The Neoconservative Persuasion

Examining the Jewish roots of an intellectual movement
The Forward | January 6, 2006

The Neoconservative Revolution: Jewish Intellectuals and the Shaping of Public Policy
By Murray Friedman
Cambridge University Press, 310 pages, $29.

Commentary in American Life
Edited by Murray Friedman
Temple University Press, 232 pages, $22.95.

The Neocon Reader
Edited and with an introduction by Irwin Seltzer
Grove Press, 320 pages, $15.

Acknowledging the Jewishness of neoconservatism has always triggered the red, flashing lights of antisemitism, especially since the start of the Iraq War (with extra points if it’s Pat Buchanan doing the acknowledging). But there is some truth to the suspicion. If there is an intellectual movement in America to whose invention Jews can lay sole claim, neoconservatism is it. It’s a thought one imagines most American Jews, overwhelmingly liberal, will find horrifying. And yet it is a fact that as a political philosophy, neoconservatism was born among the children of Jewish immigrants and is now largely the intellectual domain of those immigrants’ grandchildren. Understanding what might be Jewish about this movement (or “persuasion” as its godfather, Irving Kristol, prefers it be called) should be possible without being accused of conspiracy theorizing about secret cabals pulling strings for Israel.

Thankfully, two new books have arrived to help us: “The Neoconservative Revolution: Jewish Intellectuals and the Shaping of Public Policy,” by Murray Friedman, a neoconservative intellectual and longtime official of the American Jewish Committee, who passed away earlier this year, and “Commentary in American Life,” a series of essays on the neoconservative house organ, edited by Friedman. These books are excellent primers (also helpful is a new collection of basic neoconservative writing, edited by Irwin Seltzer).

These days, the designation “neocon” has been almost completely unmoored from its ideological source. In the mouths of liberals, it’s come to mean little more than “really, really bad Republican,” and in the mouths of conservatives, it’s anyone who’s still a true believer in the Iraq War. But this denies the term its complicated evolution. “Neoconservative,” more than anything else, has historically signified two major political transformations — two conversions, if you like — that took place over the past 40 years. The first one occurred when a small group of liberal New York Jewish intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s found themselves disgusted with the culture and politics of the New Left and began moving rightward. As their alienation from the left increased, they eventually found themselves allied with the anti-communists of the traditional right, and began adopting some of the right’s other assumptions. The second transformation was the eclipsing by these new conservatives, with their aggressive views on foreign policy, of the older conservative establishment, the so-called “paleoconservatives.” That revolution came to fruition with the presidential election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and with the words that began flowing from the current president’s mouth in the days and months following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Norman Podhoretz and Commentary, the magazine he edited for 35 years, have perfectly embodied these political transformations. Podhoretz made his very intellectual journey, starting on the radical left and moving rightward, on the pages of his journal, which was and is funded by the American Jewish Committee with a mandate to bring a Jewish perspective to the politics and culture of American life. If there is anything Jewish about neoconservatism, looking at Podhoretz’s works would be the place to find out.

When he first became editor in February 1960 at the age of 30, Podhoretz was a man of the New Left and made the magazine into a megaphone for radical, even anarchist voices. In the early years of his editorship, Commentary lost much of the Jewish character it had had since its founding in 1945. Instead it took part in the 1960s’ deconstruction of Western civilization, tearing traditional notions of race, class and gender out from their roots. Most memorable was Podhoretz’s 1963 essay, “My Negro Problem — and Ours,” in which he advocated miscegenation as the solution to America’s race problems. The essay also showed, with shocking bluntness to our ears now, where his Jewish consciousness was at the time: “In thinking about the Jews,” he wrote, “I have often wondered whether their survival as a group was worth one hair on the head of a single infant. Did the Jews have to survive so that six million innocent people should one day be burned in the ovens of Auschwitz?”

But both Podhoretz’s radicalism and his antipathy to Jewish group identity would not last long. As the 1960s wore on, he became angry and frustrated with the state of the left, particularly with its anti-Americanism. “One could be critical of American society, but not nihilistically dismissive of our entire democratic system,” Friedman wrote, describing Podhoretz’s stance. It was this extreme dismissiveness that was turning Podhoretz off — the militancy of black radicals, the support of the Viet Cong, the takeover of universities, and the general irresponsibility of bombs exploding and riots ensuing.

