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Weissman writes: "Rethinking the neo-cons and liberal interventionists will help us sharpen our opposition to both."

George W. Bush awarding Irving Kristol the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (photo: Getty)
George W. Bush awarding Irving Kristol the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (photo: Getty)

Rethinking the Neo-Con Threat

By Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

04 November 15


s Barack Obama deepens US intervention in both Syria and Iraq, the idiocy that George W. Bush began continues to destabilize the Middle East. Many observers, myself included, have blamed neo-cons for the disaster. Why? Ask the neo-con David Brooks, now a columnist at The New York Times. “Con is short for ‘conservative,’” he famously wrote. “And neo is short for ‘Jewish.’”

Some critics, Brooks thought, blamed the neo-cons to lay an unpopular war in the lap of the Jews. Why not? Libeling Jews or Zionists is old hat, and surprisingly popular among many would-be progressives. Just browse the comments here at Reader Supported News.

Being Jewish and of the 1960s New Left, I carried a different kind of baggage. I had begun battling the godfather of neo-conservatism, the late Irving Kristol, when he was still lionized as one of America’s leading liberals. A number of us at Berkeley knew his history. An ex-Trotskyist from City College of New York (CCNY), he had seen World War II as little more than a conflict between competing imperialisms, showed little concern over Hitler’s war on Jews, and had little time for Israel. Then, in the early 1950s, he and poet Stephen Spender co-founded and co-edited the highly influential British-based magazine Encounter, which promoted the Cold War in the most sophisticated way.

Our battle with Kristol and his politics became up-close and personal. During the Free Speech Movement, we continually tripped over his ideological soul mates, sociologists Nathan Glazer and Seymour Martin Lipset, who red-baited us and actively worked with university president Clark Kerr to try to split our ranks. When a very disgruntled Lipset left for Harvard, I very publicly – and most unkindly – hailed his departure as one of FSM’s major contributions.

Kristol himself remained an even more enticing target. My comrades and I struggled against his acolytes in SDS. We slammed his increasingly conservative writing in Commentary. We read and rebuffed his new magazine, The Public Interest, which he co-founded with Daniel Bell, author of “The End of Ideology,” a paean to precisely the technocratic thinking we had fought against at Berkeley. We then felt vindicated when Ramparts revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had founded, funded, and run the Congress for Cultural Freedom, including Encounter, its flagship propaganda sheet. Irving Kristol had made his peace with the empire early on, and had gotten a paycheck for doing it.

We fought him, but we never won. Kristol became one of the country’s most influential public intellectuals and a favorite of Ronald Reagan. As the neo-con journalist Irwin Stelzer tells it, “Reagan joked at a dinner that anyone wanting a job in his new administration should call the White House and say: ‘Irving sent me.’ No further vetting would be required.” It seemed to work, as Irving’s friends helped create Iran-Contra and swallowed hard as Reagan worked to bring détente with Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union.

Irving’s greatest victory was still to come in the charmed political career of his son, William Kristol. Boasting little more than a Ph.D. in government from Harvard and a well-placed daddy, young Kristol served as chief of staff to Reagan’s highly ideological education secretary William Bennett and to Vice President Dan Quayle, whose missing brain he became. Once the Democrats returned to power, William Kristol led conservatives in killing Clinton’s health care proposal. He created the leading neo-con newsmagazine, The Weekly Standard, getting funding from Rupert Murdoch. Then in 1997, he joined with historian Robert Kagan to create the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), Washington’s most vocal promoter of going to war against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and those non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

For me, as for most progressives, this was clearly the dragon we needed to slay. But having fought these guys too long, I failed to give sufficient attention to four elements of the story that could now prove crucial.

First, I misunderstood the role of the neo-cons, as did many other writers. While ten of the 25 people who signed PNAC’s founding statement went on to serve under George W. Bush, only two of them had real power, Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Corporate CEOs in oil services, pharmaceuticals, and defense, they were consummate Washington insiders and old-fashioned right-wing nationalists. Along with Bush, they were the imperial potentates, the deciders who set policy on Iraq and other possible targets of regime change. None of the three were neo-cons.

The other eight PNAC signers, neo-cons like Cheney’s man Scooter Libby and Rumsfeld’s deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, were underlings, subordinates, and advisors. They were the handmaidens of empire, the B-list.

Second, while most neo-cons were Jewish and Zionist, Kristol and Kagan were far more committed to American than to Israeli power. Their goal was “to promote American global leadership,” and a “benevolent global hegemony,” as they called it in a 1996 article in Foreign Affairs. We should never excuse Israel and its lobbies all over the world for constantly beating the drums of war. But just because the cock crows before sunrise, it does not mean that he causes the sun to rise.

Third, Kristol and Kagan’s message had its roots the Cold War liberalism of Truman and Kennedy, and was far more activist and interventionist than the historic Republican stance, with its lingering pockets of isolationism. Despite Kristol and Kagan’s effort to package their world view as a “Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy,” they were far closer to what we now hear from Hillary Clinton.

Fourth, and most important, Kristol and Kagan provided American weapons makers with a perfect substitute for the old Soviet threat. What better marketing strategy for the military-industrial complex than an endless war against Islamic terrorists, Iran, and ultimately China? PNAC laid much of this out in Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategies, Forces, and Resources for a New Century, a report written primarily by the group’s deputy executive director, Thomas Donnelly, who went on to work for the defense giant Lockheed Martin. PNAC also worked closely with and received major funding from the Bradley Foundation, a strong backer of the defense industry.

Rethinking the neo-cons and liberal interventionists in these ways will help us sharpen our opposition to both. This becomes crucial as Kristol and Kagan’s new flagship, the Foreign Policy Initiative, and The Weekly Standard have spent the last two years trying to talk Americans out of being weary with war. I won’t be surprised to hear Hillary Clinton join in soon, rallying us to show new spirit in defending American values.

A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money and the Corporate State: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How to Nonviolently Break Their Hold."

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