There were moments in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq when you couldn’t open a newspaper or turn on a television without hearing about neoconservatives. Stories about the Bush Administration’s foreign policy would trace its intellectual origins to City College Trotskyism or Chicago Straussianism, drawing a straight line to bellicose organizations like Project for the New American Century, the neocon letterhead group that publicly lobbied for war, or the Office of Special Plans, the Pentagon intelligence shop that furnished much of the bogus information about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs. For Democrats, the obsession with neoconservatism provided a convenient alibi: if the nation had been whisked to war against its will by a conspiracy of Israel nuts, then liberal war supporters from Hillary Clinton and John Kerry to Thomas Friedman and Michael Ignatieff were off the hook. It was more emotionally satisfying, too, to locate the source of the administration’s foreign policy in something sexier and more exotic than the made-in-America revanchist nationalism of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. And it was particularly appealing to intellectuals; a crew of would-be philosopher kings pulling the strings of the White House stood in invidious contrast to the inability of left-wing intellectuals to exert influence on anything of importance. The neocons themselves complained that the term meant little more than “Jewish conservative,” but they had cried wolf about anti-Semitism too many times before for anyone to take it very seriously—and surely they were complicit in fostering much of the paranoia, if only by choosing such gratuitously sinister Bond-villain names for their organizations.
But the moment didn’t last, and soon enough the public appetite for tales of neocon malfeasance faded. After all, even though neocons’ political power declined noticeably in Bush’s second term, and precipitously with the election of Obama, American foreign policy remained much the same mess that it had been during the alleged apex of neocon power. Surely, then, the story had been all wrong—or so went the new and equally exaggerated version of the conventional wisdom.
Why, then, should we still care about the neoconservatives? Instead of presenting neocons as the hidden authors of post–September 11 foreign policy, a recent crop of books portrays them instead as exemplary 20th-century public intellectuals. This approach was already on display in Arguing the World, the 1998 documentary that followed the careers of four emblematic figures—Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Irving Howe—from their student days at City College to their ascendancy in cold war intellectual life. The intuitive appeal of this story helped transform “Alcove One”—the nook in the City College cafeteria where Trotskyist students ate sandwiches and played ping-pong—into the most famous alcove in American history. (Passion for neocon trivia became so extreme that it even spread to “Alcove Two,” where a rival gang of Stalinist students ate sandwiches and played ping-pong, which quickly became the second-most-famous alcove in American history.)
Origins mattered because of the trajectories that apparently followed: as the erstwhile-Trotskyist paddle champs of Alcove One switched their target from Stalinism to Marxism in general, and ultimately, in some cases, to the entire political left, they seemed to track a shift of profound importance in American intellectual life. What exactly this shift might represent was a more difficult question. To the sympathetic, the neoconservative political journey evoked an arrival at hard-won wisdom after disenchantment with a series of gods that failed; to the unsympathetic, the neocons were an undistinguished group of self-satisfied ex-radicals who conflated their personal mistakes with the general perils of idealism and took their own choices to indicate the entire range of political possibilities. But whether viewed with admiration or disgust, the City College Trotskyists were stand-ins for the broader collapse of political radicalism in the late 20th century.
This narrative, however, is as misleading as the others. Aside from Irving Kristol, whose youthful leftist politics were rather casual, the Alcove One boys had little to do with what neoconservatism ultimately became. More importantly, the “conversion” narrative—in which erstwhile leftists or liberals saw the light after being, in Kristol’s infamous phrase, “mugged by reality”—mischaracterizes the neocons’ intellectual development, which was hawkishly anti-communist almost from the very beginning.
The original “neoconservatism,” as Justin Vaïsse notes in his well-researched if sometimes uncritical study, had little to do with foreign policy. The early neocons were a circle of skeptical liberals, affiliated with the journal The Public Interest, who used social science to undercut the logic of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Kristol, a cofounder of The Public Interest, was the movement’s great popularizer and polemicist, but much of its intellectual firepower came from the social scientists who had been Kristol’s classmates at City College—Bell, Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset—along with political allies like Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
It is Kristol’s reputation as neoconservative godfather, perhaps more than anything else, that has caused The Public Interest group to be associated with the later neocon hawks, whose chief preoccupations were hardline “anti-totalitarianism” in general and defending Israel in particular. But although Kristol was a visible bridge between the two strains that were commonly referred to as “neoconservative,” this tended not to be true of his Alcove One classmates. Nathan Glazer, for instance, complained upon Kristol’s death in 2009 that “the term neoconservatism was hijacked,” twisted from its original referent—“the growing caution and skepticism among a group of liberals about the effects of social programs”—to signify “a vigorous and expansionist democracy-promoting military and foreign policy.”
