How Neo Are The Neocons?

Jonah Goldberg

4/23/2008 12:01:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg

In the play "Embedded," Tim Robbins' 2003 satire about the Iraq invasion, a thinly veiled Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz shout with Nazi-like gusto, "Hail, Leo Strauss!" and get sexually aroused at the prospect of international conquest. During the post-9/11 age of neo-phobia, when an irrational fear of anything that might be called "neoconservative" gripped the nation, such critiques passed as intelligently nuanced.

Neocons have been attacked as secret Trotskyites, open imperialists and perfidious double agents for Israel. Some think the neocons are something like Jesuits (or perhaps Jewsuits) in the service of their dark anti-pope Strauss, a long-dead, German-Jewish political philosopher who emigrated to the U.S. to escape Hitler.

In a hopeful sign that it's once again safe to discuss the topic sanely, Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment offers a renewed defense of neoconservative foreign policy in the latest issue of World Affairs Journal.

"The first thing that could be said about this neoconservative worldview is that there is nothing very conservative about it," Kagan writes. "But a more important question is, how Ĺ’neo' is it?" His answer: not very.

From our earliest days, Americans have supported the promotion of democracy around the world, often by force and without undue heed to international institutions. William Henry Seward, a founder of the Republican Party and Lincoln's secretary of state, argued that it was America's mission to lead the way "to the universal restoration of power to the governed." A generation earlier, statesman Henry Clay championed the idea that America had the "duty to share with the rest of mankind this most precious gift" of liberty. Both world wars, Korea and Vietnam would be inconceivable without accounting for America's dedication to the promotion and defense of democracy.

Kagan traces such sentiments to the dawn of the republic. The founders, he writes, saw the U.S. as a "Hercules in a cradle' ... because its beliefs, which liberated human potential and made possible a transcendent greatness, would capture the imagination and the following of all humanity."

Even amid the 15-month riot of Bush-bashing that has been the Democratic Party's fratricidal primary, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama conceded the core neoconservative principle of the Bush doctrine. "There's absolutely a connection between a democratic regime and heightened security for the United States," Clinton said, responding to events in Pakistan. Obama would not only unilaterally attack al-Qaida in Pakistan without Pakistan's permission if necessary, but he also argues that anti-Americanism in the Middle East is a direct consequence of the lack of democracy.

Obviously, supporting the spread of democracy hardly requires you to support the Iraq war. But it works the other way around as well. Support for the Iraq war doesn't automatically make you a neoconservative. Douglas J. Feith, a former undersecretary of defense after 9/11, argues in his new memoir, "War and Decision," that democratization didn't rank very high among the Bush administration's early priorities. Moreover, the administration's mistakes in Iraq - perhaps including the war itself - have less relationship to ideology than many think. "It is possible," as Kagan notes, "to be prudent or imprudent, capable or clumsy, wise or foolish, hurried or cautious in pursuit of any doctrine." (Just ask newly hired Hamas spokesman Jimmy Carter.)

America's forcible promotion of democracy has been both successful (Germany, Japan) and unsuccessful (Vietnam). Where Iraq will fall in the win-loss columns is unknowable right now. But the idea that the "Iraq project" is some bizarre and otherworldly enterprise will seem laughable to historians a century from now, even if it is viewed as a disaster.

I largely agree with Kagan on all of these points. But I have a problem, too. Kagan embraces and celebrates the definition of neoconservatism as a doctrine of democracy promotion abroad, moralism in foreign policy and unilateralism toward these ends when necessary. But the original neoconservatism of the late '60s and early '70s wasn't about any of these things.

It was about domestic affairs, primarily the dangers of overreach. Less an ideology than a branch of skepticism about the ability of government to achieve anything like utopian goals, neoconservatism was the school for former liberals who'd been "mugged by reality," in Irving Kristol's words.

Kagan and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol (son of Irving) actually rejected the label "neoconservative" when describing their ideal foreign policy in a now-famous 1994 Foreign Affairs essay, "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy." Yet, since then, their neo-Reaganism has simply been called "neoconservatism."

Hence the irony: The best cure for today's neoconservatism is a big dose of the neoconservatism of old.