American Neoconservatives: A History and Overview
By Jim LobeDale Sprusansky: Excellent. Next we will hear from Jim Lobe. Jim Lobe served as Washington bureau chief for Inter Press Service from 1980 to 1985, and again from 1999 until 2015. He currently manages and produces LobeLog, a great blog that is primarily focused on U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Last year, the blog quite appropriately received the Arthur Ross Award for distinguished reporting and analysis of foreign affairs from the American Academy of Diplomacy. Jim has been a long-time observer of neoconservatives, and he will discuss American neoconservatives, the history, and then provide an overview.
Jim Lobe: Okay, this timer intimidates me.
Lawrence Wilkerson: It goes fast.
Jim Lobe: That makes it worse, thanks, Larry. So, I’m going to speak quickly. I’ve been asked to give a kind of Neoconservatism 101 over the next 15 minutes or so. That’s a big challenge for me. It took me seven hours to get through it when I addressed the Institute for American Studies in Beijing 12 years ago, when Chinese analysts were desperately trying to figure out why the United States had been so stupid as to invade Iraq. So, I’m going to start by summing up.
If I were asked to boil down neoconservatism into its essential elements—that is, those that remained consistent over the past nearly 50 years—I would say the following: First, a Manichean view of the world in which good and evil are constantly at war and the United States has an obligation to lead the forces for good around the globe; second, a belief in the moral exceptionalism of both the United States and Israel, and the absolute moral necessity for the United States to defend Israel’s security; third, a conviction that, in order to keep evil at bay, the United States must have and be willing to exercise the military power necessary to defeat any and all challenges anywhere—and there is a corollary to this: force is the only language that evil and adversaries understand; fourth, the 1930s—what with Munich, appeasement, Chamberlain, and then Churchill, the redeemer—taught us everything we need to know about evil and how to thwart it; and fifth, democracy is generally desirable, but it always depends on who wins. [Laughter] Now, this to me is neoconservatism in a nutshell. So I could stop here, but I still have 15 minutes and 46 seconds.
So let’s review very briefly the context in which neoconservatism became a serious movement here. Well, many of you have probably heard of its Trotskyite origins. The movement itself as we know it today dates mainly from the 1960s. It was in that decade that you saw the startling rise of Holocaust consciousness, beginning with the Eichmann trial in Israel and the Oscar-winning movie “Judgment at Nuremberg,” both of which had a major impact not only on the Jewish community—well, not only in Israel and on the Jewish community here in this country—but the general public here as well.
These events were followed by the rise of the new left (of which I was one), the counterculture, hippies, the anti-war movement, the black power movements, as well as the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. All of which left a number of mainly, but by no means exclusively, Jewish public intellectuals and liberals feeling, in the words of neocon patriarch Irving Kristol, “mugged by reality”—and mugged by reality in a way that launched them on a rightward trajectory, hence neoconservative.
That trajectory gained momentum in the early 1970s, when the anti-war candidate George McGovern won the Democratic nomination for president and when Israel seemed to teeter briefly on the edge of disaster in the early stages of the 1973 war, which itself was immediately followed by the Arab oil embargo. Two years later, the U.N. General Assembly passed the “Zionism is racism” resolution, and U.S. power globally seemed to be in retreat, especially after the collapse of its clients in Vietnam and elsewhere in Indochina.
And these all created a context in which neoconservatism gained serious political traction in the United States.
Now at this point it may be useful to address an important ethno-religious issue. Neoconservatism has largely been a Jewish movement. By no means, however, are all neoconservatives Jewish. The late Jeane Kirkpatrick, former Education Secretary Bill Bennett, former CIA Chief—however shortly—James Woolsey, and Catholic theologians Michael Novak and George Weigel are just a few examples of non-Jews who have played major roles in the movement over time.
That said, it’s true that most neoconservatives are Jewish—and not only Jewish, but increasingly Republican. So it’s very important to stress now that the very large majority of Jews in this country are neither neoconservative nor Republican, a source of great frustration to neoconservatives—Jewish neoconservatives in particular—over the last 30 years.
Just on Monday, for example, The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial pages are probably the country’s most influential neoconservative media platform, ran an op-ed entitled, “The Political Stupidity of the Jews Revisited,” in which the author bemoaned the persistent tendency of Jews to vote Democratic, and in some cases to even question how well it’s worth supporting Israel. But we’ll go on to that.
