NEOCONSERVATISM 101: A History, and an Explanation
“The historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy” - Irving Kristol, ‘Godfather’ of neoconservatism, The Neoconservative Persuasion.
Before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, one group of people suddenly occupied an incredible amount of space in newspapers around the world. The world media focussed on who they believed was now in charge of American foreign policy. Neoconservatives had apparently gained control of the White House and were planning war after war as a process of assuring American global dominance. They were depicted, without explanation, as elusive and secretive warmongers, eager to colonise ‘the axis of evil’. Neoconservative became shorthand for the White House administration, Christian fundamentalists, supporters of the ‘War On Terror’, staff of the Pentagon, and even Bush himself. But who are the neocons? What do they believe in, and what do they seek? Their agenda is depicted as secretive and dangerous, yet never explained.
Neoconservatism is perhaps the most misunderstood term in recent political history. The term peppers articles that address anything from globalisation, to the Republican Party, to the ‘War on Terror’. There are many reasons why the truth behind this political theory has yet to be properly explained. One reason is the refusal of the European media - which generally portrays American political theory as one lacking in sophistication - to engage on any real level with neoconservative theory. The coverage of American politics is relegated to a one-sided condescending analysis. And so, famous headlines are written illustrating the patronising European standpoint. “How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?” asked the Daily Mirror famously, when George W Bush was re-elected. The answer was in the question’s conclusion. Another reason why most people still don’t know what neoconservatism actually is (even though we read about it almost every day), is the media’s tendency to presume understanding, rather than to explain.
There are other reasons too and most of them relate to the machinery of neoconservatism itself. A neoconservative will say that they have no platform, manifesto, leader or spokesperson. They say the very nature of neoconservatism is not a centralised political belief system, but a ‘persuasion’. This makes their beliefs harder to grasp. Perhaps this is a front to avoid direct analysis. If so, it has worked, as objective beliefs of neoconservatism are continuously muddled. But by tackling the roots of neoconservatism, we can begin to see the core beliefs, its development and greatest advocates, and how it came to hold the attention of our world. More importantly, we can realise what it has in store for a new world order.
The 1950s echoed a traditional conservatism in the US - one that was very much isolationist in character, as America recoiled into a shell. In many ways, the socially turbulent America of the 1960s was a reaction to that. Protests against the Vietnam War challenged the heart of American politics. The comfort zone of the conservative 1950’s when Americans retreated into suburbia was permeated with disillusion. Socially, the migration of African Americans to northern cities, the creation of ghettos and rise of urban crime and decay created further cause for concern.
At the same time, the recognition of Joseph Stalin as a fully blown imperial dictator, with intentions to swallow Europe launched the Cold War. Lyndon B. Johnson who took office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, initiated a series of domestic initiatives for his ‘Great Society’ programme (although The Vietnam War overshadowed his presidency.) The isolationist conservatives found a common cause with the anti-war movement. And finally, the 1960’s was giving birth to Neoconservatism.
By now, ‘The New Left’ (a term given to radical social activism throughout the 60s) and the ‘Counterculture’ (the reaction to the conservative norms of the 1950s) were seeping into the mainstream. The media and intellectual elite were more or less sympathetic to their liberal social cause. But not everybody was content with this new America; not least a few key Trotskyites who would later become the original Neoconservatives.
Like most political theories, Neoconservatism was born out of disillusion. It addressed a domestic agenda, and the preservation of American society. Second generation Jews had a vested interest in the preservation of American society. They had nowhere else to go. Equally urban, educated and motivated as ‘the New Left’, they were angered at American society’s thoughtless descent into vulgarity. They resented the laisez faire attitude of the socially liberal left.
Irving Kristol was a core member of a group of Trotskyites who studied together at City College, New York in the 1930s. Describing himself as “a liberal mugged by reality”, he had experience on the Left, as an anti-Stalinist Trotskyite, and during the 1960s and 70s came to the opinion that his previous political beliefs were both intellectually and morally redundant.
