Review of Justin Vaïsse, Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), 366 p.
by Stephen J. Sniegoski
The mainstream media acclaim Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement as the best book on neoconservatism—the definitive account—and portray its author, Justin Vaïsse, a French specialist on American foreign policy and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, as a veritable Alexis de Tocqueville for his masterly insights. The mainstream’s high praise of this book, however, would seem to be due in large part to its minimization of two taboo issues—neoconservatism’s Jewish nature and its focus on Israel. Where the book breaks through what was heretofore largely blacked-out in the mainstream media is its discussion of the major role played by the neoconservatives in bringing about the war on Iraq.
The black-out had essentially placed the entire idea that the neoconservatives played a central role in bringing about the US attack on Iraq in 2003 beyond the pale of public discussion. In its most extreme form, this approach denied the very existence of neoconservatives. More moderate variants accepted the neocons’ existence but denied their influence on US policy. Instead the war on Iraq was alleged to have been essentially planned by President George W. Bush and/or Dick Cheney; or, for the anti-war Left, the war was brought on by the greedy oil interests or by unnamed nebulous corporatists (presumably gentile). Even to dwell on the neoconservatives could be taken as a sign of being “anti-Semitic.”
Vaïsse, however, candidly writes “that neoconservatism played an important role in launching the war in Iraq,” pointing out that the “neoconservatives had been advocating the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, though not necessarily through direct American intervention, since 1997.” (p. 13) He goes on to show how the neocons, both inside and outside the Bush administration, promoted the bogus intelligence that was able to generate public support for the war.
Vaïsse does offer a faux qualification to his emphasis on the neocons’ role by observing that “the decision to intervene militarily in Iraq cannot be ascribed solely to the influence of neoconservatives. This book seeks to put the intellectual history of the neoconservative movement in perspective so as to avoid errors of distortion.” (p. 13) Vaïsse presumably wants to differentiate his book from those still taboo ones, perhaps like mine, which mentioned the role of the neocons some time ago. But Vaïsse essentially slays a strawman since he does not cite any works that actually attribute the attack on Iraq “solely to the influence of neoconservatives,” and I am not aware of any works making such a claim. I should add here that although reviewers praise Vaïsse’s book as “definitive,” he refrains from mentioning (much less refuting) those works (again mine being one of these) that provided an account of the neocons’ primary role in shaping the Bush II foreign policy on Iraq (which Vaïsse duplicates in a briefer form) and offered substantial proof for the truth of the still tabooed topics.
Vaïsse downplays the significance of Israel and the overall Jewish nature of neoconservatism. At least, that is how the mainstream readers interpret his writing, and that would seem to be the author’s intent since his general interpretations of neoconservatism reflect this minimization. However, if read closely, one can find that interspersed within this book is considerable information, including the author’s direct statements, indicating otherwise.
In minimizing the Jewish nature of neoconservatism, Vaïsse writes that the idea that “neoconservatism is ‘in essence’ a Jewish movement” is “unconvincing,” though acknowledging that the perception that neoconservatism is Jewish is “based on the observation that a majority of neoconservatives are Jews.” (p. 273) He maintains, however, that “many of the most prominent neoconservatives are not Jewish, and the overwhelming majority of American Jews are not neoconservatives.” (p. 273) Now it is obviously true that most American Jews are not neoconservatives, but that no more proves that neoconservatism is not fundamentally Jewish than the fact that most Muslims are not members of Al-Qaida would prove that Al-Qaida is not Islamic, or that most Poles and Polish Americans are not members of the Polish National Catholic Church would prove the latter is not essentially Polish.
Now although there are gentile neocons, it is not apparent that Vaïsse has actually demonstrated that “many of the most prominent neoconservatives are not Jewish.” For example, Vaïsse places Patrick Moynihan into this category. In neoconservatism’s early years, Moynihan did espouse ideas held by the neocons, but he was a significant individual before the neocons supported him, and their backing would simply reflect, in large part, their need to attach themselves to influential allies who held views consonant with their own. Moynihan’s positions would diverge from those of the neocons in the 1980s.
