‘Ex-Neocon’ — Scott McConnell looks back on 20 years of ideological tumult

US Politics
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Scott McConnell has a new book of essays out called Ex-Neocon: Dispatches from the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars that traces his passage from neoconservatism to antiwar coalition with leftwingers, realists, and national interest types to what could be the breakup of that coalition in the Trump era. I wrote the intro to that book, and McConnell is a longtime friend of our site. I conducted this interview with him over the phone in the last 10 days.

Q. What does this book represent in your intellectual life and that of the country?

The first essay in the book was written hours after 9/11, and most of the essays were first published in the American Conservative, and are grouped around a reckoning by myself that the nexus of issues around foreign policy, neoconservatives, Israel, had become critically important to America’s history and world history, which they certainly were at the time before the period leading up to the Iraq war.

Cover of Scott McConnell's new book, Ex-Neocon

Cover of Scott McConnell’s new book, Ex-Neocon

Because of that war or because some of us on the right saw that war coming, Pat Buchanan particularly, who I knew as a friend and colleague, we thought there ought to be a conservative voice against the neoconservative rush to war. So a lot of the essays, maybe half of them, reflect that theme and reflect my own experience with neoconservatism. And I had been a neoconservative, more or a less a card-carrying one and Commentary-magazine-contributing one, for some time from the early 1980s till the late 90s, in other words the prime years of my professional life as a young man. They reflect the sensibility of rejecting neoconservatism, and the neocons of course rejected me also. And they reflect worry about the Iraq war, and worry that the neoconservatives and their influence on both parties were going to set the United States on a program of perpetual war. Which I don’t think seems to be happening now. Though it did seem to be happening in 2002, 2004, 2006.

So half the essays are on this subject, Iraq, neoconservativsm, Israel, the influence of Israel in American politics, and how we should think about Israel. I kind of– like everyone else– think that Israel’s creation was probably necessary and certainly understandable and Israel has had the chance to mitigate the crimes it committed in establishing a state and ought to do so. But of course it doesn’t seem to want to do so. And so that’s a problem too.

And Israel is revered in the American political system and much of the foreign policy establishment to an almost bizarre extent. So a lot of the essays deal with those themes, which to my mind are post 9/11 themes.

Q. Why did you become a neoconservative?

I had liberal or liberal radical parents. And as a young man, I was antiwar. I wasn’t a radical, but I was a Gene McCarthy supporter and a McGovern supporter, and very much part of the gentle new left, but some time toward the end of the Vietnam war, I felt my illusions about communism kind of fell from my eyes. So in the middle part of the 70s, I was exposed at Columbia to social democratic professors, people like Brzezinski and Fritz Stern, and they made a big impact on me. And I read a lot about communism and actually thought it was a terrible, horrible system, and it seemed quite possible in the mid 1970s that it would continue to expand after Vietnam. So I found myself in the mid 70s very available to voices which said, No we haven’t outgrown our inordinate fear of communism, which I think President Carter did say we should have.

Very quickly I discovered Commentary which as a magazine presented in seemingly lucid terms that there was a struggle for the world going on and if you were in favor of capitalist democracy you had nothing to apologize for. And they did it without a lot of weirdness about religion or godless communism, and they were eloquent and learned, and I began reading it. I began reading Raymond Aron, he was part of this. I admired his writings a lot. So by the late 70s I was primed to vote for Ronald Reagan, which I did in 1980. I began writing for Commentary in the early 80s when I was about 30 years old.

Also I thought Commentary’s stance on– the neoconservative stance of two cheers for capitalism fit my thinking. i.e., not three cheers, but capitalism was a good thing. And I thought they were pretty lucid on issues of race and urban American cities. That is to say they had never been segregationist, but they tended to be aware of law and order. Most neocons of that generation had parents who lived in neighborhoods which were struggling with crime, and they were not embarrassed to talk about it, and they weren’t afraid to say, oh no no no you can’t mention this, that would be racist. So the general sensibility that seemed to be both realistic and toughminded, appealed to me.

Q. How ideological are you?

Ideologically I don’t think I am in a very interesting category. I call myself an Eisenhower Republican. But at the same time I feel strongly that that’s the most sensible course. And there’s a lot of people on both the left and right who seem to be very far from that, including the leaders of both parties.

Q. Our relationship bridges some ideological differences. In terms of what you care about on foreign policy, how important is working with the left? I’ve seen you working with Code Pink. Have you been able to do that without strain?

Well, first, I’m loosely enough affiliated with the right, that no one cares. The American Conservative is in terms of the Republican establishment, a dissident enough magazine that nobody is saying, They’re in bed with Code Pink, that’s terrible. At least no one cares about me. I know some of the people involved with Code Pink, and I would have had doubts about this in the late 1990s. But then I realized that if you feel you have to go into the streets to demonstrate against war, you go with the people organizing the demonstration. That’s just the way it is. I’ve been in demonstrations organized by groups more radical than Code Pink.

Q. Has that presented a challenge to you?

No. I have been involved with Churches for Middle East Peace. It’s a liberal do gooder Christian group which has very sound and sophisticated views on Israel and Palestine. I’ve been on two trips to Israel with CMEP. My typical co-traveler is some liberal Christian activist type. They find my views on say immigration, which are fairly Buchananite, they’re kind of curious and appalled at the same time, but they’re somewhat– I mean, I haven’t been ostracized particularly by them. And often the discussions are useful, mutually useful. So I make a case that America is actually a more equal society when it has lower rates of immigration because high immigration rates are a capitalist wet dream.

I’ve found that 90 percent of the people on the left are pretty tolerant of me and my foibles. But I’m not really hardcore in my rightwing attitudes.

Q. Here’s an ideological issue. Norman Finkelstein says I won’t sign BDS because of one point or another. And one could argue implementation of right of return would cause a revolution. I don’t care, I honor the refugees’ rights, I sign on. BDS is important. Can you sign on to an agenda if you don’t agree with every little bit?

