Neoconservatism in the United States

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''Neoconservatism'' is a somewhat controversial term referring to the political goals and ideology of the "new conservatives" in the United States. The "newness" refers the term's origination as either describing converts new to American conservatism (sometimes coming from a liberal or big-government New Deal background) or to being part of a "new wave" of conservative thought and political organization.

The neoconservatives, often dubbed the neocons by supporters and critics alike, are credited with (or blamed for) influencing U.S. foreign policy, especially under the administrations of Ronald Reagan (19811989) and George W. Bush (2001–present). Neoconservatives have often been singled out for criticism by opponents of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, many of whom see this invasion as a neoconservative initiative. Compared to other U.S. conservatives, neoconservatives may be characterized by an aggressive moralist stance on foreign policy, a lesser social conservatism, and weaker dedication to a policy of minimal government, and a greater acceptance of the welfare state, though none of these qualities are necessarily requisite.

Neoconservatism is a controversial term whose meaning is widely disputed. Most people described as "neoconservatives" are members of the Republican Party. The term is used more often by those who oppose "neoconservative" politics than those who subscribe to them; indeed, many to whom the label is applied reject it. The term is frequently used pejoratively, both by self-described paleoconservatives, who oppose neoconservatism from the right, and by Democratic politicians opposing neoconservatives from the left. Recently, Democratic politicians have used the term to criticize the Republican policies and leaders of the current Bush administration.

Critics of the term argue that the word is overused and lacks coherent definition. For instance, they note that many so-called neoconservatives vehemently disagree with one another on major issues. They also point out that the meaning has changed over time. Whereas the term was originally used for former Democrats who embraced the welfare state but aggressively opposed the Soviet Union, now the term is primarily used to describe those who support an aggressive worldwide foreign policy against radical Islam and terrorists. The term is also used to describe those who are accused of adopting a "unilateral" foreign policy rather than relying on United Nations consensus and actions.

In academia, the term refers more to journalists, pundits, policy analysts, and institutions affiliated with the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and with Commentary and The Weekly Standard than to more traditional conservative policy think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation or periodicals such as Policy Review or National Review.



This political group supported a militant anticommunism; more social welfare spending than was sometimes acceptable to libertarians and mainstream conservatives; civil equality for blacks and other minorities; and sympathy with a non-traditionalist agenda, being more inclined than other conservatives toward an interventionist foreign policy and a unilateralism that is sometimes at odds with traditional conceptions of diplomacy and international law. They feuded with traditional right-wing Republicans, and the nativist, protectionist, isolationists once represented by ex-Republican "paleoconservative" Pat Buchanan.

But domestic policy does not define neoconservatism; it is a movement founded on, and perpetuated by an aggressive approach to foreign policy, free trade, opposition to communism during the Cold War, support for beleaguered liberal democracies such as Israel and Taiwan and opposition to Middle Eastern and other states that are perceived to support terrorism. Thus, their foremost target was the conservative but pragmatic approach to foreign policy often associated with Richard Nixon, i.e., peace through negotiations, diplomacy, and arms control, détente and containment (rather than rollback) of the Soviet Union, and the beginning of the process that would lead to bilateral ties between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the U.S. Today, a rift still divides the neoconservatives from many members of the State Department, who favor established foreign policy conventions.

Intellectually, neoconservatives have been strongly influenced by a diverse range of thinkers, from Max Shachtman 's strongly anti-Soviet version of Trotskyism (in the area of international policy), to the libertarian-leaning Milton Friedman, to the elitist, ostensibly neo-Platonic ideas of Leo Strauss.


Neoconservatives are conservatives who are "new" (neo) to the conservative movement in some way. Usually, this comes as a result from the migration from the left of the political spectrum to the right, over the course of many years. Though every such neoconservative has an individual story to tell, there are several key events in recent American history that are often said to have prompted the shift.

Some of today's most famous neocons are from Eastern European Jewish immigrant families, who were frequently on the edge of poverty. The Great Depression radicalized many immigrants, and introduced them to the new and revolutionary ideas of socialism and communism. The Soviet Union's break with Stalinism in the 1950's led to the rise of the so-called New Left in America, which popularized anti-Sovietism along with anti-capitalism. The New Left became very popular among the children of hardline Communist families.

