Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea, C. Bradley Thompson and Yaron Brook, Paradigm Publishers, 256 pages

Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement, Justin Vaïsse, Harvard, 376 pages

By David Gordon

It is difficult to regard neoconservatism with anything other than distaste. Leading neocons, such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Charles Krauthammer, and assorted members of the Kagan family, not only played a major role in the onset of the Iraq War, of blessed memory. No, this did not suffice for them. They propagandized for more wars: the blessings of democracy must be brought to all the nations of the Middle East. What David Frum, another of their number, called the Axis of Evil must be destroyed.

Justin Vaïsse, a French expert on American politics who is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes as a historian of a movement rather than as an advocate of doctrine of his own, but he rejects the current neocon line on foreign policy, as any decent person would. “One final problem inherent in the neoconservative vision and the Bush doctrine [was] … democratic dogmatism, yet another consequence of intellectual laziness … Not only was democracy not a magic wand, but implanting it was not as simple as some neoconservatives … sometimes described it.”

Vaïsse argues that this reckless disregard for reality has not always characterized neoconservatism. To the contrary, the movement began in the 1960s with cogent criticisms of some of the domestic programs of the Johnson administration. The grandiose goals of the proponents of the Great Society could not be achieved, according to Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Moynihan, and other early neocons. (It is daunting to realize that Bell and Glazer have been writing since the 1940s.). In The Public Interest, a journal founded by Bell and Irving Kristol, the critics of the conventional wisdom on the welfare state claimed that “the law of unintended consequences” imposes severe limits on the efficacy of political action. “For instance, rent control, though well-intentioned, leads to housing shortages (because landlords have no incentive to invest) . . . the overall focus of The Public Interest became ‘the limits of social policy’.”

If neoconservatism began in this way, do we not confront a difficulty? How has a movement of skeptical realism become transformed into one of dangerous delusions? Indeed, is there in fact a continuous neoconservative movement that stretches from the 1960s to the present? Should we not say rather, as some of the early neocons contended, that the earlier movement came to an end in the 1990s?

Vaïsse demonstrates that real continuities exist between the early neocons and their current successors. True enough, the early neocons stressed domestic policy; but they did not ignore foreign policy altogether. They called for an active policy in pursuit of the Cold War. In doing so, they continued the “vital center” liberalism championed by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. after World War II that combined an interventionist foreign policy with social-reform measures in the style of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Like Schlesinger and his ilk, the early neocons celebrated the martial virtues brought out in the crusade against the Kremlin.

A like emphasis pervaded their criticism of the Great Society. The neocons of what Vaïsse terms the first age of the movement by no means wished to end the welfare state. They were not disciples of Mises and Hayek but rather sought to reform welfare so that it would not corrupt character. National virtue was to them all-important. Precisely what turned them against the New Left and the McGovernite wing of the Democratic Party was the hedonism and lack of patriotism that they believed were present there. They were not men of the Right but New Dealers who wished to restore the glory days of old. If only the spirit of sacrifice that prevailed during World War II could be recovered, all would be well.

A great strength of Vaïsse’s book is his stress on the second age of neoconservatism, which spans the gap between the Public Interest writers and the “national greatness” drumbeaters of today. This intermediate stage consisted of Henry “Scoop” Jackson Democrats. Not content with the influence that their writing had achieved, the 1960s neocons saw in the popular senator from Washington a way to advance their goals. Like them, Jackson was a New Dealer and Cold Warrior of the utmost tenacity. His leitmotif, though, was another topic essential to the neocons. Jackson strongly supported Israeli foreign policy and pressured Soviet Russia to allow Jewish emigration. Most, though certainly not all, of the leading neocons are Jewish and the defense of Israel is central to their political concerns.

No one who absorbs Vaïsse’s discussion of this second age can harbor any illusions about whether the neocons count as genuine conservatives. Jackson made no secret of his statist views of domestic policy, but this did not in the least impede his neocons allies from enlisting in his behalf. Vaïsse by the way understates Jackson’s commitment to socialism, which dated from his youth. Contrary to what our author suggests, the League for Industrial Democracy, which Jackson joined while in college, was not “a moderate organization that backed unions and democratic principles.” It was a socialist youth movement that aimed to propagate socialism to the public.

It was not Jackson’s domestic policy, though, that principally drew the necons to him. They had an elective affinity for the pursuit of the Cold War. Vaïsse stresses in particular that they collaborated with Paul Nitze and other Cold War hawks. In a notorious incident, “Team B,” under the control of the hawks, claimed that CIA estimates of Russian armaments were radically understated. It transpired that the alarms of Team B were baseless; they nevertheless served their purpose in promoting a bellicose foreign policy.

