David Margolick: Resurgence of Neoconservatism

For all his eminence—or maybe because of it—the funeral for Irving Kristol this past September was an understated affair. Some thought Dick Cheney might show up, but neither he nor any other Republican leader did; it seemed almost ungrateful, given Kristol's extraordinary contribution to the GOP—how he'd brought intellectual legitimacy and heft to what he himself had once called "the stupid party." None of the Republican congressional leadership was there, nor any of the would-be candidates for 2012—not even Sarah Palin, whom Kristol's ubiquitous son, Bill, had helped turn into a political phenomenon.

The assemblage of about 200 people wasn't exactly small, but in the gargantuan sanctuary of Adas Israel Congregation, built at a time—1951—when American Jews of Irving Kristol's generation wanted to proclaim they'd finally arrived and planned to stick around awhile, it was dwarfed by its surroundings; the burgundy back benches were empty. Adas Israel is Washington's most powerful Conservative congregation, the one to which every Israeli ambassador to the United States in history has belonged. Instead of the usual parade of celebrity eulogists, though, only two people—the rabbi and Bill Kristol—spoke, and briefly at that. In 40 minutes or so it was over.

But the strength of neoconservatism, the intellectual and political "persuasion" (as he once called it) that Irving Kristol launched and led, has never been in its numbers but in its firepower and ferocity. And had the elder Kristol—whose shrouded coffin sat inconspicuously below the stage, nestled between the American and Israeli flags—been able to survey the crowd, he'd have been pleased. For filling the pews were his progeny, not just biological but intellectual, and they were an impressive lot.

They came from the publications that neoconservatives either run, like Bill Kristol's Weekly Standard, or work for, like The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Others came from the think tanks where neocons congregate, particularly the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). There were faces from the Iraq War, with which the neocons are inextricably linked, like former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz (making a rare public appearance) and the former civilian administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer. Charles Krauthammer, the impassioned and highly influential neoconservative columnist at The Washington Post, and the political scientist Francis Fukuyama (a rare lapsed and repentant neocon) hadn't spoken to each other for several years—ever since Fukuyama had taken exception to the roseate view of the Iraq War Krauthammer had offered in the American Enterprise Institute's 2004 Irving Kristol Lecture—but Kristol's death had briefly brought them back together, albeit in different parts of the synagogue. The more traditional wing of the Republican Party, the one the neocons had arguably routed, also paid homage: George Will, who'd come to view the Iraq War as an enormous mistake, took his seat respectfully. In his uncharacteristically apolitical, even gentle, eulogy, Bill Kristol couldn't help but gloat over the proliferation of neocons: "scores, legions—hordes they must seem to those who disapprove of them," he said.

Like Bill Kristol, some of those on hand had inherited their right-wing beliefs rather than adopted them (as Irving Kristol, a longtime Democrat, once had). Technically, there is nothing "neo" about conservatives like Robert Kagan, the historian and another Washington Post columnist, or John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary; each is a son of one of neoconservatism's founding fathers. Indeed, no strain in American politics is so dynastic. It is akin to the right-wing Likud Party in Israel, whose religion and politics, world view, and succession rituals the neocons often share. The definitions, and analogy, are inexact, but both groups have recent ties to Europe and are haunted by the Holocaust, which has left them feeling wounded, suspicious, and sometimes bellicose, determined never again to be naive or to trust the world's good intentions. Both spent decades in the po-litical wilderness before miraculously acquiring power; both begat "princes" who defied the normal generational tensions and allied themselves with their kingly fathers. When Bill Kristol rose to praise Irving that morning, he was really picking up his scepter.

Had you Googled "neoconservative" and "death" that day, four days after the 89-year-old Kristol expired, you'd have found lots on their long-rumored—and for some, much-anticipated and -savored—demise. On both the left and right, neoconservatism was deemed a spent force. Its ideas, Foreign Policy magazine had pronounced, "lie buried in the sands of Iraq."