Kristol, along with other disillusioned leftists including Norman Podhoretz angered by the lawlessness of the 1960s political currents rejected what seemed to be an endless bashing of American society by liberal intellectuals. Social changes were being made, and they viewed these as the wrong social changes. Their proof was in the disintegration of the American family and the large increase in crime in American cities, (notably in their own, New York). They began to rally against the anti-establishment (Neoconservatives were later described as ‘The Counter-counter Culture’.)
Irving Kristol embodied what the larger group of Neoconservatives would later become: self-confident, optimistic, pragmatic, urban, secular and given to generalisations. Kristol was also the editor of a small publication, The Public Interest, and began to use it as a forum for neoconservatism. Utilising such publications became a key weapon for neoconservatism in the intellectual debate.
Kristol’s writings have been instrumental in deciphering the beliefs of neoconservatives, namely in his 1983 book ‘Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead’. An article published 20 years later called ‘The Neoconservative Persuasion’ gives an explanation more relevant to the present day. The article was published in the neoconservative magazine, The Weekly Standard edited by his son, William Kristol, one of the most influential neoconservative thinkers today.
NEOCONS IN THE WHITE HOUSE
Republican Party presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford held office from 1969 until 1977, with Democrat Jimmy Carter then succeeding until 1981. Neoconservatives began to enter the White House under the presidency of Ronald Reagan occupying second and third tier jobs, mainly in defence and intelligence. Among these neoconservative promotions were William Bennett - now an occasional speechwriter for George W. Bush – who was appointed Secretary of Education, and Richard Perle, who was appointed assistant Secretary of Defence. There, he became known as ‘the Prince of Darkness’, because of his opposition to nuclear arms control agreements. Perle became chairman of the Defence Policy Board Advisory Committee from 2001 to 2003 in the Bush administration. Jeane Kirkpatrick, an up-and-coming neocon, was appointed as Reagan’s foreign policy advisor and eventually as ambassador to the United Nations, where she was known for her anti-communist stance and support of rightwing dictatorships, supporting Pinochet in Chile and Marcos in the Philippines.
Although neoconservatives had suddenly gained access to the White House, they never quite entered its inner sanctum, and gradually became disenchanted with Reagan, especially on foreign policy issues. They viewed him as a tough talker, but lenient in action. Reagan was a realist, and neoconservatives dislike realism, because realism means limits and is therefore too pessimistic for the neocon worldview.
Neoconservatives were relegated to the sidelines again under traditional conservative
George Bush, with the exception of William Kristol, Irving’s son, who became vice president Dan Quayle’s chief of staff. Several young neoconservatives became speechwriters for the president, namely John Podhoretz, (son of Norman Podhoretz, one of the original neocons alongside Irving Kristol.) Around this time, neoconservatives were gaining allies within the media. The op-ed (opposite editorial) pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times – both traditional forums of ideological debate – began to feature greater representation from the neoconservative persuasion. William Kristol had also won over Robert Bartley, the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal. The editorial pages there had now become a counterrevolution of the ‘New Class‘’ attack on corporate powers and big business. As neoconservative opinions were given increased representation in the newspaper, its readers (a highly influential and wealthy demographic) began to show more support for the neocon writers and thinkers.
The collapse of the Soviet Union saw a period of confusion among Neoconservatives. Anti-communism was part of their raison d’etre, and it had already become apparent that neoconservatism was going to become more and more preoccupied with foreign policy, rather than a domestic agenda. Their domestic ‘social’ beliefs were suited to whoever would make an alliance with them (today, fundamentalist Christians). Their economic beliefs were conservative and libertarian; beliefs in free trade, lower taxes and less government involvement in the market. This became a time of restructuring and recruiting, while those in opposition were prematurely writing the obituary of a ‘persuasion’ that seemed to have run out of potential.
The Clinton years saw a fervent neoconservative opposition and alliance building. A marriage of convenience between fundamentalist Christians had begun. The neoconservatives needed them to create a stronger opposition to Clinton. Fundamentalist Christians had huge influence on the electorate, many of whom were appalled at Clinton’s liberal stance on homosexuality, contraception, abortion and his own sexual scandal involving Monica Lewinsky. The alliance offered substantially more weight to the Neoconservative group opposition. This was also a time of struggle in the Republican Party itself. Traditional, or ‘paleo’ conservatives within the party were losing ground to the more forward-looking neocons, especially on foreign policy and social issues.
