Two soldiers scan the area with rifles during a security stop on their convoy as members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit drive to a forward operating base in southern Afghanistan. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
Peter Beinart wants everyone to stop talking about the neoconservatives. Perhaps, if we stop talking about them, they’ll go away? No, it’s not that. Beinart, of course, was once a fellow traveler of sorts with the neocons, as editor of The New Republic from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, when its publisher at the time, Marty Peretz, would reasonably qualify as a neocon or “quasi-neocon.” In that post, Beinart famously supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and then, even more famously—as that war degenerated into a catastrophic series of horrors—apologized for his support.
In a recent piece in The Daily Beast, Beinart takes several writers to task, including me, David Corn of Mother Jones, and Ann McFeatters of the Chicago Sun-Times for, well, talking about neoconservatives and their penchant for war—in particular because many of their tribe are among the loudest backers of war against Syria.
Writing in his usual supercilious style, Beinart first cites Corn:
Earlier this week, I Googled “neocons and Syria” and learned that the former want America to go war in the latter. The first story Google offered me was by David Corn in Mother Jones. “How to Be a Good Neocon When It Comes to Syria,” read the headline. The subtitle read: “With Obama moving cautiously, some hawks are angling for a US invasion.
Got it, I thought. “Neocon” is a synonym for “hawk.” But then, in the first sentence, Corn wrote that the “most hawkish neocons desire … a full US military presence in the air and on the ground.” Hmm. If some neocons are more hawkish than others, then “neocon” and “hawk” can’t be the same thing. Four paragraphs later, Corn referred to former Bush-administration ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton as a “neocon favorite.” Why just a “favorite,” I thought. Why not a “neocon” himself? Then, in the next paragraph, Corn explained that “real neocons, it seems, do not get squishy when the question is US troops on Syrian soil.” So there are fake neocons? How do you tell the difference?
He goes on to tackle a recent piece that I wrote for The Nation:
Bob Dreyfuss in The Nation made things worse. “Neocons, Hill Democrats Push for War Against Syria,” read the headline of his piece. So neocons can’t be Democrats or work on Capitol Hill? Three sentences later Dreyfuss made a distinction between “neoconservatives and right-wing military types,” which presumably means that you can’t be a neoconservative while in uniform.
Why is Beinart so upset about our using the term neocon? Here’s the real reason:
Frequently, what neocon really means is “Jewish hawk.” In that way, it’s a bit like “gangbanger,” “mobster,” “illegal” (the noun), or even “terrorist,” terms that could theoretically refer to someone of any religious, ethnic, or racial group but in America today are often reserved for members of only one.
In other words, Beinart is trying to resurrect the old canard that when critics speak of “neoconservatives” they really mean “Jews.” This is so unspeakably stupid a charge that I don’t know where to begin.
First of all, as Beinart himself acknowledges, not all neoconservatives are Jews—and, by overwhelming numbers, the vast majority of Jews are not neoconservatives. That said, there’s no denying the fact that many, many neoconservatives—perhaps, even, the preponderance, are indeed Jewish. There are plenty of reasons for that, historically, related to how the neoconservative movement emerged as a coherent, intellectual-ideological faction from the 1970s onward. And, as they emerged, they self-consciously separated themselves from the traditional affiliation of most Jewish political activists, intellectuals and idea people with liberalism, Democrats and progressive views on disarmament, diplomacy, civil rights and other topics.
But among the countless thousands of journalists and analysts who use the term “neoconservative,” I can think of none—not one!—who is somehow subtly trying to imply that neoconservatives are a Jewish cabal and that somehow that cabal represents Jews in general.
Beinart seems troubled by the fact Corn and I use terms such as “hawks,” “right-wing military types” and “neoconservatives” seemingly to mean different things. Well, that’s because they are indeed different things. In 2002–03, during the period before the war in Iraq, a coalition arose in support of that war. Among its key members were neoconservatives, liberal interventionists, human rights activists, people opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and various kinds of hawks from the military-industrial complex. They weren’t all the same, and they weren’t interchangeable—but they found common cause in supporting the war in Iraq. But one would have to be deaf, dumb and blind—or an editor of The New Republic in 2003—not to realize that the true organizers of the war in Iraq were the friends of Ahmed Chalabi, the backers of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, the organizers of the Project for a New American Century and their allies—and nearly all of them were card-carrying neoconservatives.
