The Neoconservative Cabal
Over the last months, the term “neoconservative” has been in the air as never before in its 30-year career. Try entering it in Nexis, the electronic database of news stories. Even if you were to restrict the request to stories containing “Iraq” and “Bush,” the search will abort; the number of entries exceeds the program’s capacity. Seven years after Norman Podhoretz, the conductor of the neocon orchestra, pronounced the demise of the movement in these pages,1 neoconservatives are seen to be wielding more influence than ever before. For it is they who, notoriously, are alleged to have transformed George W. Bush beyond all recognition. At their hands, the President who as a candidate had envisioned a “humble” America—one that would reduce foreign deployments and avoid nation building—became a warrior chieftain who has already toppled two foreign governments and has laid down an ultimatum to others warning of a similar fate.
“The neoconservatives . . . are largely responsible for getting us into the war against Iraq,” observes Elizabeth Drew in the New York Review of Books. “The neocon vision has become the hard core of American foreign policy,” declares Newsweek. “They have penetrated the culture at nearly every level from the halls of academia to the halls of the Pentagon,” frets the New York Times, adding that “they’ve accumulated the wherewithal financially [and] professionally to broadcast what they think over the airwaves to the masses or over cocktails to those at the highest levels of government.” “Long before George W. Bush reached the White House, many of these confrontations [with other nations] had been contemplated by the neoconservatives,” reveals the National Journal.
Overseas, where the policies attributed to the neocons are far more controversial than here, the tone is commensurately hotter. A six-page spread in the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur described “les intellectuals neoconservateurs” as the “ideologues of American empire.” The article ran under a banner headline: “After Iraq, the World.” In England, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) aired an hour-long television special that began: “This is a story about people who want the world run their way, the American way, [and] . . . scare the hell out of people.” The Times of London anxiously urged close British cooperation with the U.S. if only to gain the leverage needed to “spike the ambitions of U.S. neoconservatives.”
Who makes up this potent faction? Within the administration, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz is usually identified as the key actor, together with Richard Perle, a member and until recently the chairman of the Defense Advisory Board. A handful of other high-level Bush appointees are often named as adherents of the neocon faith, including Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of State John Bolton, National Security Council staff member Elliott Abrams, and Vice Presidential aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI, where I work), the Weekly Standard magazine, and William Kristol’s Project for a New American Century—all three rent offices in the same building—are often described as constituting the movement’s Washington command center. And then, of course, there is this magazine, crucible of so much neoconservative thought.
The history of neoconservatism is less sensational than its current usage implies. The term came into currency in the mid-1970′s as an anathema—pronounced, by upholders of leftist orthodoxy, against a group of intellectuals, centered mostly in COMMENTARY and the quarterly Public Interest, who then still thought of themselves as liberals but were at odds with the dominant thinking of the Left. One part of this group consisted of writers about domestic policy—Irving Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Q. Wilson, Nathan Glazer—who had developed misgivings about the programs of the New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The other main contingent focused on foreign policy, and especially on the decline of America’s position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in the wake of the Vietnam war. The names here included, among others, Podhoretz, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Eugene V. Rostow. Although, at first, most of these people resisted the label neoconservative, eventually almost all of them acquiesced in it.
Today, many who are called neoconservatives are too young to have taken part in these debates, while others, although old enough, followed a different trajectory in arriving at their political ideas. This would hardly matter if neoconservatism were an actual political movement, or if there were general agreement about its tenets. But few of those writing critically about neoconservatism today have bothered to stipulate what they take those tenets to be. For most, the term seems to serve as a sophisticated-sounding synonym for “hawk” or “hard-liner” or even “ultraconservative.”
For others, however, it is used with a much more sinister connotation. In their telling, neoconservatives are a strange, veiled group, almost a cabal, whose purpose is to manipulate U.S. policy for ulterior purposes.
