Rich Lowry's review of books on neocons and the conservative movement

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Is today more like the late 1970's or the early 1980's? The answer is crucial for an understanding of our contemporary politics. If it's 1982 all over again, President Obama's recession-weakened Democrats will suffer in the midterm elections before consolidating an era of transformational change. If it's the late 1970s, a faltering Democratic president and a grass-roots revolt against liberalism will revive conservative political fortunes -- and these two books on different aspects of the rise of the right during a time of retrenchment abroad and a sputtering economy at home will have even more contemporary significance.

Justin Vaisse, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, has written a book on neoconservatism that is thoughtful and well-informed. Mirabile dictu! Vaisse avoids the crudities of, say, Chris Matthews, who has used "neoconservative" as an all-purpose smear over the years, and eschews the conspiracy-mongering often so attractive to commentators on the subject. "Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement" covers the entire lifespan of its subject, but the '70s, when the movement reached its political maturity and many neocons abandoned the Democrats, are his main focus.

It's impossible to write a history of neoconservatism without recapitulating twice-told tales. It all started in the 1930s at the City College of New York, where the smart, politically engaged Jewish kids excluded from Columbia by a quota system did intellectual battle with one another -- the Stalinists gathering in Alcove 1 in the dining hall, the anti-Stalinists in Alcove 2. And before you know it, we're invading Iraq in 2003.

Vaisse dates the beginning of neoconservatism to the reaction of certain liberal intellectuals against the Berkeley Free Speech Movement beginning in 1964 and its threat, in the words of Seymour Martin Lipset, to "the foundations of democratic order." Vaisse writes, "The subsequent history of the movement was an extended variation on the themes sounded at Berkeley."

In the next few years, neoconservatism became an undeniable force, with the founding of Irving Kristol's magazine, the Public Interest, in 1965; the rightward turn of Commentary magazine, under the editorship of Norman Podhoretz, in 1970; and the establishment of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, or CDM, in 1972. The neoconservatives defended America's institutions and values from an assault by what they called a "new class" of intellectuals, bureaucrats and students, and warned against overestimating the ability of government programs to navigate complex reality.

Their political vehicle, the CDM, lost its battle for the soul of the Democratic Party so thoroughly over the long run that its project seems bizarre from the perspective of today: major labor leaders uniting with right-leaning intellectuals to fight the left over Democratic Party delegate-selection rules and platform planks.

The work of the CDM dovetailed with that of the Committee on the Present Danger, or CPD, a bipartisan collection of intellectuals and policymakers opposed to detente and convinced that we were underestimating the threat represented by the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was a member, and the CPD proved a conveyor belt for former Democrats into his fold. Twenty-seven members of the CPD got important positions in his administration.

The founding fathers of neoconservatism were ready to lay it to rest by the mid-1990s, accepting its absorption into mainstream conservatism, when Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan of the Weekly Standard revived the rubric in its current form. This version, with its focus on the spread of democracy abroad, didn't come out of nowhere. Vaisse notes that the main themes were already present in neoconservatism: the need for American international leadership, the warnings about appeasement, the support for human rights and democratic values abroad, the staunch defense of Israel, the suspicion of the United Nations. No less a neoconservative giant than Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a 1974 article for Commentary titled "Was Woodrow Wilson Right?" The answer? Yes: "We stand for liberty," Moynihan wrote, "for the expansion of liberty."

Vaisse argues that how you interpret the end of the Cold War is crucial to how you evaluate the success of neoconservatism. If Reagan won the Cold War by hewing to neoconservative doctrine, then a hard-line foreign policy gains "historical validity"; but if he coaxed the Soviet Union into extinction by treating it with openness and engagement, then the neocon approach was not a factor. This is a false dichotomy, however. The answer, as Vaisse correctly notes, is that Reagan did both. He was a statesman, not a magazine writer, and no one doctrine could possibly set out what wisdom or prudence dictated in any given circumstance.

On George W. Bush's foreign policy, Vaisse maintains his equilibrium -- no small thing. He notes that the neocons "were merely one source of inspiration among others for a complex, multifarious policy that was shaped largely by the course of events." The difficulties of the Iraq war can't necessarily be hung on neocons, because they agitated to send more troops, a move that might have avoided the worst failures of the occupation. But Vaisse, with justice, chastises them for a "democratic dogmatism" that assumed "democracy is the default regime, which emerges spontaneously when a tyrant is overthrown."

Ultimately, Vaisse sees neoconservatism as "a manifestation of patriotism or even nationalism." That's an overly broad category, to be sure, but his rough schema works for the three ages by which he divides the movement: The first age sought to defend the country's values and institutions in the 1960s, the second to revitalize them in the '70s and '80s, and the third to spread them abroad. In a crowded field, Vaisse has written a fine primer, judicious, thorough and sure-footed.

Whatever we think of neoconservatism, it wouldn't have had such an influence without the political gains of the broader conservative movement in the wake of the stumbles of the Ford and Carter administrations. That's the subject of "Right Star Rising" by Laura Kalman, a history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

She argues that the nation's rightward shift in the 1980s originated during a short run-up from 1975 to 1979. It wasn't just the liberal overreach of the 1960s or Richard Nixon's divisive politics that dissolved the liberal postwar consensus, but the leadership failures of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. This is a perfectly defensible thesis. The problem with it in the context of this book is that it leaves her stuck with two presidents who don't make scintillating copy. A book focusing on Ford and Carter should be written in a whiz-bang style to hold the reader's interest, and Kalman's prose plods rather than sparkles.

Just reviewing these years is enough to make you come down with a bad case of malaise. Carter's desperation in July 1979, when he was at 25 percent approval, is almost beyond belief. He engaged in childish machinations to increase press interest in a national address, which became known as the "malaise" speech, even though he didn't use the word. His description of the country's "crisis of confidence" initially got a positive reception, but he threw away any goodwill immediately afterward in a panicky-seeming move: He demanded resignation letters from all of his Cabinet and accepted some from key officials.

In writing about the rise of the right in roughly this period, Kalman has entered an even more crowded field than Vaisse. Unfortunately, her book can't compete with excellent recent accounts by Rick Perlstein from the left ("Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America") and Steven Hayward from the right ("The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980"). Her conclusion, though, is unassailable. "By assuming command," she writes of Reagan, "he ended the seventies." We don't know yet whether they are upon us again.

Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company