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Richard Perle: The Making of a Neoconservative (Interview)
Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg (PBS) ^ | 14 November 2002 | Richard Perle (interview)

Posted on 11/02/2003 11:32:44 AM PST by Stultis

Richard Perle: The Making of a Neoconservative

Ben Wattenberg: Hello. Richard Perle, the infamous and famous Richard Perle, thank you for joining us on Think Tank.

Richard Perle: It’s a pleasure to be with you Ben.

Ben Wattenberg: Well, why don’t we pick up the Perle story at that swimming pool. Whose swimming pool was it and what were you doing there?

Richard Perle: It was Albert Wohlstetter’s swimming pool in the Hollywood Hills. Albert’s daughter, Joan, was a classmate at Hollywood High School. We sat next to each other in Spanish class. She passed, I didn’t, but she invited me over for a swim and her dad was there. We got into a conversation about strategy, a subject I really didn’t know much about. Albert gave me an article to read, that was typical of Albert. Sitting there at the swimming pool I read the article which was a brilliant piece of exposition and obviously so. We started talking about it and…

Ben Wattenberg: About nuclear weapons and that kind of stuff?

Richard Perle: It was the called the “Delicate Balance of Terror.” It became quite a famous article in foreign affairs, and it was a way of looking at the strategic relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union and the product of the serious piece of research that he had done as the director of the Research Council at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica.

Ben Wattenberg: And Albert Wohlstetter is regarded by some as sort of the grandfather of this hawkish mode of looking at things in America? Is that right?

Richard Perle: Well, it happens that a number of people who like to regard themselves as protégés of Albert’s can probably be described as hawks, but it isn’t so much that Albert was a hawk, it’s that Albert was extraordinarily rigorous. For Albert, it was just impermissible to assume anything. You had to run down every fact, every proposition. He was a mathematical logician by training.

Ben Wattenberg: Who were some of his protégés?

Richard Perle: Well, Paul Wolfowitz was one.

Ben Wattenberg: Who’s now Deputy Defense Secretary.

Richard Perle: Yes. Paul was his student in his doctoral thesis under Albert, and Paul Kezemchek who’s now at Dartmouth. But almost everyone who got to know Albert became his student formally or informally. Bob Barkley, the editor of the Wall Street Journal was a great admirer of Albert’s and learned a lot from him. You couldn’t help but learn from Albert because he was teaching all the time. And what he taught us to do was think hard about difficult issues, and if several of us wound up hawks, we’d like to think it’s because that’s the product of thinking hard about the dilemmas that a difficult world poses, particularly for policy makers in democratic societies.

Ben Wattenberg: And then you ended up with Scoop Jackson? How did that happen? Senator Jackson, my hero, your hero, our hero, who really embodied hawkishness?

Richard Perle: In a good cause always.

Ben Wattenberg: Right.

Richard Perle: It was a complete accident although it traces back. Albert Wohlstetter phoned me one day. I was still a graduate student at Princeton doing some research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he said, could you come to Washington for a few days and interview some people and draft a report on the current debate shaping up in the Senate over ballistic missile defense, which was a hot issue in the Nineteen Sixty-nine debate. This was in Nineteen Sixty-nine. And he said, I’ve asked somebody else to do this too, and maybe the two of you could work together. The someone else was Paul Wolfowitz. So Paul and I came to Washington as volunteers for a few days, to interview people, and one of the people we interviewed was Scoop Jackson and it was love at first sight. I will never forget that first encounter with Scoop. Here we were a couple of graduate students, sitting on the floor in Scoop’s office in the Senate, reviewing charts and analyses of the ballistic missile defense and getting his views on the subject. Before I went back up to Cambridge, Scoop said, you know, you’re never…

Ben Wattenberg: To Cambridge or to Princeton?

Richard Perle: To Cambridge, well I was living in Cambridge…

Ben Wattenberg: Oh, I see.

Richard Perle: …while working on my thesis from Princeton. Scoop said, you’re never really gonna understand how these governments work until you have some direct experience, so why don’t you come and work for me for a year and you can work on your thesis in your spare time. But there was never any spare time working for Scoop, and I was there for eleven years.