But obituaries can be premature. At the moment, in fact, the neocons seem resurrected. One of their own, Frederick Kagan of AEI (Robert's younger brother), helped turn around the war in Iraq by devising and pushing for the surge there. More recent-ly, President Obama—whose foreign--policy pronouncements (nuanced, multi-lateral, interdependent) and style (low-key, self-critical, conciliatory, collegial) were a repudiation of neoconservative assertiveness—has swung their way, or so they believe. First, he's sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, nearly as many as leading neocons had sought. Then came his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which, with its acknowledgment of the need for force, its nod to dissidents in Iran and elsewhere, and its talk about good and evil, was surprisingly congenial.

As if on cue, a Nigerian man with explosives in his crotch nearly brought down an American airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day, leaving the neocons feeling further vindicated and energized. Obama, who'd ratcheted up his rhetoric after an initial response that Bill Kristol and other neocons considered too tepid, had been "mugged by reality," Kristol declared. It was an obvious homage to his father, who'd long ago defined "neocon" as a liberal to whom just that had happened. "Whether they praise or denounce Obama, the neocons are winning," says Jacob Heilbrunn, a senior editor at The National Interest and author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (2008). "They've got him embracing the surge in Afghanistan and on the run for being 'soft on terrorists.' Either way, he ends up catering to them." With Obama further weakened by an electoral repudiation in Massachusetts, that process might only intensify.

Such persistence is not surprising. For, as historians note, the impulses the neocons represent—the Manichaean world view, the missionary zeal, the near-jingoistic view of America, the can-do spirit and impatience with nuance—are as old as the country itself, dating back to John Winthrop and running through Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and John F. Kennedy. Yes, their brand has been tainted, and they may now need to call themselves something else. (Some of the most prominent among them, like Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, have always rejected the designation.) But the one issue on which they and their harshest critics (who, it must be said, seem obsessively, even morbidly, fixated on them) agree is that they are not about to go away.

All those would-be obituaries recalled the life story of the movement: its origins in the alcoves of the cafeteria at City College of New York in the late 1930s, when young Jewish intellectuals split hairs over their various versions of Trotskyism; how, as fascism threatened the free world, they'd become New Deal Democrats; and how, as they grew disillusioned with Great Society policies on welfare and race in the 1960s, they moved rightward. Of them all, Irving Kristol was the one who kept on going, eventually reaching Reaganism. Around the same time, prodded largely by another neoconservative titan, Norman Podhoretz of Commentary, the movement came to concentrate largely on foreign affairs, opposing détente with the Soviet Union, championing Israel, targeting Arab despots and Islamic terrorists—taking on internationally, as George Will has noted, the very aggressive brand of interventionism it had disparaged domestically.

In this last iteration, neoconservatism touted "American exceptionalism": the idea—actually more liberal than classically conservative—that the United States occupies a higher moral plane than any other nation, and should act accordingly. It disdained what it deemed the amoral, cynical realpolitik of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, and promoted a muscular, aggressive foreign policy, anticipating and preempt-ing problems worldwide (by military means if necessary), unencumbered by corrupt or pusillanimous international organizations like the United Nations. "Delivering democracy out of the back of a -Humvee" is how Stefan Halper—a former Reagan administration State Department official and senior adviser to George H.W. Bush who now teaches at Cambridge—disdainfully defined it.

Perhaps the surest measure of the neocons' continued influence is the frustration and anger they generate within the Republican Party. Many of those they've targeted—like Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft—won't talk about them. (Some neocons gloat that Kissinger has even tried to become one of them.) One prominent activist on the libertarian end of the party—who hates what he sees as their costly foreign--policy adventurism and the GOP electoral losses (i.e., the presidency and both houses of Congress) he attributes to them—calls them "parasites": with little electoral power of their own, he claims, they have had to attach themselves to others, like George W. Bush. Comfortably ensconced behind a cloak of anonymity, he bristles, but also marvels, at their endurance and effectiveness, comparing them to "an infection that keeps coming back." "They've perfected this absolutely incredible thing: they announce who they are, how powerful they are, how influential they are, and get people to write articles about them," he says. "But when their policies are perceived to have caused mass chaos, they don't exist, they didn't have anything to do with it, they weren't there, and they get really snotty. And anyone who attacks them is anti-Semitic."

