Saturday, August 12, 2006

What is Neoconservatism?

Norman Podhoretz, past editor of Commentary Magazine, is interviewed today over at the Wall Street Journal's Saturday edition. Podhoretz is one of the founders of "neoconservatism," a political label that stirs-up lots of animosities in American politics today, with much talk of a "neocon conspiracy" overtaking the country. But what exactly constitutes neoconservatism? Let's hear it from the interview's opening passages:

Neoconservatism is hard to pin down as discrete political theory; Mr. Podhoretz suggests even that is too strong a term, preferring "tendency." In any case, as a practical matter, it denotes the mentality of those who moved from somewhere on the political left to somewhere on the right, primarily during the late '70s. It had "two ruling passions," according to Mr. Podhoretz. On the one hand, the neocons were repulsed by the countercultural '60s radicalism that came to dominate the American liberal establishment. On the other, they argued for a more assertive, muscular foreign policy (at the time in response to Soviet expansionism).
Podhoretz has not lost his fervent belief in the neoconservative cause, and he breaks cleanly with other (neo)conservatives who have abandoned the American-led democracy project in Iraq:

Mr. Podhoretz is having none of it. "I always knew they didn't like this policy, the Bush doctrine," he says, speaking of increasingly vocal antagonists like George Will and William F. Buckley. "They had doubts about it going in, and not just because it violates in their view conservative principles but, you know, it's hubris, it's Wilsonianism, it goes beyond the limits of power, it's nation-building, and so on. But for reasons of solidarity or because they were not willing to join with the left or the far reaches of the Buchananite right, they were careful, they voiced their doubts only through hints or veiled asides. So when they came, so to speak, out of the antiwar closet, I certainly was not all that surprised. "They've declared defeat, basically," he continues. "What can I say? I think they're wrong. I think Iraq has gone not badly but well, is not a disaster or a crime or a delusion, but what's more is a noble, necessary effort." Mr. Podhoretz attributes the troubles of reconstruction as much to our own irresolution as to what he calls "the recalcitrance and obduracy of the region." "The only reason in my opinion that we're having as much trouble as we're having in Iraq is that we're not getting intelligence. You cannot fight a revanchist insurgency and certainly not one that uses terrorist tactics without good intelligence . . . and you can only get that kind of intelligence by squeezing it out of prisoners. That's all there is to it." Both domestic opposition and the international community, unhappily, are "defining torture down. The things they're calling 'torture' now have never been and have no business being considered torture." He keeps on: "It is an effort to disarm us that's succeeding to a frightening extent. No, it's worse than that. They're trying to make it impossible to fight terrorism. . . . Every weapon that's been developed to protect us from terrorism, and the Iraqis from internal terrorism, is under assault."
Podhoretz's calls the current terror conflict World War IV, after the World Wars and the Cold War of the 20th century. He's laid out his theory in a Commentary article, subsequently expanded, and now expected to be published in book form.

I don't consider myself a neoconservative, although I've had my own ideological transformation since September 11, 2001. I do, however, continue to back the Iraq War (with qualifications), and I have problems with neoconservative arguments favoring a precipitous troop drawdown, as I indicated in this post on Max Boot's recent analysis of U.S. alternatives in Iraq.

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