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What the Heck Is a 'Neocon'?

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
December 30, 2002
Wall Street Journal

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Neoconservatives believe in using American might to promote American ideals abroad.

I have been called many names in my career— few of them printable— but the most mystifying has to be "neocon." I suppose I get labeled thus because I am associated, in a small way, with the Weekly Standard, which is known as a redoubt of "neoconservatism."

But what the heck is a neocon anyway in 2003? A friend of mine suggests it means the kind of right-winger a liberal wouldn't be embarrassed to have over for cocktails. That's as good a definition as any, since the term has clearly come unmoored from its original meaning.

The original neocons were a band of liberal intellectuals who rebelled against the Democratic Party's leftward drift on defense issues in the 1970s. At first the neocons clustered around Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a Democrat, but then they aligned themselves with Ronald Reagan and the Republicans, who promised to confront Soviet expansionism. The neocons, in the famous formulation of one of their leaders, Irving Kristol, were "liberals mugged by reality."

Well, I haven't been mugged lately. I haven't even been accosted. I like to think I've been in touch with reality from day one, since I've never been a Trotskyite, a Maoist or even a Democrat. There's no "neo" in my conservatism. I don't deserve much credit for this, I might add, since I grew up in the 1980s, when conservatism was cool. Many of the original neocons, by contrast, grew up in the days when Republicans were derided as "the stupid party." Some of them remain registered Democrats. But I've always identified with the Grand Old Party. The same might be said of the other Standard-bearers, even those (like Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz) who are the offspring of famous neocons. They, too, have been right from the start.

So why do I, and others of my ilk, get tagged as "neocons"? Some of the labelers have obvious ulterior motives. Patrick Buchanan, for one, claims that his views represent the true faith of the American right. He wants to drive the neocon infidels from the temple (or, more accurately, from the church). Unfortunately for Mr. Buchanan, his version of conservatism— nativist, protectionist, isolationist— attracts few followers, as evidenced by his poor showings in Republican presidential primaries and the scant influence of his inaptly named magazine, the American Conservative. Buchananism isn't American conservatism as we understand it today. It's paleoconservatism, a poisonous brew that was last popular when Father Charles Coughlin, not Rush Limbaugh, was the leading conservative broadcaster in America.

When Buchananites toss around "neoconservative"— and cite names like Wolfowitz and Cohen— it sometimes sounds as if what they really mean is "Jewish conservative." This is a malicious slur on two levels. First, many of the leading neocons aren't Jewish; Jeane Kirkpatrick, Bill Bennett, Father John Neuhaus and Michael Novak aren't exactly menorah lighters. Second, support for Israel— a key tenet of neoconservatism— is hardly confined to Jews; its strongest constituency in America happens to be among evangelical Christians.

So is "neoconservatism" worthless as a political label? Not entirely. In social policy, it stands for a broad sympathy with a traditionalist agenda and a rejection of extreme libertarianism. Neocons have led the charge to combat some of the wilder excesses of academia and the arts. But there is hardly an orthodoxy laid down by Neocon Central. I, for one, am not eager to ban either abortion or cloning, two hot-button issues on the religious right. On economic matters, neocons— like pretty much all other Republicans, except for Mr. Buchanan and his five followers— embrace a laissez-faire line, though they are not as troubled by the size of the welfare state as libertarians are.

But it is not really domestic policy that defines neoconservatism. This was a movement founded on foreign policy, and it is still here that neoconservatism carries the greatest meaning, even if its original raison d'être— opposition to communism— has disappeared.

Pretty much all conservatives today agree on the need for a strong, vigorous foreign policy. There is no constituency for isolationism on the right, outside the Buchananite fever swamps. The question is how to define our interventionism.

One group of conservatives believes that we should use armed force only to defend our vital national interests, narrowly defined. They believe that we should remove, or at least disarm, Saddam Hussein, but not occupy Iraq for any substantial period afterward. The idea of bringing democracy to the Middle East they denounce as a mad, hubristic dream likely to backfire with tragic consequences. This view, which goes under the somewhat self-congratulatory moniker of "realism," is championed by foreign-policy mandarins like Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker III.

Many conservatives think, however, that "realism" presents far too crabbed a view of American power and responsibility. They suggest that we need to promote our values, for the simple reason that liberal democracies rarely fight one another, sponsor terrorism, or use weapons of mass destruction. If we are to avoid another 9/11, they argue, we need to liberalize the Middle East— a massive undertaking, to be sure, but better than the unspeakable alternative. And if this requires occupying Iraq for an extended period, so be it; we did it with Germany, Japan and Italy, and we can do it again.

The most prominent champions of this view inside the administration are Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Their agenda is known as "neoconservatism," though a more accurate term might be "hard Wilsonianism." Advocates of this view embrace Woodrow Wilson's championing of American ideals but reject his reliance on international organizations and treaties to accomplish our objectives. ("Soft Wilsonians," a k a liberals, place their reliance, in Charles Krauthammer's trenchant phrase, on paper, not power.) Like Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, "hard Wilsonians" want to use American might to promote American ideals.

This is, in case you haven't guessed, my own view too. So I guess that makes me a neocon. It's a designation I'm willing— nay, honored— to accept, if it comes with a caveat: Neoconservatism— like other political descriptions, such as "liberal" and "conservative"— has entirely lost its original meaning. It no longer means that you're a Johnny-come-lately to the good fight, and— contrary to Mr. Buchanan's aspersions— neocons are no less conservative than anyone else on the right.

Actually that's an understatement. Neocons are closer to the mainstream of the Republican Party today than any competing faction. During the 2000 campaign, President Bush sounded very much like a realist, with his suspicions of "nation building" and his warnings about American hubris. Then along came 9/11. The National Security Strategy that he released in September— which calls for "encouraging free and open societies on every continent"— sounds as if it could have come straight from the pages of Commentary magazine, the neocon bible.

I suppose that makes George W. Bush a neocon. If it's good enough for the president, it's good enough for me.


Mr. Boot is the Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard, and the author, most recently, of The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (Basic Books, 2002).