Commentary Magazine


Topic: neoconservatism

Reality Is Neoconservative

“The facts of life are conservative,” said Margaret Thatcher. It was her way of pointing out that, regardless of political fights, the world trudges on behaving in ways that vindicate conservatives’ skepticism of perfectibility schemes: Markets make more efficient use of limited resources than do expert planning bodies. Handouts erode the human spirit. Well-intentioned policies have damaging unintended consequences. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” said Kant, “no straight thing was ever made.” It is the predictably misshapen fruit of man’s efforts that conservatives are (at their best) prepared to catch and to handle—within the bounds of reasonable expectation.

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“The facts of life are conservative,” said Margaret Thatcher. It was her way of pointing out that, regardless of political fights, the world trudges on behaving in ways that vindicate conservatives’ skepticism of perfectibility schemes: Markets make more efficient use of limited resources than do expert planning bodies. Handouts erode the human spirit. Well-intentioned policies have damaging unintended consequences. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” said Kant, “no straight thing was ever made.” It is the predictably misshapen fruit of man’s efforts that conservatives are (at their best) prepared to catch and to handle—within the bounds of reasonable expectation.

In the summer of 2014, is it not clear that reality is neoconservative?  That is to say, disposed toward violence and chaos in the absence of an American-led liberal world order. Recently, the case was made unwittingly not by a neoconservative, but rather by CBS News’s Bob Schieffer. “Trying to understand the news of this terrible summer,” he said, “it is hard to come away with any feeling but that we are in the midst of a world gone mad.” He went on:

On one side of the world, an ego-driven Russian leader seems to yearn for the time of the czars, when rulers started wars on a whim or a perceived insult — and if people died, so be it.
 In the Middle East, the Palestinian people find themselves in the grip of a terrorist group that has embarked on a strategy to get its own children killed in order to build sympathy for its cause — a strategy that might actually be working, at least in some quarters.

Schieffer closed with his own apt quote from Will Durant: “Barbarism, like the jungle, does not die out, but only retreats behind the barriers that civilization has thrown up against it, and waits there always to reclaim that to which civilization has temporarily laid claim.” The barbarians are back.

And just think of what Schieffer’s inventory of barbarism ignored. This week in Iraq, ISIS forced the last of Mosul’s Christians from the city under the threat of death. The United States evacuated its embassy in post-Gaddafi Libya, owing to an orgy of violence taking place there. In a recent 10-day period 1,800 Syrian civilians were killed in the ongoing civil war—a new conflict record.

And when Iran develops its fervently sought nuclear weapon, this will look in retrospect like our last carefree summer.

In the Washington Post, Fred Hiatt has called the current state of affairs “as close to a laboratory experiment on the effects of U.S. disengagement as the real world is ever likely to provide.” In Barack Obama’s global laboratory, the experiment persists even as it fails. The experimental design was laid out in his first speech before the United Nations General Assembly in the fall of 2009. Explaining the hypothesis to be tested, the president said, “In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed.”

Globally interdependent benevolence. It was a nice thought, and, given its uncontested dominance in the academic institutions of which Obama is a product, its implementation was inevitable. But being president of merely one country, Obama could ensure only that it followed the new rules. That country, the United States, was the linchpin of the peaceful post-WWII global order, and national experimentation put the whole planet at risk. Because reality is neoconservative, no one else obeyed. Bad actors around the world mobilized to exploit the new dispensation.

In 2011, a thinker named Richard Tokumei wrote a book arguing that while modern liberals usually believe in evolution, their policy prescriptions tend not to incorporate it. Conversely, says Tokumei, conservatives are more likely to doubt evolution while supporting policies that reflect it. I make no claims for the evolutionary convictions of neocons, but this is at heart an argument about understanding human nature. Neoconservatism is grounded in it. Globally interdependent benevolence is a dream.

The challenge is that reality has only a glancing relationship with political expediency. In the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, neoconservatism remains politically unpopular. That could very well change, depending on the duration and rigor of Obama’s experiment. But whether or not we see a neocon comeback anytime soon, we’ve certainly not seen a serious challenge to neoconservative reality. Which is sad for us all.

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Norman Podhoretz on Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Jews

Readers of COMMENTARY will no doubt be interested in a newly released interview with the magazine’s long serving former editor Norman Podhoretz. The interview, which includes fascinating insights into the evolution of the magazine, as well as some lively reflections from one of America’s preeminent public intellectuals on his own life and work, was recorded at a recent event organized by the Tikvah Fund as part of an advanced institute on Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Jews. You can watch a full recording here, at the Tikvah Fund’s newly launched Live @ Tikvah blog, which features highlights from all of Tikvah’s academic programming.

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Readers of COMMENTARY will no doubt be interested in a newly released interview with the magazine’s long serving former editor Norman Podhoretz. The interview, which includes fascinating insights into the evolution of the magazine, as well as some lively reflections from one of America’s preeminent public intellectuals on his own life and work, was recorded at a recent event organized by the Tikvah Fund as part of an advanced institute on Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Jews. You can watch a full recording here, at the Tikvah Fund’s newly launched Live @ Tikvah blog, which features highlights from all of Tikvah’s academic programming.

During the wide-ranging discussion with the Tikvah Fund’s executive director Eric Cohen, Podhoretz offers a colorful first-hand account of both the emergence of the New Left and the origins of neoconservatism. Describing vividly the political atmosphere he witnessed during the height of the Cold War, Podhoretz recounts the turns of his own ideological transition: from anti-Communist liberal to fellow traveler of the counter-cultural left, before he then began the move toward what would come to be called neoconservatism, a move primarily driven by the pernicious anti-Americanism that was becoming ever more prevalent on the radical left at the time.