I’m not in the position of Norman Finkelstein in that everybody is looking at everything I might sign as a way to attack me. I generally think BDS is useful and support it, mostly as a way to educate Americans, particularly younger Americans, about the reality of Israel and Palestine. And it is now the main vehicle for that. I don’t even know what the ten commandments of BDS are. I’m not required to know.

Q. You’re not?

If you want to get Americans to talk about Israel/Palestine, BDS is the vehicle to doing that. In realistic terms, nobody is going to institute the right of return unilaterally or tomorrow.

Q. Ten years ago in March you emailed me the Israel lobby article from the London Review of Books, by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. What do you think of that paper and that book? And how does it influence us today? 

Well I think The Israel Lobby is the most important political book to be published in this century [2007]. For a long time there have been these sort of hints of establishment malaise with the nature of our relationship with Israel. People think we’re too deferential to Israel or they say that the Palestinians are being unjustly denied a state or self-determination, and were unjustly cleansed from their land, and that we’ve put Israel on this huge moral pedestal, which is a mistake of judgement. This has been expressed before, perhaps most prominently by George Ball, who was maybe the smartest cabinet member of the Kennedy Johnson administration. But it tended to be expressed by people at the end of a long career. So it wouldn’t necessarily be followed through.

So here suddenly you have two first rate academics and writers with all the skills of knowledge and synthesis and self-expression who publish this really detailed book when they’re still very much in their professional primes, and every point was argued as well as it could be done. There was no exaggeration, but there was no pulling back either. And I sensed that the first time I read the first three paragraphs of the LRB piece, I just felt that there was something special about the language, it had an exemplary combination of forcefulness and restraint. And it was done by – you know it’s not easy to be an international relations professor, it’s not easy to be a professor at the University of Chicago and Harvard, and it’s not easy to be at the top of that profession; and never before had this argument been done really so well, even if had had been bouncing around for a long time.

Look, I have been doing research on 1956 and Dulles and Eisenhower, and you can see a lot of State Department people who show up in the archives, saying, Israel is going off the deep end here and why are Americans letting it happen, and can’t there be some counterpressure to all the pressure we’re getting from the Israel lobby? And that was in 1956, when all these problems were in embryo compared to now.

So it’s extraordinary. I think books stay around, and people will be reading that book for a long time. I don’t know whether a book can change the world, but probably half of the activists in the Democratic Party essentially know its arguments and agree with it and it comes out in the Sanders movement and the struggle over the platform. Maybe 15 percent of Republicans do. Maybe not so much that anyone has to notice. But it’s there. Others have to take the ball and move it the next 15 or 20 yards. But they really moved it. Probably in football terms they took it from the 20 yard line to the 50.

Q. That’s a long historical arc from murmurings in ‘56 to open denunciation of the lobby in ’06. Is the special relationship going to end in the next 10 years?

I don’t know. I would doubt it, there are so many kind of conflating factors. I mean for example, Israel played a big role in getting the United States to fight the war in Iraq and it has tried to play a big role in getting the United States to fight a war in Iran. These are huge things, which affect the lives of all Americans in the most immediate sense, but if Israel is not doing that, then it requires Americans to actually care about what’s happening to Palestinians, which is a much smaller domain. And if you complicate that with the fact that the Mideast seems to be going crazy under the influence of Sunni radicalism, that obviously changes the calculation. It’s easy to just say, They are all crazy over there, and Israeli nationalism just seems another variant of the craziness.

I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future but in terms of the way they are now, the idea that the Israel lobby would be dislodged in ten years, doesn’t seem that likely. Though so many odd things can happen. Including tragic ones. There could be a war. There could be a war with nuclear weapons.

Q. Eisenhower’s speech on the military industrial complex is still the main understanding for US policy. Even Chomsky was in line with that, his materialism and socialism and anti-imperialism. Tell me where the Israel lobby paradigm fits, how large an understanding is it for America in the world? Or does it only touch 25 acres in the Middle East?

That’s a very interesting question and hard to answer. Because there’s a reflexive hawkish response in the American Washington establishment or deep state almost whatever happens in the world with things that have no visible connection to Israel. For example, we help foment a coup in Ukraine and Russia responds with a countercoup and suddenly the beltway establishment is up in arms. This has nothing to do with Israel, but it has to do with a reflexive hawkishness, and the idea that it’s America’s duty or role, or destiny to be the indispensable nation muddling about in issues all over the world. So the Israel lobby has nothing to do with that. Or the Israel lobby kind of surfs on that sentiment, taking that sentiment and trying to use it to Israel’s advantage. And saying America’s this big global power and it has to do thus and such, and Israel like America is a democracy, and so it can do no wrong, in Gaza or Lebanon of anywhere else.
But the sentiment is probably independent of Israel. I would say that the Israel lobby distorts and makes far far less moral than it should be American policies towards the middle east. But I don’t think it drives the whole show. I think Eisenhower when he talked about the military industrial complex, didn’t give a thought to the Israel lobby. Because it barely existed then, and yet his analysis is fundamentally correct.

Q. You write about the 96 “Clean Break” paper. Various neocons believed that plan; and one can craft a conspiratorial understanding of how mayhem among the so called states of the Middle East that followed serves Israel. Annie Robbins has long talked about this. 

I think that’s a fair conclusion. So the next question, which I don’t have an answer to, is to what extent has Israel helped foment, say, the civil war in Syria, which obviously has tremendous tragic consequences. I don’t know.

Q. Remind us, the Clean Break, what was that about?

In the 90’s several pro-Israel neoconservative intellectuals wrote a kind of platform or an action plan for [Israeli PM Benjamin] Netanyahu who had just been elected for the first time, suggesting that Israel should a, not be involved in any American sponsored peace process, but also that the disruption of various states in the Middle East including Iraq, Lebanon and I think Syria, would be very much in Israel’s interests. Some people have linked this to various rightwing Israelis who were writing earlier.

But basically yes– there’s a certain kind of rightwing Israeli analyst who thinks, We benefit from chaos for obvious reasons; strong states that have a scientific infrastructure and a middle class are a threat to Israel, but warring tribes are not. I think that was part of the impetus for the Iraq war, an unspoken one of course; people said that we have to bring democracy to Iraq, but I have to think that for neoconservatives, chaos in Iraq and the division into an ethnic sectarian war, was a quite possible outcome of our invasion, and they were fine with that.

