March 14, 2008

Jacob Heilbrunn, They Knew They Were Right: The Rise Of The Neocons, Double Day, 336 pages.  

It is always risky to write the obituary of neoconservatism, despite the now fashionable view that this is an idea whose time is finally gone. As Jacob Heilbrunn demonstrates in They Knew They Were Right: The Rise Of The Neocons, the neoconservatives have always been a tenacious bunch. Who could have predicted that a small group of ex-Trotskyite intellectuals would not only shape foreign policy for the Republican Party in the last three decades but also reinvent conservatism in America?  Heilbrunn, a former senior editor of The New Republic, wisely prefers to emphasize the past success of the neoconservatives rather than offer ironclad predictions about their future influence, settling for rather safe forecasts such as his claim that American soldiers will be in Iraq for another four years, whoever wins the election in 2008.

The title of the book is Heilbrunn’s essential explanation for the success of the neoconservatives”€”they knew they were right. Their sheer self-confidence of the neoconservatives, their belief that they have The Answer, is astounding and goes a long way in explaining their stunning victories. For this reason, the author emphasizes the radical origins of the movement.  Heilbrunn offers a readable (though not terribly original) account of how the future leaders of neoconservatism (especially Irving Kristol) got their start as public intellectuals engaged in various fratricidal battles between Trotskyites and Stalinists in the 1930s and 1940s.  Despite this parochial beginning, these former leftist radicals”€”who eventually became ardent anti-Communists”€”possessed the will to power necessary to enter and then transform the mainstream of American politics, especially on the right. As they eventually moved from the left to the right in the 1970s, this will to change the world through endless promotion of their ideas never flagged.

Heilbrunn does not find it sufficient, however, to explain the success of the movement solely on the basis of a latent leftist orientation. Ethnicity as much as ideology explains the success of neoconservatism. In claiming that it is “€œin a decisive respect a Jewish phenomenon,”€ Heilbrunn is not simply pointing out that most neoconservatives are Jewish. Rather, he portrays the neoconservatives as living out the drama of a modern-day Mosaic narrative. The movement has always been a “€œprophetic”€ one, since its avatars began with an “€œexodus”€ from the Trotskyite left to the Democratic Party, spent time in the “€œwilderness”€ of the breakdown of bipartisan consensus in the 1960s, achieved “€œredemption”€ as they moved rightward into the Republican Party, and have now returned to “€œexile”€™ after the debacle of the Iraq war.

Although Heilbrunn does not get into the intellectual origins of political theology, historians of ideas will immediately recognize his stage-theory of history as a version of the “€œsecularization hypothesis”€ famously defended by Max Weber, Karl Löwith, and many other socio-historical theorists in the 20th century. Secularization of biblical ideas is nothing new, of course, if that simply means the process of transforming religious credos into a brazenly political agenda. Practically every major political movement on the left in modernity has “€œimmanentized the eschaton”€ (to use Eric Voegelin’s memorable phrase) by conflating the Kingdom of God with the Kingdom of Man. This use of secularization is Heilbrunn’s best defense”€”whether he knows it or not”€”against the predictable charge that he is anti-Semitic for emphasizing the Jewish origins of neoconservatism. The fact that neoconservatives have thought and acted in terms of secularized Judaism places them in the larger company of many other atheistic ideologues who were more than willing to bring heaven down to earth through political action. In the post-Holocaust age, it is not terribly shocking to discover that even secular Jews are tempted to embrace political messianism. Still, when neoconservatives see themselves as a “€œchosen people”€ struggling to break out of their intellectual captivity, this has more to do with leftist adulteration of biblical thought than with any teaching of the Old Testament. (My favorite phrase for describing this misuse of the Bible is the indulgence of believing in “€œchosenness without God.”€)

Anybody who seriously reads neoconservative authors, particularly the writings of the students of the German-Jewish political philosopher Leo Strauss, will not spy anything particularly religious in their thought.  (Strauss taught that true political philosophers were unbelievers.)  Whether neoconservatives consciously understand their indebtedness to secularization is not a point, however, which interests Heilbrunn.  Still, it should be of interest to any religious American who has ever been tempted to support neoconservatism. The lack of success which neoconservatives have had in “€œdelivering”€ Jewish votes to the Republicans”€”a fact whose importance Heilbrunn correctly points to”€”may well reveal concern among American Jews about the neoconservative usage of religious themes.

