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What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been
From exile to redemption to exile again: a history of the "militaristic idealists" known as neocons.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

THEY KNEW THEY WERE RIGHT

The Rise of The Neocons

By Jacob Heilbrunn

Doubleday. 320 p. $26

T here was always something a little strange about the neoconservatives, beginning with the oxymoron of their name. The term "neocon" entered the zeitgeist in the months leading up to the Iraq war, when it became clear that a clique of sorts existed, united around the reverse domino principle that democracies would sprout like jimson weeds in the Middle East once Saddam Hussein was toppled. Intriguingly, many of these new rightists were the children of old leftists, and a winding pedigree could be traced to unlikely starting points -- the classroom of Leo Strauss, the mid-century political philosopher at the University of Chicago who trained Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the invasion of Iraq; or even further back in the mists of time, the fantastically loud alcoves of the cafeteria at the City College of New York, where in the 1930s a passionate and incessant debate embroiled young immigrant children, mostly Jewish, over Trotskyism, Leninism and everything in between.

Helpfully, Jacob Heilbrunn has penetrated these thickets to explain how such obscure intellectual movements (not always united) ascended to power under the second President Bush and then suffered a fall as unexpected as their rise. Difficult to place even in their own time, the neocons now seem wholly out-of-date, discredited in the Middle East and at home. In a sense they have come full circle and are back in the exile they originated in.

They Knew They Were Right will fit nicely on the rapidly expanding shelf explaining Iraq. Heilbrunn candidly admits that he is not the first writer to probe the neocons (James Mann, Francis Fukuyama and Sidney Blumenthal, among others, preceded him), but he spends more time than most on the group's deep history. It is a wise choice, for the formative period remains poorly understood. Like an archaeologist probing Easter Island, Heilbrunn explains what the giant heads once stood for, bringing back obscure names like Max Shachtman, Melvin Lasky and Albert Wohlstetter, and explaining their impact on such intellectuals as Irving Kristol, Irving Howe and their contemporaries, who in the 1940s were just beginning their long swim against the mainstream of American political opinion.

In a way, it is a political tale -- for, amazingly, these leftists came to power by finding their way into the right, after a long pilgrimage (Heilbrunn uses the biblical term "exodus") that brought them from 1950s anti-communism to Scoop Jackson centrism to their "redemption" under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (but pointedly not under George H.W. Bush, who called them the "crazies in the basement"). It is also a religious narrative, as "exodus" and "redemption" suggest, for Heilbrunn shows the intrinsic connection of Judaism to nearly every stage of this journey, and an attachment to Israel that at times bordered on the obsessive. And it is nothing if not an old-fashioned American story, for what could be more familiar than poor immigrants making good, sons trying to impress fathers or a political family torn by internal disputes and infidelities? With a little tweaking, and better hairdos, it could easily be an Aaron Spelling vehicle.

Heilbrunn is well-placed to tell this story, as a former writer for the National Review, the magazine that sustained conservatism in its long wilderness years, and someone who drank the Kool-Aid when the neocons were up and coming. He still relishes their ancient arguments, paying Talmudic reverence to obscure essays from the early days of the Partisan Review and Commentary. Not all readers will share his zeal for this distant past, but his research is thorough and his judgments fair. To his credit, he finds plenty of fault with the neocons, and his book is sprinkled liberally (is there any other word?) with criticisms of their failings and internal contradictions, including his belief that Iraq is the "greatest foreign policy disaster since Vietnam." He shows what an odd mentor Leo Strauss must have been, counting the numbers in Machiavelli's writings to see if secret meanings lurked there. And he reminds us that the neocons were as clueless as the rest of the Bush administration about the imminence of the 9/11 attack (the cover story of the National Review that week was an essay by David Brooks probing the cultural significance of "Gilligan's Island"). Tellingly, he suggests that the older neocons, who developed a cultish admiration for Winston Churchill as the embodiment of anti-totalitarian resistance, were invisible when it mattered, during World War II, a period they squandered writing irrelevant essays about political theory.

At other times, Heilbrunn seems defensive, as if a trace of the virus remains in his bloodstream. He suggests that the United States should have overthrown Egyptian president Gamal Nasser in 1956 to let democracy bloom, an act that would have been illegal and insane. He is very severe on Democratic foreign policy, targeting George McGovern (who inflicted more harm on Nazis than any neocons did), ridiculing Jimmy Carter and launching the usual tired attacks on Bill Clinton, whom he finds both too slow (to combat terrorism) and too eager (to conduct humanitarian interventions). He excoriates Madeleine Albright for daring to express the "hubristic belief" that the United States is indispensable to the world. More hubristic than the neocons?

Heilbrunn tries acrobatically to defend Reagan's Iran-Contra mess, and Elliott Abrams in particular, while denouncing the specific crime (withholding information from Congress) that Abrams was convicted of, and he argues that El Salvador became a "thriving democracy" as a result of Reagan's policy, a lofty claim. These neocon thought bubbles can be disorienting inside a book that is generally critical of the movement. A quirky ending imagines George W. Bush looking back with satisfaction on world events in 2016, suggesting that history may redeem the neocons, which seems unlikely at best, and possibly delusional. But when historians gather to render that judgment, this mostly even-handed book will deepen the context of a very strange time. *

Ted Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, was a foreign policy speechwriter for President Clinton. His next book, "Ark of the Liberties: America and the World," will be out in July.

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