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