Neoconservatism is a political philosophy that emerged in the United States from the rejection of the social liberalism, moral relativism, and New Left counterculture of the 1960s. It influenced the presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, representing a realignment in American politics, and the defection of some liberals to the right side of the political spectrum; hence the term, referring to these "new" conservatives.1 Neoconservatism emphasizes foreign policy as the paramount responsibility of government, maintaining that America's role as the world's sole superpower is indispensable to establishing and maintaining global order.2
The term neoconservative was originally used as a criticism against liberals who had "moved to the right."34
Michael Harrington, a democratic socialist, coined the usage of neoconservative in a 1973 Dissent magazine article concerning welfare policy.5 According to liberal editorial writer E. J. Dionne, the nascent neoconservatives were driven by "the notion that liberalism" had failed and "no longer knew what it was talking about."1
The first major neoconservative to embrace the term was Irving Kristol, in his 1979 article "Confessions of a True, Self-Confessed 'Neoconservative.'"3 Kristol's ideas had been influential since the 1950s, when he co-founded and edited Encounter magazine.6. Another source was Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine from 1960 to 1995. By 1982 Podhoretz was calling himself a neoconservative, in a New York Times Magazine article titled "The Neoconservative Anguish over Reagan's Foreign Policy".78
Prominent neoconservative periodicals are Commentary and The Weekly Standard. Neoconservatives are associated with foreign policy initiatives of think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).
Neoconservatives had a prevailing voice in President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003. As the unpopular war in Iraq has dragged on for five years, many observers have come to believe that neoconservative assumptions about the purported beneficial outcomes in the Middle East region of the American invasion were egregiously wrong.
History and origins
Left-wing past of neoconservatives
Author Michael Lind argues that "the organization as well as the ideology of the neoconservative movement has left-liberal origins."9 He draws a line from the center-left anti-communist Congress for Cultural Freedom, founded in 1950, to the Committee on the Present Danger (1950-1953, then re-founded in 1976), to the Project for the New American Century (1997), and adds that "European social-democratic models inspired the quintessential neocon institution, the National Endowment for Democracy" (founded 1983).
The neoconservative desire to spread democracy abroad has been likened to the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution. Lind argues that the neoconservatives are influenced by the thought of former Trotskyists such as James Burnham and Max Shachtman, who argued that "the United States and similar societies are dominated by a decadent, postbourgeois 'new class.'" He sees the neoconservative concept of "global democratic revolution" as deriving from the Trotskyist Fourth International's "vision of permanent revolution." He also points to what he sees as the Marxist origin of "the economic determinist idea that liberal democracy is an epiphenomenon of capitalism," which he describes as "Marxism with entrepreneurs substituted for proletarians as the heroic subjects of history." However, few leading neoconservatives cite James Burnham as a major influence.10
Critics of Lind contend that there is no theoretical connection between Trotsky's permanent revolution, and that the idea of a global democratic revolution instead has Wilsonian roots.11 While both Wilsonianism and the theory of permanent revolution have been proposed as strategies for underdeveloped parts of the world, Wilson proposed capitalist solutions, while Trotsky advocated socialist solutions.
Great Depression and World War II
"New" conservatives initially approached this view from the political left. The forerunners of neoconservatism were often liberals or socialists who strongly supported the Allied cause in World War II, and who were influenced by the Great Depression-era ideas of the New Deal, trade unionism, and Trotskyism, particularly those who followed the political ideas of Max Shachtman. A number of future neoconservatives, such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, were Shachtmanites in their youth; some were later involved with Social Democrats USA.
Some of the mid-twentieth century New York Intellectuals were forebears of neoconservatism. The most notable was literary critic Lionel Trilling, who wrote, "In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition." It was this liberal vital center, a term coined by the historian and liberal theorist Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., that the neoconservatives would see as threatened by New Left extremism. But the majority of vital center liberals remained affiliated with the Democratic Party, retained left-of-center viewpoints, and opposed Republican politicians such as Richard Nixon who first attracted neoconservative support.
