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The Pleasures of Reaction

They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons
By Jacob Heilbrunn
(Doubleday, 320 pp., $26)

Can I get a show of hands? How many of you are sick to death of hearing about City College in the 1930s, Alcove One and Alcove Two, the prima donnas at Partisan Review, who stopped speaking to whom at which cocktail party, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA funding of Encounter, the shameless joys of "making it," the traumas of Columbia in 1968 and Cornell in 1969, The Public Interest, Leo Strauss and Albert Wohlstetter, the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, Commentary, the American Enterprise Institute, the Committee on the Present Danger, the Committee for the Free World, the Project for a New American Century, the Defense Policy Board, "national greatness," and "benevolent global hegemony"?

Ouch, that's a lot of hands.

As De Gaulle used to say, je vous comprends. We are all deep into neocon fatigue, and not just political. The trickle of books that began with Peter Steinfels's The Neoconservatives in 1979 became a hailstorm of academic studies and anthologies in the 1980s and 1990s, and since 2003 you've needed an ark to escape it all. These are tough times to be publishing a book on this subject, and one has to wonder why Jacob Heilbrunn is stepping up right now. The Republican Party is in disarray, Iraq is in a state of suspended animation, and the editors of The Weekly Standard are in complete denial. What's left to be said?

Despite its shapelessness and its lack of a real thesis, They Knew They Were Right does have something to contribute. Heilbrunn, who for some years has been associated with The New Republic and The National Interest (in its neocon and post-neocon incarnations), knows where the ideas are buried, unlike most journalists who have tried tackling this subject. He has been through the books, the position papers, the press releases. He has also talked at length to the people who really matter--not just the public faces of the Bush administration's foreign policy, but younger researchers at oddly named institutes whose cubicles became launching pads for one harebrained scheme after another. He has a good feel for the mercurial neocon mood, which has swung unpredictably from the Ford and Carter years to the present. Since Heilbrunn is something of an insider with his own neoconservative past, his book will help outsiders understand the intellectual background to the Washington madness of the past five years.

But the book also has serious, debilitating problems. They boil down to its author's inability to crack the question on everyone's mind: just what is neoconservatism? What class of phenomena does it belong to? Is it a set of principles, a mood, an intellectual tendency, a party faction? What makes it tick? In his prologue Heilbrunn offers the thought that the neoconservative "mentality is ineluctably Jewish" and represents "a cultural proclivity specific to American Jews of a certain generation," which makes little sense, given that American Jews are overwhelming liberal. But a few pages later he introduces the contradictory thought that "neoconservatism has always existed in some form, and in every society," beginning with Alcibiades, "the first neocon." So which is it: Alcibiades in a kippa or Norman in a toga?

Thankfully, Heilbrunn eventually drops both thoughts and begins unrolling the conventional chronicle, which moves from the pages of Partisan Review to the Office of the Vice President. I'm glad he did so, actually, because his story confirms my growing suspicion that there is no longer any story to tell. Despite the author's intentions, the book both poses Tertullian's old question--what hath Lionel Trilling to do with Michael Ledeen?--and answers it: absolutely nothing.

Genealogy simply doesn't get us very far when thinking about neoconservatism. Not only does the standard story apply only to a handful of people from an aging generation, but the ending keeps changing. As Heilbrunn admits in the book's acknowledgments, he began his study "when the neoconservatives were at the zenith of their influence" and now "the movement has taken a somewhat different turn than I had anticipated." That confession is a telltale sign that the author has been on the rocky seas of the moment, trimming his sails. Like most of the neocons' gleeful critics now, he rigs his account of the past to make the Iraq debacle appear not only predictable (which it was) but inevitable, succumbing to an inverted Whiggism. But that just won't work: even had the dunk in fact been slammed, the distinctive neoconservative approach to things would have been worth analyzing, and worth worrying about.

