What is Neoconservatism? – Conspiracy or American Ideal

When opponents of the War in Iraq or even the War on Terror in general get worked up, they sometimes blame both on some can of conspiracy of a group called "Neocons." "Neocon" is a kind of abbreviation of "Neo" or "New" and "Conservative.," That begs the question: what are Neocons? And why do they get opponents of the War on Terror and the Bush Administration all worked up?

The editor of the Weekly Standard, Bill Kistrol, himself the son of a famous Neocon leader Irving Kristol, once quipped that Neocons was a, "Jewish conspiracy to take over the world, aided and abetted by the Christian Right and led by Condoleezza Rice."

Kristol was being funny, of course, but he was poking a little fun at the stench of antisemitism that pervades from people–on both the left and the right–who inveigh against Necons. Such people like to point out what they perceive as a prevalence of Jews inside the Neocon movement and speak in dark, conspiratorial terms, much like antisemitics of the 1920s and 1930s.

Neocons are actually former leftists who parted ways with the Left starting in the late 1950s over the proper way to respond to the threat of Soviet Communism. Neocons favored vigorous opposition to the Soviet threat, diverging from their former friends on the Left who tended to favor appeasement of the Soviets. The divergence reached a head with the Vietnam War, followed by the US Presidency of Jimmy Carter, when the evidence of weakness and appeasement of the Soviets became apparent. Many Neocons, by now second generation and technically never on the Left, rallied around Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a Democrat who was a vigorous opponent of Soviet Communism and efforts to appease it.

Many of these Neocons, such a Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Elliott Abrams, and Richard Perle, later found themselves in the Reagan Administration. Their ideas of opposing Soviet Communism were employed by President Reagan (himself a former Democrat) to good effect. By 1989, less than a year after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall fell and soon thereafter the Soviet Union was no more.

What do Necons (or Neo Conservatives) believe? They tended, in the 1960s through the 1980s, to be more liberal in their view of social and economic programs than mainline conservatives. Later Neocons have tended to favor free markets and reform of social programs. They also diverged from many conservatives by eschewing a "pragmatic" approach to foreign policy, viewing that a vigorous defense of democracy in all situations was the best way to advance the interests of the United States. They tended to look askance at the idea of allying with fasicst dictators against the Soviets. They believed that free countries tended to be more reliable and stable allies against the Soviets than anti communist tyrants. Neocons tended to be very supportive of Israel and Taiwan.

This view manifested itself during the Reagan and elder Bush Administrations in support for the removal of dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and the restoration of democracy in Chile. Nevertheless, the Neocon view of spreading democracy started to become out of fashion during the elder Bush, who was a throwback to the "pragmatic" view of foreign policy once espoused by Nixon and others, and especially under Clinton, who was not very interested in foreign policy at all. Even the younger Bush campaigned in 2000 against "nation building."

9/11 changed all that. Neocons within and outside the Bush Administration successfully argued that Islamic terrorism found roots in societies that denied human freedom to its citizens. Hence, when the American led coalition invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and Al Qaeda, it stayed to help the Afghan people establish a democracy. A similar strategy was employed a year and a half later in the invasion of Iraq. Rather than be content with replacing Saddam Hussein with a more friendly dictator, the American led coalition has stayed to help foster the first real democracy in the Arab world.

Because of the time and especially the casualties (very light compared to previous American wars) involved, this policy of democratization has become controversial. Some opponents of the War actually suggest, without even any awareness of how racist it sounds, that Muslims are culturally incapable of maintaining democratic governments.

Will efforts to build democracies in the Middle East succeed? Neocons suggest that there is every chance, pointing to successes in former tyrannical regimes in Germany, Japan, and Eastern Europe. In any case, it seems that the Neocon view of dealing with the world, of advancing the ideals of freedom, is far more suited to the American ideal than either the realpolitik strategy advanced by some on the Right or the lurch toward craven appeasement favored by those on the Left. The fruits of freedom are not just for a few white Americans and Europeans, but for all peoples.