Henry Jackson, whom Vaïsse describes at length, was an unreconstructed hard-line Cold War warrior and devotee of Israel, who certainly staffed his office with younger neoconservatives, but cannot be called a bona fide neoconservative any more than Dick Cheney, whom Vaïsse explicitly describes as a neoconservative ally as opposed to an actual neoconservative (p. 149), but who likewise served as a neocon patron. And it would seem that Cheney was more deserving of the neocon designation since he actually adopted the neocon agenda, whereas Jackson’s already existing positions converged with those of the neocons.
Vaïsse refers to Admiral Zumwalt as “yet another example of a non-Jewish neoconservative” (p. 108) because of his support for both hard-line Cold War policies and for Israel. But Zumwalt is not conventionally known as a neoconservative. He did not have long-term intimate connections with the neoconservative network, and was simply a significant person in his own right whose views converged with those of the neoconservatives. Zumwalt was associated with the neocons far less than Dick Cheney, who, as just pointed out, is described by Vaïsse as a neoconservative ally, rather than a true neoconservative. (p. 149)
It is quite apparent that most major figures in the neoconservative movement such as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Michael Ledeen, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and Bill Kristol have been Jewish along with most of their associates. And those generally identified as neoconservatives are distinguished by more than just their ideas; they have formed and sustained close working and personal connections between themselves over a long period of time. Neoconservatism essentially involves a network of people which has been perpetuated by becoming institutionalized in a number of influential think tanks and organizations. These close ties help to explain the neocons’ great power, which far exceeds their rather limited numbers.
Social anthropologist Janine R. Wedel, the author of Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market, describes the successful neocon network as a “flex group,” which she defines as an informal faction adept at “playing multiple and overlapping roles and conflating state and private interests. These players keep appearing in different incarnations, ensuring continuity even as their operating environments change.” (Quoted in The Transparent Cabal, p. 29) Vaïsse makes reference to this network when he writes of “a definite clannishness to the neoconservative movement” (p. 206), but nonetheless when looking for prominent gentile neocons includes people outside of this network who simply have collaborated with the neocons, though in a few places he does make a distinction–for example, when he differentiates “hard-core neoconservatives” from “pragmatic hawks such as Nitze and Kampelman.” (p. 195)
While claiming the existence of important gentile neoconservatives, Vaïsse acknowledges that Jews make up the majority of its membership, but then goes on to downplay the significance of this fact, maintaining that there is nothing extraordinary about such Jewish overrepresentation because “Jews are disproportionately represented in almost all left and liberal political movements in the United States, as well as among intellectuals.” (p. 273) Although Jews may be represented in many groups in numbers exceeding their proportion of the American population, it is not apparent that most intellectual movements have been, or are, so overwhelmingly Jewish as neoconservatism. Moreover, it should be pointed out that if anyone unsympathetic to Jewish interests were to allege such extensive Jewish predominance, he or she would almost certainly be branded as an “anti-Semite,” not only by the Jewish establishment but by the same mainstream liberals who now applaud Vaïsse’s work.
But it is not solely the numbers involved that leads one to consider neoconservatism a Jewish movement, but rather the fact that it promotes Jewish interests, though the very fact that the group is predominately Jewish would seem to indicate that it would be biased toward Jewish interests. Certainly, it is unlikely that groups dominated by Arabs or African-Americans would have such a deep commitment to the Jewish state (which will be discussed next). In fact, the conventional view in contemporary America is that the composition of a group does affect its outlook and thus provides the rationale for demanding diversity in all governmental organizations in the United States. One wonders why Jewish dominance would be any different than white dominance or male dominance?
But more than this prima facie presumption, however, there is definite evidence of the Jewish orientation of the neoconservative agenda. For example, the original flagship of the neoconservative movement was Commentary magazine, which was put out by the American Jewish Committee, and was edited for many years by Norman Podhoretz. The American Jewish Committee pronounced as its mission: “To safeguard the welfare and security of Jews in the United States, in Israel, and throughout the world.” (Quoted in The Transparent Cabal, p. 26). And as Murray Friedman, the author of The Neoconservative Revolution: Jewish Intellectuals and the Shaping of Public Policy, notes: “A central element in Podhoretz’s evolving views, which would soon become his and many of the neocons’ governing principle was the question, ‘Is It Good for the Jews,’ the title of a February 1972 ‘Commentary’ piece.” (Quoted in The Transparent Cabal, p. 27)
Another significant component of the neocon nexus is the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), which was set up in 1976 to put “the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship first.” In the late 1980s, JINSA widened its focus to U.S. defense and foreign policy in general, without dropping its focus on Israel. JINSA’s advisory board has included such notable neocons and neocon allies as Stephen Bryen, Douglas Feith, Michael Ledeen, Joshua Muravchik, Richard Perle, Kenneth Timmerman, John Bolton, R. James Woolsey and Dick Cheney. While the existence of Bolton, Cheney, Woolsey would show the support of some gentiles for Jewish interests, the very name of the organization indicates its ethno-religious orientation.
