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Neoconservatism (United States)

Neoconservatism is a conservative movement with origins in the Old Left that has been very influential in formulating hawkish foreign policy stances by the United States.

Table of contents
1 Old Left origins
2 Opposition to the New Left and Détente with the Soviet Union
3 Reagan and the neoconservatives
4 The return of neoconservatism under George W. Bush
5 Neoconservatives and Israel
6 Relationship with other types of US conservativism
7 Famous neoconservatives
8 Neoconservative Institutions
9 References
10 See also

Old Left origins

The intellectual founders of neoconservatism, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, and most prominently Irving Kristol, were all alumni of City College of New York, known then as the "Harvard of the proletariat" due to its highly selective admissions criteria and free education. They emerged from the (largely Trotskyite) Old Left and retained these origins in the factional New York intellectual debates of the 1930s. The Great Depression radicalized the student body, mostly children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants sometimes on the edge of poverty, who were introduced to the new and revolutionary ideas of socialism and communism.

The University of Chicago contributed two foundational neonconservative theoreticians, Leo Strauss, noted for his controversial prescription that democratic leaders should tell "noble lies" when needed in leading the nation in the proper direction, and Albert Wohlstetter, a nuclear strategist, who argued that the parity of Mutually Assured Destruction unfairly benefitted the USSR when the US had the upper hand technologically and in management skill, and thus argued for a policy of "limited wars" in which the US would gain differential benefit over the Soviets. Although their spheres of expertise hardly overlapped (Strauss was an ancient writings classicist, Wolhsetter a RAND Corporation analyst) later neoconservative thinkers would synthesize their views into a larger political philosoply.

Opposition to the New Left and Détente with the Soviet Union

Later to emerge as the first important group of social policy critics from the working class, the original neoconservatives, though not yet using this term, were generally liberals or socialists who strongly supported the Second World War. Multiple strands contributed to their ideas, including the Depression-era ideas of former Trotskyites (world socialist revolution parallels their desires today to spread democratic capitalism abroad often by force), New Dealers, and trade unionists. The influence of the Trotskyites perhaps left them with strong anti-Soviet tendencies, especially considering the Great Purges targeting alleged Trotskyites in Soviet Russia.

The original "neoconservative" theorists, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz were often associated with the magazine Commentary and their intellectual evolution is quite evident in that magazine over the course of these years. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s the early neoconservatives were anti-Communist socialists strongly supportive of the civil rights movement, integration, and Martin Luther King. However, they grew disillusioned with the Johnson administration's Great Society. They also came to despise the counterculture of the 1960s and what they felt was a growing "anti-Americanism" among many baby boomers, in the movement against the Vietnam War and in the emerging New Left.

According to Irving Kristol, former managing editor of Commentary and now a Senior Fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington and the Publisher of the hawkish magazine The National Interest, a neoconservative is a "liberal mugged by reality." Broadly sympathetic to Woodrow Wilson's idealistic goals to spread American ideals of government, economics, and culture abroad, they grew to reject his reliance on international organizations and treaties to accomplish these objectives following decolonization and the entry of many African and Asian states into the United Nations, which tilted the body toward recognizing Third World interests. As the radicalization of the New Left pushed these intellectuals further to the right in response, they moved toward a more aggressive militarism. Admiration of the "big stick" interventionist foreign policy of Theodore Roosevelt remains a common theme in neoconservative tracts as well. Now staunch anti-Communists, a vast array of sympathetic conservatives attracted to their strong defense of a "rolling-back" of Communism (an idea touted under the Eisenhower administration by traditional conservative John Foster Dulles) began to become associated with these neoconservative leaders. Influential periodicals such as Commentary, The New Republic, The Public Interest, and The American Spectator, and lately The Weekly Standard have been established by prominent neoconservatives or regularly host the writings of neoconservative writers.

Academics in these circles, many of whom were still Democrats, rebelled against the Democratic Party's leftward drift on defense issues in the 1970s, especially after the nomination of George McGovern in 1972. Many clustered around Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a Democrat, but then they aligned themselves with Ronald Reagan and the Republicans, who promised to confront charges of Soviet expansionism.

Generally they supported a militant anticommunism, minimal social welfare (to the consternation of extreme free-market libertarians), and sympathy with a traditionalist agenda. Its feud with the traditional right, especially William F. Buckley's National Review over the welfare state (although the staff of the present National Review are recognizably neo-conservative) and the nativist, protectionist, isolationist wing of the party, once represented by ex-Republican Pat Buchanan, separated them from the old conservatives. But domestic policy does not define neoconservatism; it is a movement founded on, and perpetuated by a hawkish foreign policy, opposition to communism during the Cold War and opposition to Middle Eastern states that pursue foreign and domestic policies which do not align with U.S. interests. Thus, their foremost target was the old Richard Nixon approach to foreign policy, peace through negotiations, diplomacy, and arms control known, détente and containment (rather than rollback) of the Soviet Union, and the beginning of the process that would lead to bilateral ties between the People's Republic of China and the US. There is still, today, a rift between many members of the State Department, who favor established foreign policy conventions, and the neoconservative hawks.

Reagan and the neoconservatives

Led by Norman Podhoretz, these "neoconservatives" used charges of "appeasement", alluding to Chamberlain at Munich, to attack the foreign policy orthodoxy in the Cold War, attacking Détente, most-favored nation trade status for the Soviet Union and supporting unilateral American intervention in places like Grenada and Libya. These activists condemned peace through diplomacy, arms control, or inspection teams, comparing negotiations with relatively weak enemies of the United States as appeasement of "evil".

During the 1970s political scientist Jeane Kirkpatrick increasingly criticized the Democratic Party, of which she was still a member, since the nomination of the antiwar George McGovern. Kirkpatrick became a convert to the ideas of the new conservatism of once liberal Democratic academics. During Ronald Reagan's successful 1980 campaign, he hired her as his foreign policy adviser and later nominated her US ambassador to the United Nations, a position she held for four years. Known for her anticommunist stance and for her tolerance of right wing dictatorships, she argued that Third World social revolutions favoring the poor, dispossessed, or underclasses are illegitimate, and thus argued that the overthrow of leftist governments (such as the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile) and the installation of rightwing dictatorships was acceptable and essential. Under this doctrine, the Reagan administration actively supported the anti-Communist dictatorships such as Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and the racist white rulers of South Africa.

Jeane Kirkpatrick

Some have attacked these views as simplistic and extreme, especially in light of the Vietnam War, which was by no means a revolution being orchestrated by the Soviets from Moscow, long a charge of neoconservatives who view Third World liberation struggles as illegitimate. The Vietnam War, for instance, was in many ways a direct successor to the French Indochina War, fought to maintain control of their colony in Indochina against an independence movement led by Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh. After the Vietnamese communist forces, or Viet Minh, defeated the French colonial army at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the colony was granted independence. According to the ensuing Geneva settlement, Vietnam was partitioned, ostensibly temporarily, into a communist North and a non-Communist South. The country was then to be unified under elections that were scheduled to take place in 1956. However the elections were never held and the South fell under a US-backed military regime representative of the small, middle class Christian minority.

Neoconservatives, however, have tried to counter these points, arguing that the chances of democratization in a Communist state were slight, in contrast, from their standpoint at least, to the authoritarian but pro-Western South Vietnam. Neoconservatives argued that in unstable situations the United States should try to align itself with the "less offensive" regime or armed faction, which almost certainly would be any faction or regime hostile to a pro-Soviet rival, rather than stay out of the conflict altogether, as some liberals advocated. Neoconservatives thus argued that Communist states could not be democratized and must be "rolled back" to further US strategic interests, which were shaped by the domino theory during the Cold War era.

Before the election of Reagan, the neoconservatives sought to stem the antiwar sentiments caused by the U.S. defeats in Vietnam and the massive casualties that the war induced; and indeed this was a difficult task, which they have ostensibly accomplished, considering the hawkish mood of the US public after the September 11th attacks. The lowest casualty estimates, based on the now-renounced North Vietnamese statements, are around 1.5 million Vietnamese killed. Vietnam released figures on April 3, 1995 that a total of one million Vietnamese combatants and four million civilians were killed in the war. While liberal thinkers tended to point to the massive civilian deaths as a direct result of America's involvement in the war, neocons saw the loss of life from a different perspective. In their view it was America's failure to follow through on her commitment to her non-Communist allies in the region that resulted in the torture and execution of millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians. They saw the Vietnam war as a series of mismanagements, led mostly by a left-leaning congress sympathetic to the extremely vocal (and in their view, largely uninformed) anti war movement. Thus, while Vietnam created great distaste among many Americans for ever trying to intervene in a third world war again, to neocons, the war simply proved that America must never fail again.

Reagan, however, did not move toward protracted, long-term interventions to stem social revolution in the Third World. Instead, he favored quick campaigns to attack or overthrow leftist governments, favoring small, quick interventions that heightened a sense of post-Vietnam quagmire military triumphalism among Americans, such as the attacks on Grenada and Libya, and arming rightwing militias in Central America seeking to overthrow radical leftist governments like the Sandinistas. Moreover, the Reagan administration's hostile stance toward the Soviet Union, the so-called "evil empire" (despite significant changes since the Stalin-era), the abandonment of Détente would force the Soviets to greatly improve their productive capabilities in order to reciprocate the new arms build-up, especially amid talks of "star wars" missile defense. By the time Gorbachev would usher in the process that would lead to the political collapse of the Soviet Union and the resultant dismantling of the Soviet Administrative Command System with Glasnost (political openness) and Perestroika (economic restructuring), the Soviet economy suffered from both hidden inflation and pervasive supply shortages and was in little position to be able to match US spending on armaments.

The return of neoconservatism under George W. Bush

Many critics charged that the neoconservatives lost their raison d'étre following the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the 1990s, neoconservatives were once again in the opposition side of the foreign policy establishment, railing against the post-Cold War foreign policy of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, which reduced military expenditures and was, in their view, insufficiently idealistic. They accused it of lacking "moral clarity" and the conviction to unilaterally pursue US strategic interests abroad. In the writings of Paul Wolfowitz, Norman Podhoretz, Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Max Boot, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, William Bennett, Peter Rodman, and others influential in forging the foreign policy doctrines of the Bush administration, the history of appeasement with Hitler at Munich in 1938 and the Cold War's policies of Détente and containment (rather than rollback) with the Soviet Union and the PRC, which they consider tantamount to appeasement at Munich, are constant themes. Also particularly galvanizing to the movement was George H.W. Bush and Colin Powell's decision to leave Saddam Hussein in power and what they viewed as a betrayal of the Iraqi Kurds.

Early in the George W. Bush administration, neoconservatives were particularly upset by Bush's non-confrontational policy toward the PRC and Russia and what they perceived as Bush's insufficient support of Israel, and most neoconservatives perceived Bush's foreign policies to be not substantially different from the policies of Clinton. Following the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and The Pentagon, however, the influence of neoconservatism in the Bush administration appears to have increased. In contrast with earlier writings which emphasized the danger from a strong Russia and the PRC, the focus of neoconservatives shifted from Communism to the Middle East and global terrorism.

Richard Perle

In his well-publicized piece "The Case for American Empire" in the conservative Weekly Standard, Max Boot argued that "The most realistic response to terrorism is for America to embrace its imperial role." He countered sentiments that the "United States must become a kinder, gentler nation, must eschew quixotic missions abroad, must become, in Pat Buchanan's phrase, 'a republic, not an empire'," arguing that "In fact this analysis is exactly backward: The September 11 attack was a result of insufficient American involvement and ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation."

Neoconservatives won a landmark victory with the Bush Doctrine after September 11th. Thomas Donnelly, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an influential conservative thinktank in Washington that has been under neoconservative influence since the election of Reagan, argued in his AEI piece "The Underpinnings of the Bush doctrine" that "the fundamental premise of the Bush Doctrine is true: The United States possesses the means"—economic, military, diplomatic"—to realize its expansive geopolitical purposes. Further, and especially in light of the domestic political reaction to the attacks of September 11, the victory in Afghanistan and the remarkable skill demonstrated by President Bush in focusing national attention, it is equally true that Americans possess the requisite political willpower to pursue an expansive strategy."

The Bush Doctrine, a radical departure from previous US foreign policy, is a proclamation of the right of the United States to wage pre-emptive war, regardless of international law, should it be threatened by terrorists or rogue states. The legitimacy of this doctrine, though questioned by many in the US and especially abroad can be seen as a change from focusing on the doctrine of deterrence (in the Cold War through Mutually Assured Destruction) as the primary means of self-defense. There is some opinion that preemptive strikes have long been a part of international practice and indeed of American practice, as exemplified, for example, by the unilateral US blockade and boarding of Cuban shipping during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The doctrine also states that the United States "will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States." This is designed to create a deterrence to countries that seek to use military might to oppose the United States' policy.

In contrast to more conventional foreign policy experts who argued that Iraq could be restrained by enforcing No-Fly Zones and by a policy of inspection by United Nations inspectors to restrict his ability to possess chemical or nuclear weapons, neoconservatives attacked this policy direction as appeasement of Saddam Hussein on the grounds that the policy was ineffectual. Proponents of war sought to compare their war to Churchill's war against Hitler, with speakers like United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld comparing Saddam to Hitler, while comparing the toleration shown to Saddam to the 1930s appeasement of Hitler. Prior to the 2003 war in Iraq, Bush compared Saddam Hussein to Stalin and Hitler and harked to the theme of "appeasement." Like the Nazis and the Communists, Bush said, "the terrorists seek to end lives and control all life." But the visage of evil conjured up by Bush during his European trip was not that of Bin Laden, who still lives and threatens, but that of Saddam Hussein. Iraq's dictator was singled out as the "great evil" who "by his search for terrible weapons, by his ties to terrorist groups, threatens the security of every free nation, including the free nations of Europe."

Paul Wolfowitz

However, these sweeping comparisons have been questioned due to the initial support of Iraq by the United States and a history of legitimate conflict with Kuwait. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran threatened to divert Iraq from the secular nationalism of the Sunni-dominated Ba'athist regime. In addition, Iraqi Shiites, many of whom were sympathetic to Iran's Ayatollah, accounted for the majority of Iraq's population. The pretext for the bloody, protracted Iran-Iraq War was a territorial dispute, but most attribute the war as an attempt by Saddam, supported by both the US and the USSR, to have Iraq form a bulwark against the expansionism of radical Iranian-style revolution. The war with Iran left Iraq bankrupt. No country would lend it money except the United States and borrowing money from the US made Iraq its client state. Iraq had also borrowed a tremendous amount of money from other Arab states, including Kuwait, during the 1980s to fight its war with Iran. Saddam Hussein felt that the war had been fought for the benefit of the other Gulf Arab states as much as for Iraq, and so all debts should be forgiven. Kuwait, however, did not forgive its debt and further provoked Saddam by slant drilling oil out of wells that Iraq considered within its disputed border with Kuwait. In 1990 Saddam Hussein complained to the United States State Department about Kuwaiti slant drilling. This had continued for years, but now Iraq needed oil money to pay off its war debts and avert an economic crisis. Saddam ordered troops to the Iraq-Kuwait border, creating alarm over the prospect of an invasion. After talks with April Glaspie, the United States ambassador to Iraq, assured him that the US considered the Iraq-Kuwait dispute an internal Arab matter, Saddam sent his troops into Kuwait. Thus, the actual historical record would seem to cast doubts on the view among neoconservatives that Saddam's wars have been tantamount to Hitler's. However, the grain of truth coming with the idea was that Saddam promoted his invasion of Kuwait as an Arab reunification, similar to the abolition of the artificial internal border of Germany, that had been approved by the U.S. at just that time. Glaspie had not rejected that comparison.

Neoconservative foreign policy pundits, however, emphasize an abstract evil in their polemics, de-emphasizing the complexities of autocratic governance in the Developing World. Today, the most prominent supporters of the hawkish stance inside the administration are Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Neoconservatives perhaps are closer to the mainstream of the Republican Party today since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon than any competing faction, especially considering the nature of the Bush Doctrine and the preemptive war against Iraq.

