In our own time — and especially since the ascendancy of George W. Bush to the presidency — “neoconservative” has become a term of opprobrium, frequently accompanied by ad hominem attacks and charges of arrogance and hubris. But the heat generated by the term also stands as a backhanded tribute, an acknowledgment that the neoconservative impact has been substantial. It is today too soon to offer a comprehensive assessment of that impact. The discussion of neoconservatism offered here has a more modest objective, namely, to suggest that one aspect of the neoconservative legacy has been to foster the intellectual climate necessary for the emergence of the new American militarism.
As a practical matter, the task of reinventing neoconservatism for a post-Communist world — and of spelling out an “imperial self-definition” of American purpose — fell to a new generation. To promote that effort, leading members of that new generation created their own institutions.
The passing of the baton occurred in 1995. That year, Norman Podhoretz stepped down as editor of Commentary. That same year, William Kristol founded a new journal, the Weekly Standard, which in short order established itself as the flagship publication of second-generation neoconservatives. Although keeping faith with neoconservative principles that Commentary had staked out over the previous two decades — and for a time even employing Norman’s son John Podhoretz in a senior editorial position — the Standard was from the outset an altogether different publication. From its founding, Commentary had been published by the American Jewish Committee, an august and distinctly nonpartisan entity. The Weekly Standard relied for its existence on the largesse of Rupert Murdoch, the notorious media mogul. Unlike Commentary, which had self-consciously catered to an intellectual elite, the Standard — printed on glossy paper, replete with cartoons, caricatures, and political gossip — had a palpably less lofty look and feel. It was by design smart rather than stuffy. Whereas Commentary had evolved into a self-consciously right-wing version of the self-consciously progressive Dissent, the Standard came into existence as a neoconservative counterpart to the neoliberal New Republic. Throughout Norman Podhoretz’s long editorial reign, Commentary had remained an urbane and sophisticated journal of ideas, aspiring to shape the terms of political debate even as it remained above the muck and mire of politics as such. Beginning with volume 1, number 1, the editors of the Standard did not disguise the fact that they sought to have a direct and immediate impact on policy; not ideas as such but political agitation defined the purpose of this new enterprise.
Better than anything else, location told the tale. Commentary‘s editorial offices were on Manhattan’s East Side; for first-generation neoconservatives, the East River on one side and the Hudson on the other defined the universe. In contrast, the Standard set up shop just a few blocks from the White House; for William Kristol and his compatriots, the perimeter of the Washington Beltway delineated the world that mattered.
The Power of Positive Thinking
What emerged as the hallmarks of this postâ€“Cold War variant of neoconservatism? Unlike their elders, second-generation neoconservatives did not define themselves in opposition — to Communism, to the New Left, or to the sixties. Theirs was no longer an “ideology of anti-ideology.” Rather, they were themselves advocates of a positive ideological agenda, a theology that brought fully into view the radical implications — in John Judis’s formulation, the “inverted Trotskyism” — embedded within the neoconservative insurgency from the outset.
Fearing the implications certain to flow from an America that was weak or tormented by self-doubt, the elder statesmen of the neoconservative movement had labored to restore to the idea of American power the legitimacy that it had possessed prior to the sixties. With American power now fully refurbished — and seemingly vindicated by the outcome of the Cold War — the second generation went a step further, promulgating the notion that the moment was now ripe for the United States to use that power — especially military power — to achieve the final triumph of American ideals. In this sense, the neoconservatives who gravitated to the Weekly Standard showed themselves to be the most perceptive of all of Woodrow Wilson’s disciples. For the real Wilson (in contrast to either the idealized or the demonized Wilson) had also seen military power as an instrument for transforming the international system and cementing American primacy.
Efforts to promote “a neo-Reaganite foreign policy of military supremacy and moral confidence” found expression in five convictions that together form the foundation of second-generation neoconservative thinking about American statecraft.