By 1988, when Commentary convened a symposium to address the problem of “the upsurge of Jewish criticism of Israel,” the divisions among The Public Interest writers were evident. Kristol, for his part, went along with the Likudism that had by then become Commentary‘s animating impulse, expressing his contempt for Jewish elites “who feel compelled to temper their natural pro-Israel sympathies with a more ‘sophisticated’ critical stance.” But Glazer, by contrast, warned that “Israel is far gone along the road of helotizing [its] conquered Arab population,” while Bell irritably complained of a “hidden agenda” behind the Commentary symposium and asked: “what is wrong with criticizing Israeli policies and doing so in public? I always assumed that such an attitude was a healthy one.”
The sort of skeptical, market-oriented social science represented by The Public Interest did not win the battle for the neoconservative soul. Its clearest heirs today are publications like City Journal and National Affairs (which explicitly “strive[s] to walk in the footsteps” of The Public Interest), neither of which has the mainstream profile of more hawkish magazines like The Weekly Standard and Commentary. But the domestic agenda of the early neocons did not fail so much as succeed too well: its skepticism towards the welfare state was thoroughly absorbed by the Clinton/Blair Third Way. Today, even most left-of-center policymakers hold views about the proper role of state and market that are closer to The Public Interest group than to its opponents; on the domestic front, neoconservatism is difficult to distinguish from neoliberalism.
Vaïsse groups The Public Interest and Commentary together as the “first generation” of neoconservatism. Yet in many ways the Commentary story is distinct from the Public Interest story, notwithstanding the frequent social and professional overlap between the two, and more characteristic of the neoconservative trajectory as a whole. Former Commentary editor Benjamin Balint’s admiring but not hagiographic history of the magazine, Running Commentary, helps shed light on this trajectory, which was more a story of continuity than of change.
Commentary has by now become identified almost exclusively in the popular mind with Norman Podhoretz, the one-time enfant terrible who served as its editor from 1960 to 1995 and has left his imprint on the magazine. (The two editors since his retirement have been Neal Kozodoy, his right-hand man, and John Podhoretz, his son.) Podhoretz’s own flair for self-promotion and self-mythologizing has helped buttress the association, as he worked his brief flirtation with the New Left in the 1960s and his later rightward turn into a broader narrative about the fate of the New York Intellectuals, whose banner he was happy to claim. One of the virtues of Balint’s account is that it punctures the widespread enthrallment with Podhoretz. Commentary‘s real golden age, as he tells it, came under Elliot Cohen, the gifted if unstable editor who ran the magazine from its founding in 1945 until his suicide in 1959. Cohen’s tenure saw the publication of much of the magazine’s best material by the likes of Hannah Arendt and Sidney Hook, Alfred Kazin and Isaac Rosenfeld, Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz.
More to the point, Balint complicates the standard left-to-right account of the magazine’s trajectory by showing how central hawkish anti-Communism was to it from the beginning. In many ways, Podhoretz’s sharp turn to the right on foreign policy beginning in the late sixties was a return to the tone of the Cohen era rather than a radical shift from its founding orientation. More broadly—and contrary to what both they and their critics frequently suggested—the neocons were not the apostates of cold war liberalism. They were among its legimitate heirs.
By the time of the Iraq war, the distinction between “neoconservatism” and “liberal internationalism” had been stylized to the point that it obscured the two camps’ shared underlying premises. The main point of disagreement, to hear both sides tell it, was the extent to which the US should commit itself to multilateralism and international institutions. Liberals wanted to hold American policy hostag to an ineffectual and irrelevant European consensus, Robert Kagan charged in Of Paradise and Power; neocons recklessly alienated allies and undercut the multilateral institutions that had won the cold war, liberals parried. The argument risked forcing liberals into a superficial and tenuous multilateralism—the implicit claim was that if the Bush Administration had simply shown a little more diplomatic finesse and won the support of France and Germany, the problems of the Iraq debacle could have been avoided. The limitations of this shabby multilateral alternative are now on display in Afghanistan, where the war’s originally unquestioned legitimacy among Europeans has done little to alter the basic dilemmas of occupation and power projection.