Meanwhile, William Kristol was immensely successful in opposition to Clinton, almost single-handedly defeating the Clinton healthcare proposal, and in the mid nineties, he founded two new platforms and powerhouses of neoconservative thought – The Weekly Standard magazine and the ideological political think tank, The Project For A New American Century.
The re-ascendance of Neoconservatism into the White House occurred most dramatically under the next administration, when George W Bush took office.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF NEOCONSERVATISM OUTSIDE THE WHITE HOUSE
Being in opposition sometimes inspires the greatest advances. Because neoconservatives were so underrepresented in government apart from the Reagan era and today’s administration, they were forced to establish their own institutions.
Key neocons founded think tanks (namely the Project For A New American Century) and transformed others (The American Enterprise Institution), publishing reports that had a wide audience in the Republican Party and beyond. The less representation neoconservatives had in presidential administrations, the greater their structural development within think tanks and publications.
In a speech delivered by George W Bush to the American Enterprise Institute in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, the president commented “you do such good work that my administration has borrowed twenty such minds,” referring to the members of his administration that also reside at the institute. During this time, neoconservatives had their most success projecting their opinions through publications. Founded in 1945, the monthly Commentary Magazine, published by the American Jewish Committee saw the two founding fathers of neoconservatism - Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz – take posts as editors. Like the neoconservative movement, Commentary was left leaning in its early years. Today it is an ardent supporter of Israel and American unilateralism. It prides itself on being “the intellectual home of the neoconservative movement.” Podhoretz still holds the title of ‘Editor-at-large’.
Irving Kristol founded The Public Interest magazine in 1965 and it was intensely and ideologically neoconservative in outlook from the beginning. Focussing mainly on domestic policy, it acted as the domestic neocons organ to The National Interest’s foreign policy writings. The National Interest, a highly influential foreign affairs quarterly, was founded in 1985 by Irving Kristol. In 1989, it featured Francis Fukuyama’s article entitled ‘The End of History?’ The editorial board includes Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle. William F. Buckley’s National Review founded in 1955 also deserves a mention. Although more traditionally conservative than neoconservative, it became open to neoconservative thought at this time.And perhaps most influential of them all was and is The Weekly Standard. Founded in 1995 by William Kristol. This magazine has perhaps been the most successful and sensationalist neocon organ and reportedly read by almost every senior member of the George W Bush administration.
Along with these, Forbes magazine was welcoming to neoconservative thought, under the editorship of Steve Forbes, a member of the AEI. Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets (which include The Weekly Standard), The New York Post and the Fox News Channel also began to hold a neoconservative bias, as did The Wall Street Journal.
GEORGE W BUSH AND THE REBIRTH OF NEOCONSERVATISM
At the tail end of the 1990s, Neoconservatism was in danger of being swallowed by the sustained traditional conservatism movement. Norman Podhoretz wrote ‘Neoconservatism, A Eulogy’ emphasising the point. The whole movement had been whittled down to a few, if very prominent, intellectuals. There was little representation of neoconservative ideas in government during the Bush Snr and Clinton years. In fact, the entire faction of neoconservatism had been relegated to think tanks and magazines, which, although influential on Capitol Hill, had little clout in the White House. Which is why the next turn of events took most by surprise. Upon his election, George W Bush installed neoconservatives, and conservatives sympathetic and open to the neoconservative persuasion in key positions in his administration.
Paul Wolfowitz, who had been a military analyst under Reagan, and a founding member of the Project For A New American Century, was appointed Deputy Secretary of Defence. His superior, Donald Rumsfeld, a supporter of neoconservatism, was seen as an elderly figurehead, put in the position because Wolfowitz was too controversial for the job. Wolfowitz has since become head of the World Bank.
Zionist Douglas Feith was made Undersecretary of Defence for policy. His Pentagon unit (Office of Special Plans, formerly the Northern Gulf Affairs Office) was heavily criticised by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s review of intelligence leading to the Iraq War.
Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, who also worked in the Reagan administration, was appointed vice president Dick Cheney’s (himself a supporter of neoconservatism) Chief of Staff and advisor on National Security Affairs. Libby was taught by Paul Wolfowitz at Yale University. Libby came under intense scrutiny in 2003, when he was suspected of revealing the identity undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame for political gain.
Political scientist Condoleeza Rice (who had worked on the National Security Council for Bush Snr,) joined the Bush administration as National Security Advisor and in the second term as Secretary of State, succeeding the more moderate Colin Powell. Named by Forbes magazine in 2004 as the world’s most powerful woman, Rice was one of the strongest proponents in the White House for invading Iraq.
Note the key neoconservatives hold positions exclusively in foreign policy, defence and intelligence. Many other neoconservatives occupy positions in foreign policy, defence and in the Pentagon as advisors.
When it comes to ticking boxes, George W Bush is not a neocon per se. There are two versions of his relationship with neoconservatism; he is either very open to the beliefs of neoconservatism, or as presidential hopeful Howard Dean said he has been “captured by the neoconservatives around him.” Only Bush and those closest to him know what the real truth is.
9/11 was a turning point for American politics. And for neoconservatism, it became a policy watershed. Their foreign policy, which had previously appeared dramatic and hawkish, now became very realistic. In fact, the neoconservative approach seemed to be the only one that fitted with that exact time. Suddenly, neoconservative ideas were pushed to the fore, and their once extremely ideological worldview became America’s foreign policy.
For most who disagree with neoconservative politics, it is almost impossible to debate them. But within the world, exist many individual and collective realities, and if anything, the neocons have been particularly successful in constructing their own reality, one beyond the realms of rational debate.
THE PRINCIPALS OF NEOCONSERVATIVE FOREIGN POLICY
The most controversial and widely talked about element of neoconservatism today is their radical foreign policy beliefs. Here are the basic neoconservative foreign policy beliefs in the context of a neoconservative reality:
After 9/11, the world is different therefore a different approach is needed
International relations are now discussed in terms of pre and post 9/11. Clichés abound as to “the day the world changed forever”, which although quite a grand and America-centric viewpoint is one neoconservatives fervently hold. To them, isolationism is dead. America needs to adapt to this ‘new reality’. Foreign policy cannot sit idly by, but must adopt drastic actions and pro-active measures. Optimism (always evident in Bush’s rhetoric about the situation on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan) and a positive outlook on the future hold this view together.
A nation’s security is not a domestic matter
Neoconservatives believe that their own security is achieved through foreign policy. This paradoxical viewpoint of ‘making the world safer’ by essentially going to war causes perhaps the most controversy. Believing that external action solves internal problems is very much a long-term solution. In the short-term, it causes massive disruption in the countries that America decides to ‘liberate’. Neoconservatives openly propose regime change in many countries that they view as a threat to American security. Others in the White House (principally Colin Powell in the lead up to the Iraq War) see this as too hawkish an outlook to bring to the people, which is when other excuses for invasion are thought up.
Again, a simplistic generalisation favoured by neoconservatives, basically meaning pre-emptive action is necessary, to rid security threats to America.
The American system is better for the world
This is perhaps the principal ideology of neoconservatism, and the source of America’s plan for the Middle East. It is difficult to argue that democracy is bad. Tyrannical dictators populate the Middle East, and citizens under their rule would be better off without them. That much is true. And that is the beginning and the end of the neoconservative ideological plan for the Middle East. What can be argued is the method in which this is achieved. Previously, America advocated a watered down version of exporting democracy, preferring to support and arm uprisings within countries, rather than march in and do the jobs themselves. But sometimes America does not pick the right battles, like arming the Taliban (and Bin Laden himself) against the Russians in Afghanistan, and half heartedly supporting a coup in Iraq, which was quashed easily by Saddam Hussein. But now, no expense is spared to make sure America goes in, does it their way, and stays in. The chief term in all of this is ‘Freedom’. Freedom is good, freedom is necessary, and everybody wants to be free. It’s easier to sell ‘Freedom’ and ‘liberation’ to the American public than ‘occupation’ and ‘invasion’.