Thus, several scribes have concentrated on laying bare the hidden wellsprings of neoconservative belief. These have been found to reside in the thinking of two improbable figures: the immigrant American political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) and the Bolshevik military commander Leon Trotsky (1879-1940). “Who runs things?,” the New York Times asked, concluding that “it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to answer: the intellectual heirs of Leo Strauss” with whom the Bush administration is “rife.” The Boston Globe ran a 3,000-word article claiming that “we live in a world increasingly shaped by Leo Strauss,” while in a sidebar to its own feature story on the neocons, Le Nouvel Observateur introduced French readers to “Leo Strauss, Their Mentor.”
Michael Lind, an American who writes for the British leftist magazine New Statesman, has been the most insistent voice invoking the name of Trotsky, or rather “the largely Jewish-American Trotskyist movement” of which, Lind says, “most neoconservative defense intellectuals . . . are products.” Jeet Heer, who expounded the Straussian roots of neoconservatism in the Boston Globe, went on to disclose the Trotsky connection in Canada’s National Post. (“Bolshevik’s Writings Supported the Idea of Pre-emptive War,” ran the subhead.) Others agreed about this dual connection. William Pfaff, in the International Herald Tribune, contributed one column on the influence of Leo Strauss and another linking Bush’s foreign policy to the “intellectual legacy of the Trotskyism of many of the neoconservative movement’s founders.” In particular, in Pfaff’s judgment, administration policy “seems a rightist version of Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution.’ ”
Actually, neither line of genealogical inquiry is new. Eight years ago, in Foreign Affairs, John Judis derided my advocacy of “exporting democracy” as a kind of “inverted Trotskyism.” As for Strauss, it was noticed as far back as the Reagan administration that a small number of the philosopher’s former students had taken policy positions in the State and Defense departments. But the prize for the recent resuscitation of Strauss’s name would seem to belong to the crackpot political agitator Lyndon LaRouche, who began to harp on it in speeches and publications months before any of the references I have cited above. LaRouche, who ceased using the pseudonym Lyn Marcus (a conscious derivation of Lenin Marx) when he vaulted from the far Left to the far Right, and who has served time in a federal penitentiary on charges of gulling elderly people out of their savings in order to finance his political movement, has fingered Strauss “along with Bertrand Russell and H.G. Wells” as the parties responsible for “steering the United States into a disastrous replay of the Peloponnesian war.”
This preoccupation with ancestor-hunting may seem of secondary interest, but since it is typical of the way most recent “analysis” of neoconservative ideas has been conducted, it is worth pausing over for another moment.
For one thing, the sheer sloppiness of the reporting on the alleged Strauss-Trotsky connection is itself remarkable. Thus, the New York Times claimed extravagantly that AEI consists in its entirety of Straussians, whereas a little checking yields, out of 56 scholars and fellows, exactly two who would count themselves as Straussians and a third who would acknowledge a significant intellectual debt to Strauss; none of the three is in the field of foreign policy. The Times also identified Perle as a Straussian—which is false—while erroneously stating that he was married to the daughter of the late military strategist Albert Wohlstetter, whom it likewise falsely labeled a Straussian. Even after an initial correction (explaining that Perle had merely studied under Wohlstetter at the University of Chicago and had not married his daughter) and a second correction (acknowledging that Perle had never studied under Wohlstetter or attended the University of Chicago), the paper still could not bring itself to retract its fanciful characterizations of either Perle’s or Wohlstetter’s ties to Strauss. The paper also mischaracterized Podhoretz as an “admirer” of Strauss, which is true only in a very loose sense. Similar errors have infected the stories in other publications.
And Trotsky? Lind in his disquisition on “the largely Jewish-American Trotskyist movement” instanced seven pivotal neocon figures as the Bolshevik revolutionary’s acolytes: Wolfowitz, Feith, Libby, Bolton, Abrams, James R. Woolsey, and Perle. This was too much for Alan Wald, a student of political ideas and himself a genuine Troskyist who pointed out that none of these men “ever had an organizational or ideological association with Trotskyism.”2 Even more ludicrously, Lind characterized a series of open letters to the President published by the Project for the New American Century as “a PR technique pioneered by their Trotskyist predecessors”; whatever Lind may have had in mind by this phrase, genuine Trotskyists would be less interested in sending petitions to the President than in hanging him from the nearest lamppost.