Ben Wattenberg: You became very involved in his sort of signature legislation, the Jackson-Vanek Bill, which was the human rights side of his toughness. Could you explain that? It involves the Soviet Union, which is now Russia, and where we stand on that now?

Richard Perle: It all started in the Spring of Nineteen Seventy-two, when the Soviet Regime imposed a prohibitive tax on immigration. It affected principally Jewish immigration, but it was aimed at all immigrants, and the tax was so high that nobody could afford to pay it, and it looked as though they were about to close the door on the trickle of immigration that had been permitted, and Scoop looked around for some way to counter this. At about that time, Richard Nixon had proposed a new trading arrangement with the Soviet Union in which, among other things, the Soviets would be accorded what used to be called “Most Favored Nation Status.” That is to say their products would be treated as well as the products of our closest friends and allies.

Ben Wattenberg: And most every country has most favored nation status?

Richard Perle: Most countries did, but very few Communist countries. In fact, at that point non at all. So Scoop got behind the idea of an amendment, which I had the privilege of actually drafting, that said to the Soviet Union if you want most favored nation status, you have to let people immigrate. Scoop believed that immigration was in some ways the most powerful of all the human rights because if people could vote with their feet, governments would have to acknowledge that and governments would have to make for their citizens a life that would keep them there. If you can imprison people you can do anything, but if people have the right to leave, you’d have to create a decent society, so that was the seminal human right for Scoop. And this legislation which ultimately passed, well, it was the first time I think in history that the United States or any other country had made its trading relationship contingent upon adherence to a fundamental human right.

Ben Wattenberg: I mean, it made human rights into a player in the international arena, not just sort of a do-good cause?

Richard Perle: That’s right. It put teeth into the idea of human rights and it was a tremendous inspiration to those who were fighting for human rights in the Soviet Union. Andre Sakharov, who wrote an open letter in support of it, Natan Sharansky, who now is Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, then a human rights activist and ultimately sentenced to jail in part for his role in supporting Jackson-Vanek. They were all enormously encouraged by the fact that the United States was not only giving verbal support to the demand for human rights but was actually encumbering important interests in order to achieve that.

Ben Wattenberg: The other side of the coin was to be strong militarily and that got involved in all the arguments between Scoop Jackson’s office and the Senate and versus the White House about how those SALT Treaties, which stands for it, Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. Right? You’ve had to educate me on this over the years but in a nutshell, what was the argument?

Richard Perle: The argument was that the idea of legislating a military relationship by Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union, that it was a pretty doubtful proposition. The Soviets were building up their military forces. It was the only thing they were any good at it, and about a third of their GDP was being poured into the military. We never spent more than six percent of GDP, so it was huge massive investment, and indeed, the militarization in the Soviet economy contributed significantly to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Scoop was very skeptical about the idea that you could talk the Soviets into a set of arrangements that would restrain their appetite for military power, and so he set a very high standard. The only agreements he was prepared to support were ones that had a demonstrable effect on the military balance. We now know by the way, I mean, one of the benefits of the end of the Cold War is we can talk to people who were on the other side at one time. We now know that those agreements have virtually no effect on Soviet Military programs, and indeed, we know that they had twenty thousand more nuclear weapons than we ever attributed to them, and the number that they managed to keep concealed through the whole of the Cold War was larger by far than the total number that was ever brought under the terms of an arms control agreement. So Scoop’s skepticism was, in fact, right.

Ben Wattenberg: Now, Scoop was surrounded by people who then and certainly now are called neoconservatives. It’s become a fashionable word now thanks to you and your colleagues because you’re all categorized that way. How did that come into your life, that whole school of thought?

Richard Perle: Well, I think the term has something to do with the sense that those of us who are now called neo-conservatives were at one time liberals, and in this…

Ben Wattenberg: Irving Kristol said a neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality.

Richard Perle: Right. And I think that’s a fair description, and I suppose all of us were liberal at one time. I was liberal in high school and a little bit into college. But reality and rigor are important tonics, and if you got into the world of international affairs and you looked with some rigor at what was going on in the world, it was really hard to be liberal and naïve.

