Our own Daniel Luban has just published a brilliant essay on the history, evolution and persistence of neo-conservatism by reviewing three relatively recent books for n+1 magazine, which is a real, hard-copy magazine that is actually available in bookstores and by subscription. I highly recommend the piece as a really outstanding dissection of the movement — and the liberal interventionists who have periodically supported it with predictably disastrous results — and where it stands today. An excerpt midway through:
Cold war liberalism’s multilateralism was a secondary feature of an approach defined more fundamentally by its Manicheanism. Its theoretical foundation relied in great part on the concept of “totalitarianism,” which elided the distinction between communism and fascism and could be taken to justify nearly any form of power politics on moral grounds. If the need to defeat the Axis had authorized Dresden and Hiroshima, as most cold warriors generally agreed that it had, then what could the threat of communism not justify? The result was that the Wilsonian imperative to make the world safe for democracy did not necessarily entail making the world safe through democracy, as demonstrated by the US-backed decapitation of democratic regimes in Guatemala, Iran, Chile, and elsewhere.
The Manichean impulse was neoconservatism’s most important inheritance from the cold war. Totalitarianism, with its rigid dualism, remained the central concept: each enemy a Hitler, each compromise a Munich, the only models Churchill and Chamberlain. Neoconservatism has no aversion to realpolitik, contrary to what is sometimes said, but it does conceive of the enemy in starkly different terms than the conservative realist. For the realist, interests are finite and enemies rational, and the most attractive possibility in such a world is often to strike a deal. For the neoconservatives, however, the enemy is always totalitarian, and any compromise can only offer temporary respite before a final confrontation. The need to defeat the enemy is not merely a pragmatic imperative, but a moral one; not only is the national interest at stake, but the fate of the entire free world. Every mission is messianiac; every struggle is millennial. Norman Podhoretz split the last seventy-five years of global history into World War II (the struggle against fascism), World War III (the struggle against communism), and the ongoing World War IV (the struggle against “Islamofascism”); this periodization veered close to self-parody, but it captured the essence of the neocon Weltanschauung.
Thus it was in response to Henry Kissinger’s pursuit of detente that the original neoconservative hawks clustered around Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson mobilized to fight even the slightest intimation of compromise. More recently, Robert Kagan, the smartest and most systematic thinker of the younger generation of neoconservatives, has attempted to resuscitate a kind of great power politics built around the idea of an overriding conflict between the democratic and non-democratic worlds—most imminently, between the US on one hand and China and Russia on the other. Yet as Francis Fukuyama (himself a recovering neocon) has pointed out, any traditional notion of great power politics is fundamentally alien to the neoconservative sensibility, since the great power vision posits a rational enemy with whom it is possible to do business. It is precisely because of the need for a totalitarian adversary that neoconservatives and their allies among the liberal hawks have been so insistent on the strained portmanteau of “Islamofascism” in the post-September 11 era, aiming to shoehorn the war on terror into the conceptual framework of the struggles against fascism and communism. Without such an adversary, it becomes much harder to square the circle between ruthless means and moralized ends.
What about democracy? As with other elements of the neoconservative mythology, the image of neocons as ardent Wilsonian democracy promoters has been propagated by both supporters and opponents. If neoconservatives have claimed the mantle of “democracy” in order to portray themselves as idealistic do-gooders, their critics have often been happy to cede the point in order to convict the neocons of naivete—which seems to be considered the only unforgivable sin in Washington foreign policy circles. Critics of the Iraq war, in particular, were often reluctant to couch their opposition in explicitly moral terms for fear of appearing soft-headed or otherwise unserious. It seemed far more adult and politically palatable to suggest that the war was foolish than to suggest that it was wrong; in this way, the neocons’ opponents frequently colluded in portraying them as Wilsonian utopians in order to claim the mantle of hard-headed anti-utopianism for themselves.
In fact, there is little to suggest that democracy promotion has ever been at the heart of neooconservatism. The movement’s early programmatic statement, Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1979 Commentary essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” was a call for defending friendly dictators against left-wing popular movements, a course that set the tone for neoconservative foreign policy through the end of the cold war. Once again the theoretical backbone of the argument was furnished by the totalitarian-authoritarian distinction; in practice, Kirkpatrick’s scheme largely collapsed into the distinction between unfriendly left-wing regimes, democratically elected or not, and friendly right-wing ones, no matter how brutal. In recent years democracy promotion has become a more explicit part of the neoconservative program, but one need only look at the Bush Administration’s handling of Egypt and Palestine to see how quickly democratic processes have been scuttled when they have threatened to bring undesirable parties into power.
But check out the whole thing. And, if you can afford it, buy a copy of the magazine.