America will not abandon nations as they have done in the past
Talk of ‘exit strategies’ is viewed by the neocons as negative. This is where ‘Nation Building’ comes in. Most presumed that America would be in and out of Iraq swiftly (indeed, perhaps the neocons thought this themselves too), and leave the UN to clean up the mess. But the neoconservatives seem to have a more developed plan to maintain a presence in the countries they ‘liberate’. Of course, there is the added bonus of control, because America will oversee all the ‘restructuring’ of both government and economy. The largest embassy in the world is currently being built in Baghdad where American authorities will reside.
There are sub-principals to all of this, which fill in the gaps to neoconservative foreign policy. Neoconservatives believe that foreign policy is military policy, and not diplomacy. No matter whatever rhetoric is thrown around regarding ‘exhausting all the options’ before action is taking, neoconservatives believe in the military might of America and its position as the world’s sole superpower. They see this situation as no accident and one that America has a duty to act upon. And the Iraq War showed this. The ‘options’ were not ‘exhausted’. They dealt with the UN with nothing more than contempt, weapons inspectors were not allowed to complete their work, and the very legality of the war is still in doubt.
Neoconservatives believe that the budget deficits suffered in order for their foreign policy to be acted upon are irrelevant, as they see them as merely a short-term loss. They also believe that although self-interest is at the heart of foreign policy (combined with ‘moral duty’), economic benefits of foreign policy actions are consequential and not convenient. For most of the world, this statement is hard to swallow, given the obvious massive natural resources and strategic positions of the countries affected in the War on Terror, along with the relationship the American government has with companies awarded contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Finally, a crucial element of neoconservative policy: Neoconservatives believe a country is solely in charge of its own security and this is too important to be left to world government or international law. These are the general foreign policy beliefs held by most neocons, however, personal opinion influences how neoconservatives occasionally differ from each other. Some neoconservatives are more hawkish than others, while some have more respect for multilateralism than others.
NEOCONSERVATISM, WORLD GOVERNEMENT AND INTERNATIONAL LAW
“There is no United Nations. ... When the United States leads, the United Nations will follow. When it suits our interests to do so, we will do so. When it does not suit our interests, we will not.” – John Bolton, Undersecretary of State and proposed US Ambassador to the United Nations.
Historically, America has regarded international institutions with deep suspicion. Over time, this suspicion has evolved into disregard.
On a diplomatic level, America, being a young nation, is consistently arrogant. Statesmen are taught to have the ability to distinguish ‘friends’ from ‘enemies’, hence the rhetoric of ‘axis of evil’, or Condoleeza Rice’s more recent “outposts of tyranny” metaphor. It’s a simplistic worldview, but in America, the simplest ideas are often publicly regarded as the best. Part of this is due to the emphasis on ‘national interest’. America is in a uniquely powerful position in the world. Its national interest is not a geographical term. Another country’s ‘national interest’ begins and ends at its boarders, an isolationist view. But America has more extensive interests. Its ‘national interest’ extends across the globe.
The United Nations is a recipient of increased neoconservative distain. International Law – especially the UN – depends on the cooperation of all governments involved. Neoconservatives view this as a series of compromises, many with governments that they do not view as legitimate. The neocons believe that the UN institutionalises corruption and conflicts of interest. The recent disintegration of the UN, especially the scandals surrounding ‘oil for food’, have been massive boosts for the neoconservative belief that the UN is corrupt, listless and ultimately useless.
Neoconservatives see no reason to leave the governing of their own country in the hands of a greater institution. This is an issue of control. They believe that no one knows a country better than the country itself; therefore its security and interests should be left to the individual country alone. This sentiment that America knows best also allows relative abstention from international agreements that are viewed as inconvenient, or are not in the ‘national interest’.
OTHER TRAITS OF NEOCONSERVATISM
It is already obvious that in sensibility, neocons reject the stuffiness and resistance to change of traditional conservatives. Instead, they are intensely optimistic and enthusiastic about the future. In this sense, neoconservatism may be difficult for Europeans to grasp because it is so uniquely American in attitude. For neocons, the positive American attitude, the belief that every problem has a simple solution, and the apparent innocent optimism is central to the sentiment of neoconservatism.
