"I myself was once attracted to neoconservatism," Jacob Heilbrunn tells his readers. "As a teenager and adult, I found that it supplied me with a beguiling but ultimately artificial clarity about the world." Why he abandoned the faith goes unexplained but They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (Anchor Books, 2009) is, despite some unnecessary characterizations, an astute and comprehensive group portrait of men and women who think of themselves as neocons. Some of the book draws on the familiar (see, for example, Peter Steinfels’s earlier and more critical book "The Neoconservatives," 1979), such as the early neocon generation’s City College years when Communists and Trotskyists, eating brown bag lunches, positioned themselves in rival cafeteria alcoves and taunted one another while the vast majority of students ignored them. The Trotskyists rightly expressed their revulsion at Stalin’s mass murders but also managed to overlook Trotsky’s authoritarian bent. After graduation they continued fighting while splintering into minuscule, ideological sects.
The neocons who emerged from that cafeteria never had any use for liberalism and never understood why Jews consistently vote Democratic. (78% voted for Obama). But liberal and moderate Jews have always been a mystery to neocons. It was the late Milton Himmelfarb, a Commentary contributing editor who famously wondered why Jews lived like Episcopalians yet voted like Puerto Ricans. An appropriate answer was offered by Earl Shorris in his sharp-edged 1982 book Jews Without Mercy: A Lament when he condemned neoconservatism’s "self-interest, without mercy for the old or the poor, a movement that condemns oppression only when it serves the interests of the movement to do so."
For Heilbrunn, neoconservatism is less about ideology or hatred of liberals but rather a "mindset…decisively shaped by the Jewish immigrant experience, by the Holocaust and by the twentieth century struggle against totalitarianism." It is, he states confidently in a fit of pop sociology, "in a decisive respect a Jewish phenomenon."
But is it? Growing up a child of poor Jewish immigrants well-versed in the tragedies of the Jewish past and whose family were victims of the Nazi invasion of Russia, my father and grandfather sneered when anyone mentioned Stalin or Trotsky’s names, and regularly cautioned me to steer clear of left and right extremists. Both factions had cost them great pain in their native country. Personally, I remember Max Shachtman, who went from Communism to Trotsky to cheering on the Vietnam War, being jeered while trying to instruct Jews with the same background as his about his version of Marxism. It was Shachtman, Heilbrunn notes, who "inculcated a hatred of liberalism in his protégés, among them, Irving Kristol, Joshua Muravchick, Al Shanker, even Bayard Rustin, the erstwhile pacifist and Shanker’s pal in the New York City teacher union.
By the eighties the neocons began taking on Presidents. Carter was soft on communism and his novel defense of human rights for all and not merely for your side in the Cold War was unacceptable. Kissinger and Nixon’s policy of détente was scorned. Bush I was loathed because he wanted to curtail new Jewish settlements on the West Bank and had to retreat before the clout of the Israel Lobby, telling a press conference that he, the President of the United States, was only a "lonely little guy" trying to question Israeli policy. Even Reagan, who Heilbrunn rightly points out was "not reflexively pro-Israel" was excoriated in Commentary in 1983 for failing to follow its political and military advice to ship American GIs to fight in the civil wars then raging in Central America. The magazine called it "appeasement by any other name." Nor for that matter could neocons abide foreign policy’s so-called "realists" William Fulbright, George Kennan, James Baker and Brent Scowcroft.
In addition to being subsidized by very conservative billionaires their success in pursuit of authority and influence was fueled by their perception of Washington’s amoral, Byzantine climate. Nourished by ideological pamphleteers such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Fox TV, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, right-wing foundations and others, they delighted in spreading around empty shibboleths such as "National Greatness," "benevolent global hegemony," "regime change" and "Islamofascism." Liberal "elites" were members of a "new class," whatever that meant.
From 2001 on they became camp followers of the Bush/Cheney administration. They played a crucial role in pressing the case for war against Iraq. No longer outsiders and critics, as their elders had been, they were a new generation of right-wing biological and intellectual progeny, pugnacious second-stringers — virtually none of whom have ever served on active military duty — welcomed into power centers that had for so long eluded their elders. Above all, they were prepared to demonstrate American military might anywhere and everywhere.
Encyclopedic in breath, extremely readable, the book has too many throwaway lines. Heilbrunn dismisses as "a fire-breathing liberal" Patricia Derian, Carter’s human rights advocate, without pausing to make clear what it is that bothers him about her politics and human rights. Edward Said, a neocon punching bag because of his contrarian views on Palestinians wrote — never defined here — "much nonsense about the Middle East." The views of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, highly critical of the Israel Lobby, are "addled," no details offered. Laurie Mylroie is "an eccentric [why?] scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who claimed that Saddam Hussein was behind the bombing of the World Trade center in 1993" and Michael Ledeen, a onetime AEI member whose book Freedom Betrayed, argued that the right, not the left, was best suited to toppling dictatorial regimes. "This," concludes Heilbrunn, "was neoconservatism on steroids," without pausing to argue the case with Ledeen.
All the same, now that we have a new administration, the question is whether neoconservatism is finished.
Heilbrunn rightly doubts their departure. Their vast network of institutions, publications and wealthy donors remains intact and they are eager to take on Iran and sooner or later even North Korea. In his book and especially later in the paleocon magazine The American Conservative — an arch-enemy of neocons — ("Where Have All the Neocons Gone," January 12, 2009), Heilbrunn shrewdly wonders whether the new administration’s liberal hawks and neocons might somehow come to see eye to eye. "Perhaps reaching out to the Obama administration will help rejuvenate neoconservatism. It could prove to be a more comfortable fit than either side might anticipate."
After all, nothing is impossible in Washington.
This piece originally appeared on History News Network.org.