First was the certainty that American global dominion is, in fact, benign and that other nations necessarily see it as such. Thus, according to Charles Krauthammer, a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard, “we are not just any hegemon. We run a uniquely benign imperium. This is not mere self-congratulation; it is a fact manifest in the way others welcome our power.”
However much they might grumble, the baby-boomer neocons believed, other nations actually yearned for the United States to lead and, indeed, to sustain its position as sole superpower, seeing American dominance as both compatible with their own interests and preferable to any remotely plausible alternative. Despite “all bleating about hegemony, no nation really wants genuine multipolarity,” Robert Kagan observed in this regard. “Not only do countries such as France and Russia shy away from the expense of creating and preserving a multipolar world; they rightly fear the geopolitical consequences of destroying American hegemony.” According to Kagan, the cold hard reality of U.S. supremacy was sure to have “a calming effect on the international environment, inducing other powers to focus their energies and resources elsewhere.” Joshua Muravchik concurred; rather than eliciting resistance, American dominance could be counted on to “have a soothing effect on the rest of the world.” With the passing of the Cold War, wrote Charles Krauthammer, “an ideologically pacified North seeks security and order by aligning its foreign policy behind that of the United States… [This] is the shape of things to come.”
Failure on the part of the United States to sustain its imperium would inevitably result in global disorder, bloody, bitter, and protracted: this emerged as the second conviction animating neoconservatives after the Cold War. As a result, proposals for organizing the world around anything other than American power elicited derision for being woolly-headed and fatuous. Nothing, therefore, could be allowed to inhibit the United States in the use of that power.
On this point no one was more emphatic than Krauthammer. “Collective security is a mirage,” he wrote. For its part, “the international community is a fiction.” “‘The allies’ is a smaller version of ‘the international community’–and equally fictional.” “The United Nations is guarantor of nothing. Except in a formal sense, it can hardly be said to exist.” As a result, “when serious threats arise to American national interests… unilateralism is the only alternative to retreat.”
Or more extreme still, “The alternative to unipolarity is chaos.” For Krauthammer the incontrovertible fact of unipolarity demanded that the United States face up to its obligations, “unashamedly laying down the rules of world order and being prepared to enforce them.” The point was one to which younger neoconservatives returned time and again. For Kristol and Robert Kagan, the choice facing Americans was clear-cut. On the one hand loomed the prospect of “a decline in U.S. power, a rise in world chaos, and a dangerous twenty-first century”; on the other hand was the promise of safety, achieved through “a Reaganite reassertion of American power and moral leadership.” There existed “no middle ground.”
A Military Transformation of the International Order
The third conviction animating second-generation neoconservatives related to military power and its uses. In a nutshell, they concluded that nothing works like force. Europeans, wrote Robert Kagan, might imagine themselves “entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realization of Kant’s ‘Perpetual Peace.’” Americans of a neoconservative bent knew better. In their judgment, the United States remained “mired in history, exercising power in the anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws are unreliable and where true security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might.” Employing that military might with sufficient wisdom and determination could bring within reach peace, prosperity, democracy, respect for human rights, and American global primacy extending to the end of time.
The operative principle was not to husband power but to put it to work — to take a proactive approach. “Military strength alone will not avail,” cautioned Kagan, “if we do not use it actively to maintain a world order which both supports and rests upon American hegemony.” For neoconservatives like Kagan, the purpose of the Defense Department was no longer to defend the United States or to deter would-be aggressors but to transform the international order by transforming its constituent parts. Norman Podhoretz had opposed U.S. intervention in Vietnam “as a piece of arrogant stupidity” and had criticized in particular the liberal architects of the war for being “only too willing to tell other countries exactly how to organize their political and economic institutions.” For the younger generation of neoconservatives, instructing others as to how to organize their countries — employing coercion if need be — was not evidence of arrogant stupidity; it was America’s job.