"Everybody in the true conservative movement talks privately about the neoconservatives, and most don't like them," says Patrick Buchanan. "They're vindictive; they're not collegial…One disagreement and you're at war to the death." As Buchanan depicts it, in the 1980s the neocons insinuated themselves into the world of right-wing foundations and, funding newly in hand, proceeded to hijack his party's intellectual establishment, building for themselves an elaborate institutional infrastructure that's better funded—and more militant and monochromatic—than anything comparable on the left. The epicenter is the American Enterprise Institute, but it fans out to other organizations, including the Hudson Institute (the refuge for two neocons bruised in the Bush administration, Douglas Feith and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby) and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, run by neocon Clifford May.

Even the old-line, establishment Council on Foreign Relations, the embodiment of those values—diplomacy, moderation, respectability—the neocons so abhor, now shelters two of them: the military historian Max Boot and Elliott Abrams, the former Reagan and George W. Bush administration official convicted of lying to Congress during the Iran-contra scandal. (Bill Kristol, then Vice President Dan -Quayle's chief of staff, helped secure Abrams a presidential pardon.) "They are effectively insulated from failure," says Stephen Walt of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, one of the neocons' most frequent antagonists. "Even if you've totally screwed up in office and things you've advocated in print have failed, there are no real consequences, either professionally or politically. You go back to AEI and Weekly Standard and continue to agitate or appear on talk shows as if nothing has gone wrong at all." But to Walt, too, their very durability is impressive. "You have to give them grudging admiration for sticking to their guns, to continuing to pound away no matter how discredited they've been," he says.

Several neoconservatives—Robert Kagan, Randy Scheunemann, Gary Schmitt—played important roles in John McCain's presidential campaign. A second and third generation of neoconservative commentators, including Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal, Frederick Kagan and Danielle Pletka of AEI, and Jamie Fly and Dan Senor of the Foreign Policy Initiative (another Bill Kristol production), are making themselves known and heard. Meantime, the Fox News watchers who form the Republican base are not exactly neocons but, in their support for pugnacious policies abroad, find their world view compatible. Neoconservatism re-mains, as former GOP congressman Vin Weber puts it, "the dominant intellectual force on -foreign-policy thinking in the Republican Party." Leaders of the alternative "realist" school—Kissinger, Scowcroft, Colin Powell, James Baker—are getting old, and with few exceptions, like Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, seem, like some celibate religious sect, unable or disinclined to reproduce.

"Its idealistic and patriotic appeal may be better suited to young thinkers than the prudent and reasonable calculations of realism," says Justin Vaïsse, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of a forthcoming book on neoconservatism. "It's not very exciting to be a young realist, really."

In the meantime, Buchanan's isolationist, paleoconservative wing of Republicanism has withered. "A lot of them tend to be libertarian cranks: neo-Confederates, really insane, racist, xenophobic types," says Max Boot, who is also a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard. "Neocons are vilified as being barely human beasts who have to be kept chained in a cage somewhere, lest they start eating babies alive or something, but when you look at the spectrum of conservative thought, they are actually fairly centrist. The people who kind of speak to the rank and file of the Republican Party—the Newt Gingriches, the Rush Limbaughs, the Sean Hannitys…they're actually fairly supportive of an aggressive foreign policy."

