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Among the Neocons

A foot soldier in the ideological wars relates

In what may be the twentieth example of the genre in the past decade, a neoconservative has written a magazine article excommunicating from the conservative movement Patrick Buchanan and others who fail to embrace warmongering neoconservatism. A comedy skit could be made about these repeated efforts, as the excommunicated faction somehow fails simply to shut up and disappear as it is supposed to. David Frum’s National Review article (April 7) is longer than most of its kind but predictable in its wielding of the standard neocon rhetorical weapons: those who disagree with his faction are racist, nativist, anti-Semitic, and of course “unpatriotic.”

However tendentiously, Frum is addressing an important subject. There is a full- scale ideological war in the ranks of those who think of themselves as conservative and, if they were of age, supported Ronald Reagan a generation ago. As Frum notes, the split became apparent in the mid-1980s, spiked briefly in the early 1990s, and smoldered on through to the present. The neocons have always been the dominant side in the contest; they are more internally cohesive and far wealthier. Nonetheless they often, and rightly, feel unappreciated by those they believe should admire them, and they are constantly on the lookout for ideological deviancy. Their opponents include the disparate right-wing sorts mentioned by Frum and—just as significantly—a far larger number of moderate, centrist, or establishment-oriented Republicans who are not by temperament given to ideological battling but who tend to perceive the neocons as dangerous zealots. This magazine was founded in great part to engage in the battle that Frum depicts.

The neocons would prefer to ignore their challengers. On paper, they should be able to: they hold key jobs in the Bush administration; control virtually all the major “conservative” media outlets—from the magazines, to the major television and radio shows, to the significant editorial pages—and play the dominant role in the better-funded think tanks and foundations. And yet they don’t breathe easily. Frum’s piece is a sequel to attacks on antiwar conservatives by Max Boot in the Wall Street Journal and Lawrence Kaplan and Robert Kagan in the Washington Post. All betray the same anxiety: that despite their wealth and position, the neoconservatives sense that they are no longer gaining adherents and now are losing them.

For me these battles are intensely personal. Not because I harbor any rancor towards individuals on the other side, or have come under personal attack myself, but because my own bit of foot-soldiering in the ideological wars is virtually defined by the split between the neocons and traditional conservatives. As I write this, in my New York apartment there sits (sorted and labeled in plastic organizers) virtually every issue of Commentary from 1976 to the present. The contents include some fifteen pieces I wrote for the magazine, long essays and short reviews, between 1982 and 1995. I still take pride in virtually all I wrote there. I remember vividly the joyous moment when I learned I could actually get published in my favorite magazine, and, some years later, my giddiness at being invited to a small dinner at the Podhoretzes’. I remember with a wistful affection my close friendship with the late Eric Breindel, my admiration for the incisive mind of Commentary editor Neal Kozodoy. They all make up a big part of the person I am today.

I remember too my puzzlement upon hearing the first rumbles of the “paleo” insurrection in the late 1980s: “What is their problem?” I might have said in the solicitous tone one uses about those who are not necessarily rational. My reaction to reading the New York Times account of Richard Neuhaus’s eviction from the Rockford Institute’s New York offices was, I would guess, very much the same as David Frum’s. My views on Lincoln and Churchill were and remain boringly conventional. So what happened during the 1990s that could have transformed me from a neoconservative into the co-founder of a magazine that is anything but that?

Two new issues broke apart the 1980s Reaganite conservative consensus. The first was immigration. By the late 1980s, the impact of the 1965 immigration law had begun greatly to accelerate the pace of immigration. Younger readers may not recall the vital role National Review began to play in analyzing that law and the social, environmental, and political consequences it brought about. The battle was joined when John O’Sullivan (NR’s editor since 1988) published in 1992 Peter Brimelow’s explosive “Time to Rethink Immigration,” which quickly became the most debated conservative magazine article of the year. The piece forced the immigration debate into the open within the conservative movement, where it fused with the populist revolt breaking out in California over Proposition 187, an anti-illegal-alien measure. For the next five years, the magazine put what it called “The National Question” in the spotlight, publishing cover stories by Brimelow, Fred Iklé, O’Sullivan, and eventually (as I was won over to the magazine’s position) one by me.

