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Mugged by Reality

Irving Kristol positioned himself as a hard-headed realist willing to buck liberal pieties, but do his unsentimental pronouncements, collected in a new volume, stand the test of time?

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Irving Kristol in 1976. (Bettmann/Corbis)
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Irving Kristol, the so-called godfather of neoconservatism, who died in 2009, has some claim to being the most influential intellectual of the last 50 years. In The Neoconservative Persuasion (Basic Books, $29.95), a newly published selection of dozens of his uncollected essays, Kristol takes mischievous pleasure in confessing that the secret to his success was “a formula … devised by Lenin”: “First you publish a theoretical organ, then you proceed to books and pamphlets, and finally you publish a newspaper. Once you have a newspaper that can apply the theories developed in more sophisticated publications to day-to-day politics, you are in business.”

No one mastered these techniques of persuasion better than Kristol. You can follow the progress he describes in the pages of The Neoconservative Persuasion itself. The earliest pieces gathered here come from a tiny magazine Kristol launched in 1942, Enquiry: A Journal of Independent Radical Thought. The “independence” was from the official Communist line, and it signaled the anti-Communist direction his thinking would continue to take. It also suggests the quality that Kristol described, in An Autobiographical Memoir, as having “a ‘neo’ gene”: “I have been a neo-Marxist, a neo-Trotskyist, a neo-socialist, a neo-liberal, and finally a neoconservative. It seems that no ideology or philosophy has ever been able to encompass all of reality to my satisfaction. There was always a degree of detachment qualifying my commitment.”

That succession of “neos” can be mapped onto Kristol’s career as a writer and editor. In the 1940s and 1950s, he worked at Commentary and Encounter, both liberal anti-Communist journals. In the 1960s he launched The Public Interest, the original neoconservative magazine, dedicated to challenging the assumptions of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Finally he became a key voice on the very conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, during the height of its influence in the Reagan years.

The irony, which Kristol relishes, is that his “Leninist” path carried him ever further to the right. It was to capture this evolution that he coined the term “neoconservative,” the ambiguous label with which Kristol became so closely identified. (This is the third of his books to use the word in the title.) To anyone who followed political and foreign policy debates during the George W. Bush years, however, that term took on an ominous coloration. To put it crudely, after September 11, 2001, “neoconservative” often became a code word meaning “Jewish warmongers.” It was common for critics of the Iraq War to blame it on a “cabal” of neoconservative advisers in the Bush Administration, all of whom happened to be Jewish—Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith were the most frequently named.

The idea that a secretive group of powerful, behind-the-scenes Jews were running American foreign policy became an article of faith to many on the American, and especially the European, left—people either indifferent to the anti-Semitic tropes in this discourse or those who positively relished them. A common corollary to this idea was the belief that the neoconservatives were acting under the influence of Leo Strauss, a German-Jewish political philosopher who fled the Nazis and spent his last decades teaching at the University of Chicago. Strauss, according to the caricature, was an elitist enemy of democracy, whose thought encouraged the “neocons” (some of whom, like Wolfowitz, had been his students) to lie the country into war.

It is not surprising that, in the wake of these developments, the label neoconservative has been abandoned by most of those who used to claim it. Naturally, readers will turn to The Neoconservative Persuasion for enlightenment: What did the “godfather” of neoconservatism think of the ugly turn the term took in the last few years? But while the subtitle of the book promises “Selected Essays, 1942-2009,” it turns out that very few of these pieces date from the last decade of Kristol’s life. Perhaps this is only to be expected—after all, Kristol was already in his eighties when George W. Bush became president.

The one place where Kristol indirectly addresses the connection of neoconservatism with the Iraq War is in the 2003 op-ed that gives the book its title. And his main reaction is, surprisingly enough, surprise that any connection has been drawn: “And then, of, course, there is foreign policy, the area of American politics where neoconservatism has recently been the focus of media attention. This is surprising since there is no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy.” Instead, Kristol says, there are at most a few neoconservative principles or intuitions: that American power should not be subordinated to “world government” or “international institutions”; that America’s national interest requires global engagement, not isolationism; and that “the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from non-democratic forces.”

It was a little disingenuous for Kristol to deny that there is such a thing as a neoconservative foreign policy. After all, one of the eight sections of The Neoconservative Persuasion is titled “Foreign Policy and Ideology.” All but one of the essays in that group, however, were written during the Cold War, and it is fair to say that if neoconservatism—or Kristol himself—had a diplomatic philosophy, it was one totally shaped by America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union, with only limited application to the post-Cold War world.