Neoconservatism is a form of intellectual and political reaction. We need to restore the term "reaction" to our vocabulary, not as an epithet but as a psychological and political category. Entire libraries are devoted to studies of revolution--the revolutionary mind, revolutionary ideas, revolutionary movements, revolutionary states, post-revolutionary states--but not enough attention has been devoted to reaction, which has done as much to shape Western history over the past two centuries as any revolution has. There is Benjamin Constant's suggestive short essay "Des reactions politiques" (1796), and the standard studies of right-wing movements, and tendentious investigations of the "authoritarian personality," and of course Isaiah Berlin's studies of the CounterEnlightenment, which take us part of the way there. But this subject still awaits its Dostoevsky or Conrad, a writer who could get to the psychological core of reaction and its manifestations in politics, philosophy, religion, even the arts.

Modern reactionaries and modern revolutionaries share a picture of history that theologians call apocalyptic: they are obsessed with ruptures in time, and see human experience as radically discontinuous. The revolutionary works to bring the apocalyptic moment about, ushering in paradise; the reactionary believes that moment has passed and that the gates of hell have opened. Modern reactionary thought begins in the shadow of the French Revolution and its greatest representatives--Joseph De Maistre, Louis-Gabriel de Bonald, Félicité de Lamennais--were on the Counter-Revolutionary and Counter-Enlightenment right. But valences can switch: reaction is not a preserve of the right. Lamennais moved from apocalyptic legitimism to apocalyptic socialism, and the European anti-globalization movement, with its environmental doomsaying and wild-eyed attacks on "neo-liberalism," shows that left-wing reaction is alive and well.

Pace Gilbert and Sullivan, ev'ry boy and ev'ry gal may be born a liberal or conservative, but reactionaries are made, not born. They are made by events. Liberals and conservatives appeal to ideas and principles; reactionaries prefer conversion stories. The neoconservative tropes are highly codified: you begin with a liberal Saul, minding his own business but increasingly uncomfortable with the world surrounding him, and then suddenly something gives way. An article in The New York Times, a rancorous faculty meeting, an exhibition at the Guggenheim, a PG-13 movie that deserves an X, a U.N. resolution--something makes him snap.

After that, things get easier for our new friend Paul. He discovers others who share his frustration, and who also provide a narrative explaining how things got the way they are. We once were found and now are lost--but now have eyes to see. Things start to make sense. As they do, the reactionary discovers that he has two existential options. Either he can withdraw from contemporary society into bittersweet nostalgia for life before the cataclysm, while disdaining those who refuse to recognize what has happened (think Chateaubriand and The New Criterion). Or he can nurse eschatological dreams of a counter-revolution that will reset the clock, and work to bring it about through cadre recruitment, solidarity, purges, cynical alliances, and the instrumentalization of ideas (think Charles Maurras and Commentary).

Neoconservatism is, I repeat, a form of reaction. But a reaction to what? The neocons say the 1960s, and I think we should take them at their word. Strangely, Heilbrunn does not tarry over the 1960s and how they fit into the neoconservative world picture. Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll do not appear in his index--a major omission. Since he has one eye fixed obsessively on Iraq, he keeps the other trained on the narrow foreign policy debates of the late Cold War, so that we learn more about the SALT II talks than we do about neocon revulsion at the youth culture. Even the Vietnam War plays a relatively small role in his story, perhaps because he is too young to remember how that conflict became a proxy war over the shape of American society.

Heilbrunn's assumption, shared by many recent critics, is that foreign policy was always at the center of neocon doctrine--when in fact domestic and cultural issues were paramount until quite recently--and that a genealogy of doctrinal squabbles will reveal how we ended up in Baghdad. But foreign policy is only part of the neocon picture, and it is the Big Picture that matters most. All ideologies work by making large connections and drawing absolutely everything into focus in a hall-of-mirrors kind of way. In the neocon funhouse the Vietnam War appears as the first skirmish in the culture wars, which can be directly linked to the Beatles' first LP and the subsequent rise in divorce rates, but of course also to the birth of academic postmodernism and Kissinger's surrender at Helsinki in 1975, which bear a direct relationship to anti-Zionism and Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, finally explaining why we were in Vietnam. It all connects.