Q. The leftwing response to what you’ve just said is, there’s structural racism in that arrangement. Have you learned from the left? I remember I once told you that so and so is a communist, and you said, of course. But you weren’t troubled by it, and I wonder if you learned from it.

I don’t know that communist is such a relevant term any more. When I grew up, My stepfather was sort of a communist at one point, and there was that kind of radicalism I was familiar with, but it’s very unlike the issues around today. Imperialism, war and inequality were communist issues. Even if they didn’t have solutions and they thought they did and the solutions they had were wrong ones and often mostly terrible ones, I think their identification of the problems was indisputable.

But now what would you say? Probably most people identify the left as identifying structural racism as the central evil of American capitalism. And I don’t really buy that. So I don’t know where to go with that.

Q. In terms of identity politics, do you think some of your views are formed by being privileged white and male. And how do you deal with that?

If I ever write another book as a memoir I will call it white privilege. A lot of people who fall under the receiving end of leftwing identity politics are not privileged whites at all, they’re just whites. Whites have lost ground economically over the last generation more than any other group. So over the same time, there’s been a greater class differentiation among whites. Look, in general, whites– privileged whites– have created as everyone knows, great achievements and great crimes. America was a great achievement. Slavery, which went right along with it, was a great crime. It created a situation where we have tried to and I think made a sincere, and positive, and largely successful effort to bring the descendants of slaves into national life. If you read the debates that Abraham Lincoln fought, there was just no way he thought we would make the progress we have made. There’s a certain sense in which there will never ever be enough and the problems don’t go away. I don’t feel that whites should be held personally or economically responsible for the crimes of slaveholders 150 years ago.

Q. Let’s talk about Trump. He’s not in the book. Marine Le Pen is in there, and the chapter is not unfavorable to her, there’s an understanding of what she could do that her father could not do politically, and the broader reach she has, and how the anti-immigrant position has gained political traction. Is that applicable to Trump?

I think Trump and Brexit and Marine Le Pen are part of the same phenomenon and they’re all assertions of somewhat ethno but not explicitly racist populist nationalism, and they all are explicitly non racist in their protestations or their formal presentations. That’s not to say, which I’m sure that you can, that you can’t find racists attached to all of these.
But these are people who believe actually as I do that nation states are probably a better way of organizing the world, a world of different cultures and peoples, than the alternatives, and that borders should matter. Immigration might be interesting and enriching when it’s a certain percentage of the population, but when it seems uncontrolled, its consequences should be resisted. There can be too much of it. And I think that’s a universal feeling in the west.

There’s variants of Trumpism or Marine Le Penism or Brexitism in every western democratic country. Basically because China or Japan are not accepting lots of immigrants. Those are the other possible countries nobody particularly wants to go to.

Q. Trump has been explicitly racist in some of his statements.

He has and he hasn’t… Clearly he plays with resentment of foreigners, including Mexicans. And then he comes back the other way and says many of my friends and business colleagues etc are. I don’t think Trump is the ideal representative of Trumpism, because he personalizes conflicts and he says things that can easily be construed as racism, but on the other hand I give the man credit because no one who is not a normal politician who wasn’t this figure with brass balls and a lot of money and some celebrity and the kind of supreme amount of self confidence could have broken through the Republican establishment and defeated it, which he did. At least so far.

Q. How broad or unspoken is anti-immigrant feeling inside the US populace?

I think if you had a candidate who said, we are pro-immigration, but we should know who the immigrants are and they should be immigrants we can comfortably assimilate and ones that will help the American economy, and we’re not sure what the number is but it should be at least half a million a year, but it shouldn’t be 2 million a year and not the ones who crash on the border. And attention paid as to degree of education, because unskilled people have a much harder time in the American economy than they did 200 years ago, or 150 years ago, then I think that position would probably be overwhelmingly supported. That may be Trump’s position. But he hasn’t expressed it like that. I kind of wish somebody would. I think we need middle class immigration. We don’t need, in terms of, if you look at the wage profile, and what happens to lower wage Americans over the last generation, you certainly don’t need to bring in more low wage workers to compete with them.

Q. Tell me the Joseph Sobran story.

It’s a very interesting story. I don’t know Joe Sobran. I think I met him once briefly but I know some people who knew him well, like Pat Buchanan. He joined The National Review as a young graduate student, he had a wonderful prose style that leapt off the page, and for William F. Buckley, he was a conservative Catholic, he was someone who was outraged by abortion and Roe v Wade and a lot of the cultural changes taking place in the ‘60 and ‘70s, but he had wide interests. When he was still a grad student in Michigan, Buckley would fly him to New York every two weeks so he could write editorials for a few days, and fly him back. This is, pre email, obviously, and that gives you a sense of how esteemed he was. And he and Buckley were personally close.
Joe also had fairly conventionally dissident views about Israel and the Israel lobby, and he would occasionally write somewhat snarky things about how quick we are when Israel says jump, to say how high. But it didn’t attract a great deal of notice until the first Iraq war. And I don’t really know what Sobran thought. I know conservative Catholics often have less of a braking mechanism about Jewish sensibilities than people who grew up with Jews. Whereas elite Protestants tended to have gone to school with a lot of Jews. So there’s a difference there, and I think Sobran didn’t have any brakes. But then the first Iraq war came, and he wrote several columns saying that Israel was lobbying for the war, and I know around this time, Midge Decter compiled a dossier of offensive Sobran columns and was circulating it around, and Buckley at first withdrew from Sobran and demoted him and said he wanted to read everything Sobran wrote before it went in the magazine. He wanted to have every column faxed to him, but Buckley didn’t have a fax machine, so he read it over the phone. And eventually Sobran who had been a key figure at National Review and was a self confident, self respecting intellectual, refused to do that, and wrote what he wanted, and Buckley severed him from National Review.

