Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have used recent pieces by Peter Berkowitz and Mark Lilla as a jumping-off point for a discussion of neoconservatism. While neoconservatism is frequently described as an ideology — of democratism, of hard Wilsonian foreign policy, of abstract Americanism — the early neocons, as both Douthat and Salam point out, were actually a very pragmatic lot. In fact, the neocons were most of associated with another ism: empiricism.
The first generation of neocons questioned the left’s domestic-policy utopianism and emphasized the unintended consequences of government action. On foreign policy, they could also be uncompromising realists, unsentimental about Carter-era burbling about human rights that ignored the larger realities of the Cold War. Of course, the more idealistic strain of foreign-policy neoconservatism also existed as well, in addition to the neocons’ high level of confidence in the efficacy of American military power.
For all the reasons Douthat lists, “over time the messianic and apocalyptic strands in neoconservatism have tended to crowd out the pragmatic and the realist strands.” But perhaps after the Bush years, we’ll see the pendulum swing back a bit, heroic conservatives notwithstanding.