The neoconservatives, to my complete surprise, were not pleased.

In the summer of 1995, Neal Kozodoy gave me a copy of a letter. Written by Irwin Steltzer to the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, it was making its way around the upper echelons of the neocon magazines and think tanks. Steltzer is a Bronx-born economist and Weekly Standard editor who lives part-time in London. While a gifted economic essayist, his most important function is surely as the ideological gendarme for Rupert Murdoch’s American media properties.

Steltzer wrote to Kristol (and the wider world) that he was canceling his subscription to National Review because of its “increasingly offensive positions on such topics as immigration.” He went on then to complain about a piece by Richard Neuhaus on anti-Semitism, which, Steltzer charged, was itself anti-Semitic. He added, apropos of a quote of Kristol’s that appeared in Neuhaus’s article, that he was “always suspicious” of Father Neuhaus’s excerpting, “particularly in an article which contains cunningly placed little adjectives and descriptions.” He concluded with a more general comment about John O’Sullivan’s National Review: “Add to this NR’s applause for the immigration statutes of the 1920’s, designed to keep eastern European Jews out, and you have a not-very-subtle form of anti-Semitism, dressed up as an attack on liberalism.”

Bill Buckley stood by his editor initially, but not for long. Within two years, O’Sullivan was eased out, replaced by the youthful Rich Lowry, who immediately upon assuming his new post fired Peter Brimelow.

In the very early years of the neocon-paleocon skirmish, Russell Kirk, the somewhat fogeyish father of postwar American intellectual conservatism, gave a speech about the neocons at the Heritage Foundation. He generally praised them but added some words of caution. Quoting from a friend’s letter, Kirk said, “It is significant that when the Neo-Cons wish to damn any conservative who has appealed for a grant from a conservative foundation, they tell the officers of the foundation the conservative is a fascist.” I, of course, had heard of neocon campaigns against other conservatives, but the targets were not men I knew or agreed with. But I did know O’Sullivan and Neuhaus, and the Russell Kirk remark that had once seemed overheated became a good deal less so.

If National Review did not entirely drop the issue of immigration, in the post-O’Sullivan era it addressed it with markedly diminished zest. Mark Krikorian contributed some solid but uncontroversial pieces. John Miller, who had written a book that attacked several immigration reformers while calling for a renewed effort to “assimilate” an ever-growing number of new immigrants, replaced Brimelow on the masthead. The flame of “nativism” in the nation’s leading conservative publication was safely extinguished, and the neocons breathed more easily as 1.5 million new immigrants entered the country every year.

Soon gone too was the magazine’s intellectual flair and unpredictability, as it abandoned its role of pre-eminent arbiter of different voices within the conservative movement (and occasional critic of Republican politicians), for that of simple cheerleader for the GOP establishment. Readers would no longer find articles like Fred Iklé’s on the perils of worshiping the measures of economic growth for their own sake, or Dan Seligman on “IQ and National Prosperity.” Seldom was anything published that might complicate the thoughts of the average Rush Limbaugh listener.

At roughly the same time that O’Sullivan was pushed from the helm of National Review, I was fired as editorial page editor of the New York Post, ostensibly for publishing an editorial opposing statehood for Puerto Rico and standing by it after the pressure started. The morning I was sacked, the Post’s editor pointed out to me an op-ed in that day’s paper by Mark Krikorian (the most measured of immigration-reform writers). He said accusingly, “You keep putting things in the paper like that.”

In the mid-1990s, the post-Cold-War debates on American foreign policy began to assume a definitive new shape. When not focused on the Clinton sex life, the Weekly Standard agitated for a more belligerent U.S. stance in several areas of the world: first (and always) Iraq, then the former Yugoslavia, China, and Iran. The Standard was aware of the visceral resistance to this more aggressive Kristol-Kagan-Perle-Wolfowitz line within the traditional Republican Party, both from politicians with some residual isolationist tendencies and from the realist-internationalists who predominated during the Cold War period. Writers of the latter persuasion had found a home in the National Interest, a quarterly founded in 1986, a time when neoconservatives and realists were more often allies, and edited from its inception until 2001 by the Australian, by way of Wales, Owen Harries.

