The Neocons and Their Rise to Power

I’ve recently published a couple of articles focused on the Neocons, the ideological faction that has now dominated American foreign policy for more than thirty years.

Having their earliest roots a half-century ago, the Neocons eventually became a very powerful force in our political system, but although I’ve sometimes mentioned them in my articles, I’d never discussed their origins nor their rise to power, and I think these have often been misunderstood. One of the reasons for this confusion is that the very word “Neocon”—short for “neoconservative”—has undergone dramatic changes over the decades, eventually coming to mean something very different from how it was first understood.

The term neoconservative had originally appeared in the early 1970s, applied by critics to a small group of social scientists and other intellectuals who had rejected the radicalism of the 1960s and gravitated towards more moderate positions. Figures such as Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Seymour Martin Lipset were among the most prominent names usually mentioned, with James Q. Wilson and Thomas Sowell also often grouped into that category. In 1965, Bell and Kristol had co-founded The Public Interest, a semi-academic quarterly journal focused on matters of social policy.

Many of these individuals were Jews originally from New York City, often with deep personal roots in the non-Stalinist Left including Trotskyism, and the severe problems their metropolis faced during the late 1960s and the 1970s became an important factor behind their ideological shift, as they grew disgusted and horrified by the rampant crime and racial confrontations, along with the threat of fiscal bankruptcy. Also around that time, Commentary magazine, edited by Norman Podhoretz and based in the same city, moved in a similar direction, replacing its enthusiasm for the radical New Left with sharp criticism, and becoming the leading American publication associated with the early neoconservative movement.

In those pre-Internet days, professionally-produced print publications with a national circulation were an extremely scarce intellectual resource and as such could serve as the focal point for a nascent ideological movement. So Commentary played such a role in shaping the Neocons much as William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review had earlier helped to create the modern conservative movement in the late 1950s. But Commentary was also the flagship publication of the American Jewish Committee and Podhoretz himself deeply identified with Jewish issues. Those factors impacted his editorial line, which naturally included a major focus upon Israel and the Middle East along with the plight of Soviet Jewry. Partly for such reasons, a hawkish foreign policy including heavy emphasis on the Cold War soon became important Neocon concerns.

The aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate dominated the 1970s with the overwhelming majority of influential American publications and the intellectual elites who followed them skewing liberal or even radical in their political orientation. National Review had already spent many years as the lodestar of the conservative movement and many Republicans, but the overwhelming majority of the contributors and readers of Commentary were Democrats or even Socialists, and it had recently been very influential in such circles, so it could easily draw in the sort of disgruntled Democrats who might have dismissed Buckley’s publication out of hand. Thoughtful conservatives hoped to broaden the intellectual reach of their growing political coalition and they recognized how valuable Commentary might be in assisting that project. In a famous 1979 example, the magazine had published “Dictatorships and Double Standards” authored by a conservative Democratic academic named Jeane Kirkpatrick, an article that brought her to the attention of Ronald Reagan, who named her his U.N. Ambassador after he reached the White House.

During the Reagan Administration of the 1980s, Neocons often spearheaded such foreign policy projects and these began overshadowing the domestic social issues that had once dominated the movement. This was partly because Reagan proved much more successful at implementing the former than the latter, with Congress passing his large military buildup against the Soviets even as his efforts to roll back affirmative action, bilingual education, or multiculturalism languished.

Furthermore, some of the earliest neoconservative figures who had focused on domestic matters gradually disassociated themselves for a variety of reasons. Bell had long rejected the claim that he was any sort of conservative, neo or otherwise. Moynihan had won a New York U.S. Senate seat as a Democrat in 1976, becoming an influential figure in that party, but being subject to different ideological pressures he then became a fierce critic of the Reaganite foreign policy promoted by his erstwhile allies and proteges. Glazer, a mild-mannered academic scholar, also retreated from some of his earlier views, eventually even publishing a book entitled We Are All Multiculturalists Now.

So an ideological movement that had once consisted of moderate social scientists became much more strongly identified with fiercely hawkish militarists preoccupied with Israel, the Middle East, and the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. This transformation was gradual enough and the overlap in personnel and beliefs sufficiently strong that the original name continued in use and those underlying shifts received little public attention. However, I’ve always regarded the changes as so dramatic that I usually refer to Bell, Moynihan, Glazer, and others of their ilk as Elder Neocons in order to clearly distinguish them from their very different political heirs.

