Zealots of Our Time

They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons by Jacob Heilbrunn (Doubleday, 320 pages, $26.00)

Not long ago the term "neoconservative" seemed ripe for retirement. The label was originally applied in the 1960s and 1970s to the ex-liberals (themselves ex-socialists) who turned halfway to the right after becoming disenchanted with the Great Society, left-wing politics, and the Democrats' post-Vietnam isolationism. Under Ronald Reagan, however, the neocons kept moving right and joined in a broad right-wing consensus, and by the 1990s it became hard to tell them apart from other Republicans. Did second-generation neocons such as Irving Kristol's son Bill -- baby boomers who never made any left-to-right voyage -- even warrant the moniker? The younger Kristol said he was "just a conservative."

Despite some tensions that surfaced during George Bush Sr.'s presidency, Reagan's conservative coalition cohered, more or less, until midway through the current administration. Only with the failures of Bush II and the Iraq War has the concept of neoconservatism gained new life and new meaning, at least on foreign policy (on domestic issues the neocons now can hardly be distinguished from other Republicans). On one side, the neocons' zeal for the war has earned them seething hatred (occasionally tinged with anti-Semitism) from the anti-war left, as younger bloggers, indifferent to the label's precise meaning, sling it as an all-purpose epithet. On the other side, the Republican crack-up has resurrected old internecine splits on the right -- Wall Street versus Main Street, isolationist versus neo-imperialist, and paleocon versus neocon -- with the neocons often being blamed for the right's disarray.

The revival of neoconservatism as a discrete ideology justifies the publication of They Knew They Were Right, journalist Jacob Heilbrunn's addition to the heavy shelf of histories of this influential and controversial claque. A first generation of books, such as Peter Steinfels' The Neoconservatives (1979), surveyed the incipient movement and defined its contours. Another wave, including John Ehrman's Rise of Neoconservatism (1995), began to consider it with some historical perspective. Heilbrunn's updating reminds us that the story of neoconservatism is still evolving and past obituaries have been premature.

Breezy, riddled with nuggets gleaned from interviews, and laced with sharp and often personal judgments, They Knew They Were Right seeks to explain the relationship between neoconservatism and Bush's foreign policy. Although Heilbrunn clearly enjoys indulging his taste for invective, and although his own apparently moderate, realist politics makes him on balance critical of the neocons, he strives hard to seem fair and to make his book a history more than a polemic.

The book's early chapters provide a familiar narrative of neoconservatism's roots in an older (but overlapping) cohort of thinkers, the so-called New York Intellectuals. Those famously bold, wide-ranging, and mainly (though hardly exclusively) Jewish writers began their careers in the 1930s and 1940s publishing political and cultural criticism in Partisan Review and other little magazines. At midcentury, severing their former commitments to the Marxist left, they helped define a robust liberal anti-Communism. By the 1960s, a sizable number of them -- including Kristol and his wife Gertrude Himmelfarb, Norman Podhoretz and his wife Midge Decter, the philosopher Sidney Hook, the sociologist Nathan Glazer, and others in the same social and intellectual orbit -- began to fashion a critique of the era's dominant liberalism. In The Public Interest, which Kristol co-founded with Daniel Bell, and Commentary, which Podhoretz edited, they deployed the New York Intellectuals' piercing polemical style in dissecting social welfare policy, cultural politics, and campus conflict.

For a time, the neocons didn't focus much on foreign policy. But the Vietnam War and the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars sharpened their suspicions of the left -- and of the mainstream Democratic Party liberalism that they believed overindulged the left. On Vietnam, neocons bemoaned the new aversion to military power, the abandonment of an ally in the fight against communism, and the left's open cynicism about U.S. motives, which the neoconservatives called anti-Americanism. On Israel, neocons feared the left's waning support for the embattled Jewish state after its occupation of lands won from Egypt and Jordan. Seared by memories of the Holocaust, they deemed Israel's survival to be vital on several counts: as a pro-U.S. bulwark in a Soviet-dominated region, as a model of liberal democracy, and (especially for those who were Jewish) as a homeland for their historically dispossessed people.

The Democrats' nomination of South Dakota senator George McGovern for president in 1972 galvanized some of the neocons to support Richard M. Nixon- -- a man most liberals couldn't have endorsed even if Fidel Castro had been the Democratic standard-bearer. But as Heil-brunn writes, "If there was one Democrat whom the neoconservatives despised, it was McGovern. It was he who babbled about making the United Nations the arbiter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was he who wanted to retreat from Vietnam. It was he who epitomized the postures of defeatism and withdrawal from the world." Following McGovern's rout, leading neocons founded the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, devoted to returning the party to the tradition of internationalism shaped by politicians from Franklin Roosevelt to Hubert Humphrey. And they enlisted in the cause aides to more hawkish Democratic officeholders such as Humphrey (for whom Jeane Kirkpatrick worked) and Henry "Scoop" Jackson (who employed Richard Perle).