In truth, I can think of only one major neocon figure who did have a significant dalliance with Trotskyism, and that was Irving Kristol. The dalliance occurred during his student days some 60-odd years ago, and whatever imprint it may have left on Kristol’s thought certainly did not make him a neoconservative on foreign policy, for in that area his views have been much more akin to those of traditional conservatives. During the 1980′s, for example, Kristol opposed the “Reagan Doctrine” of support for anti-Communist guerrillas and belittled the idea of promoting democracy abroad.
But that brings us to the actual ideas of these two presumed progenitors of neoconservatism. Strauss, according to Jeet Heer, emerges from a close reading as a
disguised Machiavelli, a cynical teacher who encouraged his followers to believe that their intellectual superiority entitles them to rule over the bulk of humanity by means of duplicity.
An elite recognizes the truth . . . and keeps it to itself. This gives it insight and implicitly power that others do not possess. This obviously is an important element in Strauss’s appeal to American conservatives. . . . His real appeal to the neoconservatives, in my view, is that his elitism presents a principled rationalization for policy expediency, and for “necessary lies” told to those whom the truth would demoralize.
Neither Heer nor Pfaff offers a clue as to where in Strauss’s corpus one might find these ideas, giving one the impression that they learned what they know of him from a polemical book by one Shadia Drury, who holds a chair in “social justice” at a Canadian university and who finds Strauss to be a “profoundly tribal and fascistic thinker.” In any event, although Strauss did write about restrictions on free inquiry, notably in Persecution and the Art of Writing, his point was not to advocate persecution but to suggest a way of reading philosophers who had composed their work in unfree societies. Far from the authoritarian described by Heer and Pfaff, Strauss, a refugee from Nazi Germany, was a committed democrat whose attachment and gratitude to America ran deep and who, in the words of Allan Bloom (perhaps his most famous student), “knew that liberal democracy is the only decent and just alternative available to modern man.”
Both Heer and Pfaff make Strauss out to be a Machiavellian, but both have the story upside down. If there is a single core point in Strauss’s teachings, including his book on Machiavelli, it concerns the distinction between ancients and moderns; his own affinity—perhaps eccentric, certainly “conservative”—lay with the thought of the former, who were devoted to knowing the good, in contradistinction to the latter who were more exclusively concerned with practical things. In this understanding, it was Machiavelli who initiated the philosophical break with the Platonic/Aristotelian tradition, a development that Strauss regarded as baneful. But reading political counsel into Strauss is altogether a misplaced exercise. He was not a politico but a philosopher whose life’s work was devoted to deepening our understanding of earlier thinkers and who rarely if ever engaged in contemporary politics.
If Strauss’s writing is abstruse, Trotsky by contrast is easy to understand, at least if one knows the basic formulas of Marxism. Nonetheless, those who invoke him as another dark influence on neoconservatism are no better informed than those who invoke Strauss. Lind and Pfaff and Judis all refer portentously to Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution,” apparently under the impression that by it Trotsky must have intended a movement to spread socialism from one country to another in much the same violent and revolutionary manner that neocons supposedly aim to disseminate their own brand of democracy around the world.
But the theory of permanent revolution was about other matters entirely. According to the late-19th-and early-20th-century Marxists, the socialist revolution could unfold only some years after capitalism and the bourgeoisie had triumphed over feudalism; in undeveloped countries like Russia, this meant that socialists had no choice but to support capitalism until it ripened and set the stage for revolution. From this prospect of deadly boredom, Trotsky rescued the movement by arguing for an immediate seizure of power in hopes of somehow telescoping the bourgeois and socialist revolutions into one seamless sequence. That was “permanent revolution.”
