Almost exactly five years after it reached its
zenith with the invasion of Iraq, the influence of neoconservatives has waned
sharply in Washington, as their nemeses, the "realists" in the national
security bureaucracy, have increasingly asserted control over US foreign policy.
While battered, however, neoconservatives have not yet been forced from the
field. And while their hopes that President George W. Bush would "take
out" Iran's nuclear program before leaving office appear to have diminished
substantially, their hawkish voice is still heard loud and clear both in the
White House courtesy of Vice President Dick Cheney's office and Deputy
National Security adviser Elliott Abrams and in this year's Republican
presidential race, where neoconservative favorites include former New York City
mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain, and, until earlier this week, Fred Thompson.
Indeed, as pointed out in Jacob Heilbrunn's new book They
Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (Doubleday), the neocons,
despite the fiasco in Iraq, are already trying to detach themselves from both
Bush and the Mesopotamian adventure they so avidly championed and entrench themselves
ever more deeply into institutional Washington.
"Whether it's the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies or the National
Endowment for Democracy, the Weekly Standard or the New York Sun,
the neoconservatives are battle-hardened fighters who have created a permanent
base for themselves. They will not disappear," according to Heilbrunn,
a former neoconservative himself and senior editor at the Nixon Center's The
National Interest journal.
Heilbrunn's much-anticipated book, which coincides with the publication of
a not entirely unsympathetic biography entitled Prince
of Darkness of the movement's most influential hardliner, Richard Perle,
affirms a number of central truths about neoconservatism that are generally
ignored or avoided in mainstream discussion of what he correctly calls a "mindset"
rather than an "ideology."
First, neoconservatism "is in a decisive respect a Jewish phenomenon,"
even if many adherents albeit a minority are not Jewish and even if, it
should be added, most US Jews are not neoconservatives. Moreover, neoconservatives,
both Jew and gentile, are bound by a "shared commitment to the largest,
most important Jewish cause: the survival of Israel."
Second, its substance is largely determined by the lessons its followers draw
from what they see as causes of the Nazi Holocaust: the alleged failures of
German "liberals" in the Weimar Republic to stand up to the twin challenges
of Nazism and Communism and of the western European liberal democracies to stand
up to Adolf Hitler in the run-up to World War II; and the necessity of having
overwhelming military power to crush any new Hitler preemptively.
As Heilbrunn, whose Jewish father fled Germany before the war, correctly notes,
neoconservatives "see new Munichs everywhere and anywhere" a reference
to the 1938 Munich pact by which Britain and France tried to "appease"
Hitler by ceding part of Czechoslovakia to Germany.
Indeed, it is characteristic of neoconservatives to depict virtually every
foreign policy challenge from the Sandinista government in Nicaragua 25 years
ago to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to US (or Israeli) hegemony
as a potentially cataclysmic replay of the 1930s. The neoconservatives, according
to Heilbrunn, "have shaped a romantic narrative for themselves in which
they are the new Churchills staring down the forces of evil."
Fear that Saddam Hussein intended a "second holocaust" against Israel
served as one of the main motivations for the neoconservative promotion of
war with Iraq, according to Heilbrunn. "As Jews, they (and their Catholic
conservative allies) were haunted by the memory that the allies had not stopped
the Holocaust and they strongly believed that it was America's obligation
to act preemptively to avert another one."
Third, the movement's Trotskyist roots incarnated by its "founding
father, Max Shachtman among the Jews from Central and Eastern Europe
in the first half of the 20th century not only imbued its members with a distrust,
even a hatred, of liberalism (despite their latter-day purported embrace of
democracy promotion). They also largely shaped their polemical and political
tactics, even as they moved rightward into the Democratic Party after
World War II and thence, after the traumas of the 1960s and early 1970s, including
two Arab-Israeli wars into Ronald Reagan's Republican Party.
"Their fling with Trotskyism [endowed] them with a temperament as well
as a set of intellectual tolls that many never completely abandoned a combative
temper and a penchant for sweeping assertions and grandiose ideas." The
fact that they see themselves as "a kind of aristocratic intelligentsia,"
according to Heilbrunn, derives from their Trotskyite origins.
Fourth, "the social exclusion experienced by Jews at the hands of the
WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) elite" that persisted in the US into
the early 1960s stirred a "deep resentment" among many of the movement's
most influential leaders, notably Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz.
Indeed, Podhoretz, who edited Commentary magazine from the early 1960s
until the mid-1990s and now advises Giuliani, sees the movement as the war against
the "WASP patriciate," according to Heilbrunn.
Neoconservatives "know that they will never be accepted by the establishment,"
he writes in a passage about Perle. "Indeed, they outwardly revel in the
knowledge that they are outsiders. But beneath the veneer of confidence is a
seething rage at the government bureaucracy and social elites."
These insights are the strongest part of the book, but, unfortunately, virtually
all of them are made within the first 100 pages.
A lapsed neoconservative himself, Heilbrunn offers useful, if unoriginal,
accounts of the influences of German-Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss and military
strategist Alfred Wohlstetter on the movement and its worldview. But he gets
lost in his recounting of the evolution of the neoconservatism and its various
factions particularly the supposed divides between the Straussean/realist
wing led by Irving Kristol and Jeane Kirkpatrick, on the one hand, and the Podhoretz-Abrams
wing from the moment it first enjoyed power during Ronald Reagan's first
term to the disastrous aftermath of the Iraq war.
While the reason for the subsequent incoherence of his account was probably
due to deadline pressures and poor editing, it may also be attributable both
to the ideological contortions of the neoconservatives themselves and to the
disappointing fact that Heilbrunn accepts and endorses the narrative of their
own history. Indeed, his descriptions of liberal or left-wing foes, from the
New Left and the Black Power movement to Democratic politicians, such as George
McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and even Bill Clinton, echo those of the most radical
Thus, Clinton's first national security adviser Anthony Lake and secretary
of state Warren Christopher "apparently saw the United States, not its
enemies, as the main problem in the world." And had the 1998 Iraq Liberation
Act, "which funneled money to ...Ahmed Chalabi ...been heeded [by Clinton],
it might have helped avoid the chaos that the toppling of the Saddam Hussein
Ultimately, Heilbrunn is critical of the neoconservatives, but he accepts much
of their worldview.
While Heilbrunn's book is probably the best in the latest crop to explore the
neoconservatives, the most comprehensive account of neoconservative thinking
Neoconservative Vision: From the Cold War to the Culture Wars by Mark
Gerson, a member of the board of directors of the defunct Project for the New
(Inter Press Service)