Harries’s journal was perhaps even more eclectic than NR under O’Sullivan, and like NR it gave a voice to all the major conservative tendencies. Harries had been a Cold Warrior but became worried that America would over-reach after having established itself as the “sole-surviving superpower.” He frequently quoted Edmund Burke’s admonition against nationalistic hubris: “I dread our being too much dreaded.”

By the end of the 1990s, neoconservative tolerance for such perspectives was wearing rather thin. Lawrence Kaplan in the Weekly Standard lambasted National Interest writers who “blame America first,” singling out James Schlesinger, Jack Kemp, James Kurth, Samuel Huntington, and Walter McDougall. All were faulted for advocating a foreign policy too solicitous of the sensibilities and cultures of other nations. Two years later, Kaplan published a similar article in the New Republic, attacking conservative foreign policy intellectuals who were skeptical about the good that would come from hegemonic America as “yearning to see U.S. power erode.” Samuel Huntington (who worried about the impact of high immigration on national unity) and James Schlesinger (who had the temerity to call attention to the prominent role of the Israel lobby in formulating American Mideast policy) were singled out as particular offenders. “Guess Who Hates America” the New Republic titled Kaplan’s piece. David Frum’s attack on “unpatriotic conservatives” has a well-established pedigree.

While the attacks on Harries’s journal and its contributors were more polite than Steltzer’s smear of Neuhaus and O’Sullivan, they revealed something important about the state of neoconservatism: many of the Christian intellectuals of the first rank who identified quite wholeheartedly with the tendency during the 1980s did not anymore, and the neocons knew it. It was one thing to go after a Mel Bradford or a Samuel Francis (who identified too closely with the Old South to be widely accepted as mainstream). But Harries, Neuhaus, and O’Sullivan were public intellectuals of the highest caliber, the sort of people who really made the neoconservative ascendance of the 1980s far broader and more important than a simple “New York intellectual” (i.e., Jewish) phenomenon. Add to them Samuel Huntington, the Harvard political scientist who—if he wasn’t a neocon by virtue of institutional ties, as a moderately hawkish and conservative Democrat seemed to be an almost pure representative of the ideological tendency—and you had a situation in which the neocon bastion was riven by defections of major figures.

Of course, this was muted: to most, the neocon world seemed to be growing more dominant. And on many levels it was. The mid-’90s infusion of Murdoch cash (through the Weekly Standard, the Fox Network, and of course the New York Post) helped secure neocon ascendancy. Even National Review was safely in neocon hands. But unlike the 1980s, the hegemony was based increasingly on fear rather than respect. Conservatives who still had jobs in the seemingly ever-growing network of neoconservative magazines and think tanks learned that the place for many of their real political views was: private life. As Owen Harries explained to me, “That is what an establishment is.”

There are three main elements to Frum’s indictment: racism (“racial passions run strong among the paleos”); antipathy towards Jews (he quotes something from Joe Sobran); and lack of enthusiasm for America’s hand-in-glove alliance with Israel’s current right-wing government (he quotes several writers who have appeared in this magazine). I obviously cannot speak for all those he mentions, many with views that don’t resemble mine. But I can discuss Frum’s charges through the prism of my own experience, as a neocon and after.

I was far more conscious of “racial passions” during my neocon years climbing the greasy pole at the New York Post than subsequently. No doubt this is partially due to the period (framed by the Tawana Brawley case and the O.J. trial, with the LA riots in between) and the job (writing mostly about urban politics). But I suspect some part of the difference is due to the surrounding culture of neoconservatism. It may not prove much of anything, but a dinner with Sam Francis (or virtually any other “paleocon”) is less tinged with snickers and winks about the behavior of people of color than a dinner in the New York neocon world.

Another difference: church. Sometime in 1995, I began attending services for the first time since prep school, showing up sporadically at a mainline Presbyterian church in Manhattan. No big epiphanies to relate, and unlike George W. Bush I cannot claim Christ as my favorite philosopher. But something rubs off from the Christian liturgy—its all-embracing quality, its summons to universal brotherhood—that makes “racial passions” of any sort seem a bit shameful. That’s my experience anyway, but I suspect it is why the country’s hard-core racialists are so vehemently anti-Christian.

From church may have come the spark of another realization: that the Palestinians, many of whom are Christian, are people deserving of dignity and rights. In one of the first Christmas services I attended, the minister alluded to Jesus’ mother Mary as “a poor Palestinian woman.” For a new congregant who had spent the previous decade in circles where the word “Palestinian” was rarely uttered without a sneer implying a congenital predilection for murder and mayhem, the phrase about Mary rattled around the mind for a while. During the Cold War, Israel-Palestine was a very secondary issue for me, and at the Cold War’s end there came Oslo, which seemed certain to set matters to right. During the 1990s, the neoconservative I knew best (Eric Breindel) invariably spoke and wrote of Oslo as “a fact.” Though Breindel had significant ties to the Israeli Right (Bibi Netanyahu spoke at his wedding party), he was friendly as well with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin’s widow, Leah. It would shock me if he could have made common cause with such current Bush administration figures as Douglas Feith and Richard Perle, who worked with Netanyahu to undermine the Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s.

It is by now beyond serious dispute that the vast and uncritical American support for Israel looms large among the factors making the United States disliked and feared in the world. The push for an even great number of wars in the Middle East—Norman Podhoretz now demands the U.S. overthrow the regimes of six or seven Muslim countries—is quite clearly driven by a concern for Israel’s needs, not America’s. Washington’s commitment to Israel’s existence is a given—a logical and moral goal. But support for Israel’s suppression of the Palestinians, whose lands the Israeli Right covets, does nothing but generate hatred for the United States. In the aftermath of 9/11, some neoconservatives (and others who are simply gullible) have touted the line that the United States is hated “because of its freedom.” This slogan fit for small children contradicts what virtually any American with business, diplomatic, or military experience in the Middle East will say. Sadly, it wouldn’t be the first time that a great nation came under the spell of a tragic delusion.

Frum’s other indictment against the antiwar conservatives is anti-Semitism, the nuclear weapon accusation in American public life. The simple point to be made is that neoconservatism is not synonymous with Jewish opinion. (And indeed, several of the movement’s prominent figures are Gentiles.) In their effort to marry American policies to the goals of the Israeli far Right, the neocons have embraced Norman Podhoretz’s definition of anti-Semitism: if you are supportive of Israel, everything is fine. The neocons have no problem with those parts of the Christian Right that view the gathering of Jews in the Holy Land as a prelude to the final Armageddon, in which all Jews will convert to Christianity or perish. Such believers stand meekly in the Amen Corner for the Sharons, Netanyahus, and Meir Kahanes of the world, and the neocons are well pleased. But conservatives who evince any public doubts about where the Israel tie is leading us are seen as dangerous anti-Semites, ripe for smearing.

The good news—because the Jewish contribution to nuanced and sophisticated political discussion in America is quite substantial—is that many (and perhaps most) politically engaged Jews consider the neocon view of the world to be rabid nonsense. To turn one’s back on the Richard Perles and Paul Wolfowitzs and David Frums, who have worked to trash America’s good name with their incessant warmongering, does not mean that one is turning one’s back on Thomas Friedman, or Joe Klein, or Leonard Fein, or Michael Kinsley or anyone else in what would obviously be a very long list of non-extremist Jews, some who are conservative, many more who are not.

No matter how quickly Baghdad is conquered, it is clear that the neocons have led the United States into an extremely perilous situation, perhaps the most dangerous in its history. As strident advocates of open borders and the sworn enemies of immigration reform—they have helped bring about a situation where it was easy for terrorist cells to hide themselves within the nooks and crannies of the “first universal nation” they espouse.

Their unceasing agitation against a compromise peace in the Middle East, coupled with their lobbying for America to endorse to Sharon’s ongoing humiliation of the Palestinians, has managed to make America hated in parts of the world where it used to be admired, even loved. Some of that hatred has been turned—should we be surprised?—into anti-American terror. Now, as it prepares to occupy Iraq against the will of much of the Middle East while facing a rejuvenated al-Qaeda, America has fewer real friends and more ill-wishers than ever in its history. This is in considerable part the “accomplishment” of America’s neocons, the fruit of the power they have achieved in the conservative movement and the influence they wield with an inexperienced and simple president. It will take years to undo the damage they have done, but there is no choice but to begin.