Book World
'They Knew They Were Right'

Jacob Heilbrunn
Tuesday, February 5, 2008 3:00 PM

Jacob Heilbrunn was online Tuesday, Feb. 5, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss his book, They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, which is reviewed in Book World.

A transcript follows.

Read this week's Book World roundup: Best Books for Young People

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.


Jacob Heilbrunn: I'm delighted to be here to discuss my book "They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons." I look forward to your questions.


Fredericksburg, Va.: Do Rumsfeld and company realize that in the physics of politics, where each action can have an equal reaction that failure of their policies will have set the true conservatives back decades, as the liberal reaction to necon actions takes hold in the coming elections?

Jacob Heilbrunn: They don't. But it's not a sure thing that conservatism has really been set back. The 2008 election will be the true test.


Washington, D.C.: Thank you for taking questions Mr. Helbrunn. Out of the presidential candidates in this election, are there any neocons? I've heard that McCain is one at heart, and Giuliani was. On the other hand I've read that Romney is more like George H.W. Bush. Are these observations correct? Thank you again.

Jacob Heilbrunn: There are. One is John McCain, who is very sympathetic to the neocons and friends with William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard and a columnist for the New York Times. Robert Kagan, a Washington Post columnist, is also an advisor to McCain. McCain's support for the Iraq War and stress on older themes such as valor and honor fit nicely into the neoconservative worldview. But let's not forget Hillary Clinton, either. She has some of her own neocon impulses, most notably in staking out a fairly hawkish position on both Iran and Iraq.


Olney, Md.: William Kristol wrote a column in the New York Times yesterday in which he said that it is not easy to rally a comfortable and commercial people to assume the responsibilities of a great power. How do you think the American business community will react to that slap in the face? Will the world follow an America whose basic message is Stamp Out Commercialism? Dyspepsia on the Right ( The New York Times, Feb. 4)

Jacob Heilbrunn: I don't think the business community will have any reaction. Kristol was sounding an old neocon theme--the apprehension that bourgeois societies lack the stomach for battle, that they become prosperous, complacent, and even decadent. This theme actually dates back to the eighteenth century, when British writers such as Edward Gibbon worried about the effects of luxury in promoting what they called "effeminacy" and the decline of empire. Basically, Kristol is right about the effects of prosperity, but is it such a terrible thing for a society to be apprehensive about going to war?


Chicago, Ill.: Can we sleep easy now, knowing that the neocons are thoroughly discredited, their only gainful employment (once this administration is finished) at third-rate think tanks? Or does Bill Kristol have offspring?

Jacob Heilbrunn: Are they discredited? Not if McCain wins the presidency. And the neocons will regroup in the coming decade should the GOP lose in 2008. So, no, I think they will be around for some time to come, including their younger progeny.


Bennett Point, Md.: With the end of the Cold War, the fiasco in Iraq, and the changes in political priorities of conservative voters(immigration, trade, middle class wages stagnation etc.), do neo-conservatives see their power waning? If the Democrats take control of the government, where will the neo-conservatives go? Will they be at odds with the conservative base?

Jacob Heilbrunn: The neocons are reassessing. They can always go back to their think-tanks, just as Democrats retreat to the Brookings Institution when their party is out of favor. The big question is about whether warfare looms among conservatives themselves? It might.


San Francisco, Calif.: Can VP Cheney be considered a neocon or is he something entirely different?

Jacob Heilbrunn: He has assiduously promoted the neocons, but I rather doubt that he is one himself. He strikes me as more of a unilateralist who wants to demonstrate that the U.S. can strike wherever it wants whenever it wishes.


New York: You deny neocons are doing the bidding of the Israeli government, but isn't it a fact neocons don't talk about Palestine and there is no real support for a true Palestinian state among Likud, lending credence to the notion U.S. neocons are but an extension of Likud?

Jacob Heilbrunn: Many are close to the Likud. I don't, however, deny that the neocons are doing the bidding of Jerusalem. I state it. Many Israelis were skeptical, to put it mildly, about democratizing Iraq. In the latest "Atlantic" Jeffrey Goldberg has a marvelous anecdote about former prime minister Ariel Sharon telling Natan Sharansky, an apostle of democratization, "mazel tov, Natan. You have convinced President Bush of something that doesn't exist"--democracy among the Arab states. So my own view is that American neocons went further than the Israelis would have liked in Iraq.


Virginia: Is your book anti-semitic? Would you write a book about the neoliberal who loved communism?

Jacob Heilbrunn: No, it isn't. I have often written about the historical left-wing romanticization of communist regimes.


Philadelphia, Pa.: If Obama is elected president, will neocons seeks to enter his administration and influence him, or do they form an opposition group?

Jacob Heilbrunn: They will form a noisy and vocal group denouncing him as an appeaser fecklessly endangering American national security.


Baltimore, Md.: Mr. Heilbrunn: After reading the Book World review I was wondering if you ever read Joseph Heller's novel Good As Gold. Although it came out well before the term "neocon" entered the lexicon, it skewers the mindset. One character, obviously based on Norman Podhoretz, boasts to the title character Bruce Gold that he was always a staunch anti-Communist during Stalin's time. To which Gold replies something like, "You were 12 years old and trying to argue about Trotskyism with old men on the Coney Island boardwalk." That seemed to sum things up nicely, in my opinion.

Jacob Heilbrunn: I must admit to my shame that I have not read it. It does sum up things well--though I doubt it's based on Podhoretz, who is younger than Irving Kristol and was never a Troskyist.

_______________________ Review: They Knew They Were Right ( Post, Book World, Feb. 3)


The writers of history: Reading the review of your book I was reminded of my first week of prep school when we sat in our first history class and a school security guard burst into the room, pulled a plastic bag out of the teacher's pocket and dragged him out of the room. After the scene quieted down, the other teacher in the room told us to pull out a sheet of paper and write down exactly what we saw. There were 12 students in the room and we turned out 12 different versions of the events with details missed, inferred or exagerated based on our different perspectives.

Will there ever be an objective history of the Bush years and the neocon influence upon his key foreign policy decisions or will it fall into a historical version of Fox News/N.Y. Times, he said/he said depending upon who is the author?

Regardless, thank you for adding to the historical analysis of the intellectual movements influencing this period.

Jacob Heilbrunn: True enough: the same happens with traffic accidents. This is the perennial conundrum for historians, who have to wade through competing accounts. If you get a chance to look at my book, however, I think you'll see that while it has somewhat of an insiders perspective, I tried to pull back and write it in a spirit of detachment.


Boston, Mass.: Is Joe Lieberman a neocon at heart? If so, has that always been the case, just well hidden, or is he a recent convert?

Jacob Heilbrunn: If Lieberman isn't a neocon, who is? He's always been quite upfront about his hawkish foreign policy views.


Washington, D.C.: The word "neoconservative" seems to have become so entirely wrapped up in opinions about Iraq that it has lost any distinctive meaning. Do you agree? In that connection, what did you think of the chart that Book World printed next to the review of your book?

Jacob Heilbrunn: I think the term has changed as the movement itself has evolved. Today I think it refers to a hawkish wing, based mostly in the GOP, that wants to battle what it sees as "islamo-Fascism" and to create a de facto American empire of liberty.

I thought the chart was very clever and witty.


Harrisburg, Pa.: What role, if any, does religion play in the policies of the neocons? I ask because I hear Rick Santorum describing how current policies are a continuation from policies dating back to the Crusades. President Bush, as a born again Christian, seems to believe that religion provides strong guidance in his life and decisions. How much of a role does religion play amongst how the neocons reach their decisions and then believe that their decisions are correct?

Jacob Heilbrunn: I think neocons tend to place more importance upon religion in the domestic sphere as a force for morality. In foreign policy I don't believe it plays a great part for many neocons.


Norfolk, Va.: After reading books like Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Fiasco and The End of Iraq, were Feith, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld so out of touch with reality that they ignored the facts to fit their own mindset? Also the Reagan and Bush regimes in the 1980s played footsie with Saddam up until the eve of the Gulf War. Were they totally blind to what he was doing or did they conveniently turn their backs on it?

Jacob Heilbrunn: They were living in their own dream palace, I'm afraid. It was Wolfowitz, let's remember, who backstabbed Gen. Eric Shinseki, who had testified to the Senate that an occupation of Iraq would require several hundred thousand troops. Wolfowitz marched up a few days later before Congress and said that this was malarkey.

it was none other than Donald Rumsfeld who was Reagan's emissary to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. Talk about irony!


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Interesting you'd equate Brookings as the antithesis to (I'm guessing) Heritage or AEI on the right. I'll take the bet that Brookings' findings aren't nearly so biased.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Fair enough. Brookings is more scholarly. However, Ivo Daalder and other former Clinton officials hang their hat at Brookings and form a kind of shadow cabinet for the next Democratic president.


Freising, Germany: In your opinion, what was the significance of the "Project for the New American Century" (PNAC) within the neoconservative movement? How influential were the ideas amongst decision makers?

Jacob Heilbrunn: Not to be discounted, for sure. It blasted out faxes and documents, feeding the fever for war, long before 9/11.


Berryville, Va.: I think the failure of the neocons' favorite candidate Giuliani shows their ideas don't have mass appeal.

Who are the people besides Rupert Murdoch who give money to the magazines and think tanks that enable the neocons put out ideas that havelittle support in the general population?