Patriotism is greatly supported. It is viewed as a natural and healthy sentiment that should be encouraged by both private and public institutions. It is also a method of control and manipulation, where previously undesirable endeavours can now go ahead ‘in the name of the USA’. Critics of US policy within America are labelled the worst thing of all – ‘unpatriotic’. The Patriot Act, basically a series of restrictions on civilian rights shows where blind ideology doesn’t just cross over into policy, it sometimes creates it.
Adaptability, a legacy of understanding the Left and awareness of ones enemy (unlike the Democrat Party, which seemed to have no understanding of their competition) has served the neoconservatives well. They are also opportunistic, seizing on alliances in the early days, like that with the fundamentalist Christians, even though the majority of high profile neoconservatives are in fact Jewish.
IRVING KRISTOL’S LEGACY
In 2003, Irving Kristol, (by then 83 years old) published the ultimate neoconservative explanation in The Weekly Standard, the magazine edited by his son William. ‘The Neoconservative Persuasion: What it was, and what it is’ explains the sentiment and attitude of neoconservatism, rather than what it hoped to achieve on a global scale. In the article, Kristol outlined some invaluable observations. He pinpointed the mechanics of the development of neoconservatism, using the word ‘persuasion’ very purposely, and writing that neoconservatism was still developing, and that its true meaning is only evident in retrospect. Concentrating on the optimism of neoconservatism, a seemingly positive picture is painted, “it is hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim.”
Crucially, Kristol identifies the American outlook of neoconservatism, a characteristic necessary to understand its larger sentiment, “neoconservatism is the first variant of American conservatism in the past century that is in the ‘American grain.’”
Kristol’s ‘Neoconservative Persuasion’ was seen as a final explanation to a view that had by this time infiltrated the White House. Neoconservatism’s lack of self-explanation provided its opposition with the ammunition that it was a secretive and murky belief system, hiding its actions from the greater public.
What Kristol outlines still remains vague. He says that there is “no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy, only a set of attitudes derived from historical experience. This adds another dimension that has become apparent within neoconservatism. Because there is no manifesto laid down, neoconservatism can be very much left to one’s interpretation. This works on two levels. Firstly, the opposition end up interpreting it as many different things. Secondly, those who call themselves ‘neoconservatives’ often have very different views. This adds to a difficulty in explaining what neoconservatism actually is.
Following the outline of these thoughts by Kristol, the split between the now ‘traditional’ conservatives or ‘paleo-conservatives’ and neoconservatives was clear. The major element of difference was in foreign policy, where neoconservatives were winning approval, as their objectives seemed more relevant to ‘a changed world’. The traditional conservative isolationism was completely redundant in this new reality.
This brings us back to the starting quote from Irving Kristol about transforming the Republican Party and American conservatism in general. For now, this is what they have achieved. Neoconservatism was written off as the obsession of a few communist deflectors before 9/11. The events on that day gave legitimacy to neocons beliefs, there is not doubt about that. Neoconservatism needed a dramatic change in world events to make its policy a reality and 9/11 provided that flashpoint. The manifestations of neoconservative foreign policy beliefs have resulted in two wars in as many years, and now, the precariousness of such radical actions are showing. Support for the Iraq War is waning in America. The people will only tolerate the human and economic cost for so long. There is a large consensus that the public is being lied to – a deceptive ruling method that Leo Strauss (the political philosopher many see has the biggest influence on neoconservatives) championed. The neocons have almost achieved what they set out to do: convert the Republican Party and American conservatism in general. But such achievement is conditional. If Iraq continues to disintegrate and if the Republican’s lose the next presidential election, neoconservatism will be dead on its feet, reverting back to the opposition and giving traditional conservatives an excuse to reform.
America’s current government has strong ideologies. The military superiority of America makes these ideologies reality, where the ideologies of other nations begin and end in speeches, impossible to implement. A strong enough ideology will always demand human sacrifice. Because America values democracy and ‘freedom’ above all else, it claims it will always seek to defend a democratic nation under attack. What has become evident is that America picks its battles with strategic economic and geographical benefits in mind, which is not surprising for a nation founded on self-interest, self-preservation and self-advancement. By rising to the top, the neoconservatives are truly living the American dream.