Irving Kristol, the founder of The National Interest, once famously said that a neoconservative was a liberal who had been “mugged by reality.” While this may well have been true at the time—in the 1980s—it may be changing.
In fact, Jason Horowitz’s useful assessment of liberals mugged by reality in the Washington Post makes clear that many liberal hawks discouraged by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone silent in the debate over Syria. In fairness, as Horowitz points out, the former liberal hawks may be deterred as much by “the clear reluctance of a Democratic president to get mired in the Middle East” as by previous interventions gone awry. Either way, some liberal hawks appear not neo-conservative but just plain conservative, as in “marked by moderation or caution”—a dictionary definition that sometimes seems forgotten.
Perhaps more interesting, however, is what happens when neoconservatives are mugged by reality a second time. Though most neoconservatives don’t appear quite ready to give up on deeper U.S. involvement in Syria in one way or another, more than a few are looking over their shoulders in dark alleys. How else to explain their increasingly frequent denunciations of “isolationism” that virtually no one is advocating? Or their calls for no-fly zones, drone attacks, arms shipments and similar measures to avoid “boots on the ground” in Syria? They may not be concerned by the troubling realities of the Middle East, but neoconservatives can certainly see the shadow of America’s domestic political realities approaching them from behind. Hopefully it will encourage them to become a little more cautiously conservative too.