Opposition to the New Left and Détente with the Soviet Union would cause the Neoconservatives to emerge as the first important group of social policy critics from the working class, the original neoconservatives, though not yet using this term, were generally liberals or socialists who strongly supported the Second World War. Multiple strands contributed to their ideas, including the Depression-era ideas of former New Dealers, trade unionists, and Trotskyists, particularly those who followed the political ideas of Max Shachtman. The current neoconservative desire to spread democratic capitalism abroad often by force, it is sometimes said, parallels the Trotskyist dream of world socialist revolution. The influence of the Trotskyists perhaps left them with strong anti-Soviet tendencies, especially considering the Great Purges targeting alleged Trotskyists in Soviet Russia. A number of neoconservatives such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz were Shachtmanites in their youth while others were involved in the Social Democrats, USA, which was formed by Schachtman's supporters in the 1970s.

The original "neoconservative" theorists, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, were often associated with the magazine Commentary, and their intellectual evolution is quite evident in that magazine over the course of these years. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s the early neoconservatives were anti-Communist socialists strongly supportive of the civil rights movement, integration, and Martin Luther King. However, they grew disillusioned with the Johnson administration's Great Society. Some neoconservatives also came to despise the counterculture of the 1960s and what they felt was a growing "anti-Americanism" among many baby boomers, in the movement against the Vietnam War and in the emerging New Left.

According to Irving Kristol, former managing editor of Commentary and now a Senior Fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington and the Publisher of the hawkish magazine The National Interest, a neoconservative is a "liberal mugged by reality." Broadly sympathetic to Woodrow Wilson's idealistic goals to spread American ideals of government, economics, and culture abroad, they grew to reject his reliance on international organizations and treaties to accomplish these objectives.

As the radicalization of the New Left pushed these intellectuals further to the right in response, they moved toward a more aggressive militarism. Admiration of the "big stick" interventionist foreign policy of Theodore Roosevelt remains a common theme in neoconservative tracts as well. Now staunch anti-Communists, a vast array of sympathetic conservatives attracted to their strong defense of a "rolling-back" of Communism (an idea touted under the Eisenhower administration by traditional conservative John Foster Dulles) began to become associated with these neoconservative leaders. Influential periodicals such as Commentary, The New Republic, The Public Interest, and The American Spectator, and lately The Weekly Standard have been established by prominent neoconservatives or regularly host the writings of neoconservative writers.

Academics in these circles, many of whom were still Democrats, rebelled against the Democratic Party's leftward drift on defense issues in the 1970s, especially after the nomination of George McGovern in 1972. Many clustered around Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a Democrat derisively known as the "Senator from Boeing," but then they aligned themselves with Ronald Reagan and the Republicans, who promised to confront charges of Soviet "expansionism."

In his semi-autobiographic book, "Neo-conservatism", Irving Kristol cites a number of influences on his own thought, including not only Max Shachtman and Leo Strauss but also the skeptical liberal literary critic Lionel Trilling. The influence of Leo Strauss and his disciples on some neoconservatives has generated some controversy. Some argue that Strauss's influence has left some neoconservatives adopting a Machiavellian view of politics. See Leo Strauss for a discussion of this controversy.

Neoconservatism as a "Jewish" movement

One of the most controversial issues surrounding neoconservatism is its relation to specifically Jewish intellectual traditions; in the most extreme form of this view, neoconservatism has been regarded by some as primarily a movement to advance Jewish interests. Classic anti-Semitic tropes have often been used when elaborating this view, such as the idea that Jews achieve influence through the intellectual domination of national leaders. David Brooks in his January 6, 2004 New York Times column wrote, "To hear these people describe it, PNAC is sort of a Yiddish Trilateral Commission, the nexus of the sprawling neocon tentacles."

