Neoconservativism in a Nutshell

by Jim Lobe

I’ve been asked to give a kind of Neoconservatism 101 over the next 15 minutes or so, which is a big challenge for me. It took seven hours to get through the subject with the Institute for American Studies in Beijing 12 years ago when Chinese analysts were first trying to fathom why the U.S. had been so stupid as to invade Iraq.

So I’ll start by summing up.

If I were asked to boil down neoconservatism to its essential elements—that is, those that have remained consistent over the past nearly 50 years—I would cite the following:

  • a Manichean view of a world in which good and evil are constantly at war and the United States has an obligation to lead forces for good around the globe.
  • a belief in the moral exceptionalism of both the United States and Israel and the absolute moral necessity for the U.S. to defend Israel’s security.
  • a conviction that, in order to keep evil at bay, the United States must have—and be willing to exercise—the military power necessary to defeat any and all challengers. There’s a corollary: force is the only language that evil understands.
  • the 1930s—with Munich, appeasement, Chamberlain, Churchill—taught us everything we need to know about evil and how to fight it.
  • democracy is generally desirable, but it always depends on who wins.

The Emergence of Neoconservativsm

Although many of you have heard about its Trotskyite origins, the neoconservative movement as we know it today dates mainly from the 1960s. It was in that decade that you see the startling rise of Holocaust consciousness beginning with the Eichmann trial and the Oscar-winning movie Judgment at Nuremberg, both of which had a major impact not only on the Jewish community but on the general public here as well. These events were followed by the rise of the New Left, the Counter-Culture, and the anti-war and Black Power movements, as well as the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. All of these left a number of mainly—but by no means exclusively—Jewish public intellectuals and liberals feeling, in the words of Irving Kristol, “mugged by reality” in a way that launched them on a rightward trajectory.

That trajectory gained momentum in the early 1970s, when the anti-war candidate, George McGovern, won the Democratic nomination for president, and when Israel seemed to teeter briefly on the edge of defeat in the early stages of the 1973 war, which itself was immediately followed by the Arab oil embargo. Two years later, the UN General Assembly passed the “Zionism is Racism” resolution, and U.S. power globally seemed in retreat after the collapse of its clients in Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. These all created a context in which neo-conservatism gained serious political traction.

At this point, it may be useful to address an important ethno-religious issue. Neoconservatism has largely been a Jewish movement. By no means, however, are all neoconservatives Jewish. The late Jeane Kirkpatrick, former Education Secretary Bill Bennett, former CIA chief James Woolsey, and Catholic theologians Michael Novak and George Weigel are just a few examples of non-Jews who have played major roles in the movement.

That said, it’s true that most neoconservatives are Jewish and, increasingly, Republican. So it’s very important to stress that the very large majority of Jews in this country are neither neoconservative nor Republican—a source of considerable frustration to Jewish Republicans over the last 30 years. Recently, for example, The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial pages are probably the country’s most influential neoconservative media platform, ran an op-ed entitled “The Political Stupidity of the Jews Revisited,” in which the author bemoaned the persistent tendency of Jews to vote Democratic, and most recently for Obama.

The Core Features of Neoconservatism

Neoconservatism is much more of a worldview than a coherent political ideology. That worldview has been shaped by rather traumatic historic events, most notably the Nazi Holocaust and the events of the 1930s that led up to it. Of course, the Great Depression and pervasive anti-Semitism were important causes. But neoconservatives also stress three others: the failure of liberal institutions in the Weimar Republic to prevent the rise of Nazism in Germany, the appeasement of Hitler by the western European democracies and their failure to confront him militarily early on, and the “isolationism” practiced by the United States during this fateful period.

This assessment leads neoconservatives to believe that spineless liberals, military weakness, diplomatic appeasement, and American isolationism are ever-present threats that must be fought against at all costs. This is an integral part of their worldview, and you can often hear it in their polemics. For them, the importance of maintaining overwhelming military power—or what they call “peace through strength”—as well as constant American engagement, or unilateral intervention, if necessary, outside its borders cannot be overstated.

