Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Neocon Reader

by Irwin Stelzer Edited by Irwin Stelzer

“I find both the substance and the rhetoric of many of the articles here inspiring. But even those who don’t might admire the imagination, forthrightness and clarity of most of the contributors.” –Ann Marlowe, Salon

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 336
  • Publication Date January 25, 2005
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4193-4
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $18.00

About The Book

A landmark collection of writings by some of the most admired, influential, and controversial political thinkers in the world

Neoconservatism isn’t new. Neocon policies have deep roots in early American history, the ideas of welfare and crime reduction originating with Victorian reformers, while the theory of a preemptive military policy dates back to Theodore Roosevelt. Yet the term is widely misapplied, and neoconservative foreign and domestic policies are little understood. The Neocon Reader gathers the most prominent thinkers, columnists, and politicians to give a comprehensive overview of neoconservative ideology in a bold collection of classic and original essays written especially for this book.

Author Max Boot passionately refutes many of the charges made against neoconservatives, arguing that neocons “place their faith not in pieces of paper, but in power, specifically U.S. power.” William Kristol and Robert Kagan discuss how neocons do not rely exclusively on military muscle to defend American interests but also on a lively engagement of intellectual discussion. Lady Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s former prime minister, argues that America must deal with rogue states directly, through preemptive means. Also included are pieces from George Will, Condoleezza Rice, David Brooks, and many more.

Edited by Irwin Stelzer, The Neocon Reader provides a collection of the ideas that are exerting enormous influence on American foreign and defense policy, and serves as an important reminder of how a loose-knit band of intellectuals and politicians thought, wrote, and preached their way into the halls of power.


“Valuable . . . Mark Gerson’s indispensable survey . . . did an excellent job of laying out the basic arguments, while Irving Kritol’s “Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea” is a rich and often acerbic introduction. . . . Max Boot’s and Joshua Muravchik’s [are] crisp debunkings of some of the juicier myths. . . . Mr. Stelzer offers thoughtful and sophisticated pieces from Jeane Kirkpatrick, Robert Kagan, and William Kristol.” –Clive Davis, Washington Times

“Provocative . . . The inclusion of Lady Thatcher, along with the most successful Labour prime minister ever . . . and the dean of old- (not to be confused with paleo-) con opinion writing, only enriches this very readable Reader. And the book itself is a useful update of the multifarious surveys of neoconservatism. . . . Stelzer sets the proper tone in his meaty introduction.” –Ilya Shapiro, The American Spectator

“I find both the substance and the rhetoric of many of the articles here inspiring. But even those who don’t might admire the imagination, forthrightness and clarity of most of the contributors.” –Ann Marlowe, Salon

“Any citizen who seeks to gain a fuller understanding of the philosophical roots of neoconservatism and how it is currently applied to a range of policy areas should read this book. . . . A fine collection of essays that reflect the breadth and depth of neo-conservative thought. . . . The essays are informative and challenging and, taken as a whole, present a reasonably complete portrait of the neo-conservative approach.” –Thomas Baldino, Library Journal


The Neoconservative Persuasion
What it was, and what it is
Irving Kristol

“[President Bush is] an engaging person, but I think for some reason he’s been captured by the neoconservatives around him.”
–Howard Dean, U.S. News & World Report, August 11, 2003

What exactly is neoconservatism? Journalists, and now even presidential candidates, speak with an enviable confidence on who or what is “neoconservative” and seem to assume the meaning is fully revealed in the name. Those of us who are designated as “neocons’ are amused, flattered, or dismissive, depending on the context. It is reasonable to wonder: is there any “there” there?

Even I, frequently referred to as the “godfather” of all those neocons, have had my moments of wonderment. A few years ago I said (and, alas, wrote) that neoconservatism had had its own distinctive qualities in its early years, but by now had been absorbed into the mainstream of American conservatism.

I was wrong, and the reason I was wrong is that, ever since its origin among disillusioned liberal intellectuals in the 1970s, what we call neoconservatism has been one of those intellectual undercurrents that surface only intermittently. It is not a ‘movement”, as the conspiratorial critics would have it. Neoconservatism is what the late historian of Jacksonian America, Marvin Meyers, called a “persuasion”, one that manifests itself over time, but erratically, and one whose meaning we clearly glimpse only in retrospect.

Viewed thus, one can say that the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican Party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy. That this new conservative politics is distinctly American is beyond doubt. There is nothing like neoconservatism in Europe, and most European conservatives are highly skeptical of its legitimacy. The fact that conservatism in the United States is so much healthier than in Europe, so much more politically effective, surely has something to do with the existence of neoconservatism. But Europeans, who think it absurd to look to the United States for lessons in political innovation, resolutely refuse to consider this possibility.

Neoconservatism is the first variant of American conservatism in the past century that is in the “American grain”. It is hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic. Its twentieth-century heroes tend to be TR [Theodore Roosevelt], FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt], and Ronald Reagan. Such Republican and conservative worthies as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Barry Goldwater are politely overlooked. Of course, those worthies are in no way overlooked by a large, probably the largest, segment of the Republican Party, with the result that most Republican politicians know nothing, and could not care less, about neoconservatism. Nevertheless, they cannot be blind to the fact that neoconservative policies, reaching out beyond the traditional political and financial base, have helped make the very idea of political conservatism more acceptable to a majority of American voters. Nor has it passed official notice that it is the neoconservative public policies, not the traditional Republican ones, that result in popular Republican presidencies.

One of these policies, most visible and controversial, is cutting tax rates in order to stimulate steady economic growth. This policy was not invented by neocons, and it was not the particularities of tax cuts that interested them, but rather the steady focus on economic growth. Neocons are familiar with intellectual history and aware that it is only in the last two centuries that democracy has become a respectable option among political thinkers. In earlier times, democracy meant an inherently turbulent political regime, with the “have-nots’ and the “haves’ engaged in a perpetual and utterly destructive class struggle. It was only the prospect of economic growth in which everyone prospered, if not equally or simultaneously, that gave modern democracies their legitimacy and durability.

The cost of this emphasis on economic growth has been an attitude toward public finance that is far less risk averse than is the case among more traditional conservatives. Neocons would prefer not to have large budget deficits, but it is in the nature of democracy – because it seems to be in the nature of human nature – that political demagogy will frequently result in economic recklessness, so that one sometimes must shoulder budgetary deficits as the cost (temporary, one hopes) of pursuing economic growth. It is a basic assumption of neoconservatism that, as a consequence of the spread of affluence among all classes, a property-owning and tax-paying population will, in time, become less vulnerable to egalitarian illusions and demagogic appeals and more sensible about the fundamentals of economic reckoning.

This leads to the issue of the role of the State. Neocons do not like the concentration of services in the welfare state and are happy to study alternative ways of delivering these services. But they are impatient with the Hayekian notion that we are on “the road to serfdom”. Neocons do not feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the State in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable. Because they tend to be more interested in history than economics or sociology, they know that the nineteenth-century idea, so neatly propounded by Herbert Spencer in his The Man Versus the State, was a historical eccentricity. People have always preferred strong government to weak government, although they certainly have no liking for anything that smacks of overly intrusive government. 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.

But it is only to a degree that neocons are comfortable in modern America. The steady decline in our democratic culture, sinking to new levels of vulgarity, does unite neocons with traditional conservatives – though not with those libertarian conservatives who are conservative in economics but unmindful of the culture. The upshot is a quite unexpected alliance between neocons, who include a fair proportion of secular intellectuals, and religious traditionalists. They are united on issues concerning the quality of education, the relations of Church and State, the regulation of pornography, and the like, all of which they regard as proper candidates for the government’s attention. And since the Republican Party now has a substantial base among the religious, this gives neocons a certain influence and even power. Because religious conservatism is so feeble in Europe, the neoconservative potential there is correspondingly weak.

And then, of course, there is foreign policy, the area of American politics where neoconservatism has recently been the focus of media attention. This is surprising since there is no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy, only a set of attitudes derived from historical experience. (The favorite neoconservative text on foreign affairs, thanks to Professors Leo Strauss of Chicago and Donald Kagan of Yale, is Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War.) These attitudes can be summarized in the following “theses’ (as a Marxist would say): first, patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment, and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions. Precisely because we are a nation of immigrants, this is a powerful American sentiment. Second, world government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny. International institutions that point to an ultimate world government should be regarded with the deepest suspicion. Third, statesmen should, above all, have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies. This is not as easy as it sounds, as the history of the Cold War revealed. The number of intelligent men who could not count the Soviet Union as an enemy, even though this was its own self-definition, was absolutely astonishing.

Finally, for a great power, the “national interest” is not a geographical term, except for fairly prosaic matters like trade and environmental regulation. A smaller nation might appropriately feel that its national interest begins and ends at its borders, so that its foreign policy is almost always in a defensive mode. A larger nation has more extensive interests. And large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns. Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from non-democratic forces, external or internal. That is why it was in our national interest to come to the defense of France and Britain in World War II. That is why we feel it necessary to defend Israel today, when its survival is threatened. No complicated geopolitical calculations of national interest are necessary.

Behind all this is a fact: the incredible military superiority of the United States vis-“-vis the nations of the rest of the world, in any imaginable combination. This superiority was planned by no one, and even today there are many Americans who are in denial. To a large extent, it all happened as a result of our bad luck. During the fifty years after World War II, while Europe was at peace and the Soviet Union largely relied on surrogates to do its fighting, the United States was involved in a whole series of wars: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Kosovo conflict, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War. The result was that our military spending expanded more or less in line with our economic growth, while Europe’s democracies cut back their military spending in favor of social welfare programs. The Soviet Union spent profusely but wastefully, so that its military collapsed along with its economy.

Suddenly, after two decades during which “imperial decline” and “imperial overstretch” were the academic and journalistic watchwords, the United States emerged as uniquely powerful. The ‘magic” of compound interest over half a century had its effect on our military budget, as did the cumulative scientific and technological research of our armed forces. With power come responsibilities, whether sought or not, whether welcome or not. And it is a fact that if you have the kind of power we now have, either you will find opportunities to use it, or the world will discover them for you.

The older, traditional elements in the Republican Party have difficulty coming to terms with this new reality in foreign affairs, just as they cannot reconcile economic conservatism with social and cultural conservatism. But by one of those accidents that historians ponder, our current President and his administration turn out to be quite at home in this new political environment, although it is clear they did not anticipate this role any more than their party as a whole did. As a result, neoconservatism began enjoying a second life, at a time when its obituaries were still being published.

The Neocon Cabal and Other Fantasies
David Brooks


Do you ever get the sense the whole world is becoming unhinged from reality? I started feeling that way awhile ago, when I was still working for The Weekly Standard and all these articles began appearing about how Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Doug Feith, Bill Kristol, and a bunch of “neoconservatives’ at the magazine had taken over U.S. foreign policy.

Theories about the tightly knit neocon cabal came in waves. One day you read that neocons were pushing plans to finish off Iraq and move into Syria. Websites appeared detailing neocon conspiracies; my favorite described a neocon outing organized by Vice President Dick Cheney to hunt for humans. The Asian press had the most lurid stories; the European press the most thorough. Every day, it seemed, Le Monde or some deep-thinking German paper would have an expos’ on the neocon cabal, complete with charts connecting all the conspirators.

The full-mooners fixated on a think tank called the Project for the New American Century, which has a staff of five and issues memos on foreign policy. To hear these people describe it, PNAC is sort of a Yiddish Trilateral Commission, the nexus of the sprawling neocon tentacles.

We’d sit around the magazine guffawing at the ludicrous stories that kept sprouting, but belief in shadowy neocon influence has now hardened into common knowledge”

In truth, the people labeled neocons (con is short for “conservative” and neo is short for “Jewish”) travel in widely different circles and don’t actually have much contact with one another. The ones outside government have almost no contact with President George W. Bush. There have been hundreds of references, for example, to Richard Perle’s insidious power over administration policy, but I’ve been told by senior administration officials that he has had no significant meetings with Bush or Cheney since they assumed office. If he’s shaping their decisions, he must be microwaving his ideas into their fillings.

It’s true that both Bush and the people labeled neocons agree that Saddam Hussein represented a unique threat to world peace. But correlation does not mean causation. All evidence suggests that Bush formed his conclusions independently. Besides, if he wanted to follow the neocon line, Bush wouldn’t know where to turn because while the neocons agree on Saddam, they disagree vituperatively on just about everything else. (If you ever read a sentence that starts with “Neocons believe”, there is a 99.44 per cent chance everything else in that sentence will be untrue.)

Still, there are apparently millions of people who cling to the notion that the world is controlled by well-organized and malevolent forces. And for a subset of these people, Jews are a handy explanation for everything.

There’s something else going on, too. The proliferation of news media outlets and the segmentation of society have meant that it’s much easier for people to hive themselves off into like-minded cliques. Some people live in towns where nobody likes President Bush. Others listen to radio networks where nobody likes former President Bill Clinton.

In these communities, half-truths get circulated and exaggerated. Dark accusations are believed because it is delicious to believe them. Vince Foster was murdered. The Saudis warned the Bush administration before 9/11.

You get to choose your own reality. You get to believe what makes you feel good. You can ignore inconvenient facts so rigorously your picture of the world is one big distortion.

And if you can give your foes a collective name – liberals, fundamentalists, or neocons – you can rob them of their individual humanity. All inhibitions are removed. You can say anything about them. You get to feed off their villainy and luxuriate in your own contrasting virtue. You will find books, blowhards, and candidates playing to your delusions, and you can emigrate to your own version of Planet Chomsky. You can live there unburdened by ambiguity.

Improvements in information technology have not made public debate more realistic. On the contrary, anti-Semitism is resurgent. Conspiracy theories are prevalent. Partisanship has left many people unhinged.

Welcome to election year, 2004.

Myths about Neoconservatism
Max Boot

“The Bush administration is pursuing a neoconservative foreign policy”

If only it were true! The influence of the neoconservative movement (with which I am often associated) supposedly comes from its agents embedded within the U.S. government. The usual suspects are Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense; Douglas Feith, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy; Lewis ‘scooter” Libby, the Vice President’s chief of staff; Elliott Abrams, the National Security Council staffer for Near East, South-west Asian, and North African Affairs; and Richard Perle, a member of the Defense Policy Board. Each of these policy-makers has been an outspoken advocate for aggressive and, if necessary, unilateral action by the United States to promote democracy, human rights, and free markets, and to maintain U.S. primacy around the world.

While this list seems impressive, it also reveals that the neocons have no representatives in the administration’s top tier. President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice: not a neocon among them. Powell might be best described as a liberal internationalist; the others are traditional national-interest conservatives who, during Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, derided the Clinton administration for its focus on nation-building and human rights. Most of them were highly skeptical of the interventions in the Balkans that neocons championed.

The contention that the neocon faction gained the upper hand in the White House has a superficial plausibility because the Bush administration toppled Saddam Hussein and embraced democracy promotion in the Middle East – both policies long urged by neocons (though not only by neocons) and opposed by self-styled ‘realists’ who believe in fostering stability above all. But the administration has adopted these policies not because of the impact of the neocons but because of the impact of the four airplanes hijacked on September 11, 2001. Following the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, Bush realized the United States no longer could afford a “humble” foreign policy. The ambitious National Security Strategy that the administration issued in September 2002 – with its call for U.S. primacy, the promotion of democracy, and vigorous action, pre-emptive if necessary, to stop terrorism and weapons proliferation – was a quintessentially neoconservative document.

Yet the triumph of neoconservatism was hardly permanent or complete. The administration so far has not adopted neocon arguments to push for regime change in North Korea and Iran. Bush has cooled on the “axis of evil” talk and has launched negotiations with the regime in North Korea. The President has also established friendlier relations with communist China than many neocons would like, and he launched a high-profile effort to promote a “road map” for settling the Israeli–Palestinian conflict that most neocons (correctly) predicted would lead nowhere.

“Neocons are liberals who have been mugged by reality”

No longer true. Original neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol, who memorably defined neocons as liberals who’d been ‘mugged by reality”, were (and still are) in favor of welfare benefits, racial equality, and many other liberal tenets. But they were driven rightward by the excesses of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when crime was increasing in the United States, the Soviet Union was gaining ground in the Cold War, and the dominant wing of the Democratic Party was unwilling to get tough on either problem.

A few neocons, like philosopher Sidney Hook or Kristol himself, had once been Marxists or Trotskyites. Most, like former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, simply had been hawkish Democrats who became disenchanted with their party as it drifted further left in the 1970s. Many neocons, such as Richard Perle, originally rallied around Henry ‘scoop” Jackson, a Democratic senator who led the opposition to the Nixon–Ford policy of d”tente with the Soviet Union. Following the 1980 election, U.S. President Ronald Reagan became the new standard bearer of the neoconservative cause.

A few neocons, like Perle, still identify themselves as Democrats, and a number of “neoliberals’ in the Democratic Party (such as Senator Joseph Lieberman and former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke) hold fairly neoconservative views on foreign policy. But most neocons have switched to the Republican Party. On many issues, they are virtually indistinguishable from other conservatives; their main differences are with libertarians who demonize “big government” and preach an anything-goes morality.

Most younger members of the neoconservative movement, including some descendants of the first generation, such as William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, and Robert Kagan, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, have never gone through a leftist phase, which makes the “neo’ prefix no longer technically accurate. Like “liberal”, “conservative”, and other ideological labels, “neocon” has morphed away from its original definition. It has now become an all-purpose term of abuse for anyone deemed to be hawkish, which is why many of those so described shun the label. Wolfowitz prefers to call himself a ‘scoop Jackson Republican”.

“Neocons are Jews who serve the interests of Israel”

A malicious myth. With varying degrees of delicacy, everyone from fringe U.S. presidential candidates Lyndon LaRouche and Patrick Buchanan to European news outlets such as the BBC and Le Monde have used neocon as a synonym for Jew, focusing on Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Eliot Cohen, and others with obvious Jewish names. Trying to resurrect the old dual-loyalties canard, they cite links between some neocons and the Likud Party to argue that neocons wanted to invade Iraq because they were doing Israel’s bidding.

Yes, neocons have links to the Likud Party, but they also have links to the British Tories and other conservative parties around the world, just as some in the Democratic Party have ties to the left-leaning Labour Party in Great Britain and the Labor Party in Israel. These connections reflect ideological, not ethnic, affinity. And while many neocons are Jewish, many are not. Former drug czar Bill Bennett, ex-CIA Director James Woolsey, the Revd Richard John Neuhaus, social scientist James Q. Wilson, theologian Michael Novak, and Jeane Kirkpatrick aren’t exactly synagogue-goers. Yet they are as committed to Israel’s defense as Jewish neocons are – a commitment based not on shared religion or ethnicity but on shared liberal democratic values. Israel has won the support of most Americans, of all faiths, because it is the only democracy in the Middle East, and because its enemies (Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, and Syria) also proclaim themselves to be the enemies of the United States.

The charge that neocons are concerned above all with the welfare of Israel is patently false. In the 1980s, they were the leading proponents of democratization in places as disparate as Nicaragua, Poland, and South Korea. In the 1990s, they were the most ardent champions of interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo – missions designed to rescue Muslims, not Jews. Today neocons agitate for democracy in China (even as Israel has sold arms to Beijing!) and against the abuse of Christians in Sudan. Their advocacy of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan is entirely consistent with this long track record. If neocons were agents of Likud, they would have advocated an invasion not of Iraq or Afghanistan but of Iran, which Israel considers to be the biggest threat to its own security.

“Neocons are a well-funded, well-organized cabal”

Hardly. Writers suspicious of neocons have drawn elaborate flow charts to map neoconservative influence, showing the links between journalists (such as Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol), think tanks (the American Enterprise Institute and the Project for the New American Century), and foundations (Bradley, John M. Olin, and Smith Richardson). True, neocons have some support in the media and non-profit worlds. But let’s be serious: the Project for the New American Century, the leading neocon foreign-policy think tank, has a staff of five. Its resources pale next to those of the Brookings Institution, Heritage Foundation, and Cato Institute, three of the biggest Washington think tanks, none of them sympathetic to the neoconservative vision of foreign policy. The Bradley, John M. Olin, and Smith Richardson foundations have given some money to neocons (including me), but their combined grants ($68 million per year) are less than a tenth of those doled out by just three liberal foundations – Ford, Rockefeller, and MacArthur ($833 million per year). And funding for neoconservative causes is about to shrink because Olin is going out of business. The leading neoconservative magazines, The Weekly Standard, The Public Interest, and Commentary, have lower circulations than the National Review, The Nation, or The New Republic, to say nothing of The New Yorker or Time.

Sorry, conspiracy aficionados. Neocons have been relatively influential because of the strength of their arguments, not their connections.

“Neocons are Wilsonian idealists’

True, with an important qualification. The “Wilsonian” label has been haphazardly affixed to anyone who believes that U.S. foreign policy should be guided by the promotion of American ideals, not just the protection of narrowly defined strategic and economic interests, as realpolitikers believe.

But Wilsonians are not all alike. Liberal ‘Soft Wilsonians’, such as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and, previously, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson himself, share a faith that multilateral organizations such as the League of Nations or the United Nations should be the main venues through which the United States promotes its ideals, and that international law should be the United States’ main policy tool. They are willing to use force, but preferably only when (as in Haiti or Kosovo) the intervention is untainted by any hint of national interest.

The neocons have scant regard for Wilson himself, whom they regard as hopelessly naive. Instead, they are “hard Wilsonians’, who place their faith not in pieces of paper but in power, specifically U.S. power. Their heroes are Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan – all U.S. presidents who successfully wielded power in the service of a higher purpose. Neocons believe the United States should use force when necessary to champion its ideals as well as its interests, not only out of sheer humanitarianism but also because the spread of liberal democracy improves U.S. security, while crimes against humanity inevitably make the world a more dangerous place.

“Neocons are targeting North Korea and Iran next”

True. The greatest danger to the United States today is the possibility that some rogue state will develop nuclear weapons and then share them with terrorist groups. Iran and North Korea are the two likeliest culprits. Neither would be willing to negotiate away its nuclear arsenal; no treaty would be any trustworthier than the 1994 Agreed Framework that North Korea violated. Neocons think the only way to ensure U.S. security is to topple the tyrannical regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran.

This objective does not mean, however, that neocons are agitating for pre-emptive war. They do not rule out force if necessary. But their preferred solution is to use political, diplomatic, economic, and military pressure, short of actual war, to bring down these dictators – the same strategy the United States followed with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Iranian and North Korean peoples want to be free; the United States should help them by every means possible, while doing nothing to provide support for their oppressors. Regime change may seem like a radical policy but it is actually the best way to prevent a nuclear crisis that could lead to war. Endless negotiating with these governments – the preferred strategy of self-described pragmatists and moderates – is likely to bring about the very crisis it is meant to avert.

“Neocons oppose multilateralism”

False. Neocons don’t have a problem with alliances. They are wary of granting multilateral institutions (such as the United Nations) a veto over U.S. action, or joining deeply flawed international agreements (such as the landmine convention) simply for the sake of multilateral harmony. But that’s a long way from unilateralism, which, if it means anything, implies a preference for going it alone.

To be sure, a faction within the Republican Party might properly be described as unilateralist. These traditional conservatives believe that the guiding principles of U.S. foreign policy should be, in columnist George Will’s formulation, to: “Preserve U.S. sovereignty and freedom of action by marginalizing the United Nations. Reserve military interventions for reasons of U.S. national security, not altruism. Avoid peacekeeping operations that compromise the military’s war-fighting proficiencies. Beware of the political hubris inherent in the intensely unconservative project of “nation-building”.”

Neocons, by contrast, are committed above all to U.S. global leadership, and they know that the costs of such leadership (including peacekeeping and nation-building) are so high that the United States needs allies to share the burden. For this reason, neocons have been vocal advocates of expanding NATO and sending its forces into Afghanistan and Iraq. Like most conservatives, neocons are deeply suspicious of the United Nations, which they fear is animated by anti-Americanism. But, unlike some on the right, they are happy to make common cause with the United Nations when doing so will serve U.S. interests. Some neocons (myself included) are even willing to cede the United Nations some authority in Iraq in order to bring more countries into the coalition.

“Neocons are political fundamentalists’

Give me a break. According to some of their more heated critics, neocons view the world in Manichean terms. Guided by the spirits of philosopher Leo Strauss and Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, the neocons allegedly have contempt for the democratic masses and believe in spreading “noble lies’ to mislead the public. The “exaggerated” threat posed by Saddam Hussein is cited as their latest deception.

This portrayal is a crude caricature of a group that believes American values are worth defending at home and abroad. That conviction was, in fact, the view of Strauss himself. A largely apolitical Professor of Classics at the University of Chicago who died in 1973, Strauss was a refugee from Nazi Germany who saw the evils of totalitarianism at first hand. He did not propose – as neocon-bashers charge – that a privileged few should run society while deceiving everyone else about their intentions. He was a firm believer in U.S. democracy, which, he thought, needed to be defended by a well-educated elite, lest it go the way of the Weimar Republic. Strauss’s views inspired some early neocons; few read him today, contrary to all the articles asserting that (as the French weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur put it) Strauss is the neocons’ ‘mentor”.

Even more absurd is the charge that the neocons are secret adherents to Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution. The former Red Army commander may have opened a few leftists’ eyes to the evils of Stalinism in the 1930s, but he was no proto-neocon. He was a communist, who, even after his expulsion from Russia, remained committed to establishing a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. The only kind of revolution he favored was one that would bring him and his comrades to power. As neocon author Joshua Muravchik has pointed out, Trotsky would not have supported a democratic war of liberation in Iraq; his sympathies would have been with Saddam.

“Failure in Iraq has discredited the neocons’

Too early to say. The emerging media consensus that the U.S. occupation has fizzled is ludicrously premature. Sure, there have been a lot of well-publicized problems, such as terrorism, crime, and electricity shortages. But a lot of less-publicized progress is also evident – the creation of a Governing Council, the election of city councils and mayors, the emergence of the freest political parties and media in the Arab world, the reconstruction of looted schools and government buildings, and the establishment of a legal framework for a free-enterprise system. The continuing U.S. casualties are lamentable but the losses so far are low by the standards of guerrilla wars’There is no reason, other than 1960s nostalgia, to expect a Vietnam redux. But if the occupation does turn into a fiasco, as numerous critics expect, the neocons will be a convenient scapegoat.

To a large extent, this blame is unfair. Many of the early problems of the occupation were due to the administration’s failure to commit sufficient resources to Iraq. This oversight was largely the fault of policy-makers, such as Rumsfeld, who remain skeptical of nation-building. Neocons have been pushing for a more vigorous nation-building effort in both Afghanistan and Iraq and for a concomitant expansion of the active-duty military to provide the necessary troops. Unfortunately, this advice was largely unheeded by the administration. And when the White House finally realized it needed to spend more on rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan, Republican isolationists and fiscal conservatives in Congress raised obstacles. If neocons had been in control, they would have done far more, far earlier, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, possibly averting some of the post-war problems. But fairly or not, neocons will doubtless be held responsible for the outcome in both countries; their numerous enemies, on both the left and the right, will see to that.

©2004 by Irwin Stelzer. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.