The controversial evolutionary psychologist Kevin B. MacDonald published an article in The Occidental Quarterly, a journal of opinion, on the alleged similarities between neoconservatism and several other possibly Jewish-dominated influential intellectual and political movements. He argues that "[t]aken as a whole, neoconservatism is an excellent illustration of the key traits behind the success of Jewish activism: ethnocentrism, intelligence and wealth, psychological intensity, and aggressiveness."[1] ( His general conclusions are that neoconservatism fits into a general pattern of twentieth-century Jewish intellectual and political activism. Since Leo Strauss, a philosophy professor, taught several of the putative founders of the neoconservatism, MacDonald concludes he is a central figure in the neo-conservative movement and sees him as "the quintessential rabbinical guru with devoted disciples". [2] (

MacDonald contends that, like Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxism, neoconservatism uses arguments that appeal to non-Jews, rather than appealing explicitly to Jewish interests. MacDonald argues that non-Jewish neo-conservatives like Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Donald Rumsfeld [sic] are examples of an ability to recruit prominent non-Jews while nevertheless preserving a Jewish core and an intense commitment to Jewish interests: "it makes excellent psychological sense to have the spokespeople for any movement resemble the people they are trying to convince."[3] ( He considers it significant that neoconservatism's commitment to mass immigration is uncharacteristic of past conservative thought and is identical to liberal Jewish opinion. MacDonald's views of neoconservatism are not widely accepted in the United States, though similar theories have found a more receptive audience in some Arab media, such as Al Jazeera. His views have been characterized as anti-Semitic and have been condemned as "nauseating" by some, including the writer Judith Shulevitz. (For wider discussion, see Kevin B. MacDonald)

Michael Lind, a self-described former neoconservative, wrote in 2004, "It is true, and unfortunate, that some journalists tend to use 'neoconservative' to refer only to Jewish neoconservatives, a practice that forces them to invent categories like 'nationalist conservative' or 'Western conservative' for Rumsfeld and Cheney. But neoconservatism is an ideology, like paleoconservatism and libertarianism, and Rumsfeld and Dick and Lynne Cheney are full-fledged neocons, as distinct from paleocons or libertarians, even though they are not Jewish and were never liberals or leftists." [4] (

Lind argues that, while "there were, and are, very few Northeastern WASP mandarins in the neoconservative movement", its origins are not specifically Jewish. "...[N]eoconservatism recruited from diverse 'farm teams,' including liberal Catholics (William Bennett and Michael Novak..) and populists, socialists and New Deal liberals in the South and Southwest (the pool from which Jeane Kirkpatrick, James Woolsey and I [that is, Lind himself] were drawn)." [5] (

Neoconservatism as an "ex-leftist" movement

Lind further writes that neoconservatism "originated in the 1970s as a movement of anti-Soviet liberals and social democrats in the tradition of Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Humphrey and Henry ("Scoop") Jackson, many of whom preferred to call themselves 'paleoliberals.'" When the Cold War ended, "many 'paleoliberals' drifted back to the Democratic center... Today's neocons are a shrunken remnant of the original broad neocon coalition. Nevertheless, the origins of their ideology on the left are still apparent. The fact that most of the younger neocons were never on the left is irrelevant; they are the intellectual (and, in the case of William Kristol and John Podhoretz, the literal) heirs of older ex-leftists." [6] (

In particular, Lind argues that the neoconservatives are influenced by the thought of Trotskyists such as James Burnham and Max Shachtman, who argued that "the United States and similar societies are dominated by a decadent, postbourgeois 'new class'". He sees the neoconservative concept of "global democratic revolution" as deriving from the Trotskyist Fourth International's "vision of permanent revolution". He also points to what he sees as the Marxist origin of "the economic determinist idea that liberal democracy is an epiphenomenon of capitalism", which he describes as "Marxism with entrepreneurs substituted for proletarians as the heroic subjects of history." [7] (

Lind further argues that "The organization as well as the ideology of the neoconservative movement has left-liberal origins". He draws a line from the center-left anti-Communist Congress for Cultural Freedom to the Committee on the Present Danger to the Project for the New American Century and adds that "European social democratic models inspired the quintessential neocon institution, the National Endowment for Democracy." [8] (

Reagan and the Neoconservatives

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Jeane Kirkpatrick

During the 1970's political scientist Jeane Kirkpatrick increasingly criticized the Democratic Party, of which she was still a member, since the nomination of the antiwar George McGovern. Kirkpatrick became a convert to the ideas of the new conservatism of once-liberal Democratic academics.

