The Rise of the Neocons
Doubleday, 2008, 336 pp., $26
“Why still another book on neoconservatism?” Jacob Heilbrunn asks at the beginning of his interesting new study. His answer may startle many readers: “No one . . . has ever really succeeded in precisely defining neoconservatism.” It is not, Heilbrunn declares, really about ideology or even a form of apostasy from the Left; it is “a mindset, one that has been decisively shaped by the Jewish immigrant experience, by the Holocaust, and by the 20th-century struggle against totalitarianism.” This mindset is “as much a reflection of Jewish immigrant social resentment and status anxiety as a legitimate movement of ideas. Indeed, however much they may deny it, neoconservatism is in a decisive respect a Jewish phenomenon reflecting a subset of Jewish concerns.” Among these concerns, the principal one is the security and safety of Israel.
Heilbrunn, a senior editor at The National Interest, may be forgiven for defining neoconservatism by the experience that marked its origins and that, in his judgment, largely determined its essential characteristics. They Knew They Were Right is, after all, a history of neoconservatism, so a concern for origins and early development is an indispensable part of the story. But even if the origins and early history are Jewish, and if neoconservatism remains to this day predominantly a movement made up largely of Jews, it is evidently the case that the enterprise has comprised non-Jews, as well. One has only to think of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Michael Novak and William Bennett. The point deserves emphasis since nothing seems to enrage neoconservatives more than to label the movement as largely Jewish. “I hope it’s clear”, Heilbrunn is careful to point out, “that I am talking about a cultural proclivity specific to American Jews of a certain generation, not about something that is ‘essentially’ Jewish in either a religious or a racial sense.” At bottom, he considers the neoconservative story to be about “an unresolved civil war between a belligerent upstart ethnic group and a staid, cautious American foreign policy establishment that lost its way after the Vietnam War.”
Heilbrunn has a good deal to say about the neoconservative mindset—its prophetic temper, its confidence that it represents the truth about matters political, its sense of embattlement and loneliness, its need always to have an enemy. Even so, a mindset, however distinctive, is insufficient as a definition of neoconservatism. What does clearly set it apart today in foreign policy are: an intensely moralistic outlook that judges a foreign policy by its commitment to the realization of liberal democracy (particularly in the Middle East); a marked propensity for using force to achieve its ends; and a pronounced inclination to unilateralism that is the result both of its moralism and its belief in the primacy of American power. Ironically, skepticism about the capacity of government to effect large-scale social change had been a distinguishing feature of the original neoconservative writing on domestic policy in the 1960s and 1970s, but such caution has been increasingly thrown to the winds in the neoconservative vision for American foreign policy, particularly since the end of the Cold War.
Nothing could stand in starker contrast with neoconservativism than the prescriptions of realism. Realism insists that grandiose attempts to transform society—national or international—according to a simple rational scheme almost always underrate the forces resistant to change and, consequently, the repressive measures necessary to overcome resistance. Realism warns that, whatever the professions of those who wield power, the political actor seldom if ever acts for reasons as disinterested as are invariably alleged. The temper of realism is skeptical of men and, accordingly, of the possibilities of political action; hence its emphasis on the limits marking the conduct of statecraft. Its principal prescription is prudence.
Heilbrunn is himself perhaps best classified as a disillusioned liberal hawk, a fellow traveler of neoconservatives in the late 1980s and 1990s who has now seized up in horror at the intervention in Iraq. This disillusionment points him in the direction of realism; he quotes favorably, for instance, the mea culpa of Tony Smith linking the liberal interventionism of the 1990s with the Iraq fiasco. But it is difficult to say on the basis of this book that he has arrived at that destination. The book is a fast-paced and often perceptive narrative of neoconservatism, but it is addressed to a general audience. Like many such efforts, it tells a colorful story but lacks a sustained argument.
Although Heilbrunn traces the history of neoconservatism from its beginnings in the interwar period to the present day, it is in the 1970s that the movement came into its own. Neoconservatism rose to prominence by opposing the foreign policies of both Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter. Kissinger, a conservative realist, was not accused of believing that American power had declined with respect to the Soviet Union. Indeed, the neoconservatives yielded to no one in their conviction that, when compared to its principal adversary, America was indeed on a declining path. Rather, his sin was accepting that decline as virtually inevitable. The arms control agreements Kissinger negotiated with the Soviets were held up as prime evidence of his declinism. In the pages of Commentary, the leading journal of neoconservatism at the time, the same critique was made and repeated time and again. The accusation had more than an element of truth to it: Kissinger was in fact obsessed with an America destined to decline as a result of the domestic effects of the Vietnam War.
