Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

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Tuesday, December 31, 2002
This is probably a really stupid idea, but I'm going to engage The Corner in their ongoing debate about Max Boot's piece on neoconservatism: quid est?

First of all, strictness in taxonomy is a mug's game. Something that should be in always gets left out and something wrong included in. We all have some idea of what a neo-conservative is when we see one, even if we can't define it perfectly. It's also silly to limit the label "neoconservative" to those individuals to whom it was first applied, for at least two reasons. First, what makes the phenomenon interesting is the extent to which it is an intellectual tradition, which means it must have descendants who may or may not be former leftists or liberals themselves, and may indeed have been "right from the beginning." Second, individual neoconservatives may change. They may abandon former beliefs and become something else: liberals, theocons, what have you.

My own preferred method of characterization of intellectual streams is genealogically. So let's try that.

Neoconservatives are Liberals. By that I mean neither that they are Lockean believers in the individual right to property nor that they are contemporary believers in coddling all sorts of sorry people. I mean something broader and deeper: that they understand themselves to be heirs to the Enlightenment, believers in Reason and Progress and that sort of thing. This distinguishes them fundamentally from Romantic and traditionalist conservatives. They may agree with Romantics or traditionalists on a particular point of policy, even on a broad outlook on a whole host of issues. But they will agree from different premises. The traditionalist will say that such and such is so because it has always been so, our ancestors always held it to be so, for generations we have held it to be so, and it is not for us to part ways with a so that has so lengthy a pedigree. A Romantic will say that such and such is so because it is the ineffable expression of the so-ness of something, and that this something would be utterly not itself were this not so; for someone who partakes of the something to hold that it is not so would be to be totally false to that something, a denial of its essential so-ness, and the greatest heresy. A neoconservative would say that such and such is so because it makes sense that it is so, most people have concluded it is so, there's empirical verification that it is so, those who argue it is not so are starry-eyed utopians or are just trying to arrogate power to themselves, and, even if we cannot conclude definitively that it is so at all times and everywhere, certainly there's no justification for holding it to be not so here and now.

You can recognize this kind of reasoning most plainly in neoconservative stances on "values" issues and on crime. (One of the failures of Max Boot's article is to associate neoconservatism entirely with foreign affairs. The line about being mugged by reality was not only figurative but literal - the great crime wave from the 1960s through the 1980s mugged as many liberals into neoconservatism as did the persistence of Soviet aggression in the face of detente.) The whole "broken-windows" school of policing is a classic neoconservative policy initiative. Something that most people would characterize as common sense - let a block, neighborhood or city go to seed with petty crime and serious crime will also explode - is justified with empirical studies and detailed logical reasoning.

Within the Liberal tradition, neoconservatives are Nationalists. This connects them, ironically enough, with the British Tory tradition and the American Whig (or National Republican) tradition. The old British Tories believed in a strong national government, while the Whigs believed in a more limited government and lower taxes. (The Tories believed in other things that your typical neoconservative might or might not believe, but we'll take that matter up later.) In the United States, the Jacksonian Democratic Republicans, while accused by their opponents of tyranny, were advocates of a weak (but geographically expansionist) central government, while the National Republicans (later the Whigs) favored a vigorous central government dedicated to internal economic development (Henry Clay's "American System.") Neoconservatives trace their roots back to this Nationalist tradition within Liberalism.

That's why neoconservatives don't generally get terribly excited by the size of the welfare state or by the size of government generally. They favor a strong and vigorous central government. They are much more likely to object to the welfare state on values grounds than on the grounds of economics or first principals about the proper nature of government. They see nothing improper in the government taxing to improve the lot of the citizenry, or of the weakest element among the citizenry. And they are, frankly, not so interested in economics. They believe in economic growth, progress and dynamism; they have outsourced to others the proof that free-market economics is the best road to these ends. Neoconservatives are against tyranny, but they don't identify all government, however constituted or structured, as to some extent necessarily tyrannical. This fundamentally divides them from Lockean libertarians (who do think all government is necessarily somewhat tyrannical) and from traditionalists (who understand tyranny to be an abrogation of precedent by either the State or society, and who are therefore to some extent constitutionally opposed to the dynamism that both libertarians and neocons favor). Here's a genealogical way to encapsulate this thought: George Orwell was a Socialist because (among other things) he thought Socialism worked and capitalism didn't. He was wrong. But if Socialism did work, I suspect most neoconservatives would be Socialists.

There are neoconservatives who take their nationalism even further. There is a Straussian tendency in neoconservatism, a tendency to elitism, to reifying the State in a Continental and very un-Anglo-Saxon manner, and to an Ancient rather than a Modern understanding of Liberty. That is to say: neoconservatives have a tendency to understand Liberty not as being left alone by the State but as the right (even the obligation) to participate in collective enterprise through the State. This isn't an absolute thing; neoconservatives are not Jacobins, and they approve of liberty in negative sense. But it isn't what stirs them in their marrow bones. This once again puts them very much at odds with libertarian-style conservatives and with traditionalists. What saves them from being Germans altogether is that they are not Romantics - they ground their views in Liberal premises. They may not always have the greatest appreciation of negative liberty, but their understanding of individual welfare is a Liberal one, not a Romantic one. Good thing, too, or they'd be very dangerous.

