All of the fulminating about the Jews, about war lust, about neocons running everything would be forgivable, even tolerable, if it were intellectually defensible. But the neoconservative label distorts more than it reveals. As Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride might say to all of these people, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The neocon label gets folded, spindled, and mutilated in any number of ways, every day. But there are four enduring misapplications of the word. These myths are: (1) the idea that neoconservative means “pro-war”; (2) the idea that neoconservative means “foreign-policy hawk”; (3) the idea that neoconservative means Jewish; and, (4) the idea that neoconservative refers to ex-liberals. Some of these used to be true, none of them are reliably so anymore.
First, if being a conservative for war and democracy makes you a neocon, then roughly 90 percent of the Republican party is “neoconservative” according to most polls. This may say something historically interesting about Republicans today — it does — but doesn’t it also suggest that maybe, just maybe, talk of a “neoconservative cabal” is a bit misleading? When liberal journalists vent about “crusading neocons” who have “mesmerized the president” into war (Dowd’s words), they make it sound as if these presumably bagel-snarfing Rasputins are forcing the president to do something a normal, non-prefixed conservative would oppose.
But there is zero evidence of this in polls or in the public debate. Out of the vast army of talking-head and op-ed conservatives, a sum total of two right wingers with any name-I.D. have come out foursquare against the war: Buchanan and Robert Novak. That these old-timers opposed the war is hardly surprising given their histories. More important, they’re not relevant. Buchanan isn’t even a Republican anymore, and Novak’s anti-Israel dyspepsia makes him an idiosyncrasy among Republicans. It’s worth noting that the most philo-Semitic and perhaps the most important constituency of the Republican party are evangelical Christians, not Jews.
Meanwhile, every other familiar face on the Right favored the war — from populist conservative drive-time radio jocks to elite East Coast foreign-policy conservatives to televangelist Christians. At the recent annual Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference in Virginia, Young Americans for Freedom sold “Give War a Chance” and “Peace Through Superior Firepower” buttons and bumper stickers. If the Republican party has been “hijacked by neoconservatives” — as Buchanan continually insists — then the passengers have got the worst case of Stockholm syndrome in recorded memory. To say that a neoconservative cabal is pulling strings behind the scenes at the White House is like saying a cabal of Catholics is running the show in the Vatican.
Sure, one explanation for why so many conservatives now buy into a historically neoconservative foreign-policy argument — democracy and freedom should be promoted — is that the neocons won the argument over foreign policy. And to a certain extent that’s true. Today, even realists recognize that democracies don’t go to war against other democracies. One need not get misty-eyed over universal global suffrage to see that the spread of free-trading liberal democracy would be in America’s interests. During the Cold War, Buchanan, Kissinger, and others made the legitimate point that dictatorial countries — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia — were more reliable allies than many unpredictable democratic regimes like, say, India. But the war on terrorism (read Islamic fundamentalism) turns those assumptions on their head. In this sense, those who think Saudi Arabia is a more reliable ally than India are simply generals fighting the last war.
The fact that the neoconservatives won this argument helps to demonstrate why it’s silly to talk solely of the influence of a small group of “neocons” these days. If there is a consensus among the larger conservative community, why cherry pick a few Jewish intellectuals? And yet, the New York Times and Chris Matthews, to name two of many, believe this is a minority opinion within the ranks of conservatism emanating almost exclusively from The Weekly Standard. On March 11, the paper of record ran a story all but crediting the editors of The Weekly Standard with conceiving, drafting, and implementing the war all by their lonesome. When Bill Kristol explained to the Times’s David Carr that Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, and Don Rumsfeld “made up their own minds” about going to war, Carr wrote that such “modesty is becoming — and consistent with Mr. Kristol’s nature.” Note to Carr: It’s not modesty when it’s the truth — even in Washington.