And that is the problem. When everything connects, everything has to be made to connect. And the machine for making things connect is the neoconservative network of think tanks and study groups that began as a counter-establishment of Washington intellectuals and has become a Washington establishment of counter-intellectuals. Its task is twofold: to keep the home fires burning with shocking revelations about the disintegration of American culture and society (though not its economy, which is spared criticism), and to provide comforting Team-B analysis for whatever Republican policy contributes to the counter-revolutionary struggle. And here I speak from some experience.

In the early 1980s I was an editor of The Public Interest, which had been founded in 1965 by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell in hopes of injecting some sanity and empiricism into ideological controversies over social policy. In the very first issue of the journal they wrote that "the aim of The Public Interest is at once modest and presumptuous. It is to help all of us, when we discuss issues of public policy, to know a little better what we are talking about--and preferably in time to make such knowledge effective." As a college student of public policy I adored the magazine, because it complexified everything I thought I knew about politics, and even about human nature. It taught me to think about the secondary and tertiary effects of government action, and to accept the fact that sometimes problems cannot be solved, only managed. (Can you imagine a leading neocon saying that about the "war on terror" today?) Though I considered myself a neoconservative then and sniffed the ambrosia of reaction, Commentary was never my thing. That magazine was the great simplifier--everything always came down to holding the line and proving your manliness. The articles made sense only if you imagined the authors screaming at the top of their lungs.

But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in ways I didn't see at the time, The Public Interest was already betraying its original mission and starting to stockpile ammunition for assaults against the "new class" that was allegedly sapping America's strength. Where once you read in its pages only distinguished economists such as Martin Feldstein, now you began to encounter crackpots like Jude Wanniski and Arthur Laffer. The tentative and skeptical tone of Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan was giving way to the epiphanies of George Gilder and Charles Murray, whose articles in The Public Interest became best-selling books and had an enormous impact on social policy in the Reagan years. The mantra I kept hearing was "You can't beat a horse with no horse." And what happened on a small scale at the magazine then took place on a large scale within the growing Washington counter-establishment. A switch got flipped, and once it did suites of offices were prepared for any "resident fellow" who would reliably turn out research contributing to the war effort. Not that everyone agreed all the time; there were--and are--plenty of interesting debates within neocon ranks about this policy or that. But outsiders, whether in university or government, were treated with distrust because they just didn't get it: they couldn't connect the dots. The step from the Laffer Curve to Curveball proved a short one.

Which brings us back to Iraq. Heilbrunn's correct but uninspired treatment of this subject would have gained some intellectual weight had he penetrated more deeply into the wider neoconservative mentality that developed in the 1970s and 1980s, and into the sociology of their insular and self-reinforcing community in Washington. But his pages on the 1990s are useful nonetheless, particularly for showing what happened when the door that neocons had been pushing against for decades suddenly opened in 1989. As he puts it, with a different metaphor, the Cold War "was their mental balustrade, something they could lean on in their battles against the effete liberals at home. Deprived of it, they lost their footing." There were exceptions, which Heilbrunn duly notes. He praises Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Owen Harries (the wise former editor of The National Interest) for recognizing that the end of the Cold War also meant the end of the Cold War by other means, and that fresh thinking about America's place in the world was necessary. (From Heilbrunn's pages I developed a new fondness for Harries, who is quoted here as saying that "it's to belittle the historical experiences of World War II, not to speak of the Cold War, to equate the terrorists of today and the damage they're capable of with the totalitarian regimes of the previous century.")

But other neocons weren't buying it, just as they weren't buying the fact that Bill Clinton's domestic policies on everything from welfare to taxes were more or less their own policies, circa 1979. Some withdrew deeper into Kulturpessimismus, forging bonds with a religious right whose views on modern science and the coming Rapture (in Israel!) were loopy but, once again, useful. Irving Kristol, who used to extol a measured meliorism in politics, now declared that "there is no 'after the Cold War' for me. So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos." Sharper young minds, like Robert Kagan, Bill Kristol, and David Brooks, tried to break with the past and look to the future, and were at pains to show they weren't your parents' neocons. But when it came to the present, the international present, they lacked the disengaged curiosity and taste for paradox that made the old Public Interest stand out. And their chin-forward programs in the 1990s for promoting "national greatness" and a "neo-Reaganite foreign policy," which make embarrassing reading today, were simply retread versions of the old reactionary cheer, Vive la Restoration!

