Warren Cohen on the Rise (and Fall) of the Neocons
A dozen years ago, in a review of John Ehrman’s “The Rise of Neoconservatism,” I dismissed the neocons as a spent force, hardly distinguishable from the Republican right to which writers such as Norman Podhoretz and his wife, Midge Decter, and Irving Kristol and his son William had attached themselves. Many of those to whom I had referred were so-called Reagan Democrats, one-time liberals who had despaired of what they perceived as the unwillingness of Democratic leaders, specifically George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, to appreciate the Soviet threat and act appropriately in defense of Israel. But they were no more satisfied with efforts of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford to achieve and maintain détente with the Soviets. They helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, and a few of them, notably Jeane Kirkpatrick, served visibly in his administration. For the most part they served as a claque, extolling his tough anti-communist rhetoric. They had far less influence on Reagan’s policies than they imagined, as evidenced by their outrage when he worked with Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War. Nonetheless, it’s clear that I buried them prematurely. Old writers never die — at least not all at once — and sometimes they beget offspring who carry on the family traditions.
Who were — or are — the neocons? Some analysts have traced the older ones back to a Trotskyite cell at the City College of New York in the 1930s. Those most prominent today are alleged to be connected in some way to Leo Strauss, a German-born political philosopher who taught at the University of Chicago. Some of these — and others — are perceived as disciples of Albert Wohlstetter, a defense intellectual who also taught at Chicago but did his most important work as a consultant to the RAND Corp. In “They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons,” Jacob Heilbrunn follows all of these trails but declares Max Shachtman, a prominent American socialist who veered right in the 1960s, to be the “founding father of neoconservatism.” Shachtman urged his followers to support the Democrats in the 1950s in hope of pushing the party left but turned against the Democrats — and the New Left — in the late 1960s in response to their opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Heilbrunn has trouble defining neoconservatism and concludes that it is not an ideology but rather a mind-set, one shaped by the Jewish immigrant experience (social resentments and status anxiety), memories of the Holocaust and the 20th century battle against totalitarianism. Obviously, he perceives most neocons to be Jews, echoing the conservative icon Russell Kirk’s classic crack that neocons too often thought the capital of the United States was Tel Aviv. Heilbrunn concedes that not all neocons are Jews but neglects to note that most Jews are not neocons.
Heilbrunn is eminently qualified to write on the subject. He is himself Jewish, his family experienced the Holocaust, and much of his early career was spent in the company of leading neoconservatives at The National Interest in the days when Irving Kristol was the publisher and alongside Charles Krauthammer at The New Republic. He readily concedes his own youthful attraction to the movement, but is less forthcoming about when and how he turned away. Indeed, the book is peppered with statements that could easily have come from Norman Podhoretz or David Frum. He claims that the foreign policy establishment “loathed the idea of Israel.” He offers a gratuitous put-down of the late Edward Said, “a smooth, urbane purveyor of much nonsense about the Middle East.” He accepts the charge that American liberalism was “hostile” to Israel in the 1960s and 1970s when another analyst — certainly this one — would suggest that many liberals became critical of Israel as the occupation of the West Bank unfolded. Finally, when he suggests that if funds had gone to Ahmed Chalabi as intended by the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, the chaos that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein might have been avoided, he’s certainly sounding a neocon theme.
Although Heilbrunn sees the neoconservative movement as beginning in the 1950s, it’s really not until the late 1960s that the New Left and the Black Nationalists were perceived by the generation of Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz and younger men such as Martin Peretz, later publisher of The New Republic, as a threat to Western civilization. Like most other American Jews, they were exhilarated by Israel’s victory in the Six Day War of 1967 — and appalled when young American leftists and blacks denounced Israeli imperialism. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) anticipated the 1974 U.N. resolution in 1967 by equating Zionism with racism. Black anti-Semitism directed at Jewish shopkeepers and teachers in the United States astonished and frightened many Jews, some of whom had been in the forefront of the fight against racism. The liberal demand for affirmative action to compensate blacks for centuries of oppression was profoundly troubling to men and women who had fought against quotas for Jews and found comfort as members of a meritocracy. The radical disruptions of universities and the efforts of black families to take control of New York public schools away from Jewish teachers were frightening indications of what might happen in the United States. Heilbrunn provides a useful insight, suggesting that some of the men who became leaders of the neoconservative movement had memories of the collapse of the Weimar Republic — and were determined not to let it happen in America.