His eye ever on the present, Heilbrunn observes that "this was the first of what would become perennial calls to exhume the great tradition of cold war liberalism." But Heilbrunn adds that such calls have become "pointless" -- a startling rejection of this tradition that both contradicts his own politics and minimizes the important battle over foreign policy now under way within the Democratic Party. At times Heilbrunn has nastier words for liberal internationalists- -- especially those who backed the Iraq War, particularly from the pages of his former employer, The New Republic -- than he does for the neocons themselves. Yet he rightly insists on maintaining a bright line between the neocons and the liberal hawks, who are still loyal Democrats, still progressive on domestic issues, and much more respectful of international law and opinion than are their Republican counterparts.

Back in 1972, the neocons weren't yet identified with the Republican Party, nor would they be for several years. Heilbrunn describes a pivotal moment in 1976 when many hoped that Jimmy Carter would award them some key foreign policy jobs. Carter's talk of human rights and morality in foreign policy resonated with many neocons who had endorsed Nixon and Henry Kissinger's Vietnam policy but looked askance at their realpolitik and embrace of détente. Carter, however, shut the neocons out from any significant role in his administration, a personal slight and ideological choice that drove them toward the GOP. Soon Carter would displace McGovern, Heilbrunn writes, as "the central figure in neoconservative demonology."

The neocons' onetime attachments to the Democratic Party are important to recall today, because the more shrill anti-neocon rhetoric sometimes makes it seem as if "neo" is a synonym for "ultra." On the contrary, neoconservatives for a long time occupied a place on the spectrum clearly to the left of the average Republican. But as the neocons moved into the Republican camp, they didn't clash with the old hard right; their anti-Soviet ardor was equal to that of the National Review crowd. Instead, their rivals within their new GOP home were the realists, with their disdain for democratic values as guiding considerations in foreign policy.

Analysts often describe this divide as one between realists and idealists, with the idealist group encompassing the neocons. But that characterization has always been inadequate. In The Rise of The Vulcans (2004), the journalist James Mann proposed a more useful distinction. In his scheme, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon were declinists, who believed they had to manage America's slide from dominance to co-existence in a multipolar world. Opposing them were optimists about the nation's potential for long-term global leadership -- a group that encompassed not just the neocons but also Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, veterans of the Nixon and Ford administrations. These Kissinger critics believed that Vietnam had induced a debilitating fear among the public and policy-makers about using military force.

Heilbrunn hews more closely than Mann to the realist-versus-idealist scheme. But he too recognizes the problems of the dichotomy. His most insightful piece of historical analysis may be his treatment of a fissure that opened up within neocon ranks in the 1980s between what he calls a Podhoretz wing and a Kristol wing of foreign-policy thought. The Podhoretz faction maintained an idealism about human rights and denounced the left as indifferent to rights violations in the Soviet Union and other communist regimes. Within the Reagan administration, Elliot Abrams -- Podhoretz's son-in-law, most famous for his role in the Iran-contra scandal, which earned him a criminal conviction (and pardon from Bush Sr.) -- tried to redefine anti-communism as a human-rights policy. In this view, the right-wing forces in Central America whom Reagan was aiding were true "freedom fighters."

But this view didn't convince all the neocons. Many deeply distrusted any talk about morality and democracy promotion in foreign policy. Irving Kristol scorned the burgeoning human-rights movement as an extension of the left's knee-jerk concern with the oppressed, and Jeane Kirkpatrick painted the democratization efforts then gaining favor as a recipe for undermining U.S. allies. In 1985 Kristol founded The National Interest, which aimed to elaborate a realist foreign-policy ideology to complement the "realist" view of the welfare state espoused in The Public Interest.

This rift within neoconservatism sheds light on some of the riddles of the current Bush administration. For despite the efforts to brand the Iraq War as a neocon enterprise, not one of the half dozen administration leaders most responsible for it -- George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and George Tenet -- fits the neocon profile. And if second-generation neocons such as Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith pushed and helped design the war, their emphasis on democratization was at first just one of many reasons used to justify the invasion. Only afterward did it emerge as a central goal of the Bush administration.

Indeed, given that almost all conservatives, not just neocons, favored the war at the outset, an analysis of the origins of the Iraq War has to explain not what has set the neocons apart from their conservative brethren but what bound them together. September 11 united various blocs within the Republican Party (as well as many other Americans) behind an aggressive nationalistic militarism that, despite the passing of communism, closely resembled Reagan's. Contemptuous of constraints from the United Nations and other international organizations, it was nationalist, not internationalist. While suffused by a rhetoric of rights and values, it stubbornly championed American self-interest. And marked by a stance of toughness, it sought both to face down foreign enemies and to summon a sentimental patriotism among a newly vulnerable and uneasy public.

That broad unity, more than quirky neocon evangelism, explains how we got into Iraq. Of course, now that the public has soured on the war, the old conflicts have again come into sharp relief. Realists, paleocons, and even many mainstream Republicans have turned against Bush and the war. But as Heilbrunn notes, it would be wrong to assume that the neoconservative outlook has been discredited on the right. If Bush has turned realist in some aspects of his policy (such as with North Korea), the neocon influence remains tenacious, and commonalities among conservative factions can still override tensions -- a point Heilbrunn rams home at the book's end by describing Norman Podhoretz planting a kiss on Kissinger at a Commentary gala. It may simply be, at this point, too soon to write the history of neoconservatism, the Bush administration, and the Iraq War.

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