Foreign Policy

Flight of the Neocons

From liberal hawks to "National Greatness" conservatives


They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, by Jacob Heilbrunn, New York: Doubleday, 336 pages, $26

In 1996 Norman Podhoretz, ex-friend of the left and high priest of neoconservatism, wrote an elegiac essay in Commentary about the movement he had helped to found. Neoconservatism was dead, he argued, but not of intellectual exhaustion or mass ideological defection. It was a victim of its own success. What had previously been a movement of political outsiders—former socialists ambling through "the middle of their journey," in Lionel Trilling's phrasing—was now well represented in the corridors of power: on Capitol Hill, in influential think tanks, on the Sunday chat show circuit. It was at last time to shed the neo, to announce the movement's assimilation into the conservative mainstream. What once were ideological heresies had now become widely accepted banalities.

In They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, Jacob Heilbrunn, a senior editor at the conservative journal The National Interest, retraces the history of Podhoretz's movement through its wilderness years to its open embrace of the Republican Party and, post-Iraq, its ignominious decline. Heilbrunn has roots in the movement himself—indeed, The National Interest was founded as a foreign policy–focused companion to the neocon journal The Public Interest. Heilbrunn's breezy, crisply written history eschews the rancor of many recent discussions of neoconservatism in favor of a largely dispassionate account, tracing the movement's development from its beginnings in the far-left milieu of 1930s and '40s New York to its death, or grievous wounding, in the White House of George W. Bush.

Those introduced to the vagaries of neoconservative theory after 9/11—that is, most ordinary Americans and nearly every European editorial writer—often overlook the fact that Bush hadn't paid much heed to the neocons prior to September 11, 2001, and that the movement's prospects early in the new century had been quite grim. Indeed, it appeared to be in its death throes. As the 1980s drew to a close and the Soviet Union's desiccated empire finally dissolved, neoconservatism lost its unifying enemy. But then the terror attacks on New York and Washington, as the cliché goes, changed everything.

Heilbrunn's adumbration of neoconservatism's left-wing provenance makes for compelling reading—and acts as a useful field guide to the current schisms on the right. It is an exaggeration to suggest, as many pundits have, that the neocon is merely a modified Trotskyist, but many of its intellectual architects did begin their careers on the radical left. Elliott Abrams, the Iran-contra veteran who served as special assistant to the president during George W. Bush's first term, attended the radical Little Red Schoolhouse in New York City as a child and graduated to membership in the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL). The American Enterprise Institute's Joshua Muravchik was YPSL's chairman from 1968 to 1973 and later advised Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign on foreign policy issues. Onetime leftists such as Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and countless other "New York intellectuals," disgusted by the cognoscenti's ambivalence toward communism, migrated, at varying speeds and to varying degrees, rightward. But not every neocon emerged from the radical left, and not all of them landed in the GOP. Neoconservatism also enchanted disaffected liberals such as longtime New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who never abandoned the Democratic Party (although he did ultimately break with neoconservatism).

Indeed, most early neocons had little interest in changing allegiances from the Democratic Party. "There was, and remains," Heilbrunn writes, "a kind of aesthetic revulsion to the Republican Party amongst liberal hawks." The neoconservative hatred of Richard Nixon—his policy of détente was, they argued, suicidal—provided ammunition for their (long since abandoned) contention that America's best hope for a vigorous foreign policy was the Democrats. They did back Nixon against George McGovern in 1972, but afterward Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Walt Rostow, Daniel Bell, and other liberal hawks took out an ad in The New York Times urging the Democratic Party to return to "the [foreign policy] tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Hubert Humphrey."

Heilbrunn quotes the late William F. Buckley, founder of National Review and doyen of the traditional conservatives, on the neocons' fetishization of the Democratic senator and liberal hawk Henry "Scoop" Jackson. "The neos wanted a Democrat to enshrine," Buckley said. "They found someone who was pretty much a welfarist but was anti-Soviet." The latter position was pre-eminent, the former tolerable. Understanding the widely held misperception of the neocon as a sort of ultra-conservative Republican, Heilbrunn asks the reader to "remember that the neoconservatives did not oppose the idea of welfare itself."

The neoconservative house organ of the 1970s, The Public Interest, was founded in part, Buckley later wrote, because Irving Kristol "had deemed National Review…too right-wing." In 1976 Kristol denounced the antipoverty programs birthed by LBJ's Great Society, but he suggested that the money not be taken out of government hands and instead be used to achieve "some form of national health insurance." As late as 1993, Kristol would advocate a "conservative welfare state" that, for instance, would "leave Social Security alone—except for being a bit more generous, perhaps." In the 1980s, like most other neocons, Kristol did embrace supply-side economics, then fashionable among Reaganites, although it is unclear how much of the Arthur Laffer gospel he actually believed.

