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.