The Spectacle Blog

American International Policy and the Neoconservative Legacy

By on 12.13.11 | 10:00AM

Gentlemen, gentlemen, let's have some order here. You are both brilliant, witty, tall, and distinguished students of our country's glory-soaked history, but let us, as they used to teach in school, be clear.

Jeff Lord is quite right to point out that intervention in Central and South America is as American as baseball (damn straight; where would the national pastime be otherwise? and how else would those Latin athletes be laughing at those clever Yankee (the race not the club) merchants and their famous free market? You show 'em Albert!).

And not only South and Central America, as you well know.

But neoconservatism is not the issue here, and Jim Antle is quite right to say so. Neoconservatism is a set (scarcely a system) of ideas that evolved in conversations between, and exchanges of essays by, a group of friends, all more or less of the WW II generation or just after -- Irving Kristol, Daniel P. Moynihan, Robert Bartley, Leo Rosten, and a few others, notably Nathan Glazer and peripherally Mel Lasky (he and Tony Robinson and Stephen Spender were in a damp office in London). They were joined by still others, such as Norman Podhoretz and Neal Kozodoy and The American Spectator's Mr. Tyrrell. The conversation was almost entirely concerned with domestic issues -- civil rights and the public policies that ought, or ought not, to follow their legal and constitutional consolidation in the '50s-60s, welfare matters (e.g., "conservative safety net welfare state" vs. reliance on private goodness and free markets), and many more.

The foreign policy of the first Bush administration -- the resort to war to enforce international borders -- was widely perceived, and surely not inexactly, as a traditional exercise of state power, and it received broad support in our country as well as amongst others, including old allies like France and Britain and new-circumstantial ones like Syria and old-circumstantial ones like Saudi Arabia. Some of them even helped us, as per the Foreign Legion contingent that stayed in the rear, but I have it on good authority that was not for want of volunteering, only Generals Schwarzkopf and Powell were in the unilateral-chain-of-command mode where they felt comfortable and did it their way. The second war began as old-fashioned get-the-varmints warfare, but evolved with the nation-building ambitions of the move into Iraq. The notion of pre-emptive defense and punish-the-dictators and battle-cry-of-freedom-and-democracy beyond our own borders was not a neoconservative notion. It may have been a Wilsonian one, but I leave that to specialists in the matter, as it is not certain President Wilson's "make the world safe for democracy" fantasy was more important in his own mind and in its effect on 20th century history than his "self-determination for all peoples" one. And anyway, neither the president nor his top men were neos in any recognizable sense, certainly not Mr. Rumsfeld or Mr. Cheney or Miss Rice, nor Mr. Wolfowitz, who is widely called a neo but who had taken his distances from the Committee on the Present Danger in the '70s-80s when, organized by Democrats such as Mr. Nitze and Mr. Rostow and Mrs. Kirkpatrick and others and that attracted Senator Jackson as well as President Reagan (before he was president) and was championed by the then-neos, except Mr. Luttwak, but he too always took his distances from them, as did Prof. Bloom and Prof. Wohlstetter, Mr. Wolfowitz's great teachers. Please correct me if I am wrong in any or all of these characterizations, I am quite open to being corrected on points of fact, history, and even, yes, judgment.

But, and this is an important but, the neos via several of their key surviving members or their presumptive heirs, applauded and rationalized the enterprise, with some notable exceptions.

And also but, and this too is an important but, are we really in neoconservative territory now? Well, you have to work it out for yourselves and I am happy to see you doing this in a spirited and courteous way. We will have to hope in the sound judgment of future historians and note only that it -- and let us not, please, go Clintonesque and start arguing about what "it" means -- did not work out as planned, but that is what the neoconservatives -- the original items, taking a cue from Robbie Burns -- taught us to expect of the best laid plans o' mice an' men.

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