Some of the most illuminating parts of the discussion concerned COMMENTARY’s evolution and Norman Podhoretz’s role in these developments. Podhoretz reminded listeners of COMMENTARY’s founding ethos, established in the wake of the Second World War as a fiercely anti-Communist liberal and Jewish magazine. Taking over as editor in 1960 at the age of just thirty, Podhoretz steered the publication from being a predominantly Jewish magazine that took an interest in wider affairs to a general interest magazine with a special concern for Jewish affairs. And having initially given prominence to writers coming from the left, Podhoretz would soon reorient the magazine’s stance once again, leading it to play a crucial role in countering the most subversive elements responsible for waging the culture war, and perhaps more significantly still, positioning COMMENTARY to play a leading part in shaping American thinking on combating the expansionism and ideology of the Soviet Union.

Toward the end of the conversation, Podhoretz gives his thoughts on such contemporary concerns as radical Islam’s war on the West, Israel, religious faith, and the current state of American Jews. He reflects on why so many American Jews still adhere to a certain left-leaning liberalism, and in turn on why this political outlook has been bad for society in general, and why it remains “bad for the Jews” in particular.

If nothing else, listening to this interview, one is reminded of just what a powerful and compelling voice Norman Podhoretz has been over the years, and just how much American conservatives today owe to the work that he and his generation undertook.

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A Cheerful Conservative

Building on Tom Wilson’s fine post on the creation of the Foundation for Constitutional Government’s new website devoted to the writings of Irving Kristol (irvingkristol.org), I thought it worthwhile to recall some of the contributions made by Kristol to conservatism.

One of them was a humane political realism, including helping conservatives make their own inner peace with the New Deal. In 1976 Kristol wrote:

Neo-conservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of a welfare state, but it is critical of the Great Society version of this welfare state.  In general, it approves of those social reforms that, while providing needed security and comfort to the individual in our dynamic, urbanized society, do so with a minimum of bureaucratic intrusion in the individual’s affairs… while being for the welfare state, it is opposed to the paternalistic state.  It also believes that this welfare state will best promote the common good if it is conceived in such a way, as not to go bankrupt.

Second, Kristol was a man whose philosophical commitments were always accompanied by what he said was “a degree of detachment.” He was wise enough to know that no movement, even one he was a part of, was without flaws. He knew every political philosophy has inherent limitations and therefore he had the (rare) ability to be both a part of a movement and to see it from a distance, to believe in a cause even while being alert to its weaknesses.

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Building on Tom Wilson’s fine post on the creation of the Foundation for Constitutional Government’s new website devoted to the writings of Irving Kristol (irvingkristol.org), I thought it worthwhile to recall some of the contributions made by Kristol to conservatism.

One of them was a humane political realism, including helping conservatives make their own inner peace with the New Deal. In 1976 Kristol wrote:

Neo-conservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of a welfare state, but it is critical of the Great Society version of this welfare state.  In general, it approves of those social reforms that, while providing needed security and comfort to the individual in our dynamic, urbanized society, do so with a minimum of bureaucratic intrusion in the individual’s affairs… while being for the welfare state, it is opposed to the paternalistic state.  It also believes that this welfare state will best promote the common good if it is conceived in such a way, as not to go bankrupt.

Second, Kristol was a man whose philosophical commitments were always accompanied by what he said was “a degree of detachment.” He was wise enough to know that no movement, even one he was a part of, was without flaws. He knew every political philosophy has inherent limitations and therefore he had the (rare) ability to be both a part of a movement and to see it from a distance, to believe in a cause even while being alert to its weaknesses.

Third, Kristol warned the right against “equat[ing] conservatism with a desperate, defensive commitment to the status quo.” The danger facing conservatism was risk-averseness and a “feebleness of the imagination,” with conservatism being seen as “a tedious if necessary interregnum during which the excesses of the Left are tidied up.”

“Unless conservatives can legitimate their claim to office with a persuasive assertion of the claim to be the future, theirs is a lost cause,” Kristol wrote in 1982. “As between no claim to the future and a fraudulent claim, the latter will always prevail in an ideological age.” 

Fourth, Kristol offered a corrective to the conservative temptation to embrace, enthusiastically and without qualification, populism. He had faith in common people, just not that much faith in them. He understood, as the Founders did, the danger of a citizenry corrupting itself.

A fifth quality of Irving Kristol’s that conservatism today would be wise to replicate is what his friend Charles Krauthammer called “his extraordinary equanimity.”

His temperament was marked by a total lack of rancor. Angst, bitterness and anguish were alien to him. That, of course, made him unusual among the fraternity of conservatives because we believe that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. That makes us cranky. But not Irving. Never Irving. He retained steadiness, serenity and grace that expressed themselves in a courtliness couched in a calm quiet humor.

When you think about some of the leading figures on the right today, words like “steadiness” and “serenity,” “grace” and “calm quiet humor” are not ones that immediately come to mind. Instead the tone and approach we often hear can best be described as apocalyptic, brittle, angry, and embittered. This approach to politics, by the way, was not simply stylistic; it was rooted in a deep understanding of conservatism itself. Kristol believed conservatism was “antiromantic in substance and temperament.” It’s approach to the world, he wrote, “is more ‘rabbinic’ than ‘prophetic.’”

It also would help for conservatism to embody a kind of cheerfulness that was a hallmark of Kristol. As his writings show, he was deeply realistic. He certainly didn’t sugarcoat things. In fact, he described himself as “cheerfully pessimistic.” But one sensed that deep down, the needle leaned a bit more in the direction of cheerfulness than pessimism.

In any event, as long as I’ve been alive (and well before I was born) there have been people on the right issuing dark warnings of the decomposition and dissolution of the West; people who worn about impending tyranny and America’s march toward Gomorrah. I’m all for cursing the darkness when necessary, and have done a bit of it myself now and then. But that cast of mind, without any leavening agent, can lead to despair and radicalism. Those attitudes were unknown to Irving Kristol. He seemed very much at home in the world in the best sense and nudged it along in the right direction when he could. And my how he did.  

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Boko Haram and the Liberal Elites

Some on the right are mocking the Twitter offensive being conducted by the administration and the liberal and Hollywood elite against the Boko Haram terrorists who abducted 300 Nigerian girls from a school and then boasted this week that they would sell them into slavery. While everyone agrees that the mass kidnapping and the effort to stop girls from being educated is outrageous, some people think there’s something slightly absurd about the fact that it seems as if the principal response of the West to this latest instance of Islamist depredations is to tweet about it. They’re right about that.

