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[The following review appeared in the October 2010 issue of Chronicles.]

Neoconservatives: The Biography of a Movement by Justin Vaïsse, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press 376 pp., $35.00

There are very few neoconservatives, people disagree on who they are, and they have no popular following or definite organizational structure. Even so, they have deeply affected American public life for 40 years.

Their influence has not gone unopposed. The term neoconservative began as an epithet and remains one. Opponents tie the tendency to foreign interests, foreign wars, and the betrayal of conservatism and liberalism. Supporters respond with accusations of antisemitism and anti-Americanism, and sometimes take refuge in denials that the movement exists. There is room for a well-informed foreign historian to provide background and perspective.

Justin Vaïsse, a Frenchman, is at home among policy professionals on both sides of the Atlantic. The son of a prominent historian, he studied at Harvard (which published his book), is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and has served as an advisor on matters concerning the United States with the Policy Planning Staff of the French Foreign Ministry.

That background aids his understanding but imposes limitations. Vaïsse avoids idiosyncrasy and falls back on conventional wisdom when discussing matters he has not specifically studied, such as the non-neoconservative right. He attends more to particular policies than to basic principles and pays little attention to neoconservatism in intellectual and cultural life generally. He believes that social and intellectual radicalism basically disappeared by the 1980’s and does not notice their ongoing march through the institutions or the social and intellectual wreckage they continue to cause.

Within its limitations, the book gives a detailed account of neoconservatism from its origins to the present day, concentrating on the period before September 11 2001, and indeed before the reinvention of the movement in the mid-90’s. It emphasizes the complexity of the movement the variety of the people and views it has included, its connections to both political parties, and its dependence on the cooperation of sympathetic moderates, liberals, neoliberals, and pragmatists.

Overall, Vaïsse finds neoconservatism fascinating as a demonstration of the influence of the intellectual and policy entrepreneur in America. He tries to be fair but tends toward the critical. He notes recent policy failures and shows that from the 1970’s onward neoconservatives have routinely exaggerated foreign threats. He apparently accepts that they helped win the Cold War but is not willing to say so and insists that the more accommodating policies of the later Reagan years were at least as helpful.

As the author tells the story, neoconservatism has gone through three phases or “ages” that overlapped in concerns and membership but differed in focus. The first began as early as 1965, the year of the founding of The Public Interest in New York (and the year after the Free Speech Movement began at Berkeley). Those involved, a group of prominent social scientists and argumentative New York intellectuals, were liberals and former leftists who rejected cultural radicalism, were dubious of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and rather liked the America they grew up in. They carried forward the legacy of radicals and former radicals who had fallen out with the communists and favored a renewal of the “Cold War” or “vital center” liberalism of the 50’s.

The Public Interest came out of a non-ideological form of liberalism oriented toward the social sciences. The publication’s outlook was technocratic at first, but quickly became less so with the evident failure of Great Society programs. What remained was a rejection of ideology and concern with stubborn on-the-ground realities. As early as 1967, such concerns led the journal toward an emphasis on the limits of social policy.

These social scientists were soon joined by New York intellectuals who had broken with modish leftist politics and carried on the battle against radicalism in a more literary setting. The break was encouraged by the deterioration of relations between blacks and Jews, and by reconsideration of left-wing positions in the wake of the Six-Day War. It was rather sudden, already definitive by 1970, but Commentary and The New York Review of Books had shared the same writers until around 1968, and Noam Chomsky was publishing in both as late as 1969.

The McGovern defeat in 1972 led to neoconservatism’s second phase, which ran concurrently with the first until both petered out in the early 90’s. Associated with the Scoop Jackson Democrats, it had to do with practical politics. It fought to reverse the McGovernite takeover of the Democratic Party and promoted a vigorous anti-Soviet and pro-Israel foreign policy.