As is the case with the Strauss-hunters, it is far from evident what any of this has to do with Iraq, terrorism, or promoting democracy. The neocon journalist Arnold Beichman put it sardonically and well: “stop the presses: Trotsky . . . wouldn’t have supported the Iraq war.” On second thought, he probably would have—on Saddam’s side.
Finally, if the attempts to link neoconservatives to Strauss and Trotsky are based on misidentification and misconstruction, the fact that both linkages have been made—in some cases by the same writer—is stranger still. For it would be hard to come up with a more disparate pair of thinkers. Strauss’s mission was to take us back by means of contemplation to the nearly lost past of classical antiquity. Trotsky’s was to lead mankind by means of violent action to an unprecedented new society. The one aimed to rescue philosophy from ideology; the other was the consummate ideologue. How, exactly, does neoconservatism bear the earmarks of both of these projects simultaneously? No one has attempted to explain.
There is, however, one thing that Strauss and Trotsky did have in common, and that one thing may get us closer to the real reason their names have been so readily invoked. Both were Jews. The neoconservatives, it turns out, are also in large proportion Jewish—and this, to their detractors, constitutes evidence of the ulterior motives that lurk behind the policies they espouse.
Lind, for example, writes that neocons “call their revolutionary ideology ‘Wilsonianism’ . . ., but it is really Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution mingled with the far-right Likud strain of Zionism.” Lind’s view was cited at length and with evident approval by the National Journal, which noted that he “isn’t alone”:
Commentators from surprisingly diverse spots on the political spectrum [agree] that neocons took advantage of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to advance a longstanding agenda that is only tangentially related to keeping the United States safe from terrorism. In this view, America’s invasion of Iraq and threatening of Syria have little to do with fighting terrorism, eliminating weapons of mass destruction, or promoting democracy. Instead, those actions largely have to do with settling old grievances, putting oil-rich territory into friendly hands, and tilting the balance of power in the Middle East toward Israel.
Elizabeth Drew made a similar point, if more opaquely:
Because some . . . of the neoconservatives are Jewish and virtually all are strong supporters of the Likud party’s policies, the accusation has been made that their aim to “democratize” the region is driven by their desire to surround Israel with more sympathetic neighbors. Such a view would explain the otherwise puzzling statements by Wolfowitz and others before the [Iraq] war that “the road to peace in the Middle East goes through Baghdad.” But it is also the case that Bush and his chief political adviser Karl Rove are eager both to win more of the Jewish vote in 2004 than Bush did in 2000 and to maintain the support of the Christian Right, whose members are also strong supporters of Israel.
Drew’s use of the word “but” at the head of the last sentence was no doubt designed to distance her from the accusation that the neocons’ motive is to serve the interests of Israel, even as the words that follow the “but” only seem to confirm the charge.
More explicit, and more egregious, was the hard-Left historian Paul Buhle, who wrote in Tikkun that “It is almost as if the anti-Semitic Protocols of Zion, successfully fought for a century, have suddenly returned with an industrial-sized grain of truth”—that “truth” being, of course, that the hawkish policies of the neoconservatives are indeed tailored for Israel’s benefit.
Perhaps the most dramatic effort to expose the hidden Jewish interest underlying neocon ideas was the BBC-TV special on America’s “war party.” It was aired on the program Panorama, which touts itself as the British equivalent of CBS’s 60 Minutes, and the lead-in announced: “Tonight: Will America’s Superhawks Drag Us into More Wars against Their Enemies?” It did not take long for the meaning of the phrase “their enemies” to become apparent. First, however, viewers were introduced to a rogues’ gallery of neoconservative interviewees, each of them filmed at an unusually close angle with the head filling the entire screen for an eerie, repulsive effect. Freeze-frame stills of the subjects were also shown, shifting suddenly from color into the look of white-on-black negatives, while in the background one heard sound effects appropriate to a lineup on a police drama. By contrast, the interviewer, Steve Bradshaw, and a number of guests hostile to the neocons were shown mostly in appealing poses.