The Neocons had possessed no significant popular base and they originally entered the conservative movement as a small group of refugees from a Democratic party that had become too radical for their taste. But many of them proved far more skillful in their organizational infighting than the existing conservatives they encountered and they also possessed much better connections with leading media circles. As a consequence, they steadily expanded their role and during the Reagan era of the 1980s they gained disproportionate influence across the key nodes of the rising conservative movement. Such growing power and authority was often resented by their traditionalist rivals, who had toiled for decades in building American conservatism only to find that many of the fruits of their victory under Reagan were now usurped by Neocon newcomers, who had spent most of those same years on the other side of the barricades. But Neocon control over publications, thinktanks, foundations, and government appointments still steadily increased during the 1980s and into the 1990s. Paul Gottfried’s 1988 book updated in 1993 devoted several chapters to this conflict within the conservative movement, with Gottfried himself having coined the term “paleoconservative” to categorize his own more traditional conservative intellectuals, sometimes pushed aside by their sharp-elbowed Neocon rivals.

During these political struggles with rival conservative factions, the Neocons became noted for their ruthlessness and the effectiveness of their organization, which allowed them to gain ground against opponents who generally had views much closer to those of the movement’s own activists and voters. One important political advantage the Neocons possessed was that outside a fairly restricted range of issues—especially in foreign policy— they were usually quite moderate and mainstream in their views, thus having a cultural background and set of beliefs very similar to those of the powerful and (generally liberal) mainstream media, which they often successfully enlisted in their conservative factional struggles. Indeed, in 1986 Southern traditionalist conservative Clyde Wilson had famously complained:

The offensives of radicalism have driven vast herds of liberals across the borders into our territories. These refugees now speak in our names, but the language they speak is the same one they always spoke.

The heavily Jewish composition of the Neocons and their often intense focus on Israel hardly passed without notice among their resentful traditionalist rivals, but speaking out on such matters might be portrayed as “right-wing anti-Semitism” by the media and was therefore fraught with peril. For decades, Russell Kirk had been regarded as one of the most prominent conservative thinkers, but when he sharply criticized the Neocons in a major 1988 speech, archly declaring that “Not seldom has it seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States,” he was bitterly denounced and his words became “infamous.”

The elderly Kirk was already near the end of his life, but during this period occasional missteps by other leading conservative figures outside the Neocon camp were quickly seized upon and trumpeted to the media as pernicious proof of “racism” or “anti-Semitism,” sometimes leading to the destruction of long careers. Two notable cases were those of Joseph Sobran and Sam Francis.

Although the name of Joseph Sobran may be somewhat unfamiliar to younger conservatives, during the 1970s and 1980s he possibly ranked second only to founder William F. Buckley, Jr. in his influence in mainstream conservative circles, as partly suggested by the nearly 400 articles he published for NR during that period. By the late 1980s, he had grown increasingly concerned that growing Neocon influence would embroil America in future foreign wars, and his occasional sharp statements in that regard were branded “anti-Semitic” by his Neocon opponents, who eventually prevailed upon Buckley to purge him. The latter provided the particulars in a major section of his 1992 book-length essay In Search of Anti-Semitism.

Oddly enough, Sobran seems to have only very rarely discussed Jews, favorably or otherwise, across his decades of writing, but even just that handful of less than flattering mentions was apparently sufficient to draw their sustained destructive attacks on his career, and he eventually died in poverty in 2010 at the age of 64. Sobran had always been known for his literary wit, and his unfortunate ideological predicament eventually led him to coin the aphorism “An anti-Semite used to mean a man who hated Jews. Now it means a man who is hated by Jews.”

A very similar fate for very similar reasons [was also] suffered by the late Sam Francis, one of the leading paleoconservative theorists in America, and a top opinion editor at The Washington Times, then a leading national force in the conservative movement. Despite winning numerous journalist awards and serving as an adviser to the presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan, Francis lost most of his public outlets when he was purged for having the wrong associations, and his large body of accumulated writings have mostly disappeared from the Internet.

A particular flash-point came in 1990 after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and President George H.W. Bush prepared to go to war against him in response. Many leading traditional conservatives expressed very strong reservations about Bush’s Gulf War plans, while the Neocons fervently supported the attack against Israel’s most dangerous regional rival. Pat Buchanan had held important positions in both the Nixon and Reagan Administrations, and he was then a nationally-syndicated columnist with a huge television footprint on Crossfire, the McLaughlin Group, and other popular cable shows, certainly ranking as one of our most influential conservative figures. The ADL and other Jewish groups ferociously attacked the pugnacious pundit when he declared to his national television audience of millions:

Capitol Hill is Israeli occupied territory…There are only two groups that are beating the drums for war in the Middle East – the Israeli defense ministry and its ‘amen corner’ in the United States…The Israelis want this war desperately because they want the United States to destroy the Iraqi war machine. They want us to finish them off. They don’t care about our relations with the Arab world.

