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The Strange Turn of U.S. Neoconservatism

How did the neocons mutate into a globe-shattering phenomenon?

September 18, 2003

How did the neocons mutate into a globe-shattering phenomenon?

The term “neoconservative” is generally used as a reference to a small network of U.S. officials and intellectuals that is centered on the leading strategist of the Pentagon, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

It is represented in the U.S. media by Australian tycoon Rupert Murdoch's political journal, The Weekly Standard — and his television network, Fox.

Just who are these neoconservatives, or "neocons?"

Sometimes, the term is used as a synonym for "conservative."

It should not, because the neocons have little in common with other right-wing factions in the United States, namely the Religious Right — or Patrick Buchanan's isolationist and protectionist Old Right.

Some defenders of the current Bush Administration even suggest that the neoconservatives exist only in the imaginations of liberal 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.

It is a foreign policy quarterly, which was 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.

Incidentally, it is Michael Harrington, a democratic socialist thinker, who coined the phrase "neoconservative." He intended it as an insult — to describe the right wing of the American left.

The original neoconservatives were Cold War liberals, or Cold War socialists — who expressed their support for the anti-communist foreign policies of Presidents Truman, Kennedy and Johnson.

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

As strange as it seems today, many first-wave neocons were also allied with the traditionally anti-communist AFL-CIO.

The U.S. labor movement had long campaigned against the repression of free trade unions — such as Lech Walesa's Solidarity by communist 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 anti-communist trade unionist was Ronald Reagan, who headed the Screen Actors Guild from 1947 to 1952.

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 — "McGovernite" wing of the Democratic Party — which was dominated by veterans of the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Its activists wanted to appease the Soviet Union and other communist dictatorships, and replace New Deal welfare capitalism with democratic Socialism or a huge Swedish-style welfare state.

The radical left also hoped to replace 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.

Centrist Cold War liberals, finding themselves a minority in the Democratic Party, ended up working for both Democratic and Republican presidents.

For example, Mr. Brzezinski and Mr. Huntington joined the Carter Administration, while Mr. Moynihan went to work for President Nixon. He ultimately served as U.S. Ambassador to India under Mr. Nixon — and as Ambassador to the U.N. under Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford.

Another faction — including Jeane Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, William Bennett and others — joined the Reagan camp.

Mr. Reagan himself was a sort of neocon — a former trade union leader who voted for FDR four times, 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 (at The Public Interest) and Norman Podhoretz (at Commentary) — turned their formerly-centrist publications into mouthpieces for their new-found allies on the extreme right.

They started publishing writers who denounced Darwin's theory of evolution and global warming as liberal hoaxes.

During this rightward shift — the great sociologist Daniel Bell, the author of "The End of Ideology" (published in 1960) — resigned his position as one of the editors of the Public Interest.

Other neoconservatives remained in the Democratic Party. The most prominent of these was Mr. 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, had accused the Central Intelligence Agency of underestimating the Soviet threat.

George H. W. Bush, then the director of the CIA, 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 during 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.

Of course, it became clear soon after the fall of the Soviet Union that the CIA in the 1970s had “sexed up” — that is, considerably overestimated — Soviet military power.

The neocon estimates of Soviet strength, we now know, were ridiculous exaggerations.

The leading neocons — like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle — simply got it wrong.

There was one exception: Senator Moynihan claimed in 1979 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).

It was headed by Irving Kristol's son William, the editor of the Weekly Standard. And true to form, Project members exaggerated the power of China and Iraq — in the same way that Team B had exaggerated the Soviet threat.

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

As Team B had done, PNAC manipulated intelligence data to support preconceived conclusions.

It claimed that China in the 1990s was on the verge of becoming a Nazi or Soviet-style "peer competitor" — or superpower.

And it asserted that Iraq in the spring of 2003 threatened America and the West with a vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

This kind of absurd threat inflation by Paul Wolfowitz and his allies — from the late Carter years to the present — has served conservative Republican politicians well.

It has allowed them to falsely 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" is used increasingly today for a much smaller, nepotistic group.

Many of these second-wave neocons are the children — or in-laws — of some of the original members.

Take for example, William Kristol. He inherited his role in the neoconservative remnant from his father Irving. Or take Daniel Pipes, the son of Team B chairman Richard Pipes.

Or Elliott Abrams, the director of the Middle East Policy on George W. Bush's National Security Council, who is Norman Podhoretz's son-in-law.

You might call this in-bred clique the "nepo-conservatives."

Contrary to some observers, despite the prominence of Jewish intellectuals, "neoconservative" has never been synonymous with either Jewish ethnicity — or support for the Israeli right.

In fact, 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.

In contrast, second-wave neocons are allied with Ariel Sharon's right-wing Likud Party and its supporters among American Protestant fundamentalists.

Which may explain why Elliot Cohen, Norman Podhoretz and James Woolsey all claim that Israel and the United States are now engaged in "World War IV" against "Islamism" — rather than al Qaeda alone.

How was the success of the neocons made possible financially? 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.

They were replaced by Rupert Murdoch's media network. The first-wave neocon had typically been an Ivy League professor, like Senator Moynihan or Mr. Bell.

But the typical second-wave neocon was a television pundit on Fox — or columnists 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.

This is a concept repugnant to Cold War liberal internationalists.

Still, their views found political resonance. Their audience is found chiefly among the anti-Rooseveltian conservatives of the Deep South.

The irony of it all is that the goals of the original U.S. neoconservatives have been achieved in the nation’s foreign policy, the economy and domestic policy.

In foreign policy, the Cold War liberal strategy of containment was denounced as too aggressive by radical leftists and conservative isolationists.

It was decried as too feeble by right-wing proponents of "roll-back." And yet, this moderate policy succeeded in averting a world war while bankrupting the Soviet empire.

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.

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

The Security Council became so dynamic, in fact, that it could not be controlled by the United States. 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 United States, 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 enacted alterations of the welfare state.

Meanwhile, 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 almost anywhere 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 had 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.

All in all, 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 was harmful.

History will remember the first wave of U.S. neoconservatives as a necessary course correction in American politics and policy.

The second wave will be remembered as a bizarre, tragic and temporary aberration from mainstream American practice and ideals.

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