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Neoconservatism is a somewhat expansive term referring to the political goals and ideology of the "new conservatives" in the United States. 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.

Compared to other U.S. conservatives, neoconservatives are characterized by an aggressive stance on foreign policy, a lesser emphasis on social conservatism (though neoconservatism sees social conservatism as useful tool for uniting and gaining public political support), and weak dedication to a policy of minimal government.

Commonly, the term refers more to journalists, pundits, policy analysts, and institutions affiliated with the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and with Commentary and The Weekly Standard than to more traditional conservative policy think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Heritage Foundation or periodicals such as Policy Review or National Review. 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 and George W. Bush.



The basis of the term 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.

Some 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.

Opposition to the New Left and Détente with the Soviet Union would cause the Neoconservatives 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 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.

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."

In his semi-autobiographic book, Neo-conservatism, Irving Kristol cites a number of influences on his own thought, including not only Max Shachtman and Leo Strauss but also the skeptical liberal literary critic Lionel Trilling. The influence of Leo Strauss has left key neoconservatives adopting a Machiavellian view of politics.

Reagan and the Neoconservatives

While Reagan's severe anticommunist rhetoric aligned with neoconservative ideology, many of his policies did not. He appointed 32 members of the Committee on the Present Danger to staff and advisory positions, but when it came to cabinet level positions, Reagan bypassed the right-wing ideologues in favor of pragmatic moderates such as Alexander Haig (Secretary of State) and Casper Weinberger (Secretary of Defense). This soon resulted in policies the neoconservatives found more than a little upsetting.

By 1982, Norman Podhoretz was writing “What President Reagan's response to the Polish crisis reveals is that he has in practice been following a strategy of helping the Soviet Union stabilize its empire, rather than a strategy aimed at encouraging the breakdown of that empire from within.” (“The neo-conservative anguish over Reagan's foreign policy,” New York Times Magazine.) What the neoconservatives missed, with their desire for public pyrotechniques, was the more subtle side of Reagan's response: financial assistance delivered to the Solidarity movement via the AFL/CIO and moral suasion through Pope John Paul II."

These contradictions are well documented by Halper and Clarke in America Alone which dissects the neoconservatives’ attempt to claim the Reagan mantel. Below this policy surface, which aligned on rhetoric and clashed on substance, they find diametrically opposite temperaments. “Reagan was optimistic; he appealed to people’s best hopes, not their fears. His was a confidence that America itself was attractive in and of itself. ... By contrast, the neoconservative vision is on of fear ... their philosophy is centered around Hobbes’s doomsday vision.”

During the 1970's 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 neoconservatism 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 U.S. 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 (her criticism of which was often tempered, calling them 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 based primarily on their usefulness, however, which could at times be impaired by their undemocratic natures. Hence, the U.S. could turn against them if circumstances changed. For example, U.S. support for Marcos continued until and even after the fraudulent Philippine election of February 7, 1986.

In the days that followed, however, with the widespread popular refusal to accept Marcos as the purported winner, turmoil in the Philippines grew. The Reagan administration then urged Marcos to accept defeat and leave the country, which he did. The Reagan team also supported the 1988 Chilean plebiscite that resulted in the restoration of democratic rule and Pinochet's eventual removal from office.

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 compatible and reflective of U.S. 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.

Some critics would say however, that 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. Most neocons view this argument as invalid until a country has a democratic government to express the actual determination of its people.

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 favored. 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 right-wing militias in Central America seeking to overthrow radical leftist governments such as that of the Sandinistas.

In general, many neocons see the collapse of the Soviet Union as having occurred directly due to Reagan's hard-line stance, and the bankruptcy that resulted from the Soviet Union trying to keep up the arms race. They therefore see this as a strong confirmation of their worldview.

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 U.S. 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 then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 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.

The start of neoconservative comeback can be dated to June 3, 1997, with the founding of PNAC (Project for the New American Century) by Kristol and Kagan, and the publication of their “Statement of Principles” signed by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Libby, and Abrams, to name only those who ended up at the core of Bush administrations Iraq war policy. Its first public action was an open letter to Clinton stating:

"We urge you to ... enunciate a new strategy that ... should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power. .... This will require a full complement of diplomatic, political and military efforts."

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.

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 U.S. foreign policy, is a proclamation of the right of the United States to wage preemptive 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 U.S. 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.

Today, the most prominent supporters of the neoconservative 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 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. While paying lip service to "American values", neoconservatives have supported undemocratic regimes for realpolitik reasons.

While Irving Kristol is said to be the "godfather" of neoconservativism, he and others such as Paul Wolfowitz, Perle, etc. are students of Leo Strauss whose theories form the basis of neoconservativism.

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This page was last modified 05:07, 2 October 2005 by dKosopedia user Stoft. Based on work by Andrew Oh-Willeke and dKosopedia user(s) DRolfe, Lestatdelc, Peeder, Kagro X and Pyrrho. Content is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

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