The Neocon Reader
Edited by Irwin Stelzer
(Grove Press, 328 pages, $15)
Margaret Thatcher. Tony Blair. George Will. These are also three people one doesn’t normally think of as neoconservatives. Yet they all appear in Irwin Stelzer’s provocative new compilation, The Neocon Reader, which provides as many views of this benighted stream of political thought (nee “movement”) as there are essays in the collection.
Or more, recalling the old wag about five rabbis, six opinions. Which is an unfortunate if inevitable analogy, given that, as David Brooks points out, to altogether too many critics, the “neo” stands for “Jewish.”
In any event, the inclusion of Lady Thatcher, along with the most successful Labour prime minister ever — who in both Britain and America seems to have more support among conservatives than liberals — and the dean of old- (not to be confused with paleo-) con opinion writing, only enriches this very readable Reader. And the book itself is a useful update of the multifarious surveys of neoconservatism, starting with godfather Irving Kristol’s Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, running through Mark Gerson’s decade-old The Essential Neoconservative Reader, and continuing into such works as Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke’s America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order.
Neocon agoniste Stelzer, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Economic Policy and contributing editor to the Weekly Standard, sets the proper tone in his meaty introduction. Stelzer knows that anyone who picks up his book will likely be doing so somewhat warily — out of a grudging desire to keep “current” on the Big Ideas in Washington while feeling slightly burnt out by all the talk about “neocon” conspiracies — and to answer two main questions: 1.) What exactly is a neocon? and 2.) What light can this new collection shed on contemporary policy debates?
And so he begins by dissecting the conventional wisdom that the Iraq War represents the “culmination of a neoconservative takeover of America.” In the course of this discussion — in the first two pages! — he first labels George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as neocons and then finds the roots of neocon ideas in the policies of Theodore Roosevelt and the aforementioned Prime Ministers Thatcher and Blair. (A think tank policy paper this ain’t.)
After charting the development of the neoconservative philosophy — robust government that aligns incentives to harness the better angels of our nature at home and abroad — Stelzer surveys the political ideas and policy prescriptions that have come to the fore in the last few years, skillfully interweaving salient points from the essays that follow.
The doctrine of pre-emption and the perceived urgency of dealing with “rogue states,” for example, “have deep roots in American history” and, as Michael Gove points out, were espoused by Palmerston and Churchill long before their adoption by a Bush administration that paid scant attention to foreign policy before 9/11. Adam Wolfson adds that the roots of Bush’s foreign policy can even be traced to Locke’s Second Treatise, in which he argued that people must take action before “it is too late, and the evil is past Cure.”
Similarly, in the domestic sphere, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling — who contribute an excerpt of their ground-breaking work from decades ago — show that Rudy Giuliani did not magically discover “broken windows” policing. To this foundation could have easily been added the iconoclastic Daniel P. Moynihan, an even less likely candidate to be prisoner of neocon ideologues than Tony Blair — adding weight to Stelzer’s provocative quip that neoconservative ideas “are more a product of the circumstances in which the world finds itself” than of any intellectual conspiracy (or Kristol’s that neocons are “liberals mugged by reality”).
Neocons saw the failure of the Great Society as an opportunity to start pulling the levers of the state in a different direction instead of advocating their disassembly. It is thus no coincidence that the first public face of President Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was John DiIulio, the lifelong Democrat and Wilson disciple chosen to inaugurate the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.
“In short,” Stelzer neatly summarizes his subject, “just as neocons broke with conservatives in the foreign-policy arena when they adopted nation-building as a goal, they also broke with traditional conservatives in the domestic-policy arena by making their peace with the welfare state.”
The larger issue, which came out at the America Enterprise Institute forum that launched this book, is that the long-term survival of neoconservatism depends on its ability to resolve the contradiction between the costs of a muscular foreign policy with the resulting unsustainable debts. (The late Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley contends that deficits are not what we should look at when deciding what we can afford.)
Returning to first principals, it is clear that Thatcher, Blair, and Will would not agree with many of the ideas espoused in the Neocon Reader — but each would agree with some. It is a testament to the vitality of those ideas (and to the strength of the book) that none of them seem out of place in describing this strange non-movement called neoconservatism.