The post-Iraq debate over “multilateralism” has obscured the fact that as a practical matter, cold war liberals were neither so liberal nor so internationalist as is often thought. As the liberal international relations scholars G. John Ikenberry and Thomas Knock note in the recent anthology The Crisis of American Foreign Policy (Princeton, 2009), the cold war saw the development not of a single law-governed community of nations of the kind envisioned by Woodrow Wilson but of two distinct international systems: a cooperative set of “inside” relationships between Western democracies under US dominance and a competitive “outside” system governed by force and realpolitik, in which the West battled communism and postcolonial nationalism. For all the lip service paid to international institutions, the West’s favored institutions were not those that could claim the greatest share of global legitimacy but those that proved most pliant as instruments of the anti-communist struggle–typically NATO rather than the UN. The niceties of international legality tended to be set aside when they conflicted with the anti-communist imperative.
Cold war liberalism’s multilateralism was a secondary feature of an approach defined more fundamentally by its Manicheanism. Its theoretical foundation relied in great part on the concept of “totalitarianism,” which elided the distinction between communism and fascism and could be taken to justify nearly any form of power politics on moral grounds. If the need to defeat the Axis had authorized Dresden and Hiroshima, as most cold warriors generally agreed that it had, then what could the threat of communism not justify? The result was that the Wilsonian imperative to make the world safe for democracy did not necessarily entail making the world safe through democracy, as demonstrated by the US-backed decapitation of democratic regimes in Guatemala, Iran, Chile, and elsewhere.
The Manichean impulse was neoconservatism’s most important inheritance from the cold war. Totalitarianism, with its rigid dualism, remained the central concept: each enemy a Hitler, each compromise a Munich, the only models Churchill and Chamberlain. Neoconservatism has no aversion to realpolitik, contrary to what is sometimes said, but it does conceive of the enemy in starkly different terms than the conservative realist. For the realist, interests are finite and enemies rational, and the most attractive possibility in such a world is often to strike a deal. For the neoconservatives, however, the enemy is always totalitarian, and any compromise can only offer temporary respite before a final confrontation. The need to defeat the enemy is not merely a pragmatic imperative, but a moral one; not only is the national interest at stake, but the fate of the entire free world. Every mission is messianiac; every struggle is millennial. Norman Podhoretz split the last seventy-five years of global history into World War II (the struggle against fascism), World War III (the struggle against communism), and the ongoing World War IV (the struggle against “Islamofascism”); this periodization veered close to self-parody, but it captured the essence of the neocon Weltanschauung.
Thus it was in response to Henry Kissinger’s pursuit of detente that the original neoconservative hawks clustered around Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson mobilized to fight even the slightest intimation of compromise. More recently, Robert Kagan, the smartest and most systematic thinker of the younger generation of neoconservatives, has attempted to resuscitate a kind of great power politics built around the idea of an overriding conflict between the democratic and non-democratic worlds—most imminently, between the US on one hand and China and Russia on the other. Yet as Francis Fukuyama (himself a recovering neocon) has pointed out, any traditional notion of great power politics is fundamentally alien to the neoconservative sensibility, since the great power vision posits a rational enemy with whom it is possible to do business. It is precisely because of the need for a totalitarian adversary that neoconservatives and their allies among the liberal hawks have been so insistent on the strained portmanteau of “Islamofascism” in the post-September 11 era, aiming to shoehorn the war on terror into the conceptual framework of the struggles against fascism and communism. Without such an adversary, it becomes much harder to square the circle between ruthless means and moralized ends.
What about democracy? As with other elements of the neoconservative mythology, the image of neocons as ardent Wilsonian democracy promoters has been propagated by both supporters and opponents. If neoconservatives have claimed the mantle of “democracy” in order to portray themselves as idealistic do-gooders, their critics have often been happy to cede the point in order to convict the neocons of naivete—which seems to be considered the only unforgivable sin in Washington foreign policy circles. Critics of the Iraq war, in particular, were often reluctant to couch their opposition in explicitly moral terms for fear of appearing soft-headed or otherwise unserious. It seemed far more adult and politically palatable to suggest that the war was foolish than to suggest that it was wrong; in this way, the neocons’ opponents frequently colluded in portraying them as Wilsonian utopians in order to claim the mantle of hard-headed anti-utopianism for themselves.