Podhoretz, unlike ýany of his former allies, believed there was something to defend in America, an instinct he would trace, as he titled his 1967 memoir, to “Making It” in this country despite his poor roots in Brooklyn. Moreover, he felt that the New Left was eroding American resolve in the fight against the real enemy, communism. He and other budding neoconservatives believed that the Soviet Union did present an existential threat to American values, the American way of life and — with a nuclear arsenal at its disposal — American lives.

Podhoretz wasn’t the first neoconservative to discover the evils of communism. Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell, who co-founded the neoconservative journal The National Interest in 1965, had begun their intellectual paths during the 1930s in a wing of the Trotskyite communist movement that saw Stalin’s Russia as no less wicked than capitalist America. After World War II their hatred of Soviet communism won out, setting them on the path toward neoconservatism.

It was Podhoretz, however, who gave neoconservatism its most explicitly Jewish cast. The August 1968 issue of Commentary featured Emil Fackenheim’s famous essay, “Jewish Faith and the Holocaust: A Fragment,” which included Fackenheim’s contention that afàer Auschwitz, Jews had a moral responsibility to defend Jewish interests so as not to hand Hitler a “posthumous vic-tory.” By February 1972, Podhoretz himself wrote a piece titled, without irony, “Is It Good for the Jews?”

Holocaust consciousness was growing in the 1970s, as was a renewed sense of threat to Jews and a feeling that, as Podhoretz put it, the postwar “statute of limitations” on anitisemitism had run out. Israel’s security, threatened in the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War — both events that gave Jews existential pause — suddenly became a top American Jewish concern. Podhoretz came to identify more and more with the defense of Jews, and by the 1980s, half his articles on international affairs focused on Israel and threats to the Jewish people.

This sense of threat, both historically informed and contemporary, gave a very particular tint to the fierce anti-communism professed by neoconservatives. Hannah Arendt had already drawn a moral equation between communism and Nazism, writing in her “The Origins of Totalitarianism” that both represented “absolute evil,” just two sides of the same totalitarian coin. And that was where Podhoretz and his friends picked up in the mid-1970s. Unlike the Irish-Catholic anti-communism of Joe McCarthy and William Buckley, whose hatred of the Soviet Union came out of an almost religious opposition to Soviet godlessness, this Jewish anti-communism was born out of a kind of historical analogy, filled with a moralistic fury against another totalitarianism whose ideology and power threatened the world.

As Ruth Wisse points out in her contribution to the Commentary collection, neoconservatives projected the threat they instinctively understood as Jews onto America as a whole, and it sharpened their sense that only an aggressive defense of the country and its values was appropriate and that any appeasement was criminal. Or as former neocon Michael Lind recently wrote: For neoconservatives, “it is always 1939.”

In the 1970s this was a lonely battle to fight, since nearly the entire political establishment — including the once-staunchly anti-communist Nixon — had come to accept Henry Kissinger’s accommodationist policies of détente. It is testament to the strength of the neoconservative idea that by 1980 (due in no small part to the efforts of Podhoretz and the Commentary crew) they had a president who represented their worldview: Reagan, who called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and drew clear battle lines between a United States that represented freedom and democracy, and a communist state that was morally and dangerously corrupt.

History has proved the neoconservatives largely right on the Cold War. Among the many factors that brought an end to the Soviet Union — already a dying animal by the 1980s — was the shove given to it by this rhetoric. By challenging the Soviet Union head on, rhetorically, in covert action and through an expensively renewed arms race, the United States managed to call the Soviet bluff. Neoconservatives provided language that depicted the Cold War as an urgent zero-sum game in which America the Good had to assert itself so that Evil Communism could be obliterated. And indeed, the Soviet Union collapsed.

Strangely absent from Friedman’s books is any discussion of the latest and certainly riskiest manifestation of the “neoconservative revolution”: the push to unilaterally invade and democratize Iraq. It’s a strange oversight for a book published two years after the start of the war. Friedman wouldn’t have needed even to introduce new characters. Among the war’s most passionate supporters, after all, were Norman Podhoretz and William Kristol (son of Irving).