No one has ever done a head count of neoconservatives; their critics, disposed to see them as furtive and conspiratorial, have pegged the number—facetiously, it's true—as low as 64, or 17, or six. Sometimes they seem even scarcer, and more incestuous: fully half of the eight featured speakers on Commentary's Alaskan cruise this summer, for example, are Podhoretzes (paterfamilias Norman; his wife, Midge Decter; his son, John; and Elliott Abrams, his son-in-law). John Podhoretz's ascension at the magazine is a subject of enormous amusement to neoconservatism's critics, who say it smacks of the nepotism and affirmative action neocons supposedly abhor.

Precisely who qualifies for the designation can be vexing, particularly as people recoil from the term, or claim it's meaningless or outdated, or dismiss it as an anti-Semitic slur. Though there have been and are many exceptions—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, John Bolton—certainly the most prominent neoconservatives (or people to whom that label has been attached) are Jews, though it's definitely easier for a Jew (like me) to say so. In polite company the Jewishness of the neocons comes up awkwardly, if at all, but it is a staple of the Internet, with words like "dirty" or "warmonger" or "kike" often thrown into the conversation, along with talk of dark subterranean klatches, sort of a Protocols of the Descendants of Kristol.

"Neoconservative" is "not really a phrase that I embrace or that anyone I know embraces," says Boot, a Russian-born and Berkeley-educated Jew who lacks the embattled humorlessness of so many neocons. "If the question is 'Are you part of this nefarious Trotskyite cabal linked to the Mossad and Likud in Israel and Bilderberg Society and the Trilateral Commission and the Queen of England?' the answer is 'You're nuts.' " Many neocons do not agree with, or even know, one another, he stresses, let alone engage in anything remotely coordinated. "There's no Neocon Central Committee meetings where we talk about damage control and refurbish our image and hire PR firms to burnish the image of neoconery," he says.

Of course, there are deviations from the neocon norm. For instance, the former head of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb, says that in 35 years he's never heard a neocon admit to error, but some, like David Frum of AEI and Joshua Muravchik of Commentary, have come perilously close. "Whether somewhat wrong or disastrously wrong, we certainly weren't vindicated in Iraq," Muravchik says. Some to whom the label has been casually affixed, like Dick Cheney, seem ill suited to it religiously, intellectually, ideologically, stylistically, or culturally, although there is no doubt that he's become the most compelling spokesman for neocon points of view. (Cheney's daughter Elizabeth and Bill Kristol are cofounders of KeepAmericaSafe.com, yet another neoconservative tentacle calling for—what else?—an "unapologetic" approach to fighting terrorism.)

The neocons were clearly among the first to advocate war with Iraq. But neocons stress that they occupied only a few "second tier" positions in the Bush administration, hardly enough to have done anything by themselves. Only after September 11 did Bush really turn to them, they say, and then only because they offered the best explanation for what had just happened and the clearest blueprint for what to do about it. "It was a preposterous idea that Doug Feith and Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle—who wasn't even in the administration—were going to manipulate guys like Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney into doing something they didn't want to do," says Norman Podhoretz. (Perle was chairman of the Defense Department's civilian Defense Policy Board.) "It was only the fundamental anti-Semitism of the whole concept that made it seem plausible to people: you know, 'these smart Jews were manipulating these dumb goyim'…that's the paradigm. It was never put that crudely, but that was basically the idea." That it was all done for the Israelis was "doubly preposterous," Podhoretz says: Israel actually opposed the war. (In fact, says Stephen Walt, it's more complicated than that: Israel considered Iraq a distraction from the real problem—Iran—but went along with the war once Bush had promised to take on the ayatollahs next.)

When the Iraq War turned disastrous, the neocons left the Bush administration, nursed their wounds, wrote self--exculpatory memoirs. But from the beginning, several argued that the wars they supported in the Middle East remained a good idea; they'd just been terribly mishandled. One was Boot, who warned as early as November 2001 that Afghanistan could once again become a "den of terrorists" should Bush persist with a "push button" war there, and that Iraq too would require large numbers of troops. In 2006 Boot turned what Bush apparently expected to be a chummy chat at the White House with several neoconservatives—Krauthammer and Kristol among them—into a tense seminar on the failures in Iraq that left the president red-faced and agitated.