The origins of neoconservatism sprang from American Jews dismayed about the turn of American liberalism and the world Left, with which most Jewish intellectuals historically had been aligned, to positions perceived as contrary to Jewish interests—support for racial quotas (which might threaten Jewish predominance in many important fields), animosity to Israel (as a racist, colonialist state), and growing anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and other Communist Eastern European states. Vaïsse goes over these Jewish concerns (pp. 58-64), without, in the end, giving them much importance in his overall assessment of neoconservative motivation.
It would seem that Vaïsse attempts to denigrate the idea of a connection between neoconservatism and Jews by writing that “only the white-supremacist extremist right (Kevin McDonald [sic] in Occidental Quarterly, for example) pushes this ethnic logic to its conclusion by considering neoconservatism as one possible expression of Jewishness.” (p. 273). Designating MacDonald (correct spelling) a “white supremacist” would presumably serve to make this type of thinking anathema in the mainstream, and it neatly avoids dealing with the very extensive data showing very strong Jewish identities and commitment to Israel of the key neocons. Considering the alacrity with which Vaïsse makes his racial supremacy charge, it is ironic—but understandable given the requisite intellectual double standards in the American mainstream—that he fails to make any effort to show how the neoconservatives’ preachment of global democracy meshes with support for the ethnically-based state of Israel, which could be classified as a Jewish-supremacist state.
Also, considering the mainstream hosannas about Vaïsse’s alleged definitive account of neoconservatism, it is ironic that he fails to mention the Jews who have pointed out the Jewish nature of neoconservatism, which would militate against the observation’s stigma of anti-Semitism. For example, Vaïsse does not refer to the aforementioned Murray Friedman or Gal Beckerman, who wrote in the noted Jewish newspaper Forward in January 2006: “[I]t is a fact that as a political philosophy, neoconservatism was born among the children of Jewish immigrants and is now largely the intellectual domain of those immigrants’ grandchildren.” In fact, Beckerman went so far as to maintain that “[i]f there is an intellectual movement in America to whose invention Jews can lay sole claim, neoconservatism is it.” (Quoted in The Transparent Cabal, p. 26)
Vaïsse also neglects the work of Jewish-American historian Paul Gottfried who has written extensively on the neoconservatives for three decades in numerous books and articles, and who clearly recognizes the Jewish nature of the movement. Gottfried, who wrote the introduction for my book, The Transparent Cabal, states that “the term ‘neoconservative’ is now too closely identified with the personal and ethnic concerns of its Jewish celebrities. . . . It is increasingly useless to depend on out-group surrogates to repackage a movement so clearly rooted in a particular ethnicity – and even subethnicity (Eastern European Jews).” (Quoted in Transparent Cabal, pp. 28-29)
It should be added that none of these three Jewish authors can in any sense be called “self-hating” Jews, the derogatory moniker used by pro-Zionists to delegitimize any criticism by Jews of Israel or other Jewish interests. Even Gottfried, who is highly critical of neoconservatives, is friendly towards Israel.
