POLITICS: What Is a Neo-Conservative Anyway?

WASHINGTON, Aug 12 2003 (IPS) - With all the attention paid to neo-conservatives in the global media today, one would think that a standard definition of the term would exist. Yet, despite their now being credited with a virtual takeover of U.S. foreign policy under President George W. Bush, a common understanding of ‘neo-cons’ remains elusive.

With all the attention paid to neo-conservatives in the global media today, one would think that a standard definition of the term would exist. Yet, despite their now being credited with a virtual takeover of U.S. foreign policy under President George W. Bush, a common understanding of ‘neo-cons’ remains elusive.

A brief description of their basic tenets and origin can help distinguish them from other parts of the ideological coalition behind the administration’s neo-imperialist trajectory; namely, the traditional Republican Machtpolitikers (Might Makes Right), such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, and the Christian Rightists, such as Attorney General John Ashcroft, Gary Bauer, and Pat Robertson.

As neo-con godfather Irving Kristol once remarked, a neo-conservative is a ”liberal who was mugged by reality”. True to that description, neo-cons generally originated on the left side of the political spectrum and some times from the far left. Many, such as Kristol himself, have Trotskyite roots that are still reflected in their polemical and organisational skills and ideological zeal.

Although a number of prominent Catholics are neo-conservatives, the movement remains predominantly Jewish, and the monthly journal that really defined neo-conservatism over the past 35 years, ‘Commentary’, is published by the American Jewish Committee. But at the same time, neo-conservative attitudes have reflected a minority position within the U.S. Jewish community, as most Jews remain distinctly liberal in their political and foreign-policy views.

Neo-conservative foreign-policy positions, which have their origin in opposition to the New Left of the 1960s, fears over a return to U.S. isolationism during the Vietnam War and the progressive international isolation of Israel in the wake of wars with its Arab neighbours in 1967 and 1973, have been tactically very flexible over the past 35 years, but its key principles have remained the same.

They begin with the basic foreign-policy realism found in the pessimistic views of human nature and international diplomacy of the English political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, which neo-cons share with most U.S. practitioners: ”the condition of man (in a state of nature) … is a condition of war of everyone against everyone”. Or as Machiavelli, another favourite thinker of the neo-cons, wrote: ”Men are more ready for evil than for good.”

But neo-cons take ”man’s” capacity for evil particularly seriously, and for understandable reasons.

For them, the Nazi Holocaust that killed some six million Jews during World War II is the seminal experience of the 20th century. Not only was it a genocide unparalleled in its thoroughness, the Holocaust also wiped out family members of hundreds of thousands of Jewish citizens in the United States, including, for example, close relatives of the parents of Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

For neo-conservatives, as for most Jews, the Holocaust represents absolute evil, and the factors that contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany and the subsequent extermination of European must be fought at all costs..

The “defining moment in our history was certainly the Holocaust”, Richard Perle, a key neo-con and leading advocate of war with Iraq, recently told BBC’s ‘Panorama’. ”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,” he said.

For neo-conservatives, the 1938 Munich agreement, under which Hitler was permitted by Britain and France to take over Czechoslovakia, is the epitome of appeasement that led directly to the Holocaust. As a result, Munich and appeasement are constantly invoked in their rhetoric as a way to summon up the will to resist and defeat the enemy of the day.

Almost every conflict in which the United States has been engaged since the late 1960s – from Vietnam to Central America to Yugoslavia to the ”war on terror” in Iraq and against al-Qaeda – has been portrayed as a new Munich, in which the enemy represents a threat virtually on a par with Hitler.

The resulting worldview tends to Manichaeism – the notion that the world consists of a permanent struggle between the forces of good and evil, light and dark (an idea that also accords very well both with the thinking of the Christian Right, not to mention, of Bush himself). As Michael Ledeen, a close collaborator of Perle’s at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) told the same BBC programme, ”I know the struggle against evil is going to go on forever”.

Three major factors are seen as having contributed to the Holocaust: the failure of the liberal Weimar Republic in Germany to prevent the Nazis’ rise; “appeasement”; and U.S. isolationism that kept Washington from intervening in World War Two earlier.

Although neo-cons profess devotion to liberal democracy, they have never hesitated to assail “liberalism”, or what they sometimes call with their Christian Right allies ”secular humanism”, whose relativism, in their view, can lead to “a culture of appeasement”, nihilism or worse. So, even while supposedly defending “liberal” and democratic ideals, their attitude is at best ambivalent.

Appeasement is prevented by a powerful military capable of defeating any foe, the constant anticipation of new threats, and the willingness to pre-empt them. Thus, neo-cons have consistently favoured big defence budgets, a stance shared by the right-wing Machtpolitikers with whom they formed an alliance in the 1970s to end détente with Moscow.

In their view, peace is to be distrusted, and peace processes are inherently suspect. “Peace doesn’t come from a ‘process’,” wrote ‘Wall Street Journal’ editorial writer Robert Pollock last year in a column that denounced the 1990s as a “decade of appeasement”.