Meanwhile, on a near-nightly basis over the last two years, Chris Matthews did his best impersonations of Tail-Gunner Joe demanding to know about the neoconservative conspiracy inside the White House asking, for example, “Are they loyal to the Kristol neoconservative movement, or to the president?” and “Is Bill Kristol, leader of the neoconservatives — so-called — taking over the Bush White House?” But this theory falls apart fairly quickly when you consider the question of the Standard’s influence prior to 9/11. Yes, it ran some hawkish pieces on Iraq — which were ignored, unfortunately — but it was also calling for bellicosity with China and even for the resignations of Paul Wolfowitz and Don Rumsfeld.
Still, the fact that social conservatives, Christian conservatives, free-market conservatives, and just plain old-fashioned conservative conservatives supported the war highlights the fact that the case for war in Iraq was persuasive on its merits. But it also highlights the second problem with the neocon label: Neoconservatism never meant “hawkishness” in the first place. When accused of using the neocon label as a stand-in for “Jew” (more on that in a moment), antiwar critics say, no, no, no I just mean hawk. That would be fair enough, except that even the most cursory glance at the history of the conservative movement and the Republican party would tell you that the two words are hardly synonymous. No one was calling Don Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, John Ashcroft, or even Dick Cheney “neocons” prior to 9/11. And if you look back on previous Republican administrations, “neocon” was never a stand-in for hawk either. This gets even more confused because of the stylistic sloppiness of those making these distinctions. Joshua Marshall in a much-discussed cover story in The Washington Monthly, for example, is all over the map. Sometimes he refers to “hawks” or “hawkish neoconservatives” and still other times to just plain “neoconservatives” but he’s always talking about the exact same people. If “neoconservative” and “hawk mean” the same thing, why do Marshall and others redundantly talk about “hawkish neoconservatives”? Isn’t this like referring to “canine dogs” and “feline cats”?
While it’s true that neoconservatism always took a hardline on human rights and defense, its greatest bellicosity was as often as not rhetorical. Meanwhile, the supposedly “paleoconservative” National Review was calling for “rollback not containment” when the “godfather of neoconservatives,” Irving Kristol, was calling for U.S. withdrawal from NATO. Frank Meyer, James Burnham, and other founders of National Review made George C. Scott’s Gen. “Buck” Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove seem like a peacenik.
Yes, neoconservatism as a foreign-policy doctrine is attributable to the growing realization of some liberals in the 1960s and 1970s that the Democratic party was going wobbly in the Cold War and the dominance of Kissingerian politics on the Republican side of the aisle left room for re-moralized foreign policy. This may have been a “new” or “neo” revelation for Norman Podhoretz in the early 1970s — and we all benefited from it — but none of this was news to National Review conservatives like James Burnham who’d been publishing books like The Suicide of the West and Containment or Liberation for decades. The newfound hawkishness of Podhoretz, Kirkpatrick, Perle, etc. may have seemed like warmongering to the gang at Dissent, but it was cautious by the standards of the Goldwaterite Right. (Barry Goldwater, after all, campaigned for president arguing that we should treat nuclear weapons like any other conventional armament and that “low-yield atomic weapons” should be used for deforestation in Vietnam.) This is why National Review beckoned Commentary in 1971 with the headline “Come On In, the Water’s Fine.”
The suggestion that neoconservatism is even primarily concerned with foreign policy would have been considered tendentious even a decade ago. The original definitively neoconservative magazine, The Public Interest, has always been dedicated exclusively to domestic policy. (And, it should be noted, The National Interest — which Irving Kristol launched much later — is not a neoconservative foreign-policy magazine, but most journalists are too lazy to grasp this.) But even when Commentary became famously neoconservative some years after The Public Interest’s founding, it focused on issues of race, religion, and even the environment as much as it did foreign affairs. Pat Moynihan was a famous neocon because he called for “benign neglect” for America’s blacks not because of his foreign policy. In fact, because 9/11 made foreign policy so important, we forget that in the more race-obsessed early 1990s, Norman Podhoretz’s most famous work wasn’t “Why We Were in Vietnam,” it was the brilliant essay “My Negro Problem — And Ours.” Most of the neocons of the 1970s hardly credited foreign policy as the sole or even chief reason for their peregrination to the Right. Rather they were reacting to the generalized anti-American sentiment of the Left that had as much to do with race and religion as it did foreign policy.
