Although they are abhorred by the dovish left for launching a unilateral, unwinnable war and resented by the traditional right for abandoning established conservative principles, it is undeniable that the neoconservatives have had a considerable impact upon history and continue to wield considerable power in the Bush administration. In an attempt to strip away the emotive associations regarding neoconservatism and objectively trace the movement to the present day, National Interest Senior Editor Jacob Heilbrunn cast a critical eye on the history of the movement in his new book They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.
At the Nixon Center on Tuesday, Heilbrunn highlighted main points from the book and began a dispassionate discussion regarding the beliefs and influence of neoconservatives. Grover Norquist, a leading conservative political strategist and the president of Americans for Tax Reform, and Dov Zakheim, a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton and under secretary of defense from 2001 to 2004, gave prepared remarks before opening the floor for questions. Nixon Center President Dimitri Simes moderated the discussion.
Heilbrunn's inspiration for the book stemmed from a New Yorker cartoon in which one jailbird asks another jailbird why he's there. The inmate replies, "Because I'm a neocon." It was at this point that Heilbrunn noticed "the extent to which the term ‘neocon' had itself become an epithet with which to tar someone who supported the [Iraq] war or had fairly interventionist views about American foreign policy." As a self-described former neocon, Heilbrunn felt compelled to investigate, elucidate and interpret the evolution of the movement he describes as "a mindset, rather than an ideology" for a wider audience.
Of all the myths surrounding neoconservatism, one of the most provocative is the "Jewish cabal" conspiracy theory: neoconservatives had hijacked the Bush presidency to further their pro-Israel agenda. Heilbrunn noted that this was "obviously false" and also a distortion of an important component of the origins of neoconservative thought, which he explained was "driven from the memory of the Holocaust." The neocons saw that the nonintervention policy of Western democracies allowed the genocide to occur and enabled Hitler at a time when he could have been stopped. Interventionist policy would become an important component of their political beliefs.
Most of the early neoconservative figures such as Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Seymour Martin Lipset, Nathan Glazer and Albert Wohlstetter attended the City College of New York, which acted as a haven for their political views. At that time, most were Trotskyists attracted to the idea of an intellectual elite. Heilbrunn pointed out that although neoconservative beliefs would evolve over time, its radical edge dates back to its ideological beginning. He also noted that their major characteristics were present from the movement's genesis: "Many of the formative neoconservatives developed their penchant for invective, for ideological combat, for using small magazines as ideological weapons in the 1930s."
To begin with, the neocons were very liberal-Socialists and Marxists. But during the McCarthy era they began their shift to the right. By the 1960s "true neocons" emerged-led by Irving Kristol. Black radical anti-Semitism and the assault on universities by the radical left later led the neocons to claim that they did not leave the left, but rather, the Democrats left them. The neoconservatives did associate with the right; however, many adamantly disagreed with Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy, particularly its failure to protect Russian Jews and its pursuit of "an amoral realpolitik." Later, the neocons were equally dismayed with the Carter administration's "excessively accommodating" foreign policy, particularly in regard to arms control and the Soviets.
The Reagan era ushered in the "first real heyday" for the neoconservatives, as they secured upper-level positions in the administration and a rightful place in the Republican Party. The former liberals begin to be accepted by the Republicans. This first generation of neoconservatives was much more cautious than the second generation. The collapse of Eastern Europe and the rise of democracies in Central America seemed to this younger group-led by Robert Kagan, William Kristol and later Max Boot-a blueprint for expanding democracy into the Middle East. They took a very triumphal view of the cold war, which was most famously sounded by Francis Fukuyama in "The End of History?" in the National Interest in 1989.
This triumphal brand of history became fused, by the late 1990s, with a call for "national greatness" by David Brooks and William Kristol. Small federal government was not the priority-instead the mission was striving for greatness, valor, honor-a return to what they saw as the "grandeur" of the United States. Heilbrunn noted that this vision later proved incredibly attractive to President Bush and seemed "tailor-made for him." The surge in patriotism following September 11 reinforced this vision of a grand world power.
Although Heilbrunn labeled President Bush a neocon, he was careful to point out that he does not put Vice President Cheney in the same category. Heilbrunn saw Cheney's proclivity for intervention in the Middle East as a product of his belief that the United States had "unfinished business" left over from the first Gulf War. Heilbrunn saw a greater neocon influence in the Department of Defense, particularly from Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and the man responsible for post-war planning in Iraq, Douglas Feith. Both had parents or relatives who survived the Holocaust. In particular, Heilbrunn explained, Wolfowitz wanted to rectify a wrong-the massacre of the Shiites by Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War, which he believed the U.S. could have prevented.
Following Heilbrunn's remarks, Grover Norquist offered his own definition of a neoconservative: "A neoconservative is someone who is not comfortable being in the Democratic Party-for any number of reasons-and they don't understand economics." Norquist argued that although neocons have a role in the modern center-right coalition, they are mostly public intellectuals, which isn't very useful to the party: "I don't think Nebraska voters and Kansas voters decided to support Reagan's view of the nature of the Soviet Union and the extent and the nature of international Bolshevism because some intellectuals had written a series of magazine articles in New York City." As for the decision to invade Iraq, Norquist concluded that "Cheney and Bush and a handful of people, absent the existence of neocons, might well have made that initial decision."
Dov Zakheim agreed with Norquist's classification of neocons as intellectuals with a deficient knowledge of economics, but cautioned neocons could not be classified in a one-dimensional way. He tended to disagree with the notion that Judaism has had a disproportinate influence on neoconservatives, noting that it was certainly not the rule, nor was it widespread. Zakheim pointed out that the two most important advisers to Don Rumsfeld, Bill Snyder and Steve Cambone, were not Jewish. He also noted that the distinction between neoconservative policymakers and neoconservative intellectuals and journalists needs to be clear. "There is one Holocaust survivor serving on Capitol Hill, Tom Lantos, and he sure ain't a neocon. It is what we economists call a spurious correlation-completely spurious. There is no connection at all between the Holocaust and neoconservative policy with the exception of Doug Phife," Zakheim declared. He then explained that the problem with neoconservatives is that they back "fundamentally wrongheaded policy." Calling the philosophy "elitist" and "a twenty-first century expression of noblesse oblige-with all the arrogance that that entails," Zahkeim expressed his distaste for neoconservatism. He further elaborated, "The argument over neoconservatism ought to be fought over the fundamentals of policy because ultimately the intellectuals are only as strong as the number of people that read their books. If you don't open a newspaper, you have no idea what any of these journalists have said."
Today, neoconservatism is widely associated with the failures of the Iraq war. But as Heilbrunn studied the neoconservative movement, he found a much broader and more varied definition that, perhaps, sheds a bit of light on our current state of affairs.
Caitlin B. Doherty is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.