Heilbrunn's focus on foreign policy debates does convincingly show how the intellectual foundations of the Bush foreign policy were laid in the years running from the Gulf War to September 11. What it doesn't quite capture is the psychological processes by which the Clinton years served to confirm, rather than puncture, the older neocon dreamwork. Whatever one thought of the Oslo accords, the Somalian misadventure, the dawdling and then the intervention in Kosovo, the sanctions in Iraq, or the failure at Camp David, they were about what they were about--they were not pieces of a grand strategy. For neocons in the 1990s, this muddling through smacked of Carterism, or worse.

So the call went forth, from that time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch had been passed to a new generation of threats. First it was China, which figured large in The Weekly Standard's early years, and then it was Iraq. This is not to say that China and Iraq were not threats, as the Clinton foreign policy team also thought. But the neocon investment in these specters, particularly Iraq, had little to do with a sober measurement of them or (as we now know) serious thinking about the rebound effects of responding to them. Critics point to the Israel connection here, and there certainly was one, ever since Scuds landed there in the first Gulf War; but back then, as now, most Israelis were more worried by Iran than Iraq--not that their American defenders knew that, or much cared. For the neocons, the stakes were much larger even than Israel. The United States' failure to assert itself by marching to Baghdad in 1991 was proof positive that it still suffered from Vietnam syndrome--just as, in the heated neocon imagination, the Clinton scandals that followed confirmed that American culture was still suffering from '68 syndrome. It all connected.

Of course, there were Americans of every ideological stripe--not just members of the professional counterestablishment--who supported the war to topple Saddam. Most of them had no fantasies of restoring "national greatness," they just thought that Saddam had the weapons and that we had no better option. Fine. But even that is not the whole story. For it turned out that the liberal hawks who became so prominent after September 11, including here at The New Republic, were indeed interested in restoring "national greatness," though in a new, more left-leaning form. They have been accused of succumbing to neoconservatism themselves, but that is backwards. In retrospect, what seems to have motivated them was the desire to displace the neocons from their dominant perch in Washington by proving that liberalism could be a fighting faith at home and abroad. Clinton's intervention in Kosovo confirmed that was possible, so why not continue the march all the way to Baghdad? Why leave the promotion of human rights and democracy--not to mention the protection of dissidents such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali--to the madmen at AEI, whose domestic policies were loathsome? As Heilbrunn's pages show, though he does not quite put it this way, the temptation to beat the neocons at their own game was hard to resist--which meant, of course, that the liberal hawks also found themselves playing the old reactionary game, which is to use a foreign war to reform society at home.

Poor Iraq! And poor America! The dénouement we all know, but Heilbrunn's book, for all its superficiality, still shows how depressingly predictable it all was. By leaving the reality-based community and creating their own Team-B approach to every issue--and stocking that team with reliable soldiers who happened not to know what the hell they were talking about (trivia question: who was Laurie Mylroie?)--the neoconservatives had become the very last people you'd want leading you to war. They knew how everything connected but not how anything worked--the Army, the United Nations, the Sunni-Shiite quarrel, the balance of power, human culture in the face of occupation and humiliation. And what they used to know about the unintended consequences of political action they seem to have willfully forgotten. Reactionaries are like that--because in the end, contrary to Heilbrunn's title, they really don't care whether they are right. What they care most about is reconfirming their picture of the world.

Heilbrunn ends by asserting that the neocons "aren't going away" and he may be right, though fitting the scream of Iraq into their mental picture will take all the artistry of Edvard Munch. Still, there's always World War IV to look forward to. And while we're basking in the twilight of Western civilization, maybe we can all take time out and light a candle for an older, nobler idea of the intellectual's task in politics, which was "to help all of us, when we discuss issues of public policy, to know a little better what we are talking about." Whose idea was that, anyway?

Mark Lilla is Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and author, most recently, of The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (Knopf). This article originally ran in the February 27, 2008, issue of the magazine.