The age of `neocons'

Print edition : January 30, 2004

Neoconservative intellectuals have helped fashion a new ideology for the Republican Party in the arena of foreign policy. Their agenda is simple: to enhance greatly the U.S. military and to use this military power to reshape the world in the image of capitalist democracy.

IN early August 2003, the Democratic Party's presumptive candidate for President, Howard Dean, said that while President George W. Bush was "an engaging person, I think for some reason he's been captured by the neoconservatives around him". Dean seized the tenor of what many believe - that the entire global war on terrorism, including the unprovoked war and endless occupation of Iraq, is the result of a long-standing neoconservative strategy.

Reading Dean's statement, the "godfather" of the neoconservative movement, Irving Kristol, felt chuffed. In The Weekly Standard, owned by Rupert Murdoch and edited by Irving's son Bill, Irving Kristol wrote that neoconservatism was not a movement, but perhaps a persuasion. The task of neoconservatism, he wrote, was "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". The neoconservatism forged by Kristol is, in his words, "the first variant of American conservatism in the past century that is in the American grain". Neoconservatism, then, is 21st century Americanism.

Classical conservatism never caught on in the United States, mainly because it smacked of aristocracy and privilege. When the French Revolution inaugurated the modern world of rights and equality, the Irishman Edmund Burke rued the demise of what had passed. "The age of chivalry is gone," wrote Burke, "that of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever." Such a reactionary perspective did not sit well in the modern U.S., where Tomorrow is already anachronistic.

The nostalgia of classical conservatism had no takers in the U.S., where every political party had to be yoked to science and economics, to technology and commerce. Tradition had a good ring, but it did not work well on election day. The fiasco of Senator Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential run showed the conservative Republican Party that it had strayed from the mainstream of U.S. values. Goldwater's defeat eclipsed the heritage of conservative heroes such as Douglas MacArthur, Joseph McCarthy, Charles Lindberg and Robert Taft. In many ways, by 1964, the Republican Party resembled the present-day Conservative Party of Britain - out of touch with and ideologically unprepared for the contemporary world.

Neoconservative intellectuals (or neocons) helped fashion a new ideology for the Republican Party, in both the domestic and foreign policy arenas. Certainly, Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential victory had more to do with the new electoral configuration in the country, but he did adopt many of the neocon ideas into his domestic agenda. Formerly the dominant party in the U.S. south, the Democratic Party welcomed Civil Rights by the 1960s and lost the support of very large numbers of southern whites. Nixon's "Southern Strategy", built on racist rage against Civil Rights, and in view of the electoral significance of the south, helped the Republicans build a majority that has lasted for a generation. Even as the Democrats held the White House in the 1990s, the Republicans controlled the Legislature by a considerable margin.

The neocon agenda appealed to southern whites and to others unhappy with the Black Power, Feminist and Gay Liberation movements. Neocons joined racist southern conservatives to disguise their anger at equality movements by talking about "small government". Rather than oppose equality directly, they called for the shrinking of the state's regulatory powers to create equality. Since the private sector has little interest in equality, the reduced government meant the abandonment of social justice. A central figure responsible for this was Daniel P. Moynihan, Ambassador to India from 1973 to 1975 and then Senator from New York. In 1968, Moynihan wrote, "Somehow liberals have been unable to acquire from life what conservatives seem to be endowed with at birth, namely a healthy scepticism of the powers of government agencies to do good."

Moynihan and other neocons emphasised the strong individualistic tradition within U.S. social life that favours liberty more than equality. To be free of governmental intervention is far more important than to have a benevolent state provide welfare to the population. Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society programme greatly expanded the role of the government in the 1960s, mainly in its attempt to alleviate poverty. The Republican adoption of the "small government" slogan appealed to sections of the population who felt angered by Johnson's "handouts" to the poor. From 1968 to the present, the Republicans have triumphed with this theme, and even the Democrats in power have now acceded to it (Bill Clinton curtailed U.S. welfare programmes in 1996 with the statement, "The era of Big Government is over".

But neoconservatism is not opposed to all aspects of the welfare system. In 1979, Irving Kristol wrote in favour of "a conservative welfare state", because, for him, it was "perfectly consistent with the neoconservative principles". Such a welfare state would be used to protect the "innocent" (as they understand it), but it would certainly not provide for the indigent who "could" work.

In 1973, the socialist leader Michael Harrington dubbed people such as Kristol and Moynihan as neoconservatives. The label stuck. Harrington could just as easily have named them neoliberals or neolibertarians, for their agenda shared more with American liberalism and libertarianism than with conservatism. Kristol said of his turn to the right that he was "a liberal who was mugged by reality".

If American libertarianism provides one resource for neocons, Straussian Hellenism is another. An obscure German Jewish political philosopher, Leo Strauss came to the U.S. as an exile devastated by the holocaust, which he called "the barbarism we have witnessed". At the University of Chicago, Strauss expressed his deep demoralisation with the modern project and with liberalism. "Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed," Strauss wrote to his friend Carl Schmitt, the `Crown Jurist of the Third Reich'. "Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united - and they can only be united against other people." Strauss favoured Machiavelli's slogan, "Men are more ready for evil than for good".

