The Real Irving Kristol

August 25, 2015 Topic: Politics Tags: Irving KristolNeoconservativesHistory

The Real Irving Kristol

Contrary to popular belief, the founding father of American neoconservatism was a consistent adherent of realpolitik in international affairs.



PODHORETZ’S AND Kristol’s approaches to international affairs remained dissimilar while their postures on domestic affairs began converging in the late 1960s. Both men tepidly opposed American involvement in Vietnam—they even refrained from writing about the conflict—but events in that Southeast Asian country led them to develop, respectively, a more activist and a more reserved take on Western capabilities. Podhoretz felt that Vietnam was the “right war” but the “wrong place” and blamed America’s failure on execution of tactics. Kristol, on the other hand, felt that America’s quest was doomed from the outset because Vietnam’s soil was not ripe for democracy. “It lacks the political traditions, the educated classes, the civic spirit that makes self-government workable,” he wrote in 1963. “The most we can hope for in South Vietnam is what we have achieved in South Korea: that is, to remove this little, backward nation from the front line of the Cold War so that it can stew quietly in its own political juice.” In the early 1970s, while disdaining the “neo-isolationist impulse” that had arisen in the wake of Vietnam as “a nostalgic yearning for past simplicities,” he also blasted “interventionism” as being “more a kind of political romanticism than political theory.”


Tension between the two editors intensified during the Nixon administration. Kristol supported détente, the easing of the strained relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the April 1976 issue of Commentary, Podhoretz mocked that strategy as a “curious habit of speaking loudly and carrying a small stick” and further lampooned Henry Kissinger for sounding like Winston Churchill but acting like Neville Chamberlain. Kristol also backed arms control. In 1961, for example, three months after the botched Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba, he had gone so far as to call upon the U.S. government to renounce the “first use” of nuclear weapons. Podhoretz, however, blasted arms control as a “fraud” and “one of the great superstitions of the twentieth century.” Kristol further broke with Podhoretz by knocking the Whig interpretation of history and urging military restraint abroad. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in October 1973—in the middle of the Yom Kippur War—he scolded the West for its conceited conviction “that to become modern must mean a gradual conversion to our own liberal-secular materialism.” Two months later, he appended: “There is nothing inherently immoral about intervening in some one else’s civil war, just as there is nothing inherently immoral in not intervening.”

The friction between Kristol and Podhoretz took on a new public dimension the following year. In 1974, Kristol used his Wall Street Journal column to exalt Kissinger for “legitimizing such a new way of thinking about foreign policy” that transcended “a Machiavellian policy” as well as “a moralistic policy—one that conceives the United States to be ‘a city upon a hill’ and ‘a light onto the nations.’” He also commended him for shaping a “‘Europeanization’ of American foreign policy” that sought consensus through a “lowering-of-the-sights.” Daniel Bell, for one, applauded the column for having “gone to such lengths to prove that realism and not ideology is the rationale for détente.” The column still discountenanced Midge Decter, Podhoretz’s wife, three decades after it first appeared. In a speech to the Philadelphia Society in 2004, she asked: “All the lying, cowardice, cruelty, murder, mayhem, rivers of blood and plain insanity that were let loose by the European powers in the course of the twentieth century—what in God’s name does he find so praiseworthy in the idea of Europeanization?”

In 1985, in response to the Reagan administration’s increasing embrace of democracy promotion abroad, Kristol established The National Interest, a journal dedicated to foreign affairs. (The Public Interest, which he had cofounded in 1965, was instead devoted to domestic affairs, focusing on economic and social policy.) Ten years later, he specified that The National Interest attempted to advance a “neorealist” worldview that would “steer its own course between Wilsonian internationalist utopianism and a ‘pragmatism’ that was little more than opportunism.” Kristol was not the only “neoconservative” who had been worried about America’s new path. “If one took, as an extreme view, Norman P’s vociferous conception of an ideological crusade,” Daniel Bell wrote to Kristol in 1986, “then one would justify interventionism on a large and braod [sic] scale, and confrontationism at every turn? And that might ‘entangle’ us quite a bit.”

Podhoretz was aware that his creed was under fire. “The National Interest . . . was an unspoken polemic against the position of the Commentary crowd,” he conceded in a 2010 interview at his Upper East Side apartment. He continued:

Irving’s view was actually opposed to mine. I stressed the importance of the ideological element in American foreign policy. I always argued that this was one of the—what we’d say today—“exceptional” things about the United States. Realpolitik? You can’t go to war to preserve the “balance of power” with Americans. You need some higher moral purpose whether it’s real or not—it’s something that Henry Kissinger never really understood....Irving was really celebrating a realist perspective, [an] anti-Wilsonian realist perspective.

