In The New Republic online, Adam Kirsch reviews a new and apparently good book on the neoconservatives by Justin Vaïsse, a European author: “Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement.” This is the latest of a growing library of works on the neocons. Back in 2006, an article of my own on this subject was published in the online journal of Engage, a British web project that combats antisemitism and the demonization of Israel.
The following is from Kirsch’s introductory paragraph:
… as it became clear that the American invasion of Iraq would result not in a quick “mission accomplished” but a long, bloody occupation, a certain narrative of what went wrong began to take root in some precincts of the anti-war left. The decision to invade Iraq, this story went, was the result of the government falling under the sway of a dangerous ideology, called neoconservatism. The neocons, as they were often derisively called, believed in the naked assertion of American power—in a kind of imperialism, really, which gave America the right to invade other countries and remake the world at will. Such adventures might be cloaked in the rhetoric of promoting democracy, but in truth the neoconservatives were anti-democratic, because their intellectual guru, the University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss, had taught them that the ruling elite should keep the masses in ignorance. At the same time, somewhat paradoxically, the neoconservatives did not really care about American interests; their primary goal was to remake the Middle East for the benefit of Israel, and the invasion of Iraq was really carried out at the behest of Likud.
Kirsch concludes importantly as follows:
[Vaïsse] is strongly critical of neoconservatives—for their hubris about American power, for their tendency to exaggerate threats and underestimate dangers, and for seeing states such as Iraq as bigger threats than terrorist groups such as al-Qaida. But unlike most critics, he sympathizes with neoconservative aspirations and anxieties. …. And he is very tough about the canards that have grown up around the word “neoconservative”—in particular, the ludicrous overestimation of the influence of Strauss, which often goes along with a shallow or malicious misreading of his work.
As a result, Vaïsse is perhaps a little too careful to minimize the role of Jews … in neoconservative thinking. It is quite true, as he says, that it is not “‘in essence’ a Jewish movement”: not all neoconservatives are Jews, most Jews are not neoconservatives, and neoconservatives certainly do not place “Jewish interests” ahead of “American interests.” Still, I think that the appeal of neoconservatism to many Jews can be related to lessons that they draw from Jewish history.
Neoconservatism can be defined as aggressive support for (classical) liberalism, and it is clear that the fate of the Jews has absolutely been connected to the fate of liberalism. Where free speech, the free market, individual rights, and tolerance flourish, Jews flourish; where they are destroyed, Jews are destroyed. … The desire to defend and to extend American freedoms is what leads many Jews to be left-liberals; but it is only a different interpretation of what that same defense requires, and who freedom’s enemies really are, that leads some Jews to be neoconservatives. And there is nothing sinister about that.