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History of Neoconservativism

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Neoconservatism refers to the political goals and ideology of the "new conservatives" in the United States, characterized by hawkish or jingoist views on foreign policy and a lesser emphasis on social issues and minimal government than other strains of American conservatism. The "newness" refers either to being new to American conservatism (often coming from liberal or socialist backgrounds) or to being part of a "new wave" of conservative thought and political organization. In both meanings the term is sometimes used pejoratively. This criticism has grown due to the rising human and monetary costs of a major neoconservative initiative, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

More specifically, the term refers to journalists, pundits, policy analysts, and institutions affiliated with policy think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Heritage Foundation, and the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and periodicals such as Commentary, Policy Review, and The Weekly Standard. The neoconservatives, often dubbed the neocons by supporters and critics alike, are credited with (or blamed for) influencing U.S. foreign policy, especially under the administrations of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) and George W. Bush (2001-present).

The term neoconservative is somewhat controversial, with many to whom the label is applied rejecting it. It has become increasingly popular in recent years, to the point where many say it is becoming overused and lacking any coherent definition, especially since many so-called neoconservatives vehemently disagree with one another on major issues. (See Criticism of term, below.)



This political group supported a militant anticommunism, minimal social welfare (to the consternation of extreme free-market libertarians), and sympathy with a traditionalist agenda (is more inclined than other conservatives toward vigorous government in the service of the goals of traditional morality and pro-business policies). They feuded with traditional right-wing Republicans, and the nativist, protectionist, isolationists once represented by ex-Republican Pat Buchanan, who is the editor of the paleoconservative magazine The American Conservative.

But domestic policy does not define neoconservatism; it is a movement founded on, and perpetuated by a hawkish foreign policy, opposition to communism during the Cold War, free trade, and opposition to Middle Eastern states that are perceived to pursue terrorism or anti-Israel policies. Thus, their foremost target was the conservative but pragmatic approach to foreign policy often associated with Richard Nixon, i.e., peace through negotiations, diplomacy, and arms control, détente and containment (rather than rollback) of the Soviet Union, and the beginning of the process that would lead to bilateral ties between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the U.S. Today a rift still divides the neoconservative hawks from many members of the State Department, who favor established foreign policy conventions.


Neoconservatives are conservatives who are "new" (neo) to the conservative movement in some way. Usually, this comes as a result from the migration from the left of the political spectrum to the right, over the course of many years. Though every such neoconservative has an individual story to tell, there are several key events in recent American history that are often said to have prompted the shift.

Many of today's most famous neocons are from Eastern European Jewish immigrant families, who were frequently on the edge of poverty. The Great Depression radicalized many immigrants, and introduced them to the new and revolutionary ideas of socialism and communism.

The Soviet Union's break with Stalinism in the 1950's led to the rise of the so-called New Left in America, which popularized anti-Sovietism along with anti-capitalism. The New Left became very popular among the children of hardline Communist families.

Intellectually, neoconservatives have been strongly influenced by a diverse range of thinkers from Max Shachtman's version of Trotskyism (in the area of anti-Sovietism and international policy) to the elitist, ostensibly neo-Platonic ideas of Leo Strauss.

Opposition to the New Left and Détente with the Soviet Union

Later to emerge as the first important group of social policy critics from the working class, the original neoconservatives, though not yet using this term, were generally liberals or socialists who strongly supported the Second World War. Multiple strands contributed to their ideas, including the Depression-era ideas of former New Dealers, trade unionists, and Trotskyists, particularly those who followed the political ideas of Max Shachtman. The current neoconservative desire to spread democratic capitalism abroad often by force, it is sometimes said, parallels the Trotskyist dream of world socialist revolution. The influence of the Trotskyites perhaps left them with strong anti-Soviet tendencies, especially considering the Great Purges targeting alleged Trotskyites in Soviet Russia. A number of neoconservatives such as Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz were Shachtmanites in their youth while others were involved in the Social Democrats, USA, which was formed by Schachtman's supporters in the 1970s.

The original "neoconservative" theorists, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, were often associated with the magazine Commentary, and their intellectual evolution is quite evident in that magazine over the course of these years. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s the early neoconservatives were anti-Communist socialists strongly supportive of the civil rights movement, integration, and Martin Luther King. However, they grew disillusioned with the Johnson administration's Great Society. Some neoconservatives also came to despise the counterculture of the 1960s and what they felt was a growing "anti-Americanism" among many baby boomers, in the movement against the Vietnam War and in the emerging New Left. On the other hand, other neoconservatives played a seminal role in creating the counterculture: Irving Kristol, for example, served as the first executive director of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, the U.S. branch of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an institution which was key to the emergence of the counterculture.