The omission is glaring. Not just because Iraq is the next chapter in the neoconservative story, but because it is in Iraq that neoconservatism will be either vindicated or buried forever. Maybe even more than Reagan’s Cold War policies, the Iraq War was the most dramatic embodiment of two key Podhoretz tenets, the “aggressive” side that would keep America on the initiative, and the “idealistic” that dreams of making theworld safer by remaking it in our image. For neoconservatives, the 9/11 attacks signaled

the start of a new global war against an ideology as morally corrupt and potentially as apocalyptically destructive as Nazism and communism. Podhoretz famously dubbed it World War IV, the Cold War having been World World III. (It was 1939 again.) The threat had to be confronted head on. And this time the present danger had no one obvious home, other than where the peripatetic Osama bin Laden parked himself. Accordingly, a dramatic, history-altering gesture was necessary to reshape the entire Middle East. The intransigent Iraqi dictator appeared to be the perfect target and Iraq the perfect first domino that, once tipped, would remodel the region.

The Bush administration never acknowledged these reasons during the buildup to the war; presumably they were thought too abstract as a convincing casus belli. Afterward, however, with no weapons of mass destruction and no Iraqi connection to 9/11 in evidence, the more idealistic motives of the neoconservatives took center stage. Describing an “evil” that he named “Islamic Radicalism,” “militant Jihadism” or, most expressively, “Islamo-fascism,” President Bush spent almost the entirety of an October 2005 speech drawing connections between Nazism, communism and this new totalitarianism. Proclaiming that “our enemy is utterly committed,” Bush said that “the civilized world knows very well that other fanatics in history, from Hitler to Stalin to Pol Pot, consumed whole nations in war and genocide before leaving the stage of history. Evil men, obsessed with ambition and unburdened by conscience, must be taken very seriously — and we must stop them before their crimes can multiply.”

But this historical analogy, which worked so well in dramatizing the threat posed by the Soviet Union, seemed stretched here to the point of tearing. The evil actions of Nazism and communism were being compared to the “endless ambitions” of the Islamo-fascists: not to what they did but to what they “want,” “aspire to” and “pursue.” Hitler, who commanded one of the most disciplined armies in Europe. and the Soviet state, with its vast nuclear arsenal, were likened to a new totalitarianism made up of what Bush called “would-be tyrants.”

Even one of the neoconservatives’ iconic thinkers, Francis Fukuyama — whose 1992 book “The End of History and the Last Man” predicted a world achieving perfection once replete with free-market liberal democracies — famously dissented from his fellow neoconservatives on the war, mostly because he objected to this historical analogy. Making his case in the Summer 2004 issue of The National Interest, Fukuyama wrote, “There have been such threats in the past,” including the Soviet Union. “But it is questionable whether any such existential threats exist now. Iraq before the U.S. invasion was certainly not one… Al Qaeda and other radical groups aspire to be existential threats to American civilization but do not currently have anything like the capacity to actualize their vision.”

There’s no doubt that reminding Americans of the risk to their way of life, their existence, helped this country win the Cold War. This was, perhaps, a Jewish gift to conservatism. But now, this same historical framework and its accompanying rhetoric have only obfuscated the situation.

If it is World War IV we are fighting, then distinctions between Al Qaeda and Iraq become incidental; the utter failure of the postwar reconstruction becomes a detail; even worries about the under-equipped and under-manned counter-insurgency can be set aside. Freedom is on the march, as the administration often argues. It might even be true, as some administration officials suggest, that to raise doubts is tantamount to standing beneath Chamberlain’s umbrella.

But it is not 1939. The enemies who wish us harm in this new century are more amorphous, scattered, complex. Armies alone cannot defeat them. Constitutions alone won’t do it, either. We need to be strategic and nuanced and, in this, Jewish memory will not help us. Fear begat neoconservatism — fear that enemies inside and out would destroy an America that had come to represent a second kind of promised land. And maybe, just as American Jews need to evolve a positive identity based on more than just the horror of annihilation, neoconservatism, too, needs to understand America’s actual position in the world: what it means to be a sole power, what limits and prerogatives this imposes, and how, most of all, to add a much needed dose of realism to an otherwise important and worthy sense of idealism.