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Neoconservatism Defined

Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea, C. Bradley Thompson and Yaron Brook, Paradigm Publishers, 256 pages

Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement, Justin Vaïsse, Harvard, 376 pages

It is difficult to regard neoconservatism with anything other than distaste. Leading neocons, such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Charles Krauthammer, and assorted members of the Kagan family, not only played a major role in the onset of the Iraq War, of blessed memory. No, this did not suffice for them. They propagandized for more wars: the blessings of democracy must be brought to all the nations of the Middle East. What David Frum, another of their number, called the Axis of Evil must be destroyed.

Justin Vaïsse, a French expert on American politics who is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes as a historian of a movement rather than as an advocate of doctrine of his own, but he rejects the current neocon line on foreign policy, as any decent person would. “One final problem inherent in the neoconservative vision and the Bush doctrine [was] … democratic dogmatism, yet another consequence of intellectual laziness … Not only was democracy not a magic wand, but implanting it was not as simple as some neoconservatives … sometimes described it.”

Vaïsse argues that this reckless disregard for reality has not always characterized neoconservatism. To the contrary, the movement began in the 1960s with cogent criticisms of some of the domestic programs of the Johnson administration. The grandiose goals of the proponents of the Great Society could not be achieved, according to Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Moynihan, and other early neocons. (It is daunting to realize that Bell and Glazer have been writing since the 1940s.). In The Public Interest, a journal founded by Bell and Irving Kristol, the critics of the conventional wisdom on the welfare state claimed that “the law of unintended consequences” imposes severe limits on the efficacy of political action. “For instance, rent control, though well-intentioned, leads to housing shortages (because landlords have no incentive to invest) . . . the overall focus of The Public Interest became ‘the limits of social policy’.”

If neoconservatism began in this way, do we not confront a difficulty? How has a movement of skeptical realism become transformed into one of dangerous delusions? Indeed, is there in fact a continuous neoconservative movement that stretches from the 1960s to the present? Should we not say rather, as some of the early neocons contended, that the earlier movement came to an end in the 1990s?

Vaïsse demonstrates that real continuities exist between the early neocons and their current successors. True enough, the early neocons stressed domestic policy; but they did not ignore foreign policy altogether. They called for an active policy in pursuit of the Cold War. In doing so, they continued the “vital center” liberalism championed by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. after World War II that combined an interventionist foreign policy with social-reform measures in the style of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Like Schlesinger and his ilk, the early neocons celebrated the martial virtues brought out in the crusade against the Kremlin.

A like emphasis pervaded their criticism of the Great Society. The neocons of what Vaïsse terms the first age of the movement by no means wished to end the welfare state. They were not disciples of Mises and Hayek but rather sought to reform welfare so that it would not corrupt character. National virtue was to them all-important. Precisely what turned them against the New Left and the McGovernite wing of the Democratic Party was the hedonism and lack of patriotism that they believed were present there. They were not men of the Right but New Dealers who wished to restore the glory days of old. If only the spirit of sacrifice that prevailed during World War II could be recovered, all would be well.

A great strength of Vaïsse’s book is his stress on the second age of neoconservatism, which spans the gap between The Public Interest writers and the “national greatness” drumbeaters of today. This intermediate stage consisted of Henry “Scoop” Jackson Democrats. Not content with the influence that their writing had achieved, the 1960s neocons saw in the popular senator from Washington a way to advance their goals. Like them, Jackson was a New Dealer and Cold Warrior of the utmost tenacity. His leitmotif, though, was another topic essential to the neocons. Jackson strongly supported Israeli foreign policy and pressured Soviet Russia to allow Jewish emigration. Most, though certainly not all, of the leading neocons are Jewish and the defense of Israel is central to their political concerns.

No one who absorbs Vaïsse’s discussion of this second age can harbor any illusions about whether the neocons count as genuine conservatives. Jackson made no secret of his statist views of domestic policy, but this did not in the least impede his neocons allies from enlisting in his behalf. Vaïsse by the way understates Jackson’s commitment to socialism, which dated from his youth. Contrary to what our author suggests, the League for Industrial Democracy, which Jackson joined while in college, was not “a moderate organization that backed unions and democratic principles.” It was a socialist youth movement that aimed to propagate socialism to the public.

It was not Jackson’s domestic policy, though, that principally drew the necons to him. They had an elective affinity for the pursuit of the Cold War. Vaïsse stresses in particular that they collaborated with Paul Nitze and other Cold War hawks. In a notorious incident, “Team B,” under the control of the hawks, claimed that CIA estimates of Russian armaments were radically understated. It transpired that the alarms of Team B were baseless; they nevertheless served their purpose in promoting a bellicose foreign policy.

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October 29, 2010

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