According to Irving Kristol, former managing editor of Commentary and now a Senior Fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington and the Publisher of the hawkish magazine The National Interest, a neoconservative is a "liberal mugged by reality." Broadly sympathetic to Woodrow Wilson's idealistic goals to spread American ideals of government, economics, and culture abroad, they grew to reject his reliance on international organizations and treaties to accomplish these objectives.

As the radicalization of the New Left pushed these intellectuals further to the right in response, they moved toward a more aggressive militarism. Admiration of the "big stick" interventionist foreign policy of Theodore Roosevelt remains a common theme in neoconservative tracts as well. Now staunch anti-Communists, a vast array of sympathetic conservatives attracted to their strong defense of a "rolling-back" of Communism (an idea touted under the Eisenhower administration by traditional conservative John Foster Dulles) began to become associated with these neoconservative leaders. Influential periodicals such as Commentary, The New Republic, The Public Interest, and The American Spectator, and lately The Weekly Standard have been established by prominent neoconservatives or regularly host the writings of neoconservative writers.

Academics in these circles, many of whom were still Democrats, rebelled against the Democratic Party's leftward drift on defense issues in the 1970s, especially after the nomination of George McGovern in 1972. Many clustered around Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a Democrat derisively known as the "Senator from Boeing," but then they aligned themselves with Ronald Reagan and the Republicans, who promised to confront charges of Soviet "expansionism."

Reagan and the neoconservatives

During the 1970s political scientist Jeane Kirkpatrick increasingly criticized the Democratic Party, of which she was still a member, since the nomination of the antiwar George McGovern. Kirkpatrick became a convert to the ideas of the new conservatism of once-liberal Democratic academics. During Ronald Reagan's successful 1980 campaign, he hired her as his foreign policy adviser and later nominated her as US ambassador to the United Nations, a position she held for four years. Known for her anti-communist stance and for her tolerance of right-wing dictatorships (which she would often temperate in her criticism, calling simply "moderately repressive regimes"), she argued that Third World social revolutions were illegitimate, and thus that the overthrow of leftist governments, even if replaced with right-wing dictatorships, was acceptable and at times essential because they served as a bulwark against the expansion of Soviet interests. Under this doctrine, known as the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, the Reagan administration actively supported leaders such as Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Support for such regimes was never blind, however, and during the Reagan administration many long-time US ally regimes were eventually turned against in the their later days. Neoconservative administration officials such as Paul Wolfowitz, though deeply critical of expanding Soviet influnences, were also skeptical of the long-term stability of such undemocratic rightist regimes, and critical of how such alliances could compromise America's own stated core values. Thus, at the behest of such advisors, the Reagan team supported the overthrow of Marcos in 1986 and the 1988 Chilean referendum which ultimately removed Pinochet from office.

In this sense, the neoconservative foreign policy makers were different than some of their more traditionalist conservative predecessors. While many from the old school believed that America's allies should be unquestionably defended at all costs, no matter what the nature of their regime, many neocons were more supportive to the idea of changing regimes to make them more compatable and reflective of US values. The belief in the universality of democracy would be a key neoconservative value which would go on to play a larger role in the post-Cold War period. (However, their emphasis on the need for externally-imposed "regime change" for "rogue" nations such as Iraq conflicted with the democratic value of national self-determination.)

Jeanne Kirkpatrick For his own part, President Reagan largely did not move towards the sort of protracted, long-term interventions to stem social revolution in the Third World that many of his advisors would have favoured. Instead, he mostly favored quick campaigns to attack or overthrow terrorist groups or leftist governments, favoring small, quick interventions that heightened a sense of post-Vietnam triumphalism among Americans, such as the attacks on Grenada and Libya, and arming rightwing militias in Central America seeking to overthrow radical leftist governments like the Sandinistas.

