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Can neo-cons break out and save the world?
London Times | August 23, 2003 | Irving Kristol

Posted on 08/24/2003 5:33:54 AM PDT by ejdrapes

Can neo-cons break out and save the world?
Irving Kristol, godfather of neo-conservatism, explains why his idea has taken hold of the US governing class

‘President Bush is an engaging person, but I think for some reason he’s been captured by the neo-conservatives around him,” the Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean said this month. But what exactly is neo-conservatism? Those of us who are designated as “neo-cons” are amused, flattered, or dismissive, depending on the context.

Even I, frequently referred to as the “godfather” of all those neo-cons, have had my moments of wonderment. A few years ago I said (and, alas, wrote) that neo-conservatism had had its own distinctive qualities in its early years, but by now had been absorbed into the mainstream of American conservatism.

I was wrong, and the reason I was wrong is that ever since its origin among disillusioned liberal intellectuals in the 1970s, what we call neo-conservatism has been one of those intellectual undercurrents that surface only intermittently. It is not a “movement”, but a “persuasion” that manifests itself over time.

Viewed in this way, one can say that the historical task and political purpose of neo-conservatism is to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, to a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy. That this new conservative politics is distinctly American is beyond doubt. There is nothing like neo-conservatism in Europe, and most European conservatives are sceptical of its legitimacy.

The fact that conservatism in America is so much healthier than in Europe surely has something to do with the existence of neo- conservatism. But Europeans, who think it absurd to look to America for lessons in political innovation, refuse to consider this possibility.

Neo-conservatism is hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic. Though most Republicans know little and could not care less about neo-conservatism they cannot be blind to the fact that neo- conservative policies, reaching out beyond the traditional political and financial base, have helped make conservatism more acceptable to voters.

One of the most visible and controversial of these policies is cutting tax rates to stimulate steady economic growth. This policy was not invented by neo-cons, and it was not tax cuts that interested them per se, but rather the steady focus on economic growth.

Neo-cons are familiar with intellectual history and aware that it is only in the past two centuries that democracy has become a respectable option. In earlier times democracy meant an inherently turbulent political regime, with the “have-nots” and the “haves” engaged in a destructive class struggle. It was only the prospect of economic growth in which everyone prospered, if not equally or simultaneously, that gave modern democracies their legitimacy and durability.

Neo-cons would prefer not to have large budget deficits, but they accept that sometimes deficits should be shouldered as the cost of pursuing economic growth. It is a basic assumption of neo-conservatism that, as a consequence of the spread of affluence among all classes, a property-owning and tax-paying population will in time become less vulnerable to egalitarian illusions and demagogic appeals and more sensible about the fundamentals of economic reckoning.

This leads to the issue of the role of the state. Neo-cons do not like the concentration of services in the welfare state and are happy to study alternative ways to deliver them. But they are impatient with the Hayekian notion that we are on the road to serfdom.

Neo-cons do not feel alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable. Because they tend to be more interested in history than economics or sociology, they know that people have always preferred strong government to weak government, although they have no liking for anything that smacks of overly intrusive government.

Neo-cons are comfortable in the modern world although their distaste for the vulgarity and decline in democratic culture unites them with more traditional conservatives. The upshot is a quite surprising mixture of secular intellectuals and religious traditionalists, who are united on issues concerning the quality of education, the relations of church and state and the regulation of pornography, all of which they regard as proper candidates for the government’s attention.

And then there is foreign policy, the area where neo-conservatism has recently been the focus of attention. This is surprising since there is no set of neo-conservative beliefs concerning foreign policy, only a set of attitudes derived from historical experience.

These attitudes can be summarised thus: first, patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions. Precisely because we are a nation of immigrants, this is a powerful American sentiment. Second, world government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny. International institutions that point to an ultimate world government should be regarded with the deepest suspicion. Third, statesmen should have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies.

Finally, for a great power, the “national interest” is not a geographical term, except for fairly prosaic matters such as trade and environmental regulation. A smaller nation might appropriately feel that its national interest begins and ends at its borders. A larger nation has more extensive interests. And large nations whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States today, inevitably have ideological interests as well as more material concerns.

Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from non-democratic forces, external or internal. That is why it was in our national interest to come to the defence of France and Britain in the second world war. That is why we feel it necessary to defend Israel today.

Behind all this is a fact: the incredible military superiority of the United States. This superiority happened to a large extent as a result of our bad luck. During the 50 years after the second world war, while Europe was at peace the US was involved in a whole series of wars: Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. The result was military spending expanded more or less in line with economic growth, while Europe’s democracies cut back their military spending in favour of social welfare.

The Soviet Union spent profusely but wastefully, so that its military collapsed along with its economy. Suddenly, America emerged as uniquely powerful. With power come responsibilities. If you have the kind of power we now have, either you will find opportunities to use it, or the world will discover them for you.

The traditional Republicans have difficulty coming to terms with this new reality in foreign affairs, just as they cannot reconcile economic conservatism with social and cultural conservatism. But by one of those accidents historians ponder, our current president and his administration turn out to be quite at home in this new political environment, although it is clear they did not expect this role. As a result neo-conservatism began enjoying a second life, at a time when its obituaries were still being published.

Irving Kristol is author of Neo-conservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea. This is an edited version of his article in The Weekly Standard. Andrew Sullivan is away.


TOPICS: Editorial; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: irvingkristol; neocons

1 posted on 08/24/2003 5:33:55 AM PDT by ejdrapes
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To: ejdrapes
Marked for later.
2 posted on 08/24/2003 5:54:49 AM PDT by AntiGuv ()
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To: ejdrapes
.......zzzzzzZZZZZZZZZ......heady boring stuff
3 posted on 08/24/2003 5:57:34 AM PDT by gitmogrunt (rather go back to sleep.......zzzzzzzZZZZ)
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To: ejdrapes
I was most interested in the rejection of and condemnation of world government.Good!
4 posted on 08/24/2003 6:06:52 AM PDT by MEG33
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To: ejdrapes
Neo-cons appear to favor a big government socialism domestically and an aggressive militarism internationally.

There used to be another name for that.
5 posted on 08/24/2003 6:52:34 AM PDT by the gillman@blacklagoon.com
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To: ejdrapes
Question: "Can neo-cons break out and save the world?"

Response: Wonder if one is not interested in saving "THE WORLD", but in the saving of America?

6 posted on 08/24/2003 7:04:26 AM PDT by AEMILIUS PAULUS (Further, the statement assumed)
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To: the gillman@blacklagoon.com
Well said.
7 posted on 08/24/2003 8:28:39 AM PDT by Carry_Okie (California: Where government is pornography every day!)
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To: the gillman@blacklagoon.com
Irving Kristol was a far left socialist for most of his life...
8 posted on 08/24/2003 8:31:29 AM PDT by jd777
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To: ejdrapes
I see Dean is still twisting with a lot of hot air.
9 posted on 08/24/2003 8:31:46 AM PDT by freekitty
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To: ejdrapes
It is the conservative movement.
10 posted on 08/24/2003 8:34:40 AM PDT by ChadGore (Kakkate Koi!)
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To: ejdrapes
"Neo-cons do not feel alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century"

Kristol says it all right here.

11 posted on 08/24/2003 8:37:52 AM PDT by Mr. Mojo
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To: the gillman@blacklagoon.com
The only name that I can think of for "big government socialism" is protectionism.
12 posted on 08/24/2003 8:41:41 AM PDT by 1rudeboy
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To: ejdrapes
"Neo-cons do not feel alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century," - Irving Kristol
13 posted on 08/24/2003 8:41:59 AM PDT by Scenic Sounds
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To: ejdrapes
The end justifies the means; we know what's best for you; and we're leftists but, we hate rap music. Whoopie!
14 posted on 08/24/2003 8:56:28 AM PDT by Buckwheats
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To: ejdrapes
Neocons have pluses and minuses.

Pluses - Strong Defence. Tax Cuts

Minuses - Big Government. Tolerance when there should be more righteous condemnation.

Neo-cons seem to be on the right side of defence and tax cuts, but they abdicate to liberals on the size of government and culture. A pure NeoCon wold not make a successful president.
15 posted on 08/24/2003 11:02:21 AM PDT by .cnI redruM (The Problem With Socialism Is That You Eventually Run Out Of Other People's Money - Lady Thatcher)
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To: ejdrapes
This is an edited version of his article in The Weekly Standard.
e.g: Note what was left out in just the 4th paragraph:(The words which were printed in the original article are in bold type.) What do you think about being converted to neoconservatism "against your will"?
Viewed in this way, one can say that the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy. That this new conservative politics is distinctly American is beyond doubt. There is nothing like neoconservatism in Europe, and most European conservatives are highly skeptical of its legitimacy. The fact that conservatism in the United States is so much healthier than in Europe, so much more politically effective, surely has something to do with the existence of neoconservatism. But Europeans, who think it absurd to look to the United States for lessons in political innovation, resolutely refuse to consider this possibility.
16 posted on 08/24/2003 11:47:22 AM PDT by Marianne
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Comment #17 Removed by Moderator

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