(In the '90s, he would express regret over his support for the theory that slashing taxes leads to greater revenues.)

All this leftover leftism made for an occasionally awkward integration into the right. The neocons had been focused primarily on the evils of the Soviet empire, having little time for the free market. As Podhoretz noted in his obituary for neoconservatism, "The neoconservatives did not love commerce, or anything else, more than they loathed Communism." In other words, it was an ideology short on classical liberalism and limited government—both at least theoretically conservative principles—and long on "rollback" and exporting democracy.

A year after Podhoretz's self-congratulatory trauermarsch, Bill Kristol, son of neocon founding father Irving Kristol and editor of The Weekly Standard, and David Brooks, also of The Weekly Standard, took to the pages of The Washington Post to inaugurate "National Greatness conservatism." Critics grumbled that it was simply neoconservatism rebranded. Kristol and Brooks called for a muscular foreign policy and argued that the GOP message of limited government fell far short of a coherent governing philosophy; the Republicans, they wrote, must reconcile themselves to a certain amount of government intervention. The liberal columnist E.J. Dionne was ebullient, proclaiming that with the advent of National Greatness conservatism, "The era of bashing government is ending." (Proving Podhoretz's point about the mainstreaming of neoconservatism, both Kristol and Brooks have since matriculated to the New York Times opinion page.)

Libertarians and small-government conservatives were appropriately aghast. Former Reason editor Virginia Postrel wrote a scathing response with Washington Post economics columnist James Glassman, dismissing National Greatness as "wistful nationalism in search of a big project." The duo opined that "the Cold War is over. So what's a national-greatness government to do? It could go looking for the next war, hope for another Great Depression, or sponsor a trip to Neptune." National Review's Jonah Goldberg hissed in May 2001 that the younger Kristol's project, by then four years old, was "an allegedly 'conservative' cause." Goldberg was still irritated at the tenor of Kristol's support of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2000 presidential primaries. "During the campaign," he wrote, "Kristol suggested more than once that to be a Bush supporter was tantamount to being a hostage to evil corporations that put profit above patriotism." (It was a point McCain would revisit during this campaign when he told Mitt Romney that he served in the Navy "out of patriotism, not for profit.")

To Heilbrunn, the other important characteristic of neoconservatism is its Jewish roots. In a recent Washington Post op-ed piece debunking myths of neoconservatism, Heil-brunn pooh-poohed the commonly held idea that "neocons are Israeli lackeys" as pure "bunk," noting that, if anything, they are often further to the right than the Likud Party. But in They Knew They Were Right, Heilbrunn says neoconservatism "is as much a reflection of Jewish immigrant social resentments and status anxiety as a legitimate movement of ideas." This is a debatable point, but one that doesn't necessarily contradict his dismissal of the oft-cited Likud-Commentary axis.

Many of neoconservatism's heaviest hitters are, as is often pointed out, gentiles, and many Jewish intellectuals were, and are, repelled by neoconservatism. Nevertheless, Heilbrunn argues plausibly that the movement was really born "with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, the 1967 war, and the rise of black anti-Semitism in the United States." The Six Day War, he writes, "gave the first real impetus to the birth of the modern neoconservative movement." The idea that the world would sit idle as Jews were again attacked—recall that Washington's unswerving support for Israel began only after that war—galvanized the neocons. Neither did it go unnoticed that the Soviet Union, one of the first countries to recognize Israel at the United Nations in 1949, was now actively assisting both Arab dictatorships and Palestinian terror groups.

The invocation of the Holocaust would be a frequent refrain—and a point of frequent criticism. Neoconservatives constantly cited the Shoah as a reductio ad Hitlerum debating tactic. In 1976 a neocon lobby, the Committee on the Present Danger, stated that the Soviet arms buildup was "reminiscent of Nazi Germany's rearmament in the 1930s." Evoking the mass murder of European Jewry, Norman Podhoretz warned in The New York Times against renewed complacency, "For if for the second time in this century, the world were to stand by while a major Jewish community was being destroyed, it would be hard to evade the suspicion that an irresistible will was at work to wipe every last Jew off the face of the earth, to make this planet entirely Judenrein." Three decades later, in 2004, the Yale computer scientist David Gelernter hyperbolically announced in The Weekly Standard that "the world's indifference to Saddam resembles its indifference to Hitler." Heilbrunn could have also included a more recent reference: Podhoretz's now-notorious essay arguing the "case for bombing Iran," published last year in Commentary, which compared Israel's current situation vis-à-vis Iran to Czechoslovakia's forced immersion in Hitler's Reich. In a brief debate with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria on PBS after the piece was published, Podhoretz invoked Hitler four times.

