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Opinion How should we define ‘neoconservative’?

Former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 2, 2001.
Former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 2, 2001. (Ron Edmonds/AP)
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I have great respect for Max Boot, who occasionally edited my contributions to the Wall Street Journal editorial page, but he seemed intentionally opaque in his March 14 op-ed, “Who’s a ‘neocon’?,” regarding a leading foreign policy philosophy.

A “neoconservative” believes that other countries are a threat to us if they have different domestic political systems, so they must be defeated by all necessary means, including military force. In the Cold War, this argued for a policy of “rollback” vs. the Soviet Union, rather than the ultimately successful containment policy. In 2003, it compelled the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and in 2011 the regime-change intervention in Libya, both of which fostered extremism.

The opposing political philosophy is “realism,” which contends that we should largely ignore the domestic politics of other countries, generally rely on deterrence and resort to force only in response to foreign aggression. Realism has its faults, but neoconservatism is responsible for our recent foreign policy catastrophes.

That some anti-Semites use the term inappropriately should not compel us to abandon it or to excuse the experts who have embraced this failed philosophy.

Alan J. Kuperman, Austin

Max Boot lamented the too-liberal application of the “neocon” label. In the private lavatory just off then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s (D-N.Y.) office were two framed magazine covers: one, a 1979 edition of the Nation titled “Pat Moynihan: the Conscience of a Neoconservative”; the other, a 1981 edition of the New Republic titled “Pat Moynihan, Neo-Liberal.”

For Moynihan, the fight against the use and misuse of political labels, and against “semantic infiltration” generally, was important. The term “neoconservative” had been coined in epithet by sociologist Michael Harrington in 1973, directed at those who ostensibly refused to accept that the country was moving left. Then, such people, mostly (proclaimed) “former Trotskyites,” were concerned with domestic issues. In time, however, they and their heirs, both literal and intellectual, associated more with foreign affairs, with the projection of U.S. military strength abroad. Domestic matters became the province of the “neoliberals” and “third-way” progressivism.

Notwithstanding the crossed pedigree and obfuscating nomenclature, however, the “neocon” label was, as Moynihan wrote in 1983, “too resonant of the 1930s epithet ‘Social Fascist’ ” — the Comintern’s label for social democrats — for him to find any comfort in it, at least electorally. That is to say, neoconservative origins were not too right; they were too left.

Matthew W. Cloud, Bethesda

The writer was special assistant to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan from 1998 to 2001.