The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s time to retire the ‘neocon’ label

National security adviser John Bolton at the White House on March 5.
National security adviser John Bolton at the White House on March 5. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
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Years pass, administrations change, the fortunes of the Nationals wax and wane (mainly wane), but one intellectual fad never seems to go out of style in Washington: rooting out the influence of the dreaded “neoconservatives.” Recent headlines proclaim: “How the neocons captured Donald Trump.” “The continuing lunacy of the neocons.” “Return of the neocons!

What these articles typically lack is any definition of the term, which was coined in the 1970s to describe a small group of liberal intellectuals such as Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol and Jeane Kirkpatrick who left the Democratic Party because they thought it had gone soft on crime and communism. These days, national security adviser John Bolton is often described as a neocon — a charge he adamantly and convincingly denies. He told the Atlantic: “ ‘Journalists often call me a neoconservative. That’s clearly not accurate.’ He quoted Irving Kristol’s quip that a neocon is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. ‘I have never been mugged by reality. I was for Barry Goldwater when I was 15.’ ”

The misuse of the “neocon” label reached an absurd extreme in a Post op-ed by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) in January. “The Trump administration’s embrace of the self-proclaimed new leader of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó,” he wrote, “reeks of the highly ambitious social engineering that has been at the cornerstone of neoconservative thinking for a century. The old gang is back at it.” Leave aside the fact that someone who wants to nationalize the entire health-insurance market is hardly in a position to accuse anyone else of “social engineering.” The bigger issue: Who exactly were the neocons of 1919? To Khanna’s credit, when I called him out on Twitter, he corrected himself, writing that he “meant the 21st century.” “But,” he added, “I have been consistent of talking about the neocon thinking that led to the Iraq blunder and what followed.”

That actually isn’t much of an improvement, because Khanna is repeating the canard that neocons were responsible for the Iraq War. Tiresome repetition doesn’t make this allegation any more accurate. The “neocons” — second-tier officials such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith and vice-presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby — were not the decision-makers. The decision to invade was made by President George W. Bush in consultation with Vice President Richard B. Cheney, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell. None of them would ever label themselves a “neocon.”

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Moreover, a bipartisan majority of both houses approved the use of military force. Are Democratic then-Sens. Joe Biden, John F. Kerry, Charles E. Schumer, Harry M. Reid, Tom Daschle, Hillary Clinton and Dianne Feinstein neocons? What about Democratic then-Reps. Adam B. Schiff, Adam Smith, Eliot L. Engel, Carolyn B. Maloney, Nita M. Lowey, Martin T. Meehan and Edward J. Markey? Hardly. Yet by voting for military action, they had a lot more to do with starting the war (a decision I endorsed at the time and now regard as a mistake) than so-called neocons in the media. In fact, 72 percent of the public supported the decision to go to war — including commentators such as Tucker Carlson and Glenn Greenwald who now hysterically decry “professional war peddlers.” By trying to blame the conflict on a coterie of “neocons,” critics of the Iraq War are absolving everyone else — including, in some cases, themselves — of responsibility for a horrendous collective mistake.

So what the heck is a neocon anyway? Years ago, I suggested neocons were “hard Wilsonians” who were willing to use power to promote American ideals. But that definition never caught on. Instead, the “neocon” label is used as an amorphous term of abuse for foreign-policy hawks — even when, as in Bolton’s case, their views are uncontaminated by any trace of idealism.

Some use the “neocon” label in a more pernicious sense, to suggest that Jews are running U.S. foreign policy. A former CIA officer named Philip Giraldi made the charge more explicit than usual in a 2017 article for a white-supremacist website headlined: “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars. Shouldn’t they recuse themselves when dealing with the Middle East?” His piece was retweeted by another former CIA officer, Valerie Plame Wilson, who has long decried the supposed influence of neocons. She, at first, tried to defend her retweet by claiming “many neocon hawks ARE Jewish,” before issuing a combination of apology and excuse, claiming to have missed “gross undercurrents to this article” (like the headline?). Wilson hasn’t tweeted another word since.

I am by no means suggesting that everyone who uses the neocon label is doing so as an anti-Semitic smear, but the word has been used often enough in that ugly context that it should make any person of goodwill think twice before employing it. “Neoconservatism” once had a real meaning — back in the 1970s. But the label has now become meaningless. With many of those who are described as neocons, including me, fleeing the Trumpified right, the term’s sell-by date has passed. There are more ex-cons than neocons by this point.

Read more:

Molly Roberts: The other problem with Valerie Plame’s horrible anti-Semitic tweet

Katrina vanden Heuvel: The emerging unholy alliance between hawkish Democrats and neoconservatives

John A. Burtka IV: The Weekly Standard is gone. But the future of conservatism is bright.

Joseph A. Mussomeli: Here’s why Trump’s foreign policy terrifies neocons

Max Boot: Why I changed my mind about John Bolton