- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

NEOCONSERVATISM: THE BIOGRAPHY OF A MOVEMENT
By Justin Vaisse
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, $35, 366 pages

The proper way to commence appraisal of this admirable book is possibly by proposing a public service award of some sort for Justin Vaisse. This U.S.-based French foreign-policy scholar makes it feasible at long last to figure out what in blue blazes people are talking about when they praise or, more commonly at present, flog “the neocons.”

The reproaches that have fallen on neoconservatives since the start of the Iraq War conspire against fair analysis, first, of what neoconservatives have over the years thought they were up to, and, second, of what successes and failures have been theirs. For all its comparative prominence as a political and cultural movement, neoconservatism is, to much of the public, a vast underground cavern from which emerge mystifying emanations and rumbles.

You’d hardly suppose this possible, given the discourse pouring forth from “neocons” over the past 40-plus years - about the shortcomings, if not failures, of liberal social policy and about dangers from abroad and the urgent need for American leadership in a fragmented world. Somehow, when the word crops up in public conversation, the takeaway idea of neoconservatism is the movement’s association with America’s Iraq experience, or the quixotic wish to implant democracy everywhere.

Well, “neoconservatism” was an odd kind of word to start with, representing a forced marriage between old-fashioned, mainline liberal notions and new, nonliberal understandings of how things were changing, to the point that - gasp - maybe the conservatives, or anyway the things they had been saying all along, deserved respectful attention.

Having put up Mr. Vaisse, currently a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, for a public service award, I proceed now to applaud him as a sophisticated, judicious analyst of a topic you wouldn’t expect the average French intellectual to know les haricots verts about.

The neocons began not as foreign-policy hawks, their current image, but rather as critics of liberal policies (e.g., the War on Poverty) that stood most notions of government’s omnicompetence on their heads. “Liberals,” said Daniel Patrick Moynihan, almost a one-man brain trust for neoconservatism, “must divest themselves of the notion that the nation - and especially the cities of the nation - can be run from agencies in Washington.”

It was the violence and nihilism of the 1960s that shook to the core such liberals as Moynihan, Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. The liberalism that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had positioned at the “vital center” of American affairs went tumbling over backwards.

The neocons were slower off the mark than old-style conservatives when it came to fighting back, but they contributed to the fight for civilization their considerable gifts for articulate exposition, and so gained a welcome, eventually, in conservative circles. They brought new brainpower and organizational skills to the camps of the right (which, to be sure, were not without their own supplies of brains and skills). In 1980, hordes of these one-time liberal Democrats wrapped their arms around Reaganism.

One crucial factor in making “Neoconservatism” such an invaluable study is Mr. Vaisse’s own organizational scheme. He makes the movement easy to understand by rendering it other than a series of barely differentiated names, ideas and slogans. He distinguishes three different “ages” of neoconservatism, explains each and shows clearly how each developed.

Age One was the era of revolt against revolt (and the truly revolting), when various intellectuals, many of them Jewish and writing for Irving Kristol’s Public Interest magazine, dissected and reappraised the big-government social schemes in which liberals had placed so much blind faith.

In Age Two, neoconservative thinkers, whose number was constantly swelling, added to their already large brief the mission of showing that the Soviet Union had to be bested and beaten. It was this mission that brought them into alignment, for foreign-policy purposes, with the hawkish Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Various neocons, such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, became at this point out-and-out Republicans in the era of Ronald Reagan.

Then there was Age Three. With the Soviet Union removed from competition with the United States, the question arose: What now? New neoconservative guidelines slowly took shape: The United States had to play an active role in the world - “world order for the common good,” as Mr. Vaisse sums it up - enforcing where possible a heavy bias toward democracy and democratic regimes. From that it followed that America, the world’s most powerful nation, had no need to ask permission to do things. In neocon eyes, their country must be free to act, whenever and however.

It was all a little grandiose - the consequence, perhaps, of too much rather than too little previous success. And of course we see where Age Three practice and theory led - toward wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, launched by a president, George W. Bush, who, though not himself a neocon, found many elements of their calculus persuasive.

The Age Three neocons overreached. Mr. Vaisse convicts them of arrogance and “intellectual laziness.” At the same time, he thinks history isn’t done with them, or they with it. He credits neoconservatives with resilience and bright future prospects, given their extraordinary network of “like-minded magazines, think tanks, committees, journalists and intellectuals.” And, yes, their gift for intellectual clarity.

A major virtue of Mr. Vaisse’s painstakingly clear and beautifully executed narrative is its intellectually scrupulous tone: no malice; no abrasive score-settling. The author seeks neither to exalt nor vilify his subjects. He wants to understand, what with the names and deeds of the neocons ringing daily in all ears, their voices soaring above the rumble of discourse.

Both on the right and the left, the very mention of neoconservatism can bring froth to the mouths of bright men and women, certain of whom may detest this book, or use it to flay an enemy Mr. Vaisse sees as no enemy at all. If so, too bad; no such prospect dents Mr. Vaisse’s achievement.

As for his own take on the neocons, he finds, after considering variant viewpoints on the matter, that “neoconservatism is fundamentally a manifestation of patriotism or even nationalism.” Very American, in other words. Very well worth the trouble of coming seriously to grips with.

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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