And now the issue of Israel, the significance of which to the neocons Vaïsse explicitly plays down. However, while maintaining that “Zionism is not the right key to understanding them [neoconservatives],” he acknowledges that “The Jewish state . . . had been important to neoconservatives as far back as the 1960s. As the Middle East became central to America’s geopolitical concerns, unconditional support for Israel became increasingly decisive in their approach to international affairs. Seeing the Middle East through ‘Israeli lenses’ led to a distortion of perspective that caused them to underestimate the importance of the Palestinian quest for nationhood in the region’s troubles and to mistake the nature of America’s enemies.” ( pp. 264-65) And he would also write that “in their intellectual and political approach to the Middle East, the close alliance with Israel often led them to identify the Jewish’s [sic] state’s struggle with that of the United States: the same enemy (Islamic terrorists), the same tactics (preventative war, unilateralism, ‘show of force’) and the same cause (‘they hate us for what we are’). This perspective was not analytically sound. Although it was normal for America to worry about the fate of a close ally, this undue identification with Israel and the tendency to see things through an Israeli prism undoubtedly helped to create an inaccurate picture of the region and led to unrealistic policy recommendations.” (p. 265)
Vaïsse’s references to the neocons’ “unconditional support” for Israel, identifying Israel’s “struggle with that of the United States,” “seeing the Middle East through ‘Israeli lenses’,” are about identical to what I maintain in my book. In fact, I had a sense of déjà vu when he referred to “Israeli lenses,” since I had used the term “lens” in the same way a number of times in my book, pointing out, for example, that “the neoconservatives viewed American foreign policy in the Middle East through the lens of Israeli interest.” (The Transparent Cabal, p. 7)
Vaïsse, however, does not illustrate to any degree the neocons’ extensive personal connections to Israel, though he acknowledges that some were strong Zionists, writing that “It is of course true that many third-age neoconservatives (such as Richard Perle, David Wurmser, Douglas Feith, and Elliott Abrams) were close to Israel’s Likud party, but their hard Zionist positions, which were not shared by all neoconservatives, cannot by themselves explain the neoconservative worldview.” (p. 274) Now the individuals he cites have been quite significant in neoconservatism since the 1990s—with Perle and Abrams being so even earlier—so their “hard Zionist positions” would certainly imply the significance of this allegiance in neoconservatism. In fact, Vaïsse fails to bring out their close connections to rightwing Israeli government officials with Perle, Wurmser, and Feith being involved in the 1996 “Clean Break” report, which advised then-incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pursue pre-emptive attacks on Israel’s enemies in ways quite analogous to what the neocons would later propose for the Bush II administration.
It should also be added that Perle, Feith, Bryen, Wolfowitz, and Ledeen have been suspected and sometimes investigated for allegedly providing classified material to agents of the Israeli government. Whether or not they were actually breaking United States laws (and the laws seem to be more relaxed if the foreign state involved is Israel), these episodes clearly illustrated their close connections to the government of Israel.
And the former are not the only neocons to evince “hard Zionist positions.” For example, as I point out in The Transparent Cabal, Norman Podhoretz, who as the long-time editor of Commentary had the power to determine what issues and individuals would be placed in the neoconservative spotlight, identified with the Jewish state to such an extent that, as Murray Friedman writes in The Neoconservative Revolution, “Commentary articles now [1970s] came to emphasize threats to Jews and the safety and security of the Jewish state. By the 1980s, nearly half of Podhoretz’s writings on international affairs centered on Israel and these dangers.” (Quoted in The Transparent Cabal, p. 27) Moreover, at the onset of the Gulf War of 1991, Podhoretz “went to live with his daughter in her home in Jerusalem in order to show his solidarity with Israel, which Saddam had threatened to attack by missiles, and did so to a limited extent.” (The Transparent Cabal, pp. 27-28)
Moreover, Vaïsse neglects to show that the neocons, once they were able to gain dominance in conservative organizations, purged those traditional conservatives who were critical of Israel and American policies that seemed to be guided by Israeli interests. Though referring to the neocon “takeover of the American Enterprise Institute” (p. 206), Vaïsse, with more than a modicum of understatement, writes of “increasing neoconservative influence over a number of key institutions in the new [conservative] establishment . . . in other words, a competition for money” and alludes to how this “fueled this bitterness” of some traditional conservatives (p. 208), but fails to mention that the neocons were able to totally marginalize any conservatives who opposed their Israelocentric Middle East agenda—opposition which they branded as “anti-Semitic” —by depriving them of their former sources of institutional support.