To his credit, Bill Kristol — who has received the torch from his father as the embodiment of neoconservatism — recognized long ago that all of this talk of a neoconservative foreign policy only confused things. That’s why in the 1990s he and Robert Kagan tried to formulate a new conservative foreign policy called “Neo-Reaganite.” For reasons that remain unclear, it never stuck. But at least he tried. Still, one reason for its failure has to be that the mainstream media simply likes “neocon” because neocons are Jews or honorary Jews and therefore they are good and decent. Neo-Reaganite sounds like it might include conservatives from flyover country and that would tar the nice Upper West Side and Bethesda, Maryland Jews with the taint of the Bible thumpers.
Which brings us to a third problem with the neocon label: the Jew thing. The problems with the all-too-popular perception that Jews are running American foreign policy are all too obvious. Abroad, America’s intentions are distrusted by those who see Israel lurking in the shadows (the Arab press certainly hasn’t missed the Jews are running the White House stories). At home the Jews are disproportionately blamed for unpopular moves, as Rep. Jim Moran’s finger pointing demonstrated. And, of course, when things go well, the neoconservatives aren’t so Jewish anymore. That’s when Tom Delay and Newt Gingrich become neocons too. But when things go badly, when the neocons are to blame, suddenly they’re all Jewish or pro-Israel fanatics. Victory has many neocons, failure few — and all Jewish.
But being Jewish and conservative doesn’t make you a neoconservative any more than being Jewish makes you a liberal. For example, the historian George Nash notes that “of the 31 names which appeared on the original masthead of National Review, no fewer than five were Jewish.” Originally, the Jewishness of neoconservatives wasn’t a problem for movement conservatives. What writers like James Burnham objected to was the sense that neocons were really crypto-liberals, they hadn’t lost the “emotional gestalt” of liberalism. That may have been true once, and still true of some Jewish conservatives today. But the explosion of right-wing Jews — Michael Medved, Dennis Prager, Daniel Lapin, for example — in conservative circles makes such facile stereotyping impossible, especially if you know many of passionately right-wing Jews currently working on the domestic-policy side of this administration. But now, what worries old-time conservatives — that Jewish conservatives are too liberal — is precisely what today’s liberals find so appealing, even as it becomes less true.
Consider a New York Times story from last year by Allison Mitchell about the growing alliance between “Jewish neoconservatives” and “Christian social conservatives” on the issue of Israel. Marshall Wittmann — who’s often quoted by the elite media as a Margaret Mead of conservatism — someone who can translate the seemingly barbaric and primitive practices of the Right — explained, “You have one of the most interesting political marriages of all times between the largely Jewish neoconservatives and the religious right in firm support for Israel, embodied by Bill Kristol and Gary Bauer.”
Now, the truth is that there is literally nothing interesting about this partnering, except maybe its interfaith component. Not only are Bauer and Kristol longtime friends, but they agree on virtually every other issue under the sun — gay marriage, defense spending, abortion, whatever. The only thing that makes this relationship interesting to the Times is the perception that Jewish conservatives are more liberal (read: sophisticated) than non-Jewish ones, that they have a more admirable “emotional gestalt” than social conservatives. Alas, many self-identified neoconservatives are perfectly happy perpetuating this perception, as when even the Charles Krauthammer wrote a column during the Trent Lott controversy explaining that “Neocons have been the most passionate about the Lott affair and most disturbed by its meaning. “Why? Because many neoconservatives are former liberals.” In reality, many of the first conservatives (along with a number libertarians) to criticize Trent Lott were not neocons, they were the likes of Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, Robert A. George of the New York Post, and myself.