Some people, of course, think they are very dangerous anyhow, on the grounds of their foreign policy ideas. I think Max Boot overreaches a bit in his identification of neoconservatives with "hard Wilsonianism." His underlying assumption that neocons have a Whiggish view of history is correct - Progress and all that - and, since they believe in a vigorous and dynamic State, they would see nothing wrong with "helping history along" as it were. But there is an enormous difference between progressive and utopian internationalisms. It is the difference between Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. TR did not try to set up a system for governing the world, whether hard (based on raw Anglo-American power) or soft (based on treaties and supra-national bodies) or a combination of the two (which is arguably what Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman inaugurated in the 1940s). He sought to use American power in American interests, and he had an enlightened view of what those interests consisted of and an optimistic view of the possibility of improving the world through the exercise of power. That sounds like the basic neocon view to me.

Neocons are distinguished from Wilsonians - even hard Wilsonians - because they do not want to run the world and because they do not feel obliged to right all of the world's wrongs. That is why the editorial board of The New Republic is fundamentally not neoconservative, even though they get along very well with neoconservatives with whom they share fundamental objectives. Neocons and Wilsonians alike value democracy and freedom, alike believe that the spread of democracy is in American interests, alike believe that the internal character of a regime affects its foreign policy (this is a key insight that realists reject), and alike believe that more likely than not democracy and freedom are universal goods that will appeal to the whole planet. But Wilsonians also believe that there is a moral obligation to "make the world safe for democracy;" that America should not get its hands dirty by trucking with dictatorships; and that America is obliged to take the lead in ordering the world according to a rational and humane fashion. "Soft" Wilsonians would achieve these things by international law and negotiation, and "hard" Wilsonians by force. But neocons properly reject all of these particulars. They believe, rather, that it is a good thing, not a moral obligation, to promote democracy; that America sometimes has to deal with dictators for the sake of larger interests, even particularly odious ones; and that the world is not supposed to be "ordered" according to some grand design, but rather than America should, as a matter of Enlightened self-interest, stand on the side of the forces of light where possible.

If neocons are animated by a concern for American interests above all - if understood in an Enlightened manner - then how are they distinguished from the so-called realists? Primarily by their Whiggish optimism. Realists have a pronounced tendency to declinism, to the belief that power inevitably dissipates - at least in a relative sense - and exercise of power dissipates it more quickly. Further, they tend to believe that existing arrangements are the most stable, and changing them more likely to injure American interests than to advance them. This is an old, Tory view of the world, one that arguably was born in the crucible of the Indian Mutinee, which ushered in the British Imperial policy of indirect rule through existing native elites (and the creation of these elites where they arguably did not exist). Neocon optimism leads them to be far more eager to exercise national power than are the realists.

How, then, are neocons distinguished from paleocon views on foreign policy? Max Boot's disparagement notwithstanding, the so-called paleocon foreign policy tradition has a long pedigree in this country, not limited to the pre-WWII America Firsters. I think the proper term for this tradition - again, in keeping with my own preference for the genealogical - is Jacksonian, from President Andrew Jackson. Jackson had a very dim view of the central government at home, dismantling America's central bank and opposing tarriffs (which National Republicans favored as a way to develop industry). But he did not have a similarly dim view of the central government abroad. Rather, he favored the use of national power to expand the United States. His Democrat predecessors had made deals with France and war on England to take Louisiana and to attempt to take Canada, and defined Latin America as an exclusive American sphere of influence; his successors made war on Mexico and would happily have added Cuba and other territories had the Whigs (worried about the expansion of the Slave Power) not frustrated their designs. A modern update of this philosophy would be to favor the use of national power to promote American interests defined narrowly rather than in an Enlightened manner. The Jacksonian tradition is deeply pessimistic about the ability to improve the world, but much more optimistic about America's ability to gain power through the use of power, which is what distinguishes them from the realists.

I will admit that there is a strain in neoconservative thinking that corresponds to the crusading caricature of the paleocons. These folks - and I'm not sure whether or not Max Boot is among them - are indeed advocates of a kind of hard Wilsonianism, advocates of what amounts to an American Empire. I think this is an extraordinarily foolish ambition, and I don't think more than a handful of writers ascribe to this notion. Certainly the prominent neocons in the Bush Administration - such as Paul Wolfowitz - do not ascribe to it. But there are a few writers out there who have this notion. The proximate basis for their views is the American victory in the Cold War and America's consequent position is overwhelmingly dominant power on the global stage. Given that neocons generally have no problem with the exercise of national power, at home or abroad, it is understandable that some would fall under the utopian temptation, the belief that our power is so great that it has practically no limits. As I said, this is a very dangerous and false idea, but I don't think it is one with general currency among neocons.