It should be noted that there had been a fairly sizeable number of Jewish individuals in the conservative movement for years without arousing the ire of their conservative brethren. What incensed the traditional conservatives therefore was not the neoconservatives’ Jewishness, but rather the latter’s successful efforts to make support for Israel and a pro-Israel Middle East agenda for the United States a litmus test for acceptance by the now neocon-dominated conservative institutions. Vaïsse, however, distorts this episode by implying that the neocons’ traditional conservative opponents were the aggressors and that “a hint of anti-Semitism lay behind these attacks,” and cites long-time conservative icon Russell Kirk, one of the mildest of men, as one of these attackers. (p. 208)
Another factor ignored by Vaïsse is the connection of Israel to the US attack on Iraq. Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, promoted war on Iraq during the period of the war’s build-up. And the Israeli government provided some of the bogus intelligence trumpeted by the neocons to generate support for the war. Furthermore, the very idea of using military force to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s regime would seem to have originated in Israel with Likudnik Oded Yinon’s 1982 work, “A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties,” which called for an overall Israeli war agenda of fragmenting its enemies into small, ethno-sectarian statelets for the purpose of enhancing its own national security. Iraq was designated as the first target.
In short, support for Israel looms very large in neoconservative thinking, but if Vaïsse simply means that the neocons’ identification with Israel does not explain the “neoconservative worldview” in its entirety, this is something with which I concur in my book, The Transparent Cabal. For example, I write: “Undoubtedly, the overall neoconservative viewpoint does not revolve solely around the security needs of Israel, and the same is true even of the neocons’ positions on foreign policy and national-security policy. To state that neoconservatives viewed American foreign policy in the Middle East through the lens of Israeli interest – and that this was the basis of the neocon Middle East war agenda – is not to say that their support for Israel has been the be-all and end-all of their foreign policy ideas, which encompass the entire world.” (The Transparent Cabal, p. 7)
But the neocons have had their greatest impact on American policy in regard to the Middle East, and this is the fundamental concern at the present time. Consequently, what Vaïsse refers to as the neoconservatives’ “unconditional support” for Israel that has led to “unrealistic policy recommendations” is currently far more significant than their positions on Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs or arms limitations agreements with the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s.
However, Vaïsse’s points about the neoconservatives’ “unconditional support” for Israel occupy but a small portion of the book and are thus overwhelmed by a lengthy discussion of the earlier years of neoconservatism, where concern for Israel, though existent, did not loom paramount. Only 50 pages of the book’s narrative of 279 pages cover the neoconservatives’ activities from the post-Cold War 1990s to the present—the time in which their focus on Israel becomes most apparent.
Vaïsse also obfuscates the focus on Israel in his “Epilogue: Interpreting Neoconservatism”—a part that, being at the end of the book, most readers will likely remember and that most reviewers are apt to actually read closely rather than skim. There he portrays the neocons in the area of foreign policy as fundamentally motivated by a mixture of nationalism and universalist democratic ideals, as opposed to an attachment to Israel. “One can see neoconservatism,” he contends, “as a avatar of American messianism, as the expression of an underlying nationalism that has been present since the country was born, a reincarnation of Wilsonianism in a new, more martial form. Owing to American exceptionalism (‘a city on a hill’), the United States has swung from protection to projection, from isolationism (synonymous with preserving the American model) to imperialism (synonymous with extending the model around the world). See [sic] in this light, neoconservatism is above all a sign of the resurgence of this nationalist—but also universalist—faith, on the model of French Jacobin nationalism, an off-shoot of the French Revolution of 1789, which was mixed with a universalist credo.” (p. 278)
Undoubtedly, this type of nationalistic, democratic messianism has existed and still exists in United States, but there would seem to be no reason for this attitude to be connected with what Vaïsse describes earlier in the book as the neocons’ “unconditional support” for Israel. True nationalists—who would be focused solely on what is good for their own country—would not be in favor of “unconditional support” for any foreign country since changing circumstances would mean that such support would not always be in the national interest. In his famous Farewell Address, George Washington expressed this nationalist belief in his admonition to his fellow citizens to eschew a “passionate attachment” to a foreign country, which is exactly what “unconditional support” for Israel constitutes. And as has been widely recognized by Middle East experts in the United States government since the time of Israel’s creation, American support for the Jewish state makes positive relations with the Arab world, which are of crucial importance to the United States because of the region’s oil resources, more difficult.
In regard to exporting democracy, it is not apparent that some major neocon prescriptions, such as bombing Iran, even have that intent. As most experts contend, any United States attack on Iran would unify that country behind the Islamic regime and perhaps lead to revolts by radical Islamic groups throughout the Gulf against pro-Western governments. Moreover, America’s war on Iraq and identification with Israel have made it less popular in the Middle East and the rest the world—the effect of which is to increase the difficulty of extending the American democratic model. It would seem quite obvious that if the goal were to export America’s form of democracy elsewhere in the world, supporting the policies of the Jewish state and making war against its enemies would not be the way to achieve it.