Nevertheless, at times it does seem as if the Jewish neocons get a free pass on positions that get the Christian ones in a lot of trouble. Marvin Olasky’s “compassionate conservatism” — a classic neocon agenda by the way — and the faith-based agenda have been derided by the New York Times and others, it seems, because of the whiff of Christian theology they give off. Meanwhile, the “neoconservative” defense of the Promise Keepers, the Christian Coalition, and southern evangelicals is often derided by commentators as left-wing-style coalition-building (though one wonders how writers like Michael Lind can simultaneously complain about the southern captivity of the GOP by southerners and the captivity of the White House by East Coast Jews). New York Times liberals think the neocons can’t really be pro-life or support prayer in school. But they do. For examples, as Reason’s Ronald Bailey has chronicled, Irving Kristol has become highly critical of Darwinism, arguing it is the third pillar of secularism left standing after Freudianism and Marxism. When famed neocon Elliott Abrams ran the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a religion-focused think tank, he hosted a symposium for two leading critics of Darwinian theory. Commentary magazine has been running articles and responses on these debates for several years. Personally, I find the debate interesting and worthwhile, but one cannot help but wonder what Christian conservative intellectuals would endure if they commenced such an audacious project.
This brings us to the last myth of neoconservatism. The idea that there’s something about being a former liberal which makes you somehow less authentically conservative and beholden to an ill-defined ideology called “neoconservatism.” Take The Weekly Standard, the universally recognized home of “neoconservatism.” Even a cursory glance of its masthead reveals none of its major writers and editors are former liberals, including Bill Kristol, the ringleader of neoconservatism. Neither is it true that liberals, leftists, or even Trotskyites who become conservatives are neocons. This is another funny irony: When it comes to comparing former Communists-turned-conservative National Review has always had the best team around. We beat The Weekly Standard, Commentary, and The Public Interest combined. Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, and Norman Podhoretz may have been radicals or Communists in their days, but they were low-ranking ones.
Meanwhile, James Burnham was perhaps Leon Trotsky’s most-trusted lieutenant in the United States and for a time arguably the most famous Trotskyist intellectual in America. Frank Meyer — the creator of fusionism, the doctrine which bound the Right for 40 years and famed literary editor of National Review — was a high ranking Communist as was Max Eastman (both of whom were Jewish by the way). And, of course, Whittaker Chambers certainly counts as a major ex-leftist. Why none of these figures, particularly Burnham, who was influential among The Partisan Review crowd and an intellectual of the first order, never counted as neoconservatives is a fascinating question, but probably too complicated for those who think Tom Delay might be a neocon too.
Some of the confusion over the word neocon has to be laid at the feet of the “neocons” themselves. Many make jokes about the Jewish nature of neoconservatives. David Brooks refers to “the Axis of Circumcision,” for example. Like Krauthammer during the Lott affair, they claim moral superiority from lumpen conservatives. Of course, the conventional meaning of neoconservatism has always been redefined by what a few neoconservatives say. “Whenever I read about neoconservatism,” Daniel Bell once remarked, “I think, ‘That isn’t neoconservatism; it’s just Irving.” Today the same goes for Irving’s son. The only remotely useful definition of neoconservatism today is “Whatever Bill Kristol thinks.” So in 1996, “neoconservatives” thought Colin Powell should be president. In 2000, they’re for John McCain and now they think George W. Bush is the new Reagan. Bill Kristol is a brilliant man, but one could go crazy trying to extract a coherent ideology from his tactical movements within the Republican party.
Ultimately, there’s literally no defining attribute one can ascribe to neoconservatism which cannot be easily and substantially falsified with numerous counterexamples. If neoconservatives are hawks who favor democracy, then most conservatives and Republicans are neocons and therefore the term is too broad to be useful. If neocons are Jews, then stop calling Max Boot, Dick Cheney, and Newt Gingrich neocons. If neocons are ex-liberals stop calling Bill Kristol a neocon and start calling the founders of National Review neocons. And so on and so on. If you mean “hawk” say hawk. If you mean “Wilsonian” say Wilsonian. If you mean “Bill Kristol” say Bill Kristol. And, if you mean “Jew,” for goodness sake, say Jew.
But if you mean neoconservative, you should know what you’re talking about.