The phrase is a contraction of neo-Conservative, and is used to relate to a fairly small group of individuals and organisations who represent a sect within (and who differ from) the larger Conservative movement, with its connections to the Republican Party in the United States of America. Coined by Michael Harrington, the label was later embraced by the group, though a few have since tried to disown it. The term also denotes a political bricolage and maneuvering related to the pursuit of power — some neocons have moved from the far-left to the far-right. Generally, a Neocon is an adherent of a right-wing political philosophy that emerged in the United States in the late 1960s primarily in opposition to the New Left and, later in reaction to fears over a return to US isolationism in the wake of the Vietnam War. It is not limited to the USA and gained momentum with the cold-war, particularly under President Reagan and could be said to have achieved some purchase on the US government with President George W. Bush's administration.
Its origins are traced to the political convolutions of 1930s Jewish émigré intellectual scene in New York, and to a certain extent the movement remains predominantly Jewish in its composition and concerns. (Commentary, the movement's flagship journal, is published by the American Jewish Committee) although contradictions and exceptions abound. Neocons reflect a minority position within the US Jewish community as most Jews remain distinctly liberal in their social, political and foreign-policy outlook. The emergence of support by factions within the Israeli state, particularly through the Jonathan Institute is central to understanding the Neocon's foreign policy preferences of unilateralism, large military expenditures and the disdain for International law and organisations such as the United Nations.
In retrospect this émigré intellectual scene contained some of the future luminaries of the movement — Max Shachtman, Sidney Hook, James Burnham, Irving Kristol and Irving Howe — who mostly began their careers as the leading lights (if not members) of the Trotskyist left. Their radical anti-Stalinism gave way at the end of WWII to liberal anti-Communism and clandestine co-operation with the CIA notably with the Congress for Cultural Freedom with the view of concocting a surrogate left. However, at the end of the Vietnam war the neocons abandoned liberalism to evolve into their present disposition as 'neo'-conservatives. Heilbrunn observes the ideological peregrinations:
- First they abandoned Judaism, trading it in for a cosmopolitan brand of Marxism, before fleeing it for liberalism. Then they turned against liberalism and embraced conservatism. Now they may be on the outs with the conservative movement.
Their roots in the pre-war Trotskyite left is reflected in the neocon's polemical and organisational skills and their ideological zeal and ends-justify-the-means duplicity. As Irving Kristol, the godfather of the movement, remarked, a Neocon is a 'liberal who was mugged by reality'. Jacob Heilbrunn describes neoconservatism as: "a mindset, one that has been decisively shaped by the Jewish immigrant experience, by the Holocaust, and by the twentieth-century struggle against totalitarianism".Military historian, Andrew J. Bacevich has referred to the Neo-conservatives as constituting one of the "interest groups [that] have contributed to the new militarism [...] Neo-conservatives literally see no limits or constraints on the U.S. use of force. While some Americans supported the Iraq War and others opposed it, only the neocons rhapsodized about it." Nathen Glazer also emphasizes this aspect: 'The definition of a neoconservative is someone who wasn't a conservative'. Max Boot, mystyfied that he had been described as a "neocon," wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the term "has clearly come unmoored from its original meaning," and stated that:
- ...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.
Possibly as a consequence of the military failure in Vietnam, in the late 1970s the Neocons feared an inward looking US might abandon Israel in the middle-East. Nixon and Kissinger's detente towards Soviet Russia and the turn towards disarmament, possibly encouraged Neocon fears dovetailed with the ever-present concern of the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC) that its future profits were under threat. It was thus, according to journalist Andrew Cockburn's simplified version of events, that the Neoconservative movement was born as the nexus of the Israel lobby with the MIC at the instigation of Paul Nitze.
In a Washington Post advertisement on 17 August 1992, 33 prominent neoconservatives endorsed the Bill Clinton Presidential campaign, arguing he was more committed to spreading democracy and opposing communist government.
According to Irwin Stelzer, the neocon position can be summed up as 'diplomacy if possible, force if necessary; the UN if possible, ad hoc coalitions or unilateral action if necessary, preemptive strikes if it is reasonable to anticipate hostile action on the part of America's enemies' (quoted in Smith, 2006: 19). What sets neoconservatism apart from traditional conservatism, writes political scientist Wendy Brown, is the 'open affirmation of moralized state power in the domestic and international sphere' (2006). While neoconservatives have formed strategic alliances with both the Christian Right and neoliberal capitalists, their commitment to religion and untrammeled markets is far from unqualified. While neoconservatives are noticeably secular in their world view (notwithstanding the rhetoric of good-and-evil), they recognize the functional role of religion in society in providing an ethical and disciplinary focus and instilling deference to authority. In the economic sphere, while the celebration of capitalism is a recurring motif in their writings, many neoconservatives' remain committed New Dealers (as was Henry "Scoop" Jackson, whose office served as an incubator for many of today's prominent neoconservatives). However, the neoconservatives political journey, writes Sidney Blumenthal, 'cannot be explained simply by reference to a calibrated ideological scale'.