Lyndon Johnson once complained that many Jewish intellectuals, although delighted by his use of American power in support of Israel, led the opposition to his use of that power in Vietnam. Kristol, Podhoretz, Shachtman and others among the older men and women who became neoconservatives chose to support the war in Vietnam. It was part of the struggle against communist totalitarianism. Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, both of whom imagined a less assertive American foreign policy, held no attraction for them. Nor did Nixon or Kissinger, whose quest for détente with both the Soviets and the Chinese they viewed as immoral. They looked instead to Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington, a hawkish Democrat, who, guided by Dorothy Fosdick and Richard Perle, understood the Soviet threat and would support Israel. By the 1970s, these Jewish upstarts were engaged, Heilbrunn contends, in a civil war against a foreign policy establishment that had gone soft after the war in Vietnam. In the 1970s and 1980s, there appeared to be only two themes that constituted a neoconservative foreign policy, advocated by both Jewish and non-Jewish adherents: anti-communism and the defense of Israel. When the neocons demanded a policy that placed a premium on respect for human rights, it was painfully evident that they preferred to be very selective in its application. Quite rightly, they insisted on calling attention to abuses committed by communist regimes and those of tin-pot dictators hostile to the United States. But the sincerity of their concern for the victims of abuse was brought into question by their willingness to offer free passes to America’s friends — and the friends of Israel. Readers aware of today’s neocon drumbeat for action against Iran may note how quiescent some of these same writers were in the 1970s when the Shah of Iran’s secret police engaged in widespread torture of his opponents. He was beyond reproach as a friend of the United States and a tacit ally of Israel (which helped train his secret police). Jimmy Carter, whose emphasis on human rights and eagerness to promote democracy should have pleased the neocons, outraged them by being too tough on Israel, pressing the Israelis to trade land for peace, and not tough enough on the Soviets. And so they turned to Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party.
Heilbrunn, agreeing that the Democratic leadership underestimated the Soviet threat, portrays the early 1980s, roughly Reagan’s first term, as the era in which the neoconservative movement made its greatest contribution. Members of the movement led the fight in the media as well as within the government in support of the Reagan Doctrine of supporting anti-communist insurgents wherever they appeared, as in Angola and Nicaragua. They fought against arms limitation agreements, pressing for an acceleration of the American military buildup begun by Carter, and they reinforced President Reagan’s emotional attachment to his Strategic Defense Initiative. Heilbrunn recognizes that in their zeal they disregarded the law, as in the Iran-Contra plot, but his sympathy for the perpetrators, especially Elliott Abrams, is evident. He does not hesitate, however, to criticize them for their total failure to accept the bona fides of Mikhail Gorbachev, for their efforts to prevent Reagan from accepting Gorbachev as a legitimate interlocutor.
When the Cold War ended and the communist bloc shattered, most foreign policy analysts, not only neoconservatives, struggled to define America’s role in the new world order. One of the main lines of tension, most evident in the pages of The National Interest, was the perennial struggle between realism and idealism. President George H.W. Bush was very much the pragmatist and relied on the great political operative, James Baker, and the quintessential realist, Brent Scowcroft, for advice on foreign policy. As he evidenced in his response to the Tiananmen massacres in China, human rights and democratization were not high priorities for him. But what offended the neocons most was his failure to finish off Saddam Hussein in 1991 and his failure to provide adequate protection for the Kurds and Shiites who rose against Saddam in the aftermath of the American liberation of Kuwait. His pressures on Israel to stop the spread of Jewish settlements on Arab lands caused further displeasure, but the neocons had nowhere to turn. By this time, the Kristols, father and son, Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter and the brilliant essayist Charles Krauthammer were indistinguishable from the far right on domestic as well as foreign policy issues.