The swift and, for most, unexpected dissolution of the Iron Curtain did little to abate the rivalry between Kristol and Podhoretz. Soon after the start of Operation Desert Shield in 1990, Kristol assured America that there was no need to agonize over the fact that there were “large parts of the world which do not share our conception of civil rights and civil liberties.” The existence of political mores and cultural norms unpleasant to the Western palette did not alone constitute sufficient cause to concoct enemies and hassle allies. Kristol further advised: “American military intervention and occupation to ‘make democracy work’ . . . is not and cannot be a serious option for American foreign policy.” Podhoretz was galled by this reluctance to capitalize on what commentator Charles Krauthammer identified as the “unipolar moment.” He admonished Kristol in Commentary for taking “refuge in the realist argument for a foreign policy based strictly on considerations of national interest.” “The American national interest,” he wrote, “can only be served properly and fully by a foreign policy that does indeed work, prudently but surely, toward the Wilsonian ideal of making the world safe for democracy.” Kristol, four years later, noted: “I regarded the ideal of a ‘world without war’ as utopian, and ‘making the world safe for democracy’ a futile enterprise.”

Without question, the activist U.S. foreign policy of the 1990s proved more in sync with Podhoretz’s vision of America’s role abroad than Kristol’s. The Clinton administration labored to demonstrate the country’s commitment to the protection of human rights through interventions in Somalia, Haiti and the Balkans. Crucially for Commentary, it also reaffirmed America’s support for Israel. According to Podhoretz, the George H. W. Bush administration’s foreign policy—led by Secretary of State James Baker—had shown “a tone” toward the Jewish state that ranged “from ordinary coldness to...outright hostility.” But Podhoretz was still irked throughout the 1990s, believing that President Bill Clinton had fallen short in heeding America’s providential calling. He was, nevertheless, pleased enough to herald the end of his ideological campaign by eulogizing the passing of neoconservatism—his neoconservatism. “For if there is a neoconservative extant who has become an isolationist,” he announced in 1996, the year after he retired from Commentary, “I do not know where to find him.”


PODHORETZ, AT the age of sixty-six, seemed to be preparing for his exit from public life. Yet as we know today, some of the fiercest intellectual bouts of his career were still to be fought. He, along with neoconservatism more generally, roared back to the fore of political debate after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. (The tenor of his George W. Bush–era punditry is exemplified by the title of his 2007 book, World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism.) As for Kristol, he would not return to the theater of polemics, having happily consigned himself to retirement midway through the Clinton administration. Was it an anticlimactic ending to the odyssey of the man who pioneered possibly the most influential movement in modern American politics? Or a fitting one for an individual admired for his charm and equanimity? “I keep not writing,” Kristol told his old friend Earl Raab in 1996. “I do feel that, at my age, pontificating as has been my wont, is unbecoming. Besides, I don’t really care that much about pontifical matters, all of which have receded into the distance.” What he did care about was family, spending his days strolling with his grandchildren along the tree-lined streets of McLean, Virginia. And when he did put pen to paper, his ruminations materialized in private letters, which mainly revolved around ethics, philosophy and Judaism.

Speaking of Judaism, what about the Jewish state? An exposition of Kristol’s views on U.S. foreign policy sans discussion of Israel would be complete for neither neocons nor their opponents. After all, the former cohort trusts that America’s close cooperation with Israel is essential; the latter often trusts that it is excessive. The truth is that although Kristol (a self-described “non-practicing Orthodox Jew”) supported Israel—and ardently so after the 1967 Six-Day War—he was less interested in the country itself than other members of his ethnic/religious milieu. In the postwar period, this detachment might be ascribed to misgivings about a nation-state deeply shaped by Eastern European Communists bent on secular “progress.” In a 1946 piece for Commentary, “Adam and I” (which Himmelfarb stated in 2014 was actually a work of fiction), Kristol writes that while serving in the U.S. Army in Marseille after Nazi Germany’s surrender, he was asked by an Auschwitz survivor, “Do you wish to go to Eretz?” Kristol uneasily answered, “Well, yes, vaguely, but that will have to wait.” It is true that Kristol warmed considerably to Israel in the following decades, but the country seldom figured in his writings. When it did crop up, realist valuations were in tow. “I am struck by the fact that you and Marty [Peretz] seem to think that Israel has the right to go to war only for the purposes of ‘survival,’” Kristol submitted to Nathan Glazer in 1982. “But national security is not the same thing as sheer survival and no foreign policy can simply focus on survival as a goal.”