The Corner

They’re Neocons Now

Peter Beinart writes (Reg Req’d) :

Liberal bloggers sometimes call themselves members of the “reality-based community.” And that would have been a fitting motto for the first neocon journal, The Public Interest, founded in 1965 by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell. If The Public Interest had a bete noire, it was faith-based politics. The great danger to good government, argued its founding editorial, is “a prior commitment to ideology. … For it is the nature of ideology to preconceive reality.”The ideology that worried The Public Interest’s editors most was excessive faith in government’s capacity to solve entrenched social problems. Great Society liberals, they worried, were too confident in their ability to restructure the lives of the poor and too dismissive of the harm they might do in the process. Traditional conservatives, of course, said the same thing. But traditional conservatives were as immodest about the redemptive power of capitalism as liberals were about the redemptive power of government. What distinguished the early neocons was their skepticism about both. They did not seek to abolish the welfare state; that would have been absurdly hubristic. As Norman Podhoretz, who turned Commentary into the second major neocon journal, has written, neocons simply wanted to place “certain limits” on government action, limits defined not by “issues of principle” but by “practical considerations, such as the precise point at which the incentive to work was undermined by the availability of welfare benefits.” 

The Public Interest dealt primarily with domestic policy. But, in foreign affairs, neocons displayed the same skepticism toward what Francis Fukuyama has called “utopian social engineering.” Early neocon foreign policy was aggressive; Podhoretz and Kristol wanted to confront communist movements across the globe. But, for the neocons, preventing communist takeovers did not mean imposing liberal democracies. In Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous maxim, conservatism’s key insight was that culture matters more than politics. And, if a nation’s culture was not conducive to democracy, attempts to impose one would backfire. In her famed 1979 Commentary essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” Jeane Kirkpatrick ridiculed the liberal demand that Nicaragua and Iran shed their authoritarianism as a precondition of U.S. support. “No idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans,” she wrote, “than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. This notion is belied by an enormous body of evidence.” If neocons thought it utopian to believe Washington could rapidly end poverty, they thought it equally utopian to believe Washington could rapidly instill democracy. In both cases, they believed, such hubris was a particularly liberal vice.

As it turns out, that was wrong….

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