One short decade back and what was the state of \’neoconservatism\’, especially in the field of foreign policy, and its factional commentary upon it? Wretched well, certainly if you were one, it must have felt conclusively bad. And this was just the climax to a quite dismal political season: by the start of the Clinton administration (which prominent neoconservatives had lobbied for jobs in, but uniformly been rejected by), this tendency was dead as a group, aimless as an idea, and hardly even happy about the triumph that had just happened all around it. For if there\’s one thing over-looked now more than anything else, it\’s how wrong neocons got the end of the Cold War. Specifically, and famously, they didn\’t see one coming, assuming a perpetually implacable Soviet Union; and when the end did come, they either didn\’t understand it as such, or still more fantastically, didn\’t believe that it was happening at all. How then has such a faction risen from such a state to play the part of Mars in modern American statecraft? The simple answer is that they haven\’t. This hasn\’t been their war. Indeed, to go, for some, an unwelcome stage further, neocons don\’t cause wars (still less, fight them), they merely cheer them when they come.
Neoconservatism, as now constituted, is essentially an imperial symptom. Look at its concerns, its causes its solutions. These are all quintessential matters of empire, and as such should be familiar to any student of imperial history. Understanding America in the world today would be better achieved with a battered 30-year old copy of a Ronald Robinson or Nicholas Mansergh text on late-era British imperialism, than any contemporary junky Vulcan \’international relations\’ pap. But to repeat, America\’s neoconservatives haven\’t caused the reality of an American empire, they are rather a consequence of it. To appreciate this is to see why we shouldn\’t mistake the cheerleaders for the team on the pitch, why we shouldn\’t suppose that the team exists for the sake of the cheerleaders, and most of all, why the endlessly traditional game being played is still won and lost and always will be by what goes on on the pitch, rather than as a result of the noises off.
From A to B (By Any Means Necessary)
At the heart of this willing misindentification of what explains American imperialism is, I think, a strange blindness to the history of neoconservatism. This political movement, as noted above, seems a convenient narrative for everyone concerned, but this case doesn\’t stand up to any serious scrutiny. US hegemony, and questing after that status, is hardly a new development people in America have been arguing against attaining it, and the consequences of attaining it, for more than half a century now. Neoconservatism, however, though almost as old as this debate owes, in its present incarnation, next to nothing to what it traded under for most of its intellectual life. Which is to say, it\’s not your father\’s, or even Bill Kristol\’s, neoconservatism that we\’re dealing with now. The discrepancy between the two accounts for much of the plausibility it presently as has the idea of the regime, but it\’s fraudulent all the same. Just as all ideas of empire ultimately are: empires just are, they don\’t need reasons. This is not, as might be imagined, a train of thought congenial to self-avowed intellectuals.
Once upon a time, \’neo-conservatism\’, in the realm of foreign affairs, stood for a meaningfully coherent set of principles and attitudes. During the Cold War these (jealous) post-Trotskyites could resolutely be relied upon to oppose Stalinism at home and abroad; in terms of the state\’s foreign policy, they, on the whole, urged a forward strategy against the schemes, or supposed schemes at any rate, of the Soviet Union. It, moreover, was a doctrine unconservative other than in its origins. There was the stress on \’human rights\’ for instance. This was Schlesinger\’s \’vital centre\’ of Cold War high liberalism coming to grips with the reality of post-war American primacy. Various stages were encountered during the long run of the anti-Soviet struggle, but at no stage did any of the people who became neoconservatives ever think that either the fight should be shirked, or that, properly speaking, the fight as such wasn\’t strictly about \’liberty\’, or \’freedom\’, or any of that tosh. Perhaps the most attractive quality of this group was its tart and vocal willingness to question the lies of the dictatorial third world, and the platitudes of their comfortable friends in the comfortable West.
Things went wrong in two ways, one extremely beneficial for the careers of most of those involved, and the other unflattering indeed by the world-historical standards neocons would of course wish themselves to be judged by. To take that latter first quite simply, they got the Cold War \’wrong\’. They didn\’t comprehend the dissolution of the Soviet Union (which robbed most of them of a cause as much as did it anything else), and, though it\’s a debate for another time, one could further make the case that they didn\’t realise that a \’strong defence\’ didn\’t have to come solely through their Cold War paradigm. That, in fact, their approach to the essentially traditional and comprehensible goals of Russia in fact ratcheted up tension and instability in a profoundly unhelpful way.