I don’t know Sobran, so this is a subject for a novel, but Sobran eventually wrote the kinds of things that only an anti-Semite would write. He was cut off from his regular source of income so he began to accept invitations from really fringey rightwing groups, and he didn’t have any money, and I remember Eric Breindel [late former editor NY Post editorial page] told me in great detail about his tax situation, his tax delinquency, and I kind of wondered how Breindel knew that, but it was must have been something that someone in the neoconservative world was paying attention to– with satisfaction.

My last and most memorable contact with Sobran was, we were starting a magazine in summer 2002, and Taki and Pat Buchanan and I wanted to rehabilitate Sobran as a columnist. Then I read in the Forward that he was going to give a speech to some Holocaust denial outfit. I said no. First Pat called him and then I called him and we said, Don’t go. And he basically blew us off. I’m not going to let them tell me what to say or where I can speak and this and that. Basically, you can’t have a writer who addresses a Holocaust denial organization be a writer for your magazine, it just isn’t going to work!

But it was funny. We were calling him at the airport. He was about to get on a plane.

Q. You described a red line. Do you think the time will come that red lines over criticisms of Israel will vanish. Max Blumenthal doesn’t get reviewed. I don’t think you’re going to get reviewed in the mainstream.

Ahh! I hadn’t thought so. I tend to think of myself as a very measured writer. But what do I know.

Q. It does cross red lines.

I didn’t think so…. Max is bold, I have to say.

Q. And you have a very good review of him in your book. But will we look at these red lines and think they were ridiculous to be enforced. We’re living through a blacklist.

Well I think we’re living, as regarding Israel, I think we’re living through the erosion of the blacklist. It’s happening so incrementally, but it is happening. It’s two steps forward, one step backward, on every rhetorical front. But yes, the taboos against criticizing Israel or not supporting Israel financially and militarily are enforced by a powerful and influential establishment. And that’s what establishments do. It’s not the only establishment. But they have considerable resources, and smart people, and are able to hire smart people to work fulltime on lawsuits and marginalizing people, and this and that. It’s a battle.

I don’t know how it will come out. Look, Walt and Mearsheimer are right, that Israel could either make peace with Palestinians or it would become an apartheid state, and then we’d have the linchpin of America’s Mideast policy based around support for an apartheid state. And that’s just an inherently not stable and not durable situation.

But I don’t see that necessarily dawning on anyone in the next 10 or 15 years.

Q. You don’t? It dawned on you a while ago.

It dawned on me, but I’m not running for office. And anybody who’s running for office, as Mondoweiss has chronicled, and so have a lot of other people– you need to raise money, and if you’re a Democrat, you have go through various Israel lobby connected groups. If you’re a Democrat, and if you say certain things about Israel being a democratic state, blah blah blah, you gets lots of money and if you don’t say those things, you don’t get the money. Most people who run for office do it for a variety of reasons and Israel and Palestine is pretty low on the list, and so if you’re asked not to talk about something that may not be important to you, you’re likely to do that.

Events could push this. I hate to think, but even something tragic that drew the United States into the Middle East again, in a warlike way in which we killed hundreds of thousands of people or thousands of America were killed, which is altogether possible– that makes people focus on these issues.

Walt and Mearsheimer’s book probably would not have been published without the Iraq war.

Q. Tell me the Gore Vidal story.

OK. I had met Gore Vidal once as a young man. It was a funny thing, we were in Paris at the apartment of my ex-stepmother and her later husband, he was a diplomat and she was an artist and they were kind of chic Paris people, and they had a cocktail party. I was just beginning to become a neocon, though I didn’t know it yet. We were talking about French politics. I was talking about the French communist party, and I said some anti-communist things. I had been reading Raymond Aron. And Vidal said in his arch voice, oh you brought a young rightist to entertain the party. The year before I had worked for Carter. I certainly didn’t consider myself a rightist. But in retrospect, since four years later I was writing for Commentary, he was prescient about it. It was fairly charming in an arch Vidalian way.

Anyway, I guess about ten years after that, he wrote a piece for the Nation and he laid into the Podhoretzes combining their support for Israel and their general warmongering and he used a lot of phrases that were at least borderline anti-Semitic; it was sort of like, Go back to your own country. I don’t want to go back to the piece so I won’t characterize it one way or another, but the Podhoretzes tried to organize a big campaign against him to get the Nation and their editors and the Nation’s contributors to repudiate Vidal’s antisemitism. Probably 75 percent of the people they asked said they didn’t find anything egregious about what Vidal had said, and it was an attack on the Podhoretzes, and not on the Jews, which was true. Norman wrote this big essay, called the hate that dare not speak its name. Something like that. I remember reading the essay and thinking, going up the elevator, who’s Norman attacking now? Gore Vidal!

It wasn’t my issue at all. I knew that Israel had a problem with the Palestinians, there was injustice on that side, but it was number 9 among the things I cared about. And I thought eventually Israel would be forced to grant Palestinians a state.

Norman and Midge actually made a contrast between the left’s refusal to condemn, shun and push Vidal away from being a respected writer and Buckley’s readiness to accommodate them by getting rid of Sobran. It was kind of his main point. I guess their point was that Republicans and conservatives were not anti-semitic, but the left tolerates anti-semitsim. That was part of the polemical charge. It wasn’t a big issue to me.

Anyway, I guess maybe 5 years after that I was working as an editor and columnist for the New York Post and I had to write a column every week, after work. I had noticed an item in the paper during the 1992 Democratic primary that Gore Vidal was some kind of adviser to Jerry Brown, in talking about infrastructure and high speed rapid transit and things like that. I was sort of pro Clinton, but I didn’t have a strong preference, and I thought I could write a column, and the column could write itself. I would get Commentary to fax over the old copy of their essay, which they of course did quickly. So I wrote like an 800 word newspaper column based largely on the points that Midge and Norman had leveled years ago and I said, What is Jerry Brown going to do about this, why is he going to take advice from Vidal?

I was so lazy, I thought, I can write this column and be home for dinner at 9:30. I started after the paper had gone to bed at 530 or 6. And everybody praised it. I first got a whiff that if you’re named McConnell and you accuse someone of antisemitism, people say, Yay! Yeah, go for it.

And Jerry Brown severed Vidal from his campaign.