The neocons of the second age did not quit the Democratic Party until, after prolonged struggle, they had failed to take it over. They then discovered in the rising popularity of Ronald Reagan a new strategy to advance their goals; but even when Reagan and his aides received them warmly, many found it distinctly against the grain to vote for a Republican. Once they had overcome this aversion, the neocons proved able markedly to expand their political power and influence. Nevertheless, some neocons found Reagan insufficiently militant. For Norman Podhoretz, a literary critic who imagined himself a foreign policy expert, Reagan became an appeaser reminiscent of Neville Chamberlain. “In 1984-85, however, Podhoretz finally lost hope in his champion; he … lamented the president’s desire to do whatever it took to present himself to Europeans and above all to American voters as a ‘man of peace,’ ready to negotiate with the Soviets.”

The “national greatness” neocons of our day continue the pattern of their second age predecessors in their constant warnings of peril and calls for a militant response. They do not apply the law of unintended consequences to foreign policy: skepticism about the efficacy of government action ends at the doors to the Pentagon.

Vaïsse’s book consists largely of a narrative history of neoconservatism rather than an interpretation of the movement. Within the bounds he has set himself, Vaïsse has given us a very useful survey, though the book contains a few mistakes, e.g., Virginia Woolf was not one of Stephen Spender’s “most notable authors” at Encounter magazine. She died in 1941, long before the journal was founded. Vaïsse does not eschew analysis altogether; after considering several alternatives, he suggests that neoconservatism is best viewed as “fundamentally a manifestation of patriotism or even nationalism.” If so, one wonders why he classifies Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as nationalists but not neocons.

C. Bradley Thompson views neoconservatism in an entirely different light. He believes that to understand an intellectual movement, one must unearth its philosophical foundations. He locates these foundations in the thought of Leo Strauss, and much of his book consists of an analysis of the works of this enigmatic thinker. Thompson was himself a student of Harvey Mansfield and Ralph Lerner, both leading Straussians; but while he still respects them as scholars, he now thinks Straussian views inimical to liberty.

To make his case, Thompson must overcome some formidable obstacles. As Vaïsse remarks, “For a small number of neoconservatives, Strauss was a meaningful influence, but not more important than others … Even more compelling is the fact that Strauss .. almost never made statement about the [political] issues of the day.” Thompson, well aware of these objections, counters in this way. Irving Kristol is the quintessential neocon, the “godfather” of the movement; and Straussian influence on Kristol is unmistakable. “Kristol’s confrontation with Strauss came as an epiphany. It was, as Kristol has intimated on several occasions, the most important intellectual event of his life.”

Before we can assess Thompson’s thesis, we must grasp how he characterizes neoconservatism. A theory must be clearly in view before its foundations can be discussed. As Thompson sees matters, neoconservatism rejects individual rights. Rights for neocons do not trump considerations of state; to the contrary, the public good, as neocons conceive of it, justifies the state in setting aside the liberty of persons to live their life as they choose. The state must actively mold people in order to make them virtuous; and among these virtues, sacrifice for the common good is paramount. “At a deeper level, Kristol and [David] Brooks actually reject the fundamental principles of a free and liberal society. According to Kristol, principles such as individual rights, limited government, and economic freedom are neither morally edifying nor practically sustainable.”

What does all this have to do with Strauss? Thompson maintains that Strauss did not believe in natural rights either. His praise for the principles of the American founding in Natural Right and History was part of his exoteric teaching, intended to lull the suspicions of readers unfit to grasp the true teaching of philosophy. Strauss’s true esoteric teaching, which only a careful reader can discern, is that philosophers exist on a higher plan than the rest of humanity. They can absorb the truths that God does not exist and that ordinary morality rests on no foundations. “From a strictly philosophical perspective, Strauss, Kristol, and the neocons have, on principle, dispensed with principle. They do not think that an immutably true moral code can or should be generated from man’s mutable social reality.”

The masses, to the contrary, require the consolations of religion and morality. The philosophical elite must guide them according to the wisdom it alone can discern. The reader will not fail to note echoes of Plato here; and Thompson holds that Strauss was indeed an ardent Platonist, however idiosyncratic his interpretation of The Republic might be. Thompson’s finds affinities between Strauss’s elitism and fascism and maintains that during the 1930s, Strauss viewed Italian fascism with favor. “We also now have concrete evidence that Strauss read and was influenced at some level by Mussolini.”

Even if this understanding of Strauss is correct, what does it have to do with the excesses of neocon aggression abroad? Thompson and Yaron Brook, the author of their book’s chapter on foreign policy, contend that the neocon crusade to spread democracy abroad offers a perfect instrument for a Straussian elite to guide the masses to virtue. It does this stressing self-sacrifice to attain national greatness. “Individuals’ lives are only truly meaningful, say the neconservatives, if they sacrifice for some collective, ‘higher’ purpose that ‘transcends’ their unimportant, petty, finite, ephemeral selves.”

Thompson successfully shows that though the neocons often invoke the American tradition, they do not genuinely believe in the “unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” His thesis about Strauss’s influence on the neocons is open to much more dispute, but even those who reject it will find the analysis of Strauss valuable in its own right. Vaïsse and Thompson have both provided, in different ways, tools that will help us understand a pernicious political movement.

David Gordon is a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.