neocons are – finally! coming out of the closet. Irving
Kristol, the Godfather of the neocons, has come out with the
neocon equivalent of a papal bull outlining the ideological
parameters of this heretofore mysterious sect, wherein he
unveils the secrets of "The
say "secrets," because a spate of
commentary on the neoconservatives as
the vanguard of the War Party,
emanating all the way from this site to Howard Dean, provoked
a series of angry denials. Jonah
Goldberg stomped his foot, and declared that "neocon"
is just a euphemism for "Jew." While this victimological view
seemed to unfairly slight Bill Bennett, Jeanne Kirkpatrick,
and the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, it was, until very recently,
shared by many neocons, who apparently decided that the best
defense was to deny their own existence.
whined in the Wall Street Journal that Pat Buchanan
has "ulterior motives" in pointing to the existence of an
ideological cabal that hijacked
American foreign policy and lied
us into war. Professor Robert J. Lieber, writing
in the Chronicle of Higher Education, attributed the
ubiquity of the neocon meme to a sudden explosion of neo-Nazism
among prominent American intellectuals:
is a conspiracy theory purporting to explain how the foreign
policy of the world's greatest power, the United States, has
been captured by a sinister and hitherto little-known cabal.
small band of neoconservative (read, Jewish) defense intellectuals,
led by the 'mastermind,' Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul
Wolfowitz (according to Michael Lind, writing in the New
Statesman), has taken advantage of 9/11 to put their ideas
over on an ignorant, inexperienced, and 'easily manipulated'
president (Eric Alterman in The Nation), his 'elderly
figurehead' Defense Secretary (as Lind put it), and the 'dutiful
servant of power' who is our secretary of state (Edward Said,
London Review of Books)."
the author of Neoconservatism:
The Autobiography of an Idea, was irked at being relegated
to the founder-leader of a "little-known" movement (or "persuasion,"
as Kristol insists). In any case, Kristol has kicked the ladder
out from under Lieber, et al. The resounding crash is music
to my ears.
always found the mysterious
disappearance of neoconservatism as an above-ground, self-conscious
ideological current rather inexplicable. In previous years,
volumes had been written on the subject of neocons, especially
in the realm of foreign policy, yet suddenly it became a hate
crime to even whisper the "n-word." But all is explained by
Kristol, who traces it back to an error etched by his own
few years ago I said (and, alas, wrote) that neoconservatism
had had its own distinctive qualities in its early years,
but by now had been absorbed into the mainstream of American
conservatism. I was wrong, and the reason I was wrong is that,
ever since its origin among disillusioned liberal intellectuals
in the 1970s, what we call neoconservatism has been one of
those intellectual undercurrents that surface only intermittently.
It is not a 'movement,' as the conspiratorial critics would
have it. Neoconservatism is
what the late historian of Jacksonian America, Marvin Meyers,
called a 'persuasion,' one that manifests itself over time,
but erratically, and one whose meaning we clearly glimpse
only in retrospect."
from the self-mystifying claptrap about a movement – excuse
me, persuasion so awesomely world-historic that
its glorious meaning can only be appreciated by posterity,
all this is very interesting, and very true. The neocons only
surface when they have to: that is, when it's time to whip
up a little war hysteria so the hostilities can commence a.s.a.p.
That's why we call them the War Party.
"disillusioned" those liberal intellectuals was the unwillingness
of the Democratic party to go along with the Vietnam war:
the neoconservative critique of the welfare state, as mild
as it was, was merely an afterthought. During the Cold War
years, the neocons functioned as the cutting edge of Reagan
era militant anti-Communism, always urging war even when peace
would have been a far more effective strategy. The implosion
of Communism didn't put them out of business: instead, they
went quiescent, but not idle, patiently building their own
institutions and alliances
with other elements on the Right. The birth of the Weekly
Standard, spawn of Rupert Murdoch and Kristol the Younger,
represented the marriage of neoconservatism and Big Money:
neocon domination of major conservative institutions was virtually
Gulf War I, the neocons again came to the fore, demanding
an all-out invasion, smearing critics of the war such as Pat
Buchanan as "anti-Semitic," and then turning on George H.W.
Bush when he failed to follow his marching orders and take
other Republicans of the "realist" school, the Weekly Standard
did not scoff at the "humanitarian" interventions of the Clinton
years, but only urged the administration to adopt a more militant
form of humanitarianism. In one editorial, the President was
encouraged to "crush Serb skulls" by invading and occupying
the former Yugoslavia. This was long before Clinton was hectored
into starting the Kosovo war. On the question of shedding
blood, the neocons are always way out ahead of everyone else.
second tower of the World Trade Center hadn't even been hit
before the neocons thrust themselves into a new prominence,
leading the charge to unleash mayhem in some kind of generalized
retribution against the Muslim world. The Iraq war, and its
tragi-comic aftermath, have brought the neocons new fame,
much of it unwanted. Unable to stanch the rising tide of questions
about the real authors of this darkening chapter in American
history who lied us into war, and why? the neocons
are on the defensive. The old camouflage technique – "We're all neoconservatives,
now," as David Brooks put it – will no longer suffice.
