From Liberal Hawks to Neocons – The Henry Jackson Society

Although the Cold War may have ended some twenty-five years ago, it continues to influence contemporary politics in unexpected ways. Amongst the curious progeny of the superpower confrontation is the UK-based Henry Jackson Society (HJS) a neoconservative think tank and the subject of a new report by SpinwatchHenry M. ‘Scoop’ Jackson was a US Democratic senator for the state of Washington from the early 1950s until his death in 1983. In many respects the archetype of the liberal cold warrior, Jackson was lauded for his (questionably) progressive instincts at home but was vehement in his opposition to socialism and the Soviet Union. During the 1950s, he sat on the Senate Investigations Subcommittee during the height of McCarthyism, only turning against McCarthy once southern Democrats had started to openly challenge the Wisconsin senator.

However, as the authors of the report note, ‘Jackson’s most consistent characteristic… was support for the military’. In the 1950s, he became a leading exponent of the false claim that that there existed a ‘missile gap’ between the Soviet Union and the United States, and advocated massive increases in the Pentagon’s budget. His major contribution to American foreign policy was his militant opposition to détente with the Soviets. In 1972, Jackson was instrumental in the creation of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority(CDM), which sought to end Democrat support for the policy of détente. In 1974, the CDM claimed that détente was ‘a myth’ and that ‘The goal of detente has not been achieved in any sense of the term Americans can accept. There is no evidence that Soviet objectives have changed.’ A significant number of the CDM’s Foreign Policy Task Force went on to join the Committee on the Present Danger, many of whom were to staff the hawkish Reagan administration of the 1980s. Jackson himself died in 1983; given the dire nature of superpower relations during the ‘new Cold War’ of the early 80s one must imagine that he died a happy man. 

Founded in Cambridge, England in 2005 the HJS initially took its cue from the liberal interventionist anti-détente doctrine of Jackson. Neoconservative ideology, as the authors of the Spinwatch report describe, is most closely associated with the second Bush administration but has its roots in the muscular liberal militarism exemplified by Henry Jackson. Indeed Jackson has been cited as a key inspiration by architects of the Iraq War such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. Intriguingly during its ten-year existence the trajectory of the HJS has mirrored that of neoconservatism. Over time, the HJS has shifted from advocacy of a somewhat bipartisan interventionist doctrine towards a more explicitly right-wing position.

A number of British Labour MPs signed onto the founding statement of the HJS  (although heavily outnumbered by their Conservative Party counterparts). And although its more liberal members have latterly sought to distance themselves, it retains a residue of support on the right wing of the British Labour Party. The President and founder of the HJS was the Cambridge academic Brendan Simms. His conception of the organisation stemmed in part from his disappointment regarding British foreign policy during the Bosnia War of the early 1990s. Despite American opposition, the British government had continued to support the UN arms embargo put in force by the UN Security Council in September 1991. In 2001 Simms published Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia an extremely critical take on British policy during the war. In the book Simms commented that: ‘[Britain’s] political leaders became afflicted by a particularly disabling form of conservative pessimism which disposed them not only to reject military intervention themselves but to prevent anybody else, particularly the Americans, from intervening either.’ Other future founding members of the HJS were close to the Alliance to Defend Bosnia-Herzegovina, which attracted cross-party support, including from the left-wing of the Labour Party. It was during this early post-cold war period that the now seriously discredited doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) began to develop and gain traction across the British political spectrum.

However, the HJS was not founded until two years after the invasion of Iraq, during the extremely violent counterinsurgency that ensued in the wake of Anglo-American occupation. In a sense, the HJS in its original formation had simply missed the boat. By 2005, the scale of violence in Iraq and Afghanistan was seriously compromising the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. And liberal interventionists were starting to distance themselves from the now politically toxic foreign policy of Tony Blair and George W. Bush.

With one pillar of its support base eroding the HJS shifted decisively to a neoconservative position. Where once it had sought to corral cross-party support for supposedly humanitarian interventions its priorities shifted to an openly neoconservative agenda comprising a rabidly pro-Israel line and promotion of Islamophobic policies within the UK. By 2007, the HJS had come largely under the control of Executive Director Alan Mendoza, who went on to replace many long-standing HJS staff members with people from Just Journalism, a fanatical pro-Israel media-monitoring group. In 2009, the now ideologically realigned HJS launched an organisation called Student Rights (although HJS did not acknowledge it as its own project until 2013). Ostensibly aimed at combatting extremism on university campuses, it has been accused of: ‘disproportionately and unfairly targeting Muslim students, contributing to their marginalisation and ostracisation, damaging campus cohesion and feeding into a growing trend of Islamaphobic discourse in wider society.’ The organisation has sought to associate university Islamic societies with extremism by misrepresenting data to give the impression that a high percentage of speaking events held by Islamic societies were gender segregated. Several mainstream newspapers and broadcasters picked up these false claims.

One of those brought on board by Mendoza was Douglas Murray, who became the associate director of the HJS. Murray has a history of making controversial statements regarding Islam and immigration. In March 2011, responding to the release of the 2011 Britishcensus, Murray wrote an article in which he stated that: ‘London has become a foreign country…’ and that ‘it [immigration] has… made us poorer, drained our resources and brought cultural practices we could do without.’ He cited a case of sexual abuse in Oxfordshire as an example of said cultural practices. In 2009, Murray described Robert Spencer of Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA) as a ‘very brilliant scholar’. Spencer’s views on Islam are so outrageous that even partisan propagandists for Israel such as Abraham Foxman of the Anti-defamation League have strongly criticised him.

The HJS’s decisive shift to the right has brought certain benefits to the organisation. One of which has been acquiring the ability to tap into the financial largesse of the Israel lobby. The HJS does not disclose who its funders are and even withdrew from providing support for some UK Parliament All-Party Parliamentary Groups in order not to have to disclose who its backers are. However, the authors of the Spinwatch report have found significant overlap between funders of the HJS and other Israel advocates. For instanceLord Kalms, the HJS’s largest donor in 2013, strongly supported Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War. Kalms described the then shadow foreign secretary William Hague as an ‘ignorant armchair critic’ for having the temerity to characterise Israel’s assault on Lebanon as ‘disproportionate’.


In 2012, the HJS launched its US branch – something of an inevitability given the HJS’s American heritage and the drift towards a slavishly pro-American and pro-Israel stance. Reflecting that shift the founding Chief Executive of the American offshoot was Ilana Decker, previously a director of AIPAC – the most important Israel lobby organisation. As of this writing, little else is known about the American branch but it will be worth paying attention to the continued activities of the Henry Jackson Society, as the organisation enters its third act and expands its operations within the political culture that first inspired its creation.

Alex Doherty is a co-founder of New Left Project and a graduate student in the War Studies department of King’s College London. He has written for Z Magazine and Open Democracy amongst other publications. You can follow him on twitter @alexdoherty7

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