Explications of neoconservatism (most of them scathingly critical) continue to accumulate. Jacob Heilbrunn’s contribution to this genre distinguishes itself from the rest -- or at least tries to -- by exploring in detail “the mental world” that neoconservatives inhabit. The principal result of that exploration is to expose the intellectual pretensions of that world’s inhabitants. When it comes to ideas, the neocon legacy promises to be thin, derivative and largely pernicious.
In “They Knew They Were Right,” Heilbrunn, a Washington-based journalist who was formerly a senior editor at the New Republic and later an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, provides a succinct but comprehensive neoconservative genealogy. Beginning his account in the 1930s, he surveys the people, publications and events that have combined in the present-day to give us the Weekly Standard, the American Enterprise Institute and various talking heads on Fox News, along with the Bush Doctrine of preventive war and the debacle of Iraq.
Along the way, Heilbrunn rousts all the usual suspects -- the Trotskyist Max Shachtman, the political theorist Leo Strauss, the nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter, the cultural critic Allan Bloom and the militantly anti-communist Democratic “senator from Boeing,” Henry “Scoop” Jackson -- and he recounts the contribution each made in shaping today’s neoconservative worldview. Heilbrunn devotes particular attention to political journalists Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, who over the course of very long careers have never ceased to write, to organize and to agitate. Absent Kristol’s considerable entrepreneurial talents and Podhoretz’s flair as a polemicist, neoconservatism as we know it would not exist.
Little in this survey qualifies as genuinely new. The book is not deeply researched. Heilbrunn makes no great discoveries and drops no bombshells, although his contention that “neoconservatism is in a decisive respect a Jewish phenomenon” will likely raise hackles in some quarters. To describe neoconservatism as “ineluctably Jewish,” he insists, “is anything but an anti-Semitic canard.” Fair-minded readers are unlikely to dispute his judgment.
Beyond emphasizing neoconservatism’s Jewish roots -- hardly a revelation -- three broadly unflattering impressions emerge from Heilbrunn’s narrative.
First, to describe the neocons as conservative is to misconstrue their purpose, which is to overturn rather than to preserve. Although having nominally made a transformative ideological journey from the left to right, neoconservatives, writes Heilbrunn, have “never really ceased to be radicals in temperament and style.” This residual radicalism is especially evident when it comes to foreign policy, which neoconservatives invariably view as a contest pitting good against evil. Contemptuous of realism, disdaining stability and equilibrium, neoconservatives show pronounced utopian propensities, fueled by exaggerated expectations about America’s capacity to set things right. Whether directed against communism, “Islamofascism” or the United Nations (or domestically against the CIA, the State Department and liberal Democrats), this utopianism finds expression in a penchant for uncompromising and confrontational militancy.
Second, whatever Kristol, Podhoretz and their adherents might have us believe, when it comes to offering insights into the human condition, neoconservatives have not made much of a mark, Heilbrunn contends. Rather than exhibiting genuine creativity, they specialize in repackaging the obvious or in anticipating next month’s conventional wisdom. They are gadflies and rabble-rousers rather than fresh, cutting-edge thinkers. Their genius lies in self-promotion, their ideas offered with “grandiosity and the conviction of self-importance,” which appear on closer examination to be less than advertised. Even in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when their influence was at its zenith, neoconservatives were serving up little more than warmed-over Wilsonianism laced with Machtpolitik.
Third, although they pose as intellectuals, neoconservatives more typically function as propagandists. Theirs is not the disinterested pursuit of truth so much as the endless repetition of ostensibly self-evident truisms. The neoconservative universe allows little room for ambiguity, irony or paradox. According to Heilbrunn, they subscribe to a vision of “binary simplicity,” in which right and wrong, black and white, friend and foe are easily distinguished. Whatever the topic -- whether science or sexuality, the future of war or the future of the Middle East -- for neocons it’s all cut and dried.
The radical inclination, the intellectual banality and the overweening certainty all derive from what Heilbrunn accurately describes as “a highly selective and moralistic view of history as a drama of salvation and idolatry.” The point is a crucial one. For neoconservatives, the past begins and ends with the period 1938 to 1945. This is history as tendentious parable in which appeasement always invites aggression; “isolationism” paves the way for holocaust; and vigorous leadership (neoconservatives strongly favoring Winston Churchill over Franklin Delano Roosevelt) ensures the ultimate triumph of freedom, albeit too late to save the millions carted off to the Nazi death camps.
Neoconservatives, writes Heilbrunn, “see new Munichs everywhere and anywhere,” a reference to Britain’s 1938 pact over Hitler’s seizure of part of Czechoslovakia. He might have added that they are as quick to see a new Hitler and to anticipate a new Auschwitz -- and U.S. power as the only force capable of averting the awful consequences that threaten.
For neoconservatives, therefore, crisis is a permanent condition. They revel in crisis, confident that they alone stand between survival and Armageddon. As Heilbrunn observes, “it’s always imperative to have, somewhere, somehow, an enemy -- both at home and abroad.” This suits the neoconservatives’ “need to see themselves as lonely prophets standing in the breach between implacable foes on the one hand and weak-kneed liberals (and paper-pushing bureaucrats) on the other.”
The Iraq war stands as testimony to where this sort of thinking leads. One might expect, therefore, the neoconservative movement of having been permanently discredited. Not so, says Heilbrunn; they’ll be back. He’s right, if only because neoconservative fears and ambitions reflect something deep-seated in the American psyche.
So while this book takes its place along many other attempts to figure out what makes neoconservatives tick, it is unlikely to be the last word.