- Although they are frequently inclined to the formulaic, they are less coherent as an intellectual movement than a social group. Some are welfare-statists, others are free-marketeers; some proclaim the moral mission of America in global terms, others urge hardheaded realpolitik. What really binds them together is their common experience.
This incoherence in neoconservative thinking is also evidence in the approach of two major figures towards Machiavelli: whereas Leo Strauss found his realistic depiction of the mechanics of power anathema, paving the way for modern liberalism, Michael Ledeen holds the Florentine philosopher in high regard, fashioning himself as a latter-day apostle.
A Jewish Movement
While the neoconservative movement has attracted many gentiles, particularly Catholics such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and William Bennet, it remains largely Jewish in its composition. In They Knew They Were Right, the acclaimed social narrative of the origins and evolution of the neoconservative movement, Jacob Heilbrunn writes:
- The neocons claim to be an intellectual movement with no ethnic component to speak of. But neoconservatism is as much a reflection of Jewish immigrant social resentments and status anxiety as a legitimate movement of ideas. Indeed, however much they may deny it neoconservatism is in a decisive respect a Jewish phenomenon, reflecting a subset of Jewish concerns (2008: 11).
Most neoconservatives, as Blumenthal notes, 'are second-generation Jews, torn between cultures.
- They are a minority within a minority in one city: neoconservatives among conservatives, conservative Jews among liberal Jews, and parochial New Yorkers, who instinctively regard events between the Hudson and east rivers as exemplifying America, only on a higher level.
As former Trotskyists one of their key assets, according Blumenthal, is their Marxist conceptual way of thinking. However, he adds, 'they came to Marxism already steeped in the disputatious heritage of the Talmud.
Albert Wohlstetter and Leo Strauss, two towering figures of the neoconservative pantheon, were both devotees of Israel. On 5 January 1957 Strauss wrote a strong letter to the National Review in response to an article which had accused Israel of being ' racist state'.
While neoconservatives were not shy to take credit for the initial military success in Iraq, the developing quagmire has led many to disavow the label. David Brooks, Eliot Cohen and Paul Wolfowitz have all suggested the label is an anti-Semitic epithet.
Some neoconservatives, such as Elliot Abrams are unabashed proponents of Jewish separatism. In his 1997 book Faith or fear: how Jews can survive in a Christian America Abrams writes:
- Outside the land of Israel, there can be no doubt that Jews, faithful to the covenant between God and Abraham, are to stand apart from the nation in which they live. It is the very nature of being Jewish to be apart -- except in Israel -- from the rest of the population.(p.181)
Others, such as Abrams's father-in-law Norman Podhoretz opposed affirmative action on the grounds that it had nothing to offer 'for the Jews'. Podhoretz's father, according to the founder of AIPAC I.L. Kenen, was the mayor of the Israeli city of Safed.
The neocons' Manichean world view, according to journalist Jim Lobe, is rooted in a Hobbesian conception of man where evil is innate to its condition. For them, the Nazi Holocaust epitomizes this human capacity for evil. Especially, since the family members of Americans Jews perished in the Holocaust, including, for example, relatives of Paul Wolfowitz. Historian Tony Judt avers that with rise of identity politics, a mostly secular American Jewish community has formed its identity around two external tags: Israel and the Holocaust -- one in space, another in time. The Holocaust and the events that contributed to Hitler's rise -- viz, the 1938 Munich agreement -- loom large in neocon rhetoric. Richard Perle told the BBC,
- [T]he defining moment in our history was certainly the Holocaust. It was the destruction, the genocide of a whole people, and it was the failure to respond in a timely fashion to a threat that was clearly gathering. We don't want that to happen again when we have the ability to stop totalitarian regimes we should do so, because when we fail to do so, the results are catastrophic.
