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Was Irving Kristol a Neoconservative?

The "godfather" of neoconservatism started a movement that moved away from him.

In April 1991, in the fallout of the Gulf War, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein brutally suppressed Kurds and Shiites who were answering U.S. President George H.W. Bush's call to overthrow him. With America standing by, Saddam used his Army helicopters to ensure the perpetuation of his bloody rule.

Although many in the United States protested, one observer forcefully supported the White House's decision not to intervene at that moment. "There is good reason -- perhaps even right reason -- for the administration's position," he wrote. "It has to do with our definition of the American national interest in the Gulf. This definition does not imply a general resistance to 'aggression.' ... And this definition surely never implied a commitment to bring the blessings of democracy to the Arab world. ... [No military] alternative is attractive, since each could end up committing us to govern Iraq. And no civilized person in his right mind wants to govern Iraq."

The observer was Irving Kristol, the so-called "godfather" of neoconservatism. But if that doesn't sound like neoconservatism, it's because, well, it isn't. Kristol's pronouncement was, in fact, plain realpolitik, as far as possible from the pro-intervention hawkishness that characterizes neoconservatism today. This doesn't mean Kristol, who died Sept. 18 at 89, wasn't a neoconservative. Rather, it shows how much Kristol's neoconservatism -- the movement he invented, or at least successfully branded and marketed -- differed from its descendents today.

In fact, the original strand of neoconservatism didn't pay any attention to foreign policy. Its earliest members were veterans of the anti-communist struggles who had reacted negatively to the leftward evolution of American liberalism in the 1960s. They were sociologists and political scientists who criticized the failures and unintended consequences of President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" programs, especially the war on poverty. They also bemoaned the excesses of what Lionel Trilling called the "adversary culture" -- in their view, individualistic, hedonistic, and relativistic -- that had taken hold of the baby-boom generation on college campuses. Although these critics were not unconditional supporters of the free market and still belonged to the liberal camp, they did point out the limits of the welfare state and the naiveté of the boundless egalitarian dreams of the New Left.

 

These thinkers found outlets in prestigious journals like Commentary and The Public Interest, founded in 1965 by Kristol and Daniel Bell (and financed by Warren Demian Manshel, who helped launch Foreign Policy a few years later). Intellectuals like Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Q. Wilson, and a few others took to the pages of these journals to offer a more prudent course for American liberalism. They were criticized for being too "timid and acquiescent" by their former allies on the left, among them Michael Harrington, who dubbed them "neoconservatives" to ostracize them from liberalism.

Although some rejected the label, Kristol embraced it. He started constructing a school of thought, both by fostering a network of like-minded intellectuals (particularly around the American Enterprise Institute) and by codifying what neoconservatism meant. This latter mission proved challenging, as neoconservatism often seemed more like an attitude than a doctrine. Kristol himself always described it in vague terms, as a "tendency" or a "persuasion." Even some intellectuals branded as part of the movement were skeptical that it existed. "Whenever I read about neoconservatism," Bell once quipped, "I think, 'That isn't neoconservatism; it's just Irving.'" Regardless of what it was, neoconservatism started to achieve a significant impact on American public life, questioning the liberal take on social issues and advancing innovative policy ideas like school vouchers and the Laffer Curve.

If the first generation of neoconservatives was composed of New York intellectuals interested in domestic issues, the second was formed by Washington Democratic operatives interested in foreign policy. This strand gave most of its DNA to latter-day neocons -- and Kristol played only a tangential role.

The second wave of neoconservatives came in reaction to the nomination of George McGovern as the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate. Cold War liberals deemed McGovern too far to the left, particularly in foreign policy. He suggested deep cuts in the defense budget, a hasty retreat from Vietnam, and a neo-isolationist grand strategy. New neocons coalesced around organizations like the Coalition for a Democratic Majority and the Committee on the Present Danger, journals like Norman Podhoretz's Commentary (the enigmatic Podhoretz being the only adherent to neoconservatism in all its stages), and figures like Democratic Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson -- hence their alternative label, the "Scoop Jackson Democrats."

