Tim McGurk Reports on Gaza from Jerusalem
Why Does Walter Isaacson Still Have a Job?

Yet More Journamalism from the Economist: The History of Neoconservatism

Perhaps my big problem with the Economist is that I got used to it as it was at the beginning of the 1980s--when it rarely, rarely said things that weren't true. And even when the things it said weren't true, they weren't stupid. So it is still a shock when an Economist writer like Lexington says something both false and stupid, like this:

Economist.com: Most of the recent [neoconservative] mistakes can be traced back not just to flawed execution but to flawed thinking. The neocons argued that democracy might be an antidote to the Middle East's problems: but democracy proved too delicate a plant. They claimed that the assertion of American power might wipe out “Vietnam syndrome”: but it has ended up making America more reluctant to intervene abroad. They talked about linking American power with American ideals: but it turned out, at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, that power can corrupt those ideals.

The tragedy of neoconservatism is that the movement began as a critique of the arrogance of power. Early neocons warned that government schemes to improve the world might well end up making it worse. They also argued that social engineers are always plagued by the law of unintended consequences. The neocons have not only messed up American foreign policy by forgetting their founders' insights. They may also have put a stake through the heart of their own movement.

The intellectuals who provided the energy for the early Public Interest--Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, et cetera--were what we now call "neoliberals": they wanted to do the Great Society and the Cold War right. In the 1960s they did not think of themselves as neoconservatives, and they were not neoconservatives--not even in retrospect.

The "neoconservatives" were a different group of people, later--Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz were their intellectual godfathers, rather than Daniel Bell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The real neoconservatives formed into a group at the end of the 1970s around four planks:

  • That the Soviet Union was winning the Cold War, which the west needed to heat up and wage it with harsher methods--nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, and death squads rather than limp-wristed Carter-Ford focus on international economic prosperity, democratization, and human rights.
  • That Likud should be encouraged to drive Palestinians into their existing homeland of Jordan as soon as practicable.
  • That taxes should be cut, (military) spending raised, and budgets balanced--and that anyone who pointed out that this didn't add up needed to be shouted down.


  • That African-Americans got too easy a ride in modern America, and needed to be made poorer and less powerful.

You can get what the Economist's Lexington claims were the founding principles of neoconservatism--concern for the arrogance of power and fear of unthought-out social engineering--out of the work of the Daniels: Daniel Bell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But the founding moments of neoconservatism were not the internal critiques of the Great Society made in the 1960s, but rather the 1970s' Team B and Ariel Sharon's West Bank settlements and Ronald Reagan's deficits. Today's neoonservatives are not, and neoconservatives never were, the Daniels' children. Neoconservatives are the children of Irving and Norman.

This isn't rocket science people. This intellectual history isn't hard to get straight--if you care, and if you try.