Q. He did?

He did. And some pretty significant New York radio station dragged poor Victor Navasky who had gone thru the woods on this issue 8 years before to debate me. I feel sorry for Victor. We went on the radio. Because there’s an infinite media market for accusations of anti-semitism, which I began to sense then.

Alright. So if you fast forward after that, I began to be more seriously thinking about Israel and Palestine, I came to realize that– Vidal wrote in such a way that I wouldn’t write it, but a lot of his key points were right. Midge and Norman and their magazine had consistently been pushing for more militaristic US policies and war, particularly in the Mideast. Vidal was right about that. And they do have a kind of divided loyalty. I don’t know the formal question of, do you have joint citizenship. But I know Norman, I used to know Norman pretty well, and he sees everything through the lens of what’s good for Israel, and all the neocons do. So Vidal was picking away at the scab, and he was doing it in an overly polemical and noncareful way, but there was a lot of truth in what he was saying, and I wasn’t immersed enough in the story in the 80s to think about that.

When he died I wrote a piece saying I wish I’d had a chance to apologize and explain what I thought then and now.

Q. Great story. Great lessons. Are you ashamed?

I’m ashamed of attacking Vidal for reasons of laziness, which I think I was. There’s this club around to beat him with, I don’t have to consider seriously the issues he was trying to raise as a writer– Vidal anti-Semite. He wrote some things which certainly can be considered as anti-Semitic. Blah blah blah. Column is written. I get praised, I get more media attention. Whatever happens to Vidal and Jerry Brown is of no consequence to me.

Q. On the Trump deal, are there nonwhites who support him, and if there aren’t isn’t that is a concern?

There certainly are. I’ve seen polls saying Trump’s support among Hispanics is comparable or greater than Romney’s. He has said he’s the least racist person in the world, I don’t know about the least racist, but I actually do think he has black friends. I think he has a comfort level around blacks that I doubt that Hillary or Jeb Bush has. Because he likes sports figures and celebrities and he’s in that world, he’s a different kind of guy. When I think that there are among African Americans, a lot of law and order guys. Not the political majority, but maybe 20 to 25 percent. They will support Trump. I think he’ll have as much nonwhite support as any Republican is likely to get these days.

Q. Are you concerned about these issues and the forces they’re unleashing?

Yes. They’re being unleashed now. I mean I know that people on the left often have this narrative of incipient fascism. But people on the right have a narrative about incipient anarchy and antiwhite violence. And there has been a great deal of anti-Trump supporter violence at Trump rallies. People claim that Trump stirs it up. Because he does say snide things when people disrupt his rallies and they get escorted out, which he shouldn’t have said. But there have been many instances of people getting pummeled for even attending a Trump rally.

Q. When it comes to foreign policy, do these divisions threaten the modus vivendi between the national interest segment and the left?

I think that’s a very important question. I kind of think they may. Essentially a lot of people who thought of themselves as maybe foreign policy realists began sliding toward the left after 2003 and the invasion of Iraq and the Bush presidency. I mean I voted Democratic left three elections. I think a fair number of people of that type, including ones more prestigious than me, who voted for Reagan and voted for Kerry and Obama. And if you have a kind of latent civil war in your own country, it strikes primal emotions that make– that confuse your alliances. It’s very hard for me to be allied with the left when the left is saying you’re a racist and you might well deserve to die.

I do have a sense which I didn’t have five or ten years ago, that the left is kind of ramping up this white privilege, white rape culture, white cop violence thing, and they don’t talk about economic inequality anymore. Bernie Sanders did, but this part of the cultural left cares more about identity politics. It may also be that Obama has succeeded to some extent in taking more aggressive war off the table, so it seems like less of a threat. I know realists who hate Trump and who say, Hillary Clinton is not going to start a war, despite all the neoconservative support. Hopefully they’re right.

Q. Is this an epochal hinge, do you have personal grief about that. What’s it mean ideologically?

I have been lucky enough throughout my career to just follow my instincts about what’s important and that’s changed over time, but yes it would be. I mean I have tremendous admiration for lots and lots of people who are part of either the failed coalition to bring about justice for Israel and the Palestinians or the successful coalition to head off a war with Iran. It pains me to not be on their side if that’s going to be the case. I don’t know.

I thought it was very interesting. Steve Walt wrote a piece, in his Foreign Policy column, in which he was talking about Europe’s immigration crisis. He basically said, Europe has got to get control of its borders. He said, Yes it should accept immigrants. But this mass uncontrolled immigration threatens civilization. I asked Steve did you hear from your progressive friends about this. Because it’s become increasingly a sort of leftwing trope that borders or at least the borders of the western countries are illegitimate, and you don’t have a right to defend them from anyone coming in who wants to. Nationality is an unjust form of privilege.

Q. You have watched the world’s failure to give Palestinians freedom, self determination, a state. Tell me about why that didn’t happen if it was so expected? And what is the significance in 2016, 70 years after they were promised one?

It’s very surprising. Neoconservatives I knew after Oslo– Eric Breindel in particular just kind of figured it was over. It was considered that Norman Podhoretz in Commentary would do this last ditch guard to get Israel to keep the West Bank, but that the grownup countries including the government of the United States have decided that this is a glaring injustice, the occupation, and there should be a Palestinian state based roughly on ‘67 lines. And the United States has the power to impose that since it’s Israel’s only major financial benefactor and only diplomatic benefactor in conjunction with Europe. I’m surprised that they didn’t do it and I guess that speaks maybe to the power of the Israel lobby in the United States. I’m surprised, that if you look at the platforms of both parties, they’ve actually moved away from that. The Republican platform, this year, which I don’t think Trump was much involved with but he isn’t rejecting it either, could have been written by any Likud figure to the right of Netanyahu. The Democratic platform: I noticed with dismay that Sanders– who got a lot of concessions from Hillary Clinton on things I agree with too like tuition and minimum wage, and they had this nice little fight with Cornel West, to try and get Palestine in the platform, and that was voted down– Sanders has not made his endorsement of Hillary contingent on any compromise there, unfortunately.