During Ronald Reagan's successful 1980 campaign, he hired her as his foreign policy advisor and later nominated her as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a position she held for four years. Known for her anti-communist stance and for her tolerance of right-wing dictatorships (her criticism of which was often tempered, calling them simply "moderately repressive regimes"), she argued that Third World social revolutions were illegitimate, and thus that the overthrow of leftist governments, even if replaced with right-wing dictatorships, was acceptable and at times essential because they served as a bulwark against the expansion of Soviet interests. Under this doctrine, known as the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, the Reagan administration actively supported leaders such as Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Support for such regimes was based primarily on their usefulness, however, which could at times be impaired by their undemocratic natures. Hence, the U.S. could turn against them if circumstances changed. For example, U.S. support for Marcos continued until and even after the fraudulent Philippine election of February 7, 1986. In the days that followed, however, with the widespread popular refusal to accept Marcos as the purported winner, turmoil in the Philippines grew. The Reagan administration then urged Marcos to accept defeat and leave the country, which he did. The Reagan team also supported the 1988 Chilean plebiscite that resulted in the restoration of democratic rule and Pinochet's eventual removal from office.

In this sense, the neoconservative foreign policy makers were different than some of their more traditionalist conservative predecessors. While many from the old school believed that America's allies should be unquestionably defended at all costs, no matter what the nature of their regime, many neocons were more supportive to the idea of changing regimes to make them more compatible and reflective of U.S. values. The belief in the universality of democracy would be a key neoconservative value which would go on to play a larger role in the post-Cold War period. Some critics would say however, that their emphasis on the need for externally-imposed "regime change" for "rogue" nations such as Iraq conflicted with the democratic value of national self-determination. Most neocons view this argument as invalid until a country has a democratic government to express the actual determination of its people.

For his own part, President Reagan largely did not move towards the sort of protracted, long-term interventions to stem social revolution in the Third World that many of his advisors would have favored. Instead, he mostly favored quick campaigns to attack or overthrow terrorist groups or leftist governments, favoring small, quick interventions that heightened a sense of post-Vietnam triumphalism among Americans, such as the attacks on Grenada and Libya, and arming right-wing militias in Central America seeking to overthrow radical leftist governments such as that of the Sandinistas.

In general, many neocons see the collapse of the Soviet Union as having occurred directly due to Reagan's hard-line stance, and the bankruptcy that resulted from the Soviet Union trying to keep up the arms race. They therefore see this as a strong confirmation of their worldview.

The comeback of neoconservatism under George W. Bush

Many critics charged that the neoconservatives lost their raison d'étre following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Others argue that they lost their status due to their involvement with the Iran-Contra scandal. During the 1990s, neoconservatives were once again in the opposition side of the foreign policy establishment, railing against the post-Cold War foreign policy of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, which reduced military expenditures and was, in their view, insufficiently idealistic. They accused it of lacking "moral clarity" and the conviction to unilaterally pursue U.S. strategic interests abroad. In the writings of Paul Wolfowitz, Norman Podhoretz, Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Max Boot, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, William Bennett, Peter Rodman, and others influential in forging the foreign policy doctrines of the Bush administration, there are frequent references to the appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938, to which are compared the Cold War's policies of détente and containment (rather than rollback) with the Soviet Union and the PRC. Also particularly galvanizing to the movement was George H.W. Bush and Colin Powell's decision to leave Saddam Hussein in power and what neoconservatives viewed as a betrayal of the Iraqi Kurds, although some neoconservatives, notably Dick Cheney, supported the action at the time. Neoconservatives were also members of the blue team, which argued for a confrontational policy toward the People's Republic of China and strong military and diplomatic support for Taiwan.