Let’s specify that making fun of the first lady for joining in the chorus of #bringbackourgirls tweets is both mean-spirited and beside the point. It is to the credit of Mrs. Obama that she would attempt to use her enormous international prestige to help dramatize the plight of the girls and add further force to the anger about the crime. Neither she nor any of the Hollywood stars that are use their Twitter accounts to put themselves on the side of those seeking to undo this injustice have anything to apologize about. Considering that all too many of this same group often devote their public utterances to inconsequential affairs or, worse, peddling the conventional wisdom about issues in the form of liberal platitudes, none of them can do much about Boko Harm other than stating their opposition–and good for them for doing so.

But once we’ve defended the backlash of outrage on Twitter, it is time to admit that Rush Limbaugh may have had a point when he noted last week that some of those who have done their bit for the abducted girls on Twitter may be under the delusion that doing so actually constitutes something important or even a tangible response to the crime. Much like the isolationists who must now explain why they think it is appropriate for the U.S. to try to do something about the 300 girls but still advocate a retreat from engagement in the war against Islamist terror, liberals must examine the disconnect between their outrage and the weak foreign policy of the Obama administration that they have cheered.

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Some on the right are mocking the Twitter offensive being conducted by the administration and the liberal and Hollywood elite against the Boko Haram terrorists who abducted 300 Nigerian girls from a school and then boasted this week that they would sell them into slavery. While everyone agrees that the mass kidnapping and the effort to stop girls from being educated is outrageous, some people think there’s something slightly absurd about the fact that it seems as if the principal response of the West to this latest instance of Islamist depredations is to tweet about it. They’re right about that.

Let’s specify that making fun of the first lady for joining in the chorus of #bringbackourgirls tweets is both mean-spirited and beside the point. It is to the credit of Mrs. Obama that she would attempt to use her enormous international prestige to help dramatize the plight of the girls and add further force to the anger about the crime. Neither she nor any of the Hollywood stars that are use their Twitter accounts to put themselves on the side of those seeking to undo this injustice have anything to apologize about. Considering that all too many of this same group often devote their public utterances to inconsequential affairs or, worse, peddling the conventional wisdom about issues in the form of liberal platitudes, none of them can do much about Boko Harm other than stating their opposition–and good for them for doing so.

But once we’ve defended the backlash of outrage on Twitter, it is time to admit that Rush Limbaugh may have had a point when he noted last week that some of those who have done their bit for the abducted girls on Twitter may be under the delusion that doing so actually constitutes something important or even a tangible response to the crime. Much like the isolationists who must now explain why they think it is appropriate for the U.S. to try to do something about the 300 girls but still advocate a retreat from engagement in the war against Islamist terror, liberals must examine the disconnect between their outrage and the weak foreign policy of the Obama administration that they have cheered.

Is it too much to ask that anyone who is angry about Boko Haram needs to understand that getting the girls back or helping the millions of other men, women, and children threatened by Islamist terror requires more than a hashtag and a selfie? Though the left still mocks neoconservatives as “warmongers,” do those flocking to Twitter really think anything short of force will rescue the girls, if indeed that is still possible after both the Nigerian government and the rest of the world has dithered about their fate in recent weeks?

Social media is an effective marketing and informational tool but terrorists are defeated by force, not sternly worded tweets. We’d all like to believe, as the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof does, that education would defeat Boko Haram in the long run. But an administration that waited years before designated this al-Qaeda affiliate as a terrorist group, and whose “lead from behind” tactics created the power vacuum in Libya that led to it being armed, cannot evade some of the responsibility for the fact that it now operates with apparent impunity.

Like it or not, the West is locked in a long war with Islamist terror. Retreating from Iraq and Afghanistan won’t end it. Nor will détente with Iran or pressure on Israel. It will require patience that democracies often lack and a willingness to maintain both vigilance and an aggressive policy that keeps America engaged even when we’d rather stay at home and tend our own gardens. But most of all it will require Americans, both the ordinary person in the street as well as the Hollywood elite, to understand that incidents like the Boko Haram abduction can’t be isolated from a conflict they would rather forget or pretend was merely a function of Bush administration policy.

So tweet about the girls all you want, Hollywood. But while you’re tweeting about the girls in between attending fundraisers for the president who has weakened our ability to influence events abroad, just remember that if you really want to help the girls and the countless other potential victims of Islamist terror, you need to also support a strong America and the use of force to defend the values we all believe in.

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Irving Kristol Revisited

All those who have admired and been influenced by the work of Irving Kristol will be delighted to learn that the Foundation for Constitutional Government has created a valuable new resource; irvingkristol.org. The launch of the website comes as part of a series of similar sites that the FCG has established to celebrate the vast contribution made by such figures as James Q. Wilson, Harvey Mansfield, and Walter Berns. As well as providing a biographical overview, the Kristol website includes such useful resources as a full bibliography of Kristol’s writings organized by subject, a catalogue of commentary on Kristol’s thought, and an extensive multimedia archive, made all the more rare and fascinating given the way Kristol for the most part shunned the limelight.

Irving Kristol was arguably one of the most important political thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century. Portrayed as the godfather of neoconservatism, Kristol, along with such figures as former COMMENTARY editor Norman Podhoretz, was responsible for reshaping America’s political landscape irreversibly. The role that Kristol’s thought—and his journal the Public Interest–played in the Reagan Revolution was surely a key component in turning America’s fortunes around after the fraught years of the 1970s and the Carter presidency.

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All those who have admired and been influenced by the work of Irving Kristol will be delighted to learn that the Foundation for Constitutional Government has created a valuable new resource; irvingkristol.org. The launch of the website comes as part of a series of similar sites that the FCG has established to celebrate the vast contribution made by such figures as James Q. Wilson, Harvey Mansfield, and Walter Berns. As well as providing a biographical overview, the Kristol website includes such useful resources as a full bibliography of Kristol’s writings organized by subject, a catalogue of commentary on Kristol’s thought, and an extensive multimedia archive, made all the more rare and fascinating given the way Kristol for the most part shunned the limelight.

