Archive for the ‘Wither Neoconservatism?’ category

American Indifference

April 18, 2007

Since Sunday night PBS has treated viewers to a stunning series of documentary films that examine big themes and ideas that define our post-9/11 world. Last night featured a documentary titled “The Case for War” and the premise was that we would go along with Richard Perle as he travelled from Washington to Kabul to Kosovo to London and back again, meeting with his critics and supporters every step along the way.

The film was fascinating, even though Perle was often disappointingly inarticulate (in the role of protagonist) and tone deaf in his responses to grieving mothers and intellectual foes (Pat Buchanan, Richard Holbrooke, Simon Jenkins, among others). Furthermore, his gravely monotone voice, seeming inability to smile, and penguin like appearance all make him a rather unattractive spokesman for his cause. These qualities feed the stereotyped characterization of him as the “Prince of Darkness” (which, if memory serves, is actually a nickname that has stuck to him by mistake. When Perle served as Reagan’s point man on nuclear negotiations with the Soviets he was a frequent presence in the halls of Congress. As it happens, a certain other white-haired, slightly obese, prickly conservative was also known to stalk these halls. Both men carry the nickname “Prince of Darkness,” but I think it originally belonged to Novak — but I digress…).

When I clicked-off my television last night I could only think that Perle had changed few minds over the course of the previous hour (the rather dismissive review from Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times suggests the same.) Chief among my complaints about the film is how the term “neoconservative” is used. Not a minute is spent defining the widely misunderstood word. Granted, to move down this road risks getting the producers stuck in a complex morass that might trigger many viewer’s eyes to roll back into their heads, or simply reach for their remotes, but in such a case I suspect they would have been better off not using the tricky term at all. It obfuscates more than it clarifies.

My other take-away brings me back to familiar stomping grounds. The utterly unpersuasive case Perle musters in the documentary reinforces what Niall Stange in the current issue of The New York Observer calls “The Tragic Death of Enlightened Interventionism.” Stange digs up some excerpts from a speech Tony Blair delivered a few weeks after 9/11.

“The starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of Northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan: They too are our cause,” Mr. Blair said. “This is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us.”

Was Blair’s rhetoric a bit grandiose? Sure. Is it depressing that this speech reads to many across the political spectrum as an easily dismissed parody of American (and British) foreign policy? Absolutely. (Just ask Joe Biden)

Neo-Confusion

November 2, 2006

Further to my partner in thought crime’s excellent post, I would say that the term “neoconservative” has become essentially meaningless in political and intellectual discourse. It is now merely a pejorative, encompassing the unhelpful categories of “hawk” and “dumbass.” I do, however, think there are a few common aspects of thought that unite those who would self-identify or have been branded as neoconservatives. The first would be anti-totalitarianism, or a perpetual battle with what they perceive to be totalitarian forces – Communism, Baathism and so forth. This as opposed to straightforward anti-authoritarianism. As is clear from some of the dealings in Latin America in the 1980’s by Reaganite officials who could be considered neocons , bolstering authoritarian dictators or vicious right-wing paramilitary organizations is considered preferable, even necessary, to counter (or contra) the perceived totalitarian threat.

The second aspect would be a fundamental mistrust of international institutions and their ability to safeguard international peace and security. These only enmesh the forces of anti-totalitarianism in procedural boondoggles and bureaucratic cowardice, allowing illegitimate (or “evil”) actors to constrain them in the name of an illusory and fraudulent notion of legitimacy.

The third would be a belief in the moral superiority of an anti-totalitarian power such as America, not by dint of perfection or divine providence, but by default. A misperception of neocons is that they are Utopian dreamers or rose-tinted tipplers. The neocon worldview is considerably darker than that. Theirs is a world in which freedom and enlightenment are constantly under threat, their survival, let alone their victory, far from assured. In fact, a fundamental precept of this type of thinking would seem to be that freedom and decency face an ongoing existential crisis. Totalitarian evil is the ever-present threat, the fight against it the source of moral legitimacy. Any challenge to the power and legitimacy of the anti-totalitarian force is therefore an existential threat, which is why Saddam Hussein’s defiance and belligerence towards America were cause for preemptive action, however remote the actual danger he posed. Totalitarians cannot be trusted, cannot be bargained with. We are already at war with them and any weakness on our part will mean our defeat.

Pretty grim, but then given the history of the 20th century, not entirely unreasonable. Forget Leon Trotsky, this is more about Stalin, his murderer. And given the Jewish background of many prominent neocons, it is also decidedly about Hitler (fealty to Israel being more about a physical and ideological beachhead against an implacable eradicationist foe, not a thirst for Palestinian blood or a grand imperial design as some would charge). Where the neocons go from the ashes of Iraq is hard to imagine, but searching for their intellectual roots in the volumes of Leo Strauss or the annals of City College betrays a naive belief that by tearing them root and branch from our thinking and politics our troubles will all be over.

Not Quite a Canard

November 2, 2006

“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.

The Annals of Patting Yourself on the Back

October 18, 2006

Perhaps I am being unfair, but is it not a bit unseemly that The Weekly Standard has decided to publish a glowing review of Douglas Murray’s (lackluster, to my mind) paean to neoconservatism’s enduring relevance and vitality?

Kristol’s Pissed, And He Ain’t Gonna Take it No More

July 14, 2006


A short while back (before the Middle East exploded into low-grade warfare) I mentioned (and here) that one the most fascinating political subplots that will play out in the coming years is how Iraq will affect the influence of neoconservative intellectuals within the GOP. With Baghdad in tatters, the Bush administration’s forward-leaning democratization policy is decidedly on its heels. And there is grumbling in the neocon ranks.

In the current issue of The Weekly Standard, editor Bill Kristol inveighs against what he sees as the President’s timid North Korean policy:

What was “unacceptable” to President Bush a week ago (a North Korean missile launch) has been accepted. In retrospect, according to a draft Security Council resolution, the missile launch turns out merely to have been “regrettable.”

Read the whole thing. Kristol’s pissed.