By implication, neoconservatives were no longer inclined to employ force only after having exhausted all other alternatives. In the 1970s and 1980s, the proximate threat posed by the Soviet Union had obliged the United States to exercise a certain self-restraint. Now, with the absence of any counterweight to American power, the need for self-restraint fell away. Indeed, far from being a scourge for humankind, war itself — even, or perhaps especially, preventive war — became in neoconservative eyes an efficacious means to serve idealistic ends. The problem with Bill Clinton in the 1990s was not that he was reluctant to use force but that he was insufficiently bloody-minded. “In Haiti, in Somalia, and elsewhere” where the United States intervened, lamented Robert Kagan, “Clinton and his advisers had the stomach only to be halfway imperialists. When the heat was on, they tended to look for the exits.” Such halfheartedness suggested a defective appreciation of what power could accomplish. Neoconservatives knew better. “Military conquest,” enthused Muravchik, “has often proved to be an effective means of implanting democracy.” Michael Ledeen went even further, declaring that “the best democracy program ever invented is the U.S. Army.” “Peace in this world,” Ledeen added, “only follows victory in war.”
By their own lights, the neoconservatives of the 1990s did not qualify as warmongers, but once having gotten a whiff of gunpowder during the Persian Gulf War of 1990â€“91, they developed a hankering to repeat the experience. The neoconservative complaint about Operation Desert Storm was that President George H. W. Bush and his commanders had failed to press the attack. In their eyes, the war demonstrated that the U.S. military was a superb instrument wielded by excessively timid officers, of whom General Colin Powell was the ultimate embodiment. “One of the [Gulf] war’s important lessons,” wrote one neoconservative, “is that America’s military leadership is far too cautious… Now the success of that campaign has had the effect of enhancing the prestige of our military leadership while doing little or nothing to change its underlying attitude to fighting. Thus today and tomorrow it may feel even less inhibited in opposing the use of force than it did before the Gulf war.” Indeed, promoting the assertive use of American military power became central to the imperial self-definition devised by second-generation neoconservatives.
Using force to advance the prospects of peace and democracy implied that the United States ought to possess military power to spare. The fourth conviction animating second-generation neoconservatives was a commitment to sustaining and even enhancing American military supremacy. Recall that throughout the 1990s, even before Osama bin Laden declared his jihad against America, U.S. defense spending remained at Cold War levels despite the absence of the Cold War. Even so, neoconservatives assessed the Pentagon’s budget as completely inadequate and pressed for more. Highly respected historians of a neoconservative persuasion even charged that the United States was repeating the folly of Great Britain in the period between the world wars: engaging in de facto unilateral disarmament. With the Cold War now history, it seemed, the world was becoming even more dangerous, and the United States therefore needed more military power than ever before. Whether or not a proximate threat existed, it was incumbent upon the Pentagon to maintain the capability “to intervene decisively in every critical region” of the world.
To alarmists, the prospect of conflict without end beckoned. Surveying the world, Frederick W. Kagan, brother of Robert, concluded in 1999 that “America must be able to fight Iraq and North Korea, and also be able to fight genocide in the Balkans and elsewhere without compromising its ability to fight two major regional conflicts. And it must be able to contemplate war with China or Russia some considerable (but not infinite) time from now.” The peace that followed victory was to be a long time coming.
Dealing with the “Professional Pessimists”
The fifth and final conviction that imparted a distinctive twist to the views of second-generation neoconservatives was their hostility toward realism, whether manifesting itself as a deficit of ideals (as in the case of Henry Kissinger) or an excess of caution (as in the case of Colin Powell). As long as the Cold War had persisted, neoconservatives and realists had maintained an uneasy alliance, based on their common antipathy for the Soviet Union. But once the Cold War ended, so too did any basis for cooperation between the two groups. From the neoconservative perspective, realism constituted a problem. Realism was about defending national interests, not transforming the global order. Realists had a marked aversion to crusades and a marked respect for limits. In the neoconservative lexicon, the very notion of “limits” was anathema. To the extent that realists after the Cold War retained influence in foreign policy circles, they were likely to obstruct neoconservative ambitions. So second-generation neocons trained their gunsights on realism and shot to kill.
