A sociology of neoconservatism

'They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons' By Jacob Heilbrunn.

zawahri 88 (photo credit: AP)
zawahri 88
(photo credit: AP)
They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons By Jacob Heilbrunn Doubleday 336 pages; $26 After centuries of inquiry, students of politics can state with confidence that the Left sat on one side of the French Legislative Assembly and the Right on the other. Beyond that, definitions become murky. Many have devoted volumes to encapsulating fascism, liberalism, populism and so forth, usually with contested and conflicting results. It is no wonder, then, that Jacob Heilbrunn in They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, never arrives at a neat definition of neoconservatism. This excellent history of the movement begins in the 1930s and deftly spans decades of American politics up to the present day. His predecessors have covered much of the older terrain, but Heilbrunn performs a service by synthesizing the existing scholarship and adding valuable new morsels. On the post-Cold War era, he has filled in a bit more recent history and improved on earlier efforts like Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke's America Alone and Gary Dorrien's Imperial Designs. Heilbrunn's book is not definitive; it raises as many questions as it answers. Nor is it neutral or impartial or objective. Heilbrunn writes from an insider-outsider perspective. Having dabbled in neoconservatism - "I headed the college Republican club, even though I was a card-carrying Democrat: a quintessential baby neocon" - the author benefits from personal knowledge and a wealth of interviews with key players. He relates to neoconservatism with ambivalence, weighted toward the negative. He is respectful of much of the social policy critique that came out of The Public Interest in the 1960s, and he credits Albert Wohlstetter and his disciples with keeping the establishment honest on the nuclear arms race all the way through the '80s. But he is disenchanted with neoconservatives' insularity, zeal and increasing extremism. He is expert on the intricacies of personnel, and his writing is often personal. Heilbrunn will make a major contribution to the public understanding of neoconservatism merely by broadly disseminating accurate information. They Knew They Were Right could clear up misconceptions prevalent even among policymakers and the media. The Bush administration may or may not have decided to go to war in Iraq on exclusively neoconservative grounds - the changing rationales for war and the opacity of internal government deliberations will keep that an open question for years to come. Yet for the US population at large - not to mention interested Israelis - it would certainly be beneficial to come to grips with an ideology that has so profoundly influenced America's actions in the Middle East. With the majority of Americans having soured on the Iraq War and now feeling unsure why the government launched the invasion to begin with, the US needs and deserves an honest debate about the future direction of its foreign policy. Another salutary effect of widespread readership would be an end to seemingly ubiquitous, misinformed and vague media references to neoconservatives that leave the layperson with the general sense that neocons are bad and bellicose, and that Leo Strauss is somehow involved. In a genuinely original contribution, Heilbrunn has constructed a sociology of neoconservatism that explains how it grew, mutated and sustained itself. At the same time, he has endeavored to explain how and why neoconservatism was and remains "a Jewish phenomenon, reflecting a subset of Jewish concerns." More than a concrete doctrine, he argues, "neoconservatism... is about a mindset, one that has been decisively shaped by the Jewish immigrant experience, by the Holocaust, and by the twentieth-century struggle against totalitarianism." This is exactly right - although neoconservatism is about more than these three concerns alone - and it is what Irving Kristol himself (unknowingly?) meant when he referred to "the neoconservative persuasion." Thus we can trace the link between 21st-century neocons heralding a democratic revolution in the Middle East - the "draining of the swamps" that breed terror, in Norman Podhoretz's phrase - and late-1970s neocon exponents of "dictatorships and double standards," who proudly backed right-wing authoritarians in order to block communist expansion in the Third World. The link consists of a passionate belief in the United States as the global bulwark of civilization, grounded in the conviction that freedom will flourish only if the US aggressively intervenes to beat back the existential enemy and promote the superiority of the American way. The US, in this worldview, possesses the military strength to dictate benevolently the course of geopolitics, but only if it is called to duty and made aware of the threat. THE CONTEMPORARY neoconservative