you see, we aren't
all neoconservatives. From the Kristolian point of view,
that is precisely the problem. So now the neocons, instead
of remaining an isolated sect, are seeking to openly recruit
support for their cause. Now is the neoconservative moment,
and Irving steps right up to the plate:
historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would
seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American
conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into
a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing
a modern democracy."
is "modern" is an unshakable belief in Big Government, exemplified
by Kristol's hailing of FDR as among a trinity of neocon heroes,
alongside cousin Teddy and Ronald Reagan (who came to prominence
attacking Social Security and other New Deal measures as socialistic).
Aside from a lot of guff about how neocon ideology is in the
"American grain," Kristol comes out of the closet as the sort
of liberal who sees a huge, all-pervasive State as an inevitable
aspect of modernity, like highways and homogenized milk. Kristol
do not like the concentration of services in the welfare state
and are happy
to study alternative ways of delivering these services. But
they are impatient with the Hayekian notion that we are on
'the road to serfdom.' Neocons do not feel that kind of alarm
or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century,
seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable. Because they tend
to be more interested in history than economics or sociology,
they know that the 19th-century idea, so neatly propounded
by Herbert Spencer in his 'The Man Versus
the State,' was a historical eccentricity."
have to be "converted" away from their fetish for limited
government: the idea is "a historical eccentricity." After
all, the libertarian idea that state officials always seek
to expand and pass on to their kin the power and privileges
is an obstacle on the neoconservative path to "national
greatness," as some of the younger neocons would have
it. Spencer succinctly expressed this theory:
more numerous public instrumentalities become, the more is
there generated in citizens the notion that everything is
to be done for them, and nothing by them. Each generation
is made less familiar with the attainment of desired ends
by individual actions or private combinations, and more familiar
with the attainment of them by governmental agencies; until,
eventually, governmental agencies come to be thought of as
the only available agencies."
the neocons, this is "progress." To embrace it is "forward-looking,"
proof that one doesn't suffer from the "nostalgic Toryism"
of a Russell Kirk.
Besides that, the generally unobtrusive, small, and rather
tax-starved federal government envisioned by Old Right conservatives
is hardly equipped to conquer and occupy half a dozen Middle
And that is the real meat of the issue.
neocons have never given a damn for domestic politics, except
as it gives them the scope to act out their foreign policy
obsessions. In the cold war era, it was hatred of their old
enemies, the Stalinists. In the post-9/11 era, it is hatred
of the Muslim world, i.e. hatred of Israel's enemies. That's
what Kristol the Elder means when he writes:
should, above all, have the ability to distinguish friends
from enemies. This is not as easy as it sounds, as the history
of the Cold War revealed. The number of intelligent men who
could not count the Soviet Union as an enemy, even though
this was its own self-definition, was absolutely astonishing."
admits to a conditional fondness for cutting taxes, but only
on the somewhat dubious theory that it will, somehow, in the
long run, fatten up the State with fresh revenues. The existence
of an ever-swelling centralized state apparatus is seen by
Kristol as inevitable, and desirable: that's why "neocons
feel at home in today's America to a degree that more traditional
conservatives do not."
have always preferred strong government to weak government"
is a loaded way for Kristol to frame the issue: why not "big
government" versus "small" or "limited" government? Here Kristol
assumes the air of a hard-headed pragmatist, as against those
impractical dreamers and obscurantists who remember the meaning
of constitutional government. Don't fall for it. It took two
world wars and the promise of a third to roll back constitutional
government to its present position as a beleaguered remnant,
and the final victory of the usurpers is far from assured.
That's why Kristol and his fellows of a similar "persuasion"
have resurfaced – to strike the final blow.
idea that Kristol places "patriotism" as the number one principle
of the neocons' foreign policy creed is certainly beyond dispute.
The question is, patriotism in the service of which country
– America, or Israel? As Kristol puts it:
smaller nation might appropriately feel that its national
interest begins and ends at its borders, so that its foreign
policy is almost always in a defensive mode. A larger nation
has more extensive interests. And large nations, whose identity
is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the
United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests
in addition to more material concerns. Barring extraordinary
events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend,
if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic
forces, external or internal. That is why it was in our national
interest to come to the defense of France and Britain in World
War II. That is why we feel it necessary to defend Israel
today, when its survival is threatened. No complicated geopolitical
calculations of national interest are necessary."
the national interest, the accidents of geography, and all
that other "complicated" stuff: Israel is in trouble. That
simplifies matters considerably. What more do we need to know?
idea that America has "ideological interests" that are in
any way "like the Soviet Union of yesteryear" is certainly
repulsive to most conservatives, and to most Americans: which
is why all the sound and fury about how neoconservatism is
from the native soil sprung comes across as completely phony.