Initially, the neoconservatives were less concerned with foreign policy than with domestic policy. Irving Kristol's journal, The Public Interest, focused on ways that government planning in the liberal state had produced unintended harmful consequences. Norman Podhoretz's magazine Commentary, formerly a journal of the liberal left, had more of a cultural focus, criticizing excesses in the movements for black equality and women's rights, and in the academic left. Through the 1950s and early 1960s the future neoconservatives had been socialists or liberals strongly supportive of the American Civil Rights Movement, integration, and Martin Luther King, Jr..1213
The neoconservatives, arising from the anti-Stalinist left of the 1950s, opposed the anti-capitalism of the New Left of the 1960s. They broke from the liberal consensus of the early post-World War II years in foreign policy, and opposed Détente with the Soviet Union in the late 1960s and 1970s.Senator Henry M. Jackson, influential neoconservative forerunner.
Drift away from New Left and Great Society
Initially the views of the New Left were popular with the children of hard-line communists, often Jewish immigrants on the edge of poverty. Neoconservatives came to dislike the counterculture of the 1960s baby boomers, and what they saw as anti-Americanism in the non-interventionism of the movement against the Vietnam War.
As the radicalization of the New Left pushed these intellectuals farther to the right, they moved toward a more aggressive militarism, while becoming disillusioned with President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society domestic programs. Academics in these circles, many still Democrats, rejected the Democratic Party's leftward drift on defense issues in the 1970s, especially after the nomination of George McGovern for president in 1972. The influential 1970 bestseller The Real Majority by future television commentator and neoconservative Ben Wattenberg expressed that the "real majority" of the electorate supported economic liberalism but social conservatism, and warned Democrats it could be disastrous to take liberal stances on certain social and crime issues.14
Many supported Democratic Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, derisively known as the "Senator from Boeing," during his 1972 and 1976 campaigns for president. Among those who worked for Jackson were future neoconservatives Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, Richard Perle and Felix Rohatyn. In the late 1970s neoconservative support moved to Ronald Reagan and the Republicans, who promised to confront Soviet expansionism.
Michael Lind, a self-described former neoconservative, explained:9
Neoconservatism… originated in the 1970s as a movement of anti-Soviet liberals and social democrats in the tradition of Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Humphrey and Henry ('Scoop') Jackson, many of whom preferred to call themselves 'paleoliberals.' After the end of the Cold War… many 'paleoliberals' drifted back to the Democratic center… . Today's neocons are a shrunken remnant of the original broad neocon coalition. Nevertheless, the origins of their ideology on the left are still apparent. The fact that most of the younger neocons were never on the left is irrelevant; they are the intellectual (and, in the case of William Kristol and John Podhoretz, the literal) heirs of older ex-leftists.
In his semi-autobiographical book, Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, 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 and his disciples on neoconservatism has generated some controversy, with Lind asserting:15
For the neoconservatives, religion is an instrument of promoting morality. Religion becomes what Plato called a noble lie. It is a myth which is told to the majority of the society by the philosophical elite in order to ensure social order… . In being a kind of secretive elitist approach, Straussianism does resemble Marxism. These ex-Marxists, or in some cases ex-liberal Straussians, could see themselves as a kind of Leninist group, you know, who have this covert vision which they want to use to effect change in history, while concealing parts of it from people incapable of understanding it.
During the 1970s political scientist Jeane Kirkpatrick criticized the Democratic Party, to which she belonged. She opposed the nomination of the antiwar George McGovern in 1972, and accused the Jimmy Carter administration (1977-1981) of applying a double standard in human rights, by tolerating abuses in communist states, while withdrawing support of anti-communist autocrats. She joined Ronald Reagan's successful 1980 campaign for president as his foreign policy adviser. She was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 1981 to 1985.
During this period, the United States increased its support for anti-communist governments, even going so far as to support some that engaged in human rights abuses, as part of its general hard line against communism. As the 1980s wore on, younger second-generation neoconservatives, such as Elliott Abrams, pushed for a clear policy of supporting democracy against both left and right wing dictators. This debate led to a policy shift in 1986, when the Reagan administration urged Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos to step down amid turmoil over a rigged election. Abrams also supported the 1988 Chilean plebiscite that resulted in the restoration of democratic rule and Augusto Pinochet's eventual removal from office. Through the National Endowment for Democracy, led by another neoconservative, Carl Gershman, funds were directed to the anti-Pinochet opposition in order to ensure a fair election.
During the 1990s, neoconservatives were once again in the opposition side of the foreign policy establishment, both under the Republican Administration of President George H. W. Bush and that of his Democratic successor, President Bill Clinton. Many critics charged that the neoconservatives lost their raison d'être and influence following the collapse of the Soviet Union.16 Others argue that they lost their status due to their association with the Iran-Contra Affair during the Reagan Administration.