In this view, war is a natural state, and peace is a utopian dream that induces softness, decadence and pacifism, embodied by Bill Clinton whose “corruption of the national mission, combined with the myth that peace is normal, produces a solvent strong enough to dissolve the strength of our armed forces and the integrity of our political and military leaders”, Ledeen wrote in 2000.

Similarly, enemies cannot be negotiated with. “Before the U.S. can worry about rebuilding Iraq, it has to win militarily, and decisively so,” the Journal wrote just before the war. “Arab cultures despise weakness in an adversary above all” is a refrain echoing past neo-con descriptions of the Soviet Union, China, and other geo-political foes.

Finally, U.S. engagement in world affairs is absolutely indispensable in preventing catastrophe, according to neo-con ideology, which, in the words of another Perle intimate, Ken Adelman, sees “isolationism (as) the default option” in U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, many neo-cons, fearing that the Cold War’s end would revive isolationism, spent most of the 1990s hawking policies designed to maintain Washington’s international engagement, even if that meant supporting Clinton when he deployed troops abroad.

Why? If evil is embodied by Hitler and similar threats, the United States comes as close to moral goodness as can be found in the world today, say neo-cons.

”Since America’s emergence as a world power roughly a century ago”, Elliott Abrams, another prominent neo-con who currently serves as the top Middle East policy-maker on Bush’s National Security Council, wrote in a ‘Commentary’ colloquium in 2000, ”we have made many errors, but we have been the greatest force for good among the nations of the Earth. A diminution of American power or influence bodes ill for our country, our friends, and our principles.”

U.S. intervention abroad, as in Iraq, is seen in the best possible light. Michael Kelly, a ‘Washington Post’ columnist who died in an accident during the Iraq campaign, assured his readers last October that, ”what President Bush aspires to now, is not exactly imperialism. It is something more like armed evangelism”.

The moral goodness of the United States is beyond question and justifies – indeed requires – a unilateralist policy lest, by subjecting its will to the wishes or agreements of other countries or global institutions, the United States would actually prevent itself from fulfilling its moral mission.

Although this notion dates back to the early days of the Republic, the neo-conservatives have tried hard to reinforce it. In an attack on the U.N. Security Council this year, Perle argued: ”This is a dangerously wrong idea that leads inexorably to handing great moral and even existential politico-military decisions, to the likes of Syria, Cameroon, Angola, Russia, China, and France”.

It echoes a refrain delivered by Post columnist Charles Krauthammer 15 years ago about the United Nations: ”Let it sink”, he wrote. ”It is corrupting”.

This sense of U.S. moral superiority applies especially to what is now called ”Old Europe”, much as it did in U.S. foreign policy until Washington’s entry into World War Two. Kelly writes this about U.S. imperial altruism: ”Unlike the European powers, the United States has never sought to own the world. In its peculiarly American fashion, it has sought to make the world behave better, indeed BE better.”

But Washington’s moral superiority, combined with the possibly ”catastrophic” results of failing to confront Munich-type threats, also justifies a range of extraordinary responses, which under other circumstances might be morally questionable, according to the neo-con view. In particular, temporary alliances with other countries or movements whose own ideologies or practices may be morally reprehensible can be defended if they are used to fight a greater evil.

”In World War Two, we were allied for three years and eight months with history’s greatest murderer – Joseph Stalin – because we had a more immediate problem – Adolf Hitler,” said former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director James Woolsey, at an AEI briefing, defending tactical flexibility..

The readiness to make tactical alliances has extended even to anti-Semitic governments and movements, such as the neo-Nazi military junta in Argentina.. The regime was strongly defended by the elder Kristol, while neo-cons in the Reagan administration, such as Abrams and then-U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, worked to reverse the regime’s diplomatic isolation and restore U.S. and multilateral aid that had been cut off by President Jimmy Carter.

But if anti-Semitism can be tolerated under some circumstances, the security of Israel remains a fundamental tenet of neo-conservatives, who traditionally supported whatever Israeli government was in power but, since 1993 and the Oslo peace accords, became much more closely identified with the views of the right-wing Likud Party, which opposed the agreement.

The neo-conservative identification with Israel can be explained in part by its predominantly Jewish membership, but Christian neo-conservatives very much share the sense that a strategic alliance with Israel constitutes a moral imperative in the post-Holocaust era. As Catholic neo-con William Bennett wrote in a recent book, “America’s fate and Israel’s fate are one and the same”.

This commitment to Israel also explains the willingness of Jewish neo-cons to overlook the anti-Semitism of their Christian Right allies, whose own identification with Israel is based on a “Christian Zionist” reading of Biblical scripture that recognises a God-given right of the Jews to what both religions consider the “Holy Land”, at least until the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ.

Kristol and other leading neo-cons have long argued that other Jews should not be offended by this alliance. “Why would it be a problem for us?” he wrote some years ago. “It is their theology; but it is our Israel.”

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