Such so-called neoconservatives were eager to implement a new foreign policy with the change in Administrations from Clinton to George W. Bush. Early in the Bush Administration, it was confronted with its first foreign policy crisis known as the China spy plane incident. On April 1, 2001, an EP3-C spy plane was on a surveillance mission over the South China Sea -- a remnant of Cold War practices -- when a Chinese F-8 fighter that was shadowing it struck it forcing it to make an emergency landing on Hainan, a Chinese island. The 24 members of the US crew were held and interrogated and the plane searched by the Chinese. After much diplomacy and after issuing an apology on April 11 to the Chinese Foreign Ministry for intruding into Chinese airspace and for the death of the Chinese pilot[9] (, the US crew was permitted to leave after eleven days and the plane was eventually removed in pieces. While such a performance and outcome was lauded by many, some neoconservatives were upset by Bush's non-confrontational policy toward the PRC. For instance, Frank Gaffney, who served as assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan, warned in an article in National Review Online that President Bush "should use this occasion to make clear to the American people that the PRC is acting in an increasingly belligerent manner. Mr. Bush needs to talk about these threats as well as his commitment to defend the American people, their forces overseas and their allies."[10] ( Additionally, some neoconservatives perceived that Bush's Administration initially insufficiently supported Israel. As a result, many neoconservatives perceived Bush's foreign policies to be not substantially different from the policies of Clinton.

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the The Pentagon, however, the influence of neoconservatism -- at least as it is understood to mean an aggressive stance toward foreign policy threats -- in the Bush administration appears to have found its purpose in the shift from the threat of Communism to the threat of Islamic terrorism.

As compared with traditional conservatism and libertarianism, which sometimes exhibites an isolationist strain, neoconservatism is characterized by an increased emphasis on defense capability, a willingness to challenge regimes deemed hostile to the values and interests of the United States, pressing for free-market policies abroad, and promoting democracy and freedom. Critics have charged that, while paying lip service to such American values, neoconservatives have supported undemocratic regimes for realpolitik reasons.

But the newly aggressive support for democracies is founded on a new recognition that, over the long term, it will reduce the extremism that is a breeding ground for islamic terrorism. Neoconservatives have often postulated that democratic regimes are, on aggregate, less likely to instigate a war than a country with an authoritarian form of government. In support, they argue that there has been no war between democracies anywhere in the world since the War of 1812. Further, they argue that the lack of freedoms, lack of economic opportunities, and the lack of secular general education in authoritarian regimes promotes radicalism and extremism. Consequently, the Administration has advocated spreading democracy to regions of the world where it currently does not prevail, most notably the Arab nations of the Middle East.

Richard Perle
Richard Perle

In his well-publicized piece "The Case for American Empire" in the conservative Weekly Standard, Max Boot argued that "The most realistic response to terrorism is for America to embrace its imperial role." He countered sentiments that the "United States must become a kinder, gentler nation, must eschew quixotic missions abroad, must become, in Pat Buchanan's phrase, 'a republic, not an empire'," arguing that "In fact this analysis is exactly backward: The September 11 attack was a result of insufficient American involvement and ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation."

Neoconservatives won a landmark victory with the Bush Doctrine after September 11th. Thomas Donnelly, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an influential conservative thinktank in Washington that has been under neoconservative influence since the election of Reagan, argued in his AEI piece "The Underpinnings of the Bush doctrine" that "the fundamental premise of the Bush Doctrine is true: The United States possesses the means—economic, military, diplomatic—to realize its expansive geopolitical purposes. Further, and especially in light of the domestic political reaction to the attacks of September 11, the victory in Afghanistan and the remarkable skill demonstrated by President Bush in focusing national attention, it is equally true that Americans possess the requisite political willpower to pursue an expansive strategy."

The Bush Doctrine, a departure from previous U.S. foreign policy, is a proclamation on the right of the United States to wage pre-emptive war should it be threatened by terrorists or rogue states. This doctrine can be seen as the abandonment of a focus on the doctrine of deterrence (in the Cold War through Mutually Assured Destruction) as the primary means of self-defense. There is some opinion that preemptive strikes have long been a part of international practice and indeed of American practice, as exemplified, for example, by the unilateral U.S. blockade and boarding of Cuban shipping during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The doctrine also states that the United States "will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States."

While more conventional foreign policy experts argued that Iraq could be restrained by enforcing No-Fly Zones and by a policy of inspection by United Nations inspectors to restrict its ability to possess chemical or nuclear weapons, neoconservatives considered this policy direction ineffectual and labeled it appeasement of Saddam Hussein.

Today, the most prominent supporters of the neoconservative stance inside the administration are Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, recently nominated to head the World Bank. Neoconservatives are perhaps closer to the mainstream of the Republican Party today since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon than any competing faction, especially considering the nature of the Bush Doctrine and the preemptive war against Iraq. Nevertheless, many of the prominent people labeled as neoconservatives are actually registered Democrats.