Neoconservative writers were critical of the post-Cold War foreign policy of both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, which they criticized for reducing military expenditures and lacking a sense of idealism in the promotion of American interests. They accused these Administrations of lacking both moral clarity and the conviction to pursue unilaterally America's international strategic interests.
The movement was galvanized by the decision of George H. W. Bush and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell to leave Saddam Hussein in power after the first Gulf War in 1991. Some neoconservatives viewed this policy, and the decision not to support indigenous dissident groups such as the Kurds and Shiites in their 1991-1992 resistance to Hussein, as a betrayal of democratic principles.
Ironically, some of those same targets of criticism would later become fierce advocates of neoconservative policies. In 1992, referring to the first Gulf War, then United States Secretary of Defense and future Vice President Dick Cheney, said:
I would guess if we had gone in there, I would still have forces in Baghdad today. We'd be running the country. We would not have been able to get everybody out and bring everybody home… . And the question in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam Hussein worth? And the answer is not that damned many. So, I think we got it right, both when we decided to expel him from Kuwait, but also when the president made the decision that we'd achieved our objectives and we were not going to go get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq.
Within a few years of the Gulf War in Iraq, many neoconservatives were pushing to oust Saddam Hussein. On February 19, 1998, an open letter to President Clinton appeared, signed by dozens of pundits, many identified with neoconservatism and, later, related groups such as the PNAC, urging decisive action to remove Saddam from power.17
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.
In the late 1990s Irving Kristol and other writers in neoconservative magazines began touting anti-Darwinist views, in support of intelligent design. Since these neoconservatives were largely of secular backgrounds, a few commentators have speculated that this-along with support for religion generally-may have been a case of a noble lie, intended to protect public morality, or even tactical politics, to attract religious supporters.18
Administration of George W. Bush
The Bush campaign and the early Bush Administration did not exhibit strong support for neoconservative principles. As a candidate Bush argued for a restrained foreign policy, stating his opposition to the idea of nation-building19 and an early foreign policy confrontation with China was handled without the vociferousness suggested by some neoconservatives.20. Also early in the Administration, some neoconservatives criticized Bush's Administration as insufficiently supportive of Israel, and suggested Bush's foreign policies were not substantially different from those of President Clinton.21
Bush's policies changed dramatically immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks. According to columnist Gerard Baker,22
It took, improbably, the arrival of George Bush in the White House and September 11, 2001, to catapult neoconservatism into the public consciousness. When Mr Bush cited its most simplified tenet-that the US should seek to promote liberal democracy around the world-as a key case for invading Iraq, neoconservatism was suddenly everywhere. It was, to its many critics, a unified ideology that justified military adventurism, sanctioned torture and promoted aggressive Zionism.
Bush laid out his vision of the future in his State of the Union speech in January 2002, following the September 11, 2001 attacks. The speech, written by neoconservative David Frum, named Iraq, Iran and North Korea as states that "constitute an axis of evil" and "pose a grave and growing danger." Bush suggested the possibility of preemptive war: "I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."2324
The Bush Doctrine of preemptive war was explicitly stated in the National Security Council text "National Security Strategy of the United States," published September 20, 2002. "We must deter and defend against the threat before it is unleashed… even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack… . The United States will, if necessary, act preemptively."25 Policy analysts noted that the Bush Doctrine as stated in the 2002 NSC document bore a strong resemblance to recommendations originally presented in a controversial Defense Planning Guidance draft written in 1992 by Paul Wolfowitz under the first Bush administration.26
The Bush Doctrine was greeted with accolades by many neoconservatives. When asked whether he agreed with the Bush Doctrine, Max Boot said he did, and that "I think Bush is exactly right to say we can't sit back and wait for the next terrorist strike on Manhattan. We have to go out and stop the terrorists overseas. We have to play the role of the global policeman… . But I also argue that we ought to go further."27 Discussing the significance of the Bush Doctrine, neoconservative writer William Kristol claimed: "The world is a mess. And, I think, it's very much to Bush's credit that he's gotten serious about dealing with it… . The danger is not that we're going to do too much. The danger is that we're going to do too little."28
The Bush Doctrine was applied in the intervention of Afghanistan and the second Iraq War. As the world's lone remaining superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union, American foreign policy in the Bush era became an attempt to promote democracy through the extension of American political and military power into regions like the Middle East. While the invasion of Iraq and removal of Saddam Hussein from power proved relatively easy, the establishment of the institutions of democracy and a functioning democratic state has proven far more elusive. The reconstruction was run out of the Defense Department, more closely identified with the Neocons, rather than the State Department and was the object of much domestic as well as foreign criticism for its failures. Critics accused the United States of practicing the politics of empire.