Now, back to the movement’s core features. Neoconservatism is more of a worldview than a coherent political ideology. That worldview has been shaped by rather traumatic historic events, most notably the Nazi Holocaust, and the events of the 1930s that led up to it. Of course, the Great Depression and pervasive anti-Semitism at the time were important causes.
But neoconservatives also stress three other causes. First, the failure of liberal institutions in the Weimar Republic to prevent the rise of Nazism in Germany; second, the appeasement of Hitler by the Western European democracies and their failure to confront him militarily early on; and third, the “isolationism” practiced by the United States during that fateful period.
This assessment of these causes leads neoconservatives to believe that spineless liberals, military weakness, diplomatic appeasement—or almost any diplomacy—and American isolationism are ever present threats that must be fought against at all costs. This is an integral part of their worldview, and you can often hear it in their rhetoric and polemics—talking about appeasement and Chamberlain and Munich, and so on.
For them, the importance of maintaining overwhelming military power—or what they call peace through strength—as well as constant American engagement or intervention outside its borders cannot be overstated. The latter point is particularly critical, because neocons believe that, in the absence of a tangible threat to our national security, Americans naturally retreat into isolationism.
As a result, they have engaged in a consistent pattern of threat inflation, or you can call it fear-mongering, over the past four years, from Team B’s [outside experts commissioned by the CIA] exaggeration of alleged Soviet preparations for nuclear war in the mid-1970s to the hyping of the various threats allegedly posed by Iraq, radical Islamists, and Iran after 9/11.
Thus, Norman Podhoretz, one of the movement’s patriarchs, has argued that just as we defeated Nazism in World War II and communism in what he refers to as World War III, so must we now defeat Islamo-fascism in what he’s called World War IV. For neocons, a new Hitler is always just around the corner, and we must be in a permanent state of mobilization to confront him.
But assuring American engagement and military dominance is not just a matter of protecting our national security. It is a moral imperative. In their Manichean world, neocons see the U.S. as the ultimate white hat, or, as Elliot Abrams—who is Podhoretz’s son-in-law and was also George W. Bush’s top Middle East aide—once put it: “The United States is the greatest force for good among the nations of the Earth.”
This conviction helps explain Paul Wolfowitz’s call for what amounted to a unilaterally enforced Pax Americana in his famous 1992 Defense Policy Guidance, as well Bob Kagan’s and Bill Kristol’s 1996 appeal to an increasingly anti-interventionist Republican Party to return to what they called a neo-Reaganite policy of “benevolent global hegemony.” That manifesto set the stage for the Project for the New American Century, whose associates did so much to coordinate the march to war in Iraq, both inside and outside the Bush administration, after 9/11, and which created so much consternation in Beijing.
So, how does Israel fit into this? In my view and that of other veteran observers like Jacob Heilbrunn—the first 100 pages of whose book [They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons] I highly recommend if you want to understand the origin of neoconservatism—the defense of Israel has been a central pillar of the neoconservative worldview from the outset. Why? Of course, the fact that neoconservatism began as and remains a largely Jewish movement is one very relevant reason. But, like the U.S., Israel is also seen as morally exceptional due in major part to the fact that its birth as an independent state was made possible by the terrible legacy of the Holocaust and the guilt it provoked particularly in the West. Moreover, its depiction in the media since 1967 as both a staunch U.S. ally—which is questionable, but—and a lonely outpost of democracy and Western civilization besieged by hostile, if not barbaric, neighbors has contributed to this notion of moral superiority. Of course, its most recent wars, its treatment of Palestinians, and the steadily rightward drift of its governments have made this image increasingly hard to sustain, not only in the West but within the Jewish community here as well.
Although strong defenders of Israel, however, neoconservatives are not necessarily Israel-firsters. They believe that both the U.S. and Israel are morally exceptional. That means that neither one should necessarily be bound by international norms or institutions like the U.N. Security Council that would constrain their ability to defend themselves or to pre-empt threats as they see fit. It means that both countries should maintain overwhelming military power vis-à-vis any possible challengers. And in the neoconservative view, the interests and values of the two countries are largely congruent, if not identical. As Bill Bennett once put it, somewhat mystically, “America’s fate and Israel’s fate are one and the same.”
