Last week Jack Hunter attempted to define “neoconservative” and I’m afraid he came up a little short. To be sure, neoconservatism is a slippery term to begin with and attempting to adequately define it with less than 1000 words is a daunting task.
First of all, it is kind of odd to be talking about the neocons as if they were the new kids on the conservative block. We’re not talking about defining the disparate elements of the Tea Party.
The neocons are as much a part of the establishment as the Country Club Republicans. They dominate the think tanks, all of the widely read conservative opinion journals, and the septuagenarian Pat Buchanan is the only journalist on television who occasionally spouts skepticism about foreign adventurism. The neoconservative hijacking of the conservative movement is so complete that the prefix is hardly necessary anymore. To be a conservative in 2011 is to be a neoconservative.
Second, and this is a problem afflicting many of my friends residing outside the Left-Right paradigm (including myself during moments of intemperance), there is a tendency to use “neocon” as a catch-all term for any and all interventionists and this is the biggest shortcoming I see in Jack’s piece. This ignores progressivism, liberal internationalism, naked imperialism and defines neoconservatism as any kind of interventionism. He uses Max Boot’s assertion for America as a global cop to illustrate neoconservatism, but this claim can be used by any school of interventionism, it is in no way specific to neoconservatism, and if Obama’s actions in Libya say anything, it says that aggression from Washington D.C. is not confined to the dreaded neocons.
Thirdly, neoconservatism itself is a branch of political philosophy rooted in the experience of American Jews in the early 20th century. Largely discriminated against in the Lower East Side of New York City, the earliest neocons resented the WASP class that looked down on them and now that their descendants are in the halls of power, they have shown no interest in turning the other cheek. As immigrants coming largely from Eastern Europe and congregating in New York, they found a natural home in a Democratic Party defined by its bureaucratic largesse and eagerness for a welfare state so their ethnic and intellectual background is one that is hardly predisposed toward small, constitutional, limited government.
All this leads to the biggest omission from Jack’s commentary: the Israel connection.
What truly separates neoconservatism from other varieties of interventionism is their embarrassing fealty to Israel. Liberal internationalism, which endorses multilateralism as the highest article of faith, does not necessarily entail the Israeli component. The liberals can be just about as fanatical about Israel as the neocons, but if the gods of the UN are placated, they can get on board to fight Israel’s wars.
Russell Kirk said in 1988 at the Heritage Foundation (and I’m sure Jack is familiar with this quotation), “Not seldom has it seemed as if some eminent neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.” Pointing out the Jewish connection is just as pertinent today as it was then, but that makes it all the more difficult to define the term.
Defenders of the neocons like to silence criticism by asserting that when people say “neocon” they are just using short-hand for "Jew" or “Jewish conservative.” But like most stereotypes, there tends to be at least a little bit of truth to it.
It’s inconceivable to separate neoconservatism either from its attachment to the Jewish state or the preponderance of Jewish names among the earliest and most recognizable neocons: Kristol and Himmelfarb, Podhoretz, Krauthammer, Kagan. But gentiles like Dick Cheney, John Bolton, and elements of the Christian Right might deserve to be classified as neoconservatives so accurately defining neoconservatism is slippery indeed.
And I hate to be the one to throw cold water on a burgeoning non-interventionist parade, but the Republicans are still a war party. Just about the only difference between the Republican Party in Washington D.C. today and the one during the last decade is that a Democrat is in office. It’s good that Rand Paul is in the U.S. Senate and making a stink about Libya and Afghanistan, but much of the GOP opposition to wars right now is due to partisanship.
It’s tempting to think that the influence of the neocons is waning since the Republicans voted against Obama’s war of choice in Libya, but I see this as only wishful thinking. They are opposing a Democrat’s war but they are still funding it. Some opposition this is. Would the Tea Party accept this if Republicans took a vote that said they were against Obamacare but still funded it? If any of the GOP presidential candidates besides Ron Paul stops rattling the saber at Iran and stops sucking up to Israel, then we’ve really made progress. Until then, reports of the neocons’ death are greatly exaggerated.
But this time of Republican exile has indeed been good for those favoring non-intervention. Without a Republican president there is some breathing room to allow a modicum of debate on foreign policy. But when there is a Republican president all conservative ideals have to be shelved in favor of unquestioned support of the president. If John McCain had won the presidency in 2008, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Mitt Romney would not be mouthing vaguely anti-interventionist platitudes about Libya. OK, maybe it wouldn’t be Libya, but it might be Yemen, Georgia, or Iran, and it would definitely be someplace where American national interests are not imperiled.
If a Republican wins the presidential election next year we stand a chance of returning to square one. The neocons have not been drummed out of the GOP and worst of all, they have not been discredited. There is no William F. Buckley to purge this sect of interlopers the way he exiled the Randians, Murray Rothbard, and the John Birch Society. The people who wrecked the car are still in positions of influence in print and broadcast media and short of divine intervention they will be the advisers of the next GOP presidential candidate. The best hope in the short term is to get a couple more principled non-interventionists in the congress to oppose the next wars the GOP will inevitably wage.
It’s a clearly desirable goal to supplant the neocons and make the Republican Party a conservative party, one that is marked by caution, restraint, and constitution. But we make the task much harder for ourselves if we don’t accurately define our adversary. There are interventionists in the Democratic Party but they are not principally our enemy and should be the concern of the real liberals who ought to re-take their party.
But unless we face facts and see that our neoconservative problem can’t be separated from our Israel problem, our political lives will be doomed to what the writer of Ecclesiastes called “a chasing after the wind.”
Regular Columnist, THL
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