It was in opposing the Carter foreign policy, though, that neoconservatives enjoyed their greatest success. Carter had come to office with views on foreign policy that were in many respects reminiscent of Woodrow Wilson’s. As a candidate, he had declared that foreign policy ought not to be based on power but upon our being right and decent. In office, he sought to implement these views. The promotion of human rights ranked high on the Carter agenda. This might have been expected to provide a bridge to the camp of the neoconservatives and liberal hawks such as Scoop Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan; but Carter had no use for them, nor they for him. Differences over how to deal with the Soviet Union separated them, as did differences over Middle East policy. The President was not to substantially alter policy toward the Soviet Union until his final year in office. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had opened his eyes. By then, however, it was much too late for a rapprochement with his domestic foes, even if differences in temperament would have allowed one.
In Heilbrunn’s account of this period, Carter’s greatest mistake was to exclude from his Administration neoconservatives and liberal hawks who were subsequently to mount such effective opposition to his foreign policy. Most of the neoconservatives were still in the Democratic Party, his argument runs, though they had steadily moved from the left to the right wing of the party. In retrospect, however, it is clear that, by Carter’s time, those who remained Democrats were increasingly so in name only. Despite some hand-wringing, given neoconservatives’ disposition in both domestic and foreign policy, the move to Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party seemed only natural. Reagan’s election was the neoconservative moment of triumph. But it was a triumph that would prove to be fleeting in foreign policy.
Reagan inherited the loose foreign policy coalition that had provided the principal opposition to the Carter foreign policy. Comprised of neoconservatives, liberal hawks and conservative realists, the coalition was more effective in opposing Carter than in supporting Reagan. Indeed, as Heibrunn emphasizes, neoconservatives were never very happy with Reagan’s foreign policy. Reagan never forgot that his foreign policy had to be conducted in the shadow of Vietnam, and from the outset he accepted the narrow restraints on force that Vietnam’s legacy imposed. The Reagan Doctrine afforded no exception to his inherent caution. Although committing the nation to support the democratic revolution then presumably sweeping the world, such support that was given did not involve any direct use of American military power. Instead, the United States would rely on proxy forces and local populations for implementing policy.
There was another side to Reagan, too, that clearly estranged him from many neoconservatives. He did not accept what Moynihan (who had since broken with the movement) termed “the myth of invincible communism.” Nor would he refuse to enter into serious negotiations with the Soviets when he judged that the time was right. In what proved to be the waning years of the Cold War, Reagan came to have a virtually permanent relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev. All this was anathema to most neoconservatives, who refused to accept the possibility of a Soviet collapse, believing to the end in the permanence of Soviet power and in the existential threat it posed.
Suddenly, however, the Cold War was over and the neoconservatives were without their seemingly eternal enemy. One consequence was immediately apparent: The conservative realists who had been allied with the neoconservatives broke with them. The alliance had been held together for more than a decade by the specter of two common enemies: the Soviet Union and those in the West who refused to take the Soviet threat with sufficient seriousness. With the former enemy now vanquished, the differences between the two rose quickly to the surface. Owen Harries, former editor of The National Interest, was a case in point. Harries, Heilbrunn writes, “always felt some unease with neoconservative idealism, but he managed to reconcile it with his belief in realism.” The restraint that Harries promoted was taken up by other realists. The need that he saw for another superpower to check our worst impulses, other realists saw, as well.
Instead, the United States was without a serious competitor. The Soviet Union’s collapse was not followed by the rise of a new threat of roughly similar magnitude. The attempt to find one in China was at best premature, and the Gulf War demonstrated above all American’s military primacy. Hubris was the order of the day, though it was much more pronounced among neoconservatives than the foreign policy elites in general. Still, the movement was largely adrift in the early post-Cold War period. Its old nemesis gone, what need was there for neoconservatives in a world where liberal democracy was confidently pronounced the order of the future? In 1996, Norman Podhoretz, a founding father of neoconservatism, declared it dead by virtue of its success.
Unbeknownst to Podhoretz, his pronouncement came on the cusp of a striking revival of the movement. In the late 1990s, a younger generation of neoconservatives busied themselves developing the case for carrying human rights and democracy to the four corners of the globe, by interventionary means if necessary. Invoking Ronald Reagan as their patron saint, they advocated a policy that mirrored the Reagan Doctrine, save in one respect. Reagan’s crusade marched forward through proxy forces; the new crusade would be undertaken, if necessary, by American forces. The difference, though critical, reflected the newfound faith in the military in the years following the Gulf War. All that was needed was a sympathetic administration.
