Samuel Brittan: Neoconservatism unmasked

By Samuel Brittan

Financial Times

Published: October 22 2004


Edited by Irwin Stelzer

Atlantic Books, £19.99

Who exactly are those mysterious “neocons” who urge a hawkish foreign policy on the US? It does not help simply to use the word as a term of abuse, as monetarism was used in the 1980s. A new book, edited by Irwin Stelzer, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute think-tank, will not necessarily make many converts but should at least help us to know what we are talking about.

The best known of the neocon founding fathers is the social commentator Irving Kristol who was a student Trotskyite, then a liberal in the American sense - that is, a proponent of New Deal type intervention - but eventually became a “neoconservative”. He coined this expression in the early 1970s and wanted to drop it in the mid-1990s when he believed that the ideas had become part of mainstream American conservatism.

But the concept was revived by others, including his son William, in the late 1990s as part of the Project for a New American Century, a foreign policy ginger group.

Conventional denunciations of neocons overlook the fact that for many years they were distinguished mainly by their views on domestic policy. In the early 1970s there were two kinds of conservatives in the US. There were the traditionalists, usually white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, instinctively suspicious of too much democracy, pessimistic in outlook and devoted in economics to sound money and balanced budgets. Then there were the libertarians who wanted as many decisions as possible taken by individuals in the marketplace rather than by the state. Many of them sympathised on social issues with the permissive attitudes of the cultural descendants of the 1960s.

The neoconservatives embraced a third way that was not afraid of the expansion of government activity except in so far as it enabled citizens to shirk their moral responsibilities. They were in fact early communitarians who attached a special value to, for instance, local government, parent-teacher associations and, above all, religion. They also embraced the supply-siders who pushed tax cuts even at the expense of big budget deficits.

What unites these rather disparate attitudes is an enthusiastic belief in American-style democracy, which likes government programmes but is intolerant of taxes to pay for them.

Their support for democracy carries over into foreign policy. Based on the misleading doctrine that democracies do not wage aggressive war, they believe that a highly interventionist American foreign policy aimed at regime change will eventually bring a more peaceful world as well as advance US national interests. Long before the Iraq issue arrived, they were pointing their fingers at Iran and North Korea.

But the democracy that is supported is of a strongly Republican flavour: there is little time for European democracies that are hostile to a so-called “muscular” US foreign policy.

Just as Thatcherism was a product of British conditions, so neoconservatism is a uniquely American product that others can admire or detest, but hardly emulate, despite the best efforts of some - such as The Times' Michael Gove - to prove the contrary.

The crusading moralism, both domestic and international, explains why there is a Tony Blair speech in this book. Blair supporters would think of him as a liberal interventionist, keen on nation building, rather than a neocon. What differentiates the two is the optimistic Blairite belief in international action, preferably through the United Nations, by contrast with American willingness to go it with just a handful of close allies.

I find this holier-than-thou attitude unappetising on either side of the Atlantic. There is another kind of liberalism, stemming from Richard Cobden, the English statesman, and represented today by the Cato Institute, the US think-tank, which combines free market economics with great caution about intervening in other countries' affairs. Moreover, it is profoundly hostile to the support for reasons of realpolitik of odious dictatorships such as that of Uzbekistan. We shall be hearing more of this thinking.

Meanwhile, there is one issue that cannot be avoided. Although some 80 per cent of Jewish voters support the Democrats, Jewish personalities are still prominent among the neocons. This is fairly convincingly attributed in this book to the traditional interest of some Jewish intellectuals in political ideology, whether that of the left, where they started, or in conservatism today. But their numbers and influence are insufficient to account for the support of the Bush administration for Ariel Sharon's Likud party in Israel.

It is a pity that the book does not contain more on the tacit coalition with Christian fundamentalists, who not only share the neocon dislike of the permissive society but who also, in extreme cases, see the reborn state of Israel as a precursor to the arrival of a Christian messiah. At this point we are near the fantasy world of the Da Vinci Code and similar thrillers - but also not too far from some of George W. Bush's strongest supporters.