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The Rise of Neoconservatism

ISSUE:  Spring 1996
The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectual and Foreign Affairs 1945–1994, by John Ehrman. Yale. $27.50.

Norman Podhoretz’s recent retirement as editor of Commentary marked the passing of more than an important voice in the intellectual community. Podhoretz was also a dogmatic anti-Communist who lent the pages of his monthly to those who would not brook any compromise with the Soviet Union. That his retirement coincided with the demise of communism as a threat to the free world is ironic inasmuch as it was the articulation of the anti-Communist position that made Podhoretz and his fellow neoconservatives influential in American politics from the moment Michael Harrington first used the term in the mid 1970’s to the present.

John Ehrman, who teaches history at George Washington University, has written an important book that tracks the evolution of the neoconservatives from their liberal anti-Communist position within the Democratic party following World War II to their bitter ideological wars with the McGovern wing of the party in the early 1970’s and their subsequent break with the Carter administration which led them to their new home in the Republican party following the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In part, this journey was the result of the failure of the neoconservatives to influence the Democratic Party to nominate a Harry Truman-like candidate for president. That is, a president willing to stand up to the Soviet Union and unafraid to use the language of force to contain their expansionary objectives. It’s not that the Democratic Party was deficient in qualified candidates to fill the role. At different times, Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and others of the anti-Communist wing of the party identified Senator Henry Jackson, and later Daniel Moynihan as Democrats who shared their ideological fervor and, therefore, had earned their support for president. However the Democratic Party, as a result of Vietnam, had tilted in a different direction with regard to their assessment of the Soviet Union and America’s role in the world. The anti-Communist liberals found themselves a minority without influence in their own party. The Democratic Party, in the assessment of intellectuals such as Norman Podhoretz, had been coopted by the radical ideology of the New Left which essentially blamed the United States for initiating the Cold War and preached a new form of isolationism or, as in the case of Jimmy Carter, minimizing the threat of the Soviet Union as it related to the national interest.

The criticism of the Democratic Party was joined with an additional concern, that the radicals who had taken over the party had not only eschewed the party’s traditional support for Israel but also condemned the Jewish state as the aggressor in the Middle East conflict. Because many of the neoconservatives, such as Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, were Jewish and strong supporters of Israel, they found the rhetoric of the New Left not unlike the language of the anti-Semitic far-right. Viewing Israel as a bastion of democracy in the Middle East and the only reliable ally the United States could count on in that troubled area, the now referred to neoconservatives were appalled by the “even-handedness” of the Carter administrations’ attitude towards Israel despite the president’s role in bringing about peace between Israel and Egypt. Podhoretz feared that the Carter administration would force Israel into a disadvantageous settlement with its Arab neighbors, one in which Tel Aviv would give up its buffer zones of occupied territory in return for vague Arab promises of peace (a position echoed by Podhoretz in regard to the current peace process between Israel and the PLO).

Perhaps the single biggest flap between Carter and the neoconservatives was over the Andrew Young affair. As Ehrman recounts it, the U.N. Ambassador was forced to resign because he had violated Carter administration policy by secretly meeting with the PLO. Carter spokespeople took their time in explaining the reasons for Young’s dismissal and this delay resulted in an anti-Semitic backlash in the African-American community in which black leaders blamed Jewish pressure for Young’s resignation. Carl Gershman wrote that “no episode in contemporary American history has been marked by a greater outpouring of animosity against Jews.” Furthermore, Gershman and other neoconservatives, Ehrman tells us, believed that a significant segment of the black leadership was moving toward an ideological and political alignment with Third World radicalism. Gershman concluded that Israel was a target because “it identifies with the democratic West and is prepared to resist the Soviet-backed forces in the Middle East. The ultimate objective was to render America incapable of defending Israel or any other ally . . .the Young affair . . .was actually about democracy and its enemies.” Neoconservatives blamed Carter for these deteriorating circumstances.