Not only that, but the neoconservatives use the term in reference to themselves, and they do indeed behave as a kind of collective. Here’s one example of their thinking: Back in 2003, following a conference that I attended at the American Enterprise Institute, I approached Max Singer, a veteran neoconservative activist who co-founded the Hudson Institute, to ask if I might call him later in the day for an interview. “Sure,” he told me, and he gave me his card. After I’d left the room, according to a journalist friend who’d remained behind, Singer approached a top AEI official. “I was asked by Dreyfuss for an interview,” Singer said. “Is he one of us?” Now, it’s possible to read too much into the phrase “one of us,” but it’s also true that the neoconservative movement is very much an in-group, with a strong sense of an us-against-them attitude, in which you’re either a true believer or you’re not.
Not that all neoconservatives agree with each other about everything. They don’t. As Beinart points out, that can make it difficult to define exactly what a “neoconservative” is. The simple answer is that, like pornography, you pretty much know a neocon when you see one.
In his piece in the Daily Beast, Beinart tries manfully to figure out what attributes define neoconservativism. He variously suggests that what might link neoconservatives together could be support for a “neo-Reaganite” foreign policy, belief in exporting democracy, backing for American military “dominance,” and so on—all characteristics, for the most part, if most—but not all—neocons.
He then comes very close to accusing me and Corn of anti-Semitism. Corn, he notes, puts Richard Perle in the “neocon” category, while putting Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain in the “hawk” category. And he says:
For his part, Dreyfuss sees Gen. Jack Keane as emblematic of “right-wing military types” while associating the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka with “neoconservatives.” Yet he doesn’t in any way distinguish their beliefs, leading the reader to surmise that what makes Pletka a neoconservative isn’t what she believes but where she works and who she is.
His implication—well, more than an implication—is that I called Pletka a “neoconservative” because of “who she is,” i.e, that she’s Jewish. (For the record, I don’t even know whether Danny Pletka is Jewish or not. And I wonder if she knows whether I am Jewish or not.) The fact is that most politicians, especially current, elected officials, have such a wide range of views on a wide range of subjects that it’s hard to pin them down as being ideological neoconservatives. I doubt that I’ve ever described a politician or a military official as an unalloyed neoconservative. In part, that’s because most politicians and military officers don’t join, affiliate with, or subscribe to the countless thinktanks, ad hoc committees, “open letters,” and other manifestations that mark the neoconservative effort to shape policy, especially since the 1990s. But, as in the case of the Beinart-supported war in Iraq, many hawks and others did support what was indisputably a neoconservative-inspired war of aggression.
Perhaps I missed it, but in Beinart’s list of things that define neoconservatives, he fails to mention Israel. To his credit, in recent years Beinart has emerged—belatedly, and welcome to the club—as a strident critic of Israel and Zionism. For that, he’s been pilloried by many unthinking backers of Israel’s current policies, including (yes) neoconservatives. But he doesn’t mention in his Daily Beast that neoconservatives—whether Jewish or non-Jewish—are also nearly unanimously united in their militant support for Israel and, especially, for Israel’s right-wing parties affiliated with Herut, Likud and their heirs, including Benjamin Netanyahu. For neoconservatives, the American-Israel alliance—against Palestinians, against Iran, against political Islam, Islamists of all stripes, Al Qaeda et al.—is a defining view. I can imagine a hawk who supports Israel far right but who isn’t a neoconservative. I can imagine a Christian fundamentalist who supports Israel’s far right, as the key to the coming Battle of Armageddon and all that jazz, but who isn’t a neocon. (There are legions of those.) But I have trouble imagining a true neoconservative who doesn’t support Netanyahu and Co.
Beinart wants us to stop using the term neoconservative and replace it with “imperialist.” For my part, I’ll stick with “neoconservative.”
Read Bob Dreyfuss’s take on Kerry’s trip to Israel/Palestine.