Not Quite a Canard

“We neoconservatives have been through a startling few years.” With that understatement, Joshua Muravchik begins an open memo to his “fellow neoconservatives,” in the current issue of Foreign Policy.

It is both neoconservatism’s strength and detriment that it is not so much a school of thought as it is an intellectual current. It is a current because there is no specific definition of what constitutes a neoconservative outlook. There are only very baggy tenets, which Muravchik highlights as “a belief that world peace is indivisible, that ideas are powerful, that freedom and democracy are universally valid, and that evil exists and must be confronted.” While one would be hard pressed to find a self-defined neoconservative who rejects any of these sentiments, it is worth pointing out that a belief in these tenets extends to people well beyond the neoconservative fold, which is to say that neoconservatives have no monopoly on the notion that freedom and democracy are universally valid.

The elasticity of the neoconservative label has nurtured the pervasive confusion and misinformation that has dogged this term since it was re-launched on the world stage after September 11. To put it simply, if you ask ten self-described neoconservatives to define neoconservatism you will get ten different responses. So, while Joshua Muravchik deems it a “canard” that many people think the roots of neoconservative foreign policy can be traced back to Leo Strauss and Leon Trotsky, other self-described neoconservatives seem to have a different opinion on the matter. As Matthew Ygelsias points out on his eponymous blog, in his essay “A Man Without Footnotes” included in The Neoconservative Imagination: Essays in Honor of Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer recounts that “Irving Kristol at one point wrote that the two chief influences on his thinking were Lionel Trilling and Leo Strauss.”

Furthermore, I had the distinct pleasure of just writing a review of Stephen Schwartz’s (a self-described neoconservative) shrill broadside against the institutional pillars of the American Jewish community. I do not have the book in front of me, but if my memory serves there is a passage when Schwartz is retelling the too often retold story of how the first generation of neoconservatives migrated from left to right in which he claimed that Leon Trotsky can be considered a “proto-neoconservative.”

My point is not that Leo Strauss and Leon Trotsky are at the root of neoconservative foreign policy, my point is that for some this does indeed seem to be the case. For others, not. This reality cuts both ways though. As ludicrous as it is for Muravchik to dismiss this claim as a “canard,” it is equally insane (if not more so) to think that reading Leo Strauss will shed much of any light on anything other than Leo Strauss.

Explore posts in the same categories: Wither Neoconservatism?

2 Comments on “Not Quite a Canard”

  1. […] small-d Fiendishly Clever Tagline Pending « Not Quite a Canard […]

  2. […] We are told Gates is a realist. That, along with James Baker, this is the return of the “Wise Men.” And this may indeed signify a springtime for realism. But the term is highly misleading. Small-d has dedicated a good amount of pixels to lamenting and parsing how various ideological categories have been misused and abused in recent years. There is no greater example of this than the use of “neoconservatism.” It does not mean simply to be hawkish on Iraq. Rumsfeld is not, and never was or has been, a neoconservative. I think he would laugh at the suggestion that he has ever been anything but conservative. There is nothing “neo” about Don Rumsfeld. Which is to say, though Gates can reasonably be placed in the realist school of foreign policy this designation tell us little about his approach to Iraq. […]

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