The Two Faces of Neoconservatism


Reihan has a pair of interesting posts on this Peter Berkowitz op-ed, which argues that in their headlong rush to champion the invasion of Iraq many neocons weren’t being true to neoconservatism’s skeptical view of government action and human nature, and this Mark Lilla review of Jacob Heilbrunn’s They Knew They Were Right, which argues that the Iraq War was the fulfillment of neoconservatism’s tendency toward a politics defined by manichaeism, chest-thumping and hysteria.

Who’s right? Why, both of them. From its inception, neoconservatism has been distinguished by both pragmatic and apocalyptic strains, which have coexisted not only in the same movement but often in the same people. There are a host of factors driving this “two-faced” tendency, but I think Lilla’s point about neoconservatism being essentially a politics of reaction is a useful place to start. I don't mean to use the term “reaction” pejoratively here, and I think Lilla goes too far arguing that a politics of reaction must perforce lead to either nostalgic quietism on the one hand or "eschatological dreams of a counter-revolution" on the other; to my mind, calling the neocons reactionaries is just a simple way of describing the fact that neoconservatism began by defining itself primarily by what it wasn’t - namely, the late-60s and ‘70s Left. That Left tended toward utopianism in domestic policy and permissiveness in the social and cultural arenas; thus neocons were skeptical and empirically-minded on domestic policy (Lilla notes the modest founding motto of the old Public Interest - "to help us all, when we discuss issues of public policy, to know a little better what we are talking about") and more moralistic, pessimistic and declinist than the left on matters cultural. On foreign policy, things were more complicated, since neocons perceived the '70s liberalism to be simultaneously too utopian in its confidence in a foreign policy founded on the promotion of human rights and peaceful cooperation, and too ineffectual and weak-minded in its insistence on the limits of American power. Thus the neocon reaction tended toward hardheaded realism on the one hand, epitomized by Jeane Kirkpatrick's famous "Dictatorships and Double Standards," which Berkowitz's op-ed references, and a sweeping faith in American power on the other, epitomized by ... well, a host of recent examples spring to mind.

As that host suggests, over time the messianic and apocalyptic strands in neoconservatism have tended to crowd out the pragmatic and the realist strands - because the Cold War ended and American power seemed temporarily unlimited; because the neocon domestic policy agenda made more headway than the cultural agenda; because, as Steve Sailer notes, the earlier generation of neocons were more likely to be social scientists and the later generation has been more likely to be pundits; and a variety of other reasons besides. But like Reihan and Berkowitz, I'm hopeful that the chastening impact of the Iraq War and the changing of the generational guard provides an opening the revive the pragmatic, empirical meliorist style of neoconservative politics - a style that I would associate myself with, and that seems increasingly like the only plausible alternative to a resurgent and ambitious liberalism.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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