This aside, the neoconservatives”€™ winning over the Christian Right in the 1970s is surely one of the greatest political success stories of all time. Secular-minded eastern seaboard intellectuals and evangelical Protestants of the South and Midwest are an odd coupling, to be sure. And at first glance it’s not at all clear what could possibly unite them. It certainly helped that neoconservatives and evangelicals were equally disgusted by the leftist excesses of the 1960s; that has been well-documented. Yet I suspect that a great deal of neoconservative success also lies in tapping into the readiness of Americans”€”Left or Right”€”to see themselves as a chosen people who must liberate the world from evil. Even if neoconservatives generally believe in what I call “€œchosenness without God”€ (or what David Gelernter calls “€œAmerican Zionism”€), this brazenly secularist theology has not deterred many American Christians from embracing a frankly idolatrous and blasphemous set of beliefs. In any case, this use of chosenness has helped the neoconservatives to redefine conservatism in America, to the point of defeating traditional conservatives”€”the heirs of Robert Taft”€”who were less convinced that America should act as an agent of the Almighty in foreign affairs.

One of the most serious limitations of Heilbrunn’s study is his failure to discuss in sufficient detail the neoconservative war against traditional American conservatism.  (There is no mention, for example, of the Bradford controversy of the early 1980s, which represented the first big triumph of neoconservatives over their enemies to their right.)  In emphasizing the neoconservatives”€™ taking part in intramural squabbles on the left, Heilbrunn shows no interest in explaining why neoconservatives were so successful in easing traditional rightists (we now know them as “€œpaleoconservatives”€) out of positions of power. Had he focused on this important period of history, he would have only strengthened his overall thesis that neoconservatives are radicals who have never tolerated opposition”€”whether in their Trotskyite days or in their takeover of the GOP.

While Heilbrunn’s favorite explanation for neoconservative success on the right is, once again, the sheer power of their will (they never doubted that they were right), let’s not forget that access to money and power helps too. It is simply too easy for the author to claim that “€œneoconservatism slowly became a self-perpetuating elite, much like the hated WASP establishment, though one that was based not on wealth but on ideas.”€ While one should not discount the power of secularizing theologies that confuse the Providence of God with a call to democratize the world, the fact is that neoconservatives have been extraordinarily successful in securing the access to media and postwar power elites in order to tell them what they want to hear about America’s true “€œmission”€ in the world.

Heilbrunn himself provides one powerful example of how influence can trump the intrinsic merits of ideas.  Neoconservatives from Henry “€œScoop”€ Jackson and Albert Wohlstetter in the 1970s to Natan Sharansky and Robert Kagan in the 1990s have succeeded in portraying a foreign policy of “€œrealism”€ as one devoid of all moral concerns. That great defender of realism, George Kennan, constantly faced criticism for advocating an approach to foreign affairs which privileged matters of self-interest over ideology and ethics. Neoconservatives jumped into the debate over realism after Israel faced the threat of annihilation at the hands of her Arab neighbors in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and out of this context of anxiety over Israel’s very survival came the neoconservative belief that America must never distinguish her self-interest from its moral mission to protect and spread democracy all over the world. Presumably realists (like Henry Kissinger, a favorite target of neoconservatives) were so amoral and calculating that they were more than willing to sacrifice innocent peoples to their enemies (reminiscent of Munich-style appeasement). The neoconservatives successfully persuaded many Americans, especially in the GOP, that realism was a pessimistic and even isolationist abdication of America’s responsibility to embrace the cause of freedom-loving peoples everywhere.

While Heilbrunn provides a fine description of the neoconservative battle to defeat realists in foreign policy circles, he still tends to portray this struggle as a battle of ideas rather than one over access to influence. The neoconservative attack on realism does not bear intellectual scrutiny. Anyone who has studied realism seriously cannot accept the neoconservative stereotype that realists have ice-water running through their veins.  Kennan never claimed that morality had no place in foreign policy: he simply questioned the wisdom of assuming that peoples of the world (especially Russians) should be judged according to American standards. Was it moral, Kennan often asked, to presuppose that all human beings desire democracy, American-style? What critics like Reinhold Niebuhr and his neoconservative admirers ignorantly dismissed as Kennan’s indifference to morality was in fact his subtle blend of realism and ethics in foreign policy. It was simply arrogant and delusional, in Kennan’s view, to believe that within every person lies an inner Thomas Jefferson just waiting to break out. (Sadly, this wisdom was lost on the neoconservatives who pushed for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.)