program was formulated by a "second generation" - many of them the children of the first generation. They reacted to American dominance of a unipolar world by crafting an expansive, interventionist agenda that would propagate American values and interests and confront rogue states (and, eventually, China). September 11 gave neocons the totalitarian enemy they craved. Here, though, Heilbrunn slips up. Rather than "dust off" a plan to defeat international Islamist terrorist networks, as he writes, the neocons recapitulated their preexisting agenda through the prism of 9/11. The first target was still Iraq, the mission was unilateral and preventive, the method was the massive application of American military force (which would have an important demonstration effect) and the goal was the expansion of American values and strategic interests. Now, though, there was at last a worthy adversary, "Islamofascism." Heilbrunn brilliantly brings out the recurrent patterns of the neoconservatives' past, a cycle he refers to as "Exodus," "Wilderness" and "Redemption." Neoconservatives operate out of "little magazines and small committees." They are used to being the odd man out, to pushing against the conventional wisdom. This was true when future-neocon Trotskyists at City College in New York argued with the much larger group of Stalinists in the 1930s. It was equally true when neocons criticized the Democratic Party for drifting into blame-America-first McGovernism after Vietnam. Or when several neocon analysts in the Ford administration rejected the CIA's estimates of Soviet military capabilities in a study group known as Team B. Or when Doug Feith set up an alternative intelligence office at the Pentagon to assess Iraqi WMD capabilities in the run-up to Iraq. Neocons, Heilbrunn writes, are "prophetic," and the curse of prophecy is to know with utter clarity the right path, to shout at the top of your lungs and to be ignored by everyone. He also notes the recurrence of messy breakups, with many of the "best minds" departing the neoconservative camp at critical junctures. Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Frank Fukuyama top the list of luminaries who once agreed with the fundamental neoconservative critique but found the movement headed in an unacceptable direction. These desertions are explained by a secular trend Heilbrunn observes in conjunction with the cyclical one. Ever since their 1960s critique of liberalism and the counterculture, neoconservatives have moved steadily right. They began as trenchant critics of liberalism from within, became hawkish Democrats, changed allegiance to the Republican Party and eventually created a "counterestablishment" that would secure their perch in Washington. All the while, they became more extreme and more self-assured, while the quality of thinking declined. Heilbrunn attributes the move toward mediocrity to neocons' very success, their metamorphosis into a "self-perpetuating elite," which has induced laziness. HIS SOCIOLOGY of neoconservatism leads Heilbrunn inescapably to the conclusion that the movement is intrinsically Jewish. Noting that the movement is a "family" that consists in no small part of actual nuclear families (or, as an acerbic commentator put it, the politics-as-family-dry-cleaning-business approach), he writes: "Not all [neocons] were Jews." Fair enough. Yet the movement's "non-Jewish members were largely bound to the group by a shared commitment to the largest, most important Jewish cause: the survival of Israel." This is true, but Heilbrunn does not attempt to prove that this is a cause and not a symptom of gentiles' (mostly immigrant Catholics, as Heilbrunn notes) affinity for the movement. He makes a strong argument that an immigrant Jewish sensibility shaped neoconservatism - the outsiders' resentment of WASP domination of elite institutions; learning the lesson of Munich and rejecting appeasement; attachment to Israel and an animus toward its enemies (Heilbrunn accuses neocons of "a conflation of America's and Israel's interests"); faith in America as a force for good, powerful enough to overcome evil (and to support Israeli politically and militarily); a suspicion of multiculturalism, black militancy and affirmative action. Yet there are stranger, less "Jewish" characteristics too. Neoconservative concern with American moral and cultural decay, beginning with the counterculture, eventually led neocons into an alliance with the Christian Right in the culture wars (Heilbrunn thinks this was a marriage of convenience). One is left with a bevy of questions. Most American Jews did not become neoconservative. Why did these few intellectuals make the political journey? Moreover, many of their concerns are Jewish, but not exclusively so. Why are particular non-Jews attracted to the movement? Is there an essential Jewish penchant for radicalism and prophecy? Most importantly, having covered the spectrum - from Trotskyism to liberalism to radical Republicanism - where to next?