This is the second part of my interview with Bill King who blogs at The Struggle for the World. You can read the first part here.
You wrote an extensive history of neoconservative thought and its development. When I first read your thesis it was 2007. Have recent political and cultural changes required you to go back and reassess any of your points or conclusions?
That’s a great question. My argument stems mainly from the research I’ve done in primary sources, such as the Socialist Party of America papers and the Coalition for a Democratic Majority papers, so revising it in any major way would depend more on new archival evidence than on any present day changes. The recent developments among the neocons—such as the differences over the Arab spring—are fascinating and I’ll be commenting on them in my blog. But they won’t have a direct impact on what I’m writing about the Cold War days. In fact, one of the problems with most of the books on neoconservatism written during and immediately after the Iraq war is that the early history of the movement was viewed entirely through the lens of contemporary politics, and that led to some very skewed analyses. My favorite example of this is a book that argued that since neoconservatives didn’t advocate pre-emptive war or regime change before the end of the Cold War, they therefore didn’t advocate democracy promotion at all. There are so many things wrong with that argument that you hardly know where to begin. Not only does it confuse means with ends, it’s just plain bad history.
That said, you’ll definitely notice some differences in the dissertation. I’m adding a new chapter on why first era neocons like Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer were never big supporters of democracy promotion, and in some cases flat out opposed it. I’m also adding chapters on Jeane Kirkpatrick and Elliott Abrams, who represent the two different poles of neoconservative thinking on democracy promotion in the 1980s. Abrams is particularly interesting because, while he was never a social democrat, he was a friend and ally, and he was also the first neocon to advocate fostering democracy abroad from a position as a policy maker during the Reagan years. I’ll also be discussing the impact of Sidney Hook, the philosopher and long-time social democrat who was a key source of inspiration to the younger SD-USA people in the 1970s in terms of merging combative anti-Communism with a commitment to defend and expand democracy.
In recent years, some of the neoconservative voices and critics have felt rather distant to me. At heart, I was always a social democrat that simply sided with “neocons” over support for democratic change overseas, but it seems as if some of the loudest voices for those changes (like the folks at Commentary and the Weekly Standard), have made knee-jerk comments and pronouncements related to the Obama administration. I am painting with a broad brush, but do you see a split between the neocons and left-wing “hawks” in the era of Obama? Does this confirm your core thesis that there are divergent strands within what we call “neo-conservatism?”
I think what we’re seeing to a large extent is just a reversal along political lines of the situation during the Bush years. It’s easy to forget just how critical liberal hawks were of the Bush administration, in part because the focus is always on their (initial) support for the Iraq war, but also because their opponents on the left were so vocal in labeling them as “Bush’s useful idiots” and as indistinguishable from the neocons. But in fact, liberal hawks such as Paul Berman, George Packer, Leon Wieseltier and others were extremely critical of Bush’s domestic policies, of the way he responded to 9/11, and of the way his administration made the case for war with Iraq—even as they supported the war itself, based on their belief in using U.S. power abroad for progressive ends and in the benefits of overthrowing Saddam. Their criticisms of the administration, which of course were in some respects justified, only got louder as things became more difficult in Iraq, and ultimately some of them concluded that they had been wrong to back the war in the first place. (Christopher Hitchens was an exception to all this, but he had his own unique evolution and was never a liberal hawk.)
If we look at how the neoconservatives are reacting to Obama today, I see a similar dynamic at play despite the difference in context. Neocon criticism of the administration simply reflects where they currently sit on the political spectrum, which is squarely on the right. My argument about social democracy’s contribution to neoconservatism during the Cold War is a historical one, and while I believe the social democrats left a legacy in the neocons’ support for democracy promotion, there’s no question that today neocons are an integral part of American conservatism. The divisions among them today, over the Arab Spring for instance, are divisions within the conservative movement. I think Justin Vaisse put it well when he wrote in his book that what we have today is a “third age” neoconservatism that began in the mid-1990s, has a certain amount of continuity with earlier eras, but has its own impulses and is clearly located on the political right.
With this in mind, and given conservative concern about big government as well as their “free market” approach to the economy, it seems to me that magazines like The Weekly Standard and National Affairs have been fairly reasoned in their criticism of Obama’s domestic policies, especially compared to other parts of the right. The quality of neocon foreign policy writing has varied a lot lately, and I’ve been as unimpressed as you with some of it. But on the whole, most neoconservatives have been pretty measured with regards to the president—someone whose vision of a more restrained, scaled back American role in the world is starkly different from theirs. People like Max Boot and Peter Wehner at Commentary, Fred Kagan at the American Enterprise Institute, the “Shadow Government” blog at ForeignPolicy.com, Jamie Fly, Robert Kagan, and even Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, they’ve all certainly been very critical for the most part, but they’ve also been supportive and at times even laudatory of Obama. Among these neocons, there’s been a willingness to be bipartisan when the situation calls for it.
As I see it, the split you point to between neoconservatives and liberal hawks is an inevitable one given the nature of the two currents. But that doesn’t mean we’ll stop seeing common foreign policy stands. We saw examples of this when liberal hawks and (most) neocons supported the uprisings of the Arab Spring, and then again when they both called—including in some cases jointly—for more concerted U.S. action in Syria and the arming of some of the rebels. My hunch is that we’ll continue to see both currents take common foreign policy positions down the road.