Q. What else is it beside the Israel lobby?

I know that there’s a counternarrative that it’s the fault of the Palestinian leadership, they never missed any opportunity to miss an opportunity. I just don’t see that. From my sense of the Palestinian leaders, including Arafat and Arafat’s successor—and I’ve met a number of people on trips to Israel and Palestine, young Palestinian lawyer types—they’re not rejecting a deal, they were really eager for a deal. And maybe they would like to go to the beach in Tel Aviv, but they would like statehood first. And it may be that twenty years after statehood, they would be able to go to the beach in Tel Aviv, which I think is likely. But they would like to live lives without Israeli supervision and settlers screwing them up. I used to think that Bill Clinton understood that and maybe he did, but he stopped caring about that. He cares about his wife’s political career more. And that is linked to money. And a lot of it is Israel lobby money.

Q. Though you’re in the realist and conservative camp, Palestinian human rights helped make you an ex neocon.

It’s true. I began to be pro-Palestinian before I went there for the first time. I think simply reading with an open mind. You don’t have to read radical stuff, you can read Tom Friedman’s book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, to understand that the occupation involves this ongoing open humiliation of Palestinians. Taking a grandfather out of his car and making him in front of his children kiss a donkeys’ ass. That’s just gratuitous cruelty. And in conjunction with the incredible deference and praise for Israel that is the American attitude, that is weird and wrong.

Q. There’s a danger in trying to use historical analogy, but you have a great chapter on Algeria. Is that an analogy to this situation? Are we looking at emigration, one state?

Well I don’t see how the Palestinians are ever going to be able to say to the Israelis, The suitcase or coffin. The French colons didn’t have their own army or nuclear arsenal; they were dependent on France. So I just don’t see how that would possibly happen. The Israeli population is well organized, it has the most powerful army, air force, and everything else, it would not be in the position of the French colonials in Algeria. So many things would have to happen before that, that it would be kind of impossible, at least in my lifetime and that of my children.

The analogy is useful in many ways. [Former French president] Jacques Chirac tried to talk George W. Bush out of invading Iraq by talking about his experience being a young lieutenant in Algeria. He basically said, Muslim societies are weak in some ways and strong in some ways, but they’re pretty strong at resisting foreign occupation. I don’t know if Chirac said precisely that, but there’s lots of evidence of that. You can go in but you are not going to be able to remake those societies the way you want for very long. And De Gaulle came to realize this too. Which is why I do think of De Gaulle as the greatest of major 20th century political figures, both as a conservative resistant to Nazism and as a conservative anticolonialist, and the great personal risks and successes of those endeavors.

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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16 Responses

  1. lysias
    July 18, 2016, 4:42 pm

    The neoconservatives despised De Gaulle.

    • irishmoses
      July 18, 2016, 6:31 pm

      It seems a bit early for them as De Gaulle died in 1970. Perhaps one of the early ones?

      I just read part of his Wikipedia entry. Great read. Quite a man.

      • lysias
        July 19, 2016, 6:52 pm

        I was thinking of PEP supporters of Israel I knew in college in the 1960s. They still considered themselves liberal Demorats then, but they eventually became neocons.

        For an example of how supporters of Israel regarded De Gaulle at the time, look at Leon Uris’s Topaz.

      • cosmopolite
        July 20, 2016, 7:35 pm

        Most right of centre French, and some left of centre ones too, consider De Gaulle the greatest leader France has ever had. The man wrote awesome French prose. A private Christian, he fully accepted France’s secular state. He had a defective daughter who was institutionalised. He survived WWI mainly because he was a German POW. He disliked and distrusted the English speaking people, and FDR patronised him. These experiences explain why De Gaulle vetoed the UK’s 1963 application to join the EU, and partly seceded from NATO in 1966. De Gaulle was cool to Israel. I once thought that this could be entirely blamed on the antisemitism of old French Catholic families, but I now see him as having been 30-50 years ahead of his time.

        During the Cuban Missile Crisis, De Gaulle let JFK know that the USA was a firm ally, even unto WWIII. The Soviets got wind of this, and the Soviet ambassador to France threatened De Gaulle with nuclear annihilation. De Gaulle replied “Sir, in that case you and I will die together” and escorted the ambassador to the door.

        De Gaulle practiced a stern personal integrity of a kind that Americans in the age of Trump and HRC can only daydream about.

  2. JWalters
    July 18, 2016, 8:22 pm

    Thanks for this excellent interview, and to Scott McConnell for his willingness to speak so clearly about these issues.

    The suppression of facts and discussion about Israel has been a HUGE distortion of America’s political process. And this distortion has been extremely detrimental to America. The current blowback from the Arab world was PREDICTED by the American Secretaries of State and Defense back in the 1940’s. (“War Profiteers and the Roots of the War on Terror”). Their analysis has been suppressed along with all the historical facts.

    This level of suppression and distortion has been maintained by huge amounts of money. Sympathy for victims of the Nazis would not maintain such a thorough suppression for so long. That has required a large force intentionally applied. This force controls the New York Times, as many Mondoweiss articles have documented, and the rest of the establishment media that follows along. It seems to me impossible that every literate reporter and editor interested in these issues is ignorant of the core facts. Their self-censorship shows the deep power of this force.

    This distortion has not been confined to issues involving Israel, but has been applied to other issues where large corporate bonuses are at stake, such as climate catastrophe. The glaring lies and disinformation campaigns show clearly that political chaos is being manufactured as a tactic of control. It is another episode in the long history of predators among the very wealthy sacrificing the well-being of everyone else for their personal aggrandizement. America was founded to end that pattern. Now would be an excellent time to realize that goal.

  3. Citizen
    July 18, 2016, 8:29 pm

    It’s Amazing to me that, at this time, Scott’s POV on the issue of Palestine-Israel Conflict and US role in it, isn’t the common sense thinking of the majority of Americans of all stripes. I can’t help but be frightened by how easily the American public is hoodwinked, and stripped of the USA’s blood and treasure by special interests under our system of government. We have smartphones, but are not smart.