The McGovern people had dislodged machine politicians and other established figures in favor of a New Class of self-involved activists and professionals who put their social and cultural concerns ahead of national-security and bread-and-butter issues. The change was driving voters away from the Democratic Party, and the campaign to reverse it drew support from politicians who combined hawkishness with old-fashioned domestic liberalism. Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, a pro-labor Cold War Democrat, was a leading figure in this effort until his sudden death in 1983; union leaders such as Lane Kirkland and policymakers such as Elmo Zumwalt also took part.

The growing practical orientation in neoconservatism also affected the intellectuals of the first stage, who proceeded to establish connections to general American conservatism that they were then able to expand into control of institutions and funding.

The 1970’s saw a crucial shift in emphasis from domestic concerns to foreign policy. The early neoconservatives were generally skeptical of our entanglement in Southeast Asia and had no interest in an activist foreign policy. As the excitement of the 60’s subsided, so did the urgency of domestic matters. New departures in social radicalism and major new government initiatives seemed unlikely, and the ineffectiveness or perversity of recent socia programs had become an ordinary topic of discussion among policymakers. The New Class and the cultural changes of the 60’s seemed here to stay, and the industrial unions were declining along with the blue-collar working-class and the ethnic communities they represented.

Under such circumstances, an attemp to reverse the domestic transformations stemming from the 60’s seemed hopeless Soviet opportunism and American weakness in the wake of Vietnam presented greater dangers and opportunities. Neoconservatives therefore focused on foreign policy, evolving a distinctive view that called for firm opposition to the Soviets and various Third World tyrants promotion of Western values and institutions, and resolute support for Israel Criticism of the social and cultural left did not disappear, though it slipped into the background. Some neoconservatives continued to promote specific policy and administrative reforms, an approach that became part of the ordinary routine of policymaking and led to victories on issues such as policing (the “broken windows” theory) and welfare reform. The focus of the movement, though, was permanently directed abroad.

Vaïsse sees an overall rightward tendency within neoconservatism. Nonetheless, the triumph of foreign policy made it visibly less conservative. Conservatism is domestic in orientation, since its first concern is the character of a people and its way of life. The early neoconservatives had been drawn to such issues, owing to their dislike of radicalism and skepticism toward social programs. Their concerns remained mostly sterile, however, because the neoconservatives, at bottom, remained liberal Neoconservatives had doubts about post-60’s initiatives such as affirmative action but they supported the New Deal and the civil-rights revolution, and with them the principle of bureaucratic intervention in social and economic life to ensure individual fairness and security. That principle is at odds with social conservatism, which is based on informal local institutions that govern themselves; it is much more friendly to the needs of a strong military and an activist foreign policy.

The emphasis on foreign policy led many neoconservatives to migrate to the Republican Party in 1980. They had opposed the Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente but liked Carter even less, and Reagan seemed ready to take a harder line. As a former Democrat, union leader, and Cold War liberal, Reagan had many points in common with the neoconservatives. The move was personally wrenching, since most neoconservatives shared the common urban, intellectual, and ethnic prejudices toward Republicans. However, they received a warm welcome in exchange for their support, ideas, and prestige. And they wielded influence within their new party, especially in the early years of the new administration, and some changed party identification permanently.

Most viewed the Republican Party instrumentally, however, and began to reconsider as their influence weakened. They found the first President Bush too much a realist, and tended to support Bill Clinton in 1992—so much so that, after Clinton’s election, many considered their mission accomplished and their movement dead. The Soviet threat was gone, and the head of the somewhat neoconservative Democratic Leadership Council had become president, so why not move on to other things?

The obituaries were premature. The mid-90’s saw the rebirth of neoconservatism, leading to a third age that continues to the present. The third was something of a break from the first two: The 60’s had become a distant memory, the collapse of communism had transformed foreign policy, and the passage of time had brought younger men, with no past connection to the Democratic Party or the liberal side of American politics, to the fore. Some veterans remained, but Irving Kristol and others became less active, and the lifelong apparatchiks took control.

The new leadership needed new goals to sustain the movement. They chose to think big, calling for “national greatness” and world peace through U.S. power and global democracy. They lined up a network of magazines, journalists, academics, officials, and committees in support of those goals, and when September 11 came that network was ready to provide themes, theories, and strategies that told policymakers what to do.