On the show itself, Perle was introduced as “the neocons’ political godfather,” a suggestive term whose implication was reinforced by a question put separately to him and another guest: “Are you a Mafia?” As the camera panned over the building that houses AEI and the other arms of this “mafia,” we heard from the announcer that here was where the “future is being plotted.”
And what exactly is being “plotted”? The answer was foreshadowed early on when an unidentified woman-in-the-street said of the war in Iraq: “It seems like there’s . . . another agenda that we’re not really privy to and that is what concerns me most.” Several minutes later, Bradshaw returned to the same motif: “We picked up a recurrent theme of insider talk in Washington. Some leading neocons, people whisper, are strongly pro-Zionist and want to topple regimes in the Middle East to help Israel as well as the U.S.” To shed light on this “highly sensitive issue,” he then turned to Jim Lobe, identified as a “veteran neocon watcher and longstanding opponent of anti-Semitism.”
Lobe was used repeatedly as the show’s resident expert. A reporter with the “alternative” media who prides himself on being a nemesis of neoconservatives, he has no special credentials as an “opponent of anti-Semitism,” but the gratuitous compliment was there for a purpose—namely, to inoculate him and his hosts against the obvious charge of Jew-baiting. For that is indeed what came next. Bradshaw posed the leading question: “You think it’s legitimate to talk about the pro-Israeli politics of some of the neoconservatives?” And Lobe, looking as Jewish as his name sounds, replied: “I think it’s very difficult to understand them if you don’t begin at that point.” A few moments later, in a simulacrum of journalistic balance, Bradshaw allowed the Middle East specialist Meyrav Wurmser to deny any special neoconservative fidelity to Israel. Wurmser is an immigrant to the United States from Israel, and looks and sounds the part; she could not have been chosen with more care to verify the charge she was brought on to deny—that the neoconservatives are indeed a Jewish mafia, dragging both America and Britain into war after war for the sake of Israel.
If there is an element of anti-Semitism at work in some of the attacks on the neoconservatives—and there manifestly is—to call it such is not, alas, enough. Even outright canards need to be rebutted, tedious and demeaning though the exercise may be. So let us ask the question: is it true that neoconservatives are mostly Jews, and are they indeed working to shape U.S. policy out of devotion to the interests of the “Likud party” or of Israel?
Many neoconservatives are in fact Jews. Why this should be so is not self-evident, although part of the answer is surely that Jews, whenever and wherever they have been free to indulge it, exhibit a powerful attraction to politics and particularly to the play of political ideas—an attraction that is evident all across the political spectrum but especially on the Left. Indeed, the disproportionate presence of Jews in early Communist movements in eastern and central Europe became grist for the Nazis and other far-Right movements that portrayed Bolshevism as a Jewish cause whose real purpose was (yes) to serve Jewish interests. In reality, Trotsky and Zinoviev and the other Jewish Communists were no more concerned about the interests of the Jewish people than were Lenin and Stalin—which is to say, not at all.
As it happens, the Jewish affinity with the Left may be one reason why neoconservatism boasts so many Jewish adherents: it is a movement whose own roots lie in the Left. But the same affinity is to be seen at work in many of the insinuations against Jewish neocons by leftists who are themselves Jews, or who profess some Jewish connection. Michael Lind, for one, has gone out of his way to assert his own Jewish “descent,” and Tikkun is in some self-professed sense a Jewish magazine. Even the BBC’s assault on the neocons featured a Jewish critic in the starring role. So passionate are these Jews in their opposition to neoconservative ideas that they have not hesitated to pander to anti-Semitism in the effort to discredit them. What about their ulterior motives, one wonders?
