Unpacking Neoconservatism

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The term has become close to meaningless and some of my bloggy shorthand has, I think, contributed. That's what happens when words become epithets and many arguments are conflated, as happens in real time and real discourse. So for some barnacle scraping.

It is unfair to conflate "neoconservatism" with passionate defense of the state of Israel. That is indeed a feature of many neocons, but it is also a feature of many liberal internationalists and many people in between. That neoconservatism has tended to support the maximalist claims of the Israeli right does tend to characterize it accurately, but then again, much of the Israeli center has moved toward that position as well. And Palestinian intransigence has made it far more plausible than it might otherwise have been. At times, perhaps the case against this strain in neoconservatism is best expressed by the the worry that passionate support for Israel can become, if internalized too completely, a blinding and knee-jerk response, and a barrier to thinking more coolly about America's regional options.

I think that's a fair assessment of some aspects of the past eight years, and I include myself as part of the problem.

But neoconservatism can also mean and has meant: a critique of domestic Great Society liberalism (with its heyday in the 1970s); a defense of unipolar American hegemony in the post-Cold War world; the use of force as well as trade and civil contact to promote democratic norms across the globe; a belief that wider democratic reform always advances the interests of the United States; a disdain for multilateralism, etc. This is also not an exhaustive list. Neocons were also on both sides of many of the questions in the Iraq war: troop levels, counter-insurgency strategy, etc. JPod is correct, and this blog has acknowledged, that Bill Kristol and Bob Kagan were among Rumsfeld's strongest critics. To say that someone was once a neocon and is no longer one is therefore all but meaningless without further elaboration. To use the term too quickly or too broadly obscures more than it enlightens. Even in the tussle of blog debate, I'm going to try and be more rhetorically vigilant. My own out-growing of neoconservatism has been entirely a function of trying to make sense of events these past few years. And I fail to see how any intellectually honest neocon can be unchastened by them. But many, apparently, are.

It does seem to me a real question, however, as to why some neoconservatives seem so grittily determined to bring democracy by force of American arms to the deeply dysfunctional politics of Iraq but not to the deeply dysfunctional politics of Palestine. But maybe that will change. Maybe a cooller understanding of Israel's and America's best interests will help.

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