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Think Again: Neoconservatism on the Decline

Former Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-GA)

SOURCE: AP/Carolyn Kaster

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) appears during the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, March 16, 2013.

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In an August 2 New York Times column titled “The Neocon Revival,” David Brooks argues that, “Neocons came in for a lot of criticism during the Iraq war, but neoconservatism was primarily a domestic policy movement.” He goes on to contrast the good sense and cheer of old-fashioned neocons with the current crop of conservative crazies.

It’s a curious viewpoint. One of Brooks’s earliest columns for The Times argued that anyone who even used the term “neocon” was engaging in anti-Semitic subterfuge. That was when Brooks was an enthusiast for the U.S. invasion of Iraq—an idea that had its genesis in various neoconservative organs and organizations, some of which appeared to be just as concerned with perceived threats to Israel as they were with with imaginary “weapons of mass destruction” or phony connections between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

Back to Brooks. I began studying neoconservatives more than 30 years ago, when I wrote an undergraduate honors thesis on their origins. It’s true that some neoconservatives were initially inspired—that is, before they were neoconservatives—by the desire to apply social-science research to domestic issues. In 1965 this idea led Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol to found The Public Interest, a public policy quarterly that published some fine work.

But the neoconservative heart clearly was not with The Public Interest. The reason that the journal ignored foreign policy was not because of a lack of interest but, as its editors explained, a fear of it being “swallowed up by Vietnam.” In fact, it was founded before its neoconservative forefathers moved to the right; when they did, its liberals flew the coop—including founder Daniel Bell, who explained that “friendship is more important than ideology.”

Neoconservatism had its primary origins in two events: The first was the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, and the second was the 1968 New York City teachers’ strike, which pitted the largely Jewish teachers’ union against the radical black leadership of parents’ organizations seeking more local control over their children’s schools. In each case, former liberals who would become neocons found themselves at odds with an increasingly illiberal left wing whose rhetoric, on occasion, included anti-Semitic stereotypes. At the same time, these nascent neocons were becoming not only more conservative but also more aligned with Jewish causes—setting the stage for neoconservatism’s strong pro-Israel tendency.

It was hardly uncommon for Jews to reconsider their previously distant relationship to Israel in the wake of the Six-Day War. In a remarkably perceptive, even prophetic article written in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, also a scholar of Jewish history, explained in Commentary that the war had left American Jews:

with deep Jewish commitments as they have never been united before, and it has evoked such commitments in many Jews who previously seemed untouched by them. … There are no conventional Western theological terms with which to explain this,” he said, “and most contemporary Jews experience these emotions without knowing how to define them. … Israel may … now be a strong focus of worldwide Jewish emotional loyalty and [serve] as a preservative of a sense of Jewish identity.”

Moreover, it was not exactly hard to find attacks on Jews in the leaders’ ranks of the civil-rights and anti-war movements, despite their significant Jewish presence. In my history of American liberalism, The Cause, my account is deeply sympathetic to those who supported the teachers’ union and opposed the descent of the anti-war movement into foolish and nihilistic notions of bringing Vietnam-like violence back home. But the neocons went further—much further.

Together with Irving Kristol—probably the most important guiding voice in the neocon movement—Norman Podhoretz, editor-in-chief of Commentary, insisted that Jews ought to look “at proposals and policies from the point of view of the Jewish interest” and supported Israel in every dispute in which it was ever involved—including those with the United States. This was no small shift for Podhoretz, a man who had previously called for “an unambiguous American defeat” in Vietnam, “rather than the indefinite and unlimited bombardment by American pilots in American planes of every country in that already devastated region.” He also—during his first visit to Israel—complained that “despite their really extraordinary accomplishments, [they are] a very unattractive people, the Israelis. They’re gratuitously surly and boorish. … They are too arrogant and too anxious to become a real honest-to-goodness New York of the East.”

Irving Kristol was never as involved with Israel as Podhoretz was. He was much more interested in fighting the Cold War abroad and liberals at home. Back in 1952 Irving Kristol wrote in Commentary that “there is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy; he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesman for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification.” Forty-one years later, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union, he wrote, “There is no ‘after the Cold War’ for me. So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos.”

These “wars” are now being fought by the sons of neoconservatism’s founders, including Irving’s son, William Kristol, the primary intellectual booster of the war in Iraq. (Here are two of his blasts from the past: “We talk here about Shiites and Sunnis as if they’ve never lived together. Most Arab countries have Shiites and Sunnis, and a lot of them live perfectly well together,” and, “Very few wars in American history were prepared better or more thoroughly than this one by this president.”) Ditto John Podhoretz, who inherited his father’s job at Commentary following a career of jobs funded by Rupert Murdoch and Sun Myung-Moon, where he earned the nickname “John P. Normanson” and where his prose style coined the word “Podenfreude.”

The main problem for the survival and continued relevance of neoconservatism is the babies it has spawned. The Cold War is so long gone that many young voters don’t even remember it anymore, and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has alienated many American Jews, making it nearly impossible for it to serve as an organizing principle. But after they relentlessly attacked liberals for their alleged lack of patriotism, neocons must now deal with a conservative movement increasingly led by isolationist liberal haters Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX)—leaders who don’t particularly care about Israel, only about the destruction of liberalism. This new brand’s latest convert, former Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-GA), explained in an interview with The Washington Times that “at some point, even if you are a neoconservative, you need to take a deep breath to ask if our strategies in the Middle East have succeeded. … I like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul because they are talking about this.” Gingrich was all for neoconservatism when far-right Israel partisan Sheldon Adelson was pouring millions of dollars into his ridiculous presidential campaign. Can it be that—now that Gingrich will represent the right-wing side on the new “Crossfire” —he has flipped, deciding to side with the folks who want no part in U.S. intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere?

Who knows? After all, it’s Rep. Gingrich. But what is certain—and this is where David Brooks is right—is that it certainly is bad news for what is left of neoconservatism.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.

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