Regarding Israel itself, it would seem that if democracy were the neoconservatives’ watchword, they would work to eliminate Israel’s undemocratic control over the Palestinians on the West Bank and try to make the country itself more inclusive—and not a state explicitly privileging Jews over non-Jews. The neoconservatives would either promote a one-state democratic solution for what had once been the British Palestine Mandate (Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank) or else demand that Israel allow the Palestinians to have a fully sovereign, viable state on all of the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli governments, in contrast, have regarded a one-state solution as anathema and have never offered the Palestinians more than a faux state of non-contiguous bantustans within which Israel would maintain security zones and control vital resources such as water. Similarly, instead of taking anything approaching a pro-democracy stance, the neoconservatives do just the opposite, backing the Israeli Likudnik Right, which takes an especially hostile position toward the Palestinians with its fundamental goal being the maintenance of the exclusivist Jewish nature of the state of Israel.
In making these criticisms, I do not want to leave the impression that there is nothing of value in this book. Vaïsse does a good job of describing some intricacies of the earlier years of neoconservatism (1960s, 1970s and 1980s). Although he does not seem to provide anything to change the broad outlines of the conventional history of neoconservatism, he does add a number of poignant details. For students of neoconology, he must be credited for puncturing as mythical the widespread claim that socialist Michael Harrington coined the term “neoconservative.” (p. 71-76) Vaïsse also makes an interesting point as to how some neocons were still trying to shape the Democratic Party after most migrated to Reagan at the beginning of the 1980s. And he notes that ultimately, after the end of the Cold War, one segment of the Democratic Party, the “neoliberals,” would adopt much of the neoconservatives’ interventionist foreign policy agenda.
As mentioned earlier, Vaïsse must be credited for accurately pointing out that the neoconservatives were the major factor in bringing about the United States’ attack on Iraq in 2003. He notes that the neoconservatives laid the plans for attacking Iraq prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and that those attacks created a climate of fear and anger which enabled the neocons, with their war agenda, to gain the upper hand in the Bush administration. He observes that the neocons, both within and outside the Bush administration, provided the propaganda that generated the public and elite support for the war and that even President George W. Bush was persuaded by them. And he shows that Bush, despite his neoconservative rhetoric, generally moved away from the neoconservative war policy during his second term, though adopting the neocons’ “surge” policy as opposed to the establishment-oriented Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq. Finally, despite America’s failure in Iraq and the nonexistence of actual neoconservatives in the Obama administration, Vaïsse makes the cogent observation that neoconservatism itself has not died, but remains “a potent force in Washington, only waiting for a more favorable political environment in which to exert its influence on American foreign policy again.” (p. 266)
While Vaïsse deserves credit for showing the neocons’ influence during the Bush administration, he only encapsulates what is often said about the neoconservatives outside the restrictive confines of the mainstream media. And I should add that my extensive documentation of this subject in The Transparent Cabal far exceeds what Vaïsse provides in a small portion of his book.
Where Vaïsse achieves some degree of originality is in his typology—his classification of neoconservatism according to somewhat overlapping chronological periods, which he terms “ages,” with each having a distinct agenda, political activities, and people (though he is not the first to make such distinctions). The neoconservatives of the first age, which began in 1965, were concerned about the rise of the New Left, campus violence, the counterculture, affirmative action and the overall leftward drift of American liberalism. Their focus was largely on domestic policy. They criticized the unintended negative consequences of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and while they opposed the radical state-imposed egalitarianism sought by the New Left, they were supporters of the traditional liberal welfare state and remained loyal to the Democratic Party.
I should add that in my view this first age, which consisted of many individuals who did not hold the hard-line foreign policy views that would come to characterize neoconservatism, did not represent full-fledged neoconservatism. Thus, I would describe the individuals of this early period as proto-neoconservatives, with actual neoconservatism not really emerging until the start of the 1970s, as foreign policy became a fundamental concern.