At the same time, there have been limits in the power of neoconservatives in the Bush administration. The former Secretary of State Colin Powell (as well as the State department as a whole) was largely seen as being an opponent of neoconservative ideas, and while the neoconservative notion of tough and decisive action has been apparent in U.S. policy toward the Middle East, it has not been seen in U.S. policy toward China and Russia or in the handling of the North Korean nuclear crisis.


Neoconservatives and Israel

The neoconservatives also support a robust American stance on Israel. The neoconservative-influenced Project for the New American Century called for an Israel no longer dependent on American aid through the removal of major threats in the region.

Opponents of neoconservatives have sought to emphasize their interest in Israel, and the large proportion of Jewish neoconservatives and have raised the question of "dual loyalty", an issue they do not raise with the neoconservatives equally staunch support of Taiwan. A number of critics, such as Pat Buchanan, have accused them of putting Israeli interests above those of America. In turn these critics have been labeled as anti-Semites by many neoconservatives (which in turn has led to accusations of professional smearing, and then paranoia, and so on). However, one should note that some prominent neoconservatives are not Jewish, such as Michael Novak, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Frank Gaffney, and Max Boot. Furthermore, neoconservatives in the 1960s were much less interested in Israel before the June 1967 Six Day War. It was only after this conflict, which raised the specter of unopposed Soviet influence in the Middle East, that the neoconservatives became preoccupied by Israel's security interests. They promote the view that Israel is the US's strongest ally in the Middle East as the sole Western-style democracy in the region, aside from Turkey (George W. Bush has also supported Turkey in its efforts to join the European Union).

Moreover, they have long argued that the United States should emulate Israel's tactics of pre-emptive attacks, especially Israel's strikes in the 1980s on nuclear facilities in Libya and Iraq.

Identification with the state of Israel was furthered by the September 11 terrorist attacks, which served to highlight parallels between the United States and Israel as both democratic nations under the threat of terrorist attack. In Israel one of the major forces on the secular right are Soviet immigrant parties which often join Likud coalitions because of agreement on issues of national security. The similarities between American neoconservatism and these immigrant parties are many. In addition to similar approaches to foreign policy and national security, the two groups also share important "biographical" details, with the neoconservatives' alienation from left-wing politics during the 1960s mirrored by the Israeli immigrants' alienation from Labor Zionism because of their experiences under Soviet Communism. A leading figure among immigrant politicians is former-Soviet dissident and now an Israeli minister without portfolio Natan Sharansky, whose book, The Case For Democracy, promotes a foreign policy philosophy nearly identical to neoconservatives'. President Bush has effusively praised this book[11] (\r) and called it a "glimpse of how I think".

World War II analogies

In foreign policy neoconservatives have a tendency to view the world in 1939 terms, comparing adversaries as diverse as the Soviet Union, Osama bin Laden, and China to Nazi Germany, while American leaders such as Reagan and Bush stand in for Winston Churchill. There is also a tendency to accuse leftists, and others who oppose them as being appeasers and/or Anti-American. The fullest account of this is Donald and Frederick Kagan's While America Sleeps, the entirety of which is dedicated to these comparisons.

In addition, neoconservatives have a very strong belief in the ability to install democracy by conquest - comparisons with denazification in Germany and Japan starting in 1945 are often made.

Neoconservatives and Iraq

Within a few years of the Gulf War in Iraq, many associated with neoconservatism were pushing for the ouster of Saddam Hussein. On February 19, 1998, an open letter to President Clinton was signed by dozens of pundits, many identified with both neoconservatism and, later, related groups such as the PNAC, urging decisive action to remove Saddam from power [12] ( However, although sanctions, encouragement of insurrection, and enforcement of no-fly zones continued under Clinton and then Bush, no such action was taken until after the Iraq disarmament crisis of 2003.