The problem with realists, complained Robert Kagan, was that they were “professional pessimists.” In that regard there had always been “something about realism that runs directly counter to the fundamental principles of American society.” The essential issue, according to Kagan, was this: “if the United States is founded on universal principles, how can Americans practice amoral indifference when those principles are under siege around the world? And if they do profess indifference, how can they manage to avoid the implication that their principles are not, in fact, universal?” To Kagan and other neoconservatives the answer was self-evident: indifference to the violation of American ideals abroad was not simply wrong; it was un-American. Worse, such indifference pointed inevitably down a slippery slope leading back toward the 1960s or even the 1930s. An authentically American foreign policy would reject amorality and pessimism; it would refuse altogether to accept the notion of limits or constraints.
As the 1990s unfolded, neoconservatives pressed their case for “a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity,” emphasizing the use of armed force to promulgate American values and perpetuate American primacy. Most persistently, even obsessively, neoconservatives throughout the Clinton years lobbied for decisive U.S. action to rid the world of Saddam Hussein. From a neoconservative perspective, the Iraqi dictator’s survival after Desert Storm exposed as nothing else the cynicism and shortsightedness of the realists who had dominated the administration of George H. W. Bush and who had prevented the American army from completing its proper mission — pursuing the defeated Iraqi army all the way to Baghdad. Topping the agenda of the second-generation neoconservatives was a determination to correct that error, preferably by mobilizing America’s armed might to destroy the Baathist regime. “Bombing Iraq Isn’t Enough,” declared the title of one representative op-ed published by William Kristol and Robert Kagan in January 1998. It was time for the gloves to come off, they argued, “and that means using air power and ground forces, and finishing the job left undone in 1991.”
Neocons yearned to liberate Iraq, as an end in itself but also as a means to an eminently larger end. “A successful intervention in Iraq,” wrote Kagan in February 1998, “would revolutionize the strategic situation in the Middle East, in ways both tangible and intangible, and all to the benefit of American interests.” A march on Baghdad was certain to have a huge demonstration effect. It would put dictators around the world on notice either to mend their ways or share Saddam’s fate. It would silence doubters who questioned America’s ability to export its values. It would discredit skeptics who claimed to see lurking behind neoconservative schemes the temptations of empire, the dangers of militarism, and the prospect of exhaustion and overstretch.
Above all, forcibly overthrowing Saddam Hussein would affirm the irresistibility of American military might. As such, the armed liberation of Iraq would transform U.S. foreign policy; not preserving the status quo but promoting revolutionary change would thereafter define the main purpose of American statecraft. After all, wrote Michael Ledeen well before 9/11, stability was for “tired old Europeans and nervous Asians.” The United States was “the most revolutionary force on earth,” its “inescapable mission to fight for the spread of democracy.” The operative word was fight. According to Ledeen, Mao was precisely correct: revolution sprang “from the barrel of a gun.” The successful ouster of Saddam Hussein could open up whole new vistas of revolutionary opportunity.
The Neoconservatives Become the Establishment
What did all of this expenditure of intellectual energy actually yield? During the decade between the end of the Cold War and the onset of the global war on terror, the achievements of second-generation neoconservatives compare favorably with those of the anti-Communist liberals who in the immediate aftermath of World War II created the ideological foundation for what became a durable postwar foreign policy consensus. Through argument, organization, and agitation, leading liberal intellectuals of the 1940s such as the historian Arthur Schlesinger and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr imbued the muscular, implacably anti-Stalinist internationalism that they favored with the appearance of offering the only acceptable basis for U.S. foreign policy. To diverge from this “the vital center” of American politics, which they themselves defined and occupied, as Senator Robert Taft on the right and former vice president Henry Wallace on the left proposed to do, became almost by definition perverse.