In fact, there is little to suggest that democracy promotion has ever been at the heart of neooconservatism. The movement’s early programmatic statement, Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1979 Commentary essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” was a call for defending friendly dictators against left-wing popular movements, a course that set the tone for neoconservative foreign policy through the end of the cold war. Once again the theoretical backbone of the argument was furnished by the totalitarian-authoritarian distinction; in practice, Kirkpatrick’s scheme largely collapsed into the distinction between unfriendly left-wing regimes, democratically elected or not, and friendly right-wing ones, no matter how brutal. In recent years democracy promotion has become a more explicit part of the neoconservative program, but one need only look at the Bush Administration’s handling of Egypt and Palestine to see how quickly democratic processes have been scuttled when they have threatened to bring undesirable parties into power.
Even the recent and much-hyped “split” between American neocons and the Israeli right over democratization in the Arab world has been less substantial than meets the eye. The neocons were willing to throw their support to democratic protesters in Egypt once the writing was on the wall and Hosni Mubarak’s downfall was all but assured; it remains to be seen, though, how they will react if election results are not to their liking. Already, prominent neocons like Charles Krauthammer have suggested that the US’s top priority in Egypt should be keeping the Muslim Brotherhood out of power by any means necessary.
It is here in particular that Vaïsse’s generally judicious account runs aground. Part of the problem is that he focuses more on what neoconservatives said and wrote than on what they did, and therefore tends to take their own descriptions of themselves at face value without checking these against their actions in power. (Cold war hotspots like Nicaragua or Guatemala are barely mentioned, perhaps because these unfortunate examples impinge on the story that the neocons wished to tell about themselves). One representative passage, for instance, describes the influence of neoconservatism on the Reagan Administration’s “support for democratic forces around the world.” Vaïsse allows a note of doubt to creep in, noting the “many exceptions” to Reagan’s support for democracy: the coddling of Botha’s South Africa and Suharto’s Indonesia, not to speak of the arms and money funneled to “so-called freedom fighters” like the Nicaraguan Contras, Afghan mujahideen, and Angolan UNITA. Vaïsse’s faith is quickly restored, however, by turning to Reagan’s stirring 1982 speech to the British House of Commons, in which the president proclaimed that a “march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.”
Neoconservatism has deep roots in cold war liberalism, but the two are not identical. In the years between the rise of the New Left in the late sixties and Reagan’s triumph over Carter in 1980, most of those whom we now know as neoconservatives ceased to consider themselves members of the moderate left and came to identify with the right. It was a long time before this shift was complete, however, as evidenced by the significant number of neocons who supported the liberal hawk Bill Clinton over the realist George H. W. Bush in 1992. But it was not simply that the neocons abandoned their previous liberalism and veered right; it would be more accurate to say that as the neocons zigged to the right, the liberal mainstream zagged to the left.
Vietnam was the most obvious cause of the rift. As Irving Kristol suggested in his 1976 essay “What Is A Neoconservative?,” it was not so much disagreement about the war itself that drove the neocons away from the liberal consensus; neocons, he noted, “went every which way” on Vietnam and many were skeptical of the war. The real issue was what implications should be drawn from the war’s disastrous outcome. Many liberals came to feel that Vietnam necessitated a reappraisal of the underlying Manichean framework that had motivated it—that it indicated something fundamentally flawed in the notion that America was obliged to stamp out communism wherever it might spring up, regardless of the moral and strategic cost. These were the implications that neoconservatives strenuously resisted. Vietnam may have been a mistake, some of them conceded – although as time passed and dogmas hardened, they came increasingly to hold that it had been a winnable war thwarted by a stab in the back from the left—but in any case it must not cause American resolve to slacken into moral equivalence or isolationism, the perennial neoconservative bogeymen.
Another flashpoint was Israel. As Balint shows, Commentary and the New York Intellectuals were rather ambivalent and lukewarm about Israel in the forties and fifties, and few of the original neoconservatives were committed Zionists; in this regard they were typical of American Jewry as a whole, which did not fully embrace Israel until after its victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. The neoconservative turn coincided with the critical decade following the 1967 war that saw the Yom Kippur attack on Israel in 1973 and the UN “Zionism is racism” resolution in 1975—a decade in which American Jews became deeply invested in the fate of Israel as they came to perceive it as under siege. Not all neoconservatives were Jewish, but the gentiles among them, like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Scoop Jackson, were as fervent in their backing of Israel as the movement’s Jewish majority.