Ben Wattenberg: And you keep coming back to this word “rigor”, that you have to do this careful analysis of who’s strong, who’s not strong, how do you go about that, and for that generation the great lesson was Munich and the appeasement of Hitler? Is that about right?

Richard Perle: The inter-war period, the period between World Wars One and Two, were categorized by a complete absence of rigor and will. Analytical rigor was wholly lacking because the evidence was there. We saw, or some people saw anyway the steady buildup of Nazi military power and that…

Ben Wattenberg: Churchill for one.

Richard Perle: Churchill saw it and there were some civil servants in the ministry of defense and the admiralty who were feeding him information. It was there if you wanted to see it and understand it, and it could be explained away if you didn’t. But the explaining away required a suspension of healthy skepticism and so the value of that skepticism or rigor is that it forces you to look at the facts as they are. Anyone who looked at the facts in Nineteen Thirty-six knew what was coming or could at least see that the balance of power was in the process of shifting from one in which the democracies could expect to contain this growing totalitarian threat in Nazi Germany to a balance in which they couldn’t.

Ben Wattenberg: Richard, you are Chairman of the Defense Policy Board. What is that?

Richard Perle: It’s a group of volunteer civilians who advise the Secretary of Defense. It now includes a pretty illustrious list of people, Henry Kissinger, James Slessinger, Harold Brown, Tom Foley and Newt Gingrich, two former Speakers. These are wise men with deep experience who come together half a dozen times a year for extensive briefings, discussions, meetings, and advice for the Secretary of Defense.

Ben Wattenberg: And does the Board itself put out dicta? I mean, does it say, this is what we believe?

Richard Perle: No, no. But the term “board” is a little misleading. It sounds like a zoning board that either gives you or doesn’t give you a permit. The Board doesn’t take corporate views. It’s simply a means by which the Secretary of Defense can come together with a group of people who have interesting things to say and they, in turn, can look into what’s going on in the Defense Department and give him advice, but there are no votes or anything like that.

Ben: And in your case because you are the Chairman and because you are well-known in this whole argument, people impute to that role that you are a part of the Bush Administration. That is not correct?

Richard: No. I’m completely independent of the Administration. I think that prefer it that way.

Ben Wattenberg: Does Secretary Rumsfeld sometimes get a little agitated that you say things that they aren’t necessarily ready to say and it says Chairman of the Defense Policy Board and it sounds as if it’s linked?

Richard Perle: Yes. I go to great lengths to discourage people from identifying me as Chairman of the Defense Policy Board, because it does confuse people and from time to time I say something that people wish I hadn’t said. In fact, I sometimes say things that I wish I didn’t say.

Ben Wattenberg: Right. And do they put some heat on you then?

Richard Perle: Oh, there have been a couple of times when it was brought to my attention.

Ben Wattenberg: You were calling attention to the Iraqi Regime under Saddam long before the Kuwait War. Is that right?

Richard Perle: Oh, long before. I was actually rather uncomfortable with the support that we gave Saddam during the war between Iraq and Iran…

Ben Wattenberg: Which we did sort of for geo-political balance?

Richard Perle: Yes, the view was that the mullahs in Tehran were worst than the tyrant in Baghdad, and I understand that argument. I don’t agree with it, but even for those who accepted that view, the right course immediately after the end of that war would have been to say to Saddam, now we’ve had enough of you too, and we’re not gonna to tolerate it.

Ben Wattenberg: And we didn’t do that?

Richard Perle: No, we didn’t do that, and the indulgence of Saddam led to the invasion of Kuwait.

Ben Wattenberg: Well, people say…they say two things. What are they gonna do to us and why now?

Richard Perle: Well, why now, because we’re late. We should have done it a long time ago. We should never have allowed the inspectors to be expelled four years ago. Bill Clinton didn’t want a confrontation, so he allowed the expulsion of the inspectors. We should have done this four years ago. In fact, we should have dealt with Saddam decisively in Nineteen Ninety-one but we didn’t. And in the years since, thousands of people have died at his hands and mostly his own citizens, and he’s been working away at weapons of mass destruction, so now, because every day that goes by, we are incurring the risks that he will use those weapons.