When deciding how to respond to growing Communist influence in Western Europe or to the invasion of South Korea, President Harry S. Truman did not necessarily pause to consult the latest scribblings of Schlesinger or Niebuhr. The influence of intellectuals on policy is seldom that straightforward. Indirectly, however, these Cold War liberals helped to lend respectability to certain propositions that in the 1930s might have seemed outlandish — for example, the decision to permanently station U.S. troops in Europe and to create the apparatus of the national security state. In short, they fostered a climate congenial to Truman’s pursuit of certain hard-line anti-Communist policies and increased the political risks faced by those inclined to question such policies.
During the 1990s, the intellectual offspring of Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz repeated this trick. By the end of that decade, neoconservatives were no longer insurgents; they had transformed themselves into establishment figures. Their views entered the mainstream of public discourse and became less controversial. Through house organs like the Standard, in essays published by influential magazines such as Foreign Affairs, through regular appearances on TV talk shows and at conferences sponsored by the fellow-traveling American Enterprise Institute, and via the agitprop of the Project for the New American Century, they warned of the ever-present dangers of isolationism and appeasement, called for ever more munificent levels of defense spending, and advocated stern measures to isolate, punish, or overthrow ne’er-do-wells around the world.
As a mark of the growing respectability of such views, each of the three leading general-interest daily newspapers in the United States had at least one neocon offering regular foreign policy commentary — Max Boot writing for the Los Angeles Times,, David Brooks for the New York Times, and both Charles Krauthammer and Robert Kagan for the Washington Post. Neoconservative views also dominated the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. As a direct consequence of this determined rabble-rousing, neocon views about the efficacy of American military power and the legitimacy of its use gained wide currency. On issues ranging from ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to the “rise” of China to the proper response to terror, neoconservatives recast the public policy debate about the obligations imposed upon and prerogatives to be claimed by the sole superpower. They kept the focus on the issues that they believed mattered most: an America that was strong, engaged, and even pugnacious.
Ideas that even a decade earlier might have seemed reckless or preposterous now came to seem perfectly reasonable. A good example was the issue of regime change in Iraq. On January 26, 1998, William Kristol and Robert Kagan along with more than a dozen other neoconservative luminaries sent a public letter to President Bill Clinton denouncing the policy of containing Iraq as a failure and calling for the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein. To persist in the existing “course of weakness and drift,” the signatories warned ominously, was to “put our interests and our future at risk.” Nine months later, Clinton duly signed into law the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, passed by large majorities in both houses of Congress. That legislation declared that it had now become the policy of the United States government to “remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein,” with legislators authorizing the expenditure of $99 million for that purpose. Clinton showed little enthusiasm for actually implementing the measure, and most of the money remained unspent. But neoconservative efforts had done much to create a climate in which it had become impolitic to suggest aloud that publicly declaring the intent to overthrow regimes not to the liking of the United States might be ill-advised. At the end of the 1940s, thanks to the Cold War liberals, no politician with the slightest interest in self-preservation was going to risk even the appearance of being soft on the Soviet Union. At the end of the 1990s, thanks to the neoconservatives, no politician was going to take the chance of being tagged with being soft on Saddam.
In fact, the grand vision entertained by second-generation neoconservatives demanded that the United States shatter the status quo. New conditions, they argued, absolved Americans from any further requirement to adhere to the norms that had defined the postwar international order. Osama bin Laden and the events of 9/11 provided the tailor-made opportunity to break free of the fetters restricting the exercise of American power.
Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor of International Relations and Director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University. A graduate of West Point and a Vietnam veteran, he has a doctorate in history from Princeton and was a Bush Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. He is the author of several books, including the just published The New American Militarism, How Americans Are Seduced by War.
Copyright 2005 Andrew J. Bacevich
The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War, copyright © 2005 by Andrew J. Bacevich. Used by permission of the author and Oxford University Press, Inc.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]