It may sound strange in light of the accusations against them, but in fact the careers of leading neoconservatives have rarely involved work on Middle East issues. The most distinctive of Richard Perle’s many contributions to U.S. policy lie in the realm of nuclear-weapons strategy. Elliott Abrams made his mark as a point man for President Reagan’s policies toward Central America. Paul Wolfowitz’s long career in government includes not only high office in the State and Defense departments but also a stint as ambassador to Indonesia during which he pressed for democratization harder than any of his predecessors.
These three, as well as the rest of the neocon circle, are and were hard-liners toward the USSR, China, Nicaragua, and North Korea. Is it any wonder that they held a similar position toward Saddam Hussein’s Iraq? If Israel did not exist, which of them would have favored giving Hans Blix’s team still more time, or leaving the whole matter in the hands of the UN? Are we to believe that the decades-long neoconservative campaign against Communism and anti-Americanism was a fantastically farsighted Rube Goldberg machine programmed to produce some benefit for Israel somewhere down the line?
The BBC claimed to have found a smoking gun, one that others have pounced on as well. Bradshaw: “In 1996, a group of neocons wrote a report intended as advice for incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benny [sic] Netanyahu. It called for . . . removing Saddam Hussein from power, an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right.” Perle and Douglas Feith, the latter now a high official in Bush’s Defense Department, were among those who had “contributed” to this paper.
Yet even if the BBC had characterized the document accurately, it would not imply what the BBC (and not the BBC alone) suggested it did. The Americans whose names appeared on the paper had long sought Saddam’s ouster, an objective that was already, in 1996, the declared policy of the Clinton administration. It would thus make more sense to say that, in preparing a paper for Netanyahu, they were trying to influence Israeli policy on behalf of American interests than the other way around. Indeed, most Israeli officials at that time viewed Iran, the sponsor of Hizballah and Hamas, as a more pressing threat to their country than Iraq, and (then as later) would have preferred that it be given priority in any campaign against terrorism.
To make matters worse, the BBC fundamentally misrepresented the nature of the document. Contrary to Bradshaw’s claim, no “group of neocons” had written it. Rather, it was the work of a rapporteur summarizing the deliberations of a conference, and was clearly identified as such. The names affixed to it were listed as attendees and not as endorsers, much less authors.
In any case, although it is true that many neocons are Jews, it is also true that many are not. Kirkpatrick, Woolsey, Michael Novak, Linda Chavez, William J. Bennett—all are of pure neocon pedigree, while other non-Jews figuring prominently in current foreign-policy debates and today called neocons include Libby, Bolton, AEI president Christopher DeMuth, and Gary Schmitt of the Project for the New American Century. These Gentile neocons are no less strong in their support of Israel than are Jewish neocons, which suggests a stance growing not out of ethnic loyalty but out of some shared analysis of the rights and wrongs of the Arab-Israel conflict.
Just as it is undeniable that many neoconservatives happen to be Jews, it is undeniable that America’s war against terrorism will redound to Israel’s benefit as the biggest victim of terrorism. But the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, taking at a stroke 3,000 lives, pushed America pretty high up on the list of terror’s victims. That blow, and the certain knowledge that the terrorists would try for even greater carnage in the future, drove us to war in 2001 just as Pearl Harbor had done in 1941.
That earlier decision by the United States suffused Winston Churchill with joy, for England was then on the front lines with the Nazis just as Israel is today on the front line with terrorists. At the time, there were those who said we were going to war for the sake of England. For that matter, there were some who said we were going to war for the sake of the Jews: the subject is perennial. Then, as now, they were wrong.
If any single episode exposes the fatuousness of the charge that neoconservative policies amount to Jewish special pleading, it was the 1990′s war in Bosnia—the same conflict that served to crystallize a post-cold-war approach to foreign policy that might fairly be described as neoconservative. It had been in large part as a response to the Soviet challenge that neoconservatism took shape in the first place, so it is only natural that the end of the cold war should have invited the question Norman Podhoretz raised in 1996: was there anything left of neoconservatism to distinguish it from plain, unprefixed conservatism?