The latter point is particularly critical because neocons believe that, in the absence of a tangible threat to our national security, Americans naturally retreat into isolationism. As a result, they have engaged in a consistent pattern of threat-inflation—or fear-mongering—over the past 40 years, from Team B’s exaggeration of alleged Soviet preparations for nuclear war in the mid-1970s to the hyping of the various threats allegedly posed by Iraq, radical Islamists, and Iran after 9/11. Thus, Norman Podhoretz, one of the movement’s partriarchs, has argued that, just as we defeated Nazism in World War II and Communism in “World War III,” so must we now defeat “Islamofascism” in what he has called “World War IV.” For neocons, a new Hitler is always just around the corner, and we must be in a permanent state of mobilization against him.

But assuring American engagement and military dominance is not just a matter of protecting our national security. It is a moral imperative. In their Manichean world, neocons see the U.S. as the ultimate white hat. As Elliott Abrams, Podhoretz’s son-in-law and George W. Bush’s top Middle East aide, once put it: “[the United States is] the greatest force for good among the nations of the Earth.” This conviction helps explain Paul Wolfowitz’s call for what amounted to a unilateral “Pax Americana” in his famous 1992 Defense Policy Guidance. It helps explain Bob Kagan’s and Bill Kristol’s 1996 appeal to an increasingly anti-interventionist Republican Party to return to what they called a “Neo-Reaganite” policy of “benevolent global hegemony.” Their manifesto in turn set the stage for the Project for the New American Century whose associates did so much to coordinate the march to war in Iraq both from inside and outside the Bush administration after 9/11.

The Centrality of Israel

In my view and that of other veteran observers, such as Jacob Heilbrunn, the defense of Israel has been a central pillar of the neoconservative worldview from the outset. The fact that neoconservatism began as—and remains—a largely Jewish movement is one very relevant reason. But, like the U.S. itself, Israel is also seen as morally exceptional due in major part to the fact that its birth as an independent state was made possible by the terrible legacy of the Holocaust and the guilt it provoked, particularly in the West. Moreover, its depiction in the media since 1967 as both a staunch U.S. ally and a lonely outpost of democracy and Western civilization besieged by hostile, if not barbaric, neighbors has contributed to this notion of moral superiority. Of course, its most recent wars, its treatment of Palestinians, and the steadily rightward drift of its governments have made this image increasingly hard to sustain, not only in the West, but within the Jewish community here as well.

Although strong defenders of Israel, neoconservatives are not necessarily “Israel-Firsters.” They believe that both the U.S. and Israel are morally exceptional. That means that neither one should necessarily be bound by international norms or institutions, like the UN Security Council, that would constrain their ability to defend themselves or pre-empt threats as they see fit. It means that both should maintain overwhelming military power vis-à-vis any possible challengers. In the neoconservative view, the interests and values of the two countries are largely congruent, if not identical. As Bill Bennett once put it, “America’s fate and Israel’s fate are one and the same.”

But that doesn’t mean that neocons defer to whatever Israeli government is in power, as AIPAC tends to do. They have often had quite different priorities. Through the American Enterprise Institute, the Project for the New American Century, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, to name a few groups, neocons very much led the public campaign for invading Iraq from virtually the moment the Twin Towers collapsed. But I don’t think Ariel Sharon—who considered Iran the greater threat—was all that enthusiastic about the idea. Similarly, many neocons were quite unhappy with Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza and with his successors’ decisions to end wars against Hezbollah and Hamas over the past decade without achieving decisive military victories. Unlike AIPAC, neocons almost always think they know better.

This has changed somewhat since Netanyahu took power in 2009 and especially since the 2013 elections, which resulted in the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Bibi has had a very close relationship with key neocons since the 1980s when he was based here as a diplomat in the U.S. and neoconservatives got their first real taste of power under Reagan. Their worldviews are very similar. Still, there have been differences. Although most neocons have been calling for regime change in Syria through covert or direct U.S. military action, Bibi has wanted the civil war there to go on and on for as long as possible. And although neocons, who have long viewed Moscow as a dangerous adversary, have urged a harder line against Russia over Crimea and Ukraine, Bibi has maintained a discreet silence and enjoys a business-like, if not cordial, relationship with Putin.

So, Manicheanism, moral exceptionalism, a benevolent Pax Americana backed up by huge military budgets, Israel’s security—these are all central to the neoconservative worldview.

It’s often said that neocons are Wilsonians devoted to the spread of democracy and liberal values. I think this is way overplayed. I agree with Zbigniew Brzezinski who has sometimes observed that when neoconservatives talk about democratization, they usually mean destabilization.