Vaïsse dates 1972 as the beginning of the second age, which he views as a reaction to the nomination of George McGovern as candidate of the Democratic Party. The McGovern movement embodied the anti-war, especially anti-Cold War, ethos that took hold of American liberalism during the Vietnam era. The primary focus of the second age would be on foreign policy, as the neocons supported hard-line Cold War policies against the Soviet Union, in opposition to both what they considered to be the “isolationism” and “appeasement” of the McGovernite Democrats, as well as the Kissingerian détente of the Nixon-Ford administrations. They made strenuous efforts to reclaim the Democratic party for Cold War liberalism, but when President Jimmy Carter seemed to be continuing in the path of the McGovernites, the neocons reluctantly gravitated to Reagan in 1980, gaining positions in his administration, where they helped to craft his hard-line Cold War positions.
Like the second age, the third age, which Vaïsse has beginning in 1995, would also focus on foreign policy. With the Cold War over, the neocons would emphasize the need for global democracy and focus on the transformation of the Middle East. Their more expansive global ambitions reflected the fact that the United States had become the world’s sole superpower. It was during this age that the neocons would achieve their greatest impact, gaining influential positions in the Bush II administration, where they would act as the driving force for the war on Iraq.
Although an interesting typology, I don’t think the ages are as separate as Vaïsse often makes them appear, or at least as how his mainstream reviewers seem to interpret his position. In many respects the ages blend together. Vaïsse sometimes acknowledges this blending when he writes of the convergence between the first and second ages (p. 207 ), and when he acknowledges strong similarities between the second and third ages. (p. 221) Moreover, full-fledged neoconservatives from one age, such as Norman Podhoretz, supported the issues that loomed largest in the succeeding ages. (Norman Podhoretz was involved in all three ages.) The change in ages, therefore, did not represent so much a change in the neoconservative core membership, but rather the change represented the need to address new issues as a result of different circumstances, which did lead to changes in the neocons’ allies.
What Vaïsse fails to bring out clearly is the fact that Jewish interests loomed large in all of his three ages. In the first age, New Left demands for group equality and their efforts to bring chaos to the universities seemed to threaten the higher status of Jews. In the second age, neocons were concerned about liberal Democrats identifying with Third World attacks on Israel, seeking retrenchment of US military involvement that might weaken support for Israel, and advocating a friendlier policy toward the Soviet Union, which was now seen as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. In the third age, the neoconservatives’ promotion of a “democratic” reconfiguration of the Middle East would involve the weakening of Israel’s enemies.
What is one to make of Vaïsse’s work? A positive way of looking at it would be to describe it as the best type of work that can be produced and still receive mainstream attention. For Vaïsse does point out that the neocons were the driving force for the war on Iraq. And he certainly does criticize their war-oriented activities. That he plays down the Jewish nature of neoconservatism and the movement’s focus on Israel could be interpreted as the necessary price to pay for this positive reception; in fact, as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, it is questionable if Vaïsse could have produced a work with an accurate discussion of the taboo subjects. For Brookings includes the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, which was created in 2002 largely by the funding ($13 million) of Haim Saban, who has pledged additional financial support. Saban happens to be a staunch Zionist, who has been quoted as saying: “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel.”
Another way of looking at Vaïsse’s book would be to classify it in the genre of damage control or what Harry Elmer Barnes, a leading revisionist of the history of World War I and World War II, referred to as a “smother-out.” This approach would allow a partial revelation of the truth, as the complete black-out lost credibility, in order to stave off more extensive revelations.
By downplaying the significance of Jewish ethnicity and the centrality of Israel, however, Vaïsse’s work fails to provide much help in understanding the current push by the overall Israel lobby and the government of Israel for war on Iran, which the neoconservatives intended to have as the next major target for the US after the invasion of Iraq. More than serving as a guide for understanding the present, however, truth is good for its own sake since presumably the purpose of history is to best describe what actually happened in the past. What Vaïsse has provided is simply a partial truth that leaves out key elements, which should be recognized by anyone who truly investigates the issue. It would be hoped that the mainstream would open up sufficiently so that this fuller, unadulterated truth would not be shunted to the margins of society. This, however, would appear to be but a forlorn hope. As the 19th century New England poet James Russell Lowell put it: “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne.”
Stephen J. Sniegoski, Ph.D. is an American historian, with a focus on American foreign policy, and the neoconservative involvement in it. His first major work on the subject, “The War on Iraq: Conceived in Israel” was published February 10, 2003, more than a month before the American attack. He is the author of The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel.