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The Long Fuse to the Iraq War

They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, Jacob Heilbrunn, Doubleday, 289 pages

It is hard to imagine a title more overdue than They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons. Ever since neoconservatism’s chief contribution to world betterment, the Iraq War, began losing its luster, its adherents have gone into a kind of hiding, and the media has given them cover. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and New York Times columnist David Brooks, one or both of whom are neoconservatives, have suggested that the word is an anti-Semitic epithet. Others try to avoid it entirely: when Bill Kristol, who was definitely once a neoconservative, was hired by the New York Times as a columnist, the paper called him a “conservative” and said his father Irving Kristol, one of the movement’s founders, was a leader of “modern conservatism.”

Jacob Heilbrunn asserts that neoconservatives have so far gotten away “scot-free” with planning the greatest foreign-policy disaster since Vietnam. And so his book will call them to account. Not quite.

Heilbrunn achieves one important chore: a forthright social narrative of the neocons as a Jewish movement. Tracing ideological currents in the Jewish community from the 1940s to the 1970s, Heilbrunn, a journalist who himself flirted with neoconservatism, describes how the neocons were propelled by resentments against WASP elites—the men who had ignored the Holocaust, they felt, and “frozen out” Jews from the establishment. It would be hard to overemphasize Heilbrunn’s accomplishment. There has been endless prevarication about the fact that neoconservatism is an element of the Jewish experience, even from liberal Jews. Yet Heilbrunn will have none of it. He says that neoconservatism is “intimately linked with the memory of the Holocaust and the allies’ failure to save the Jews during the war” and notes that a “peculiar amalgam of intellectual rigor and ethnic resentment … lies at the heart of the neoconservative outlook.”

And here’s the topper: a “lifelong antipathy toward the patrician class among the neocons … prompted them to create their own parallel establishment.”

The sociological insights in his story are often exciting. Neocon godfather Norman Podhoretz had “the classic Jewish experience with the WASP elite” but became a “social climber” himself Heilbrunn says. The other godfather, Irving Kristol didn’t at first take the late Allan Bloom seriously. Bloom told Heilbrunn that his relationship with Kristol got “easier” once Bloom, like Kristol, had wealth. The neocons didn’t like Kissinger because he was hofjude, “a court jew of the WASP foreign policy establishment.” They didn’t like Zbig Brzezinski because he was Polish and the neocons suspected him of Pale-era anti-semitism.

Boiling resentment meant very little without a political program. The neocons got that in the late 1960s. And not surprisingly, the issues had a Jewish character. “With the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem, the 1967 war, and the rise of black anti-Semitism in the United States, neoconservatism was born,” Heilbrunn writes. So now Brzezinski was resented because he was against the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and McGeorge Bundy because he wanted to push Israel to make a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Neoconservative ideas might have been confined to small magazines, but the neocons stunned themselves in the 1970s by gaining traction in American political life—through the offices of Washington Sen. Henry Jackson (whom a Saudi ambassador called “more Jewish than the Jews”). With Jackson’s support, the neocons staged their first great victory, pressuring the Soviet Union to free Jews. After Daniel Patrick Moynihan won his New York Senate seat with “strong Jewish support” in 1976, the neocons had a second home.

At that time, of course, they were Democrats. Martin Peretz, the once leftwing editor of The New Republic, was so shaken by the Left’s friendliness to the Palestinians, that he provided access in his pages to hawks, and became “a major force in the mainstreaming of neoconservative ideas.” Douglas Feith, an architect of the Iraq disaster, tells Heilbrunn, “I grew up in a liberal Democratic Jewish household.” Again Israel was key. At the age of 15, two years into the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Feith wrote a precocious letter to the New York Times attacking the State Department policy in the Middle East. “It is appalling the State Department can be so blind to historical precedent as to call for a withdrawal from the captured area.” Captured, not occupied.

Israel-centrism made the neocons lousy wardheelers. They turned against Jimmy Carter on foreign policy, and so helped to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980. Not one to slight the power of his subjects, Heilbrunn says that had they not spurned Carter, he might have been re-elected. Neocons came back to the Dems in 1992, again over Israel. George H.W. Bush—“a scion of the WASP establishment”—was “acting like Jimmy Carter when it came to Israel.” Knocking off the Soviet Union gave the neocons a sense of hubris that would doom their ideas about Iraq. Their thinking was also damaged by the fact that the neocons overprized “filial piety”—and so their sons were enlisted in their fathers’ battles without having to develop their own ideas.

Good stuff. Alas, the book’s riches are set in the ancient past: the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Didn’t the neocons just wreck our image around the world? Heilbrunn doesn’t get to 9/11 till page 228. There are only 60 pages left, and the social insights that have characterized the first half of the book disappear, giving way to a stentorian, op-ed style. The neocons have “debauched” the idea of intervention. They were “hopelessly naïve about the Arab predicament.”

I hoped that this book would do for the parallel establishment what The Best and the Brightest did for the last one in the wake of Vietnam. But Heilbrunn seems to have had only three or four interviews with Iraq war planners and we learn little about their psyches. How do they feel about Israel? How much money do they make? Do they think there is going to be another Holocaust? What was the importance of Cheney’s American Enterprise Institute chapter (both he and his wife have been fellows at AEI) to his inoculation with neocon doctrine? Heilbrunn doesn’t provide answers.

There are two reasons for his failure, the first vocational, the second far more worrisome. Heilbrunn was evidently under a deadline, and having spent years working on the first part of his book, he appears to have rushed the second half. His writing goes downhill. In the galley, two sentences in a row have the verb “would end up.” Twice on the same page former Sen. Bob Kerrey provides “important … cover” for the neocons.

The more troubling reason is self-censorship. It is one thing to write about the past with dispositive energy and quite another to render sharp judgments about the present. Heilbrunn hints at great ideas without the ability to follow through on them. He says the neocons’ obsession with radical Islam as another cold war was a self-delusion—did they also confuse Palestinian suicide bombers with Nazis? He talks about a parallel establishment and “an elite caste,” but doesn’t do anything to explore the huge pots of money available to the neocons and to politicians who stick by Israel. There is no follow through because all these ideas are close to anti-Semitic “canards,” the word the pro-Israel crowd likes to use when anyone tries to address Jewish influence in public life. Heilbrunn is conscious of these tactics. He notes that Francis Fukuyama said much more about the neocons’ love of Israel in an article than he did in his subsequent book and chalks the scholar’s silence up to “the bullying tactics the neoconservatives often employed to avert any criticism of Israel, however mild.” Well, Heilbrunn seems to have worried about the same thing.

As for bullying, what are we to make of Heilbrunn’s own vicious outbursts toward anybody who has tried to change American policy toward the hateful Israeli occupation? Thus George Kennan worried about “so-called ethnic lobbies.” Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s groundbreaking 2006 paper, “The Israel Lobby,” is dismissed as an “addled essay”, without another word. Jimmy Carter is accused of “crackpot moralism.” Edward Said was “a smooth, urbane purveyor of much nonsense about the Middle East.”

Between these knifings, Heilbrunn loses his own point of view. He tells us that Bush fell “into the web that the neoconservatives had woven around him.” Sounds like a conspiracy. Twice the author uses the word “cabal.” Harvard’s government department “was the first academic neoconservative cabal.” Later there is “the Pentagon cabal of neoconservatives.” Not even Walt and Mearsheimer used the word, though maybe they should have. Certainly, the neocons have often formed cells and have not been transparent about their ideas or their aims.

The book’s promotional copy teases the reader with that revelation. The boldfaced paragraph on the back of the galley asserts that many believe that a “cabal” of neocons launched a “war primarily on Israel’s behalf.” If Heilbrunn doesn’t believe this, he ought to state why not. As it is the reader is left with the shadowy sense that the neocons have a pro-Israel agenda that they are not upfront about. But it isn’t a conspiracy, Heilbrunn warns. The neocons have convinced themselves that the U.S. and Israel have congruent interests. “They just believe this stuff. They’re not agents,” an anonymous source tells him, speaking of Cheney aide David Wurmser, who is married to an Israeli.

Jacob Heilbrunn’s book should be hailed as a real sign of progress in assessing responsibility for the Iraq War, and yet the real work remains undone. I understand why there are inhibitions. Blaming the neocons’ Israel-first worldview for the war raises deep fears among Jews. The liberal Forward greeted Walt and Mearsheimer’s paper on the Israel lobby with the bitter retort: “In Dark Times Blame the Jews.” We need to get past this sort of defensiveness if we are going to understand our own democracy, let alone the Middle East. What Heilbrunn rightly calls an “elite caste” could lose status, yes. But others’ lives are at stake.

Philip Weiss is at work on a book about Jewish issues. He blogs at www.philip weiss.org/mondoweiss/