Concern for Israel alone cannot explain why the neoconservatives turned against liberalism; after all, the Democratic Party in recent decades has been as indulgent a patron of Israel as the Republicans. But the neocons drew deeper lessons from the Arab-Israeli conflict about the indispensability of American power and the uselessness of international institutions. While liberals thought the conflict called for better diplomacy, the neocons blamed diplomacy itself, and a liberalism that was too impotent and equivocating to stand up for Israel. Their contempt for the UN and for European opinion in part can be traced to the view that the UN was actively hostile to Israeli interests and Europe insufficiently zealous in defense of them. American hegemony, in the neocon imagination, became the only reliable guarantor of Israel’s existence, and a US retreat into isolationism meant the abandonment of Israeli Jews to the same fate as their European predecessors.
As a matter of political strategy, if not ideological priority, supporting Israel meant supporting American involvement in the rest of the world. “Can anyone believe,” Irving Kristol warned in 1984, “that an American government which, in righteous moralistic hauteur, refuses to intervene to prevent a communist takeover of Central America will intervene to counterbalance Soviet participation in an assault on Israel?” If Jews truly hoped to protect Israel, he suggested, they must overcome their residual dovishness and accept the necessity of “a large and powerful [American] military establishment” willing to intervene all over the world.
For Kristol, the fate of Israel came to stand in implicit parallel with the fate of American Jewish liberalism, as the Arab rejection of Israel mirrored the rise of anti-Semitism in the African-American community. In Kristol’s writings from the seventies and eighties, collected in The Neoconservative Persuasion, Yasser Arafat figures in the same symbolic role abroad as Jesse Jackson at home; in fact, Kristol wrote, Jackson’s “mission has been to incorporate a Third World view of politics into the American political spectrum.” Both Arafat and Jackson served as demonstrations of the futility of Jewish good intentions: American Jews had fought for civil rights and for the welfare state just as Israelis had generously offered to live at peace with the Arabs, Kristol suggested, and in each case the rejection of their benevolence indicated the failure of liberalism. This allegedly implacable hostility towards Jews suggested to the neocons that they must start looking at politics through a different lens. Norman Podhoretz, whose own racial preoccupations were already apparent in his famous 1963 essay “My Negro Problem—And Ours,” indicated the new tack in a 1972 Commentary piece: “Is It Good for the Jews?”
It is difficult to look at the history of neoconservatism over the past few decades without viewing it as a story of decline. Balint rather dispiritingly describes Commentary‘s transition from a showcase for the country’s best public intellectuals to a party-line rag, as Podhoretz replaced the glittering roster from the magazine’s golden age with writers who were more ideologically faithful. Out were Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Philip Roth; in came Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ruth Wisse, Elliott Abrams, and Cynthia Ozick. Neoconservatism’s notoriously dynastic quality made the decline more obvious still; even sympathetic observers are unlikely to see the passing of the torch from Irving to William Kristol or from Norman to John Podhoretz as evidence of anything except intellectual deterioration.
Today, the movement has been fully absorbed into the Republican establishment, having squashed the realist heirs of Kissinger and the anti-interventionist paleoconservatives for control of the party’s foreign policy. Recent months have seen much speculation that the rise of the Tea Party signals the “end of neoconservatism” or a “return to isolationism,” but such talk is premature. All the major Republican presidential candidates have struck reliably hawkish poses on the campaign trail, while those who have not (notably Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul) have no realistic shot at the nomination. And while some Tea Partiers may be willing in principle to pare down the defense budget, most remain, if anything, even more hardline than the party establishment on issues like Israel and Iran. For the moment, the party’s red-blooded populists still feel obliged to kiss the neocon ring—revealingly, Sarah Palin’s first political visit after being nominated for the vice-presidency was to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.
Decades of Washington insiderdom have largely extinguished what traces of intellectual curiosity may have remained from the original neoconservatives. If there is an emblematic member of the youngest generation of neoconservatives, the successors to William Kristol and Robert Kagan, it is the ubiquitous political flack Michael Goldfarb, former PR man for the McCain presidential campaign and member of the Palin brain trust. Critics sometimes portray the relationship between the neocons and the Republican base as one of elite manipulation, in which the neocons somehow goad Middle America out of its natural isolationist tendencies against its better judgment. It would be more accurate to see the relationship as one of mutual convenience, in which the base furnishes the neocons with mass political support in exchange for marks of intellectual respectability (Ivy League degrees, think tank affiliations, and, to be sure, Jewish last names) to dress up its blood-and-soil nationalism. The neoconservative hold on mainstream conservatism appears firm, at least in the short term, but will anyone write intellectual histories of neoconservatism’s development from this point forward? At the moment it seems doubtful. The movement has an interesting past, but it is unlikely to have an interesting future.
If you like this article, please subscribe to n+1.