Another early critic was Frederick Kagan, a military analyst who has al-ways labored in the shadow of his father and older brother. In devising and advocating the Iraq surge, the younger Kagan helped reverse the faltering fortunes of both the war and neoconservatism. In so doing, he provides a case study in neoconservative intelligence, tenacity, methodology, and efficacy.

Late last year, when Foreign Policy issued its list of "Top 100 Global Thinkers," "The Kagan Family" appeared collectively as No. 66. Sometimes it seems there are nearly as many Kagans as neocons. In fact, there are only four: Donald (the father), Robert and Frederick (Donald's sons), and Kimberly (Frederick's wife). Donald Kagan, a professor of history and the classics at Yale, is an authority on the Peloponnesian War, but his interest extends to war itself, which he has come to view, as he once put it, as "the default state of the human species."

The wonkish, heavy-set Frederick, who grew up reenacting battles with cardboard cutouts, earned a doctorate at Yale in Russian and Soviet military history, then spent 10 years at West Point teaching about wars. Along the way, he married Kimberly Kessler, a fellow Yalie with interests almost eerily like his. (She now heads a small Washington think tank called the Institute for the Study of War.) From the outset, Frederick Kagan, who'd long been dubious about the kind of high-tech warfare Rumsfeld championed, also felt the war in Iraq had been mismanaged, and, with the help of retired Gen. Jack Keane, convinced Bush this was so. Enter the surge. One of those most impressed was Gen. David Petraeus, now head of Central Command. Petraeus (the recipient of the 2010 Irving Kristol Award, who will deliver the Irving Kristol Lecture at AEI in May) calls Fred Kagan "brilliant," "exceedingly hardworking," and "a true student of history."

At his invitation, Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, an odd sight in flak jackets, have taken seven inspection tours of Iraq since April 2007. "They don't have kids, so this is their child," Petraeus said in a phone interview. Twice last year they went to Afghanistan, the second time as one sixth of a 12-member civilian team advising Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The group's findings buttressed McChrystal's request for 40,000 additional troops.

According to his critics, Frederick Kagan sometimes shows excessive faith in purely military solutions—a charge to which the neocons, few of whom have ever actually done military service, have been particularly subject. "These are men for whom too much came too easily in life, so it was all too easy for them to view our troops as mere tools to implement their visions," says the military-affairs columnist Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer. (Peters is perplexed and irked when called a neocon himself. "I'm not qualified," he says. "I served in the military, didn't go to a prep school, didn't go to an Ivy League university, and didn't have a trust fund. And I'm physically fit.") For his part, Kagan insists he's not naive about the military's abilities, nor afraid to tell generals off. Though he is a registered Republican and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, he also says he is not a neocon.

Despite their remarkable endurance, there's little triumphalism among the neocons. Even those who remained safely on the sidelines during the Iraq War retain an instinctive, deep-seated defensiveness, and a near-pathological wariness of outsiders. "I don't want to talk to you if you're planning something nasty" was how John Podhoretz replied to a routine interview request. The generally affable Bill Kristol was similarly standoffish. Despite his disdain for everything Kissingerian, he played the familiar Kissinger card: he'd be on the road, he explained, and therefore unavailable. By the time I paid him an impromptu visit—in the neoconservative rookery of 1150 17th Street in northwest Washington, The Weekly Standard is five floors below AEI—he'd apparently returned from his travels, but nonetheless rebuffed me. In the three minutes or so I got, it became clear that talking about neoconservatism—legitimizing the notion that it exists, and that it has influence—is extremely disagreeable to him.

Those who heard Kristol's eulogy that morning last September agreed that he'd given his father a wonderful send-off, the kind you'd want your own kid to give for you. Still, even some of his admirers were surprised. The Bill Kristol they know and like is something of a wise guy, who usually uses his considerable intellect to score points. They'd never seen him so, well, sincere.