Ben Wattenberg: But people say he wouldn’t use them on America. He doesn’t have the means nor the will if he’s got a couple of atomic bombs, to drop one on America.

Richard Perle: First at all I don’t know that anyone can say what he will do. And a lot of people could not have predicted what he’s done in the past. Nobody predicted that he was going to go in and invade Kuwait, so I don’t know what Saddam Hussein is going to do but this is a man who is almost unique among current heads of government. He’s used poison gas against civilians. He has killed people with his own hand, almost arbitrarily. He uses torture, rape and all the rest, as instruments of policy. So he is capable of doing almost anything. The man who once ran his nuclear program said he has no doubt that Saddam perhaps alone in the world is capable of giving the order to use a nuclear weapon and then going to sleep. But the assumption that he won’t do it and basing on our security on the hope that he won’t do something he’s capable of, that’s not my idea of a tough-minded approach to international affairs. It’s certainly not rigorous.

Ben Wattenberg: You and some of your colleagues have been under attack. One for being chicken hawks. Here’s the Nation magazine. They’re not very good caricatures. The idea being that you and some of your colleagues who now take a hawkish position did not serve in the military. How do you respond to that?

Richard Perle: Well, I haven’t seen any reference to chicken doves, so I assume that it’s only if you take a hawkish position that the fact that you did not serve in the military is held against you. I think it’s an intimidating McCarthyite tactic. It tries to de-legitimize the views of people on an entirely irrelevant measure. It is true that I did not serve in the armed forces. It’s in part because I was a student at a time when student deferments were a normal thing, and then I was married. And they weren’t taking married men into the Army, so I didn’t serve. I was not opposed in any way to service, but the notion that I’m not entitled to a view or at least not entitled to a view that somebody decides is hawkish because I didn’t serve is just monstrously unfair.

Ben Wattenberg: As this argument has gotten rancorous, there is also an undertone that says that these neoconservative hawks, that so many of them are Jewish. Is that valid and how do you handle that?

Richard Perle: Well, a number are. I see Trent Lott there and maybe that’s Newt Gingrich, I’m not sure, but by no means uniformily.

Ben Wattenberg: Well, and of course the people who are executing policy, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Connie Rice, they are not Jewish as last report.

Richard Perle: No, they’re not. Well, you’re going to find a disproportionate number of Jews in any sort of intellectual undertaking.

Ben Wattenberg: On both sides.

Richard Perle: On both sides. Jews gravitate toward that and I’ll tell you if you balance out the hawkish Jews against the dovish ones, then we are badly outnumbered, badly outnumbered. But look, there’s clearly an undertone of anti-Semitism about it. There’s no doubt.

Ben Wattenberg: Well, and the linkage is that this war on Iraq if it comes about would help Israel and that that’s the hidden agenda, and that’s sort of the way that works.

Richard Perle: Well, sometimes there’s an out and out accusation that if you take the view that I take and some others take towards Saddam Hussein, we are somehow motivated not by the best interest of the United States but by Israel’s best interest. There’s not a logical argument underpinning that. In fact, Israel is probably more exposed and vulnerable in the context of a war with Saddam than we are because they’re right next door. Weapons that Saddam cannot today deliver against us could potentially be delivered against Israel. And for a long time the Israelis themselves were very reluctant to take on Saddam Hussein. I’ve argued this issue with Israelis. But it’s a nasty line of argument to suggest that somehow we’re confused about where our loyalties are.

Ben Wattenberg: It’s the old dual loyalty argument.

Ben Wattenberg: The idea that the sort of neo-con hawks have and the Administration has is that we would be able to oust Saddam Hussein and basically install a government that would become democratic, and the promotion of democracy has been a hallmark of this whole neoconservative hawkish view. Is that realistic in an Islamic country, that you’ll get democracy? You really don’t have any now.