Essentially, Kristol believed that America’s struggle with the USSR was the criterion by which everything else had to be judged. Anything that could hurt the United States or benefit the USSR was wrong, no matter how right it might seem on the surface. Perhaps the most uncompromising essay in the book is “ ‘Human Rights’: The Hidden Agenda,” in which Kristol totally rejects the idea of making human rights an American foreign-policy priority, as Jimmy Carter had done. His reason is that, if regimes are judged by human rights standards alone, many American allies—he is thinking particularly of right-wing regimes in South America—would come out quite badly. Rather than pick our alliances based on moral purity, Kristol writes, America should look to the differences between “authoritarian governments” and “totalitarian regimes.” The first—like, say, Pinochet’s Chile—may eventually evolve into democracies, and they pose no threat to America. The latter, like the Soviet Union, are inherently dangerous and must be opposed at all costs.

It’s true, Kristol acknowledges, that a torture victim in Chile has suffered just as much as a torture victim in Russia. But, he writes, “the perspective of the victim, whether in war or peace, is the stuff of which poetry (or perhaps theology) is made, not politics, and certainly not foreign policy.” This is probably the single sentence in The Neoconservative Persuasion that best captures Kristol’s entire worldview. Concern for victims—of war, of torture, of poverty, and of racism—is all well and good, but finally Kristol regards it as sentimentality. What really matters is power, and it would be suicidal for Americans to give up power in the name of sentiment.

For Americans, and also for Jews, Kristol famously joked that a neoconservative was a liberal who got mugged by reality, and the trajectory of his own thought was always in the direction of disillusionment. Over the decades covered in The Neoconservative Persuasion, the reader sees Kristol losing patience with liberalism, modern art, the welfare state, blacks and the civil rights movement, feminism, and gay rights. In each case, his initial sympathy or at least respect gives way to a disgusted sense that all these movements have gone too far, until the word “liberal” itself became a kind of imprecation to Kristol (as it did in American politics generally). By the time he wrote the essay “The Way We Were,” in 1995, he had given in to simple nostalgia: In his childhood, Kristol writes, “the reason there were no ‘troubled’ schools is that ‘trouble’ was not tolerated.”

But nothing in The Neoconservative Persuasion makes Kristol lose patience like the Jews. You can see it happening even in the titles of his essays: “The Political Dilemma of American Jews” (1984) gives way to “Why Religion Is Good for the Jews” (1994) and finally “On the Political Stupidity of the Jews” (1999). The stupidity Kristol has in mind can be summed up in the question his fellow neoconservative Norman Podhoretz asked in the title of a recent book: Why Are Jews Liberals? For it is unmistakable that, in every one of the movements Kristol deplores—modern art, civil rights, feminism, and so on—Jews have been enthusiastic supporters.

Once upon a time, Kristol grants, it may have been sensible for Jews to support liberal and progressive causes, “given the historic attitude of the European Right toward Jews.” But the same calculus of power and interest that he employs in foreign policy leads Kristol to conclude that Jewish interests now lie with the right, especially the Christian Right. Evangelical Christians are strong supporters of Israel; yet Jews, he complains, continue to pointlessly antagonize them by insisting so strongly on the separation of Church and State. Conversely, he argued several times in the 1980s, Jews continue to sympathize politically with African-Americans, even as black anti-Semitism and anti-Zionsim rise. In short, Kristol finds it absurd that Jews refuse to ask whether “a given turn of events or policy is ‘good for the Jews’ ”: “to ask that question in the United States today in Jewish circles is to invite a mixture of ridicule and indignation.”

Here, as so often in The Neoconsevrative Persuasion, Kristol seems to me to be right in part and wrong in greater and more significant part. Yes, Jews should be confident and realistic enough to ask what is in their best interest—just as Americans should apply the same standard to domestic and world politics. In each of these areas, we should not be afraid to identify our enemies as enemies and to oppose institutions and policies that sound virtuous but are actually harmful—one of Kristol’s favorite examples is the United Nations. The single best essay in the book, “The Myth of the Supra-Human Jew,” demonstrates the dangers involved in imagining Judaism as “a divinely intoxicated form of liberalism.” (That essay was written in 1947, and it is notable that Kristol’s most sophisticated and penetrating work was written in the 1940s and 1950s, before he became settled in his beliefs and began to write mainly op-eds: Op-eds are interventions, not explorations.)

But is it true, as Kristol believes, that American Jews would be better off in a more conservative, more Christianized polity—or, at the very least, that, since such a polity is certain to come, we had better reconcile ourselves to it? Is it true that an American foreign policy committed to human rights is shackled and enfeebled? Is it true that black and Jewish aspirations are now opposed? In his essays of the 1980s and 1990s, Kristol said all these things quite confidently. Yet despite the red/blue divide, the Moral Majority has not become a majority in America. In fact, contrary to the central premise of Kristol’s social thought, the most religious parts of America are now the parts most afflicted by divorce and teen pregnancy, while the most secular parts of America are the least afflicted.

