Don’t blame it on the neo-cons.

The war in Iraq, instigated by the United States and supported by an ever-dwindling consortium of its allies, may mark the dead end of Western idealism. Very few may still believe it was a desire to spread freedom and democracy that motivated this alliance to invade Iraq, or that it is this desire keeping its soldiers there. It was the neo-conservative strategists in Washington who, through their spokesman George W. Bush, spread the message that America’s destiny was to secure a foothold in Iraq, occupy the moral high ground, and teach the world a lesson it would not soon forget.

The lesson was simply this: That history had bestowed on the U.S. a mission to impress its version of democracy on every member of the human race, whatever values they may cherish.

At the time of the opening of hostilities in Iraq in 2003, the core neo-cons were: Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense; Donald Rumsfeld, his boss; Douglas Feith, Pentagon tactician, formerly of the National Security Council; Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s right-hand man; Richard Perle, Pentagon architect of the policy of “creative destruction” in the Middle East; and John Bolton, a leading Department of State official who saw Iraq as a stepping stone to the imposition of American ideas of governance “beyond the axis of evil.”

Around the time of the invasion, though, I began to think that the liberal media was being quite unfair to these men, and that it was an anti-Republican polemic motivating many opponents of the war to accuse these neo-cons of zealotry and ideological blundering.

What caused me to arrive at that conclusion were memories from long ago.

Back in the summer of 1960, the Democratic Party convention to nominate candidates for the presidency and vice presidency was held in my hometown of Los Angeles. At the tender age of 16, I was chosen to head an organization called Youth for Symington. Stuart Symington, a senator from Missouri, was an aspiring candidate. One problem was that I had never heard of Sen. Symington until then. Another was that there was no one else in this organization. I was not only head of Youth for Symington; I was its entire membership. It turned out to be all right, though, for my only duty was to shake hands with Sen. Symington — a duty I carried out with not a little finesse, once.

In any event, this convention nominated John F. Kennedy for president, with Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate. I never saw Kennedy at the convention (it is the custom for front-runners to hole up in a hotel room and do their wheeler-dealering from there). But I did catch sight of his younger brother, Robert, passing $100 notes to delegates who were having trouble making up their mind. At these conventions, I thought then, it is not red, white or blue, but green that is the color of ultimate persuasion.

Kennedy duly became president, to be succeeded after his assassination in 1963 by Johnson. Both men committed the U.S. to a war in Vietnam that turned out to be far more destructive than the war in Iraq has proved so far. Let us hope that such a terrible toll will not be exacted before the U.S. and its allies withdraw from the latter country.

In those days there was no such thing as a neo-con. Back then it was the neo-libs who formulated the ideology and strategy of invasion. However, their rhetoric was surprisingly similar in its high tone and “democratic” tenor to that of present-day neo-cons.

Kennedy and his Secretary of State Dean Rusk prosecuted the war in Vietnam as a front-line offensive for American-engineered capitalism. Johnson later widened the conflict until the growing number of its casualties turned America against the policy (which is, in a nutshell, why Bush is so determined to keep dead and wounded Americans out of the public eye).

The then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, his adviser Walt W. Rostow, and Special Assistant for National Security Affairs McGeorge Bundy were the ideological driving forces behind America’s war in Vietnam. They were strategists in a Democratic administration who saw it as their country’s mission to propagate American values around the globe, particularly in countries courting political models of development that differed from that in the U.S.

Robert Kennedy, attorney general in his brother’s administration, had been on Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s staff; and the paranoid Sen. McCarthy was a close personal friend of the Kennedy family (JFK was, for this reason, uncritical of McCarthy). To the Kennedys, anticommunism was equated with pro-Americanism. Despite all the lofty rhetoric, that was the long and short of American foreign policy.

The fact is that neo-libs and neo-cons in the U.S. are cut from the same starred and striped cloth. They are convinced that the American system of democratic practices is amenable to implementation everywhere. But the Rusks, the Rostows and the Rumsfelds alike fail to realize that, in the long run, you cannot treat other nations solely as strategic territories in your own country’s Grand Design. When your promises are accompanied by the indiscriminate destruction of their way of life, people mistrust political rhetoric — whether that of “pacification,” the neo-lib 1960s term, or “the spread of liberty,” the current neo-con one.

So next time you feel like railing against those neo-cons, who have cloaked aggression in the language of liberty, give a thought to the neo-libs, who did the same thing four decades ago.

It is neither conservatism nor liberalism that has dragged the people of the United States and its allies into wars of aggression on foreign soil. It is the misconceived notion of a mission: that what works for them must prevail everywhere — regardless of history, culture or the values of faith.

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