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The Strange Path of "Neoconservatism"

What transformations did the neoconservative movement undergo before it emerged in its current powerful form?

June 20, 2003

What transformations did the neoconservative movement undergo before it emerged in its current powerful form?

The term “neo-conservative” is generally used as a reference to a small network of officials and intellectuals that is centered on the leading strategist of the Pentagon, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and represented in the media by Rupert Murdoch's political journal, The Weekly Standard.

Just who are these neoconservatives or "neocons?" Sometimes, the term is used as a synonym for "conservative," even though the neocons have little in common with other right-wing factions in the U.S. like the religious right (or Patrick Buchanan's isolationist, protectionist Old Right.) Some defenders of the current Bush Administration suggest that the neoconservatives exist only in the imaginations of conspiracy theorists.

The neoconservatives are quite real. I know because I used to be one. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was executive editor of the National Interest, a foreign policy quarterly then edited by Owen Harries and published by Irving Kristol, the so-called "godfather of the neoconservatives."

In this position, I witnessed the late stages of the transformation of the first-wave neoconservative movement, whose Cold War liberal values I shared, into something radically different and disturbing.

Although few people remember it today, it was Michael Harrington, a democratic socialist thinker, who coined the phrase "neoconservative" as an insult — to describe the right wing of the American left.

The original neoconservatives were Cold War liberals or Cold War socialists. They combined support for the liberal, but firmly anticommunist foreign policy of Presidents Truman, Kennedy and Johnson with support of the New Deal welfare state and the Civil Rights Revolution at the home front.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Samuel P. Huntington and Jeane Kirkpatrick were among these Cold War liberals. Many of them, like Ms. Kirkpatrick, had been democratic socialist followers of Trotsky, Max Schachtmann and Norman Thomas.

Amazing from today's perspective, many first-wave neocons were also allied with the traditionally anticommunist AFL-CIO.

The U.S. labor movement had long campaigned against the repression of free trade unions like Lech Walesa's Solidarity by Marxist-Leninist dictatorships.

Furthermore, many U.S. trade unionists in the 1930s and 1940s had resisted efforts by American communists working for Moscow to infiltrate and take over U.S. unions. One such anticommunist trade unionist was Ronald Reagan, who at the time had headed the Screen Actors Guild.

In the 1970s, these Truman-Kennedy-Johnson liberals, many of whom worked for Hubert Humphrey or Washington Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, found themselves under attack from both the left — and the right.

To the left was the New Left, or "McGovernite" wing of the Democratic Party, dominated by veterans of the anti-Vietnam War movement. Its activists wanted to appease the Soviet Union and other communist dictatorships, replace New Deal welfare capitalism with democratic socialism or a huge Swedish-style welfare state.

They also hoped to substitute the liberal ideal of racial integration with the radical approach of militant multiculturalism.

To the Right were the traditional economic conservatives who opposed the New Deal — and the white working-class populists led by George Wallace who opposed the Civil Rights Revolution. These centrists, finding themselves a minority in the Democratic Party, worked for both Democratic and Republican presidents.

Messrs. Brzezinski and Huntington joined the Carter administration, while Daniel Patrick Moynihan worked for Nixon, ultimately serving as the U.S. Ambassador to India under Nixon and Ambassador to the U.N. under his successor Gerald Ford.

During the 1980s, the neoconservative movement crumbled. One faction, including Jeane Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, William Bennett and others, joined the Reagan Administration.

Mr. Reagan himself was a sort of neocon — a former trade union leader who had voted four times for FDR, the president he most admired.

And his movement rested on a broad coalition of Main Street Republicans, Wall Street libertarians, Moral Majority Protestants, working-class Catholic Reagan Democrats, New Right populists — and Cold War liberals.

Over time, as the price of their acceptance by the Republican Party, most of these Reagan officials repudiated their earlier liberal positions on trade unions and the New Deal welfare state.

They stuck to their guns, though, on the issue of racial integration, where they continued to defend the liberal integrationist position of the 1960s in civil rights. They thus opposed both white racism and racial preferences for blacks and Latinos.

Meanwhile, neoconservative editors — like Irving Kristol (The Public Interest) and Norman Podhoretz (Commentary) — increasingly turned their formerly-centrist publications into mouthpieces for their new-found allies on the Religious Right. They started publishing writers who denounced Darwin's theory of evolution and global warming as liberal hoaxes.

In response to this rightward shift, the great sociologist Daniel Bell, the author of "The End of Ideology" (1960), resigned his position as one of the editors of the Public Interest.

Other neoconservatives made a different choice. They remained in the Democratic Party. The most prominent of these was Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

As a U.S. Senator from New York in the Reagan years, he objected to the spreading contempt for international law and the growing unilateralism of the Reagan Administration.

As the original neoconservative movement dispersed during the Reagan years, one faction grew in importance. In 1974, Albert Wohlstetter, a theoretician of the arms race at the University of Chicago, accused the CIA of underestimating the Soviet threat.

George Herbert Walker Bush, then Director of Central Intelligence, organized a group of outside experts called "Team B" — to second-guess the CIA's conclusions. The roster of Team B overlapped considerably with the Committee for the Present Danger, a public pressure group organized by Paul Nitze to agitate for tougher policies in the Cold War.

The secret Team B report, issued in 1976 and declassified in 1992, claimed that the CIA had grossly underestimated Soviet military power. In fact, it became clear after the fall of the Soviet Union that the CIA in the 1970s had overestimated Soviet military power.

The neocon estimates of Soviet strength, we now know, were ridiculous exaggerations. The leading neocons got it wrong. One exception was Senator Moynihan, who in 1979 claimed that the USSR was weak — and in danger of disintegrating.