Many of Kristol’s other premises have also been proved wrong. After the fall of the USSR, the American commitment to human rights led not to self-doubt and paralysis but to a more vigorous and interventionist foreign policy—in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and even Iraq. (Not to mention the fact, slighted by Kristol, that the human rights movement played a major role in bringing down the Soviet empire.) In a 1984 essay, Kristol lamented that “Jesse Jackson [is] the political leader of American blacks,” and that Jackson “stands for black nationalism”—indeed, he writes about Jackson as if he were Louis Farrakhan.

But a quarter-century later, the political leader of American blacks is the political leader of America, Barack Obama, and the main charge against him from the left is that he is too committed to consensus-building. Finally, Kristol saw the gay-rights movement as a sign of American decadence, part of the Sixties assault on bourgeois values; today, the major gay-rights issues are the right to serve in the military and the right to get married. In each case, Kristol’s hard-headed realism turned out to be a poor guide to reality. Perhaps the inveterate Jewish tendency to care about “the perspective of the victim” has something to be said for it after all.

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M. Brukhes says:

This is an excellent and persuasive summary/assessment of one of the most pernicious influences on American politics of the last half-century. It’s a pity, only, that Adam Kirsch had to expend so much time and energy considering such unrewarding and discredited ideas!!

Frank Messmann says:

Kristol minimizes Jewish influence in the US’s attacking Iraq. No, it was not a cabal, but Jewish influence was important, if not pivotal.

The war was seen as helping Israeli Jews, but it most definitely was NOT in the long-term interests of the US. And so the issue of “dual-loyalty” rightfully comes up. Did Kristol mistakenly conflate the interests of Israel and the US? A tiny, relatively unimportant country in the Middle East does not have the same geopolitical interests as the world’s greatest power.

Oh, Frank Messmann, people like you inhabit a galaxy far, far away.

A few reminders:

The President was not Jewish.
The Vice-President was not Jewish.
The Secretary of State was not Jewish.
The Secretary of Defense was not Jewish.
The Director of the CIA was not Jewish.
Contrast with Bill Clinton, who had a number of Jews in Cabinet positions and who aggressively pursued Mideast peace.
Jews voted overwhelmingly against Bush, twice.
In fact, there were complaints that absentee ballots from Israel were going to tip the election to Gore.
Israeli officials are on record advising the U.S. against invading Iraq.

Seriously, open your window up, and let the air in, or take a walk.

Good article. I’d like to see something similar on the backers of the Oslo “Peace Process” and see how their ideas have stood the test of time 20 years later.

Population shift and WEB accessibility of each individual everywhere on the globe will drive the American dream into an abhorrent disillusionment. 26 January 2011 B”H. Write from the heart. Most of what is stated in the name of Neoconservative Persuasion gives the impression of something other than what used for by politicians. The writings seem almost paranoiac, will not the greatness the United States pale in the eyes of the world when the functionability of communism is praised as more humane, and equally reasonable as a governing intuition as capitalism, which itself entitles only some humans to luxury while others suffer in poverty. Not only is the capitalism of the Occident associated with the Imperialism of the British Kingdom, but it serves to explain the avarice that is a direct outcome of the conquest. The “imperialist” of yore can not build enough walls around far reaching spaces that will stay the waves of populations that impose their cultures upon the Occident, in increasing numbers and strength. Territorial borders help in governance when the settlers within those boundaries agree to the principles of their being governed, especially as concerns democracy; government by the people for the people of the people; that’s why any fool can be fool anybody willing not to consider the qualifications of the candidates who run for office in the USA. If the deceit of creating reality out of literary projections preached by Kristol were carried to the neo-liberal extreme one would start programs on the readily accessible WEB to achieve the end of warfare for all humankind, speedily in our days; end to a monopoly over resources by anybody and a subjection of technological resources for benefit of the lakes, forests, and air the next generation might be forced to use in an effort to sustain the virtue of a human population upon the face of the earth. You may read my earnest efforts to portray a vision towards a secure freedom at http://www.englishquickly.com , pg. 2!

Frank Messmann says:

In response to FWs comments above:

AIPAC, the Israeli lobby, played a key role in the decision to invade Iraq.

The idea of invading Iraq originated in the US with the neoconservatives. Prominent neo-conservatives occupied important positions in the Bush administration, and in the aftermath of 9/11, they played a major role in persuading Bush and Cheney to back a war against Iraq, which they had been advocating since the late 1990s.