These thinkers, like the original neoconservatives, had moved from left to right. Many of them, even if members of the Democratic Party, ended up working in the Reagan administration. Others joined the American Enterprise Institute and wrote for Commentary and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. Moreover, some original neoconservatives, like Moynihan, became Scoop Jackson Democrats. Thus, the labels became interchangeable and the two movements seemed to merge.

But this elided significant differences between them. On domestic issues, Scoop Jackson Democrats remained traditional liberals. In the 1970s, while Jackson was advocating universal health care and even the control of prices and salaries in times of crisis, Kristol was promoting supply-side economics and consulting for business associations and conservative foundations. On foreign-policy issues, Scoop Jackson Democrats emphasized human rights and democracy promotion, while Kristol was a classical realist. They agreed, however, on the necessity of a hawkish foreign and defense policy against the Soviet empire.

These differences became most visible at the end of the Cold War. Now that the "evil empire" had fallen, what was America to do? Was the defense and promotion of democracy and human rights the reason for fighting the Soviets -- or was it the other way round, just a useful tool in this fight? Kristol, who had always taken the second view, logically advocated restraint and pragmatism for post-Cold War America and had these words for some of his "fellow" neoconservatives:

The only innovative trend in our foreign-policy thinking at the moment derives from a relatively small group, consisting of both liberals and conservatives, who believe there is an "American mission" actively to promote democracy all over the world. This is a superficially attractive idea, but it takes only a few moments of thought to realize how empty of substance (and how full of presumption!) it is. In the entire history of the U.S., we have successfully "exported" our democratic institutions to only two nations -- Japan and Germany, after war and an occupation. We have failed to establish a viable democracy in the Philippines, or in Panama, or anywhere in Central America.

Although a few other neoconservatives followed Kristol's realist line (Glazer and, to some extent, Jeane Kirkpatrick), for most of the others the idea of retrenching and playing a more modest international role disturbingly looked like the realpolitik that had led to détente and other distasteful policies. The vast majority of Scoop Jackson Democrats advocated a more assertive and interventionist posture and continued to favor at least a dose of democracy promotion (most notably Joshua Muravchik, Ben Wattenberg, Carl Gershman, Michael Ledeen, Elliott Abrams, Podhoretz, and others). Their legacy would prevail.

Thus, the neocons -- the third wave -- were born in the mid-1990s. Their immediate predecessors, more so than the original neoconservatives, provided inspiration. But they developed their ideas in a new context where America had much more relative power. And this time, they were firmly planted on the Republican side of the spectrum.

Kristol's son, Bill, played a leading role, along with Robert Kagan, in this resurrection through two initiatives he launched -- the Weekly Standard magazine and the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a small advocacy think tank. Bill Kristol and Kagan initially rejected the "neoconservative" appellation, preferring "neo-Reaganism." But the kinship with the second age, that of the Scoop Jackson Democrats, was undeniable, and there was a strong resemblance in terms of organizational forms and influence on public opinion. Hence the neoconservative label stuck.

The main beliefs of the neocons -- originated in a 1996 Foreign Affairs article by Kagan and Bill Kristol, reiterated by PNAC, and promulgated more recently by the Foreign Policy Initiative -- are well-known. American power is a force for good; the United States should shape the world, lest it be shaped by inimical interests; it should do so unilaterally if necessary; the danger is to do too little, not too much; the expansion of democracy advances U.S. interests.

But what was Irving Kristol's view on these principles and on their application? Toward the end of his life, the elder Kristol tried to triangulate between his position and that of most neocons, arguing in 2003 that there exists "no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy, only a set of attitudes" (including patriotism and the rejection of world government), and minimizing democracy promotion. But at this point, the movement's center of gravity was clearly more interventionist and confident of the ability to enact (democratic) change through the application of American power than Kristol could countenance. He kept silent on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, while the Scoop Jackson Democrats and third-wave neocons cheered.

Thus, ironically, when most people repeat the line about Kristol being "the godfather of neoconservatism," they assume he was a neocon in the modern sense. But this ignores his realist foreign policy -- while also obscuring the impressive intellectual and political legacy he leaves behind him on domestic issues.

