chapter  1
23 Pages

Introduction

Those who write about neoconservatism often struggle to define it. Is a neoconservative “a liberal who has been mugged by reality,” as Irving Kristol, the progenitor of neoconservatism, once quipped? Is neoconservatism a “Jewish mindset,” one shaped by the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, as many claim?1 Or are neoconservatives, as some imply, best thought of as an institutional network of like-minded thinkers who spend their lives writing for think-tanks and journals, jostling for influence over those elected to lead?2 In contrast, neoconservatism, I argue, should be defined by the ideas and beliefs of its leading intellectuals, especially those who write most prolifically on American foreign policy. Neoconservatives remain as relevant today as they were in the immediate

aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. They have been an integral part of America’s national life for several decades, writing on both domestic and foreign policy. Even when they appear marginalized, neoconservatives are always preparing for the future, knowing that nothing is permanent in American politics. If their ideas are to shape the future, neoconservatives know that they must be developed at times when their prospects of shaping policy appear dim. And the goal today, they know, must be to wage a war of ideas, in the nation’s newspapers, in its colleges, on cable TV, and in the think-tanks. The term “neoconservative” itself is one that engenders much debate and

visceral reaction. There is certainly no consensus on how neoconservatism should be defined or thought about, although there have been no shortage of observers who have been eager to apply the label to whomever they hope it will taint. As Douglas Murray fairly argues, “Rarely has a term been thrown around so wildly while its meaning remains so popularly elusive” (2006: xvi). All studies on neoconservatism attempt to demystify its meaning, this one included. The first two chapters of this book will indulge many of the customary

academic expectations associated with producing a work of scholarship – outlining the argument to follow, explaining the merits of the adopted methodology, and reviewing the existing literature. Yet it is important to note that neoconservatives retain considerable relevance and significance not only

because of their own ideas and alleged influence over the Bush administration, but because of what their ideas and beliefs may tell us about America and its political culture. There has always been a considerable amount of ideational continuity in policy debates in the United States, especially in the realm of American foreign policy, which is the field in which this study primarily concerns itself. In his superbly written account of America’s foreign policy traditions, Walter Russell Mead argues, “many of the ideas and alternatives present in contemporary discussions would have been familiar to American politicians and thinkers throughout our history” (2002: 87). The debates neoconservatives have engaged in are not that different from

the debates that have taken place in America’s past. There are, of course, unique features of neoconservatism meriting emphasis. But many of the dilemmas and challenges neoconservatives confront have been dilemmas and challenges long confronted by American statesmen and intellectuals of both the highest and lowest caliber. How should the national interest be defined? What role should ideology play in the conduct of American foreign policy? What should America’s contribution be to creating a more orderly world? How should American power be employed? These are questions that Americans have faced since the birth of their republic. Sometimes the answers provided to such questions have been wise, sometimes they have been reckless. Should America be a “promised land” or a “crusader state,” a question at the forefront of Walter McDougall’s thoughtful history on American foreign policy? (1997). Neoconservatives have answered this question with no less conviction and sincerity than have preceding generations of intellectuals and policy-makers. Neoconservatives, it must be noted, do not see America as an ordinary

country. But then, as John Kane persuasively argues, neither America nor the world has ever seen America as ordinary (2008: 425). The sense of national mission and exceptionalism infusing the country’s political culture, according to Anatol Lieven, has made “it much more difficult for most Americans to imagine the United States as a country among others or an ‘international community’ that includes America as a member rather than a hegemon” (2006: 63). This has always had consequences for the way in which America has

responded to the problem of world order. When the Cold War ended, much was made about the arrival of a “unipolar moment.” As I argue at length in a later chapter, the strategic logic supporting neoconservative calls to perpetuate American military preponderance, while arguably flawed, was quite sophisticated. But the calls were also overlaid by the belief that only America could be trusted to wield such enormous power. Reinforcing this sense was Ben Wattenberg’s observation that “A unipolar world is a good thing, if America is the uni” (cited in Dorrien 1993: 330). Such observations are a product of a national faith in the fundamental goodness of America. “This belief in American innocence, of ‘original sinlessness,’ is both very old and very powerful,” Lieven argues (2006: 53).