The hysterical Chicken Littles of Team B should have been discredited. But in the 1990s, many Team B veterans organized the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) headed by Irving Kristol's son William, the editor of the Weekly Standard. Just as Team B before had exaggerated the Soviet threat, so did PNAC now exaggerate the power of China and Iraq.

The leading theorist of PNAC during the Clinton years and the major organizer of George W. Bush's bungled Iraq war, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, was a student of Wohlstetter who had served on the original Team B commission.

As Team B had done, PNAC manipulated intelligence data to support preconceived conclusions. It found that China in the 1990s was on the verge of becoming a Nazi or Soviet-style "peer competitor" or superpower. And it was seen as crucial to the world that Iraq in the spring of 2003 threatened America and the West with a vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

As a result of these distortion acts, "Neocon" now seems like a contraction of "neo-con artist." This kind of absurd threat inflation by Mr. Wolfowitz and his allies, from the late Carter years to the present, has served conservative Republican politicians well.

It has allowed them falsely to portray not only Democrats, but also moderate Republicans as "appeasers" who are "weak on national defense."

By 2000, the original neoconservatives had largely retired from the scene.

The title "neoconservative" increasingly today is used for a much smaller group. Many of these second-wave neocons are the children (or in-laws) of some of the original members. Like William Kristol — who inherited his role in the neoconservative remnant from his father Irving. Or like Daniel Pipes, the son of Team B chairman Richard Pipes. And like Elliott Abrams, director of Middle East Policy on George W. Bush's National Security Council, and Norman Podhoretz's son-in-law.

Despite the prominence of Jewish intellectuals and activists in Cold War liberalism and neoconservatism, "neoconservative" has never been synonymous with either Jewish ethnicity or support for the Israeli right. Many leading neoconservatives, including Moynihan, Kirkpatrick, Bennett, and the late John P. Roche have come from Catholic or Protestant backgrounds.

While first-wave neocons were friendly to Israel, they saw Israel as a democracy threatened by Soviet client states and supported Israel's secular, socialist Labor Party.

Second-wave neocons, by contrast, are allied with Ariel Sharon's far-right Likud Party and its supporters among American Protestant fundamentalists. Elliot Cohen, Norman Podhoretz and James Woolsey all claim that Israel and the U.S. are engaged in "World War IV" against Arabs and Muslims.

In the 1990s, center-right intellectual foundations like Olin and Smith Richardson, which had funded much of the neocon network in the 1980s, declined in importance. Their place was taken by Rupert Murdoch's media network.

The first-wave neocon had typically been an Ivy League professor like Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Daniel Bell or Glazer. But the typical second-wave neocon was a television pundit on Fox TV — or a columnist like David Brooks, Robert Kagan and Max Boot. In addition to lacking intellectual depth, these younger "neocons" had few if any links to the Cold War liberalism of the 1970s and 1980s.

Although Max Boot describes himself as a "hard Wilsonian," this former Wall Street Journal editorial staffer calls for a U.S. empire along British lines—a concept repugnant to Cold War liberal internationalists.

The early neocons like Senator Moynihan had criticized the UN — because it had been corrupted by Soviet influence. But in principle they supported the UN system that had been established by their heroes, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

The audience for the unilateralism and neo-imperialism of latter-day neocons like that of Mr. Boot and the Weekly Standard was found chiefly among the anti-Rooseveltian conservatives of the Deep South.

The irony is that the goals of the original neoconservatives—that is to say, the Cold War Democrats of the 1970s and 1980s like Moynihan, Brzezinski, Huntington and Nitze — have been achieved in foreign policy, the economy and domestic policy.

In foreign policy, the Cold War liberals wanted to maintain the Truman strategy of containment until the Soviet Union abandoned its drive for military primacy or equality with the United States.

Containment was denounced as too aggressive by radical leftists and conservative isolationists—and too feeble by right-wing proponents of "roll-back." But this moderate policy succeeded in averting a world war while bankrupting the Soviet empire.

Following the end of the Cold War, the United Nations, no longer the instrument of an anti-Western alliance of the Soviet bloc and the Third World, was revitalized as an organization — as Cold War liberals like Senator Moynihan had hoped.

The Security Council became so dynamic, in fact, that it could not be controlled by the US. But the Cold War liberals had wanted a pluralist world, not one bossed around by Washington.

In the economic realm, the Cold War liberals had defended social-market capitalism, represented by the New Deal tradition in the U.S. They defended a moderate, solvent welfare state against the free-marketeers of the Right — and the democratic socialists of the Left.

Here, too, they succeeded. President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and their conservative successors — for all their talk about rolling back government — merely made a few minor alterations of the welfare state.

The ex-communist nations of Eastern Europe all rejected laissez-faire capitalism in favor of some form of capitalism with a social safety net. And by the year 2000, socialist parties had abandoned socialism for moderate, social-market liberalism.

But the greatest success of the Cold War liberals was in domestic politics. The original neo-conservatives in the 1970s failed to drag the Democratic Party back toward the center. But Bill Clinton and the "New Democrats" did just that, in the 1980s and 1990s

Even Democrats who opposed the war in Iraq tend to be far more ready than the McGovernites of a few decades ago to support the use of force by the U.S. For its part, the Right has failed to undo the accomplishments of the 1960's liberals that the original neoconservatives supported, like the civil rights revolution.

The Right's anti-black past is now an embarrassment, as Trent Lott's resignation showed. And a Republican Supreme Court has now struck down anti-gay sex laws in the U.S.

The original neoconservative movement of the 1970s and early 1980s, then, was as constructive as the second-wave neoconservatism of the late 1980s and 1990s has been harmful.

History will remember the first wave of U.S. neoconservatives as a necessary course correction in American politics and policy—and the second as a bizarre, tragic and temporary aberration from mainstream American practice and ideals.

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