    • Atlantaiconoclast
      July 18, 2016, 10:44 pm

      Why are you so surprised? Why would the average American know the truth about Israel? Not even most people who support Palestinian rights ever spend much time exposing Israel’s harm to the interests of the American people. And given the status of the Holocaust as a secular faith, why wouldn’t most Americans defer to Israel on the morality of issues like occupation, and war, etc. ?

  4. RoHa
    July 18, 2016, 11:44 pm

    “Probably most people identify the left as identifying structural racism as the central evil of American capitalism ”

    That’s pretty depressing. Anything that even came close to being the left in the US should be identifying American capitalism as the central evil of American society.

    • irishmoses
      July 19, 2016, 4:06 pm


      Big bucks lobbying is the key to all the evil. Even capitalism would benefit (by actually being competitive) if we end the power of big bucks lobbyists.

      Pipe dream though.

    • Annie Robbins
      July 21, 2016, 12:23 am

      structural racism is the framework imposed on society to implement the central evil of American capitalism — but it’s not the central evil itself. greed, power, control — those are the central evils. and not just of american capitalism either. you can find them in other ideological and economic structures.

      • silamcuz
        July 21, 2016, 3:53 am


        Well said but I differ slightly on how White Supremacy was imposed on American society. Capitalism was only the economic aspect of it, but more significant was the consolidation of political power by the European settlers over the natives and the black slaves through unification of a large group of unrelated people through racial indoctrination.

        Recall before America was founded, there was no such thing as a white race, or a white ethnicity and most Europeans didn’t really see any form of solidarity or unity between them on the account of sharing the same skin color. In fact, you could say that the most fervent hatred and hostility were expressed between two groups of most similar physical characteristics, etc Scots vs English, French vs English, Catholics vs Protestants etc.

        And all the while these white folks were fighting among themselves, capitalism was already fairly established in their societies. So we can’t really say capitalism was the primary driver of the formation of a unified white race. This only occurred specifically when the ruling class of Europe attempted to violently appropriate foreign land by the process of settler-colonialism.

        The entire process is mirrored rather accurately, albeit in a much smaller scale, with the establishment of the European-dominated Israeli state in Palestine. Jewish race was created to consolidate European power over the natives, despite Jews being composed of various races and ethnic groups, some of them even natives to Palestine.

  5. cosmopolite
    July 20, 2016, 7:22 pm

    Since the 1970s, I have joked that American conservatives walk away from me because I support Palestine, do not agree with Zionism, oppose the War on Drugs, and the TPPA, and see American interventions in the ME as a failure. That American progressives shy away from me because I am very warm to capitalism (but hate crony capitalism), and am pro-life. I have been warm to the Libertarian movement for decades. In recent years, I find myself liking Eisenhower more and more.
    I thought I was a hopelessly eccentric and idiosyncratic soul (albeit an unrepentant one). That was because I had never heard of Scott McConnell’s name. I now see that McConnell and I are kindred spirits. Thank you Philip Weiss for helping me understand myself better.

  6. Annie Robbins
    July 21, 2016, 1:04 am

    fantastic interview. just ordered the book, can’t wait to read it!

  7. JLewisDickerson
    July 23, 2016, 2:34 am

    RE: “So a lot of the essays . . . reflect worry about the Iraq war, and worry that the neoconservatives and their influence on both parties were going to set the United States on a program of perpetual war. Which I don’t think seems to be happening now. Though it did seem to be happening in 2002, 2004, 2006.” ~ McConnell

    MY COMMENT: In Orwell’s 1984 The Perpetual War was used to deal with the problem of excess industrial capacity.

    Is it possible that we have reached the stage of capitalism where the growth of markets is no longer sufficient to produce enough demand, and perpetual war will be used to hide an excess of industrial capacity (at least until the sh^t really hits the fan)?

    FROM WIKIPEDIA (Nineteen Eighty-Four):

    [EXCERPT] . . . In 1984, there is a perpetual war among Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, the superstates which emerged from a global atomic war. The book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein, explains that each state is so strong it cannot be defeated, even with the combined forces of two superstates—despite changing alliances. To hide such contradictions, history is re-written to explain that the (new) alliance always was so; the populaces accustomed to doublethink accept it. The war is not fought in Oceanian, Eurasian or Eastasian territory but in the Arctic wastes and in a disputed zone comprising the sea and land from Tangiers (northern Africa) to Darwin (Australia). At the start, Oceania and Eastasia are allies fighting Eurasia in northern Africa and the Malabar Coast.

    That alliance ends and Oceania, allied with Eurasia, fights Eastasia, a change which occurred during Hate Week, dedicated to creating patriotic fervour for the Party’s perpetual war. The public are blind to the change; in mid-sentence an orator changes the name of the enemy from “Eurasia” to “Eastasia” without pause. When the public are enraged at noticing that the wrong flags and posters are displayed, they tear them down—thus the origin of the idiom “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia”; later the Party claims to have captured Africa.

    Goldstein’s book explains that the purpose of the unwinnable, perpetual war is to consume human labour and commodities, so the economy of a superstate cannot support economic equality (a high standard of life) for every citizen. By using up most of the produced objects like boots and rations, the “proles” are kept poor and uneducated so that they will not realise what the government is doing and they will not rebel. Goldstein also details an Oceanian strategy of attacking enemy cities with atomic rockets before invasion, yet dismisses it as unfeasible and contrary to the war’s purpose; despite the atomic bombing of cities in the 1950s the superstates stopped such warfare lest it imbalance the powers. The military technology in 1984 differs little from that of World War II, yet strategic bomber aeroplanes were replaced with Rocket Bombs, helicopters were heavily used as weapons of war (while they did not figure in WW2 in any form but prototypes) and surface combat units have been all but replaced by immense and unsinkable Floating Fortresses, island-like contraptions concentrating the firepower of a whole naval task force in a single, semi-mobile platform (in the novel one is said to have been anchored between Iceland and the Faroe Islands, suggesting a preference for sea lane interdiction and denial). . .

