Monday, July 16, 2007

Neoconservatives vs. neoconservatives

One of the nice things about newsstand browsing is that occasionally one encounters journals, articles, and ideas that one wouldn't necessarily have encountered on-line. True, there is a plethora of information on the web -- a surfeit, actually.

But due to the nature of linking, hypertext, and searches, one is likely either to encounter ideas similar to those already encountered -- or their polar opposite. And in the case of searches, one finds things with exactly search terms one is looking for. Something very interesting could be just a click away -- one just has no idea that it exists.

Anyway, that is a digression. While familiar with the Claremont Institute, the house that Strauss and Jaffa built (or rather, that their disciples built,) there had never been a copy of the Claremont Review of Books lying about the Montana Headlines library. But while browsing newsstands recently, it was encountered, and an article on "Iraq and the Neoconservatives" grabbed for attention.

The thing that is fascinating about this article by Charles Kesler is that it portrays neoconservatism as a movement with generational differences -- differences that may be coming to a head over Iraq.

Instinctively, this makes sense, since for us old-fashioned conservatives, Kristol père (Irving) has always been a favorite, while the annoying Kristol fils (Bill) has an almost alien feel (with due apologies to the man who reared him.)

Likewise, Kesler contrasts 1st generation neoconservatives Jeane Kirkpatrick and Daniel Bell with 2nd generation neoconservatives Michael Novak and Francis Fukuyama.

Of course, stressing the generational distinction has its weak points -- on the Podhoretz side of things, Norman is scarcely to be distinguished from son John in ambition for war-making and nation-building.

Of course, speaking of generational differences also has a major weakness, and that is in the definition of neoconservativism itself. The first neoconservatives, in Irving Kristol's famous phrase, were liberals who had been "mugged by reality."

They had genuinely been on the left -- many were Marxists of a Trotskyite bent. They had seen the light, at first in reaction to the failures of President Johnson's Great Society welfare state -- much of which exacerbated the very problems it sought to alleviate. Later, the movement took more of a foreign policy bent, again in reaction -- this time to the McGovern-style peace movement in the Democratic party, which promised to abandon the militant anti-communism of JFK.

The "second generation," by contrast, has been Republican and neoconservative all along, so it's hard to think of them as "neo"-anything.

At any rate, Francis Fukuyama's America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Movement looms large in this essay, with Kesler describing the book as Fukuyama's "letter of resignation from the neoconservative movement."

This is remarkable, since it was Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man that epitomized, at least in the popular imagination, the sheer hubris and pretentiousness of neoconservatism.

Fukuyama was not alone -- Michael Novak also made the case that history was over, and that democratic capitalism had won.

Neoconservatism was standing in line to take credit for the end of history -- even though it as a movement had done nothing to bring it about. This is, of course, all without addressing the entire Anglo-American conservative view that the freedoms we enjoy are, far from being inevitable, a precious and rare heritage that must be maintained and defended -- most pointedly defended from ourselves and our baser selves.

But back to those generational differences. Kesler, in support of his claim that the first generation of neoconservatives was more realistic in a traditionally conservative sense (contrasted to the idealism of the second generation) has this from Irving Kristol in 1971:

Witness the typically American fuss and furor...over whether the elections in South Vietnam were truly democratic—and if they were not, what we should then be doing about it. The assumption seems to be that the original purpose of our intervention in Vietnam was to establish parliamentary government there, and that the absence of such government presents us with a crisis.

But this is a childish assumption. We did not intervene for any such purpose. (At least I hope we didn't-I can't bring myself to believe that the men who make our foreign policy were quite that idiotic.) Our intervention was to help establish a friendly, relatively stable regime which could coexist peacefully with the other nations of Southeast Asia.

If such a regime prefers corrupt elections to the kind of overt military dictatorship that more usually prevails in that part of the world, this is its own affair. It constitutes no problem for us....

There are some flaws. For instance, it stretches credibility when Kesler claims that neoconservatives of both generations are "a little suspicious of (democracy's) first principles, of any first principles" or that "the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence strike them as slightly presumptuous-a little too much like Enlightenment abstractions." While perhaps not all neoconservatives worship the Declaration of Independence with the fervor of Harry Jaffa (hence perhaps this dig from the Claremont Institute,) neoconservatism is highly ideological at core -- particularly when compared to the rigorously non-ideological approach of traditional conservative thought.

Still, the entire article is worth reading, and the following part of a section entitled "Neocon Mistakes" in particular summarizes the whole damning story of how neoconservatives, who have tended to like to remind old-fashioned conservatives that neoconservatives represent conservatism's "best and brightest," did something that one can hardly imagine Reagan or Goldwater doing (let alone Robert Taft or Bob Dole):

The writ to use force against (Saddam Hussein) and his regime was cogent and persuasive. But the decision to turn that deterrent, punitive, and preventive action into the occasion for elaborate democratic reconstruction was, alas, ill-conceived.

Iraq was not that important to us.

It could seem that important to us, as important as Germany and Japan had been, only by imagining that an utterly transformed Iraq would become an outpost of liberal democracy in the Middle East, a bulwark against terrorism and Islamic fanaticism; and that Iraq in turn would utterly transform the whole Middle East into a land of milk and honey, not to mention democracy and peace.

It is never a good idea to multiply improbabilities as the basis of one's foreign policy.


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