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A Kind Word about Neo-Conservatism

Naturalists like to argue about taxonomy. Does the Australian bird-eating spider belong to the genus Phlogius or Selenocosmia? Similarly, political columnists and would-be historians like myself like to argue about what identifies the genus “neoconservative.” I don’t have an answer, but I have an observation based on several things written about or by neoconservatives.

The first item for discussion is David Brooks’ column in the New York Times today in which he insists that neo-conservatism “was primarily a domestic policy movement.” I applaud the uses to which he puts this assertion—David wants to argue against the anti-government conservatives—but he’s wrong about the history.  Neo-conservatism did have something to do with domestic policy—the Public Interest was an important early outlet—but the first neo-conservatives were equally, if not more, concerned with foreign policy. Think of Norman Podhoretz and Commentary, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Richard Perle, for starters. And the second generation of neo-conservatisms—think of Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, and Bob Kagan—have been primarily concerned with foreign policy.

The second item for discussion is Kagan’s column today in the Washington Post arguing that the Obama administration should cut off aid to the Egyptian military. I agree with Kagan’s column and also with Reuel Marc Gerecht’s superb analysis of Egypt published in Kristol’s Weekly Standard, which, it is safe to say, is currently the flagship of Washington neo-conservatism. But my point here is not about Egypt, but about neo-conservatism. One of the most common critical observations about neo-conservatism is that it is rooted in a dogged defense of Israel—that many neo-conservative positions reflect above all the consideration of what is best for Israel.

You find this characterization among the paleo-cons. The late Russell Kirk once observed that “not seldom has it seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States."  You also find a more modulated version of this position on the left. Jim Lobe in his excellent Lobelog makes a similar point in discussing Kagan’s opposition to the military coup in Egypt. The fact that some neo-conservatives like Kagan oppose the coup and others like Daniel Pipes support it shows, Lobe writes, shows that “unlike protecting Israeli security and preserving its military superiority over any and all possible region… democracy promotion is not a core principle of neo-conservatism.”

I don’t take the view that Kirk’s statement was anti-Semitic. If the term “some” is given its logical meaning (as opposed to “all”), it is correct. I have met a few neo-conservatives who do seem to gauge their foreign policy observations, especially in the Middle East, around what is best for Israel. But Kirk was understating his case in order to overstate it. I think Lobe’s view that protecting Israeli security is a “core principle” does apply to many neo-conservatives. But based on the current debate about Egypt, I would draw the exact opposite conclusion about neo-conservatism from the one that he does. I would say that Kagan’s position or Gerecht’s analysis shows that at least some very prominent neocons don’t base their foreign policy on what is best for Israel.

Of course, they might have a very sophisticated view of what is best for Israel on which they base their foreign policy, but I think that would be pressing the point. If you take what the current Israeli government and what AIPAC, the main lobby for Israel in Washington, say about the coup in Egypt and aid to the military, you can’t easily draw the conclusion that Kagan, The Weekly Standard, or The Foreign Policy Initiative, the group that Kagan and Kristol helped start, are taking their cues from the Netanyahu government and its American backers.  

There have been reports in the Israeli press that the government there has strongly urged the United States not to cut off military aid to Egypt, warning that it would have a negative impact on Israeli security. In separate calls, Netanyahu spoke with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon spoke with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror spoke with National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

In former New Republic editor Peter Beinart’s website, Open Zion, Ali Gharib has an excellent report on the Senate debate over cutting aid to the Egyptian military. During that debate, AIPAC issued a letter, which Gharib quotes at length. “We do not support cutting off all assistance to Egypt at this time, as we believe it could increase the instability in Egypt and undermine important U.S. interests and negatively impact our Israeli ally,” the letter says. And it goes on to say that the government of Egypt “has maintained the peace with Israel.” One would imagine that if all or even most neo-conservatives—who are sometimes called “Likudniks”—were looking to Tel Aviv (or Jerusalem) for answers, some of the most prominent of them would not be advocating cutting off aid to Egypt’s military or be taking a Burkean, evolutionary view of the Muslim Brotherhood.

I am not sure what this says about what the United States should do in the world, but it does say that commentators about foreign policy should be careful about ascribing essences to political tendencies that are linked, to borrow Ludwig Wittgenstein’s phrase, more by “family-resemblances” than by certain unyielding core characteristics. Beinart himself has advocated discarding the term “neo-conservative” altogether. I wouldn’t go that far. But I would be careful about using a rigid definition of neo-conservatism to advance or detract from a political position about big government or about Egypt’s military.  There are times in American politics—one thinks of the debate over the Balkans in the mid-'90s and over Egypt today—where the issues seem to defy the usual divisions between liberals and conservatives, left and right, and hawk and dove.