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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Leo Strauss and the NeoCons

The Political Morality of the Neo-conservatives: An Analysis
John Guelke

Department of Government, International Politics and Philosophy, The University of Manchester,
Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PL, UK.
E-mail: john.guelke{{at}}

Neoconservatism as a doctrine has been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny due to
its profound influence on American foreign policy. In particular, much has been
made of the enthusiasm for strong-armed tactics. However, in recent scholarship
the role of private ethics and social values in neo-conservative thought has been
neglected, restricted in the main to considerations of the spread of democracy. This
is unfortunate, as the means and ends of neo-conservative foreign policy may be
strongly considered to derive from the domestic concerns of their moral
philosophy. The increasingly widespread invocation of moral values, far from
empty rhetoric, is key to understanding the rejection of realist restraints and
objectives for an interventionism uninhibited by norms, treaties, multilateral
institutions or law.

International Politics (2005) 42, 97–115. doi:10.1057/palgrave.ip.8800101
Keywords: neoconservatism; morality; Project for the New American Century; Iraq
war; Leo Strauss


In a 1996 article for Commentary, the journal he once edited, Norman
Podhoretz delivered a ‘eulogy’ for neoconservatism. The notion that it required
one would today be dismissed by many as wishful thinking. However,
Podhoretz’s assertion was intended to convey not that neo-conservative ideas
no longer held currency, but that neoconservatism was no longer a
phenomenon existing distinct from that of the mainstream. The hostility
discernible on the left and the right to neo-conservatives and neoconservatism
suggest that both assertions would be mistaken. However, what is missing from
the moral opprobrium of argument on all sides is a systematic account of the
differences of political morality from both the liberalism to which they once
subscribed and the conservatism they aspire to replace, most argument marked
instead by rough rhetoric and argument ad hominem. Such an account is,
therefore, both timely and functional.
The objective of the piece is an examination of the political morality of the
neo-conservatives. In past studies, these have often been understood
International Politics, 2005, 42, (97–115)
r 2005 Palgrave Macmillan Ltd 1384-5748/05 $30.00
generationally rather than on the basis of a core ideology. This is, for
example, the approach of Blumenthal’s (1986, 122–123) The Rise of
the Counter-Establishment, Ehrman’s (1995, vii–viii) The Rise of Neoconservatism
and Steinfel’s (1979, 1–2) The Neoconservatives. As a point of
methodology this is judicious. Rather than a set of key principles or guiding
tenets what truly ties them together is their ‘common experience’ — their
‘conversion from left to right the central political experience of their
lives’ (Blumenthal, 1986, 122–123) and their identity as anti-Communists
and ‘activist intellectuals’ (Ehrman, 1995, vii). Such a definition is not without
its problems, however, as there is now a new generation of neoconservatives
who were never left wing or liberal, such as William Kristol,
Irving Kristol’s son. However, this does not change the fact that neoconservatives
are better understood in terms of a group of people rather than
as a group of ideas.

This study is divided in three ways. It starts with an examination of the
‘moral universe’ of the neo-conservatives, if such a phrase may be tolerated, in
which the importance of the domestic agenda and the changing moral and
social philosophies espoused in 1960s and 1970s neo-conservative thinking is
charted. It then moves on to the foreign policy agenda to examine the shifting
aims and objectives thereof, directing discussion towards the question of the
proper relation between neoconservative thought and that of realists. The final
segment focuses upon the means neo-conservatives consider permitted in the
sphere of political action.

The Moral Universe of the Neoconservatives

It is instructive to examine the moral viewpoint of neo-conservatives outside
the sphere of political action. As their media prominence is specifically due to
their reputation as having great influence on American foreign policy, this
might appear something of a diversion. In reality, an appreciation of the neoconservative
perspective with regard to social ethics, personal morality and the
domestic policy held to be corollary, is crucial to understanding their views on
foreign policy. The emergence of the neo-conservatives is identified as a
reaction to the social radicalism of the New Left. So far as social issues are
concerned, it is concluded that Podhoretz’s (1996) thesis on the death of
neoconservatism holds — that it no longer remains a phenomenon distinct
from mainstream conservatism.

Although neo-conservatives have been considered a broad spectrum on this
front in the past, today they would be very strongly identified with a strongly
conservative outlook, indeed, prior to this latest chapter in American foreign
policy, which has given rise to the new interest in neo-conservative ideas, it was
regarded by many as their defining characteristic. A standard textbook on
ideology of 1998 defines the term in its glossary as ‘a modern version of social
conservatism that emphasises the need to restore order, return to traditional or
family values or revitalise nationalism’ (Heywood, 1998, 334).
While such conservatism is no longer, for most part, the
defining characteristic, such an account of their position is borne out in
the writings of publications such as the Weekly Standard and Commentary.
This position may be viewed largely as a reaction against the New Left of
the 1960s, the politics of postmaterialism, and what they refer to as

The New Left may be seen as a phenomenon spanning the Western liberal
democracies challenging the ‘doctrines, methods of organisations and styles of
the ‘‘old’’ left’. As well as its influence on socialist thought, which now looked
to Gramsci, Marcuse and Guevara where it would formerly have looked
mainly to Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, it also deeply influenced feminism,
environmentalism and Eurocommunism, as ‘students, women, black power
groups, and anti-Vietnam war activists in Europe and the United States
mobilised, and claimed the support of peasants and ‘‘lumpenproletariat’’ in the
Third World’ (Skinner, 1996, 341).