Irving Kristol was arguably one of the most important political thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century. Portrayed as the godfather of neoconservatism, Kristol, along with such figures as former COMMENTARY editor Norman Podhoretz, was responsible for reshaping America’s political landscape irreversibly. The role that Kristol’s thought—and his journal the Public Interest–played in the Reagan Revolution was surely a key component in turning America’s fortunes around after the fraught years of the 1970s and the Carter presidency.

Today neoconservatism is heavily associated with foreign-policy matters. Yet, a rediscovery of Irving Kristol’s writings might serve as a reminder of just how much first-generation neoconservatives were concerned with social and domestic issues. It may ultimately be that it is in this arena that neoconservatism can continue to play a decisive role in American politics. In the wake of the welfare dependency deepened by the Obama administration, and with a Republican Party that risks fracture between libertarians an social conservatives, Kristol’s thinking may yet offer a way forward for many trying to grapple with contemporary issues. Of course, none of this is to detract from the important role that neoconservatism has played and continues to play in offering a vital dose of moral clarity to America’s foreign-policy debate.

The launch of irvingkristol.org may prove timely. A young generation of conservatives is confronted with perplexing questions about fierce divisions opening up within parts of American society and painful conflicts raging in their own camp. Reading Kristol now may shed some light on what is going wrong in our political thinking and what is to be done about it. 

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Are Neoconservatives Permitted to Define Their Own Worldview?

Earlier this week, Reihan Salam used his Slate column to explain why he’s “Still a Neocon.” In the course of his column, Salam defined neoconservatism in generally mainstream and positive terms, and so leftists and paleocons immediately and predictably took offense. What gives neoconservatives the right to define their own ideology, they wondered, and proceeded to explain to Salam who he really is and what he really thinks. (Spoiler: they respect him too much to admit he’s a neocon.)

Few things are quite as devoid of self-awareness as critics of neoconservatism complaining that neoconservatives define the term too broadly. (Salam’s colleague Joshua Keating’s response is crowned with a photo of Dick Cheney, which tells you something about the left’s understanding of conservative policy currents.) Nonetheless, while many of the responses fell into this category, some were certainly thoughtful attempts to advance the conversation. Last week, David Harsanyi raised reasonable objections to mischaracterizations of Rand Paul’s libertarian-leaning foreign policy. This time, though, in a good-faith piece on his own falling out with neoconservative ideology Harsanyi falls into the trap of mischaracterizing neoconservatism with regard to the Iraq war. Harsanyi writes:

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Earlier this week, Reihan Salam used his Slate column to explain why he’s “Still a Neocon.” In the course of his column, Salam defined neoconservatism in generally mainstream and positive terms, and so leftists and paleocons immediately and predictably took offense. What gives neoconservatives the right to define their own ideology, they wondered, and proceeded to explain to Salam who he really is and what he really thinks. (Spoiler: they respect him too much to admit he’s a neocon.)

Few things are quite as devoid of self-awareness as critics of neoconservatism complaining that neoconservatives define the term too broadly. (Salam’s colleague Joshua Keating’s response is crowned with a photo of Dick Cheney, which tells you something about the left’s understanding of conservative policy currents.) Nonetheless, while many of the responses fell into this category, some were certainly thoughtful attempts to advance the conversation. Last week, David Harsanyi raised reasonable objections to mischaracterizations of Rand Paul’s libertarian-leaning foreign policy. This time, though, in a good-faith piece on his own falling out with neoconservative ideology Harsanyi falls into the trap of mischaracterizing neoconservatism with regard to the Iraq war. Harsanyi writes:

As I understand it, contemporary neoconservatism is a philosophy that advocates the promotion of “democracy” and liberal ideals abroad – and one that isn’t shy about using military power to achieve those goals. It’s a doctrine that is far more hawkish than the one Salam describes. The central argument of the neocons in the early 2000s was that an invasion of Iraq would result in the spreading of democratic values across the Middle East; ideals that would be embraced by the people and transform once-bellicose adversaries into reliable allies. For a time, regrettably, I supported the Iraq War because I naively bought into the notion that the United States could turn a neighborhood of authoritarian regimes into a peaceful, economically integrating Middle East. (I also believed one of these regimes had WMDs). As it turned out social engineering doesn’t work abroad either.

The paragraph compresses the timeline of neoconservative thinking on Iraq. Yes, democracy promotion was part of the nation-building strategy in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But it’s misleading to suggest that the desire to spread democracy was the reason we invaded Iraq. As Harsanyi notes, there were the widespread fears of weapons of mass destruction, which themselves came after (chronologically speaking) other concerns. The first Gulf war ended with a formal ceasefire agreement, the terms of which Saddam steadily began violating. After the breakdown of the ceasefire, Saddam’s forces started firing on American aircraft patrolling a no-fly zone. Then came the worries over WMD.

The timeline is crucial to understanding the thought process taking place inside the Bush administration on how to handle Saddam and what to do about Iraq. In the event Saddam was to be overthrown by an American-led effort, what should replace him? Here I’ll quote from Doug Feith’s memoir, War and Decision, about the various alternatives being proffered and their merits, including replacing Saddam without a wholesale transfer of institutional power, referred to as “Saddamism without Saddam”:

Suppose we could bring about Saddam’s replacement by Iraqis who would preserve Sunni control—the most likely candidates, given their predominance in the Baathist regime. Even aside from whether the American people would tolerate their government’s installing a new dictatorship in Iraq, the deck would be stacked against that new regime. The Kurds and the Shia are 80 to 85 percent of the Iraqi population. What if one or both of those groups seized the opportunity to rebel? What would be America’s responsibility and response? In the hope of achieving stability, could we support the dictatorship in crushing a rebellion for majority rule? It was not America’s proudest moment when we watched Saddam crush the Shiites after Desert Storm in 1991. Now we would be standing by in favor of leaders we had helped install.