Over 40 years, neoconservatism had changed radically. It had abandoned labor unions, the Democratic Party, local ethnic and blue-collar communities, the decencies of ordinary people, and the law of unintended consequences in favor of national greatness and wars of global liberation. To some extent the evolution reflects the fate of movements that succeed and become careerist. It also reflects specific features of neoconservatism, as well as larger changes such as the replacement of public life and particularity with slogans, universal abstract structures, and the maneuverings of factions within elites.

From the author’s account, the neoconservatives are a network of influential people who have been effective acting together to change public discussion through boldness, inventiveness, and ideas that appeal to American national feeling. Many have noted their skill in political and organizational maneuvering; others, the personal, professional, family, and ethnic connections that aid their cohesion. As Vaïsse writes, “there was and still is a definite clannishness to the neoconservative movement,” and the clan is one “in which intellectual pugilism is the fundamental characteristic, [and] the unwritten but ironclad rule is never to attack a fellow neoconservative.”

But what—apart from self-advancement and the joy of exerting influence—are the underlying concerns and purposes of the movement?

Some suggest a Straussian connection. The author dismisses that view, pointing out that Leo Strauss was politically skeptical and aloof. While there are neoconservatives who studied with him or his disciples, people who may have picked up his emphasis on the importance of political regime, their interests soon became far more practical. Some academic Straussians are neoconservative in orientation, but Vaïsse barely mentions them and evidently discounts their importance.

The Jewish connection is more substantial. Most neoconservatives are Jewish; Commentary was long published by the American Jewish Committee; the movement is insistently pro-Israel; some of its prominent members have ties to Likud; and Norman Podhoretz and others have explicitly connected their political concerns to what is good for the Jews.

However, Vaïsse denies that this connection explains the movement. Many neoconservatives are not Jews, and the vast majority of Jews are not neoconservative. Jews are more inclined toward political activism, and they include more leftists, so—inevitably—they include more former leftists. Also, Israel is not just a Jewish state. It is a Western outpost in a violent, volatile, and authoritarian region long targeted by America’s enemies. And the arguments made by Podhoretz and others for conservatism among American Jews are far from self-seeking, though they are self-interested: The Jews have done well here, and political instability often hurts them, so why shouldn’t they, too, favor a strong and stable America?

Vaïsse agrees that neoconservatism originally engaged issues of identity, but argues that the issues extended to neoconservatives who were not Jews. The early neoconservatives were academics and intellectuals who had begun life as outsiders and then “made it.” They included Catholics and New Deal liberals from outside the Northeast. They were “unmeltable ethnics” who liked success but remembered their origins. They idealized America as a land defined by freedom, democracy, opportunity, and the middle-class disciplines that enabled them and their families to rise and establish themselves without turning against their heritage.

Such people combined an attachment to remembered particularities—unions, popular patriotism, blue-collar ethnic neighborhoods—with an attachment to American universalism. The former gave their views a conservative tinge, especially in contrast with the outlook of 60’s radicals. As time passed the tinge faded, and neoconservatives defined their idealized America in ever-less-concrete terms. That tendency ended by transforming a movement that opposed radicalism and emphasized concrete realities into one that tended toward messianic universalism.

All in all, neoconservatism has expressed a form of American nationalism that has become increasingly reminiscent of Woodrow Wilson, and even of the Jacobins. It is reckoned conservative because of its nationalism, and because it favors capitalism over socialism. Its rebirth after the Cold War shows that neoconservatism is an enduring tendency capable of adapting to changing conditions. It can appeal to our governing elites, since it identifies universal principles with American power. Its support for Israel ensures the Jewish participation that confers legitimacy on a conservative movement. It continues to dominate the Republican Party, along with a network of magazines, think tanks, and foundations, and it influences many Democrats. Its goals of national greatness and universal freedom and democracy mean it can never lack for something to say. As Vaïsse notes, it evidently has a future as well as a past.

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