In his review of Jacob Heilbrunn's book on the neocons, Timothy Noah writes:
- 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?” (New York Times, 13 January 2008)
However, Heilbrunn warns that 'neoconservatives have invested the Holocaust with a contemporary political significance that warrants caution'. He goes on to quote scholar David Biale as saying: 'There is a difference between remembrance and constructing a collective identity around an event and an experience alien to the realities of American Jewish life' (2008:11).
Israel is central to neoconservatives' foreign policy concerns. In his obituary of Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer recalls a discussion in which he raised the prospect of giving up the territories for peace.
- Irving was skeptical about Arab hostility: It would never be reduced. But that means war forever, I said. And Irving responded, Yup, it’s war forever.
This same view would be later translated into the infamous "A Clean Break" document in which Perle, Feith and Wurmser advised Israel to reject 'land for peace' in favour of 'peace for peace'.
In leftist polemics, the neoconservative and neoliberal are often employed interchangeably. However, as political scientist Wendy Brown notes, neoliberalism is an economic rationality whereas neoconservatism is a political-moral rationality. He urged businessmen to learn the limits of 'thinking economically' and learn the long-term benefits of 'thinking politically'. The neoconservatives have served as the intellectual strata of Big Business, however none of them is an economist. Their role has been mainly as the mythmakers for US business. In Irving Kristol's words:
- We had to tell businessmen that they needed us. They are still not convinced...The neoconservatives, the Republican politicians, and the business community do not make an easy mixture...But at least they mix, whereas they used not to mix at all. Business understands the need for intellectuals much more than trade unionists understand it, but not enough. Basically, it wants intellectuals to go out and justify profits and explain to people why corporations make a lot of money.
Famously, Kristol gave two cheers for capitalism -- for promoting affluence and individual liberty -- but withheld the third because of “the cultural contradictions of capitalism”. For Kristol,
- bourgeois society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy, and that once this capital was depleted, bourgeois society would find its legitimacy ever more questionable.
Like Strauss, therefore, Kristol saw the value of orthodox religion and tradition as sustaining order in a society under the assault of amoral commercial values.
Irving Kristol was instrumental in promoting supply-side economics by securing funding for Jude Wanniski, the leading exponent of the idea. It was at Kristol's encouragement that Wanniski wrote 'The Mundell-Laffer Hypothesis, A New View of the World Economy', an article which for the first time spelled out the framework for supply-side economics (neither the 'hypothesis', nor the 'Laffer Curve' existed at this point). Kristol further helped advance these ideas by encouraging Wanniski to meet congressman Jack Kemp who became their leading salesman, finally turning them into political reality in the shape of the Kemp-Roth Bill.  Later Kristol used his connections at the Smith Richard Foundation to secure funding for Jude Wanniski, and a fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute, to write a book on supply-side economics
- His positions as co-editor of The Public Interest, professor at New York University, columnist for the Wall Street Journal, board member of five corporations, and senior fellow of the American Enterprise Institute merely hint at his activity. 'I raise money for conservative think tanks. I am a liaison to some degree between intellectuals and the business community,' he claimed modestly.
Supply-side guru Wanniski's pithy tribute best sums up Kristol's role: 'Irving is the invisible hand'.(ibid)
The words Straussian and neoconservative have often been used interchangeably. However, Straussians form only a subset, albeit a significant one, of neoconservatives. Many of the prominent neoconservatives of the day were mentored by Strauss himself, or by one of his most prominent acolytes, Allan Bloom, author of the influential bestseller The Closing of the American Mind. In his review of Saul Bellow's Ravelstein, a novel whose eponymous protagonist is based on Bloom, journalist Christopher Hitchens summarized the basic tenets of Straussianism thus:
- ...Straussians believe in religion and not in God. Philosophy is the high calling of the élite: a strenuous and contemplative effort directed at the moulding of a cultural and political leadership. Obviously, superstition and piety are mere encumbrances in the discharging of this elevated task. But the masses, of whom no such effort can be expected, must draw their ethical and disciplinary rations from the commissary of the supernatural.
Democracy and Double Standards
Frequent references are made in the mainstream media to the neocons 'passion for spreading democracy' or their 'democratic idealism'. Equally common are references to Bush administration's campaign 'to bring democracy to the Middle East'. There is rarely any evidence offered to support this claim other than the fact that the neocon said so. However, an investigation of the neocons actual record, both domestic and foreign, suggests quite the opposite. Neocons disdain for democracy can be traced back to an article by Jeane Kirkpatrick published in Commentary magazine titled Dictatorships and Double Standards, where she made a distinction between 'authoritarian' and 'totalitarian' regimes. The former she argued need to be accommodated, the later confronted. The article so impressed Ronald Reagan that its prescriptions became a pillar of his foreign policy, and he had Kirkpatrick, a Democrat, appointed as the ambassador to the UN.