Bush’s unexpectedly easy military victory against Iraq strengthened the hands of the Neocons who had wholeheartedly endorsed the project, but a new political battle immediately broke out after the President began demanding that Israel halt its West Bank settlement activity. This soon provoked a related controversy regarding the long-suppressed story of the 1967 Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty.

At that time, the Evans & Novak column by conservatives Rowland Evans and Robert Novak was among the most widely syndicated and influential in America, running in many hundreds of newspapers, and with Novak also having a large presence on the weekly political television shows. Their November 6, 1991 column dropped a major bombshell, reporting that radio transmissions proved the Israeli pilots had been fully aware that they were attacking an American ship and despite their frantic protestations had been ordered to go ahead and sink the Liberty regardless. These communications had been intercepted and decrypted by the intelligence staff at our Beirut Embassy, and the shocking transcripts were immediately provided to our ambassador, Dwight Porter, a highly esteemed diplomat, who had finally broken his self-imposed silence after 24 years. Moreover, these same facts were also confirmed by an American-born Israeli military officer who had been present at IDF headquarters that day, and who said that all the commanders there were sure that the ship being attacked was American. This may have been the first time I learned the true details of the 1967 incident, probably from one of Novak’s many television appearances.

Pro-Israel elements of the media and their numerous activist supporters immediately launched a fierce counter-attack, spearheaded by former New York Times Executive Editor Abe Rosenthal, a fervent partisan of Israel, who denounced the Evans & Novak column as biased, misinterpreted, and fraudulent. When I read Novak’s memoirs last year, he described how Israel’s partisans had spent many years pressuring newspapers into dropping his column, which substantially reduced its reach as the years went by. The columnists were punished for crossing red-lines, their future influence diminished, and other journalists were given a powerful warning message against ever doing anything similar.

So over the course of just a few years, several leading conservative figures suffered considerable damage or were even entirely purged for their candid words regarding the Neocons or Israel, surely leading numerous others of lesser rank to draw the appropriate lessons. In the past I’ve noted the sheer ferocity with which such Jewish activists attacked their perceived critics, thereby producing extreme caution in potential adversaries.

I’ve also sometimes suggested to people that one under-emphasized aspect of a Jewish population, greatly magnifying its problematical character, is the existence of what might be considered a biological sub-morph of exceptionally fanatical individuals, always on hair-trigger alert to launch verbal and sometimes physical attacks of unprecedented fury against anyone they regard as insufficiently friendly towards Jewish interests. Every now and then, a particularly brave or foolhardy public figure challenges some off-limits topic and is almost always overwhelmed and destroyed by a veritable swarm of these fanatical Jewish attackers. Just as the painful stings of the self-sacrificing warrior caste of an ant colony can quickly teach large predators to go elsewhere, fears of provoking these “Jewish berserkers” can often severely intimidate writers or politicians, causing them to choose their words very carefully or even completely avoid discussing certain controversial subjects, thereby greatly benefiting Jewish interests as a whole. And the more such influential people are thus intimidated into avoiding a particular topic, the more that topic is perceived as strictly taboo, and avoided by everyone else as well.

For example, about a dozen years ago I was having lunch with an especially eminent Neoconservative scholar with whom I’d become a little friendly. We were bemoaning the overwhelmingly leftward skew among America’s intellectual elites, and I suggested it largely seemed a function of our most elite universities. Many of our brightest students from across the nation entered Harvard and the other Ivies holding a variety of different ideological perspectives, but after four years departed those halls of learning overwhelmingly in left-liberal lock-step. Although he agreed with my assessment, he felt I was missing something important. He nervously glanced to both sides, shifted his head downward, and lowered his voice. “It’s the Jews,” he said.

Despite his impressive Gulf War victory in early 1991, economic problems and political missteps had severely damaged President Bush’s popularity by the end of that same year. As a result, Pat Buchanan decided to challenge Bush in the Republican primaries, a development that seemed likely to spark an explosive public conflict between the heavily Jewish Neocons and their traditionalist conservative rivals, potentially tearing apart the conservative movement that was home to both of them and drawing damaging scrutiny from the hostile liberal media.

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