con is short for ‘conservative’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish,'” blaming any careful look at neoconservatives, or even their policy positions, on anti-Semitism. The Washington Post editorial board, and neocon opinion contributors there and elsewhere, ascribed the same motives to critics’ daring to discuss neoconservatives’ role. Some neocons, like Richard Perle, now even deny that neoconservatism exists at all—which might come as something of a shock to the neoconservatives, like Richard Perle, who have proclaimed themselves as such and even bragged to television crews about how much George W. Bush accepted their ideals.
Supporters of neoconservatism seem to contend that, because some conspiracy theorists view neocons as a Jewish conspiracy (which is absurd, since so few American Jews are actually neocons), the movement’s ideas are beyond reproach even as just that, the ideas of a movement.
The intention seemed as clear then as it does when Abrams and Cohen, however briefly, pilloried Cruz: to inoculate the ideology against criticisms, however brash or salient.
Most remarkable in this latest chapter, however, has been the quick turnaround of some hawks—Abrams, in particular. In his original comments on Cruz, Abrams took a soft line: that Cruz merely should not have hauled out those ancient anti-Semitic tropes. That made the utter turnaround even more astounding: Cruz knew what he was doing, Abrams told us then, but now let’s not worry about it at all!
“I would not hesitate to back Cruz as the nominee,” Abrams told BuzzFeed. “If it’s a two man race, it’s really extraordinary to see Republican office holders in some cases or former office holders saying they don’t like Cruz or they would go for [Donald] Trump, who is from my perspective not a Republican, not a conservative, has no policy views on anything that you can actually describe or get a handle on.”
Good lord! How convoluted and polluted the Republican field is!
Why the Kid Gloves?
Now, let me be clear: I don’t think Ted Cruz is an anti-Semite. I especially do not think his “New York values” attacks pointed in that direction, a meme that also popped up in the BuzzFeed piece. But if I did—if I had gone to the point of suggesting it in public—I wouldn’t suddenly back away from it because it looked like the guy in the top spot might be even worse (let me hasten to add that I also think Trump is a bigot who has a fascistic political platform). But that’s exactly what Abrams is doing: Cruz’s apparent bigotry is all right by him as long as he’s not Trump.
And yet it gets worse. Why is Abrams willing to tolerate Cruz? BuzzFeed reports, in Gray’s words, that Abrams “gave Cruz some leeway considering he’s in the midst of a contested primary.” Oh, so comments that Abrams considered anti-Semitic are okay because the dude is in a tough fight for the party’s presidential nomination?!
It’s worth comparing this to the fight over the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary. In that fight, Abrams piled on repeated scurrilous statements in the assault on Hagel’s candidacy. Among other made-up sins, Hagel allegedly said something that smacked of anti-Semitism. Yet even when evidence emerged that the basis of Abrams’s attacks was entirely unfounded, he stuck with them. Now, however, there’s a GOP presidential candidate that Abrams thinks has said something anti-Semitic, and he’s willing to completely absolve him in the interest of… what, exactly? I can’t pretend to know. It’s all far too befuddling.
Though it can be hard to extract concrete conclusions as to why Abrams made his turnaround on Cruz, I think it’s safe to make this one: Elliott Abrams is still a dishonest hack. In this affair, where Abrams has been so incredibly inconsistent, that much has not changed.
Photo of Ted Cruz by Gage Skidmore via Flickr