Jacob Heilbrunn: There are various wealthy individuals who help finance it, including Roger Hertog, who helps support AEI and Commentary magazine, and used to be a part owner of the New Republic. Giuliani has flamed out, but, as noted earlier, I think McCain is the real neocon candidate. If he gets into office, things could get really interesting--he sees himself as a kind of Theodore Roosevelt figure, someone, incidentally, that neocons such as Robert Kagan and David Brooks admire greatly. And of course there is much to admire in TR, though whether he would be a neocon today is another question.


Olney, Md.: The success of the neocons shows how easy (how frighteningly easy) it is to achieve your goal, if your only goal is simply to create chaos.

The only goal the neocons have ever had is to keep the Americans in a perpetual state of war with the Moslem world.

This they have achieved, and will continue to achieve.

Jacob Heilbrunn: This would certainly be the case for Norman Podhoretz, who believes we are engaged in nothing less than "World War IV."


Palo Alto, Calif.: Two questions. As Tom Ricks noted again today in a chat here, there can be little doubt that the neocons' foreign policy prescriptions are a fiasco for the United States (whatever metric we use) both in the near-term and long-term. Why is it that the Republican candidates continue to listen to these people? It is like promoting failure after failure. It makes no sense. Your informed opinion would be most appreciated.

Secondly, you appear to suggest in the summary of your book(as others like Walt and Mearsheimer have) that the neocons are in service of Israel. However, their policy prescriptions have not seemed to make Israel any safer (witness their own Hezbollah fiasco), and in fact a majority of Israelis oppose the neocon policies because they are immoral, illegal and worst of all, demonstrably catastrophic for every society affected by them. My question: if the neocons are not in the service of Israel, then who are their masters? The War Over the War: Tom Ricks Discussion (, Feb. 5)

Jacob Heilbrunn: Most neocons do not believe that their policies have been a failure. They argue that the surge is working and that wimpy liberals don't have the guts to go for victory. The GOP wants to play the national security card in the 2008 election--it's worked for decades now--by painting the Democrats as pusillanimous, incapable of defending America. McCain would be the most strident proponent of continuing neoconservative policies.

I do not believe that the neocons are in the service of Israel. They do genuinely want to assist Israel. The neocons don't have any masters. They are a fairly rambunctious group of intellectuals who have skillfully pushed their point of view forward, even though their own numbers are rather slender. They are, at bottom, warrior intellectuals.


Washington, D.C.: A friend of mine (who is brilliant) was saying that the neocons are similar to the Gaullists in France. They both believe in universalizing what they see as their countries' values. As a smaller power, the Gaullists use international institutions, rather than unilateralism. My friend said that if William Kristol were in France, he would have views similar to Dominique de Villepin, and vice versa.

Jacob Heilbrunn: There's a lot of justice to that assertion, which is an intriguing one that hadn't occurred to me. But however brilliant your friend may be, he appears to have overlooked the fact that Villepin has been courting Hugo Chavez and other Third World kleptocrats, as the Wall Street Journal complained in an editorial yesterday. So I'm not sure that this comparison is dispositive.


New York, N.Y.: What does your title refer to? The neocons' failure to grasp reality, or their hope/faith that history will eventually validate their views? Thanks.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Both. I lifted it from Anthony Trollope's novel, "He Knew He Was Right."


NYC: Iran is the next target of the neocon agenda for Middle East colonization. It's my understanding Iran has a functioning Parliament and, in fact, has at least one Jewish member. It's also my understanding Saudi Arabia, our "ally," denies entry to any person with an Israeli stamp on their passport. How will the neocons spin the whole "democracy" thing when they try to sell an assault on Iran?

Jacob Heilbrunn: The neocon contention is that a mass Solidarity-style uprising could be in the cards in Iran, if only the U.S. would support it. For now, I don't think an assault on Iran is in the offing. However, it's possible that Hillary Clinton might order one.


Providence, R.I.: Where do you see Condoleezza Rice in the neocon universe?

Accounts of her career say that Bush 'converted' her from a foreign policy realist to more of a neocon, which disappointed Bush the first.

Jacob Heilbrunn: She will maintain relations with the neocons. I don't see her as ideological. Her prime goal is the advancement of her own career.


New York, N.Y.: Regarding religion and foregin policy -- don't the neocons have a moral test when it comes to national leaders? That you do business with those who are good and moral (respect freedom and democracy), and chuck out the immoral dictators? I thought that's where the Bush administration's with us/against us, don't talk with enemies philosophy came from.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Excellent, you're quite right about the us/against them. However, I don't see the neocons posing moral tests about leaders.