Saddamism without Saddam was rejected, and rightfully so. Now, you can use this information to argue that the war should have been avoided and Saddam left in power, if you’re so inclined. But it’s incorrect to suggest that neoconservative supporters of the Iraq war chose to spread democracy by the sword and then fixed their target, or that the Iraq war demonstrates that neoconservatives believe the cause of spreading democracy is sufficient to justify the invasion and occupation of another country.

In 1976, Irving Kristol attempted to define a “neoconservative” worldview. Kristol famously thought of neoconservatism as a “persuasion,” and he didn’t particularly care what it was called. (He said he would not have been surprised had the term given to his worldview changed over time.) “In foreign policy, neoconservatism believes that American democracy is not likely to survive for long in a world that is overwhelmingly hostile to American values, if only because our transactions (economic and diplomatic) with other nations are bound eventually to have a profound impact on our own domestic economic and political system,” he wrote.

How we help foster a world that isn’t overwhelmingly hostile to American values is a complex question that requires an array of policy choices, but isn’t well served by deep retrenchment, which is what Salam appears to be warning against most of all. Neoconservatism’s critics would benefit greatly from exploring more of those policy choices than just massive demonstrations of military force.

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Daenerys Targarean, Neoconservative

In the wake of the debut this past weekend of the fourth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, some writers must be forgiven for jumping the proverbial shark while exploiting the cable network hit to make some odd policy points. The show, based on the novels of George R.R. Martin, is a fantasy set in a mythical world similar to our own Middle Ages but including dragons and zombies along with human characters. The novels are a great read and the show is riveting even though, predictably for HBO, it has a lot more sex than the books along with very graphic violence. Martin’s multi-layered plot revolves around a dynastic struggle that has been aptly compared to England’s War of the Roses, and if the author’s elegant and fully characterized prose is not quite the equal of Shakespeare’s account of that conflict in his history plays, it is still a marvelous confection. But it is also an irresistible target for pundits seeking a news hook for rehearsing old political grudges.

One such example comes from Ezra Klein’s new site Vox where Zach Beauchamp argues that one of the most beloved characters on Thrones is actually a stand-in for that liberal boogeyman George W. Bush. According to Beauchamp, Daenerys Targarean, the platinum blond bombshell that is the last remnant of a deposed dynasty as well as a magical figure known as the mother of dragons that she helped hatch in a fire that left her untouched, is a stand-in for the 43rd president. The princess isn’t just intent on regaining the throne her mad father lost. In her exile, she has taken up the anti-slavery cause and, aided by broadsword and spear wielding allies, has become the John Brown of the fantasy world. Thus, if you weren’t already won over by her hot looks and those dragons that dote on her, her anti-slavery credentials make her an unambiguous good guy in a story where even the greatest heroes and worst villains are (with perhaps only one exception) complex creations rather than cardboard cutouts.

But Beauchamp thinks there’s a hidden problem with Daenerys. In a piece that seems more serious than tongue in check, he builds a case that the princess’s foreign policy is “Bushian to a tee.” He points out that, like neoconservatives, the mother of dragons sees the world in black and white rather than in Obama-like grey terms. She tells the slave masters that they must either give up their evildoing or face the consequences and her “freedom agenda” is just like the rhetoric that got W into the business of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and trying to remake Afghanistan. But while such a mission is both complicated and more costly than a more self-interested quest for a throne, if we accept this premise, it’s worth asking whether Thrones is quite the commentary on the futility of war that its left-leaning author intended it to be.

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In the wake of the debut this past weekend of the fourth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, some writers must be forgiven for jumping the proverbial shark while exploiting the cable network hit to make some odd policy points. The show, based on the novels of George R.R. Martin, is a fantasy set in a mythical world similar to our own Middle Ages but including dragons and zombies along with human characters. The novels are a great read and the show is riveting even though, predictably for HBO, it has a lot more sex than the books along with very graphic violence. Martin’s multi-layered plot revolves around a dynastic struggle that has been aptly compared to England’s War of the Roses, and if the author’s elegant and fully characterized prose is not quite the equal of Shakespeare’s account of that conflict in his history plays, it is still a marvelous confection. But it is also an irresistible target for pundits seeking a news hook for rehearsing old political grudges.

One such example comes from Ezra Klein’s new site Vox where Zach Beauchamp argues that one of the most beloved characters on Thrones is actually a stand-in for that liberal boogeyman George W. Bush. According to Beauchamp, Daenerys Targarean, the platinum blond bombshell that is the last remnant of a deposed dynasty as well as a magical figure known as the mother of dragons that she helped hatch in a fire that left her untouched, is a stand-in for the 43rd president. The princess isn’t just intent on regaining the throne her mad father lost. In her exile, she has taken up the anti-slavery cause and, aided by broadsword and spear wielding allies, has become the John Brown of the fantasy world. Thus, if you weren’t already won over by her hot looks and those dragons that dote on her, her anti-slavery credentials make her an unambiguous good guy in a story where even the greatest heroes and worst villains are (with perhaps only one exception) complex creations rather than cardboard cutouts.

But Beauchamp thinks there’s a hidden problem with Daenerys. In a piece that seems more serious than tongue in check, he builds a case that the princess’s foreign policy is “Bushian to a tee.” He points out that, like neoconservatives, the mother of dragons sees the world in black and white rather than in Obama-like grey terms. She tells the slave masters that they must either give up their evildoing or face the consequences and her “freedom agenda” is just like the rhetoric that got W into the business of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and trying to remake Afghanistan. But while such a mission is both complicated and more costly than a more self-interested quest for a throne, if we accept this premise, it’s worth asking whether Thrones is quite the commentary on the futility of war that its left-leaning author intended it to be.

Martin was actually a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and a stern critic of Bush who, as Beauchamp notes, saw his literary saga as an attempt to debunk the notion of military glory. In Thrones, really bad things happen to good people all the time and even a war launched for supposedly noble purposes leads to widespread suffering and chaos that mocks the goals of those that started the violence. Indeed, as anyone who has read all five of the books (with more promised by the writer as well as at least two more seasons after this one from HBO) knows, Daenerys’s war of slave liberation leads to conflicts that are as difficult to resolve as the more cynical fighting that goes on for less principled reasons in this fantasy world.

That means, as Beauchamp writes, by the end of the story, if indeed Martin ever comes up with one, the conclusion may leave the princess feeling a bit like Bush 43 at the end of his second term.

But if that’s the worst thing you can say about the character then perhaps Bush’s rehabilitation has migrated from the realm of conservative punditry and started to infiltrate the world of popular culture. Whatever happened in Iraq or Afghanistan, President Bush and those who helped craft that “freedom agenda” that is so despised by his immediate successor stood up for the highest values of Western civilization. In seeking to draw a bright line between the forces of tyranny and terror and those of democracy, Bush held out hope for captive peoples. By casting his policy in moral terms in which the notion of freedom wasn’t limited to Anglophone democracies but to the entire planet, he articulated a vision that may well stand up better than the “lead from behind” incompetence of his successor. Perhaps history will ultimately decide that such idealism did more good than the harm that “freedom agenda” wars unleashed in both the real world and the fantasy kingdoms of Martin’s Westeros.

Much as Martin may not have intended it, Beauchamp may be right that Daenerys is something of a neoconservative. If so, her popularity may indicate that in the eyes of pop culture, George W. Bush wasn’t such a bad guy after all.

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New GOP Stars Rekindle an Old Conservative Debate

Though Rand Paul didn’t set any records in his 13-hour filibuster, there was at least one era-defining moment. It may sound silly, but when fellow GOP Senator Ted Cruz helped sustain the filibuster by reading tweets about the filibuster that used the hashtag inspired by that very filibuster, he marked an interesting notch on America’s political timeline. It was also, as Tim Groseclose pointed out at Ricochet, an interesting “reverse” homage to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Beyond the social media aspect of it, there was also the relative youth of the senators taking part in the filibuster who went a long way yesterday to solidifying the generational shift currently underway in the GOP. This is not your father’s Republican Party was the very clear message (and not only because Marco Rubio quoted his favorite rap artists at one point). We have been, as have many in the world of political journalism, writing about the 2016 presidential race even as we add the caveat that it is early and things can (and probably will) change. But the basic assumptions outlining those articles have always included Rand Paul and Marco Rubio as two anchors of the opposing sides in the foreign policy debates that would unfold if both men choose to vie for the next Republican presidential nomination. As Rubio showed yesterday by supporting Paul’s filibuster, there will be some overlap in the political positions of the two senators. Paul is not his father; nonetheless, he and Rubio do seem to fundamentally disagree on America’s role in the world.

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Though Rand Paul didn’t set any records in his 13-hour filibuster, there was at least one era-defining moment. It may sound silly, but when fellow GOP Senator Ted Cruz helped sustain the filibuster by reading tweets about the filibuster that used the hashtag inspired by that very filibuster, he marked an interesting notch on America’s political timeline. It was also, as Tim Groseclose pointed out at Ricochet, an interesting “reverse” homage to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Beyond the social media aspect of it, there was also the relative youth of the senators taking part in the filibuster who went a long way yesterday to solidifying the generational shift currently underway in the GOP. This is not your father’s Republican Party was the very clear message (and not only because Marco Rubio quoted his favorite rap artists at one point). We have been, as have many in the world of political journalism, writing about the 2016 presidential race even as we add the caveat that it is early and things can (and probably will) change. But the basic assumptions outlining those articles have always included Rand Paul and Marco Rubio as two anchors of the opposing sides in the foreign policy debates that would unfold if both men choose to vie for the next Republican presidential nomination. As Rubio showed yesterday by supporting Paul’s filibuster, there will be some overlap in the political positions of the two senators. Paul is not his father; nonetheless, he and Rubio do seem to fundamentally disagree on America’s role in the world.

But the fact that Paul is not his father is very important to the debate. As Paul demonstrated yesterday, he is well informed on foreign affairs and he is not afraid to speak his mind. And while his father, Ron Paul, could easily be dismissed as out of the mainstream, a crank, and even a conspiracy theorist, Rand Paul cannot be so dismissed. And that means the foreign policy debate is no longer conservative vs. not conservative; it is going to be a robust debate within the conservative movement between two traditional spheres of thought.

The idea that America plays an indispensable role in the world with an active foreign policy and unabashed effort to support freedom and fair play, and is willing to sacrifice on behalf of our allies, is a conservative idea. Protecting the free market at home has long required the protection of the global free market, and defending American democracy has long required a willingness to recognize and fend off threats to our way of life from a full range of sources. As Irving Kristol wrote in 1976, “In foreign policy, neoconservatism believes that American democracy is not likely to survive for long in a world that is overwhelmingly hostile to American values, if only because our transactions (economic and diplomatic) with other nations are bound eventually to have a profound impact on our own domestic economic and political system.”

It’s also partly what was behind the famous “Lafayette, we are here!” declaration when General Pershing’s troops first arrived in France in the First World War. We recognize that our freedom came with the help of allies to our cause, and we can be counted on to remember that when the chips are down for our friends and allies.

It was easy for those of us who disagree with Paul’s outlook on executive authority in wartime, America’s muscular foreign policy, and the general prosecution of the war on terror to defend our position against the elder Paul; not so with Paul the younger. When you drop the conspiracy theories, the tendency to blame America first, and the military isolationism, what’s left is an outlook with roots in the American conservative tradition as well. After World War II, when America decided it was necessary to construct the modern national security state, it did so amidst a debate on the right. Those who supported the new national security apparatus argued that the free world, especially the U.S., invited threats and challenges by drawing down after each war and retrenching from the world stage. We could be taken by surprise and caught unprepared.

That may be so, responded those more skeptical of increased federal power, but this is the same argument that led to the New Deal. We were told the federal government must have far-reaching powers in place before a crisis actually occurs. Yet a bureaucracy that owes its existence to a certain mission will always seek out elements of that mission even when they are illusory. Thus, the federal government has been encroaching on American economic freedom ever since the New Deal because the bureaucracy it created must justify its continued existence by feeding on perceived threats to American economic stability. Isn’t that, they asked, in effect what is being argued here in favor of creating broad wartime powers that will extend into peacetime and may seek out threats where they don’t actually exist?

That is the question at the essence of Rand Paul’s foreign policy worldview. And it must be answered effectively by a new generation of conservative voices who have the attention of the grassroots and the base where older members of the party do not. Paul’s perspective would leave America less able to protect itself at home and abroad. But he can argue that position eloquently for 13 consecutive hours with the conservative movement cheering him on. Paul’s question may have been directed at the president and the attorney general, but it also likely drew the battle lines in the ensuing competition to lead the GOP.

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Internationalist Foreign Policy Still Dominant in GOP

In response to my item yesterday about the need for Republicans to do a better job articulating their case on national security, Mieke Eoyang of the Democratic think tank Third Way tweeted back: “First Republicans need to decide where they fall on the interventionist/isolationist spectrum. And you’re far from consensus.” On a superficial level she appears to be right; but I actually think she is more wrong than right.

Yes, there are some Republican isolationists, such as Senator Rand Paul, but they are a tiny minority within the party. The mainstream of the GOP is defined, as it has been for most of the postwar era, by a commitment to a strong defense and an active American role in the world. That involves, but is not limited to, a robust use of American military power. Even the most realpolitik president since Nixon–that would be George H.W. Bush–undertook interventions in Panama, Kuwait, and Somalia, the latter primarily out of humanitarian motives. This Reaganesque foreign policy–which might also be called Rooseveltian, after both Theodore and Franklin–puts American ideals front and center in our foreign policy-making even if we must sometimes compromise those ideals in practice. Again, the elder Bush is a good example; remember the way he rallied the nation, in a positively Wilsonian fashion, to stop Saddam Hussein by citing the need to create a New World Order.

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In response to my item yesterday about the need for Republicans to do a better job articulating their case on national security, Mieke Eoyang of the Democratic think tank Third Way tweeted back: “First Republicans need to decide where they fall on the interventionist/isolationist spectrum. And you’re far from consensus.” On a superficial level she appears to be right; but I actually think she is more wrong than right.

Yes, there are some Republican isolationists, such as Senator Rand Paul, but they are a tiny minority within the party. The mainstream of the GOP is defined, as it has been for most of the postwar era, by a commitment to a strong defense and an active American role in the world. That involves, but is not limited to, a robust use of American military power. Even the most realpolitik president since Nixon–that would be George H.W. Bush–undertook interventions in Panama, Kuwait, and Somalia, the latter primarily out of humanitarian motives. This Reaganesque foreign policy–which might also be called Rooseveltian, after both Theodore and Franklin–puts American ideals front and center in our foreign policy-making even if we must sometimes compromise those ideals in practice. Again, the elder Bush is a good example; remember the way he rallied the nation, in a positively Wilsonian fashion, to stop Saddam Hussein by citing the need to create a New World Order.

Mitt Romney presented himself as being squarely in the middle of this foreign policy tradition with his commitment to maintain our current level of defense spending, to stop Iran, get more actively involved in helping rebels in Syria, get tougher on Russia and China, and to defend Israel–the latter a particular bugbear of isolationists and realpolitikers. Few of his primary challengers, save the marginalized Ron Paul, disagreed; if anything, Rick Santorum and other candidates had an even more expansive foreign policy vision. Those among the early frontrunners for the 2016 nomination who have spoken out on foreign policy–in particular Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan–fall squarely into the same tradition.

There is certainly room for disagreement in the Republican party about particular policies or interventions; even those who have the same philosophical grounding will disagree about how to implement it in on occasion. (One recalls that Charles Krauthammer was against intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s–an intervention that other “neocons” strongly supported.) But the same is true in the Democratic Party, which is split between those who wanted to intervene in Libya (and now Syria) and those who didn’t. Overall, however, the conservative international foreign policy championed most successfully by Ronald Reagan remains alive, well, and dominant within the GOP.

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The Political Value of Novelists

Pauls Toutonghi was in San Francisco the other day to promote his new novel Evel Knievel Days when he spotted a sign above a tire store:

THE FOUR SADDEST WORDS
IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
ARE
GORE VIDAL IS DEAD

Toutonghi was immediately provoked into reflection. At a time when the “political rifts” between Americans are “both deep and intransigent,” at a time when (quoting the Pew Center) “their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years,” why aren’t our novelists bringing Americans together? What our politicians seem incapable of doing, the novelist does in his writing on a daily basis:

The novelist is comfortable with the cognitive dissonance created by considering two opposing points of view. Anger, after all, arises from our own inability to imagine that our opponent’s view might be correct. But novelists — good novelists — are ceaselessly imaginative. They have to be. They are always considering opposing views and possibilities; they have trained their imaginations to voyage into the bleakest places, to voyage into the territory of the irrational and the wildly passionate.

So why, Toutonghi asks, are American novelists not to be found in “the mainstream of political discourse”? The short answer is that few of them are as generous to their opponents as Pauls Toutonghi. Anyone who reads much contemporary fiction — I am condemned by professional responsibilities to do so — would be hard-pressed to name more than two or three American novelists who have put any effort at all into imagining that political conservatives’ view of the world might be correct.

The locus classicus, of course, as I’ve written elsewhere, is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a celebrated novel in which George W. Bush is relentlessly bashed (even his twin daughters come in for a bashing) and the dangerous view of freedom, the evil view the novel is written to reject, is espoused by a neoconservative bogeyman.