Proponents of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 sought to compare their war to Churchill's war against Hitler, with speakers like United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld comparing Saddam to Hitler, while likening the tolerance shown Saddam to the 1930s appeasement of Hitler. This represented a major turnaround for many conservatives, including Donald Rumsfeld himself, who in 1983 met Saddam Hussein and Tariq Aziz and declared that "the U.S. and Iraq share many common interests" [13] ( Prior to war, Bush compared Saddam Hussein to Stalin and Hitler and invoked the spectre of "appeasement." Like the Nazis and the Communists, Bush said, "the terrorists seek to end lives and control all life." But the visage of evil conjured up by Bush during his European trip was that of Saddam Hussein, not bin Laden, who many considered a greater threat. Iraq's dictator was singled out as the "great evil" who "by his search for terrible weapons, by his ties to terrorist groups, threatens the security of every free nation, including the free nations of Europe."

Following the release, on June 16, 2004, of the preliminary findings of the staff of the bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the commission found no evidence that Iraq had anything to do with the attacks and no evidence of a "collaborative relationship" but did find that

"Bin Laden also explored possible cooperation with Iraq during his time in Sudan, despite his opposition to Hussein's secular regime",
"A senior Iraqi intelligence officer reportedly made three visits to Sudan, finally meeting Bin Laden in 1994",
"There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda also occurred after Bin Laden had returned to Afghanistan" [3 (]

Further, the commission found that,

"With al Qaeda as its foundation, Bin Laden sought to build a broader Islamic army that also included terrorist groups from Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Oman, Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Somalia and Eritrea. Not all groups from these states agreed to join, but at least one from each did." [4 (]

Protesting the press' "portrayal" of the 911 Commission's statement, Vice President Dick Cheney, in an interview with CNBC television, insisted that "there clearly was a relationship. It has been testified to. The evidence is overwhelming." [5 (]

Contrasts with other perspectives

Relationship with other types of U.S. conservatism

The traditional conservative Claes Ryn has developed the critique that neoconservatives are actually what he calls a variety of neo-Jacobins. True conservatives deny the existence of a universal political and economic philosophy and model that is suitable for all societies and cultures, and believe that a society's institutions should be adjusted to suit its culture. Neo-Jacobins in contrast

are attached in the end to ahistorical, supranational principles that they believe should supplant the traditions of particular societies. The new Jacobins see themselves as on the side of right and fighting evil and are not prone to respecting or looking for common ground with countries that do not share their democratic preferences. (Ryn 2003: 387)
[Neo-Jacobinism] regards America as founded on universal principles and assigns to the United States the role of supervising the remaking of the world. Its adherents have the intense dogmatic commitment of true believers and are highly prone to moralistic rhetoric. They demand, among other things, "moral clarity" in dealing with regimes that stand in the way of America's universal purpose. They see themselves as champions of "virtue." (p. 384).

Thus, according to Ryn, neoconservatism is analogous to Bolshevism: in the same way that the Bolsheviks wanted to destroy established ways of life throughout the world to replace them with communism, the neoconservatives want to do the same, only imposing free-market capitalism and American-style "liberal democracy" instead of socialism.

There is also conflict between neoconservatives and libertarian conservatives. Libertarian conservatives are distrustful of a large government and therefore regard neoconservative foreign policy ambitions with considerable distrust.

There has been considerable conflict between neoconservatives and business conservatives in some areas. Neoconservatives tend to see China as a looming threat to the United States and argue for harsh policies to contain that threat. Business conservatives see China as a business opportunity and see a tough policy against China as opposed to their desires for trade and economic progress. Business conservatives also appear much less distrustful of international institutions. In fact, where China is concerned neoconservatives tend to find themselves more often in agreement with liberal Democrats than with business conservatives. Indeed, Americans for Democratic Action - widely regarded as an "authority" of sorts on liberalism by both the American left and right alike - credit Senators and members of the House of Representatives with casting a "liberal" vote if they oppose legislation that would treat China favorably in the realm of foreign trade and many other matters.

The disputes over Israel and domestic policies have contributed to a sharp conflict over the years with "paleoconservatives," whose very name was taken as a rebuke to their "neo" brethren. There are many personal issues but effectively the paleoconservatives view the neoconservatives as interlopers who deviate from the traditional conservative agenda on issues as diverse as states' rights, free trade, immigration, isolationism, the welfare state, and even abortion and homosexuality. All of this leads to their conservative label being questioned.