Similarly, the claim that the war in the Middle East was inspired by the neocons democratic idealism is not sustained by facts. When neoconservative architects of the Iraq war first sold the plan for reshaping the Middle East as a policy paper to the incoming government of Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, there was no mention of democracy in it. Indeed, the infamous 'A Clean Break' document advocated regime change in Iraq being followed by a restoration of the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq. Similarly when the neocons began their efforts for regime change in Iran, they once again cultivated Reza Pahlavi, son of the late Shah, in order to restore Persian monarchy.
The neocons domestic record is equally contemptuous of democracy. All neocons support strong executive power and are proponents of the unitary executive principle. Neocons also actively subverted the democratic process in the lead up to the Iraq war by producing bogus intelligence and employed deceptive means to build public support for the war. Neocons have also been supporters of the Patriot Act and of curbs on civil liberties. In their book An End to Evil, Richard Perle and David Frum argue that national security imperatives transcend individual freedoms. Specifically they complain, 'we may be so eager to protect the right to dissent that we lose sight of the difference between dissent and subversion; so determined to defend the right of privacy that we refuse to acknowledge even the most blatant warnings of danger'.
True to her ideology, on the eve of the Falklands war, on 2 April 1982 Kirkpatrick was a guest of the Argentina's junta-led government in Washington.
On Human Rights
Irving Kristol saw himself as a realist and disparaged the very notion of human rights. Likewise, he was sceptical about the idea of promoting democracy. As Glazer notes, 'Irving was skeptical early on about imposing or promoting democracy in South Korea or Vietnam'. In February 1981 when Ernest Lefever pronounced, shortly after being nominated as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, that the US government had 'no responsibility -- and certainly no authority -- to promote human rights in other sovereign states', neoconservatives were quick to come to his defence. Irving Kristol later noted:
- The politics of polarization, in which the left crusades against the right under the banner of 'human rights', while the threat from the totalitarian left is altogether ignored, appeals to their ideological bias as well as to their self-righteous passions. One might almost say it is their secret agenda.
Though in recent years neoconservatives have championed gay rights as a Western value in the 'clash of civilizations', they did not always look upon homosexuals with such favour. In the early 1980s Norman Podhoretz drew a comparison between England in the 30s and the United States under Carter to suggest that the 'prominence of homosexuals in the literary world' was responsible for the 'culture of appeasement'. He observed: 'The homosexual ethos in England between the wars as anti-English'.
The Parallel Establishment
Neocons have long compensated for their narrow ranks by creating networks of institutions and "citizens' groups" with overlapping memberships which mutually reinforce each other's message. Over the years they have also infiltrated several traditional conservative organizations, such as the American Enterprise Institute and National Review which they have come to dominate over time. Resentful of their exclusion from the WASP-dominated elite, writes Jacob Heilbrunn, the neocons proceeded to create their own parallel national security establishment. In his review of Heilbrunn's book Philip Weiss points out that the neocons 'were propelled by resentments against WASP elites—the men who had ignored the Holocaust, they felt, and “frozen out” Jews from the establishment.' With the advent of the Bush II administration, especially in the wake of the events of 11 September, this parallel establishment replaced the traditional foreign policy elite to itself become the new establishment. The strategic alliances and the institutional infrastructure that enabled this rise dates back to neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol's association with the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom and his stint as the editor of Encounter magazine, two key instruments in the US cultural war against the USSR.
- Irving Kristol
- Norman Podhoretz
- Leo Strauss
- Allan Bloom
- Albert Wohlstetter
- Richard Perle
- Paul Wolfowitz
- Elliot Abrams
- Committee for a Democratic Majority
- Committee on the Present Danger
- Committee on Social Thought
- Committee for the Free World
- Project for the New American Century
- American Enterprise Institute
- Washington Institute for Near East Policy
- Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs
- Center for Security Policy
- Saban Center for Middle East Policy
- Weekly Standard (founded by William Kristol)
- The Public Interest (founded by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell)
- The National Interest (founded by Irving Kristol)
The neocon world view also predominates on the editorial pages of the following publications.
- Wall Street Journal
- New York Sun (now defunct)
- National Review
- Washington Times
- The New Republic
Key neocons also have regular columns in the following publications:
- New York Times
- William Kristol
- David Brooks
- William Safire
- Washington Post
- Charles Krauthammer
- Jacob Heilbrunn, They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, Doubleday, 2008.
- Stephen J. Sniegoski, The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel, IHS Press, 2008.
- Grant F. Smith, Deadly Dogma: How Neoconservatives Broke the Law to Deceive America, IRMEP, 2006.
- Murray Friedman, The Neoconservative Revolution: Jewish Intellectuals and the Shaping of Public Policy, Cambridge University Press, 2006
- Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order, Cambridge University Press, 2004
- Sidney Blumenthal, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment: From Conservative Ideology to Political Power, Times Books, 1986
- Philip Weiss, The Long Fuse to the Iraq War, The American Conservative, 28 January 2008
- Wendy Brown, "American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization", Political Theory, Volume 34, Number 6, December 2006, pp. 690-714
- Jim Lobe, What is a neo-conservative anyway?, Asia Times, 13 August 2003
- Craig Unger, From the Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Iraq, Vanity Fair, March 2007
- James Bamford, Iran: The Next War, Rolling Stone, August 10, 2006
- The Fifth Estate: The Lies That Led To War, CBC, 7 March 2007
- Empire Builders: Neoconservatives and their blueprint for US Power, Christian Science Monitor
- John Kampfner, The British neoconservatives, New Statesman, 12 May 2003.
- The Israel Lobby, VPRO (Netherlands), 2007.
- The Power of Nightmares, BBC, 2004.
- Hijacking Castastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire, Media Education Foundation, 2004.
- The War Party, BBC, 2003.
- MondoWeiss - Journalist Philip Weiss blogs here on issues related to the neocons and the Israel lobby.
- LobeLog - Journalist Jim Lobe's commentaries and investigations are frequently posted here.
- A Commentary on Irving Kristol's The Neoconservative Persuasion.
- The neoconservative imagination: essays in honor of Irving Kristol, by William Kristol, Christopher C. DeMuth, published by American Enterprise Institute, 1995
- Ellen Ray and William H. Schaap eds. (2003) Covert Action: The Roots of Terrorism, Ocean Press. This states that:
- It was the Jonathan Institute [...] that first promoted the notion of pre-emptive and punitive strikes. As this became U.S. doctrine, it served as an ex post facto justification for Israeli policies already in place. And it was the Jonathan Institute that provided the framework for the anti-U.N. sentiment that appears to have subsumed Washington.
- Jacob Heilbrunn (2008) They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, (p13).
- The phrase is sometimes added to in quotation with "...A neoliberal is a liberal who's been mugged by reality but has refused to press charges." See: The Christian Science Monitor (2004) In their own words: A collection of quotes by neoconservatives.
- Robert Tucker (2008) What Makes a Neocon, The American Interest.
- Robert M. Citino (2006) Review of Andrew J. Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. On the rivalry between a Hans Morgenthau 'Realist' point of view and the Neocon agenda in respect of International Relations (from a neocon position) see: Joshua Muravchik and Stephen M. Walt (2008) The Neocons vs. The Realists, The National Interest.
- Blumenthal, 1986: p.110
- Max Boot (2002) What the Heck Is a 'Neocon'? Neoconservatives believe in using American might to promote American ideals abroad, Wall Street Journal, December 30.
- See: Timothy Noah (2007) Does Bush Know What Neocon Means? That isn't a rhetorical question, slate.com.
- Jim Lobe, UNITED STATES: NEO-CONSERVATIVES DESERT BUSH ON FOREIGN POLICY, Inter Press Service, 17 August 1992.
- Blumenthal, 1986: p.110
- Blumenthal, 1986: p.111; BBC, "The War Party"
- Blumenthal, 1986: p.111
- Anthony David, The Apprentice, The American Prospect, 5 June 2007
- Friedman, p.60
- Houston A. Baker, Betrayal: how Black intellectuals have abandoned the ideals of the civil rights era, Columbia University Press, 2008, p.60
- Blumenthal, 1986: p. 141
- quoted in Blumenthal, 1986: p. 141
- Nathan Glazer, The Interested Man, The New Republic, 22 October 2009
- Blumenthal, 1986: pp.166-170
- Blumenthal, 1986: pp.175-178
- Blumenthal, 1986: p.134
- London Review of Books, 27 April 2000)
- Wall Street Journal, 29 May 1981
- Daniel Pipes, Favoring Islamists over Gays and Jews, Daniel Pipes blog, 27 February 2005
- quoted in Blumenthal, 1986: p. 130