People who've known the Kristols, father and son, see similarities between them, notably the same witty, urbane detachment. But more striking are the contrasts. Irving was, as Rabbi Gil Steinlauf put it in his remarks at the funeral, the "perennial outsider," as it is, he said, the Jew's eternal lot to be, questioning and deconstructing, keeping everyone honest. Bill, by contrast, is the consummate insider, commenting and networking and empire-building. Even friends describe him as more operator than ideologue.

Irving was largely above politics; Bill is hyperpartisan, though his politics are capacious enough for him to have backed Colin Powell, Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes, and Palin. "He would rather take an interesting wrong position than a dull correct one," says a longtime neocon who did not want to be named because the two are friendly. Several people who know Kristol describe his Palin boosterism—his very public campaign to persuade John McCain to put her on the Republican ticket—as a schoolboy-like infatuation, sparked when a Weekly Standard cruise docked in Juneau. Boot puts it a bit differently. "It was kind of a whimsical notion, I think," he says. "I'm not sure Bill actually thought that it would happen. He was kind of saying, 'Hey, look at this shiny new face out there that people aren't focused on.' " "Bill's a very close friend of mine, but he does an awful lot of things just to get publicity," says one prominent Republican who also did not want to be named for fear of offending Kristol. That said, it is one of neoconservatism's tenets—generally attributed to one of its main gurus, Leo Strauss, a controversial political theorist at the University of Chicago in the late 1940s and 1950s—that the erudite elite must tutor untrained princes or, presumably, princesses. It's what Kristol had already done for Quayle.

And while Irving Kristol was wary of exporting democracy, it's become his son's great cause. Bill Kristol's detractors love to list his wrongheaded diagnoses: that Iraq's Sunnis and Shias got along just fine, for instance. "Bill Kristol, aren't you ever right?" Jon Stewart once asked him. Even his father had his qualms. "My poor son has got it wrong again," he sometimes lamented to an old family friend. But the elder Kristol's misgivings were buried beneath the nachas—that is, a Jewish parent's pride in his children. He read The New York Times, he once said, only to look for his son's name.

To the infinite frustration of Bill's critics, though, nothing ever seems to stick. His short and unhappy tenure as a New York Times columnist, for instance, was immediately followed by a new gig at The Washington Post. Indeed, among neocons, the fiasco at the Times only burnished his brand: unlike a supposed conservative like David Brooks, one told me, Bill Kristol had not "gone native," bending to the paper's prevailing liberal mores.

There's no doubt Bill Kristol is now the most visible and vocal neocon around, with a power and reach his father never had. And now he has backed Obama on Afghanistan. Clearly, it was not easy for him: he'd had to festoon his Washington Post posting with terms like "too cute by half," "foolish," "silly," and "pseudo" before reaching the "Still…" Critics might argue that Kristol and the neocons have positioned themselves perfectly—to claim credit if Obama's war efforts succeed, and to blame the Democrats' irresoluteness or faulty execution if everything goes wrong. But could it be, as Jacob Heilbrunn has suggested, that neoconservative thinking has not just taken over the Republicans but infiltrated the Democrats as well?

One Obama administration official scoffs at the idea that neocons had influenced its deliberations, especially on Afghanistan. "They may feel vindicated," he says, "but if they do, their vindication should acknowledge the fact that the administration they so religiously supported screwed it up." That's surely true. But as two wars grind on, as would-be bombers stuff explosives into their underwear, as suicidal double agents blow CIA officers to bits, as the ayatollahs' centrifuges and subterfuges keep spinning—in other words, as the problems in the Middle East and beyond come to appear ever more intractable—Americans could become still more impatient with diplomacy and engagement and nuance, just as they're becoming disenchanted with Obama domestically. Neoconservatism is alive and well, and with all of its resolve and certitude, its appeal—albeit, perhaps, under some new and more presentable name—will likely continue to grow.

Join the Discussion