  8. JLewisDickerson
    July 23, 2016, 3:35 am

    RE: “Here’s an ideological issue. Norman Finkelstein says I won’t sign BDS because of one point or another. And one could argue implementation of right of return would cause a revolution. I don’t care, I honor the refugees’ rights, I sign on. BDS is important. Can you sign on to an agenda if you don’t agree with every little bit?” ~ Weiss

    ■ MY COMMENT: This brings to mind the “narcissism of small/minor differences”.
    The narcissism of small differences is a term created by Sigmund Freud in 1917. The psychological term describes the manner in which our negative feelings are directed at people who resemble us, while we take pride from the “small differences” that separate us from them.

    Sigmund Freud: Narcissism of Small Differences & Judging Othershttp://psychologyorphilosophy.blogspot.com/2012/06/sigmund-freud-narcissism-of-small.html

    ● FROM WIKIPEDIA [Narcissism of small differences]:

    The narcissism of small differences (German: der Narzissmus der kleinen Differenzen) is the phenomenon that it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and that are related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and are ridiculing each other because of sensitiveness to these details of differentiation.[1]

    The term was coined by Sigmund Freud in 1917, based on the earlier work of British anthropologist Ernest Crawley: Crawley, in language which differs only slightly from the current terminology of psychoanalysis, declares that each individual is separated from others by a taboo of personal isolation, this narcissism of minor differences.[2]

    The term appeared in Civilization and Its Discontents (1929–30) in relation to the application of the inborn aggression in man to ethnic (and other) conflicts, a process still considered by Freud, at that point, as a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression.[3]

    For Lacanians, the concept clearly related to the sphere of the Imaginary: the narcissism of small differences, which situates envy as the decisive element in issues that involve narcissistic image.[4]

    Glen O. Gabbard, the American psychiatrist, suggested that Freud’s narcissism of small differences provides a framework to understand that in a loving relationship, there can be a need to find, and even exaggerate, differences in order to preserve a feeling of separateness and self.[5]

    In terms of postmodernity, consumer culture has been seen as predicated on the narcissism of small differences to achieve a superficial sense of one’s own uniqueness, an ersatz sense of otherness which is only a mask for an underlying uniformity and sameness.[6]

    ● ARTICLE: “Rich People Just Care Less”, By Daniel Goleman, N.Y. Times, 10/05/13

    [EXCERPT] . . . In politics, readily dismissing inconvenient people can easily extend to dismissing inconvenient truths about them. The insistence by some House Republicans in Congress on cutting financing for food stamps and impeding the implementation of Obamacare, which would allow patients, including those with pre-existing health conditions, to obtain and pay for insurance coverage, may stem in part from the empathy gap. As political scientists have noted, redistricting and gerrymandering have led to the creation of more and more safe districts, in which elected officials don’t even have to encounter many voters from the rival party, much less empathize with them.

    Social distance makes it all the easier to focus on small differences between groups and to put a negative spin on the ways of others and a positive spin on our own.

    Freud called this “the narcissism of minor differences,” a theme repeated by Vamik D. Volkan, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, who was born in Cyprus to Turkish parents. Dr. Volkan remembers hearing as a small boy awful things about the hated Greek Cypriots — who, he points out, actually share many similarities with Turkish Cypriots. Yet for decades their modest-size island has been politically divided, which exacerbates the problem by letting prejudicial myths flourish.

    In contrast, extensive interpersonal contact counteracts biases by letting people from hostile groups get to know one another as individuals and even friends. Thomas F. Pettigrew, a research professor of social psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, analyzed more than 500 studies on intergroup contact. Mr. Pettigrew, who was born in Virginia in 1931 and lived there until going to Harvard for graduate school, told me in an e-mail that it was the “the rampant racism in the Virginia of my childhood” that led him to study prejudice.

    In his research, he found that even in areas where ethnic groups were in conflict and viewed one another through lenses of negative stereotypes, individuals who had close friends within the other group exhibited little or no such prejudice. They seemed to realize the many ways those demonized “others” were “just like me.” . . .

    ENTIRE COMMENTARY – http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/05/rich-people-just-care-less/

    • JLewisDickerson
      July 23, 2016, 3:43 am

      ● FROM WIKIPEDIA [Narcissism]:

      (EXCERPTS) Narcissism is a term with a wide range of meanings, depending on whether it is used to describe a central concept of psychoanalytic theory, a mental illness, a social or cultural problem, or simply a personality trait. . .
      . . . Hotchkiss identified what she called the seven deadly sins of narcissism.
      Shamelessness: Shame is the feeling that lurks beneath all unhealthy narcissism, and the inability to process shame in healthy ways.
      Magical thinking: Narcissists see themselves as perfect, using distortion and illusion known as magical thinking. They also use projection to dump shame onto others.
      Arrogance: A narcissist who is feeling deflated may reinflate by diminishing, debasing, or degrading somebody else.
      Envy: A narcissist may secure a sense of superiority in the face of another person’s ability by using contempt to minimize the other person.
      Entitlement: Narcissists hold unreasonable expectations of particularly favorable treatment and automatic compliance because they consider themselves special. Failure to comply is considered an attack on their superiority, and the perpetrator is considered an “awkward” or “difficult” person. Defiance of their will is a narcissistic injury that can trigger narcissistic rage.
      Exploitation: Can take many forms but always involves the exploitation of others without regard for their feelings or interests. Often the other is in a subservient position where resistance would be difficult or even impossible. Sometimes the subservience is not so much real as assumed.
      Bad boundaries: Narcissists do not recognize that they have boundaries and that others are separate and are not extensions of themselves. Others either exist to meet their needs or may as well not exist at all. Those who provide narcissistic supply to the narcissist are treated as if they are part of the narcissist and are expected to live up to those expectations. . .

      SOURCE – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissism

      ● P.P.S. AUDIO: “Ross Rosenberg: Narcissism and the Human Magnet Syndrome”, Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show Podcast, opednews.com, Jan 18, 2015
      Ross helps people who are stuck in relationships with narcissists. He explains how people get to that situation, how to get out, and more about narcissists and narcissism.
      LINK TO AUDIO (approx. 60 minutes) – http://www.opednews.com/Podcast/Ross-Rosenberg-Narcissism-by-Rob-Kall-Corporations_Health-Mental-Sociopath-Narcissism_Predators-Predatory-People_Relationships-150111-204.html

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