New York, N.Y.: Don't neocons simply make the argument that invading Iraq >was the right thing to do -- it was just badly handled? If the concept of preemptive war and removing dictators has been discredited, how else do they make their mark on U.S. foreign policy? Thanks.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Exactly. They did make that argument for awhile, and continue to try and dump responsibility for the mess in the lap of Paul Bremer, who was head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. At least this is the argument that Douglas Feith makes. Richard Perle, I believe, argues that if only Ahmed Chalabi had been supported more vigorously, all might be well.

Today, however, William Kristol and others argue that the surge has turned the tide in Iraq. Victory is within our grasp. Gen. David Petraeus, who is emphasizing counterinsurgency tactics, which should have been followed at the outset, is their new hero.


South Range, Wisc.: Every scientific theory is subject to change with new scientific revelations and data. Because of this scientists tend to be open- minded, or at least willing to listen to other viewpoints, making change possible. Do you think more scientific training would benefit ideologues or religious types who are prone to absolutism and tunnel vision?

Jacob Heilbrunn: If only. I'm afraid many neocons are locked into a simplistic, binary view of the world. Their detractors might say that it's the foreign policy equivalent of a pre-Copernican mindset.


Centreville, Va.: The American humorist Artemus Ward said, "I've given two cousins to war and stand ready to sacrifice my wife's brother." This, to me, characterizes these "intellectual warriors" as you describe them. Do you think that they have any sense of the costs of their ideology, or care?

Jacob Heilbrunn: Nope, they don't. Norman Podhoretz thinks the Iraq war is a grand success and that liberal traitors are subverting the war effort. Others do care, however. I should single out my friend Lawrence F. Kaplan, the editor of a new magazine called World Affairs. He traveled six times to Iraq and the realities there prompted him to perform something of a U-turn. I wish more had his discernment and courage in rethinking their views.


Princeton, N.J.:1. Why can't the neocons see that the surge has brought increased security at the cost of increased divisiveness? Now we have Sunni militia to fight the Shia militias. Now Baghdad is a collection of walled, armed, ethnically cleansed enclaves.

2. How do the neocons feel about the erosion of basic liberties in the U.S.? The loss of habeas corpus, the right to privacy, the validation of the Eichman defense. There is an article in th N.Y. Times today about an Afghan hero who engineered a famous prison break against the Taliban who was put in Gitmo without the faintest vestage of due process. He died there on Dec. 30, 2007.

Jacob Heilbrunn: I fear that the surge is of limited efficacy and that the U.S. will be mired in Iraq for many years to come--Andrew J. Bacevich had an excellent piece a week ago in the Post's Outlook section. He essentially called the surge a fairy tale.

I know that the erosion of liberties may be the Bush administration's most pernicious legacy. It turns my stomach to think about it. The U.S. is now regarded as the most dangerous country in the world by much of the rest of it--as a rogue nation. How the Bush administration recklessly squandered the goodwill it enjoyed after 9/11 is a question that will preoccupy journalists and historians for decades to come. These are the true fruits of the war on terror.


New York: I'd like to further the question about sacrifice.

Most neocons I'm aware of also support Bush's policies in terms of military spending and taxes, including the tax cuts for the wealthy. It leads to an outcome where military contractors not only do not sacrifice for the war, they profit from it. Same goes for the wealthy, in that the burdens of the deficit are now redistributed to the middle and lower classes. Does anyone in the neocon movement worry about how elitist, if not downright feudal, their whole agenda is?

Jacob Heilbrunn: No, it is an elitist movement. It has adopted the GOP mantra that low tax cuts inevitably lead to greater prosperity. In any case, most neocons don't pay much mind any more to domestic policy.


Fairfax City, Va.: I put your book on hold at the library and look forward to reading it, but I can't help but notice that all the questions in this chat relate to foreign policy. You mention that the term "neocon" has come to represent certain foreign policy views. Granted. But don't you feel a responsibility to explain that the term didn't come to be as a foreign-policy prescription, but has something to do with social issues, the role and size of government in domestic policy, etc.?

I often wonder how someone who supports, say, welfare reform would react to being called a neocon. Perhaps that's not the best example; Daniel P. Moynihan was a neocon who had issues with welfare reform. But he diagnosed the problem.

You see where I'm going with this. Does your book talk about neocons who "knew they were right" about social issues in which, I would argue, they've been much more validated than in areas of foreign policy?

Jacob Heilbrunn: Great question. You're right: neocons originally did devote a great deal of attention to domestic issues. Moynihan is one of my heroes. So is Daniel Bell. But in the past decade or so, neocons have focused almost exclusively on foreign policy.


Jacob Heilbrunn: Thanks so much for the wonderful questions! I always learn a lot from talking about these issues. I should mention that I'm a senior editor at the National Interest, which covers a lot of these topics as well.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive