The 106th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.
[UPDATE: It’s been pointed out that David P. Goldman beat us to this theme (and title) by some nine months. No disrespect or plagiarism was intended. This was written in ignorance of his original column, with which we substantially agree.]
We at JAG seem to enjoy bashing the neocons. This might give some the impression that we have no respect for them at all or that we deny or disdain any and all of their accomplishments.
Not so. The neocons were once a mighty force for good, on two principle scores. You might even say three, but three cheers would be too much in the current environment, in which they definitely deserve some jeers. However, we will mention all three in the interest of fairness.
First, the neocons were the first significant cadre of leftist intellectuals to break with the left and move rightward. This was an epochal event in ways that are no longer sufficiently appreciated. From the moment that Communism began to gain political strength in the late 19th century, the left showed amazing esprit de corps and “message discipline.” The few who did break with them—Chambers and Dos Passos, for instance—were essentially declared non-persons and drummed out of intellectual life or else ghettoized and read only by their new friends on the right. The neocons, by contrast—in part because of their origin on the left and personal relationships with leading leftist intellectuals—were able to make the break and keep their “intellectuals license,” to retain the recognition (however grudging) from their former allies that they were genuine thinkers who had to be taken seriously.
A related factor, which we hesitate to mention lest it provide aid and comfort to alt-right anti-Semites, is of non-trivial importance. Painting with broad strokes, we may say the pre-war liberal intelligentsia (Edmund Wilson, doyen) was not substantially Jewish. But the postwar liberal intelligentsia (Lionel Trilling, doyen) was definitely trending Jewish if not monolithically so. To be taken seriously it was almost essential to have some connection to the New York Intellectual scene, which included a large number of influential Jewish voices. New York felt it could safely ignore the likes of Russell Kirk. It could not ignore Irving Kristol, who was emphatically one of its own—a prodigal son.
Thus all of the sudden many on the left felt they had to take the right seriously. Not to agree with it necessarily, but to treat its arguments as if they were at least worthy of refutation. This is something that the dominant leftist intellectual culture had not felt it necessary to do for several decades. It had the effect of legitimizing the intellectual right and so paving the way for its later successes.
So that’s (half)-cheer number one. The first full cheer follows directly from it. The early neocons were brilliant on substance. Let’s not deny or overlook that fact. They brought an intellectual rigor to left-dominated social science that used the tools of social science to bolster long-asserted conservative insights with hard data. Conversely, they were the first to use the social science methods of the hubristic post-War liberal consensus—which held that “science” was going to cure “the ills of the cities” even more effectively than philosopher-kingship—against that consensus. The early neocons, like intellectual jujitsu fighters, seized the left’s tools and used them to demonstrate the vacuity and failures of the left’s social programs. A great deal of successful conservative social policy—crime reduction, welfare reform and much else—has followed this trail first blazed by the neocons.
Neo-conservatism is today most associated with foreign, not domestic, policy. This brings us to our second full cheer. A common thread uniting the original two camps of neocons is apostasy: both, as it were, rebelled against their ancestral faiths. The foreign policy neocons were Cold War Democrats appalled by America’s betrayal of South Vietnam, the McGovern nomination, and the Nixon-Kissinger policy of “détente.” They intuited—it turned out correctly—that American weakness was making the world more dangerous, that the Soviet Union need not be accepted as a permanent geopolitical fact, and that renewed American strength would enhance American interests and could change the world for the better.
Ronald Reagan and many others on the right came to all these conclusions independently—and, as the Nixon-Kissinger point illustrates, in defiance of their own political party. The informal migration of the Cold War neocons to the intellectual right, followed by their formal entry into the Republican Party, helped conservatives within the Party win the argument on foreign policy, which strengthened America and helped win the Cold War.
These two momentous achievements deserve two rousing cheers.
But how did they translate into the Middle East democracy agenda? We can speculate as to the answer. First, the conservative critique of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy fecklessness was generally correct. Hence, especially after 9/11, the bumbling of the late 1990s looked in hindsight a lot like thebumbling of the late 1970s. A reassertion of American strength was paramount, said the neocons. To this extent, we agree(d). Second, the 1970s foreign policy neocons won the argument with the “realists” over the efficacy of using human rights and other moral considerations as cudgels with which to batter the legitimacy of Communism generally and the USSR specifically.
However, the application of this principle to the Middle East proved both unnecessary and unwise. Ironically, the original neocon fealty to empirical social science should have revealed the unwisdom—the impracticality—of the democratization dream.
But by then neo-conservatism had ossified into an ideology. Which points to the other common thread uniting the first two generations of neocons. They were responding to the exigencies of their times. To meet those exigencies, they formulated new ideas, or adapted old ones, specifically tailored to the circumstances they (and the country) faced. Compare that with today’s “neocons” who—if one thinks about it—barely deserve the name. There is nothing “new” about them. All they do is take decades-old formulas and force them on times and circumstances to which they are manifestly unsuited. Worse, unlike their forebears, they seem incapable of learning from their mistakes or changing their minds. In Irving Kristol’s famous formulation, a neo-conservative is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” I.e., who has changed his mind in response to undeniable fact—especially in the face of the obvious failure and untruth of what he once believed. When was the last time you saw a Kagan or aBoot do that?
The elevation of time-bound policies—however efficacious in the moment—to high principle is the principal malady afflicting intellectual conservatism today. Not just neo-, fairness compels us to add, but all brands, with and without prefixes. In not understanding the grounding of the good and natural right, conservatives mistake second- and third-order strategy and tactics for uncompromisable holy principle. Genuine eternal principles are difficult to grasp and rarely (if ever) “supply us with recipesfor today’s use.” One of the reasons that the great works of political philosophy are so hard to understand is that their authors wished to avoid having their teachings rotely applied to transient issues. There are at once many more, and many fewer, than 48 laws of power. No political formula ever works in perpetuity. Prudence is always a requirement of sound statesmanship. The original neocons had it. Their intellectual children and grandchildren don’t.