However, at the same time, there have been limits in the power of neoconservatives in the Bush administration. The Secretary of State Colin Powell is largely seen as being an opponent of neoconservative ideas, and while the neoconservative notion of tough and decisive action has been apparent in U.S. policy toward the Middle East, it has not been seen in U.S. policy toward Communist China and Russia or in the handling of the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Neoconservatism has been influential in conservative agenda in the United States, emphasizing desires to increase defense spending significantly, the agenda to challenge regimes hostile to US interests and values, desires to push free-market reforms abroad, and the general support for a policy of militarism to ensure that the United States remain the world's sole superpower.

Neoconservatives and Israel

The neoconservatives also support a robust American stance on Israel. The neoconservative influenced Project for a New American Century called for an Israel no longer dependent on American aid through the removal of major threats in the region.

The interest in Israel, and the large proportion of Jewish neoconservatives has led to the question of "dual loyalty." A number of critics, such as Pat Buchanan, have accused them of putting Israeli interests above those of America. In turn these critics have been labeled as anti-semites by many neoconservatives (which in turn has led to accusations of professional smearing, and then paranoia and so on).

However, one should note that many prominent neoconservatives are not Jewish, such as Michael Novak, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Frank Gaffney, and Max Boot. Second, neoconservatives in the 1960s were much less interested in Israel before the June 1967 Six Day War. It has only been since this conflict, which has raised the specter of Israel's military invincibility, that the neoconservatives have become preoccupied by Israel's security interests. They support Israel's role as the strongest ally of the United States in the Middle East and as the sole Western-style democracy in the region.

Moreover, they have long argued that the United States should emulate Israel's tactics of pre-emptive attacks, especially Israel's unprovoked, pre-emptive unilateral attacks in the 1980s on nuclear facilities in Libya and Iraq. Despite (or perhaps because of) condemnation by the United Nations, neoconservatives have admired such Israeli adventures, arguing that the United States, like Israel, should act in its national interests, regardless of international law.

The partisan support for Likud would suggest that their support for Israel is not merely motivated by blind ethnic loyalty, and the criticism of their critics of American politicians judged to be too friendly to Britain or the Soviet Union would suggest that dual loyalty is a genuine fear amongst Old Right conservatives.

Relationship with other types of US conservativism

There is conflict between neoconservatives and libertarian conservatives. Libertarian conservatives are distrustful of a large government and therefore regard neoconservative foreign policy ambitions with considerable distrust.

There has been considerable conflict between neoconservatives and business conservatives in some areas. Neoconservatives tend to see Communist China as a looming threat to the United States and argue for harsh policies to contain that threat. Business conservatives see mainland China as a business opportunity and see a tough policy against China as opposed to their desires for trade and economic progress. Furthermore, business conservatives appear much less distrustful of international institutions.

The disputes over Israel and domestic policies have contributed to a sharp conflict over the years with "paleoconservatives", whose very name is taken as a rebuke to their "neo" (new) brethren. There are many personal issues but effectively the paleoconservatives view the neoconservatives as interlopers who deviate from the traditional conservative agenda on issues as diverse as States Rights, free trade, immigration, isolationism and the welfare state. All of this leads to their conservative label being questioned.

Famous neoconservatives

  1. Elliott Abrams
  2. Daniel Bell
  3. William Bennett
  4. Max Boot
  5. Jeb Bush
  6. Linda Chavez
  7. Dick Cheney
  8. Midge Dector
  9. Douglas Feith
  10. Steve Forbes
  11. Francis Fukuyama
  12. Nathan Glazer
  13. David Horowitz
  14. Irving Howe
  15. Robert Kagan
  16. Jeane Kirkpatrick
  17. Irving Kristol
  18. William Kristol
  19. Richard Perle
  20. Norman Podhoretz
  21. Peter Rodman
  22. Max Shachtman
  23. Leo Strauss
  24. Paul Wolfowitz

Neoconservative Institutions


See also