Neo- is a prefix that derives from the Greek adjective veos–”new” or “fresh”–and in theory it is used inexactly for those conservatives who once were not–or for those who have reinterpreted conservatism in terms of a more idealistic foreign policy that eschewed both Cold War realpolitik and the hallowed traditions of American republican isolationism.
But the accepted definition has given way in practice to refer to the more particular proponents of the use of military action to remove threatening governments, and to replace them with democratic systems–hence the occasional sobriquets of “neo-Wilsonian.” But for a number of detractors, “neoconservative” is also little more than generic disparagement, and (off-the-record) it is synonymous with American Jews who seek to alter American foreign policy to the wishes of the right-wing Likud party of Israel.
Yet note the misinformation about its meaning and usage. The five most prominent makers of American foreign policy at the moment–George Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld–are (1) not Jewish, (2) hard-headed and not easily bamboozled by any supposed cabal, and (3) were mostly in the past identified with the “realist” school and especially skeptical of using the military frequently for anything resembling Clintonian peace-keeping.
So, for example, while Secretary Rumsfeld signed the now-infamous 1998 letter to President Clinton calling for the de-facto preemptive removal of Saddam Hussein, George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice did not. Yet Richard Armitage–considered a stalwart in the Colin Powell camp–was a signatory. Thus there seems no hard ideology or past litmus test to neoconservatism other than a coalescence of once-differing views after September 11.
Second, this new version of neoconservativism was predicated on the end of the Cold War, at least in its present approach to foreign policy. Nearly thousands of nukes pointed at the United States, coupled with global Communist-inspired national-liberation movements, did not leave much room for American idealism–or at least it was so felt. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, former realist conservatives deduced that the advocacy of democracy was both practicable and in the long-term interest of the United States, as part of its promotion of international free markets and consensual government. Meanwhile, some liberals saw military action as not so odious if aimed at right-wing authoritarians rather than Communists masquerading as socialists (e.g., Noriega, Milosevic, the Taliban, or Saddam Hussein rather than Castro). Why the latter were not called neoliberals is unexplained.
Third, Iraq is not the sole touchstone of neoconservative thought. Many traditional conservatives, both Democrats and Republicans, who favor balanced budgets, an end to illegal immigration, and more sober judgment on entitlements, came to the conclusion after September 11 that the many lives of Saddam Hussein had run out. Indeed, one of the ironies of this war is the spectacle of many who called for the removal of Saddam Hussein in the late 1990s now turning on the war, while many who would have never supported such preemption before 9/11 insist on giving the administration full support in the midst of the present fighting.
Fourth, traditional conservatives especially distrust neoconservatives because, well, they are not entirely conservative and confuse the public about the virtues of the hallowed native reluctance to spend blood and treasure abroad for dubiously idealistic purposes. In contrast, progressives dislike them because their promotion of democracy can complicate liberalism, as if it were a fine and noble thing to insist on elections in the former Third World, even if need be through force. And every ideology saves its greatest venom for the perceived apostate: Thus Zell Miller infuriates liberals in the way John McCain or Chuck Hagel does conservatives.
Fifth, the battlefield adjudicates perceptions. Before the Iraqi invasion, neoconservatives took a beating in the acrimonious lead-up to the war about which scenarios were proffered about millions of refugees and thousands of American dead. Yet after the three-week victory, even television hosts were boasting, “We are all neoconservatives now.” Then the messy post-bellum Iraqi reconstruction brought back disdain, while successful elections and a consensual government could well win admiration. For most, ideology or belief matters not nearly as much as impressions of being judged as smart, successful, and “cutting-edge”–a constantly changing and amorphous image that in Washington is predicated on the 24-hour news cycle.
Finally, radical foreign-policy changes always upset the status quo and beg for conspiratorial exegesis. After 1948, the Cold Warriors were felt to have appropriated the Democratic party from the Henry Wallace wing, and they suffered abuse both from the naïve Left who saw them as veritable McCarthyites, and from the isolationist Right who did not want to continue the sacrifices of internationalism endlessly on into the postwar peace.
The old border-state pragmaticism of Lincoln was felt to have been hijacked by the “Black Republicans,” when the bumpkin candidate “came east” to get briefed. In such conspiracy thinking, clever abolitionists from their New England pulpits and snooty colleges saw Lincoln as a suitable and naïve emissary of their radical agenda. Indeed, in some sense almost all the charges that the Texas realist George Bush was brainwashed by neoconservative Israeli apologists are not that different from the writ against Lincoln.
My favorite example of castigating idealism is far older and from fourth-century B.C. Greece. By the 370s B.C. idealists were firmly in control of the government of conservative ancient Thebes, and turned an oligarchic Boeotian Confederacy into a real democracy. Convinced after their victory at Leuktra (371 B.C.) that a wounded Sparta was still a perennial threat, the new Boeotian democrats mobilized a Hellenic coalition of the willing to drop the old realist idea of containment or of just waiting for Sparta to attack.
Thus they embraced the preemptive act of invading Sparta and freeing 250,000 Laconian and Messenian indentured serfs or helots (“those taken”). The preemptory invasion was aimed at bringing freedom and democracy to Greeks heretofore deemed less than fully Hellenic and thought incapable of self-governance. Indeed, over the past century thousands of helots had been arbitrarily executed and routinely tortured and humiliated by their Spartan overlords. The Boeotians thought that by freeing the helots and creating autonomous democracies on Sparta’s borders they could remake the Peloponnese and end the old pathology in which a professional Gestapo-like military coerced their neighbors and meddled abroad, while fed and supported by a veritable nation of serfs.
The subsequent successful invasion led by the general Epaminondas was one of the few military operations of the ancient world that had real elements of idealism. Yet the circle around Epaminondas was also suspected of being influenced by the Pythagoreans, zealots who had fallen under the spell of the subversive and dangerous teachings of Pythagoras. The latter purportedly had promulgated weird notions, ranging from the equality of women to vegetarianism, and his work seems to have influenced Plato. Perhaps, Pythagoras was an ancient bogeyman not unlike the contemporary Leo Strauss, and was used to explain the otherwise inexplicable fact that the Boeotians of all people went into the heart of darkness to free the people of the Peloponnese.
One last thing about such appreciation of idealism in foreign policy: After Epaminondas emasculated Sparta, liberated the helots, and fostered a democratic Peloponnese, the Thebans, far from hailing the hero, put the returning commander on trial for usurping his prescribed tenure.
The more things change, the more they…