One answer to this question may have come as early as 1992, when hostilities first broke out in Bosnia and then-President George H.W. Bush dismissed them as a “hiccup,” while Secretary of State James Baker declared: “We have no dog in that fight.” These two were not heartless men, but they were exemplars of a traditional conservative cast of mind. The essence of the matter, as they saw it, was that Bosnia engaged little in the way of American interests, which in the conventional view meant vital resources, or strategic geography, or the safety of allies.
Then a movement coalesced in opposition to American inaction. Its leaders, apart from a handful of young foreign-service officers who had resigned from the State Department in protest and who carried no ideological labels, were almost all from neoconservative ranks. Perle, Wolfowitz, Kirkpatrick, and Max Kampelman were among those in the forefront. So ardent was I myself on the issue that Bosnia was the chief of several points impelling me to support Bill Clinton against Bush in 1992, a choice over which I would sing my regrets in these pages when Clinton turned out to care not a whit more about Bosnia than had the elder Bush.3
It bears recalling that the Bosnian cause was championed by international Islamists, and that the Bosnians themselves had been part of the Croatian fascist state during World War II, infamous for its brutality toward Jews. Logically, then, if there was any “Jewish interest” in the conflict, it should have led to support for the Bush-Clinton position. But as the bloodletting wore on, neoconservatives, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, were much more likely than traditional conservatives to support intervention. Despite the occasional, prominent exception—neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer was an opponent of intervention, conservative Senator Bob Dole a supporter—the prevailing division on Bosnia demonstrated that a distinctive neoconservative sensibility, if not ideology, endured, or perhaps had been reborn, after the end of the cold war. It centered on the question of the uses of American power, and it was held even by some who had not made the whole journey from liberalism with the original neocons.
What is that sensibility? In part it may consist in a greater readiness to engage American power and resources where nothing but humanitarian concerns are at issue. In larger part, however, it is concerned with national security, sharing with traditional conservatism the belief that military strength is irreplaceable and that pacifism is folly. Where it parts company with traditional conservatism is in the more contingent approach it takes to guarding that security.
Neoconservatives sought action in Bosnia above all out of the conviction that, however remote the Balkans may be geographically and strategically, allowing a dictator like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic to get away with aggression, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder in Europe would tempt other malign men to do likewise elsewhere, and other avatars of virulent ultranationalism to ride this ticket to power. Neoconservatives believed that American inaction would make the world a more dangerous place, and that ultimately this danger would assume forms that would land on our own doorstep. Thus it had happened throughout the 20th century; and thus, in the fullness of time, it would happen again on September 11 of the first year of the 21st.
In addition to their more contingent approach to security, neoconservatives have shown themselves more disposed to experiment with unconventional tactics—using air strikes against the Serbs, arming the Bosnians or, later, the Iraqi National Congress. By contrast, conservatives of traditional bent are more inclined to favor the use of overwhelming force or none at all, and to be more concerned with “exit strategies.” Still another distinguishing characteristic is that neoconservatives put greater stock in the political and ideological aspects of conflict.
A final distinction may reflect neoconservativism’s vestigial links with liberalism. This is the enthusiasm for democracy. Traditional conservatives are more likely to display an ambivalence toward this form of government, an ambivalence expressed centuries ago by the American founders. Neoconservatives tend to harbor no such doubts.
With this in mind, it also becomes easier to identify the true neoconservative models in the field of power politics: Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Ronald Reagan, and Winston Churchill. These were tough-minded men who were far from “conservative” either in spirit or in political pedigree. Jackson was a Democrat, while Reagan switched to the Republicans late in life, as Churchill did from the Liberals to the Tories. All three were staunch democrats and no less staunch believers in maintaining the might of the democracies. All three believed in confronting democracy’s enemies early and far from home shores; and all three were paragons of ideological warfare.