Some neocons, notably Bob Kagan, are indeed sincerely committed to democracy promotion and human rights. But his is a minority view, as demonstrated most recently in the case of Egypt where, like Netanyahu, most influential neocons greatly appreciate President Sisi and want Washington to do more to help him. And, like Bibi, most neocons think a de facto alliance between Israel and the region’s Sunni autocrats who have led the counter-revolution against the Arab Spring, would be the cat’s pajamas. Indeed, most neocons have historically always had a soft spot for what they used to call “friendly authoritarians.” And when was the last time you heard neoconservatives advocate for full human rights for Palestinians, let alone their right to national self-determination, unless it is to be exercised in what is now Jordan? In any event, their record over the past 40 years suggests that their devotion to democracy depends entirely on the circumstances.

Leaders and Coalitions

Two final notes about neocons. First, this is a movement with no single recognized leader or politburo. Yes, they work together quite closely and coordinate their messaging to create very effective echo chambers. But they also often have differences of opinion over tactics and sometimes over real substance. Some neocons, like Frank Gaffney (a top Ted Cruz adviser) and Daniel Pipes, actively promote Islamophobia, for example, while others, such as Kagan and Reuel Gerecht, disdain it. There are soft neocons like David Brooks of The New York Times and hard neocons like Bret Stephens at The Wall Street Journal. In other words, the movement is not monolithic, except in the core elements I outlined above.

Second, neocons have been admirably nimble in creating tactical alliances with very different political forces to achieve their ends. In the mid-1970s, they worked with aggressive nationalists like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to derail Kissinger’s efforts at détente with Moscow. Under Jimmy Carter, they brought the Christian Right, despite the clear anti-Semitism of some of its leaders, into that coalition. (As Irving Kristol explained: “it’s their theology, but it’s our Israel.”) That broader coalition helped propel Reagan to victory in 1980.

Then, alienated by George H.W. Bush’s pressure on Israel to halt settlement activity and enter into serious peace talks after the Gulf War, many neocons opted for Clinton—and, by the mid-1990s, allied with liberal internationalists in pressing him to intervene in the Balkans over Republican opposition. By 2000, however, they had reconstituted the old Reagan coalition of aggressive nationalists and the Christian Right, and, after 9/11, they led the charge, along with Rumsfeld and Cheney, into Iraq.

Less than a decade later, however, they were back with the liberal interventionists on Libya and Syria. And now some of them, like Kagan and Max Boot, are warning they may back Hillary this year, especially if Trump—whose comments about the Iraq war and even-handedness between Israel and the Palestinians have made them very uneasy, if not outright hostile—gets the Republican nomination.

Indeed, it’s quite possible that we may see something similar this year to what happened nearly a quarter century ago when the neocons ditched Bush in favor of Bill in hopes of sustaining global interventionism and Israel.

Conference on Israel’s Influence: Jim Lobe

Photo of Bill Kristol by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

This piece is adapted from a talk given at a March 18 conference on Israel’s influence co-sponsored by the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy (IRMEP) at the National Press Club.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. Thank you Jim Lobe for the excellent recent history lesson! My question is perhaps unrelated to the neocon’s history but what happened to the Tri-Lateral Commision? I do recall that TLC’s mission was “US global domination financially and economically”. Did it desolved once the goals were achieved or still active?

  2. An excellent question: “Why the US had been so stupid as to invade Iraq.” Stupifying incompetence on the part of Condoleezza Rice was a significant factor. And, “protecting Israel” was a core component of the programme.

  3. This is excellent in every way, manyy key points neither over nor underestimated. I especially appreciate “neocons believe that, in the absence of a tangible threat to our national security, Americans naturally retreat into isolationism” which is seldom stressed, but in my experience critical to how neocons view the country.

  4. Thanks for a succinct but pretty comprehensive description, though I missed Bolton’s name.

    I see great similarity in the essence of this world view to that of the (Saudi) Wahhabi / Salafi ideology being practiced by the Islamic State – characterized by absolute certainty on their own ‘rightness’ and willingness to kill any and all others who may disagree or stand in their way.

  5. Remember when Americans once had a leader that said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”? When was the last time a Republican ever gave a speech relating to Iran or ISIS where it didn’t seem like they had soiled themselves? Watching Israel’s puppets in Congress clap for Netanyahu everytime he speaks in front of a joint session demonstrates just how much control these warmongering/fearmongerers have over our politicians. Jews that care about Israel won’t always agree with Americans that care about Israel. It’s just a shame that so many Americans are too stupid to realize it thanks to our media.

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