Richard Perle: Well, Turkey is not an Islamic country, although it’s a country whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim. I think there is a potential civic culture in Arab countries that can lead to democratic institutions and I think Iraq is probably the best place to put that proposition to the test because it’s a sophisticated educated population that has suffered horribly under totalitarian rule, and there’s a yearning for freedom that, you know, I think we find everywhere in the world but especially in subject populations.

Ben Wattenberg: Well, why is it important to an American citizen that we promote democracy in other lands? I mean, the easy argument is, it’s not our government, you know, let them do what they want.

Richard Perle: The lesson of history is that democracies don’t initiate wars of aggression, and if we want to live in a peaceful world, then there’s very little we can do to bring that about more effective than promoting a democracy. People who live in democratic societies don’t like to pay for massive military machines. Democratic societies don’t empower their executives to make unilateral decisions to plunge countries into war. Wars have been started by tyrants who have complete control and who can squander the resources of their people to build up military machines.

Ben Wattenberg: So this really squares the circle on that ancient argument as to whether American foreign policy should be idealistic or realistic. What you and the Scoopites are saying is that idealism is the real realism?

Richard Perle: That’s right and the realism of the diplomats in which you put great confidence in the United Nations, that corrupt and weak and ineffective institution, that’s not realism. That’s not even idealism. It’s just plain stupid.

Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Let’s close this out and, tell me…look ahead ten years. Are we gonna see democracies in the Middle East?

Richard Perle: I think we will. It won’t be uniform and it probably won’t be without reverses, but I think deep down, human beings everywhere want to make decisions about their own lives, and they don’t want them dictated, and there’s gonna be a reaction to the extremity of Islamic law, Sharia, in which people were told what music they can hear and what clothes they can wear. We already see it in Iran where there’s tremendous restiveness among the population, but people basically want freedom. If you give them half a chance, they’ll find a way to get it.

Ben Wattenberg: And if they go down freedom’s way, that is nice and makes us feel good, but it also makes our world for our children safer?

Richard Perle: Ultimately it’s the only enduring safety and there may be moments of danger on the way because the process of introducing rule by a whole population can be messy. It can lead to turbulence and instability in the near term. But in the long-term the stability that comes from tyrannical governments is an interim step before catastrophe. It’s always been so.

Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Thank you very much Richard Perle for joining us on Think Tank, and thank you. Please remember to send your comments to us via e-mail. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.

TOPICS: Editorial; Extended News; Foreign Affairs; Government; News/Current Events; Philosophy; Politics/Elections; War on Terror
KEYWORDS: benwattenberg; neocons; neoconservatism; neoconservatives; richardperle; thinktank
This interview is nearly a year old now, but with the frequent discussions about neoconservatism I thought it should be in the FRarchives.
1 posted on 11/02/2003 11:32:45 AM PST by Stultis
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To: Chancellor Palpatine
Who has the neocon ping list?
2 posted on 11/02/2003 11:47:31 AM PST by Stultis
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To: Stultis
Thanks for the info. I found a list of past shows here, which is pretty interesting:
3 posted on 11/02/2003 11:58:01 AM PST by BCrago66
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To: BCrago66
Wattenberg is definitely one of the "good" Democrats. The Democrat left has always hated him, and he and his wife, important scions of D.C. society, didn't hesitate to show open distain for The Rapist and his co-president during their tenure (even though Clinton supposedly represented the centrist DLC type candiate they favored).
4 posted on 11/02/2003 12:03:46 PM PST by Stultis
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To: Stultis; Poohbah; hchutch; BlueLancer; dighton; Catspaw; habs4ever; Texas_Dawg
We ought to get a few with this.
5 posted on 11/02/2003 12:11:11 PM PST by Chancellor Palpatine (Dr. Hasslein was the only human character who had any sense in the "Apes" series)
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To: Chancellor Palpatine
6 posted on 11/02/2003 12:33:35 PM PST by Stultis
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To: BCrago66
Yeah. Lots of good stuff. I've never actually seen this show, and just stumbled on that Richared Perle transcript while googling for something else. I've now posted a couple other "Think Tank" transcripts to FR: One on winning Iraqi "hearts and minds," and another on the Scottish Enlightenment and it's effects on America's founding fathers and others. Click on the "Ben Wattenberg" or "Think Tank" keyword.
7 posted on 11/02/2003 1:01:34 PM PST by Stultis
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To: Stultis
Scoop Jackson is sadly missed.

