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Who Are The Real Neocons?

This column was written by Peter Beinart
Virtually no one still believes that the United States can quickly impose democracy in foreign lands. Almost everyone wants a pragmatic foreign policy, not a crusading one. Fewer and fewer Americans think our government can fix Arab culture. In other words, neoconservatism is back.

First-generation neoconservatism, that is. In a historical irony, many of the people who most thunderously denounce neoconservatism actually sound a lot like the original neocons themselves.

Liberal bloggers sometimes call themselves members of the "reality-based community." And that would have been a fitting motto for the first neocon journal, The Public Interest, founded in 1965 by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell. If The Public Interest had a bête noire, it was faith-based politics. The great danger to good government, argued its founding editorial, is "a prior commitment to ideology. ... For it is the nature of ideology to preconceive reality."

The ideology that worried The Public Interest's editors most was excessive faith in government's capacity to solve entrenched social problems. Great Society liberals, they worried, were too confident in their ability to restructure the lives of the poor and too dismissive of the harm they might do in the process. Traditional conservatives, of course, said the same thing. But traditional conservatives were as immodest about the redemptive power of capitalism as liberals were about the redemptive power of government. What distinguished the early neocons was their skepticism about both. They did not seek to abolish the welfare state; that would have been absurdly hubristic. As Norman Podhoretz, who turned Commentary into the second major neocon journal, has written, neocons simply wanted to place "certain limits" on government action, limits defined not by "issues of principle" but by "practical considerations, such as the precise point at which the incentive to work was undermined by the availability of welfare benefits."

The Public Interest dealt primarily with domestic policy. But, in foreign affairs, neocons displayed the same skepticism toward what Francis Fukuyama has called "utopian social engineering." Early neocon foreign policy was aggressive; Podhoretz and Kristol wanted to confront communist movements across the globe. But, for the neocons, preventing communist takeovers did not mean imposing liberal democracies. In Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous maxim, conservatism's key insight was that culture matters more than politics. And, if a nation's culture was not conducive to democracy, attempts to impose one would backfire. In her famed 1979 Commentary essay, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," Jeane Kirkpatrick ridiculed the liberal demand that Nicaragua and Iran shed their authoritarianism as a precondition of U.S. support. "No idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans," she wrote, "than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. This notion is belied by an enormous body of evidence." If neocons thought it utopian to believe Washington could rapidly end poverty, they thought it equally utopian to believe Washington could rapidly instill democracy. In both cases, they believed, such hubris was a particularly liberal vice.

As it turns out, that was wrong. In the wake of America's success in the cold war and the right's success in U.S. politics, the same hubris began to afflict many neocons themselves. By 1996, Podhoretz acknowledged that neocons no longer wanted to "reform rather than abolish the welfare state." They wanted to repeal it altogether as part of a "conservative revolution"--a phrase that would have made the early neocons shudder. On foreign policy, the hubris took longer to gestate. After a flirtation with democracy-promotion in the later Reagan years, older neocons returned in the 1990s to Kirkpatrick-esque skepticism, attacking the Clinton administration's nation-building efforts in Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans. "The prospect of American military intervention and occupation to 'make democracy work' ... in short ... something like an American empire with a purely ideological motive power ... is not and cannot be a serious option for American foreign policy," argued Irving Kristol in 1991.

But, while the original neocons were again attacking utopian foreign policy, some younger comrades--with less experience of pre-Reagan neoconservatism--were embracing it. And it was this new breed--embodied by Kristol's son, William, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz--who, after September 11, helped push the Bush administration toward unilateral, coercive democratization. And thus, neoconservatism, which initially prided itself on its modesty and empiricism, surrendered those qualities entirely.

Which is why, in an Alice in Wonderland twist, neocon-hating liberals have become neoconservatism's true heirs. It is young "reality-based" liberals, having watched the Bush administration's theological denial of global warming and its theological approach to the Iraq war, who today champion empiricism over ideology. In foreign policy, they prefer liberal democracy to dictatorship but doubt America's capacity to remake societies we don't understand. In domestic policy, they want a larger government role but don't share the easy optimism of Great Society liberals, who witnessed the extraordinary government-led progress of the postwar decades. Those earlier liberals shared the faith of their time, in the transformative capacity of government. Today's liberals have come of age doubting the faith of theirs, in the transformative capacity of capitalism. From deregulation to free trade, they are more skeptical of the unfettered market than the Clintonites of the '90s. But their skepticism stems less from ideological antipathy than from empirical observation--a suspicion that the free-marketers prefer the visions in their head to the facts on the ground. Like the founders of The Public Interest, they have spent more time tearing down icons than building them up.

One day, if they are lucky, that will change. Today's liberals will find success and erect icons of their own. Then they will be true neocons no more.
By Peter Beinart
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