The Dissident
POLITICS AND CULTURE FROM NEW PERSPECTIVES
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DISSIDENT No. 1


POLITICS AND DEMOCRACY


A New Kind of Empire

The Thoughtless Orthodoxy

Globalization vs. Capitalism

The Real Roots of Islamic Extremism

What Explains Rwandan Mass Rape?

They Don't Hate the USA in the Former USSR

BOOKS + IDEAS

+ PROVOCATIONS


Theory Gets a Reality Check: The Philosophy, Economics, and Politics They Don’t Teach at Harvard

Vanishing Voters—A Blessing in Disguise?

What Conservative Bias?

The Hidden Side of Capitalism

J'ACCUSE


The Rise of the "Neoconservatives"


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DISSIDENT No. 2

DISSIDENT No. 3


editorial
J'Accuse
BY MATT CONTINETTI


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As a result of the war, neoconservatives are suddenly everywhere. After Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace prize last year, Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift wrote that “the same neocons who denigrate Carter’s peace prize look upon the United Nations as an encumbrance to war.” The American Prospect’s Robert Dreyfuss labeled Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, a “neocon”: “If T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) had been a 21st-century neoconservative operative instead of a British imperial spy, he’d be Ahmed Chalabi's best friend.” The Washington Monthly’s Joshua Micah Marshall accused neoconservatives of hoping that conflict in Iraq would presage a wider, regional Middle East war.

Blaming the war on neoconservatives wasn’t the exclusive domain of the antiwar Left. Patrick Buchanan recently created a magazine, The American Conservative, devoted to fighting conservatives who “relish the prospect of the coming Pax Americana and ‘cakewalk’ to Baghdad,” according to a letter Buchanon wrote to The New Republic last year. “Do you seriously believe,” Buchanan went on to ask in the letter, “that conservatism is now wholly encompassed by Norman Podhoretz, Jonah Goldberg, Ramesh Ponnuru, Rich Lowry, our virtuous Teletubby William Bennett, Charles Krauthammer, and the Kristols, p`ere et fils?”

Where did all these neoconservatives come from? And, more importantly, what is a neoconservative?

As Buchanan’s letter suggests, the recent outbreak of neoconservatism occurred as the debate over the war became the dominant issue in American politics. The label has become shorthand for “pro-war conservative.” Case in point: of the list of so-called neoconservatives that Buchanan provided in his letter to The New Republic, only four — Norman Podhoretz, William Bennett, Charles Krauthammer, and Kristol p`ere — are actual, dyed-in-the-wool neoconservatives.

It was “Kristol p`ere” (Irving Kristol), in fact, who invented the term neoconservative. Kristol had to come up with a label for the group of liberal intellectuals who became disillusioned with the New Left in the sixties and seventies, and who shortly thereafter left the Democratic party. Neoconservatives were literally “new” conservatives. At first, neoconservatives didn’t have much to say about foreign policy. The earliest neoconservatives were more disenchanted with the War on Poverty of the 1960s than they were with, say, the war in Vietnam. But a second wave of neoconservatives left the Democratic party after that party disgraced Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson.

Jackson was the living embodiment of the liberal interventionist wing of the Democratic party, a senator who stood for the projection of American power and the advancement of liberal democratic institutions throughout the world. By the late seventies, however, the Democratic party — which had become accomodationist toward the Soviet Union and actively supported a nuclear weapons freeze — had no place for Jackson, and thus had no place for Jackson’s supporters.

While most neoconservatives were policy wonks, pundits, and other bookish sorts who haunted op-ed pages and the mastheads of “little magazines” like Commentary and The Public Interest — in other words, intellectuals who had little, if any, influence on policy — there was one neoconservative whose name you might recognize. He was a scholar and a life-long Democrat who found himself without a home in the Democratic party during the course of the seventies and early eighties, a classic example of a neoconservative. His name is Paul Wolfowitz, and he is currently Deputy Secretary of Defense.

Contrary to what antiwar pundits claim, there are no neoconservatives in Bush’s cabinet — although there are several at the sub-cabinet level. These include not only Wolfowitz but Undersecretary for Defense Policy Douglas Feith and Vice President Cheney’s Chief of Staff, “Scooter” Libby — who occupy second- or thirdtier positions in the administration. But that’s it. One of the most infamous “neocons,” Richard Perle, chairs a group called the Defense Policy Board, but members of the Policy Board are not government employees.

Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney are life-long Republicans. They are pro-war. But they cannot be called, with any accuracy, neoconservatives. If most “neoconservatives” really aren’t neoconservatives at all, but are rather life-long conservatives or pro-war Democrats like The New Republic’s Lawrence F. Kaplan and the Carnegie Endowment’s Robert Kagan, then why is the label used so often by antiwar writers and activists? All of us rely on rules of thumb to interpret the vast array of political information we encounter on a daily basis. In the same way that “San Francisco Democrat” has come to mean “crazy liberal” for conservatives, “neoconservative” has become shorthand for someone who is pro-war. Such labels have little, if anything, to do with reality. Just as antiwar activists ignore the history and ideas of neoconservatives when they call Donald Rumsfeld a “neocon,” Republicans ignore the motives and ideas of unreconstructed liberals when they call Nancy Pelosi a “San Fransisco Democrat.”

Promiscuously used political labels serve as cover for ignoring the reasoning behind people’s political positions. Would Robert Dreyfuss know a neoconservative if he met one on the street? Could radio host Michael Savage, if pressed, say even a few words about Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life, one of the touchstones of twentieth- century American liberal thought?

This is the state of American political debate: pundits play rhetorical games and sling mud over nomenclature while interaction with the ideas and facts behind opposing viewpoints is anathematized. Are we rats in a maze — or people with ideas in our heads?

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Matt Continetti is graduating from Columbia University this month.

 

 

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