Daniel P. Moynihan. The former Senator and Ambassador to India and other neocons emphasised the strong individualistic tradition within U.S. social life that favours liberty more than equality.-RICHARD DREW/AP

Rule by one's betters who are guided by ancient wisdom is the way for states to operate: one's betters are often technocrats who work secretly to create good policy outside the public's illiterate gaze. Vice-President Dick Cheney's hidden meetings to create an energy policy, or else the impatience of the Bush team with disclosure, are driven by this heritage. Contemporary neocons reject the pessimism of Strauss: what they take from him is his contempt for the democratic process.

The neocons also have contempt for dialogue and negotiation - for the minutiae of politics. Henry Kissinger came in for special reproach. Kissinger believed that the U.S. should ally with anyone if it enhanced U.S. power. Such realism was anathema to the neocons. Their foreign policy agenda is simple: to enhance greatly the U.S. military, and to use this military power to reshape the world in the image of capitalist democracy. Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson and his adviser Richard Perle and such neocon organisations as the Committee on the Present Danger and the Committee for the Free World helped scuttle detente in 1974. Once they forced the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) off the discussion table, they fought for an astronomical increase in the U.S. military budget, and they fuelled an arms race that crippled the economies of both the USSR and the U.S.

In the foreign policy field, concepts like detente, containment and negotiation make little sense to the neocons who are more interested in an outright war against all their enemies. In this sense, the neocons draw much from an unlikely source, someone who influenced many of them in their youth: Leon Trotsky. Many prominent acolytes of Trotsky within the U.S. took to the path of conservatism, most dramatically, James Burnham, who wrote the 1964 anti-liberal screed `Suicide of the West' and then won the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan. Irving Kristol began his political life at the City University of New York in the 1930s as a follower of Trotsky, whose own critique of the USSR allowed Kristol to abandon an early flirtation with Marxism.

From Trotsky, Kristol drew one important lesson: the idea of "permanent revolution" and the "export of Communism" without any concession made to other political ideologies, such as nationalism (or "socialism in one country"). If Trotsky wrote of "exporting Communism", Kristol's junior Joshua Muravchik wrote, in 1991, of "exporting democracy", where "democracy in one country" is insufficient, since it has to be exported around the world if it is to be sustained.

In 1983, Irving Kristol wrote, "Patriotism springs from love of the nation's past; nationalism arises out of the hope for the nation's future. Neoconservatives believe that the goals of American foreign policy must go beyond a narrow, too literal definition of `national security'. It is the national interest of a world power, as this is defined by a sense of national destiny, not a myopic national security." If Trotsky wanted to export Communism around the planet, Kristol wants to export American Democracy.

What do the neocons mean by democracy? Democracy, for them, does not mean social equality. They have a deflated definition for it, as the rule of law, notably the protection of property and the promotion of the rights of individuals and corporations for private enterprise. "Real freedom," as President Bush put it in 2002, "is the freedom for a person - or a nation - to make a living." At the National Endowment for Democracy in November 2003, Bush defined the states that had to be opposed from the standpoint of this definition of democracy: "Governments that still fear and repress independent thought and creativity, and private enterprise - the human qualities that make for strong and successful societies."

For the neocon, a "tyrant" is someone who does not adopt capitalist democracy. The desire to remove Saddam Hussein - then the other "rogue states" and those that belong in the "axis of evil" - comes from this impulse as much as from the corporate elites within the Bush administration who want to secure markets and privatise the delivery of services. The ideological justification for Bush's evangelical imperialism is driven by such neocon assumptions.

Indeed, Bush's foreign policy apparatus is staffed with neocons, many of whom cut their teeth in the Reagan administration two decades ago. The most prominent neocons in the Department of Defence are its head Donald Rumsfeld, his assistant Paul Wolfowitz, and their adviser Richard Perle. Not far from them, in the National Security Agency, is the current West Asia specialist Elliot Abrams, and then, at the top, is Vice-President Cheney. In the 1990s, this team reassembled as the Project for a New American Century, where it championed aggressive American leadership in the export of democracy. In 2000, Elliot Abrams told a neocon audience: "Since America's emergence as a world power roughly a century ago we have made many errors, but we have been the greatest force for good among the nations of the earth. A diminution of American power or influence bodes ill for our country, our friends, and our principles." The thrust of the neocon argument turns on what Abrams means by "greatest force for good": good for whom? Because the neocons see themselves as powered by the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and blessed with the privileges of the present, they know what is good for the rest of the world.

Afghanistan, the first battlefield for the export of democracy, is a field test for neocons, and the results are bleak. In June 2002, Wolfowitz told the U.S. Congress: "In Afghanistan today we see a democratic spirit rising from the remains of a once-failed state that is trying to defy the ravages of decades of war and misrule." The neocon minders, however, must control the direction of the "democratic spirit". Each time the Afghans stray from the neocon path (such as when the 2002 Loya Jirga wanted to re-appoint Zahir Shah as king or when the 2003 Loya Jirga wanted to create a decentralised state), Wolfowitz or his aide, Zalmay Khalilzad, step in to protect the agenda of the neocons, the 21st century Americans.

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