Interesting that it was, basically, conservatives who initiated the human rights movement. I wonder how many liberals would admit that?

The World Council of Churches, for example, has a dismal record of helping regimes like the Soviety Union--and totalitarian regimes around the world today--oppress their citizens.
8 posted on 11/02/2003 1:17:06 PM PST by Cicero (Marcus Tullius)
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To: Stultis
Ben Wattenberg: Irving Kristol said a neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality.

Richard Perle: Right. And I think that’s a fair description

At least he admits it and does not claim to be conservative like many neo's.

9 posted on 11/02/2003 2:14:18 PM PST by jmc813 (Michael Schiavo is a bigger scumbag than Bill Clinton)
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To: jmc813
Yes. We should only have one flavor of conservative, and consequently leave rule to the left and their coalitions. Shame on Reagan for bringing these "neo"s, and millions of blue collar dems, into the fold. He spoiled conservatism for ever.
10 posted on 11/02/2003 3:47:51 PM PST by Stultis
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To: Stultis
Richard Perle: That’s right and the realism of the diplomats in which you put great confidence in the United Nations, that corrupt and weak and ineffective institution, that’s not realism. That’s not even idealism. It’s just plain stupid.


11 posted on 11/02/2003 4:46:19 PM PST by Dolphy
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To: Stultis
Yes. We should only have one flavor of conservative

Maybe my view of neo-cons is skewed, but from my personal observations oif the FReepers who most vigorously defend the neo-con philosiphy, here's my take on them...

-They favor a strong military and a no-nonsense approach to foreign policy. I'm mostly in agreement with them here.

-They are pro-choice, and have ridiculed Terri Schiavo supporters since the case gained national prominence.

-They ridicule 2nd Amendment supporters, painting them as racist, militia types

-They are fond of the term "constimatooshin" when one presents them with Constitutional arguments.

-They claim that overall, Franklin Roosevelt was a good president, and the New Deal was a positive thing.

-They are against securing our borders, claiming that fewer ilegal aliens will result in labor costs skyrocketing.

12 posted on 11/02/2003 8:17:56 PM PST by jmc813 (Michael Schiavo is a bigger scumbag than Bill Clinton)
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To: Chancellor Palpatine
Richard Perle???

13 posted on 11/03/2003 5:01:04 PM PST by Texas_Dawg (7.2% Doom.)
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To: jmc813
Hmmmm...your right! :0
14 posted on 11/03/2003 5:35:38 PM PST by Brian S
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To: jmc813
Maybe my view of neo-cons is skewed, but from my personal observations oif the FReepers who most vigorously defend the neo-con philosiphy, here's my take on them...
I won't speak to Neocon Freepers, but I do believe that you are a little hard on neocons as a whole.

-They are pro-choice, and have ridiculed Terri Schiavo supporters since the case gained national prominence.
The Weekly Standard has printed dozens of pro-life articles on bioethics, cloning, abortion. They published one on the Schiavo case entitles "No Mercy in Florida", attacking the decision to kill Mrs. Schiavo.

-They ridicule 2nd Amendment supporters, painting them as racist, militia types
Name one prominent neocon who does this.

-They are fond of the term "constimatooshin" when one presents them with Constitutional arguments.
Neo-conservatives are not Constitutionalists.

-They claim that overall, Franklin Roosevelt was a good president, and the New Deal was a positive thing.
I know of no Neocon who supports the New Deal programs as a whole. They support a few. Their main support was for the leadership.
They are wrong about this, but Neocons do not call for the TVA.

-They are against securing our borders, claiming that fewer ilegal aliens will result in labor costs skyrocketing.
Michelle Malkin and Joel Molbray are two of the loudest voices on border security and immigration reforms.

15 posted on 11/03/2003 7:43:46 PM PST by rmlew (Peaceniks and isolationists are objectively pro-Terrorist)
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