Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Fisking Kinsley

Second target for the week : Michael Kinsley, writing in Sunday's Washington Post:

The term "neoconservative" started out as an insult and is still used that way. When people say that the selection of Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank marks the triumph of neocons in Bush administration foreign policy, they are generally not indicating pleasure. Cynics say they are indicating anti-Semitism: A neocon is a Jewish intellectual you disagree with. That's way too harsh. But what does neoconservative mean?

It’s a good question, and he is right that the term is bandied about as an insult that is somehow supposed to be self-explanatory. So when someone does sneer about neoconservatism without ever bothering to say what he means by the term, and many of the prominent neoconservatives are Jewish, it is probably a fair deduction to say that the critics are drawing attention to some feature of neoconservatism other than the ideas it embraces, and Jewish heritage jumps to the top of the list.

Writing in the current issue of the National Interest, Rich Lowry, a conservative of the non-neo variety, defines a neocon as someone with a "messianic vision" of using American power to spread democracy, an indifference to the crucial distinction between what would be nice and what is essential to national security, and excessive optimism that we can arrange things according to our own values in strange and faraway lands. Wow. It was not always thus.

Getting ahead of myself a bit, but isn’t a messianic vision of using American power the underpinnings to Clinton’s actions in Haiti and Bosnia? Were those actions essential for national security or were they just nice? And the term excessive optimism, it seems to me, is an opinion running ahead of the facts, at least with respect to Bush’s foreign policy. There are great reasons to hope that a transformation is occurring in the Middle East, and if they pan out, can it be said that those who advocated that the Iraq war could serve to trigger a transformation (and Bush and others have argued that from the beginning) were overly optimistic?

When the word first surfaced in the 1970s, its sting was in calling people conservatives five or 10 minutes before they were prepared to admit it. The core group had famously been Trotskyists at City College in the 1930s. In the 1950s and 1960s they were anti-communist liberals and supporters of the Vietnam War. The antiwar movement and the '60s counterculture alienated them. Affirmative action was another sore point. Finally Irving Kristol, dubbed the neocon godfather, decided to take it as a compliment. He defined a neoconservative as "a liberal mugged by reality." That phrase also summarizes the plot of the Great Neocon Novel, "Mr. Sammler's Planet," by Saul Bellow. Bellow's last novel, "Ravelstein," actually has a character modeled after Wolfowitz.

The great neocon theme was tough-minded pragmatism in the face of liberal naivete. Liberals were sentimental. They believed that people were basically good or could easily be made so. Domestically, liberal social programs were no match for the intractable underclass or even made the situation worse. In the world, liberals were too hung up on democracy and human rights, refusing to recognize that the only important question about other countries is: Friend or foe?

Somewhere I still have a souvenir of neoconservatism's previous high point. It's a baseball cap from the 1988 Republican convention that says, "Jeane Kirkpatrick for vice president." This was serious. Kirkpatrick, an austere academic with a crooked scowl, was about as unlikely a politician as you can imagine.

Micheal Kinsley, the beady-eyed former host of Crossfire who never looked anyone in the face during those shows … Or how about this: Hillary Rodham, the frigid first wife with the calves of a medium-sized hippo… Did he know her personally to be austere? Did she wear a crooked scowl at all times and places? And why was that neoconservatism’s high-point, if they have now achieved a triumph of controlling US foreign policy, as the first paragraph claims?

But give the Republican Party credit: It does sometimes swoon over ideas. When was the last time the Democrats did that? Ronald Reagan had swooned over a 1979 article by Kirkpatrick in Commentary, the neocon house organ, and he made her his U.N. ambassador when he became president. She gave the big speech at the 1984 GOP convention, leading the massed Republicans in a chant of "they always blame America first."

Well, what can I say, they do!

Kirkpatrick's article, "Dictatorship and Double Standards," was a ferocious attack on President Jimmy Carter for trying to "impose liberalization and democratization" on other countries. She mocked "the belief that it is possible to democratize governments anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances." Democracy, she said, depends "on complex social, cultural, and economic conditions." It takes "decades, if not centuries."

Does all criticism of a policy amount to a “ferocious attack” or mockery? If it was a ferocious attack, couldn’t he find a quote where Kirkpatrick compared Carter to Hitler or something?

Kirkpatrick thought that U.S. power should be used to shore up tottering but friendly dictators, such as Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua and the shah of Iran. Carter sat on his hands, she complained. Now we have an administration that -- wisely or foolishly, sincerely or cynically -- claims to have the aggressive pursuit of democracy everywhere as the focal point of its foreign policy. And the Bush Doctrine is said to have the fingerprints of neoconservatives all over it.

This is quite a reversal by America's most influential group of intellectuals, yet it has received surprisingly little comment or explanation.

As before, it would seem to me to be a reversal that he would favor. I don’t know for a fact – for all I know he might have been against Utopian democratization when Clinton was doing it, but I doubt it. But even if so, should he be criticizing them alone for mistakes that liberals are clearly prone to when in office? Why not criticize the idea no matter who embraces it, and recognize that it originates with Woodrow Wilson, an icon of his party. The fact that the purported reversal has received scant attention should hardly shock – people change their minds in light of new evidence or more learning all of the time.

The chief theoretician of the new neoconservatism is political scientist Robert Kagan. Writing in Commentary (where else?) in 1997, Kagan noted the difference between his notions and Kirkpatrick's and had some fun at the expense of opponents who had been all for a high-minded foreign policy until the neocons started calling for one. But he had little to say about the reversal of the neocons themselves.

Here is the rule: two neoconservatives are never allowed to disagree with each other, implying that if one criticizes the long ago opinions of another, this can only happen if those long ago opinions have themselves been abandoned by the person who held them. (The rule is necessary for all Jewish conspiracies to succeed.) He never says that Kagan has reversed himself, or that Kirkpatrick has; but because they hold different opinions, this amounts to a reversal for all of neoconservatism.

Plenty of explanations are available. The collapse of the Soviet Union (which the neocons did not predict -- their theme had been that the Soviet Union was getting stronger and stronger while the United States diddled) surely changed the calculus. The seemingly easy spread of democracy over the past couple of decades may have disproved Kirkpatrick's pessimism.

I think they probably held that theme in the seventies, and it was justified because the Soviets were certainly on the march, but I am also sure that they advocated trying to thwart further strengthening, and building our own capacity, rather than a policy of appeasement which the Soviets enjoyed under Carter. (We’re not coming to the Olympics, and if you proceed with similar behavior, we’ll abandon the Goodwill games as well!) So while they didn't predict the end, they advocated the policies that helped it come to fruition. And the only thing any liberal predicted during the 1980s was a nuclear holocaust that Ronald Reagan would be entirely culpable for.

But all these explanations require an admission of error, something the neocons are not very good at. They are selling certainty.

It would seem to me that the neoconservatives are last in line for the requirement of an admission of error. Either Kinsley disagrees with neoconservatives now, in which case he must be sympathetic to the vein of Kirkpatrick’s vicious attacks on Carter, or he should be happy that they have hopped on board. So which is it? Were they wrong then or are they wrong now? Maybe committing to an opinion on that matter will be selling certainty, and foreclosing the option to criticize them for any reason whatsoever.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


11:14 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Sign up for my Notify List and get email when I update!

powered by