Neoconservatism Reexamined

Neoconservatism takes a terrible pounding these days. The term “neoconservative” itself, and its common abbreviation, “necon”, are more often spat out in fury than with any understanding of what the word actually refers to, which is a coherent and morally informed school of thought that sees the traditional American ideals of liberty and democracy as fundamentally desirable anchors for our foreign policy.

In today’s Wall Street Journal there is a substantial essay by Joshua Muravchik entitled “Neoconservatism’s Future”, in which he argues that despite the neocon-bashing that has become so popular after our early post-invasion blunders in Iraq — none of which can be laid at the feet of neoconservative policy itself — the fundamental tenets of neoconservative thinking still offer the most promising program for America’s conduct in foreign affairs in the years ahead.

It is important, if one wishes to criticize an idea, to understand what it is — but having got into the habit of asking people, upon hearing them casually excoriate “neocons”, to explain what they think the term actually means, I have often heard in response only spluttering about “blood for oil”, warmongering, and Halliburton.

In his essay, Muravchik takes up the movement’s origins in the Cold War:

The term “neoconservative” was coined in the 1970s as an anathema. It was intended to stigmatize a group of liberal intellectuals who had lately parted ways with the majority of their fellows.
As a heretical offshoot of liberalism, neoconservatism appealed to the same values and even many of the same goals — like, for example, peace and racial equality. But neoconservatives argued that liberal policies — for example, disarmament in the pursuit of peace, or affirmative action in the pursuit of racial equality — undermined those goals rather than advancing them. In short order, the heretics established themselves as contemporary liberalism’s most formidable foes.

The new intellectual movement concerned itself with both domestic and foreign-policy issues. But it was the latter that sparked the most heated debate:

The divisions stemmed from the Vietnam war. Not that all neoconservatives were hawks on this particular issue; some, including [Commentary editor Norman] Podhoretz, were (qualified) doves. But when opponents of the war went from arguing that it was a failed instance of an essentially correct policy — namely, resisting Communist expansionism — to contending that it was a symptom of a deep American sickness, neoconservatives answered back. Whatever problems we may have made for ourselves in Vietnam, they said, the origins of the conflict were to be found neither in American imperialism nor in what President Jimmy Carter would call our “inordinate fear of Communism,” but in Communism’s lust to dominate.

Contrary to Carter and the antiwar Left, neoconservatives believed that Communism was very much to be feared, to be detested, and to be opposed. They saw the Soviet Union as, in the words of Ronald Reagan, an “evil empire,” unspeakably cruel to its own subjects and relentlessly predatory toward those not yet in its grasp. They took the point of George Orwell’s “1984” — a book that (as the Irish scholars James McNamara and Dennis J. O’Keeffe have written) resurrected the idea of evil “as a political category.” And they absorbed the cautionary warning of the Russian novelist and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn against yielding ground to the Communists in the vain hope “that perhaps at some point the wolf will have eaten enough.”

Many in our history, both statesmen and scholars, had drawn a distinction between Americans’ sentiments and America’s self-interest. Where Communism was concerned, the neoconservatives saw the two as intertwined. Communism needed to be fought both because it was morally appalling and because it was a threat to our country.

For their passion against Communism, neoconservatives were accused of being “zealots” and “Manicheans.” To this, one neoconservative rejoined: “we face a Manichean reality.” That is to say, the struggle between the Communist world and the West involved, on the one hand, some of the most malign, murderous regimes ever created and, on the other hand, some of the most humane. The moral consequences were enormous.

For a time, neoconservatives were shunned by both liberals and traditional Republican “realist” conservatives. But their policy received a pragmatic boost with its endorsement by Reagan, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union:

Reagan brought several neoconservatives — notably Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Max Kampelman, and Elliott Abrams — into pivotal foreign-policy positions in his administration (and, on the domestic-policy side, William J. Bennett and others). With time, most neoconservatives moved into the Republican fold. As for Reagan’s “belligerent” approach to the cold war, it was criticized as loudly by both liberals and conservatives within the foreign-policy establishment as it was cheered by neoconservatives. But there can be no question that it issued in a sublime victory: the mighty juggernaut of the Soviet state, disposing of more kill power than the U.S. or any other state in history, capitulated with scarcely a shot.

