- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 22, 2005

NEOCONSERVATISM

Edited and with an introduction by Irwin Stelzer

Grove, $15, 328 pages

REVIEWED BY CLIVE DAVIS

If you are looking for a concise and all-embracing definition of the meaning of neoconservatism, you will be disappointed with Irwin Stelzer. But that is, in fact, what makes his book so valuable. The neo-cons’ many enemies take great pleasure in portraying them as members of a secret society run from the offices of “Commentary” and various Israeli embassies around the world. Somewhere deep in an underground bunker, Norman Podhoretz pushes a small red button and another invasion force sets sail to build a new chain of Pepsi-Cola franchises.

But as Mr. Stelzer makes plain, the distinguishing feature of the neocon movement is that it is not a movement at all. “Sensibility”, “tendency”, “disposition” and “persuasion” are some of the alternatives deployed by his contributors, and the fact that the contents list makes room for Tony Blair as well as Condoleezza Rice (neither of whom is a card-carrying member) shows just how indeterminate the political labels have become.

Mr. Stelzer and his fellow-plotters have attracted no end of detractors in the United States, but you have to travel to Europe to see the venom flow. “Observe the German debate on neoconservatism,” writes Jeffrey Gedmin, of Berlin’s Aspen Institute, “and you might get the feeling that Lyndon LaRouche’s conspiracy theories have credence and that Aljazeera rantings sound reasonable.” Talking to one left-wing media friend some years ago, I teased her by sayingthat the real reason that she and her colleagues enjoyed throwing the word”neocon” in all directions was because it gave off the same toxic aura as “neo-fascist.”

Recently, the joke has turned sour. Large sections of the British media really do appear to believe that neocons are sinister warmongers who keep a freshly polished pair of jackboots at the back of their closets, alongside illicit texts by Leo Strauss and dog-eared copies of The Weekly Standard. In the run-up to the U.S. elections, BBC Television devoted hours of prime-time space to a much-publicized series, “The Power of Nightmares”, which, with the straightest of straight faces, accused Leo Strauss and his alleged disciples of being the mirror image of Osama Bin Laden’s religious fundamentalists.

It will give you some idea of the virulent tone of the thesis if I tell you that, in the program devoted to the Cold War the neo-cons’ Washington nemesis, Henry Kissinger, was portrayed as a noble and heroic figure who was driven solely by the desire to bring peace on earth and goodwill to all men. This may or may not be Dr Kissinger’s ambition. All I would point out is that, in Britain, he is normally portrayed as a shifty war criminal who drinks vintage Cambodian blood with his dinner. Yet, today, even Dr K is more popular than Paul Wolfowitz.

There is no shortage of hostile books about the neocons. Recent titles include Patrick Buchanan’s “Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency.” More favorable accounts have been thinner on the ground.

Mark Gerson’s indispensable survey “The Neoconservative Vision: From The Cold War To The Culture Wars” did an excellent job of laying out the basic arguments, while Irving Kristol’s “Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea” is a rich and often arcerbic introduction to the ideas of the maverick who can lay claim to being the true conspirator-in-chief. Irwin Stelzer himself was one of the contributors — along with Michael Novak and James Q. Wilson — to another key text, “The Neoconservative Imagination,” an anthology published in 1995 in honor of Mr. Kristol’s 75th birthday.

It goes without saying that one of the prime functions of Mr. Stelzer’s new collection is to set the arguments in the context of the Bush Doctrine. Readers who cling to the belief that it is the Israel lobby who are channeling thoughts into President Bush’s head by way of Dick Cheney should immediately turn to Max Boot’s and Joshua Muravchik’s crisp debunkings of some of the juicier myths.

Mr. Stelzer’s objective is to remind skeptics that pre-emption and the championing of democracy are not the monopoly of one presidency or one nation. Which explains why he has chosen to include Tony Blair’s 1999 “Doctrine of the International Community” and Margaret Thatcher’s 1996 Fulton, Missouri address on the changing nature of threats to the international order. Another layer of historical background is supplied by the London Times columnist and aspirant Tory MP, Michael Gove, who begins his overview with a nod in the direction of Canning and Churchill.

Norman Podhoretz is missing from the line-up, which is a huge pity, but Mr. Stelzer offers thoughtful and sophisticated pieces from Jeane Kirkpatrick, Robert Kagan and William Kristol. It is left to Kristol, Sr. to outline one of the essential qualities of his school of thought: “Neoconservatism is the first variant of American conservatism in the past century that is in the ‘American grain’… . Neocons feel at home in today’s America to a degree that more traditional conservatives do not. Though they find much to be critical about, they tend to seek intellectual guidance in the democratic wisdom of Tocqueville rather than in the Tory nostalgia of, say, Russell Kirk.”

The most pressing question, of course, is whether that optimism can be applied to the rest of the world in general, and Iraq in particular. George Will answers in the negative in his critique of Wilsonianism, summoning up one of his favorite baseball jokes: “A manager says, ‘Our team is just two players away from being a championship team. Unfortunately, the two players are Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.’ Iraq is just three people away from democratic success. Unfortunately, the three are George Washington, James Madison and John Marshall.”

To throw in a rugby metaphor, if I may, Mr. Stelzer gets his retaliation in first in his introduction when he argues that neocons differ from Wilsonians in their reluctance to rely solely on multilateral successors to the League of Nations. The motto, he says, is “diplomacy if possible, force if necessary.” I side with Mr. Stelzer, but events in Baghdad will be the judge in the end. Neocons have always been eager empiricists. Their theories now face the ultimate test in the Green Zone and beyond.

Clive Davis writes for The Times of London. His weblog is at https://clivedavis.blogspot.com

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