The comeback of neoconservatism under George W. Bush

Many critics charged that the neoconservatives lost their raison d'étre following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Others argue that they lost their status due to their involvement with the Iran-Contra scandal. During the 1990s, neoconservatives were once again in the opposition side of the foreign policy establishment, railing against the post-Cold War foreign policy of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, which reduced military expenditures and was, in their view, insufficiently idealistic. They accused it of lacking "moral clarity" and the conviction to unilaterally pursue US strategic interests abroad. In the writings of Paul Wolfowitz, Norman Podhoretz, Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Max Boot, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, William Bennett, Peter Rodman, and others influential in forging the foreign policy doctrines of the Bush administration, there are frequent references to the appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938, to which are compared the Cold War's policies of détente and containment (rather than rollback) with the Soviet Union and the PRC. Also particularly galvanizing to the movement was George H.W. Bush and Colin Powell's decision to leave Saddam Hussein in power and what neoconservatives viewed as a betrayal of the Iraqi Kurds. Neoconservatives were also members of the blue team, which argued for a confrontational policy toward the People's Republic of China and strong military and diplomatic support for Taiwan.

Early in the George W. Bush administration, neoconservatives were particularly upset by Bush's non-confrontational policy toward the PRC and Russia and what they perceived as Bush's insufficient support of Israel, and most neoconservatives perceived Bush's foreign policies to be not substantially different from the policies of Clinton. Following the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and The Pentagon, however, the influence of neoconservatism in the Bush administration appears to have increased. In contrast with earlier writings that emphasized the danger from a strong Russia and the PRC, the focus of neoconservatives shifted from Communism to the Middle East and global terrorism.

Richard Perle In his well-publicized piece "The Case for American Empire" in the conservative Weekly Standard, Max Boot argued that "The most realistic response to terrorism is for America to embrace its imperial role." He countered sentiments that the "United States must become a kinder, gentler nation, must eschew quixotic missions abroad, must become, in Pat Buchanan's phrase, 'a republic, not an empire'," arguing that "In fact this analysis is exactly backward: The September 11 attack was a result of insufficient American involvement and ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation."

Neoconservatives won a landmark victory with the Bush Doctrine after September 11th. Thomas Donnelly, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an influential conservative thinktank in Washington that has been under neoconservative influence since the election of Reagan, argued in his AEI piece "The Underpinnings of the Bush doctrine" that "the fundamental premise of the Bush Doctrine is true: The United States possesses the means—economic, military, diplomatic—to realize its expansive geopolitical purposes. Further, and especially in light of the domestic political reaction to the attacks of September 11, the victory in Afghanistan and the remarkable skill demonstrated by President Bush in focusing national attention, it is equally true that Americans possess the requisite political willpower to pursue an expansive strategy."

The Bush Doctrine, a radical departure from previous US foreign policy, is a proclamation of the right of the United States to wage pre-emptive war, regardless of international law, should it be threatened by terrorists or rogue states. This doctrine can be seen as the abandonment of a focus on the doctrine of deterrence (in the Cold War through Mutually Assured Destruction) as the primary means of self-defense. There is some opinion that preemptive strikes have long been a part of international practice and indeed of American practice, as exemplified, for example, by the unilateral US blockade and boarding of Cuban shipping during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The doctrine also states that the United States "will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States."

While more conventional foreign policy experts argued that Iraq could be restrained by enforcing No-Fly Zones and by a policy of inspection by United Nations inspectors to restrict its ability to possess chemical or nuclear weapons, neoconservatives considered this policy direction ineffectual and labeled it appeasement of Saddam Hussein.

Paul Wolfowitz Today, the most prominent supporters of the hawkish stance inside the administration are Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Neoconservatives perhaps are closer to the mainstream of the Republican Party today since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon than any competing faction, especially considering the nature of the Bush Doctrine and the preemptive war against Iraq. Nevertheless, many of the prominent people labeled as neoconservatives are actually registered Democrats.

At the same time, there have been limits in the power of neoconservatives in the Bush administration. The Secretary of State Colin Powell is largely seen as being an opponent of neoconservative ideas, and while the neoconservative notion of tough and decisive action has been apparent in U.S. policy toward the Middle East, it has not been seen in U.S. policy toward Communist China and Russia or in the handling of the North Korean nuclear crisis.

As compared with traditional conservatism, which sometimes exhibited an isolationist strain, neoconservatism is characterized by support for significantly increased defense spending, challenging regimes deemed hostile to the values and interests of the United States, pressing for free-market policies abroad, and ensuring that the United States remains the world's sole superpower. Neoconservatism has influenced the conservative agenda in the United States on such issues. Critics have charged that, while paying lip service to American values, neoconservatives have supported undemocratic regimes for realpolitik reasons.