If the neoconservatives”€™ case against realism is based on straw-men arguments, then what explains their success on the right? After all, traditional conservatives were not nearly as opposed to realism as the neoconservatives were. I offer two explanations.  First, one must never discount the appeal of political messianism to large voting blocs of the American public.  Twentieth-century evangelical Protestants have always been somewhat enamored with the idea of their nation as the “€œalmost chosen people”€ (in the words of Lincoln) who must set out to free the world of modern-day Pharaohs (as Richard Gamble has amply documented in his The War for Righteousness).  Norman Podhoretz’s talk of World War IV with “€œIslamo-fascism”€ certainly resonates with the most apocalyptically inclined evangelicals.  Second, the money and power which neoconservatives managed to enjoy tilted the debate against realism in their favor. Their success was not total”€”Ronald Reagan was far too much of a “€œrealist”€ in foreign policy in the eyes of neoconservatives who despised his attempts to negotiate arms-control agreements with Gorbachev”€”but the neocons certainly gained access to affluent constituencies with a vested interest in spreading American influence (like big business).

The neoconservatives also grew influencial by capitalizing on the Kulturpessimismus among elites in the 1970s who believed that America’s best days were behind her. The neoconservative success in defending an optimistic view of America’s mission in the world contrasted sharply with Carter’s infamous “€œmalaise”€ speech of 1979.  It is no surprise that America’s political class, haunted by Vietnam and stung by the Iranian hostage crisis, warmly embraced the neoconservative vision of democracy-building.  Indeed, the neoconservative move out of the “€œwilderness”€ and into the light of “€œredemption”€ had less to do with the power of their ideas than with anxiety over America’s future as the 1980s approached.

While Heilbrunn at times discusses the battles between neoconservatives and paleoconservatives over the true mission of America, this struggle takes second-place to his overall focus on the pro-Israeli biases of the movement. Although I don”€™t doubt for a moment that Israel is of great importance to neoconservatives, the success of their movement does not simply lie with their use of the Exodus narrative or their access to the wealth of the Israeli lobby. Like it or not, they were able to displace an attitude of defeatism in America’s elites with a sunny vision for the republic. One reason, I believe, that paleoconservatives have been often unable to defeat the neoconservatives is because of the paleos are not inclination to understate the fact that America’s leaders and citizens desire an optimistic creed. After the defeat in Vietnam, neoconservatives were able to position themselves as the true defenders of the “€œlast, best hope.”€ After the 9-11 attacks, they were able to legitimize the grim war on terror with the happy promise of a democratic revolution in the Middle East which would end terror once and for all (David Frum and Richard Perle even promised to “€œend to evil”€?) In both cases, the neocons were able to outmaneuver both liberals and conservatives who had doubts about the limits of American power. Rightly or wrongly, optimism (no matter how “€œboobish,”€ in the words of Mencken) tends to be lucrative in America. Just look at the Obama campaign.

Even if paleoconservatives are fundamentally correct about the lack of wisdom which neoconservatives often convey when they defend the cause of democracy on a global scale (secularized theology once again!), they can”€™t doubt that this message of hope resonates with many Americans. I have recently come to the conclusion that paleoconservatives made a mistake in surrendering the interpretation of the legacy of Lincoln to their enemies on the right. Neoconservatives have succeeded in portraying Honest Abe as a global democrat and moral universalist, whose rhetoric calls for an optimistic faith in the cause of liberty. This success is so extensive that even avowed enemies of the president like Thomas DiLorenzo agree with exuberant defenders like Harry Jaffa that Lincoln was indeed a democratic imperialist (they just disagree on the benefits of this legacy). In accepting the neoconservative view that Lincoln would have supported the Iraq War, paleoconservatives have made it easier for their enemies to capture one of the most inspirational figures in the nation’s history as grist for their many mills. (Whatever happened to conservative defenses of Lincoln as a realist in politics?)

Despite the often glaring inattention to detail which Heilbrunn displays towards battles on the right, I agree with the author that it is premature to anticipate the exit of neoconservatives just yet.  The neoconservatives have proven themselves so adept at rewriting the history and symbolism of American politics that there is no reason to imagine the waning of their political theology. Even without the question of Israel’s survival, the neoconservatives can manipulate the messianic hopes of vast swaths of the American electorate. For all the talk about an incipient revival of “€œrealism”€ in foreign policy, neither Obama nor McCain gives any indication that Kennan-style thinking will be allowed to compete with the politics of “€œhope,”€ even if this means more wars down the line.  If the Democrats withdraw from Iraq (I”€™m not holding my breath) and the country collapses into a state of nature, just watch the neoconservatives launch endless recriminations about who “€œlost”€ not only the war but also the true mission of America. Once again, they might just prove to many Americans that they were right.


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!