In the relative calm that followed, however, the movement seemed to be losing steam:

By the 1990s, therefore, the neoconservatives’ analysis seemed vindicated. But, by the same token, the cause that had drawn them together and defined them — the cold war — was concluded. In the relatively quiet 1990s, most of the nation’s attention was concentrated on taxes and budgets and other domestic concerns. By 1996, Podhoretz himself proclaimed that neoconservatism was “dead,” and that “what killed it was not defeat but victory; it died not of failure but of success.” As a consequence, he wrote, “in foreign policy it has become impossible to define a neoconservative position.”

But a reconstituted neoconservatism began to take shape as the millennium approached.

What were its elements?

First, following Orwell, neoconservatives were moralists. Just as they despised Communism, they felt similarly toward Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic and toward the acts of aggression committed by those dictators in, respectively, Kuwait and Bosnia. And just as they did not hesitate to enter negative moral judgments, neither did they hesitate to enter positive ones. In particular, they were strong admirers of the American experience — an admiration that arose not out of an unexamined patriotism (they had all started out as reformers or even as radical critics of American society) but out of the recognition that America had gone farther in the realization of liberal values than any other society in history. A corollary was the belief that America was a force for good in the world at large.

Second, in common with many liberals, neoconservatives were internationalists, and not only for moral reasons. Following Churchill, they believed that depredations tolerated in one place were likely to be repeated elsewhere — and, conversely, that beneficent political or economic policies exercised their own “domino effect” for the good. Since America’s security could be affected by events far from home, it was wiser to confront troubles early even if afar than to wait for them to ripen and grow nearer.

Third, neoconservatives, like (in this case) most conservatives, trusted in the efficacy of military force. They doubted that economic sanctions or UN intervention or diplomacy, per se, constituted meaningful alternatives for confronting evil or any determined adversary.

To this list, I would add a fourth tenet: namely, the belief in democracy both at home and abroad. This conviction could not be said to have emerged from the issues of the 1990s, although the neoconservative support for enlarging NATO owed something to the thought that enlargement would cement the democratic transformations taking place in the former Soviet satellites. But as early as 1982, Ronald Reagan, the neoconservative hero, had stamped democratization on America’s foreign-policy agenda with a forceful speech to the British Parliament. In contrast to the Carter administration, which held (in the words of Patricia Derian, Carter’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights) that “human-rights violations do not really have very much to do with the form of government,” the Reagan administration saw the struggle for human rights as intimately bound up in the struggle to foster democratic governance. When Reagan’s Westminster speech led to the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, the man chosen to lead it was Carl Gershman, a onetime Social Democrat and a frequent contributor to Commentary. Although not an avowed neoconservative, he was of a similar cast of mind.

This mix of opinions and attitudes still constitutes the neoconservative mindset. The military historian Max Boot has aptly labeled it “hard Wilsonianism.” It does not mesh neatly with the familiar dichotomy between “realists” and “idealists.” It is indeed idealistic in its internationalism and its faith in democracy and freedom, but it is hardheaded, not to say jaundiced, in its image of our adversaries and its assessment of international organizations. Nor is its idealism to be confused with the idealism of the “peace” camp. Over the course of the past century, various schemes for keeping the peace — the League of Nations, the UN, the treaty to outlaw war, arms-control regimes — have all proved fatuous. In the meantime, what has in fact kept the peace (whenever it has been kept) is something quite different: strength, alliances, and deterrence. Also in the meantime, “idealistic” schemes for promoting not peace but freedom — self-determination for European peoples after World War I, decolonization after World War II, the democratization of Germany, Japan, Italy, and Austria, the global advocacy of human rights — have brought substantial and beneficial results.