But that doesn’t mean that neocons defer to whatever Israeli government is in power—as AIPAC, for example, tends to do. They often have different priorities. Through the American Enterprise Institute, the Project for the New American Century, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, to name a few neoconservative groups, neocons very much led the public campaign for invading Iraq from virtually the moment the Twin Towers collapsed. But I don’t think Ariel Sharon, who considered Iran the much greater threat, was all that enthusiastic about the idea. Similarly, many neocons were unhappy with Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza, and with his successors’ decisions to end wars against Hezbollah and Hamas over the past decade without achieving decisive military victories. Unlike AIPAC, neocons almost always believe they know better than anyone else.
Now this has changed—that is, the relationship with Israel and the Israeli government has changed—somewhat since Netanyahu took power in 2009, and especially since the 2013 elections, which resulted in the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Bibi has had a very close relationship with key neocons since the 1980s, when he was based here as an Israeli diplomat in the U.S. and neoconservatives had their first taste of power under Ronald Reagan. Their worldviews—that is, neocons’ and Bibi’s—are very similar, but there have been differences. While most neocons have been calling for regime change in Syria through covert or direct U.S. military action, Bibi has wanted the civil war there to go on and on, presumably for as long as possible. And while neocons who have long viewed Moscow as a dangerous adversary have urged a harder line against Russia over Crimea and Ukraine, Bibi has maintained his discreet silence and enjoys a businesslike, if not cordial, relationship with Vladimir Putin.
So, Manicheaism, moral exceptionalism, a benevolent Pax Americana backed up by huge military budgets, Israel’s security—these are all central to the neoconservative world view.
Now, it’s often said that neocons are also Wilsonians, devoted to the spread of democracy and liberal values. I think this is way overplayed. I agree with Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has sometimes observed that when neoconservatives talk about democratization, they usually mean destabilization. [Laughter] Now I believe some neocons, notably Bob Kagan, are indeed—I believe—sincerely committed to democracy promotion and human rights, but I think his is a minority view, as demonstrated most recently in the case of Egypt, where, like Netanyahu, most influential neocons deeply appreciate President Sisi and want Washington to do more to help him.
And like Bibi, most neocons think a de facto alliance between Israel and the region’s Sunni autocrats who havr led the counter-revolution against the Arab Spring would just be the cat’s pajamas. Indeed, most neocons have historically always had a soft spot for what they used to refer to as friendly authoritarians. And when was the last time you heard neoconservatives advocate for full human rights for Palestinians, let alone their right to national self-determination, unless they want to exercise it in Jordan? In any event, their record over the past 40 years suggests that their devotion to democracy depends entirely on the circumstances.
I’d like to make two final notes as briefly as I can. First, it’s a movement with no recognized leader—although I think Bill Kristol would like to be one. Yes, they work together quite closely and coordinate their messaging to create very effective echo chambers. But they also have differences of opinion over tactics, and sometimes even over substance. Some neocons like Frank Gaffney and Daniel Pipes actively promote Islamophobia; while others, such as Kagan and Revel Gerecht, disdain it. There are soft neocons, like David Brooks at The New York Times, and hard neocons, like Bret Stephens at The Wall Street Journal. In other words, the movement is not monolithic, except in the core elements I outlined previously.
Second, and last, neocons have been admirably nimble in creating tactical alliances with very different political forces to achieve their ends. In the mid-’70s they worked with aggressive nationalists like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to derail Kissinger’s efforts at détente with Moscow. Under Jimmy Carter they wooed the Christian Right, despite the clear anti-Semitism of some of its leaders. As Irving Kristol said at the time, “It’s their theology, but it’s our Israel.” That coalition of the three helped propel Reagan to victory in 1980. Then, alienated—as Larry pointed out—by the first Bush’s pressure on Israel to stop settlements and enter into serious peace talks after the Gulf war, many neocons opted for Clinton, and by the mid-’90s they allied with liberal internationalists in pressing Clinton to intervene in the Balkans, over Republican opposition. By 2000, however, they had reconstituted the old Reagan coalition of aggressive nationalists and the Christian Right. And after 9/11, they of course led the charge, along with Rumsfeld and Cheney, into Iraq. But now, less than a decade later, they have been with the liberal interventionists on Libya and Syria, and some of them, like Kagan and Max Boot, are openly warning that they’ll back Hillary this year, especially if Trump gets the Republican nomination. But I’m going to leave that to Justin.
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