Krauthammer’s 1991 essay, “The Unipolar Moment,” published in Foreign Affairs, was probably the most influential neoconservative work of the 1990s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, he looked toward a confederation of democracies, led by the United States, which would dominate the world. This was a vision with appeal across the political spectrum. Clinton administration foreign policy leaders such as Joe Nye and Madeleine Albright, saw American “bound to lead” and as the “indispensable power.” When Bill Clinton promised to stop coddling the “Butchers of Beijing,” and intervened in Bosnia to stop Slobodan Milosevic’s brutality, many neocons cheered. But they were disgusted by his pinprick responses to Saddam’s provocations.
William Kristol and a new star among neoconservative writers, Robert Kragan, constructed a mythical Reaganite foreign policy, which would find the proper balance between realism and idealism. Heilbrunn describes Kagan as a major influence on Kristol, who had been less interested in world affairs than in Republican politics. Together they edited The Weekly Standard, which became the flagship of neoconservatism. They looked to John McCain as the man who would lead the nation in the direction they wanted to go — but they had to settle for George W. Bush, who they feared would pursue policies similar to those of his father.
Neither Kristol nor Kagan joined the Bush administration, and there were no neocons at the Cabinet level. The triumvirate responsible for foreign policy, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, contained no neocons. But one leading figure, former Henry Jackson aide and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle had participated in the briefings Rice arranged for the president-elect. Paul Wolfowitz, another leading neoconservative, was awarded the post of deputy secretary of defense. Mid-level positions in the administration were dotted with men and women, such as Douglas Feith and Elliott Abrams, who were connected to the movement. As the operations of the administration developed, and especially after 9/11, it became apparent that Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney dominated the policy process — and neither of them had ever demonstrated a notable interest in any form of humanitarian intervention or in human rights and democratization more generally.
Cheney and Rumsfeld were old-fashioned nationalists, determined to exercise American power abroad without any restraint — and Cheney, at least, was committed to the unrestrained exercise of presidential power at home. For reasons that may never be known, Cheney, who had earlier argued that toppling Saddam Hussein was not worth one American life, decided that Saddam’s provocations could no longer be tolerated. Perhaps it was Bush who was eager to eliminate Saddam, who had after all attempted to assassinate his father. When this intent emerged after 9/11, there was great joy among neoconservatives, some of whom, including those at The Weekly Standard, helped spread the myth of Saddam’s complicity in 9/11. Wolfowitz had a grand dream of establishing a democracy in Iraq that would help spread democracy throughout the region and lead to Arab acceptance of Israel. At minimum, a vicious dictator would be overthrown and the people of Iraq would be freed from oppression. These were ideas that resonated throughout the neoconservative world — and beyond, to those who fought for respect for human rights everywhere.
And so the United States invaded Iraq, ostensibly to destroy Saddam’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, to replace his dictatorship with a democratic regime, to end human rights abuses there — and to make the Middle East safer for Israel. Saddam was indeed deposed, certainly a blessing, but the prospects for democracy in Iraq and a peaceful Middle East hardly seem to have improved. Robert Kagan was quick to criticize the administration’s management of the invasion and the ensuing occupation. Presumably all would have been well if the neocon blueprint had been followed, but the neocons had been used by Cheney and Rumsfeld, who had little interest in their agenda. Soon they became scapegoats as the Republican establishment blamed them and their alleged Wilsonianism for the disastrous aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and the larger failures of American foreign policy. Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, the most visible of the administration’s neocons, were tossed overboard, and realism was back in vogue among Republicans.
I buried them once. I won’t make that mistake again. I enjoy reading Kagan and Krauthammer too much, and William Kristol has begun writing a column for The New York Times. They’ll be around for a while — and if John McCain is the next president of the United States, look for them to rise again.
As for Heilbrunn, he has distanced himself from the neocons, but he clearly remains a landsman. He may have jumped what he perceived as a sinking ship, but he hasn’t gotten very far. The book is useful for those with little knowledge of the neoconservative movement but lacks the intellectual rigor with which John Judis (see his 1995 article in Foreign Affairs called “Trotskyism to Anachronism: The Neoconservative Revolution”) and Peter Steinfels (see his 1979 book “The Neoconservatives”) approached the same subject — or the scholarly depth of John Ehrman’s effort. In general the writing is glib, and the postscript, a look into the future, is downright silly.
Warren I. Cohen is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author, most recently, of “America’s Failing Empire” and is a regular contributor to several publications, including The (London) Times Literary Supplement.WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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