Apart from the proximate cause, the deeper cause of such a crusading neoconservative strain is a particular interpretation of America's two crusading wars: the Civil War and World War II. These were the only wars that America fought to a conclusion of unconditional surrender, and the notion of unconditional surrender seems to have taken hold in the crusaders' minds and become a model for how wars of righteousness are to be fought. The crusaders' understanding of the Civil War is not really wrong, but it is important to recall that this was a war for the definition of America, not a war to conquer the world. I do think that makes all the difference. As for World War II, I think their interpretation is fundamentally flawed, a misreading backwards from the conclusion of that war and the advent of the Cold War. We did not insist on unconditional surrender because we wanted a free hand to reshape Europe in our image; we demanded unconditional surrender because we wanted to break the back of German nationalism once and for all. It was the nature of our enemy that dictated our strategy, not the nature of our own ambitions. We did not fight World War II to save the Germans from Hitler.

And we most certainly did not fight World War II to save the Jews from Hitler. This would seem to be an opportune time to bring up the question that Max Boot addresses without confronting: why are there so many Jews among the neoconservatives? This is not an inadmissable question. Unless one has a preexisting animus towards Jews, it in no way undermines the legitimacy of neoconservative thinking to point out that there are many Jews among its leading thinkers, any more than it undermines the legitimacy of anti-Communism to note that exile communities from Poland, the Ukraine and so forth were among its strongest adherents. It is nonetheless of legitimate sociological interest to ask: why so many Jews, particularly in comparison with other streams of conservative thinking?

The deep reason, I think, is that outside of the ultra-Orthodox communities, Jews overwhelmingly identify as broadly Liberal, and neoconservatism is part of the Liberal tradition. The Enlightenment is rightly seen as having been of enormous benefit to the Jewish people, and so - again, outside of ultra-Orthodoxy - there isn't any strong anti-Liberal strain in Jewish political thinking. Jewish conservatives in Israel might be Romantic, or traditionalist, or theo-con - though, among those of Western origin, most are Liberal there, too - but none of these are very plausible positions for a diaspora community.

With respect to foreign policy, on a very practical level, Jewish interests are bound up with the fate of the State of Israel. Realists are unlikely to take risks to defend an ally like Israel (though Nixon, a consummate realist, did). Traditionalists and libertarians are unlikely to favor an active foreign policy of any kind, and Jacksonian paleos are unlikely to want allies in the first place. Among rational foreign-policy outlooks (I leave out the pacifist and anti-American outlooks which are shockingly popular among American Jews considering where Jewish interests actually lie) that leaves Wilsonianism (hard or soft) and neoconservatism as the most compatible with objective Jewish interests.

Less practically, I think, the Jewish romance with the State of Israel has changed many Jews' understanding of national power. The creation of Israel, its stunningly unlikely success, and specifically the importance of the exercise of military power to its success, have made many admiring Jews more favorably inclined toward the exercise of national and military power. Those affected by this change, meanwhile, joined a more longstanding Jewish tradition in the West of strong national feeling towards their country of origin - Jews served with enthusiasm and distinction in World War I on both the French and the German side (and, I believe, in disproportionate numbers to their share of the population) and on both sides in the American Civil War. And then there's Disraeli, the paradigm of the type, a man who, though a baptized Christian, still considered himself a Jew, and was a most ardent aggrandizer of British national power and glory. The strong nationalism of French, German, British and American Jews was grounded in their self-understanding as citizens, equal with their Christian neighbors. In any event, this feeling persists as much as national feeling does generally (that is to say, stronger in America than in Britain or France, stronger in Britain or France than in Germany), and it is obvious how it would lend itself to a neoconservative outlook.

Returning to World War II: the problematic aspect of crusading neoconservatism stems from the misinterpretation of World War II, and this misinterpretation is, I think, a Jewish misinterpretation. The Holocaust was, of course, one of the two or three worst catastrophes to befall the Jewish people in their entire history, comparable to the destructions of the First and Second Temples. It was also, of course, a modern crime of monstrous proportions, the epitome of evil in the 20th century. It is understandable that Jews would interpret World War II almost entirely by the light of the fires of Auschwitz. But this is a spiritual interpretation that would be primarily persuasive to Nazis and Jews, much less so to the world at large. Hitler may indeed have started his war in order to murder the Jews of Europe. That may even have been his primary objective. But that is not why he was fought by Britain or America, and it is not why the Allies demanded unconditional surrender. The extraordinary evil of the Nazi regime was secondary; what was primary was its extraordinary threat.

By misreading World War II as a crusading war against a regime of diabolical evil, some neoconservatives have created a template for the exercise of American power that is profoundly unrealistic. They have developed a notion that America - with friends if possible but unilaterally if necessary - must destroy great evil wherever it lives, a remake societies by force where they are in the thrall of evil. This is a template for an American imperium that could never be - and will never be - put into practice. And while I suspect it is something of a fringe phenomenon, writers who have made rhetorical gestures in the direction of an American Imperium - and Bill Kristol is prominent among them - may yet discredit the entire enterprise of neoconservative foreign policy through overreaching. In any event, they are certainly providing useful fodder to opponents of neoconservative thinking who seek to reduce it to caricature.