Muravchik’s essay goes on to address the many criticisms, valid and otherwise, that have been leveled at the neoconservative program in the wake of the war in Iraq. As always, reasonable people may differ, and even I, who consider myself solidly in the neocon camp as regards foreign policy, felt that some parts of Muravchik’s argument were stronger than others. But the case he wishes to make is that this is a broad and consistent point of view, morally and strategically coherent and defensible, and arguably far more so than the jumble of suggestions that are put forward as alternatives.

I am sure there are many of you — you know who you are — who are already preparing a pungent retaliatory comment or email in response. But before you post it, I ask only that you read, with an open mind, Muravchik’s essay. You can find it here.

Related content from Sphere


  1. Thanks for pointing it out. I’ll take a look as soon as I can.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted October 4, 2007 at 3:59 am | Permalink
  2. bob koepp says

    Hi Malcolm –
    I haven’t yet read the Muravchik piece, so I might be jumping the gun…

    What of the reliance on market mechanisms to address issues of social justice espoused by many who call themselves neoconservatives? I’m a firm believer in the power of free markets to promote the general good, but I don’t see them as a viable substitute for traditional morality. Sound ethics can’t be reduced to the pursuit of economic self-interest, even of the enlightened variety.

    Posted October 4, 2007 at 9:54 am | Permalink
  3. eugene says

    I read too much stuffs lately from Nassim Nicholas Taleb. But one of his point in his current position strikes me pretty hard: “The causes and effects of history may not be real”. Therefore, I doubt any ideology based on “lessons” from the past will be an undebatable guide line for further actions.

    Posted October 4, 2007 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    I agree; where I part company with mainstream neocons is on several aspects of domestic policy, about which the Muravchik piece says nothing.

    Posted October 4, 2007 at 10:30 am | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Hi Eugene,

    I do not agree. The study of history is as much a lesson about the universal psychology of humans and their groups as it is a mere recitation of contingent and bygone circumstances.

    Undebatable? Of course not; at every juncture in the flow of human events there are choices to be made, and every context is different. But is an awareness of history valuable and instructive? Certainly.

    Posted October 4, 2007 at 10:34 am | Permalink
  6. eugene says

    I agree with your point that an awareness of history and being cautious not to falling to the same trap when situations are the same. But mistakes we often commit are to use history to assert/justify our theories. Unfortunately, a theory can only be disproved, not asserted. All not yet disproved theories are all just in probation.

    If neocon’s strategies don’t work in Iraq, but worked against USSR. It maybe tell us that neocon’s thinking may be just irrelevant to development of events.

    Posted October 4, 2007 at 12:15 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Well, that remains to be seen, and certainly people are welcome to disagree. The point of this post, and my asking that readers go and look at Muravchik’s essay, is that many folks glibly insult neoconservatism without even really understanding what it is. Often it is just summed up as something like: We are the greatest, there’s nothing wrong with forcing everyone else to be like us, cooperating with others need only be done for Machiavellian reasons, there’s nothing wrong with more war and more wars. This is sort of dismissive, straw-man caricature is very common, very far from accurate, and blinds many intelligent people to the solid moral and practical foundation upon which this body of ideas rests.

    Posted October 4, 2007 at 4:49 pm | Permalink
  8. Charles says

    I will admit that I never really knew what neoconservatism was. I have often heard it discussed, the word more often spat out than spoken, but none of the discussants ever bothered to define the term. Thank you for the very helpful clarification.

    I was especially surprised to read the part about neoconservatism being an offshoot of liberalism. That’s something I didn’t expect. Then again, I’m not too knowledgeable when it comes to politics.

    Posted October 4, 2007 at 9:55 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    You’re very welcome, Charles, and thank you for your candor and open-mindedness.

    Posted October 4, 2007 at 10:54 pm | Permalink