Heilbrunn demonstrates that for the first generation of neoconservatives, the motive for embracing a hawkish foreign policy was this fear of resurgent Nazism. For the second generation, it was an Israel encircled by hostile neighbors, and a visceral dislike of the New Left, parts of which saw the Jewish state through the prism not of victimology but of colonialism. For the newest generation of neocons it was the mass murder of 9/11 and its attendant effects on the so-called Arab street.

In this latest iteration, Heil­brunn convincingly argues, neoconservatism would destroy itself. The Bush administration, which campaigned in 2000 on a policy of nonintervention abroad, had no intention of embracing the neoconservative outlook until the terror attacks of 2001. Condoleezza Rice, Heilbrunn writes, "hewed to her stated course of leaving nation building to the Democrats." Some neocons shared this distaste for aggressively exporting democracy. In her famous 1979 essay "Dictatorships and Double Standards," which blasted President Carter's "human rights"–centered foreign policy and argued for toleration of certain America-friendly, anti-communist authoritarian regimes, the neocon heroine Jeane Kirkpatrick argued that "the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances…is belied by an enormous body of evidence based on the experience of dozens of countries which have attempted with more or less (usually less) success to move from autocratic to democratic government."

Kirkpatrick strongly supported the "rollback" policy Reagan adopted toward the Soviet Union, but she surely would have balked if, instead of merely stunting Soviet imperial advances, the United States attempted to build mini-Americas in every liberated land. "There is no inherent or historical 'imperative,'?" Kirkpatrick would write during the Iraq War, "for the U.S. government to seek to achieve any other goal—however great—except as mandated by the Constitution or adopted by the people through elected governments." There is, after all, a significant difference between assisting in the abrogation of the Soviet empire and a quixotic policy of democratization.

It also worth noting, as Heil­brunn does, that the Reagan nostalgia of many neoconservatives requires a selectively deployed memory and a distorted reading of history. Reaganism held much promise for the neocon movement, though most neocons soon felt betrayed by the president's nuanced handling of nuclear disarmament. Midge Decter declared herself "disgusted" with the administration's willingness to sit down with the Soviet Union. Norman Podhortez called Reagan's refusal to send ground troops into Nicaragua "appeasement" and was enraged by the administration's "half-hearted" support of Israel's invasion of Lebanon and the president's apparent volte-face on arms control.

Heilbrunn recognizes that, from Nixon to Bush, the neocons actually have angered the right far more than the left. For many libertarians, paleoconservatives, and Reagan Republicans, this is certainly true. The American Conservative, a magazine that Heilbrunn misidentifies as beginning operations in the late 1990s (it was founded in 2002), is a case in point, launched in large part as a reaction against the neocon rebirth. It would have been helpful and interesting had Heilbrunn explored these internecine battles in greater detail.

To Heilbrunn, the legacy of neoconservatism is one of long-term disaster for the Republican Party, an ideological digression that "quite possibly not only destroyed conservatism as a political force for years to come but also created an Iraq syndrome that tarnishes the idea of intervention for several decades." This sounds right. The surge has undeniably mitigated the violence in Iraq, but it seems likely that—barring a continued military presence in Iraq for "100 years," as John McCain posited—the neocons' nation-building project will be a millstone around the movement's neck. The Iraq fiasco will also obscure the fact that many of their Cold War–era arguments with the left were prescient. They were right about the ineffectiveness of Great Society welfare programs and about the colossal evil of the communist bloc.

But the failures of the neoconservative approach to both foreign and domestic policy are recognized even by consummate neocon David Frum, partial author of the infamous "axis of evil" State of the Union speech. In his recently released book Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, Frum concedes Heilbrunn's point that a conservative regeneration is needed after the Bush administration's big spending and disastrous foreign policy. While Frum is upbeat about conservatism's prospects, Heilbrunn ends They Knew They Were Right on an ominous note: "These reckless minds…aren't going away. Quite the contrary."

Perhaps. But unless Iraq becomes an Arab version of Switzerland in the next decade, I wouldn't bet on it.

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of Reason.