Infamously Norman Podhoretz even, in 1984, managed to denounce America\’s greatest post-war President, \’more politician than ideologue\’, for his insufficiency of anti-Communist zeal. Writing in Commentary (in an article entitled what else? \’Appeasement by any other name\’) the great scribe charged that Ronald Reagan\’s, \’warmest friends and his most virulent enemies imagined that they had found in him a champion of the old conservative dream of going beyond the containment of Communism to the "rollback" of Communist influence and power and the "liberation" of the Soviet empire. The truth, however, is that Mr Reagan as President has never shown the slightest inclination to pursue such an ambitious\’. (And thank God for rhetoric like this, for without the damage Podhoretz did to Commentary\’s coverage of foreign policy, there would never have been enough market failure to justify launching The National Interest, an excellent publication, whatever one might think of some of its editorial enthusiasms.)
Yet what mattered was not being wrong in the end, but being unpopular in the beginning. The success of the neocons in the Conservative (and Republican) 1980s were laid precisely by their failure to be a competitive faction within the Democratic party. Probably more than anything else, \’Scoop\’ Jackson\’s unwillingness to put himself up as their standard-bearer condemned to internal irrelevance. Though by the time of the 1980 presidential election, sometime Jackson aides like Richard Perle were still neutral as between the rival presidential candidacies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. After that is, as they in particular like to say, history. They certainly devote themselves to its writing with an almost Churchillian vigour (and myopia). There\’s no need here to rehash all the successes in terms of personnel neocons enjoyed in the Reagan years, but that it had come to and end in the nexus between Bush I and Bill Clinton is a public part of the story too, even if the reasons behind it are seldom investigated.
Neocons fell out with the elder Bush, and weren\’t able to get into Bill Clinton\’s government; their mindset was, with appropriately Marxist finality, bankrupt; and their prospects were bleak. So how did we end up where they are now?
Follow the Jobs
If you look back, from Niebuhr and Irving Kristol at the start, all the way to the practical high point of people like Kirkpatrick actually being in office in the 80s, neoconservatism, as well as self-defeating morals, also had distinctly realistic and limited goals. There are plenty of quotes from the long forty years of the Cold War where the last thing in deference to common sense as much to its, or anyone else\’s self-interest the United States wanted to do was \’impose democracy\’. In Kirkpatrick\’s own words, it would be unrealistic, utopian and ultimately disastrously self-defeating to attempt it as a systemic project. She after all, being well enough acquainted with the realities behind neoconservatism\’s priggish moral cant on the matter of human rights. Late 80s neoconservatism in power was fundamentally cautious in its Wilsonianism. They preferred America, and her cohort, to be exemplars, rather than armed, militant, and tireless global enforcers of democracyism. After all, as Kirkpatrick pointed out, there was in truth \’no mystical American "mission" or purposes\’ that required her going on a crusade now that the Cold War had come to an end.
So we come back in wonder to how this defunct (defeated and discredited even) movement supposedly has ended up with American power her plaything. Leaving to one side the fact that they haven\’t, the reason why it seems to so many that neocons have achieved this predominance lies, I suspect, in how they abandoned their old beliefs and acquired their new ones.
My theory, for what it\’s worth, is that neocons developed, for them, a positively atypical critique of Bill Clinton\’s foreign policy as regards the Balkans as a matter of internal Republican party positioning. It gave them a flank to attack lustily Clinton, whilst at the same time they could be confident that their more sluggardly traditional conservative peers would back them out of honest-to-goodness fraternal partisanship, yet not really engage with what the intellectual basis of the attack entailed. In other words, it was a tribute to Bill Clinton\’s ability to bring Republicans together in opposition to him and his works, that traditionally-minded Republicans could find themselves going along with a policy predicated on intervening in the Balkans for the sake of bogus aggressive internationalism.
This is what set them up for their entryist assault on the next Republican administration, yet as needs to be repeated time and time again, none, not one of the key players in the administration is one. Not the president, not the secretary of state, not the defence secretary, not the national security advisor on and on it goes until really we all ought to realise that talking\’s all very well and good, but doing counts for an awful lot more. Why then is President Bush doing neoconservative things? He isn\’t: he\’s managing a large and unwieldy imperial position, conceptually similar to any Western empire since the time of Philip II. What neocons, in their newfound clothes, are doing is claiming to possess unique insights into how best this should be done. And when the president resiles from this position what they, and so often, their critics are doing is claiming that \’neoconservatism is whatever the president does\’. Thus everything the US does end up being cast as the legacy of the invisible neocon grope on power.
