Fathers and Sons
PHOTOS: From Left: Richard Perle, Norman Podhoretz and Douglas Feith.
Published: January 13, 2008
To be neoconservative is to bear almost daily witness to the resurrection of Adolf Hitler. “Truly Hitlerian,” the Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer pronounced Saddam Hussein’s saber-rattling before Iraq invaded Kuwait. Three days after the 9/11 attacks, Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy defense secretary, opined that Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers “misread our system as one that’s weak, that can’t take casualties. … Hitler made that mistake.” Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary, said of the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last spring, “Like Hitler, he is a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system.” In the same month, the defense analyst Richard Perle mused on whether it had been “a correct reading” of the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat “to believe that business could be done with him that would produce a result? I don’t think so. These are the difficult decisions. Diplomacy with Hitler. Chamberlain went to Munich, presumably on the theory that you talk to your enemies and not to your friends, and what did it produce?”
THEY KNEW THEY WERE RIGHT
The Rise of the Neocons.
By Jacob Heilbrunn.
320 pp. Doubleday. $26.
Just about the only place the neoconservative movement can’t locate Hitler is Nazi Germany. As late as 1944, the founding-neocon-to-be, Irving Kristol, publicly dismissed the “near hysterical insistence upon the pressing military danger,” Jacob Heilbrunn reports in his new book, “They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.” While the Nazis herded Jews into the gas chambers, Kristol, then a 24-year-old Trotskyist, held fast to his conviction that the Allies were no different from the Axis in their imperialism. Kristol took this view because he was “indulging in an abstract crusade for a better world.”
Sound familiar? In March 2003, Kristol’s son, William, the editor of The Weekly Standard (and now a New York Times Op-Ed columnist), cheered on the United States invasion of Iraq while bin Laden remained at large. Hussein, Kristol wrote with Lawrence F. Kaplan, was “a threat to civilization” and defeating him would kick off a glorious campaign to spread freedom and democracy across the globe. Although William’s argument was precisely opposite to Irving’s 59 years earlier, it sprang from the same crusading myopia.
Neoconservatives don’t think small. They also tend to spurn empirical methods of inquiry, giving the lie to Kristol père’s famous aphorism that a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. It’s truer to say that a neoconservative is a liberal (or, more often these days, just a plain old conservative) who has been seduced by the notion that America is in steep decline and must reassert itself as a moral and military force in an otherwise corrupt world. Neocons bear, Heilbrunn writes, “an uncompromising temperament” and a prophetic cast of mind, and they “use (and treat) ideas as weapons in a moral struggle.”
Did someone say “prophetic”? There’s no point denying it: neocons tend to be Jewish. There are plenty of prominent exceptions — William Bennett, the former education secretary, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late United States senator, diplomat, White House aide and sociologist, were both Roman Catholics — but neoconservatism’s priorities, which range from strong support for Israel to vehement opposition to affirmative action, are heavily influenced by the values, interests and collective historical memory of the Jewish people. Heilbrunn carries this conceit to the outermost boundaries of good taste by dividing his book into sections whose names are derived from the Old Testament: “Exodus,” “Wilderness,” “Redemption” and “Return to Exile.”
Heilbrunn, a senior editor at The National Interest, is himself a lapsed neocon who spent the 1990s writing hard-line foreign policy articles for that magazine, then but no longer a neocon redoubt, and also for The New Republic, a centrist-liberal magazine somewhat sympathetic to neoconservative arguments, especially concerning the cold war and the Middle East. (Truth in book reviewing compels me to note that I worked there a decade before Heilbrunn did, but we’ve never met.)
Heilbrunn confesses in the book’s prologue that he found neoconservatism “supplied me with a beguiling but ultimately artificial clarity about the world that was hard to shake.” His front-row seat gives him an easy familiarity with his subject, but in this case that seems less help than hindrance, because the author’s disillusioned perspective feels a tad insular, and occasionally shades into snideness, the most egregious example being a labored postscript set eight years in the future (the former undersecretary of defense for policy, Douglas Feith, “had become dean of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, where he had instituted a new course on the British Empire and Winston Churchill”). In addition to indulging in such inside jokes, Heilbrunn can’t resist turning some of the neocons’ more tendentious rhetorical devices (example: “It is no accident that …”) on the neocons themselves. This may constitute just deserts, but it has the unfortunate side effect of punishing the reader.
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?
Timothy Noah is a senior writer for Slate.