Courtesy of the American Enterprise Institute

Profile

Obama's Eminence Grise

For decades, George Mitchell has worked, quietly and diligently, on Washington's most intractable political problems. This week, he shows his cards on Middle East peace.

Among the many kinds of political animals found in Washington, few are as widely admired as the Gray Man. Quietly competent, somewhat bland, respected by Republicans and Democrats alike, and most comfortable working tactfully behind the scenes, the Gray Man is a dying breed in today's American politics. He is often spotted in a beige trench coat or gold-buttoned navy blazer in his native environment, the Senate committee hearing or the long seminar at Brookings. Unlike his flashier cousins, such as the Red-Blooded Partisan or the Silver-Tongued Orator, the Gray Man eschews the media spotlight -- in fact, he speaks in public as little as possible. In a Fox News era, he is unapologetically a C-SPAN kind of guy, to the eternal gratitude of those in politics who are counting on him to get the real work done while others blather endlessly.

Modern-day specimens of the breed include Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Sen. Richard Lugar, but the unquestioned Alpha is George Mitchell. Since retiring as the Democratic Senate majority leader in 1995, Mitchell, 76, has patiently worked to resolve numerous seemingly intractable conflicts, including Northern Ireland and the steroids scandal in baseball, winning plaudits for his tenacity and evenhandedness while remaining curiously anonymous to most of the American public. Now, as President Barack Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, Mitchell finds himself back in the spotlight -- or as close as he ever gets to it, anyway -- ahead of this week's United Nations General Assembly session, which could serve as a venue for relaunching the troubled peace process. Obama's plan to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in New York is a start. The looming question, given the particularly difficult circumstances that prevail in the Middle East, is whether even this most distinguished of Gray Men is capable of brokering a broader breakthrough.

A former Army intelligence officer and federal judge of Lebanese descent, Mitchell is fond of telling people, "There's no such thing as a conflict that cannot be ended." Indeed, he seems to take genuine pleasure in addressing the planet's most arcane, contentious debates. Prior to being drafted by Obama in January, he was participating in a bipartisan panel of elder statesmen including his old Republican Senate colleague, Bob Dole. When the panel presented its recommendations on U.S. health-care reform this summer, Dole joked, "George left early because he thought solving Mideast peace would be easier." The audience laughed, but those who knew Mitchell wondered if he had, in fact, departed in search of a bigger challenge -- the holy grail of negotiators.

During his numerous trips to the Middle East this year, Mitchell has largely employed the same techniques as he did early on in Northern Ireland. There, he began by meeting individual parties in the conflict and, essentially, letting them vent for as long as they liked. In his memoir Making Peace, Mitchell recalled his first encounter with the Rev. Ian Paisley, in which the unionist minister, evidently displeased by the appointment of an envoy with some Irish roots, refused to even sit down. Paisley limited his responses to Mitchell's polite queries to a loud, grating: "No. No. No. No."

"I was accustomed to rough-and-tumble political debate," Mitchell later wrote, "but I'd never experienced anything like this." By most accounts, his initial closed-door meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and others have been much more polite, but only incrementally more productive.

Mitchell listened attentively while in Belfast, betraying no sign of fatigue or frustration, allowing his patrons to exhaust themselves with invective until they were finally ready to be led -- by the nose, if necessary -- toward compromise. Among Protestants and Catholics alike, Mitchell slowly built personal relationships with the same attention to detail that made him such an effective majority leader in the Senate, where getting bills passed means not only understanding the political stakes for all the major players, but also the seemingly tiny details that can impact the timing of a vote, such as who has to be back in their home district for their kid's soccer game.

