Monday, January 14, 2008

The Origins of Neoconservatism

The New York Times is probably the least conducive place to read a review of neoconservatism, but Timothy Noah's review of Jacob Heilbrunn's new book, They Knew They Were Right, is still worth a look.

Here's a bit on the intellectual origins of the movement:

The first half of Heilbrunn’s book relates neoconservatism’s origins and its journey to the brink of political power in the late 1970s. It’s a familiar tale, told better in “The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America’s Politics,” published in 1979 by Peter Steinfels (then the executive editor of Commonweal and now a columnist on religion for The New York Times). Steinfels came at the neocons from farther to the left than Heilbrunn and consequently was more critical. But the Steinfels book was also more rigorously analytic and, strangely, more generous in granting neocons their due as thinkers. Chalk it up to the narcissism of small differences. As best I can make out, Heilbrunn retains most of the foreign-policy views that he held before but applies them with greater judiciousness, and can no longer bear the sight of those who don’t. (The neocons’ domestic policies seem to interest Heilbrunn not at all; he scarcely mentions them.)

From both Steinfels and Heilbrunn, we learn that neoconservatism was the final stop of an ideological journey for a group of New York intellectuals, typically the children of Jewish immigrants, that began during the early 1940s in Alcove 1 of the cafeteria at City College. Alcove 1 was the gathering place for a group of brilliant young Trotskyists that included Irving Kristol, Seymour Martin Lipset, Nathan Glazer and Melvin Lasky. Along with Irving Howe, who would later break with Trotskyism but not with the left, and Daniel Bell, who never accepted Marxist orthodoxies in any form, the Alcove 1 Trotskyists waged intellectual battle with the Stalinists in Alcove 2, who vastly outnumbered them.

Coaxed by a diverse group of thinkers that included Sidney Hook, Reinhold Niebuhr and Samuel M. Levitas, known as Sol, the veterans of Alcove 1 eventually drifted away from Trotskyism, becoming stalwarts of the anti-Communist left, where they were joined by Norman Podhoretz, then a young literary scholar. With the advent of the cold war, the proto-neocons pushed for a hard line against the Soviet Union, sometimes harder than that of anti-Communist liberals like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and George F. Kennan; few if any of them expressed concern when they discovered that Encounter, a magazine that Irving Kristol co-founded in 1952, was secretly underwritten by the Central Intelligence Agency. The student radicalism of the late 1960s disillusioned proto-neocons about the left; George McGovern’s landslide defeat in 1972 disillusioned many of them about mainstream liberalism and the Democratic Party; and after Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981, a number of them stopped resisting the “conservative” label, joined the Republican Party and began to exercise power.

During the presidencies of Reagan and George W. Bush, neocon influence followed parallel arcs, gaining influence in the first term and losing it in the second. In Reagan’s case, the break came with the Iran-contra scandal, which dulled the White House’s enthusiasm for proxy wars against the Soviet Union, and the ascent of Mikhail Gorbachev, in whose glasnost and perestroika many neocons did not believe. (Heilbrunn nicely compares the Soviet Union’s imminent collapse to “a Christmas present handed to a grumpy child who was not in the mood to accept it.”) In the case of Bush, the loss of influence followed the military debacle in Iraq.

The great mystery of George W. Bush’s presidency is why he ever jumped into bed with neoconservatives in the first place. During the presidential primaries in 2000, The Weekly Standard, by then neoconservatism’s pre-eminent publication, had preferred John McCain. Bush had no great fondness for intellectuals, and a disinclination to engage in nation-building. And before 9/11, even Wolfowitz had predicted that the big foreign-policy challenge would not be Iraq, but China. What brought about this unlikely alliance?

It helped that as neoconservatism relocated from the Upper West Side to the Virginia suburbs, it had mostly abandoned the intellectual sphere for politics and journalism, where Bush felt more comfortable. No longer a lively debating society, by the 1990s it had become, Heilbrunn writes, “an echo chamber.” Probably the most significant factor was the presence of Vice President Dick Cheney, who helped Wolfowitz secure his berth with Rumsfeld, which in turn allowed Wolfowitz to install Feith. What transformed Cheney from a mild skeptic about Iraq intervention when he was defense secretary in the early 1990s (one “former colleague” informs Heilbrunn that in those days Cheney was “not in thrall” to Wolfowitz) to the unappeasable hawk he revealed himself to be after 9/11?

On this, Heilbrunn is stumped, just like everyone else. Maybe an evil spirit terrorized Cheney while he slept. The ghost of Hitler, perhaps?
How about September 11, 2001?

I'm picking up a copy of Heilbrunn's book tomorrow, and will likely posts some thoughts on it at some point.

In the meantime, as an antidote to Noah's dismissal of neoconservative ideology, see James Kirchick's "The Anti-Neocon Fervor" or my post, "Preventive Strike? Declaring War on Neoconservative Foreign Policy."