A Tragedy of Errors | The Nation


A Tragedy of Errors

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

With the exception of its Middle East strategy--a subject to which I will return--there is nothing particularly "Jewish" about neoconservative views on foreign policy. While the example of Israel has inspired American neocons to embrace tactics like preventive war and "targeted assassination," the global strategy of today's neocons is shaped chiefly by the heritage of cold war anti-Communism. Neocon hostility to the UN, too often explained solely in terms of UN condemnations of Israel, is a relic of the 1970s and '80s, when the General Assembly was dominated by an anti-American alliance of the Soviet bloc and Third World autocracies. The claim that we are waging "World War IV"--made by Elliot Cohen, James Woolsey and Norman Podhoretz--is a reflex of superannuated cold warriors, as are parallels between militant Islam and secular totalitarianism and the attempt to inflate China or post-Communist Russia into threats comparable to the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

About the Author

Michael Lind
Michael Lind, the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of The American Way of Strategy...

Also by the Author

Now that neoconservative policies have led us into disaster, it's time to give liberal internationalism a chance.

During the early years of the civil rights revolution, Theodore Bilbo,
the ferocious segregationist senator from Mississippi, published a book
titled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongreli

Not only America's cold war history but the British experience in the twentieth century has shaped neocon perceptions. This is not as strange as it seems. Britain was the leading world power until a few generations ago; many neoconservatives are adult immigrants from the British Commonwealth, like the former Canadian subjects of Her Majesty Charles Krauthammer and David Frum; and many neocon thinkers follow Lionel Trilling (whom Irving Kristol has cited, along with Leo Strauss, as one of the greatest influences on his thought) in looking to British culture to explicate American society. The first modern industrial society, Britain reached its peak, neocons believe, as a result of the combination of imperial ruthlessness, bourgeois (not managerial) capitalism and Victorian virtue. Tragically, however, British strength was sapped from within by the postbourgeois elitists of Bloomsbury, who mocked Victorian values even as the work ethic was eroded by the welfare state. As a result, Britain was morally and materially unprepared to fight fascist totalitarianism. The greatest man of the twentieth century, to judge from the number of times he is cited by neocons, was not Franklin Roosevelt but Winston Churchill, the upholder of Victorian values.

In neocon ideology, the United States is reliving the experience of Britain three-quarters of a century ago. Osama bin Laden (or Saddam or the Chinese leadership or Yasir Arafat) is the new Hitler. Bush is the new Churchill, as Reagan was earlier. Moderate Republicans and conservative realists, as well as liberal Democrats, are the new Neville Chamberlains. The working-class Protestant fundamentalists of the rural and suburban American South are equated with the bourgeois dissenting Protestants of Victorian England. The American university is the new Bloomsbury, full of decadent liberals and leftists sapping the morale of young Americans, who many neoconservatives think should be drafted and sent to fight a series of wars abroad to promote democracy. Four years ago, Donald Kagan and Frederick Kagan (Robert Kagan's father and brother, respectively) published a book called While America Sleeps, comparing the United States to Britain in the late 1930s. For the neocons, America is the Britain of Churchill and Chamberlain, and it is always 1939.

Something like what Vivian De Sola Pinto wrote of Kipling in Crisis in English Poetry (1968) could be said today of Kipling's admirer Max Boot and most of today's neoconservative imperialists: "There was no Irish or South African problem, only rebels and traitors; there was no aesthetic problem, only wasters and rotters like Sir Anthony Gloster's son who was educated at 'Harrer an' Trinity College' and 'muddled with books and pictures,' and Tomlinson whose sins were entirely literary; there was no problem of war and peace, only foolish liberals and sentimental or knavish pacifists. All the world needed was more discipline, obedience and loyalty, and above all a paternal British Empire with its unselfish and efficient administrators and admirable army licked into shape by perfect N.C.O.s."

Despite its eccentricities, like its un-American nostalgia for British imperialism, neoconservatism, as paleocons and libertarians never tire of insisting, is a movement that shares some of the same values as the center-left. When Richard Perle calls for women's rights in Muslim countries, when David Brooks writes in support of gay marriage, and when The Weekly Standard denounces neo-Confederate racism, there is no reason to question their sincerity. Nor is Irving Kristol being disingenuous when he says that the welfare state is here to stay. Straussian elitism does not disqualify the leftist credentials of the neocons. Many liberal and democratic movements have had doubts about the ability of the majority to govern themselves, and have put their hopes in some sort of enlightened elite--Jefferson's natural aristocracy, the technocrats favored by American Progressives, the vanguard intelligentsia of the Marxist-Leninists. Imperialism, too, has been compatible with a certain liberal messianism. Until the rise of Third World national liberation movements, some of empire's staunchest advocates were liberals, among them British Fabians and American Progressives. Even Marx was willing to acknowledge that underdeveloped countries like India could benefit from imperial tutelage.

The influence of Marxism is particularly evident in neoconservative conceptions of patriotism. In The Weekly Standard of last August 25, Kristol published an essay titled "The Neoconservative Persuasion" (evidently someone had neglected to inform Kristol, "the godfather of neoconservatism," about the new party line that neoconservatism does not exist). Among what Kristol calls "the following 'theses' (as a Marxist would say)" is his claim that "large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns. Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal." Therefore the United States should "defend Israel today...no complicated geopolitical calculations of national interest are necessary" (an odd sentiment from the former publisher of a magazine called The National Interest, of which I was executive editor from 1991 to 1994). Let us set the question of Israel aside for now, and note that very few Americans think of their country as a version of the USSR with liberal democracy instead of Marxism-Leninism as the official ideology--probably as few as think of American foreign policy in terms of "'theses' (as a Marxist would say)."

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.