Each, too, was a creative tactician. Jackson’s eponymous “amendments” holding the Soviet Union’s feet to the fire on the right of emigration and blocking a second unequal nuclear agreement put a stop to American appeasement. Reagan’s provocative rhetoric, plus his arming of anti-Communist guerrillas, paved the way to American victory in the cold war. Churchill’s innovative ideas, which rightly or wrongly had won him disrepute in the first world war, were essential to his nation’s survival in the second. Could this element in neoconservatism help explain why the cause of Israel, an innovative, militarily strong democracy, is embraced by all neoconservatives, non-Jews as well as Jews?
But this brings us back at last to the question of the neocons’ alleged current influence. How did their ideas gain such currency? Did they “hijack” Bush’s foreign policy, right out from under his nose and the noses of Richard Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice—all members of the same team that, to hear the standard liberal version, was itself so diabolically clever that in the 2000 election it had stolen the presidency itself?
The answer is to be found not in conspiracy theories but in the terrorist outrage of September 11, 2001. Though it constituted a watershed in American history, this event was novel not in kind but only in scale. For roughly 30 years, Middle Eastern terrorists had been murdering Americans in embassies, barracks, airplanes, and ships—even, once before, in the World Trade Center. Except for a few criminal prosecutions and the lobbing of a few mostly symbolic shells, the U.S. response had been inert. Even under President Reagan, Americans fled in the wake of the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, then the largest single attack we had suffered.
Terrorism, we were told, was an accepted way of doing politics in the Middle East. More than a handful of the region’s governments openly supported it, and the PLO, an outfit steeped in terror, was the poster child of the Arab cause. Any strong response to this scourge would serve only to make the people of the region angrier at us, and generate still more terrorists.
On September 11, we learned in the most dreadful way that terrorists would not be appeased by our diffidence; quite the contrary. We saw—they themselves told us—that they intended to go on murdering us in ever larger numbers as long as they could. A sharp change of course was required, and the neoconservatives, who had been warning for years that terror must not be appeased, stood vindicated—much as, more grandly, Churchill was vindicated by Hitler’s depredations after Munich.
Not only did the neocons have an analysis of what had gone wrong in American policy, they also stood ready with proposals for what to do now: to wage war on the terror groups and to seek to end or transform governments that supported them, especially those possessing the means to furnish terrorists with the wherewithal to kill even more Americans than on September 11. Neocons also offered a long-term strategy for making the Middle East less of a hotbed of terrorism: implanting democracy in the region and thereby helping to foment a less violent approach to politics.
No neoconservative was elevated in office after September 11, as Churchill had been to prime minister after the collapse of the Munich agreement, but policies by espoused neoconservatives were embraced by the Bush administration. Was this because Bush learned them from the likes of Wolfowitz and Perle? Or did he and his top advisers—none of them known as a neocon—reach similar conclusions on their own? We may have to await the President’s memoirs to learn the answer to that narrow question, but every American has reason to be grateful for the result.
If these policies should fail, for whatever reason—including a recurrence of national faint-heartedness—then neoconservative ideas will no doubt be discredited. But this matters hardly at all compared with what we will have lost. For, if they fail, either we will then be at the mercy of ever more murderous terrorism or we will have to seek alternative methods of coping with it—methods that are likely to involve a much more painful and frightening course of action than the admittedly daunting one that still lies before us.
If, however, the policies succeed, then the world will have been delivered from an awful scourge, and there will be credit enough to go around—some of it, one trusts, even for the lately much demonized neoconservatives.
1 “Neoconservatism: A Eulogy,” March 1996.
2 In a shrill rejoinder to Wald, Lind named me as an exemplar of neocon Trotskyism, calling me a “Schachtmannite” [sic] to boot. Although I did know Max Shachtman, who was a member of the Socialist party when I was active in its youth arm in the 1960′s, I was never a Shachtmanite, and Shachtman himself had ceased to be a Trotskyite about a decade before I met him.
3 “Lament of a Clinton Supporter,” August 1993.