"He is a man of serious intent and serious purpose," Mark Durkan, a key player on the Irish nationalist negotiating team, told the BBC in 1999. Mitchell was patient when necessary -- he famously described the Northern Ireland peace process as "700 days of failure and one day of success" -- but he was also unafraid to set tough deadlines. The famed 1998 "Good Friday accord" was concluded after a 36-hour sprint of negotiations that ended, Mitchell wrote, with a final phone call from unionist leader David Trimble and "tears welling in my eyes." Also worth noting: For all its fanfare, that agreement was basically a place holder, one that wasn't fully secure until final peace accords were signed in 2007. Mitchell's professed willingness to focus on what's possible under given circumstances -- even if that means an incomplete deal that doesn't fully please anyone -- seemingly fits well with the ethos of compromise that characterizes the Obama administration (see Health Care, Fall 2009).

One enduring truth about mediation is that all sides usually know, deep in their hearts, what a final agreement will look like. The role of the mediator, then, is to help create the political and personal circumstances necessary for such an agreement to take root. That certainly seems to be the case in the Middle East, where many observers think that a peace deal will inevitably involve an independent Palestinian state, Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist, a freeze and partial dismantlement of Israeli settlements, and some kind of special status for Jerusalem. The broad outlines of an end-state solution were equally apparent from the start in Northern Ireland. Mitchell was the man who was able to convince the leaders to put years of mistrust aside and accept the inevitable.

So what made the difference? What led to the breakthrough? In a 2007 interview with the Guardian, Mitchell zeroed in on the popular mood that prevailed among all sides of the public debate in Northern Ireland during the 1990s: "The two messages [political leaders] were getting, and really they're still getting from their constituents, are: 'Look, we want this settled. We don't want this conflict to continue.'"

Unfortunately, that kind of popular groundswell, that feeling of inevitability, is precisely what seems to be missing in the Middle East in late 2009. The Israeli public is focused on the looming threat from Iran's nuclear program, and in February it elected a leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who long resisted the idea of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians, meanwhile, are preoccupied with their internal split between Fatah and Hamas, which in turn makes a united negotiating front impossible. Polls show that neither Palestinians nor Israelis have much faith in Obama's ability to broker a deal. Meanwhile, it is highly debatable whether, if Obama were to list his most urgent policy priorities, Middle East peace would make the top five. "The chances of meaningful success are slim to none," said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center who has advised six U.S. secretaries of state on the peace process. Of Mitchell, he says: "I admire the man. I offer my condolences on the mandate."

In the short term, the bar for success is relatively low -- it would essentially constitute Mitchell shepherding Israelis and Palestinians back to the table for meaningful negotiations for the first time since December. (This week's sit-down doesn't count, Abbas' spokesman has insisted.)

However, given the present climate, creating a real sense of urgency might require a more forceful, vocal, even inflammatory kind of leadership than a Gray Man is able to provide. There is a time for table-pounders, too; maybe this is one of them. "George is not the kind of guy who will slam his notebook shut and say -- 'I'm leaving,'" Miller says. James Baker, the brash Texan who was secretary of state and Middle East point man under former President George H.W. Bush, did precisely that -- three separate times, and to great effect, Miller says.

The danger is that, precisely because of his tact and reserve, Mitchell could be endlessly strung along by parties who don't fear him -- or his notoriously cool boss, Obama. After eight months of talks with little tangible result, that concern is already percolating in much of the Arab press. The Syrian newspaper Tishrin noted in an editorial this week that "after five visits to the region, Mitchell is still touring" while "the peace process is completely stuck." Meanwhile, Lebanon's Al-Safir worried that "between every Mitchell visit, more Palestinian land is being lost and more Israeli settlements are being built."

For his part, Mitchell seems acutely aware of the risks, pressing energetically -- and a tad publicly, by his standards -- on his most recent tour for a freeze in Israeli settlement construction and an Arab gesture toward recognizing the Jewish state. And at least one of his former critics thinks he's the right man for the job. "Making peace is a difficult, exhausting and, at times, hugely frustrating process," Gerry Adams, the Irish Republican leader, wrote in the Guardian when Mitchell was appointed to his new position earlier this year. It was precisely Mitchell's personality -- "good-natured, humorous and tolerant," Adams stated -- that allowed him to win over negotiators in Northern Ireland who had become experts at filibustering outside negotiators. "It is this experience," Adams predicted, "that will stand him to good stead as he embarks on his journey to the Middle East." We'll see.

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