Top Israeli leaders from across the political spectrum became cheerleaders for the invasion, and they played a prominent role in helping to sell the war here in the United States.

If the neoconservatives deserve the blame for dreaming up the idea of invading Iraq, key groups and individuals in the lobby played an important role in selling it on Capitol Hill and to the public at large. AIPAC head Howard Kohr told the New York Sun in January 2003 that one of the organization’s “success stories” over the previous year was “quietly lobbying Congress” to approve the resolution authorizing the use of force,

Pundits at pro-Israel think tanks like the Brookings Institutions’s Saban Center were openly backing war by the fall of 2002, with Martin Indyk, the head of the center, and Kenneth Pollack, its director of research, playing especially prominent roles.

Moreover, in this same period both the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations voted to endorse the use of force .

rlgordonma says:

To Frank Messmann:

Let’s give you the facts you state. So what?

Jewish groups were for the war. Jewish groups were against the war.
Jews are lefties. Jews are right-wing.
Jews are Commies. Jews are Capitalist Pigs.

How about this one: Jews are human. They are just as stinky and tough to look at in the morning as non-Jews. They also have some good ideas and some really, really dumb ideas, just like non-Jews.

Jews have no magic powers. True, many successful, influential people about whom you may read in the papers are Jewish. But [and I get this from personal experience] the success and influence comes from hard work. Just like it does for non-Jews.

By obsessing over how many Jews supported the war in Iraq, you paint a picture of a monolithic Jewish duper-body ready and willing to sacrifice American [non-Jewish] lives to feed its needs. This picture you paint is of course an anti-Semitic one. You may recoil at the term, but, as Gandhi said, the Truth is the Truth.

And, yes, it is as simple as that. So, please continue to gather all the facts about some Jewish conspiracy. The problem is, there isn’t one. There has never been one. And the rumor of one killed about 1 in every 3 Jews worldwide some 60-odd years ago.

Or is that a hoax perpetrated by The Jews as well?

donyel ben aharon says:

There is absolutely no positive connection between strong Evangelical Christian support of ISRAEL and Judaism. The New Testament is rife with antisemitism/antiJudaism. Right wing Christians temporarily support Israel solely in order that their version of things will prevail at Endtimes.

John Brosseau says:

Let’s not forget that Encounter was funded (in part) by the CIA.
This got out in the 60’s. Anti-communist, yes. Liberal, not really.

Gibson Block says:

@John Brosseau

In what way was Encounter not liberal? You can’t just say it was supported by the CIA and expect that to carry your idea.

MackTheKnife says:

Donyel Ben Aharon, the term “anti-semitism” is a 19th century invention which describes hostility to Jews as a race. It implies belief in an essential or biological difference between Jews and other peoples. To describe the New Testament as “anti-semitic” is therefore misleadingly anachronistic. The Gospel according to John and parts of Matthew and the Pauline Epistles can be described as “anti-Judaic” but only in so far as they constitute polemic against the Jewish religion (halakha, reading of scripture, core tenets etc.) It’s worth mentioning that all the authors and main protagonists of the NT were all Jews and, with the exception of Paul, halakha-abiding. As for the Evangelical support for Israel, it is based on a couple of lines from Paul about the restoration of the Jews and, most importantly, on the Book of Revelations. The latter wasn’t included in the Christian canon until the late 3rd century and this against the wishes of the Eastern Churches. Please refrain from such cursory characterisations of the Christian canon!

LiamAlbert says:

Mr. Wasserman pointed out truths about the Iraq War. rlgordonma replies to him so what, you’re just a anti-semetic creep, so to speak. what happened to truth is truth? if you can say so what to truth, what can’t you do? people like rlgordonma who wield the anti-semetic club against critics of Jewish influence of American power can kiss my ass. As can any other person from any other persuasion who uses such sucky tactics to stymie honest exchanges of truthful information. America allows all of to us say basically anything we want, thank god; but people like rlgordonma use free speech in nefarious ways, knowingly or not, blocking honest and truth based information to be exchanged by other Americans, certainly on life and death and freedom issues like wars are all about. all we can do is say shame on you and ignore them. On with the truthful exchanges please.

I’m personally not surprised by the quote of the AIPAC leader, about helping to influence Congress to support war with Iraq. It’s surely what many of my Irish tribe would have done given the opportunity to bring war to the British, which I know is a preposterous hypothetical, but you get my point. So what? So a lot. American citizens don’t vote for special interests and don’t like it when they control those we do vote to do what we might not otherwise do, given the straight story.

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Mugged by Reality

Irving Kristol positioned himself as a hard-headed realist willing to buck liberal pieties, but do his unsentimental pronouncements, collected in a new volume, stand the test of time?

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