Neo-conservatives regarded this new politics as detrimental to the
Democratic Party and the country. A typical response could be found in
Howe who wrote in 1968 that ‘New Left radicalism, insofar as it approximates
a politics, mixes sentiments of anarchism with apologies for authoritarianism’
(Howe, 1968 in Ehrman, 1995, 35). Thus, the New Left ideas were attacked
with uncompromising vigour, typified by a long running attack on the part of
Commentary against The New York Review of Books. A characteristic comment
being Irving Kristol’s 1968 description of that publication in terms of ‘neo-
Castroism’ (Kristol, 1968/1995, 467). Indeed, by 1979 Steinfels was to
complain that:

Commentary suffers from a narrownessyever since its editor, Norman
Podhoretz, embarked on a scorched-earth campaign against the New
Left and counterculture, his monthly has grown much more predictable.
To establish Commentary’s position on any topicylocate the New Left
or counterculture position (or imagine one, these enterprisesy[have]y
been out of business for some time now), turn 180 degrees, and march
off in the opposite direction. The operation borders on the ludicrous
when Podhoretz sends out skirmishers to do in, for instance, counterculture
disrespect for competitive sports or to flush out a threat to the
Republic lurking unrecognised in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. (Steinfels,
1979, 21)

In understanding this belligerence, it is essential to comprehend the role
that totalitarianism and the events of the Second World War have played in
neo-conservative thought. They viewed ‘true’ liberalism as essentially
continuous with their anti-totalitarian commitment and not only was it the
case that ‘since the battles of the 1930s and 1940s these liberals had harshly and
unforgivingly attacked anything which they saw as reflecting totalitarian
thinking’ but also that they ‘had become acutely sensitive to ideas which they
believed opposed or seriously undermined liberal democracyythey took the
New Left seriously, if only because as intellectuals they respected the power of
ideas and words’ (Ehrman, 1995, 35).

But as well as seeing the rise of New Left ideas as a corruption
of the liberalism to which the overwhelming majority explicitly subscribed
until the mid 1970s, many also began to view it as an unintended
and unanticipated consequence of the liberal programmes these very
individuals had supported and in some cases implemented themselves. It
was now that many came to question the ideas backing up these reforms
and conclude that the ‘roots of the failure lay in the flawed or incomplete
theories on which the programs had been based’ (Ehrman, 1995, 35). Kristol,
for example, mused ‘We have discovered in these past years that it
doesn’t suffice to pass a law in order to solve minorities’ problems’ and
beyond ‘Somehow the money never seems to reach the people for whom
it is intended — or, if it does, it never has the effect it was supposed to have’
(Kristol, 1968 in Ehrman, 1995, 36). Ehrman points to Wildavsky’s Public
Interest article ‘The Empty-Head Blues: Black Rebellion and White Reaction’
describing the mix of inflated hopes and ineffective reforms as a ‘recipe for

Irving Kristol diagnosed the key problem as America’s increasing defencelessness
against the tide of radical ideas because society’s institutions were
becoming ‘inexorably drained of their legitimacy’ (Kristol, 1968 in Ehrman,
1995, 36). Now neo-conservatives were reconsidering their priorities: in
September 1967 Moynihan, addressing the Americans for Democratic Action
in a New Leader article insisted that ‘liberals must see more clearly that their
essential interest is in the stability of the social order’ and therefore ‘seek out
and make more effective alliances with political conservatives’ (Moynihan,1967
in Ehrman, 1995, 37).

In understanding Irving Kristol’s position on these matters comprehending
the influence of Leo Strauss is key. In works such as Natural Right andHistory ,
he articulates a moral worldview in which the excellent work of the ‘ancients’ is
undermined and corrupted by the ‘moderns’ and liberalism:
ythat political doctrine which regards as the fundamental fact the rights as
distinguished from the duties of man and which identifies the function of the
state with the protection and safeguarding of those rightsy (Strauss, 1953
in Blumenthal, 1986, 151)

The implication is that ‘where rights begin, virtue may end’. Here virtue,
along with truth is regarded as ‘prior to history’ and amounts to ‘a harmonious
balance within society’, achieved ‘by a higher morality promoted by the state’
and constitutes ‘a natural law independent of ephemeral circumstances’
(Blumenthal, 1986, 151).

However, the undermining of virtue expressed in the tenets of liberalism
begins with Machiavelli rather than, say, Locke, Paine or any other less
controversially liberal thinker. Machiavelli’s work is damaging because his
‘realistic depiction of the mechanics of power’ succeeds in divesting it of ‘loftier
justification’ (Blumenthal, 1986, 151). The real danger for contemporary
society is thus not, say socialism, but rather nihilism. This is where hostility to
the counterculture is important. As recently as 1994, Irving Kristol was still
writing of their threat and the proper antidote:

The delicate task that faces our civilisation today is not to reform the secular
rationalist orthodoxy, which has passed the point of redemption. Rather, it
is to breathe new life into the older, now largely comatose, religious
orthodoxies. (Kristol, 1994/1995, 146)

In concrete terms what this ‘delicate task’ in defence against the New Left
and counterculture amounts to is an almost constant emphasis in their writings
on traditional, conservative social mores, denunciation of the welfare state and
a renewed respect for religion.

The quintessential example is the undeniably moralizing tone of Irving
Kristol’s own work, which may be typified in one of his many writings on
culture, Aids and False Innocence, in which, continuing the theme of attacks on
liberal attitudes, he asks why victims of Aids are considered innocent victims
when many are responsible for their condition and further commenting:
One of the reasons homosexuals are so much more vulnerable to the AIDS
virus is that, for reasons that remain unclear, homosexuals tend to be
significantly more promiscuous than heterosexuals. Or at least they used to
be. Today, one has the impression that heterosexuals are trying to catch up.

As he sees it, by hesitating to censure promiscuity, liberal culture has
condemned sufferers to their condition. He concludes that the victims of AIDS
are, in reality, ‘the victims of the liberal-progressive ideology’. Never, he
maintains, ‘has ‘‘liberal guilt’’ been so honestly earned’ (Kristol, 1992, 64–66).
It is fair to say here that neo-conservative positions on social issues are now
indistinguishable from the corresponding positions of mainstream conservatism,
allowing, of course, for differences in degree of individual conservatives
or neo-conservatives. There will be neoconservatives less fervent in their
defence of ‘family values’ than Irving Kristol, but then too will there be
mainstream conservatives who are less fervent than John Ashcroft. The only
theoretical difference lies in the justification of these positions, thus a
neo-conservative might, for example, view the importance of preventing the
establishment of gay marriage in terms of defending orthodoxy and protecting
the social order, where a mainstream conservative would simply declare the
action wrong in itself (on religious grounds perhaps). In practice, however, this
distinction is unimportant as on any contentious issue a range of justifications
will be employed, and the arguments that gain prominence will usually be those
that are most persuasive to the largest number of people rather than those that
most accurately reflect the underlying ideology of the speaker (if there actually
is such a thing). Podhoretz points to this dynamic as another dimension of the
blurring of the distinction between the two conservatisms proffering the
example of the neo-conservative’s support for civil-rights and subsequent
rejection of affirmative action:

Thus it was that some on the Right who had opposed the civil-rights
movement even before it was radicalized in the late 60’s, and who had never
had any use for Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was alive, later learned
under the tutelage of the neoconservatives that one of the most effective
weapons they could wield in the fight against affirmative action was King’s
dream of a world in which all would be judged not by the color of their skin
but by the content of their character. (Podhoretz, 1996)

It suffices as a conclusion here that Podhoretz’s analysis holds as far as the
domestic agenda is concerned with one qualification. The additional role that
the neo-conservatives play beyond simple support for conservative positions
has frequently been one of ‘respectabilizing’ conservative positions that were,
intellectually speaking, on the defensive in the 1960s. However to examine the
social conservatism tells only half the story. Neo-conservatives saw their
position on such issues as inextricably linked with their status as Cold War

Neo-conservatives on the Ends of Political Action

A central question is whether or not neo-conservatives may be properly
regarded as realists. Here we are presented with something of a puzzle. While
the Cold War intellectual heritage is almost exclusively realist, neo-conservatives
having emerged as Cold War warriors who chided their then colleagues on
the left, both for their utopian outlook and lack of will in carrying through
necessary policies, and the right for its isolationist ideals, the recent events of the
Iraq war with which they are so linked commit one to the conclusion that they
have abandoned key tenets of realism. The key event in this turnaround
in the neo-conservative position is the end of the Cold War and corollary
change in the global political order. The piece proceeds by establishing the
neo-conservative’s Cold War realist credentials, closely following the analysis of
Ehrman’s The Rise of Neoconservatism. It then goes on to distinguish the
features of their position on the aims of American foreign policy that now
contradict principles of realism. The fundamental disparity, it is concluded, lies
in a widening of the concept of the ‘national interest’ and a commitment to the
aim of American hegemony in place of the balance of power.

As stated above, the neo-conservatives saw an explicit link between the
assertion of conservative social values at home and the defence of their
democracy against communism abroad, thus it is unsurprising that the belief in
the superiority of what they considered ‘American values’ was a key
accompaniment to their fervent anti-communist commitment and central
among these values the idea of democracy (even ‘liberal’ democracy was
referred to before that word became a term of derision). As Ehrman points out,
the understanding of democracy harboured was ‘essentially that developed by
Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’ (Ehrman, 1995, viii) as expounded in
such works as Moral Man andImm oral Society (1932) and The Children of
Light andthe Children of Darkness (1945). Niebuhr is a central figure in the
construction of realist I.R. theory both in his own right and as an influence on
Morgenthau. His basic premise may be derived ‘in shorthand’ from the title of
the former of these — his view roughly approximating to the judgement that
‘liberals wildly exaggerated the capacity of collectivities of humans to behave in
ways that are truly moral’ (Brown, 1997, 28).

The key foreign policy debates of the late 1960s and 1970s when
neoconservatism emerged as a distinct phenomenon were very much defined by
the shadow of Vietnam. Against ‘a rising tide of isolationism’, neoconservatives
like Irving Kristol argued for ‘a continued activist anti-
Communist foreign policy’ which was based on ‘an updated version of
Niebuhr’s view of the world and great power responsibilities’. This vision was
ostensibly realist. ‘Activism’ at this point amounted to policies of containment
—‘a relatively conservative doctrine since it insists that the pattern of world
power change gradually, subtly, as unobtrusively as possible’ (Kristol, 1968 in
Ehrman, 1995, 50). Humanitarian intervention, had it been on the agenda,
would have been dismissed along with the internationalism, which many
liberals saw as the alternative to this isolationism, they held ‘looked toward the
utopian goals and easy road to peace that Niebuhr and vital centre liberalism
had specifically rejected twenty years earlier’ (Ehrman, 1995, 48–49). Realism
takes on the role, therefore, not just of a foreign policy position, but also as a
dimension of their intellectual identity. A typical Irving Kristol comment in his
recent account of The Neo-conservative Persuasion proclaims Thucydides’s
account of the Peloponnesian War, the first, and for some definitive,
articulation of the realist position, as the favourite neo-conservative text on
foreign affairs.

For a further example, one may read his earlier American Intellectuals and
Foreign Policy (1967), in which he dismisses intellectual criticism of the use of
American power as having little to do with the foreign policy itself and
everything to do with ambitions to power of the class of intellectuals
themselves or rather resentment at their own lack of power. He concludes with
an assurance which typifies his work, that he is simply expressing an obvious
truth that:

Though there is much fancy rhetoric, pro and con, about ‘the purpose of
American foreign policy,’ there is really nothing esoteric about this purpose.
The United States wishes to establish and sustain a world order that (a)
ensures its national security as against the other great powers, (b)
encourages other nations, especially the smaller ones, to mould their own
social, political and economic institutions along lines that at least are not
repugnant to (if not actually congruent with) American values, and (c)
minimizes the risk of naked, armed conflict. This is, of course, also the
purpose of the foreign policies of such other great powers as Soviet Russia
and Maoist China. Nor could it be otherwise, short of a fit of collective
insanity on the part of the governing classes of these powers. (Kristol, 1967/
1995, 90)

Here we may discern the same ambiguity that has been identified as a flaw in
Morgenthau’s work between whether this realism is a descriptive doctrine,
explaining how it is that states will inevitably behave, or a normative doctrine
prescribing the objectives that statesmen ought to aim at. This point is nicely
summarized by Brown who goes on to distinguish Morgenthau’s use of the
term ‘national interest’ as a notion one may employ ‘to criticise the behaviour
of a particular government’ (Brown, 1997, 34).
This same ambiguity may be perceived in an intriguing comment by
Christopher Caldwell in a recent Weekly Standard article attacking the policy
of the incoming Zapatero government in Spain. Of the decision to send troops
to Afghanistan under UN auspices while withdrawing from Iraq he says:
Never did he cite March 11 to assert Spain’s right to self-defence under the
U.N. charter, perhaps out of obedience to the strange reverse-Machiavellism
of European strategic thinking that wields a double standard against itself.
(Caldwell, 2004)

The definitive articulation of the neo-conservative foreign policy position
was not put forward by Kristol, however, but rather was seen, according to
Ehrman, in the work of Robert Tucker and Walter Laqueur.
Tucker, a ‘traditional realist’ (Brown, 1997, 220), tackled the dilemma of
American power head-on in his 1968 work Nation or Empire? At that time his
conclusion came down on the side of ‘nation’. Here Empire was understood as
amounting to a refusal to ‘distinguish between the security of the imperial state
and the security of the greater [world] community’ (Tucker, 1968 in Ehrman,
1995, 51). ‘Nation’ was favoured on the grounds that ‘the rest of the world did
not necessarily want to be like the United States’ (Ehrman, 1995, 51) and, given
this state of affairs, ‘the course of wisdom is to accept this outcome and, at the
same time, to abandon the conviction that America can only regenerate herself
by regenerating the world’ (Tucker, 1968 in Ehrman, 1995, 51).

This judgement continued to develop down an isolationist path until the
1973 Middle East war, which was to have a ‘great impact’ on his work. The
change in tack may be seen in 1975 Commentary articles Oil: The Issue of
American Intervention and A New International Order? The aims prescribed
here continued to be realist, rejecting an ‘ideology of egalitarianism’, marked
by Third World demands for equality with the developed states as ‘dangerously
unstable’ (Ehrman, 1995, 52–54). He rejected any suggestion that ‘the powerful
ought not to employ their power’, which he thought aimed at ‘discrimination
on behalf of the materially disadvantaged states’ due to the supposed
interdependence of America and these states. Rather his expression of worry
at the existence of ‘a growing disjunction between power and orderyin which
the principal holders of powerymay not be the principal creators and
guarantors of order’ reveals the fact that he continues to accept the idea of a
bilateral world where superpowers continue to exercise power over ‘spheres of
influence’ —indeed, employing the term ‘holders’ rather than ‘holder’ (Tucker,
1975 in Ehrman, 1995, 52–53).

The distinguishing characteristic of the work of Walter Laqueur is an
emphasis on the genuine threat of Soviet power. The idea, expressed for
example in Brzezinski, that the USSR was gaining a stake in the status quo, was
thus dismissed as characterizing ‘the escapism which these days pervades
political thinking in the United States and Western Europe alike’ (Laqueur,
Jan 1972 in Ehrman, 1995, 54). On the contrary, they were ‘purposeful and
dynamic, out to win the global struggle rather than preserve the status quo’
(Laqueur, Aug 1972 in Ehrman, 1995, 54). The Cold War, rather than a
consequence of American post war policy, was an inevitable phenomenon, ‘if
only because no combination of western concessions or guarantees could have
overcome the Soviets’ ‘‘state of siege psychology’’’ (Ehrman, 1995, 55). In his
recent account of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol sticks closely to this analysis,
declaring that ‘The number of intelligent men who could not count the Soviet
Union as an enemy, even though this was its own self-definition, was
absolutely astonishing’ (Kristol I, 2003).

The recent war in Iraq, however, has undermined the case for neoconservatism’s
status as a realist doctrine in two major ways. Their widening of
the notion of ‘the national interest’ is one, and an abandoning of commitment
to that of the ‘balance of power’ is the other. These are not entirely distinct
issues, as neo-conservative commitment to the spread of American values over
the globe entails both.
The concept of ‘the national interest’ is central to realism. Indeed, its
advocacy as the proper and inevitable aim of foreign policy may be
characterized as the key claim of Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations. In
this literature, it may be sharply defined as ‘the principle of national security
and survival’ to which ‘the defence of the homeland and the preservation of
territorial integrity is basic’. The realist controversial claims in connection with
this notion amount to the assertion that ‘all other policy preferences are
subordinate’ (Evans and Newnham, 1998, 345).

For today’s neoconservatives, however, it has come to be understood
beyond the limits of territory, as we see when Irving Kristol writes in the same
article in which he claims Thucydides as a neo-conservative text:
yfor a great power, the ‘national interest’ is not a geographical term, except
for fairly prosaic matters like trade and environmental regulation. A smaller
nation might appropriately feel that its national interest begins and ends at
its borders, so that its foreign policy is almost always in defensive mode. A
larger nation has more extensive interests. And large nations, whose identity
is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of
today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material
concerns. Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel
obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from
nondemocratic forces, external or internal. That is why it was in our
national interest to come to the defence of France and Britain in World War
II. That is why we feel it necessary to defend Israel today, when its survival
is threatened. No complicated geopolitical calculations of national interest
are necessary. (Kristol I, 2003)

As much as he seeks to portray the current neo-conservative stance
as continuous and coherent with that during the Cold War, the above
paragraph, ambiguous as its concluding sentences may be, surely reflects
something of a turning point. Even accepting as given that engagement in
the war in Europe was an optional policy decision it was still an action taken
very much within the realist, narrowly defined conception of the national
interest, Hitler’s Germany being an expansionist state, which at that time
was succeeding in its goal of hegemonic power across Europe. Whereas,
assuming that Kristol is referring to war in Iraq — the piece is written in
response to a comment by Howard Dean on undue neo-conservative influence
on George W. Bush — practically nobody, not even those who endorsed his
overthrow, credit Saddam Hussein with having had the capability of achieving
the expansionist aims attributed to him, much less the capability to threaten the
United States.

These notions are expanded on in another item by William Kristol in The
Weekly Standard entitled Morality in Foreign Policy. In this he implies
continuity between the current policy of George W. Bush and that of the
Reagan years. He quotes with approval from Bush’s State of the Union address
that the purpose of American foreign policy is to achieve the result of ‘the end
of terrible threats to the civilised world’. Thus merely the threat has changed.
Where Reagan achieved the end of one threat in the fall of the Soviet Union,
the new threat is from what Bush referred to as ‘outlaw regimes’ who ‘sponsor
terrorism and acquire and trade in horrific weapons, the better to threaten their
neighbours and intimidate their people’ (Kristol W, 2003). Note the phrase
‘threaten their neighbours and intimidate their people’ — without qualification
this conjunction would seem to place equal importance on evils done by a
government within its own country and evil done against other states. In the
event he is more explicit:

The nature of the regime is crucial, rather than some alleged underlying,
geographically, or economically or culturally determined ‘national interest.’
The priority of the political order implies a morally informed American
foreign policy. (Kristol W, 2003)

It seems that neo-conservatives either have abandoned the concept of the
national interest as the primary goal of foreign policy or have stretched the
notion beyond the bounds of its original scope such that it no longer operates
as a check or restraint on political action. Either way it would be neither
sensible nor accurate to continue to call them realists.

There is another point on which the neoconservatives’ status as realists is
called into question. This is the matter of the balance of power, another
concept ‘closely associated with the realist school of thought’. On the realist
analysis, states will ally themselves ‘to oppose any expansionist centre of power
that threatens to dominate the system and thus threatens their sovereignty or
survival’ (Buzan, 1996, 30). Thus possession of hegemonic power would be
avoided on the part of the United States (or any strong power) to avoid the
dynamic of states mobilizing against it. Rather the bipolar system of balance
between separate spheres of influence between the US and USSR was accepted
as a more stable alternative. As outlined above, during the Cold War neoconservatives
accepted this framework, but emphasized the need for the US
genuinely to balance the (somewhat inflated) perception of a strong Soviet
threat that was being underestimated by liberals.
Now the position has changed, and a more typical articulation of the neoconservative
stance may be found in the pages of The Project for the New
American Century. We may look to its mission statement in which it sets out
the organization’s raison d’etre. In this, it emphasizes the aim ‘to make the case
and rally support for American global leadership’. It goes on to attack Clinton
policies for making it ‘increasingly difficult to sustain American influence
around the world’ (The Project for the New American Century, 1997).
Elsewhere, in the influential article Rebuilding America’s Defences: Strategy,
Forces andRes ources for a New Century the comment is made:
At present the United States faces no global rival. America’s grand strategy
should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the
future as possible

The authors conclude that:

"the willingness to devote adequate resources to maintaining America’s
military strength can make the world safer and American strategic interests
more secure now and in the future. (Kagan et al., i, iii)
The idea of the preservation of security residing in a ‘balance of power’ is
abandoned wholesale in favour of a policy whereby America must actively
move against efforts to develop alternative power blocs. Rather security, not
just for America itself but for the whole globe, is maintained by the dominance
of American power and the strength of America’s military.
The role of American power in the safeguarding of the democratic ideals
with which the national interest is now linked is similarly to be found in David
Frum and Richard Perle’s new book An Endto Evil. In reply to Kofi Annan’s
contention that one cannot impose democracy by force they write:
Annan is wrong. Much more often than not, democracy will not have a
chance unless it is aided from outside — and by force if necessary. As those
Iraqis, Afghans, and Iranians told us, people all over the world want the
benefits of American democracy — but they do not always possess the skills
to launch a representative government by only their unaided strength.
(Frum and Perle, 2003, 278)

All this seems to suggest that neo-conservatives may no longer be
termed realists. The question of what exact category they now fall into is a
far thornier issue. The closest approximation may be something like a
variety of the Wilsonian liberal internationalism some realists accused George
Bush senior of holding during the first Gulf war. However while Bush
senior ‘offered a New World Order in which all states of whatever political
complexion would receive the protections of norms of non-intervention
and non-aggression’, for the neoconservatives, as William Kristol put it ‘the
nature of the regime is crucial’ — arguably closer to Wilson’s vision
that ‘peace-loving states would be democratic’ (Brown, 1997, 220). This
liberalism, if that is what we may term it, is, however, backed up with a
zeal and willingness to use means not usually associated with liberalism. The
issue of how we are to categorize the foreign policy vision of the
neoconservatives is ultimately a rather academic exercise. The matter of means,
on the other hand, merits further discussion.

Neo-conservatives on the Means of Political Action

We proceed to the most contentious segment of this piece, the matter of what
means neo-conservatives consider it right and moral to employ in the
furtherance of this vision. The main reference point for this discussion is
provided by the execution of the recent Iraq war and conduct up to it. It is
argued that, like realists, neo-conservatives strongly believe in the right to use
force but that unlike them they do not view this right as limited to self-defence
or curtailed by participation within multilateral institutions such as the UN.
Further the use of deception is examined, both in terms of theoretical
precedents in the work of Leo Strauss and the concrete, albeit disputed matter,
of misrepresentation of intelligence material in the run up to war.
In articulating the neo-conservative perspective on the use of violence, it is
appropriate to refer back to Tucker’s article Oil: The issue of American
Intervention (1975). Here, Ehrman maintains, two important responses typical
to the neo-conservative position may be distinguished. They are the actual use
of violence and the importance of having the will to use violence.
Responding to the 1973 Middle East war and the consequent oil embargo,
Tucker wrote in incredulous tone of the absence of force as an option in such a
matter of clear national interest:

This apparent absence of force as an element in the crisis seems astonishing.
At least it must seem astonishing to those who assume some continuity with
the pastyit is clearly the absence of the credible threat of force which
renders plausible the expectation that the interests placed in jeopardy by
present oil prices will not be preserved in the future. (Tucker, 1975 in
Ehrman, 1995, 53)

Neo-conservatives inherit the realist conclusions that sometimes force is
necessary. Those who question this point are dismissed with tones of
incredulity. The same dismissive tone is found in much of the writing today
on the UN. For example I quote a Larry Miller article from the Weekly
Standard in which he responds to a Kofi Annan comment that ‘violent military
action by an occupying power against inhabitants of an occupied country will
only make matters worse’. Miller is uncompromising:

Now that may not be the undisputed, going-away, hands-down, dumbest
thing ever said, but you have to admit its closeyLumping ‘occupying
powers’ together without objective morality is fatuous on the order of ‘all
killing is bad.’ All killing is not bad. If a rapist jumps out of an alley and
kills a woman that’s bad. If a cop walks by and kills the rapist, that’s good.
And it’s even better if the cop shoots first. Does anybody not understand
this? If it sounds like I’m talking to second graders here, forgive me, but
that’s how you have to talk to the United Nations, andthey still won’t get it.
(Miller, 2004b, May 2004)

The United Nations is not alone in facing rebuke, in another article he scolds
the American administration for not doing what it takes to finish the job. He
proposes ‘a new sloganybased on the old anti-war chant from the sixties,
‘‘Peace Now!’’yHere’s the new slogan. Win Now’ (Miller, 2004a, April 2004).
In all of the above quotations, one may discern hints at the other point made
by Tucker about the will to use force. The diagnosis as to why force had not
been used during the crisis was that the ‘foreign policy elite’ had lost its will due
to the bad experience of Vietnam. As he saw it, ‘there the pervasive and still
growing conviction among the foreign policy elitesythat force hasylost its
legitimacy’ (Tucker, 1975 in Ehrman, 1995, 53). As we saw in the Miller piece,
this issue has continued in neoconservative thinking and formed a core
explanatory role in analysis of what went wrong in Vietnam. A further example
is found in Podhoretz’s book The Present Danger, published as something of a
‘campaign contribution’ for Reagan’s 1980 bid for the presidency. In this book,
he advances the idea of the ‘culture of appeasement’, signifying the
entrenchment of liberal values — ‘made up of fear of a powerful adversary
and a lack of belief in the legitimacy of our own position’ — staple neoconservative
fare. More bizarre in this analysis is a comparison he draws
between England during the First World War and the America of the time:
One of the interesting similarities between the two periods was the
prominence of homosexuals in the literary worlds. The homosexual ethos
in England between the wars was anti-English: English society had been
criminal in sending the flower of its youth off to war; it was bourgeois and
dull. The writers who were propagating these attitudes did a good deal to
undermine the feelings of confidence and belief in the legitimacy that there
was something to defend in England. This could extend all the way to
treason or simple sourness about the society. The American literary world
has been saying the same things about this society. This is an absolutely
important element in the culture of appeasement. (Podhoretz, 1980 in
Blumenthal, 1986, 143)

In the realist position, however, violence and the use of force, when it
happens, does so as self-defence or within the framework of treaties and
alliances such as NATO. The neo-conservatives, on the other hand, see the
concept of multilateralism of whatever form in the post Cold War as ‘dead’
(Kristol I, 1995, 384). A recent article by David Scheffer, former US
Ambassador at large for war crimes issues, in the Financial Times highlights the
neo-conservative argument that ‘Europeans and human rights organisations
are waging ‘‘lawfare’’ against the US’ in relation to complaint at the revelations
concerning the activities in the Abu Ghraib prison, maintaining that they seek
to ‘constrain the use of US military force worldwide through the ‘‘soft’’
weapon of international law and its ‘‘sovereignty-bashing’’ treaties, as well as
anti-US interpretations of principles of customary international law’ (Scheffer,

In short, the hand of force or violence is unrestrained in neoconservative
political philosophy, and its rightness or wrongness may be judged on its

The other means we consider here is the matter of deception. Needless to say,
with neoconservatives in government, one is unlikely to come across a journal
article or govenrnmental press release justifying the use of deception.
Nonetheless, looking back over recent events one may cautiously infer some

A recent spate of insider expose´ s, such as Richard Clarke’s Against all
Enemies, Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, all seem to paint a picture of a
White House obsessed with Iraq from the first day the new administration
walked into it. Neo-conservatives are particularly implicated in this picture.
A typical example is an account Clarke gives of a meeting prior to the
September 11 bombings with Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defence. In
response to focus on the al-Qaeda network, he reportedly:
yfidgeted and scowledy‘Well I just don’t see why we are beginning to talk
about this one man Bin Laden,’

Clarke rejoins that al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda alone poses an immediate and
serious threat to the US:

‘Well, there are others that do that as well, at least as much. Iraqi terrorism for
example,’yI could hardly believe it but Wolfowitz was actually spouting the
totally discredited Laurie Myroie theory that Iraq was behind the 1993 truck
bomb at the World Trade Centre, a theory which had been investigated for
years and found to be totally untrue. (Clarke, 2004, 231–232)
The accusation that America (and Britain) went to war with Iraq with a
grossly inflated public perception of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction
capability and links to al-Qaeda, although still controversial, is now widely
understood, and the arguments both for and against the assertion are well
rehearsed. The degree that one can attribute such acts to neo-conservatives
may not be permitted to stretch to all deceptive acts in the run up to war,
(although, to my knowledge, no neo-conservatives spoke ill of such practices),
but it is fair to point to events where neo-conservatives have been involved.

For example, when it came to the matter of establishing shaky connections
with al-Qaeda, neo-conservative publications frequently took a leading role, as
when a memo from Under Secretary of Defence Doug Feith to a congressional
committee providing supposed evidence of such a connection (in the event
Clarke judges it to have proved little) was leaked to a neoconservative
magazine which misleadingly published it as ‘conclusive proof of the al-Qaeda-
Iraq nexus’ (Clarke, 2004, 269). Similarly, one may point to Wolfowitz’s
insistence in his writings on ‘a focus on Iraqi-sponsored terrorism against the
US even though there was no such thing’ (Clarke, 2004, 264).
Further, it has recently been ascertained that Chalabi’s Iraqi National
Congress organization, strongly linked with the neoconservatives (an Elizabeth
Drew (2003) article, The Neocons in Power, establishes the strong links forged
between Chalabi and neo-conservatives such as Richard Perle—see pp. 20–21)
via its ‘information collection programme’ passed many of the inaccurate
stories about weapons of mass destruction to the US Defence Department that
then went on to form the flawed prospectus for war. Similarly, on this side of
the Atlantic, the infamous ‘deployable in 45 minutes’ claim may be ultimately
traced back to the rival Iraqi National Accord (Freedman, 2004).
The INC also got such stories into newspapers and over the last 4 years has
received about $40,000,000 in US funds for the privilege, including $33,000,000
from the State Department and $6,000,000 from the Defence Intelligence
Agency (Royce, 2004). In 2004, it published a list of 108 such stories about
Saddam Hussein’s weapons in a letter to the US Senate appropriations
committee to justify its continued funding. The articles have since been
discredited with a heavy suspicion of Iranian intelligence being the true source,
and American journals have re-examined INC-linked material. On May 26, the
New York Times went as far as issuing an apology to its readers for unwittingly
disseminating such misinformation (Blumenthal, 2004). The matter is somewhat
reminiscent of the Encounter affair of 1966, when it was revealed that the
publication (home to many a neo-conservative writer such as Irving Kristol)
had in fact been receiving funding by the CIA (see Steinfels, 1979, 82–87).
It should also be mentioned that it has been maintained that the use of
deception has a theoretical precedent in neo-conservative thought via the
influence of Leo Strauss. We have already learned that neo-conservatives
approve strongly of religion and seek out alliances with religious conservatives,
and at that, some of the most uncompromising and even anti-Semitic variety.
An example is Pat Robertson, whom Irving Kristol, William Kristol and
Midge Decter have defended in their writings, in spite of the fact that many
neoconservatives are, as Irving Kristol maintains, ‘secular intellectuals’
(Kristol I, 2003). I would posit that most indeed are ‘secular’, and that his
surprising use of the term ‘intellectual’ is revealing. One cannot help but be
drawn to the conclusion that there is some sort of intellectual exceptionalism
going on here. One might conclude of neo-conservatives that, which Shadia
Drury concluded of Strauss, ‘he does not disagree with Marx that religion is
the opium of the people, he just thinks that the people need their opium’
(Drury, 1997, 12).

The shadow of Machiavelli hangs over the study of political morality and his
constant interpretation and reinterpretation continues to provide each new
generation of political philosophers with fresh debate. It looms large in the
work of the neo-conservatives. Thus, Machiavelli plays a role in the work of
Strauss as a prophet of modernity and yet at the same time forms a reference
point in Caldwell’s criticism of the Spanish government. The dissonance is even
more apparent in considering the work of one writer: Irving Kristol. In
Kristol’s American Intellectuals andForeign Policy Machiavelli is placed
alongside figures of mainstream realism when he gives examples of texts on
foreign policy — ‘Machiavelli, Grotius, in our own day the writings of George
Kennan and Hans Morgenthau’ (Kristol I, 1967/1995, 78) and this at a time
when the neo-conservatives could be fairly judged realists but, on the other
hand, in Machiavelli andthe Profanation of Politics he is condemned. Kristol
holds him up alongside de Sade and Nietzsche as one of the three major figures
in the history of Western thought that have rejected and repudiated the values
of Christianity. He concludes:

A great part of the intellectual history of the modern era can be told in terms
of the efforts of a civilization still Christian, to come to terms with
Machiavelli in politics, de Sade in sex, Nietzsche in philosophy. These
efforts have been ingenious, but hardly successful. The ‘slave morality’ of
Christianity is constantly in retreat before the revolt of ‘the masters,’ with
every new modus vivendi an unstable armistice. Heidegger has even gone so
far as to say that the struggle is over — that with Nietzsche the Christian
epoch draws to a close. If this is so, then it can also be said that Machiavelli
marks the beginning of the end. (Kristol, 1961/1995, 164)
Machiavelli is frequently characterized as maintaining that the ends justify
the means, and neo-conservatives ostensibly acquiesce in this. These means run
the full gamut of force and deception unrestrained by multilateral and
international institutions. They are, indeed, ‘Wilsonian in their ends but anti-
Wilsonian in their means’ (Wolf, 2003). The necessity of these means is an
unfortunate and regrettable truth, and one that thinkers like Kristol would
seem to prefer to remain unspoken.Machiavelli marks the beginning of the end
because he speaks these truths, and this is his profanation. Whether the ‘end to
evil’ at which neo-conservatives aim will consist of a moral universe in which
Machiavelli no longer profanes politics solely because leaders will then be just,
or also because their injustice will be loftily obscured, however, remains too
ambiguous for comfort.


This discussion opened by referring to Podhoretz’s premature eulogy of 1996.
In this, it may be recalled, he diagnosed neoconservatism’s demise as ‘due to its
success’ (Podhoretz, 1996). While the recent media prominence given to
neoconservatives is, of course, largely down to the perception that their brand
of conservatism is wielding unprecedented influence their star may be waning:
the situation in Iraq continues to appear grim and the administration seems to
have lost any appetite it once had for the further adventures in Syria and Iran
prescribed by the programme of, for example An Endto Evil. In April The Irish
Times American correspondent Conor O’ Clery reported that mainstream
conservative magazine The National Review was accusing the current
administration of ‘Wilsonian’ errors, ‘underestimating the difficulties of
implanting democracy on alien soil’ and further judged the continuing chaos
in Iraq to have put ‘the neo-conservative movement led by Wolfowitz and
Weekly Standard editor William Kristol on the defensive’ (O’ Clery, 2004).
Whether or not this revolution in foreign policy is set to devour its children
remains to be seen. Those who believe that ‘the core democratic values are
reason above force, procedures above power and consent above coercion’ and
that one cannot argue that these principles ‘have no applicability to the
behaviour of states’ (Wolf, 2003) would be wise not to allow their judgements
to be made hostage to fortune by tying them to predictions regarding Iraq’s
future. Also commentators would be well advised to cast aside assumptions
that such chaos will soon render neo-conservative currents of thought and
historic singularity that could never reach British shores. On the contrary, not
only do Blair’s justifications of the Iraq war sound more progressively
neoconservative by the day, his invocation in July 2004 of the 1960’s ‘liberal
consensus’ as destructive of the social order hints at further acceptance of the
neo-conservative position: rejection of realist restraints and objectives in the
international sphere for a liberal interventionism uninhibited by norms of
treaty, multilateral institution or law, and a rejection of liberalism in the
domestic sphere for a social conservatism indistinguishable from the right in its
championing of the social order as the primary good before all others.
Neoconservatism does, of course, remain a quintessentially American
doctrine focused closely on America’s role in the world. The increasing
influence of neo-conservative ideas outside of that country pays testament, not
so much to the irresistible persuasiveness to leaders of the ideas themselves, but
rather to the media influence of Rupert Murdoch, whose support for the neoconservative
cause may be seen in his resources on both sides of the Atlantic
and also has taken a specifically financial form in the establishment of the
Weekly Standard. Admittedly, Murdoch’s influence tends to be limited to
English-speaking countries with a special relationship with the United States.

Further, the very nature of neoconservatism means that the global appeal of its
political morality is inevitably very limited.


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