Yet that seemed as far away as ever, despite Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, as well as his second Secretary of State’s affirmation of America as the “indispensable nation.” The Clinton Administration acted too slowly and timidly in the Balkans to satisfy most neoconservatives, just as the same behavior alienated conservative realists who saw no vital interest anywhere in the Balkans worth the dispatch of U.S. military power. Nor did the succeeding Bush Administration appear at first to hold out much promise. If anything, the new Administration held out the prospect of less intervention than its predecessor. Heilbrunn reminds us, “Bush’s big idea, and this despite the fact neoconservatives occupied a number of important positions, was to get the United States out of the Balkans. He made it abundantly clear that he had nothing but contempt for the idea of peacekeeping. . . . Iraq was off the radar screen.” Then came September 11, 2001.
The nature of the relationship between the neoconservatives and George W. Bush following September 11 has been the subject of endless speculation. Heilbrunn is skeptical of the view that the neoconservatives manipulated Bush. Instead, he is persuaded that the President used them quite as much as they used him. Either way, he believes that in the end Bush came to embrace the neoconservative vision more fervently than neoconservatives themselves did. The same may be said of Vice President Cheney.
The neoconservative vision that Bush and Cheney embraced so fervently was nothing less than the reshaping of the Middle East. The war against the Ba‘athi regime in Baghdad was to be the decisive step in transforming the region from despotism to freedom and democracy. But this vision was not the immediate justification for the war. On the latter, Heilbrunn addresses the claims of critics that the war was “sold” to the American public, contending that “there was more to it than that. The administration was selling what it had sold to itself. It was . . . the dupe of its own propaganda about weapons of mass destruction.” Heilbrunn holds essentially the same judgment for the alleged ties between Saddam and al-Qaeda.
Most effective deceptions follow this path, however. In order to persuade others, it is first necessary to persuade oneself. A deception is no less deceptive because the deceiver first deceived himself; nor is it less of a “sell” when it is used subsequently to persuade others. We must also ask, then: Why was it necessary to sell the justification to oneself? Was it not because the President and the Vice President wanted to go to war for other reasons?
What these other reasons might be, Israel’s security apart, Heilbrunn does not speculate. But surely Israeli security could not have been the principal reason for going to war. The improvement in Israeli security that would presumably result from the war was a subordinate, though perhaps not an unimportant, consideration. Apart from Israel, though, there has been very little speculation generally on the real reasons for going to war. Critics have apparently been satisfied to concentrate on the spurious justifications the administration put forth. At this juncture, any speculation must remain just that.
Nevertheless, if there was a rational reason for going into Iraq beyond the mistaken fear of Iraqi WMD potential, it must be related to control of the oil in the Persian Gulf. Thomas Powers is one of the few writers who has addressed “the reason why.”1 He writes that a useful way to view the issue is to recall the reaction in Washington to the Soviet Union’s December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. The worry of policymakers was the prospect that the Soviet move was but the first step of a march that would end with a Russian military presence in the Persian Gulf. Powers goes on to say: “What it was only feared the Russians might do the Americans have actually done—they have planted themselves squarely astride the world’s largest pool of oil, in a position potentially to control its movement and to coerce all the governments who depend on that oil.”
Does neoconservatism have a future? Heilbrunn renders an ambivalent judgment. He notes that “neoconservatism has become a rather lonely credo” in the aftermath of the Iraq war, and that the neoconservatives themselves “seem to be rushing to disembarrass themselves of the label.” Paradoxically, as Heilbrunn points out, President Bush seems to have swallowed neoconservatism whole during his second Administration, even as he was throwing overboard the individuals most identified with the cause—Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith among them. Yet Heilbrunn does not think the neoconservatives are going away—“quite the contrary.”
In all likelihood, he is right. The reason is that neoconservatism is itself reflective of broad social forces in America that seem likely to persist. The neoconservatives rose to prominence in the 1970s because they articulated themes that had widespread popular appeal—to wit, revulsion against the cultural excesses of the 1960s and reaffirmation of the moral legitimacy of American power. Even as neoconservatism has been wounded by the dashed expectations, enormous costs and awful bloodshed of the Iraq war, its ability to attract a broad following among the American people may well persist. However delusional may be the belief in spreading democracy through force, and however illegitimate may be the resort to preventive war, a great many of those attracted to such nostrums (like the President himself) do not suffer from “immigrant social resentment and status anxiety”, but from cultural attributes with deep roots in American history. Ought the neoconservatives to be held especially responsible for the Iraq war? Of course. In fairness, however, the blame ought to be apportioned much more widely.
Powers, “The Reason Why”, New York Review of Books, September 27, 2007.