On \’new\’ neoconservatism: it would have been unrealistic, albeit fitting, to expect that this faction\’s goals wouldn\’t, however reluctantly, change as circumstances did. The glue holding this faction together (i.e. why, with the achievement of the Western victory in the Cold War, these avid Cold Warriors didn\’t, with a thankful sigh at a job well done, hang up their policy papers and return to their farms to compose classical poetry) was exactly that it was a political project. The faction qua faction was reinforced by externals like a diminishing interest in, and agreement upon, certain social issues, but what gave the faction continued life was just that: it was an organised faction within a wider political party. More precisely still, it was a relatively unpopular recent arrival, confronted by larger, mostly uncomprehending strains and traditions. This reinforced the habit of neocons to stay as \’neocons\’, even when there wasn\’t much in the way of actual, historic neoconservatism anymore.
On their opponents: well, what can one say? At least, what can one say of those they have most fiercely fought over the last ten years their internal conservative rivals? John Ehrman, the best disposed historian of the neoconservative movement, cites Dan Himmelfarb\’s juxtaposition in Commentary: \’neoconservatives belong to the tradition of liberal-democratic modernity, the tradition of Montesquieu, Madison and Tocqueville; paleoconservatives [an early usage this was 1988] are the heirs to the Christian and aristocratic Middle Ages, to Augustine, Aquinas and Hooker\’. To this he (Ehrman) adds his own golden thread that the paleos are clinging to that of being \’heirs to Robert Taft and the traditions of midwestern isolationism, [these] traditional conservatives are suspicious of internationalism, let alone any hint of a Wilsonian crusade\’. Or, as you might have guessed, neocons are from Gladstone, conservatives are from Salisbury.
Not Quite the End
Without the nemesis of September 11th, this screeching sect would have been according an influence roughly commensurate with its actual factional power. Since, however, a period of especially engaged imperialism has been required, that\’s not how it has seemed. If those planes hadn\’t hit those buildings, where would neoconservatism have been? Most likely the Powell-Bush formula of \’not being the ugly American\’ would have stood a reasonable chance of being the dominant motif of the administration. Whose fault was 9/11? Osama bin Laden\’s, obviously, but why did he go after the United States? Perfectly straightforward that one: he didn\’t like her foreign policy, not one little bit. But the historical legacy he was objecting to wasn\’t one set in place either by historical neoconservatism, nor, honestly is it (the stability of the American in the Middle East) one that the \’new\’ neoconservatism would be able to maintain, if it had anything significant to do with it. That is to say, even if September 11th had never happened, the reality of American primacy, and what that means both for her and the world she exercises it in, would remain.
George Bush\’s goals are, in as much as he has them, essentially conservative, modest if you will. And hence, in their way, admirably moderate. If you want a comparison with the past, Mr Bush\’s America is just like late British imperialism in being a sated power, wanting, at its most vigorous, merely to hold what it has. That\’s what the war in Iraq was about, not bringing freedom to Iraqis, as the neocons somewhat implausibly affect, or ridding the world of pestilential terror weapons, ditto, or building a new millenarian world order of justice, peace and honour forever, ditto. Neoconservatives are a subspecies of that odd American class (we fortunately don\’t have them here), more American than British the \’public intellectuals\’. And if intellectuals should, in the interests of the state, be kept away from anything, it\’s foreign policy. There\’s nothing realistic about contemporary neoconservatism. Realism traditionally aims at economy of effort: no one can fairly accuse neocons of that. If ever neocons do get their hands on the levers of American power, they will dissolve it as quickly as their hero Churchill did Britain\’s empire. There\’s a conundrum for all you antiwar anti-imperialists out there: end the empire, Perle for President!
Read more by Christopher Montgomery
- Blair’s Political Suicide – August 29th, 2003
- The Empire Stops Striking – July 17th, 2003
- The Ambassador from Alabama – June 11th, 2003
- Who\’s Scared of Euroland? – May 28th, 2003
- On the Nature of Meaning (and Union Jack Tee-Shirts) – May 22nd, 2003