Sunday, January 20, 2008

More On Heilbrunn and Neoconservatism

Andrew Bacevich reviews Jacob Heilbrunn's, They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, in today's Los Angeles Times (here).

The review's useful, but I'm still waiting to read a review of Heilbrunn by someone who's at least marginally removed from the impassioned debates surrounding neconservative influence on the Bush administration and Iraq.

Sure, that's hard in the current environment. But Bacevich - an Army veteran who served in Vietnam - lost his son to the Iraq war (when he was killed by a suicide bomber in May 2007). Bacevich wrote of the loss in
a moving tribute to his son in the Washington Post.

Bacevich is
a professor in international relations at Boston University, so he's certainly got the experience and resume to analyze neoconservative foreign policy. But for those who are sympathetic to American goals in upholding international order and fighting for democratic consolidation in Iraq, it might be useful to take Bacevich's criticism with some caveats.

What does Bacevich say? His introduction starts with the usual dismissals of the neocons as "pretentious" and "pernicious," as well as the obligatory denuciation of the war as a "debacle." None of this is original.

The same section includes some decent background on the intellectual origins of the movement, however:

Beginning his account in the 1930s, he surveys the people, publications and events that have combined in the present-day to give us the Weekly Standard, the American Enterprise Institute and various talking heads on Fox News, along with the Bush Doctrine of preventive war and the debacle of Iraq.

Along the way, Heilbrunn rousts all the usual suspects -- the Trotskyist Max Shachtman, the political theorist Leo Strauss, the nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter, the cultural critic Allan Bloom and the militantly anti-communist Democratic "senator from Boeing," Henry "Scoop" Jackson -- and he recounts the contribution each made in shaping today's neoconservative worldview. Heilbrunn devotes particular attention to political journalists Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, who over the course of very long careers have never ceased to write, to organize and to agitate. Absent Kristol's considerable entrepreneurial talents and Podhoretz's flair as a polemicist, neoconservatism as we know it would not exist.
Beyond this, Bacevich breaks up Heilbrunn's disquisition into three parts, or "impressions," which mostly go to catalog Heibrunn's discussion of the reputation for anti-intellectualism among neoconservative proponents. See here, for example:

...although they pose as intellectuals, neoconservatives more typically function as propagandists. Theirs is not the disinterested pursuit of truth so much as the endless repetition of ostensibly self-evident truisms. The neoconservative universe allows little room for ambiguity, irony or paradox. According to Heilbrunn, they subscribe to a vision of "binary simplicity," in which right and wrong, black and white, friend and foe are easily distinguished. Whatever the topic -- whether science or sexuality, the future of war or the future of the Middle East -- for neocons it's all cut and dried.
This is all Heilbrunn, Bacevich attests. But one can't help seeing some partisan validation in Bacevich's overview of the book. Bacevich homes-in on the book's discussion of the neocons' ideological surety, which is founded in a more systematic political philosophy than we can discern from Bacevich's 1000 words:

They [neocons] revel in crisis, confident that they alone stand between survival and Armageddon. As Heilbrunn observes, "it's always imperative to have, somewhere, somehow, an enemy -- both at home and abroad." This suits the neoconservatives' "need to see themselves as lonely prophets standing in the breach between implacable foes on the one hand and weak-kneed liberals (and paper-pushing bureaucrats) on the other."
I'm still getting into the book. I can comment more in future updates. But discussing neoconservatism is more complicated than denouncing adherents as universal absolutists intent on the taking over the world. We've been hearing such talk since the Bush administration's war in Iraq looked imminent (according to this essay over at Front Page Magazine):

Forget 50 years of neoconservative political, social and economic thought; forget Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and Nathan Glazer; forget Ronald Reagan whose neocon-influenced foreign policy won the Cold War. From now on, just think of them as warmongers. Stereotyping can be a complicated business, but anti-war pundits have mastered its intricacies, distilling intellectual movements into trouble-free critique: neoconservatives are duplicitous right wingers, prodding the United States towards war to a.) advance our colonial gains b.) facilitate the racist Israeli government’s subjugation of defenseless Arabs and c.) wag the dog for oil fetishists George Bush and Richard Cheney.
I'll have more later.

In the meantime, check out
my post on Heilbrunn, as well as my neoconservative introduction to this blog.