Evolution of neoconservative views
Usage and general views
The term "neoconservative" has been used before, and its meaning has changed over time. Writing in The Contemporary Review (London) in 1883, Henry Dunckley used the term to describe factions within the Conservative Party; James Bryce again uses it in his Modern Democracies (1921) to describe British political history of the 1880s. The German authoritarians Carl Schmitt, who became professor at the University of Berlin in 1933, the same year that he entered the Nazi party (NSDAP), and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck were called "neo-conservatives."29 In "The Future of Democratic Values" in Partisan Review, (July-August 1943), Dwight MacDonald complained of "the neo-conservatives of our time who reject the propositions on materialism, Human Nature, and Progress." He cited as an example Jacques Barzun, who was "attempting to combine progressive values and conservative concepts."
In the early 1970s, democratic socialist Michael Harrington used the term in its modern meaning. He characterized neoconservatives as former leftists-whom he derided as "socialists for Nixon"-who had moved significantly to the right. These people tended to remain supporters of social democracy, but distinguished themselves by allying with the Nixon administration over foreign policy, especially by their support for the Vietnam War and opposition to the Soviet Union. They still supported the welfare state, but not necessarily in its contemporary form.
Irving Kristol remarked that a neoconservative is a "liberal mugged by reality," one who became more conservative after seeing the results of liberal policies. Kristol also claims three distinctive aspects of neoconservatism from previous forms of conservatism: a forward-looking approach drawn from their liberal heritage, rather than the reactionary and dour approach of previous conservatives; a meliorative outlook, proposing alternate reforms rather than simply attacking social liberal reforms; taking philosophical or ideological ideas very seriously.30
Political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was an important intellectual antecedent of neoconservativism. Notably Strauss influenced Allan Bloom, author of the 1987 bestseller Closing of the American Mind.
Usage outside the United States
In other liberal democracies, the meaning of neoconservatism is closely related to its meaning in the United States. Neoconservatives in these countries tend to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq and similar U.S. foreign policy, while differing more on domestic policy. Examples are:
- Canada, see: Neoconservatism in Canada.
- Japan, see: Neoconservatism in Japan.
- United Kingdom, see Neoconservatism (disambiguation).
In countries which are not liberal democracies, the term has entirely different meanings:
- China and Iran, see Neoconservatism (disambiguation).
Neoconservative views on foreign policyMain International relations theory
Historically, neoconservatives supported a militant anti-communism,31 tolerated more social welfare spending than was sometimes acceptable to libertarians and paleoconservatives, and sympathized with a non-traditional foreign policy agenda that was less deferential to traditional conceptions of diplomacy and international law and less inclined to compromise principles, even if that meant unilateral action.
The movement began to focus on such foreign issues in the mid-1970s. However, it first crystallized in the late 1960s as an effort to combat the radical cultural changes taking place within the United States. Irving Kristol wrote: "If there is any one thing that neoconservatives are unanimous about, it is their dislike of the counterculture."32 Norman Podhoretz agreed: "Revulsion against the counterculture accounted for more converts to neoconservatism than any other single factor."33 Ira Chernus argues that the deepest root of the neoconservative movement is its fear that the counterculture would undermine the authority of traditional values and moral norms. Because neoconservatives believe that human nature is innately self-serving, they believe that a society with no commonly accepted values based on religion or ancient tradition will end up in a war of all against all. They also believe that the most important social value is strength, especially the strength to control natural impulses. The only alternative, they assume, is weakness that will let impulses run riot and lead to social chaos.34
According to Peter Steinfels, a historian of the movement, the neoconservatives' "emphasis on foreign affairs emerged after the New Left and the counterculture had dissolved as convincing foils for neoconservatism… . The essential source of their anxiety is not military or geopolitical or to be found overseas at all; it is domestic and cultural and ideological."35 Neoconservative foreign policy parallels their domestic policy. They insist that the U.S. military must be strong enough to control the world, or else the world will descend into chaos.
Believing that America should "export democracy," that is, spread its ideals of government, economics, and culture abroad, they grew to reject U.S. reliance on international organizations and treaties to accomplish these objectives. Compared to other U.S. conservatives, neoconservatives take a more idealist stance on foreign policy; adhere less to social conservatism; have a weaker dedication to the policy of minimal government; and in the past, have been more supportive of the welfare state.