Neoconservatives and Israel

The neoconservatives also support a robust American stance on Israel. The neoconservative influenced Project for a New American Century called for an Israel no longer dependent on American aid through the removal of major threats in the region.

The interest in Israel, and the large proportion of Jewish neoconservatives has led to the question of "dual loyalty." A number of critics, such as Pat Buchanan, have accused them of putting Israeli interests above those of America. In turn these critics have been labeled as anti-semites by many neoconservatives (which in turn has led to accusations of professional smearing, and then paranoia and so on).

However, one should note that many prominent neoconservatives are not Jewish, such as Michael Novak, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Frank Gaffney, and Max Boot. Furthermore, neoconservatives in the 1960s were much less interested in Israel before the June 1967 Six Day War. It has only been since this conflict, which has raised the specter of Israel's military invincibility, that the neoconservatives have become preoccupied by Israel's security interests. They support Israel's role as the strongest ally of the United States in the Middle East and as the sole Western-style democracy in the region.

Moreover, they have long argued that the United States should emulate Israel's tactics of pre-emptive attacks, especially Israel's unprovoked, pre-emptive unilateral attacks in the 1980s on nuclear facilities in Libya and Iraq. Despite (or perhaps because of) condemnation by the United Nations, neoconservatives have admired such Israeli adventures, arguing that the United States, like Israel, should act in its national interests, regardless of international law.

The partisan support for Likud suggests that their support for Israel is not merely motivated by blind ethnic loyalty, and their critics' criticism of American politicians judged to be too friendly to Britain or the Soviet Union suggests that dual loyalty is a genuine fear amongst Old Right conservatives.

World War II analogies

In foreign policy neoconservatives have a tendency to view the world in 1939 terms, comparing adversaries as diverse as the Soviet Union, Osama bin Laden, and China to Nazi Germany, while American leaders such as Reagan and Bush stand in for Winston Churchill. There is also a tendency to accuse leftists, and others who oppose them as being appeasers. The fullest account of this is Robert Kagan's While America Sleeps, the entirety of which is dedicated to these comparisons.

In addition, neoconservatives have a very strong belief in the ability to install democracy by conquest - comparisons with denazification in Germany and Japan starting in 1945 are often made.

Neoconservatives and Iraq

Within a few years of the Gulf War in Iraq, many associated with neoconservatism were pushing for the ouster of Saddam Hussein. On February 19, 1998, an open letter to President Clinton was signed by dozens of pundits, many identifed with both neoconservatism and, later, related groups such as the PNAC, urging decisive action to remove Saddam from power [1] ( However, although sanctions, encouragement of insurrection, and enforcement of no-fly zones continued under Clinton and then Bush, no such action was taken until after the Iraq disarmament crisis of 2003.

Proponents of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 sought to compare their war to Churchill's war against Hitler, with speakers like United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld comparing Saddam to Hitler, while likening the toleration shown Saddam to the 1930s appeasement of Hitler. Prior to war, Bush compared Saddam Hussein to Stalin and Hitler and invoked the spectre of "appeasement." Like the Nazis and the Communists, Bush said, "the terrorists seek to end lives and control all life." But the visage of evil conjured up by Bush during his European trip was that of Saddam Hussein, not bin Laden, who many considered a greater threat. Iraq's dictator was singled out as the "great evil" who "by his search for terrible weapons, by his ties to terrorist groups, threatens the security of every free nation, including the free nations of Europe."

Following the release, on June 16, 2004, of the preliminary findings of thhe staff of the bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, there was a moment of some embarrassment for the neoconservatives in the Bush administration. The commission found no evidence that Iraq had anything to do with the attacks or with Osama bin Laden. Vice President Dick Cheney, in an interview with CNBC television, insisted that "there clearly was a relationship. It has been testified to. The evidence is overwhelming." At one point in the interview, the interviewer commented on the somewhat overwrought demeanor of the Vice President.

Neoconservative foreign policy pundits tend to emphasize an abstract evil in their polemics, de-emphasizing "gray areas." These comparisons have been questioned due to the previous support of Iraq by the United States and a history of arguably legitimate grievances against Kuwait.

Contrasts with other perspectives

Relationship with other types of US conservativism

There is conflict between neoconservatives and libertarian conservatives. Libertarian conservatives are distrustful of a large government and therefore regard neoconservative foreign policy ambitions with considerable distrust.