Beyond the Beltway, the number of Americans who believe that
we are destined to spread our system by force of arms around
the world is minuscule, because nothing could be more un-American,
earlier says that neocons "tend to be more interested in history
than economics or sociology," and this is all too clear from
his economic analysis of U.S. military superiority:
superiority was planned by no one, and even today there are
many Americans who are in denial. To
a large extent, it all happened as a result of our bad luck.
During the 50 years after World War II, while Europe was at
peace and the Soviet Union largely relied on surrogates to
do its fighting, the United States was involved in a whole
series of wars: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf
War, the Kosovo conflict, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War.
The result was that our military spending expanded more or
less in line with our economic growth, while Europe's democracies
cut back their military spending in favor of social welfare
programs. The Soviet Union spent profusely but wastefully,
so that its military collapsed along with its economy."
the man glories in war: that is the leitmotif of the neocons.
Lovingly he ticks off what he regards as the high points of
human history in the modern era: World War II, Korea, Vietnam,
Gulf War I, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Gulf War II. There is
something distinctly weird, and unhealthy, in this litany
of mass slaughter. Aside from that, however, there are a few
problems with the Kristolian analysis: The Soviet Union was
too wasteful, he avers, but how wasteful is the American occupation
of Iraq? No one should be surprised that Kristol considers
the U.S. to be an "ideological" superpower in the old Soviet
sense: that is precisely the essence of the neoconservative
vision. The neocon project of forcibly "transforming" and
"democratizing" the Middle East is a perfect replica of the
Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. Soviet satellites were
so many millstones around the Kremlin's neck: eventually,
the burden dragged them down into a terminal decline. The
same fate awaits us if we are so unwise as to ignore the bones
of our predecessors lining the side of the road to empire.
essay is suffused with a sense of power, and an implicit threat
to "the older, traditional elements in the Republican party"
who "have difficulty coming to terms with this new reality
in foreign affairs, just as they cannot reconcile economic
conservatism with social and cultural conservatism." These
reactionaries, we are assured, will be swept aside by the
new order ushered in by the President, whose top officials
"turn out to be quite at home in this new political environment,
although it is clear they did not anticipate this role any
more than their party as a whole did."
gloating is unmistakable, as if to say: 9/11 caught you unawares,
but now you're cooperating, as you should have been
all along. "As a result," avers Kristol triumphantly, "neoconservatism
began enjoying a second life, at a time when its obituaries
were still being published."
the neocons certainly have thrived since 9/11, unlike
the rest of us, but surely this is nothing to advertise. To
do so seems unnecessarily provocative, and in poor taste,
to say the least. But conceit is pointless if it can't be
openly displayed. Wrapping himself in the mantle of presidential
power and favor, invoking the full might and majesty of the
rising American Empire, Kristol is telling conservatives to
ditch their entire program of rolling back an overgrown and
often tyrannical federal government, in favor of perpetual
war –"the new reality in foreign affairs."
says Kristol, we neocons exist. Not only that, but we have
the power and won't shrink from using it. So get with the
program, buster, or get out. That is the chief theme and the
whole point of Kristol's essay.
Kristolian combination plate of watered down "free market"
social democracy at home, and empire abroad, is in no way
attractive to the traditional conservatives Kristol rightly
perceives as his ideological opponents. Indeed, it is utterly
alien to everything the American Right has ever stood for,
not only politically but temperamentally as well. The very
idea of extending "American hegemony," as Kristol
the Lesser puts it, over the entire globe is not
"distinctively American," no matter how many times his daddy
says it is. It is, however, distinctively Soviet and utter
alien to the American sensibility.
IN THE MARGIN
world has truly gone mad if George Will is one of the good
guys, but his column on the "neoconservative myth" is the
perfect rejoinder to Kristol, and I
and Blair and many people called neoconservatives believe
that moral objectives in politics are universally applicable
imperatives. If so, then either national cultures do not significantly
differ; or they do not matter; or they are infinitely malleable
under the touch of enlightened reformers. But all three propositions
are false, and antithetical to all that conservatism teaches
about the importance of cultural inertia and historical circumstances.
premise that terrorism thrives where democracy doesn't may
seem to generate a duty to universalize democracy. But it
is axiomatic that one cannot have a duty to do something that
cannot be done."
would take this a step further, though, and bitterly oppose
the neoconservative project even if it could be done – even
if we could conceivably engage in a gigantic social engineering
scheme and install Jeffersonian democracy throughout the Middle
East and the world. We should still abhor the attempt, as
it would destroy our Republic, and ourselves in the process.
In aspiring to the imperial purple, and becoming the New Rome,
we would lose that which makes us distinctively American.
This is the kind of patriotism that needs to be instilled:
not the puffed-up vainglory of the neocons, but the stern
republican virtue that disdains all talk of empire as a dangerous
subversion of our national tradition.
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