Thursday, January 17, 2008

Heilbrunn on Neoconservatism

I've written two posts now on Jacob Heilbrunn's new book, They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (here and here).

I picked up my copy yesterday, and the prologue was a blast!

Heilbrunn spends a good deal of time on the Jewish origins of neoconservatism. He suggests the Jewish background is key to understanding the movement, and that it's not anti-Semitic to analyze neoconservatism in terms of religion. Heilbrunn highlights, for example, acceptable and unacceptable discourses in the debate (it's not okay, for example, to argue that neocons have abandoned that law of Moses and have endangered America's survival - although it's been said).

Here's an excerpt:

The neocons claim to be an intellectual movement with no ethnic component to speak of. But neoconservatism is as much a reflection of Jewish immigrant social resentments and status anxiety as a legitimate movement of ideas. Indeed, however much they may deny it, neoconservatism is in a decisive respect a Jewish phenomenon, reflecting a subset of Jewish concerns. One of the few members of the movement willing to address this has been the British neoconservative Melanie Phillips (herself the author of a controversial book which asserts that radical Muslims have overrun London and have turned it into a base of worldwide operations). Phillips has observed that "neo-conservatism is a quintessentially Jewish project: a resanctification in everyday life of the core values of western civilisation, and the achievement of human potential through virtuous practice. The neo-cons' crucial insight is that public signals through law, custom and tradition are the key to getting people to behave well. And that is a Jewish insight"

And that insight is one of the reasons I'm drawn to the neoconservative project. But I'm not Jewish.

I've thought about this a bit, for I don't myself look at neoconservativism through the lense of faith. I see neoconservatism as more an ideology (although so far Heilbrunn's discussion has avoided that label).

Moreover, despite the slurs, some of the most influential neocons in American foreign policy have been non-Jewish: Bill Bennett, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Michael Novak. Some top neocon heavyweights - President Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton - aren't Jewish.

Certainly, though, identification with neoconservativism - irrespective of religion - correlates with support for Israel. I think in my case, after September 11, when I really started paying attention to the radical diatribes against American foreign policy, I gravitated toward neoconservative ideology, and its identification with the survival of the Jewish state.

It was natural for me. My main identity as a neoconservative corresponds to the notion of an alienated Cold War liberal who's had an awakening. I voted Democrat in every election from Michael Dukakis in 1988 to Al Gore in 2000. I would have voted for Walter Mondale in 1984, but skipped the election due to my own apathy. I studied international relations as an undergraduate, never questioning America's bipartisan anti-Communist project. Indeed, I absorbed strategic nuclear theory in college under the assumption that the Cold War arms race was far from resolved. Moreover, I knew - early on in my studies - that the Soviet Union indeed threatened America's core interests; and the world correlation of forces, if turned to the Soviets' advantage, would work to the detriment of the U.S. - and even toward the possible destruction of our nation (only one contender would survive the long, twilight engagement with Leninist internationalism ).

Soviet foreign policy was on the march in the 1970s - after America's defeat in Vietnam - and pro-Moscow Marxist insurgencies throughout the Third Word pledged the revolutionary overthrow of the pro-American capitalist classes.

At home, however, I was a Johnson Democrat on civil rights, and I dismissed the Reagan administration's domestic policies as reactionary.

That all changed in time. Throughout the 1990s the Clinton administration was a source of endless frustration, with its casualty sensitivity from Somalia to Kosovo. I was working on my dissertation at the time, researching the domestic sources of underbalancing against the Nazi threat to international security in the 1930s.

I thought, upon starting my career as a teaching political scientist, that American unipolarity was underutilized - that is, U.S. power could be exercised to the advantage of world freedom and security. With great power comes great responsibility. American political debates - "come home America" - ignored the call of history.

America's toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan put to rest the notion of the graveyard of empires, and I was on board with the Bush revolution in foreign affairs. I didn't know it yet, but I was moving into the neoconservative neighborhood.

Some longtime readers will recall that I've just been disgusted with leftist anti-Americanism; that combined with my unapologetic view of American material capabilities to put me in line with pro-victory forces in the debate over American intervention overseas. I voted for George W. Bush in 2004. I started blogging in 2006, not once flinching in the rightness of our cause, nor in my commitment to combatting leftist irrationalism and nihilism.

In any case, I just like the vigor of the neoconservative mission. Heilbrunn, in the prologue to They Knew They Were Right, suggests that adherents have experienced exile without ever reaching the promised land. This creates a missionary faith, and the movement often ends up on the wrong side of traditional American conservatism:

The reason is that the neoconservatives are less intellectuals than prophets. They tend to be men (and women) of an uncompromising temperament who use (and treat) ideas as weapons in a moral struggle, which is why the political class in each party regards them with a mixture of appreciation and apprehension, even loathing.

Loathing sums it up for me, at least in my experience as a pro-victory professor on campus, and as a blogger implacably committed to America's mission in Iraq and the larger global war on transnational terrorism.

It's something of a badge of honor to piss off radical lefties on foreign policy to no end, in any case. I had no idea that I'd embrace the neoconservative label, but it fits just fine, and I'm proud to advance the cause. The United States indeed represents the light of the world, that ultimate good that exists out there in the cosmos. We're not always right, but we - like no other country - have always pushed for betterment though democratization and development, at home and abroad. Current U.S. foreign policy will be vindicated in the sweep of history (and success, near at hand now in Iraq, is irresistable as a force for progressive change).

I make no apologies. This is how I am; this is what I do

See my introductory post, "Welcome to American Power," for more on my ideational groundings. See also James Kirchick's killer essay, "The Anti-Neocon Fervor," on how neoconservatives just unhinge the radicals.

I'll have more thoughts on Heilbrunn's book as they come to me. I'm off to go read right now!