There has been considerable conflict between neoconservatives and business conservatives in some areas. Neoconservatives tend to see China as a looming threat to the United States and argue for harsh policies to contain that threat. Business conservatives see China as a business opportunity and see a tough policy against China as opposed to their desires for trade and economic progress. Business conservatives also appear much less distrustful of international institutions. In fact, where China is concerned neoconservatives tend to find themselves more often in agreement with liberal Democrats than with business conservatives.

The disputes over Israel and domestic policies have contributed to a sharp conflict over the years with "paleoconservatives," whose very name was taken as a rebuke to their "neo" brethren. There are many personal issues but effectively the paleoconservatives view the neoconservatives as interlopers who deviate from the traditional conservative agenda on issues as diverse as 'states Rights,' 'free trade,' immigration, isolationism, and 'the welfare state.' All of this leads to their conservative label being questioned.

Other critics of neoconservatism

In addition to the concerns over the allegedly excessive identification with Israel already cited, some observers have accused some of the more prominent neoconservatives of hypocrisy for their aggressive post-9/11 foreign policy stand, considering the fact that these neoconservatives are Baby Boomers who managed to avoid military service, or at least combat duty, during the Vietnam War. This charge is most frequently levelled by younger Baby Busters or members of Generation X, leading to the creation of a derogatory label - that of Chickenhawks - directed at these neoconservatives, and also at President George W. Bush.

Criticism of term

The term was coined by socialist Michael Harrington, who wanted a way to characterize former leftists who had moved significantly to the right -- people he had been deriding as "socialists for Nixon."

Many of the men and women to whom the neoconservative label is applied to reject the title, arguing it is an artificial and abstract creation. The fact that its use has rapidly risen since the 2003 Iraq War is cited by conservatives as proof that the term is largely irrelevant in the long-term. David Horowitz, a purported leading neo-con thinker offered this critique in a recent interview with an Italian newspaper:

"Neo-conservatism" is a term almost exclusively used by the enemies of America's liberation of Iraq. There is no "neo-conservative" movement in the United States. When there was one, it was made up of former Democrats who embraced the welfare state but supported Ronald Reagan's Cold War policies against the Soviet bloc. Today "neo-conservatism" identifies those who believe in an aggressive policy against radical Islam and the global terrorists. Similarly, many other supposed neoconservatives believe that the term has been adopted by the political left to stereotype supporters of US foreign policy under the George W. Bush administration. Others have similarly likened descriptions of neoconservatism to a conspiracy theory and attribute the term to anti-Semitism. Paul Wolofwitz has denounced the term as meaningless label, saying:

"[If] you read the Middle Eastern press, it seems to be a euphemism for some kind of nefarious Zionist conspiracy. But I think that, in my view it's very important to approach these crucial issues not from a doctrinal point of view. I think almost every case I know is different. Indonesia is different from the Philippines. Iraq is different from Indonesia. I think there are certain principles that I believe are American principles -- both realism and idealism. I guess I'd like to call myself a democratic realist. I don't know if that makes me a neo-conservative or not." Some others (e.g., Jonah Goldberg) reject the label "neoconservative" because "There's nothing 'neo' about me: I was never anything other than conservative", seeing it largely as a label for people who came to views nowadays considered "conservative" from liberal or even radical backgrounds. Many traditional conservatives are likewise skeptical, and may dislike being associated with the stereotypes. Conservative columnist David Harsanyi wrote, "These days, it seems that even temperate support for military action against dictators and terrorists qualifies you a neocon." These individuals largely reject the claim that there is a neoconservative movement separate from conservatism. (Irving Kristol famously defined a "neoconservative" as "a liberal who got mugged by reality".)

On the other hand, some of those identified as neoconservatives embrace the term. For example, Irving Kristol published a collection of his essays under the tile Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (paperback ISBN 1566632285, hardcover ISBN 0028740211). Use of the term enables neoconservatives to distinguish themselves from conservatives when they find it advantageous to do so. In addition, neoconservatives who were once leftists can soften the implication that they have "defected" to the side they once opposed.

Prominent neoconservatives

Main article: List of neo-conservatives

Public figures most often referred to as neoconservatives include:

Neoconservative institutions and publications


External links

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This page was last modified 18:06, 2 July 2006 by Chad Lupkes. Based on work by dKosopedia user(s) CSTAR, Dkos, Kagro X, Bsilent and Pyrrho. Content is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

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