Given the neoconservative belief in Carter’s naivete about the dangers of the Soviet Union, their conviction that the party’s foreign policies were firmly in the hands of the left and that the party no longer opposed anti-Semitism or totalitarian thinking compounded by the Carter administrations’ perceived bias against Israel, it was not difficult for the neoconservatives to bolt the Democratic Party and support Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan was not only known to be a “hawk” in regard to the Soviet Union but also a politician with a record of strong support for Israel. Conservative Republicans, however, did not welcome their new Republican allies with open arms. There was a suspicion that much of the neoconservative support for increases in the defense budget and its hard-line toward the Soviets was really a cover for increasing aid to Israel and committing the United States to a more strategic relationship with the Jewish state. In a celebrated remark Russell Kirk, the doyen of the conservative movement, claimed “that some eminent neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.”

Although neoconservatives wielded political influence during the Reagan and Bush administrations, not all of them were happy with the results. Podhoretz, in particular, was unhappy with Reagan’s policy towards the Soviet Union. Ehrman details Podhoretz’s anger at Reagan for not establishing sufficiently strong policies toward the Soviets. When Poland repressed the Solidarity movement in December 1981, Podhoretz noted that Reagan had not cut economic ties and trade with Warsaw or Moscow. Ehrman cites a Commentary piece by Podhoretz in which he excoriates Reagan for following a foreign policy of “helping the Soviet Union stabilize its empire, rather than a strategy aimed at encouraging the breakup of that empire from within.”

By 1990, Commentary’s ideology towards the Soviet Union had become a casualty of its own rigidity. Podhoretz, claims Ehrman, had increasingly defined his publication’s stands by a fixed opposition to any compromise or flexibility in regard to the Soviet Union. As the Soviet Union dissolved, Podhoretz was deprived of his primary ideological argument and, accordingly, his relevance and influence decreased. But this was not true of the neoconservatives as a whole. According to Ehrman, the dominant post-Cold War neoconservative position has become narrower and anti-utopian in regard to the national interest. Its position is, perhaps, best exemplified by political scientist Robert W. Tucker who, in his 1992 book The Imperial Temptation, argued that the “United States should refrain from intervention in the internal affairs of other states . . .and should spread democracy by example rather than by force.”

Although some neoconservatives, such as Joshua Muravchik, supported the Clinton candidacy, its influence has been practically nil in the present administration. Part of the problem is that for many neoconservatives, identifying national interests and deciding when to apply American power has proven as difficult in practice as in theory. Neoconservatives unanimously supported the Gulf War but have found it difficult to assess America’s responsibility in the Bosnian crisis.

Although Irving Kristol’s the National Interest and Commentary continue to find an audience, it also may be that the neoconservative critique of American foreign policy has fulfilled its critical role as the Cold War has come to an end. A role filled with accomplishments and failures which Ehrman suggests, includes the neoconservative faith in their anti-Communist crusade at a time when American morale had deteriorated as a result of the Vietnam War and many liberals were ready to forgo America’s role as the leader of the free world. Similarly, their insistence that the Soviet Union posed a serious threat to American security up to the moment when communism dissolved in Russia enabled neoconservatives to claim that their agitation for strict containment had paid off. Ehrman’s list of accomplishments also includes the many scholarly responses by neoconservatives to post Vietnam revisionist history which held America responsible for initiating the Cold War.

Ehrman charges over zealousness as one of the major failures of neoconservatism. The author contends that too often neoconservatives viewed their enemies as embodiments of evil who must be destroyed rather than as opponents to be debated or persuaded. Nor, argues Ehrman, as ideologues committed to the purity of their ideas were they able to understand politics and politicians where the art of compromise is the rule rather than the exception. This would explain Podhoretz’s tirade against Reagan or the interesting chapter in which Ehrman recounts the rise and fall of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan star among the neoconservative intellectuals.

The Rise of Neoconservatism is an invaluable history of the neoconservative movement during the Cold War as well as an excellent introduction to the intellectual ideas of its major personalities.


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