The neocon explains that it is ethically acceptable to manipulate the media — to lie to them about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for example — “in the service of a greater truth.” You have to resort to the expedient of lying with people “who are not only unable but unwilling to admit certain truths whose logic is self-evident to you,” he says. But don’t even those people have the right to think whatever they want? Isn’t that precisely what freedom means, even if it means that freedom is a pain in the ass?

“That’s exactly right,” [the neocon] said. “Freedom is a pain in the ass. And that’s precisely why it’s so imperative that we seize the opportunity that’s been presented to us this fall [after 9/11]. To get a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatever means necessary.”

So much for considering opposing views and possibilities. In Point Omega, Don DeLillo does not even try to imagine the interior workings of a foreign-policy neoconservative’s mind — the neocon lies about the “haiku” war in Iraq, the “war in three lines,” by silence and omission. Franzen, DeLillo, and their peers in the American literati belong to the party of Pauline Kael: they can’t believe that a Republican ever wins an election, because they don’t know anyone who has ever voted for a Republican.

In Second Sight, the seventh novel by Charles McCarry (one of the scarce American novelists on the right), a famous TV journalist finds himself at a dinner party where, during the conversation over dessert, Richard Nixon is defended. The left has “made Mr. Nixon stand for evil and they think that all it takes to be virtuous is to hate him,” his hostess says. It is “the politics of self-congratulation.” The journalist is “visibly shocked and offended.” Never before in his life has he ever heard anyone defend Richard Nixon. “It’s a good thing you only sound like that in the privacy of your own home,” he says stiffly.

How many contemporary American novelists, I wonder, are willing to voyage imaginatively into a defense of Richard Nixon? Or even George W. Bush? As I have pointed out repeatedly (here and here and here and here), Bush-bashing has become one of the most reliable conventions of American fiction. Imaginative, though? I can think of other things to call it.

The first condition of lowering the temperature on political discourse in America (that is, the assumption of good faith on the part of your opponents) is missing from any contemporary American fiction that dips into politics. Until American novelists are capable of believing that a political conservative might just be telling the truth as he understands it (or even that a political conservative might actually read them), they will continue to be, as Pauls Toutonghi laments, “relegated to the farthest margins of society — to its asylums and barrooms, where they squabble over increasingly small scraps, interrogating each other about whether or not they believe in MFA programs.” And deservedly so.

Pauls Toutonghi was in San Francisco the other day to promote his new novel Evel Knievel Days when he spotted a sign above a tire store:

THE FOUR SADDEST WORDS
IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
ARE
GORE VIDAL IS DEAD

Toutonghi was immediately provoked into reflection. At a time when the “political rifts” between Americans are “both deep and intransigent,” at a time when (quoting the Pew Center) “their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years,” why aren’t our novelists bringing Americans together? What our politicians seem incapable of doing, the novelist does in his writing on a daily basis:

The novelist is comfortable with the cognitive dissonance created by considering two opposing points of view. Anger, after all, arises from our own inability to imagine that our opponent’s view might be correct. But novelists — good novelists — are ceaselessly imaginative. They have to be. They are always considering opposing views and possibilities; they have trained their imaginations to voyage into the bleakest places, to voyage into the territory of the irrational and the wildly passionate.

So why, Toutonghi asks, are American novelists not to be found in “the mainstream of political discourse”? The short answer is that few of them are as generous to their opponents as Pauls Toutonghi. Anyone who reads much contemporary fiction — I am condemned by professional responsibilities to do so — would be hard-pressed to name more than two or three American novelists who have put any effort at all into imagining that political conservatives’ view of the world might be correct.

The locus classicus, of course, as I’ve written elsewhere, is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a celebrated novel in which George W. Bush is relentlessly bashed (even his twin daughters come in for a bashing) and the dangerous view of freedom, the evil view the novel is written to reject, is espoused by a neoconservative bogeyman.

The neocon explains that it is ethically acceptable to manipulate the media — to lie to them about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for example — “in the service of a greater truth.” You have to resort to the expedient of lying with people “who are not only unable but unwilling to admit certain truths whose logic is self-evident to you,” he says. But don’t even those people have the right to think whatever they want? Isn’t that precisely what freedom means, even if it means that freedom is a pain in the ass?

“That’s exactly right,” [the neocon] said. “Freedom is a pain in the ass. And that’s precisely why it’s so imperative that we seize the opportunity that’s been presented to us this fall [after 9/11]. To get a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatever means necessary.”

So much for considering opposing views and possibilities. In Point Omega, Don DeLillo does not even try to imagine the interior workings of a foreign-policy neoconservative’s mind — the neocon lies about the “haiku” war in Iraq, the “war in three lines,” by silence and omission. Franzen, DeLillo, and their peers in the American literati belong to the party of Pauline Kael: they can’t believe that a Republican ever wins an election, because they don’t know anyone who has ever voted for a Republican.

In Second Sight, the seventh novel by Charles McCarry (one of the scarce American novelists on the right), a famous TV journalist finds himself at a dinner party where, during the conversation over dessert, Richard Nixon is defended. The left has “made Mr. Nixon stand for evil and they think that all it takes to be virtuous is to hate him,” his hostess says. It is “the politics of self-congratulation.” The journalist is “visibly shocked and offended.” Never before in his life has he ever heard anyone defend Richard Nixon. “It’s a good thing you only sound like that in the privacy of your own home,” he says stiffly.

How many contemporary American novelists, I wonder, are willing to voyage imaginatively into a defense of Richard Nixon? Or even George W. Bush? As I have pointed out repeatedly (here and here and here and here), Bush-bashing has become one of the most reliable conventions of American fiction. Imaginative, though? I can think of other things to call it.

The first condition of lowering the temperature on political discourse in America (that is, the assumption of good faith on the part of your opponents) is missing from any contemporary American fiction that dips into politics. Until American novelists are capable of believing that a political conservative might just be telling the truth as he understands it (or even that a political conservative might actually read them), they will continue to be, as Pauls Toutonghi laments, “relegated to the farthest margins of society — to its asylums and barrooms, where they squabble over increasingly small scraps, interrogating each other about whether or not they believe in MFA programs.” And deservedly so.

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