Criticism of term

The term was coined by socialist Michael Harrington, who wanted a way to characterize former leftists who had moved significantly to the right – people he had been deriding as "socialists for Nixon."

Many of the men and women to whom the neoconservative label is applied reject it as artificial and too abstract. The fact that its use has rapidly risen since the 2003 Iraq War is cited by conservatives as proof that the term is largely irrelevant in the long term. David Horowitz, a purported leading neo-con thinker offered this critique in a recent interview with an Italian newspaper:

Neo-conservatism is a term almost exclusively used by the enemies of America's liberation of Iraq. There is no "neo-conservative" movement in the United States. When there was one, it was made up of former Democrats who embraced the welfare state but supported Ronald Reagan's Cold War policies against the Soviet bloc. Today neo-conservatism identifies those who believe in an aggressive policy against radical Islam and the global terrorists.

Similarly, many other supposed neoconservatives believe that the term has been adopted by the political left to stereotype supporters of U.S. foreign policy under the George W. Bush administration. Others have similarly likened descriptions of neoconservatism to a conspiracy theory and attribute the term to anti-Semitism. Paul Wolfowitz has denounced the term as meaningless label, saying:

[If] you read the Middle Eastern press, it seems to be a euphemism for some kind of nefarious Zionist conspiracy. But I think that, in my view it's very important to approach [foreign policy] not from a doctrinal point of view. I think almost every case I know is different. Indonesia is different from the Philippines. Iraq is different from Indonesia. I think there are certain principles that I believe are American principles – both realism and idealism. I guess I'd like to call myself a democratic realist. I don't know if that makes me a neo-conservative or not.

Other "traditional" conservatives (e.g., Jonah Goldberg) have rejected the label as trite and over-used, arguing "There's nothing 'neo' about me: I was never anything other than conservative." Other critics have similarly argued the term has been rendered meaningless through excessive and inconsistent use. For example, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are often identified as leading "neocons" despite the fact that both men have ostensibly been life-long conservative Republicans (though Cheney has been vocally supportive of the ideas of Irving Kristol). Such critics thus largely reject the claim that there is a neoconservative movement separate from traditional American conservatism.

Other traditional conservatives are likewise skeptical of the contemporary usage term, and may dislike being associated with the stereotypes, or even the supposed agendas of the "neocons." Conservative columnist David Harsanyi wrote, "These days, it seems that even temperate support for military action against dictators and terrorists qualifies you a neocon."

On the other hand, some of those identified as neoconservatives embrace the term. For example, Irving Kristol (who once famously defined a "neoconservative" as "a liberal who got mugged by reality") published a collection of his essays under the title Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (paperback ISBN 1566632285, hardcover ISBN 0028740211). Use of the term enables neoconservatives to distinguish themselves from conservatives when they find it advantageous to do so. In addition, neoconservatives who were once leftists can soften the implication that they have "defected" to the side they once opposed.

One might also observe that during the 1970s, for example in a book on the movement by Peter Steinfels, the use of the term neoconservative was never identified with the writings of Leo Strauss. The near synonymicity, in some quarters, of neoconservatism and Straussianism is a much more recent phenomenon, which suggests that perhaps two quite distinct movements have become merged into one, either in fact or in the eyes of certain beholders.

Related Publications and Institutions


  • The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear ( (three part BBC documentary)
  • Video: Hijacking Catastrophe ( (Documentary featuring Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, Tariq Ali, and many more experts speaking about the neoconservative agenda and the climate of action the neoconservatives have promoted in America.)
  • Confessions of an Economic Hit Man ( (John Perkins on how the neoconservative movement uses globalization to interact economically, politically and militarily with countries of less standing; a Democracy Now! hour-long interview.)

See also


External links

Neoconservatism and American area studies

  • Mongols knocking on the ivory tower gates ( - articles about "self-censorship" and neosoncervative overt control in the United States national area studies program: "The Terror of Controversy" by Michael P. Gallen (American), "The Clashes Within Civilization" by Christopher Schwartz (American) and "A Cultural Revolution in the American Academy?" by Ma Haiyun (Chinese)de:Neokonservatismus in den USA

fr:No-conservatisme ja:ネオコン fi:Uuskonservatismi


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