Aggressive support for democracies and nation building is additionally justified by a belief that, over the long term, it will reduce the extremism that is a breeding ground for Islamic terrorism. Neoconservatives, along with many other political theorists, have argued that democratic regimes are less likely to instigate a war than a country with an authoritarian form of government. Further, they argue that the lack of freedoms, lack of economic opportunities, and the lack of secular general education in authoritarian regimes promotes radicalism and extremism. Consequently, neoconservatives advocate the spread of democracy to regions of the world where it currently does not prevail, notably the Arab nations of the Middle East, communist China and North Korea, and Iran.
Neoconservatives believe in the ability of the United States to install democracy after a conflict, citing the de-Nazification of Germany and installation of democratic government in Japan after World War II. This idea guided U.S. policy in Iraq after the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime, when the U.S. organized elections as soon as practical. Neoconservatives also ascribe to the principal of defending democracies against aggression.
Distinctions from other conservatives
Most neoconservatives are members of the Republican Party. They have been in electoral alignment with other conservatives and served in the same presidential administrations. While they have often ignored ideological differences in alliance against those to their left, neoconservatives differ from traditional or paleoconservatives. In particular, they disagree with nativism, protectionism, and non-interventionism in foreign policy, ideologies rooted in American history and exemplified by former Republican paleoconservative Pat Buchanan. Compared with traditional conservatism and libertarianism, which may be non-interventionist, neoconservatism emphasizes defense capability, challenging regimes hostile to the values and interests of the United States, and pressing for free-market policies abroad. Neoconservatives also believe in democratic peace theory, the proposition that democracies never or almost never go to war with one another.
Neoconservatives disagree with political realism in foreign policy, often associated with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Though Republican and anti-communist, Nixon and Kissinger practiced the more traditional balance of power realpolitic, making pragmatic accommodation with dictators and sought peace through negotiations, diplomacy, and arms control. They pursued détente with the Soviet Union, rather than rollback, and established relations with the communist People's Republic of China.
Criticism of the term neoconservative
Some of those identified as neoconservative reject the term, arguing that it lacks a coherent definition, or that it was coherent only in the context of the Cold War.
Conservative writer David Horowitz argues that the increasing use of the term neoconservative since the 2003 start of the Iraq War has made it irrelevant:
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.36
The term may have lost meaning due to excessive and inconsistent use. For example, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld have been identified as leading neoconservatives despite the fact that they have been life-long conservative Republicans (though Cheney has supported Irving Kristol's ideas).
Some critics reject the idea that there is a neoconservative movement separate from traditional American conservatism. Traditional conservatives are skeptical of the contemporary usage of the term and dislike being associated with its stereotypes or supposed agendas. Columnist David Harsanyi wrote, "These days, it seems that even temperate support for military action against dictators and terrorists qualifies you a neocon."37 Jonah Goldberg rejected the label as trite and over-used, arguing "There's nothing 'neo' about me: I was never anything other than conservative."
Some neoconservatives believe that criticism of neoconservatism is couched in antisemitic stereotypes, and that the term has been adopted by the political left to stigmatize support for Israel. In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Robert J. Lieber warned that criticism of the 2003 Iraq War had spawned38
a conspiracy theory purporting to explain how American foreign policy… has been captured by a sinister and hitherto little-known cabal. A small band of neoconservative (read, Jewish) defense intellectuals… has taken advantage of 9/11 to put their ideas over on Bush… . Thus empowered, this neoconservative conspiracy, "a product of the influential Jewish-American faction of the Trotskyist movement of the '30s and '40s" (Michael Lind)… has fomented war with Iraq… in the service of Israel's Likud government (Patrick J. Buchanan and Eric Alterman).
David Brooks derided the "fantasies" of "full-mooners fixated on a… sort of Yiddish Trilateral Commission," beliefs which had "hardened into common knowledge… . In truth, people labeled neocons (con is short for 'conservative' and neo is short for 'Jewish') travel in widely different circles… "39 Barry Rubin argued that the neoconservative label is used as an antisemitic pejorative:40
First, 'neo-conservative' is a codeword for Jewish. As antisemites did with big business moguls in the nineteenth century and Communist leaders in the twentieth, the trick here is to take all those involved in some aspect of public life and single out those who are Jewish. The impli