Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Interview with Bill King from The Struggle for the World - Part 2

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.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Interview with Bill King from The Struggle For the World - Part 1

I first got to know Bill King back in 2007, when we engaged in a discussion on neoconservatism, its SD-USA roots, and foreign intervention as a policy and philosophy. Bill had penned an excellent Master's thesis about the development of the ideology we now commonly refer to as "neoconservatism," and I have gone back to it routinely as a reference point in my own research (you can download it here). Since then, Bill has begun a PhD dissertation at the University of Ohio expanding on the themes and research in his previous graduate work. Even better, he has started blogging at The Struggle for the World, adding his insight to current political and social events. The following interview was conducted over a two week period by email correspondence.  

How did you first get involved in politics? Were you part of any political party or movement that stirred your interest in neoconservatism?

Well first let me say that I’ve been a fan of your blog for quite a while now, so it’s great to be able to have this online conversation with you.

I’ve been interested in politics almost as far back as I can remember. I grew up in Canada, but I was born in Colombia, where my dad’s side of the family was involved for many years in the far left and Liberal Party. My dad was active in the Young Communists in the late 1950s, at a time when Colombia was in a civil war between Liberals and Communists on one side and Conservatives on the other. The violence in his home province was intense and he was lucky, unlike most of his comrades, to survive those years. Later on in the 1970s, one of my uncles was a medic for the ELN, a “Guevarist” guerrilla group smaller than the larger and more orthodox FARC, and another uncle was involved in electoral politics with the Liberal Party. So you could say that, defined broadly, politics runs pretty deep in the family.

 My own activism started during my undergraduate days in the late 1980s when I joined the Canadian section of the Fourth International. As I saw it then, Trotskyism offered an ideal combination of anti-capitalism and anti-Stalinism, and I fervently believed that this version of Marxism stood for an expansion of human freedom. Of course, in order to believe this I had to overlook a few things like Trotsky’s own brutality when in power, the movement’s anti-democratic theories, and the atrocious internal life of most Trotskyist groups. But such is the power of ideology.

I left the Trotskyists in the mid-1990s, having become thoroughly disillusioned with the far left. But it wasn’t until 9/11 that I really began rethinking my political education. The attacks of that day made me realize that for all the problems with democratic capitalism, this type of open and pluralistic society was very much worth defending against a fascistic movement like radical Islam. That was a real turning point for me, since as a Marxist I had always had an oppositional attitude toward capitalist or “imperialist” society. Even after I left the movement my political instincts remained hard-left. Watching airplanes slam into the World Trade Center that morning helped rid me of that mindset, and it clarified for me exactly where I now stood. It was a really visceral thing.

After that, I began reassessing pretty much everything I had previously learned about politics, history, and the way the world worked. As part of that reassessment, I found that some of the sharpest analyses of how to respond to radical Islam—including the need to support liberals and reformers in Muslim countries—were written by so-called “neocons.” You can imagine my amusement when, during the debates leading up to the Iraq war, I read some of their critics accuse them of advocating a version of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution! The idea was so ludicrous that I wrote an article debunking it and, to my surprise, it was accepted for publication in an academic journal. The more I read about the development of neoconservatism the more interesting I found it, so I decided to pursue the topic by returning to academia and doing graduate studies in history. That led to my master’s thesis at the University of Calgary and to the doctoral dissertation I’m now writing at Ohio University.

  I am interested in how your Colombian family’s politics have changed since their time in leftist movements there. Have they changed their political orientations? What do they think of your current political leanings?

These days none of my relatives are involved in the revolutionary left, thankfully. Some still support the far left, particularly Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution” in Venezuela, but it’s passive support. Others are center-left, and still others, particularly the younger ones, aren’t interested in politics at all. No conservatives though. As for how they view my post-9/11 evolution, I think it’s fair to say they have a hard time grasping it. Their terms of reference are so different, and they don’t follow the debates here in North America and Europe, so the way they make sense of it is simply to say that I’m now “on the right.” One of my long term projects for the next time I visit Colombia is to sit down with them and explain that I’m actually a conservative liberal informed by Cold War social democracy! We’ll see how well it translates.  

Give us a brief synopsis of your dissertation.

My dissertation—which is an expansion of the masters thesis that you read—explores neoconservative support for democracy promotion during the Cold War. The idea of promoting democracy abroad, even if only by example, of course goes right back to the very founding of the republic. In a more abstract sense it goes even further back to the Puritan mission to “save the world.” And to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the administration in office, it’s been a constant theme in American foreign policy. In its modern version, we’ve seen it especially since the Woodrow Wilson administration. The question I’m trying to answer is why the neoconservatives as a political and intellectual current became so identified with this concept, why they’re such fervent exponents of it, and how their support for it originated.

The argument I’m making is that the young social democrats who became neoconservatives in the early 1970s, such as Joshua Muravchik, Carl Gershman, and the late Penn Kemble, developed a democracy promotion perspective in the Socialist Party and Young People’s Socialist League (and later Social Democrats, USA) and then brought that outlook with them into the neocon movement. It’s only recently that the social democrats’ role in the history of neoconservatism has started to be appreciated, particularly in books like Justin Vaisse’s excellent Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of a Movement. But so far, they’ve only been mentioned in terms of their anti-Communism. My aim is to demonstrate the link between the social democrats and neoconservatism’s strong support for promoting democracy abroad. Since most people don’t associate neoconservatism with social democracy it’s also a counterintuitive argument, and those are always fun to make.  

Part 2 tomorrow, on the state of neoconservatism and the like...