Say What You Will About the Tenets of Neo-Conservatism, At Least It’s...

Say What You Will About the Tenets of Neo-Conservatism, At Least It’s An Ethos


I’ve been pretty harsh on philosophical neo-conservatism over the last year or so. In fact, it’s safe to say that of all the various (actual) political philosophies that form a significant portion of our governing political coalitions, I have consistently held neo-conservatism in by far the most contempt.

And without a doubt, the basic tenets of neo-conservatism, with its emphasis on the spread of democracy as an end unto itself, are tenets with which I profoundly disagree. But it’s also worth remembering that neo-conservatism, at least in its most philosophical form, is very much concerned with a positive, idealistic worldview just as any other true political philosophy is. And while, just as other strains of conservatism and libertarianism, many prominent neo-conservatives have fallen under the spell of “talk radio dogmatism,” the actual philosophy of neo-conservatism itself – again much like other strains of conservatism and libertarianism – has deep intellectual roots.

Perhaps nothing provides a clearer example of the distinction between this “talk radio dogma” neo-conservatism and actual philosophical neo-conservatism than the reaction in conservative circles to the impending nomination of Leon Pannetta to head the CIA. As an outspoken critic of torture (aka “harsh interrogation techniques”) and the intelligence failures of the last 8 years who has no previous connection to the CIA, the Pannetta nomination has unsurprisingly drawn the praises of civil libertarians of all stripes – including Greenwald, Sullivan, Schwenkler, and Hilzoy.

What is, however, surprising is the way in which the pick has split the portions of the political Right that hold to a more-or-less neoconservative view of international relations. On the one hand, some of neo-conservatism’s biggest intellectual heavyweights, including Douglas Feith and Richard Perle, are almost completely supportive of the nomination – in spite of Panetta’s harsh criticism of policies that Feith and Perle either pushed or excused. The common thread for this group seems to be an acknowledgement of the failures of the last eight years, and a belief that those failures arose due to systemic, institutional problems within the Agency. To them, these problems can only be fixed by someone outside the Agency with strong managerial skills, and preferably, it would seem, a critic of the Agency. At base, this group recognizes that a neo-conservative agenda cannot succeed unless there is some sort of comprehensive reform of our intelligence services – and it is that idealistic (if, in my view, deeply flawed) neo-conservative agenda that remains their ultimate concern and goal.

But the GOP dogmatists, who do not understand the intellectual roots of the fundamentally neo-conservative foreign policy they advocate, have taken a vastly different tack.

Ed Morrissey, who is as close to an intellectually honest dogmatist as you will find:

Even the notion of “change” doesn’t apply here. Obama has no executive experience in government, and neither does Panetta, but Panetta hardly represents a breath of fresh air in Washington. He’s another Clinton-era retread, only in this case, put in charge of an organization about which he knows nothing. He’s there to exercise Obama’s political will and nothing more.

Similarly, Wizbang calls the pick the equivalent of the Bush decision to choose Mike Brown to head FEMA, while Ace of Spades says Panetta’s only qualification is “being a lifelong partisan hack.” And, of course, Michelle Malkin says “Another day, another clueless Clinton crony named to a top job for which he has no experience. The unqualified fish rots from the head down, after all. ”

Notably missing from any of the discussion amongst the dogmatists is an acknowledgement of the systemic problems faced by the CIA, whether it be in terms of the moral issues related to interrogation techniques or in terms of the embarassing intelligence failures in recent years.

Cross-posted at Publius Endures.

  • kranky kritter

    And without a doubt, the basic tenets of neo-conservatism, with its emphasis on the spread of democracy as an end unto itself, are tenets with which I profoundly disagree.

    What, in your view, are the other tenets of neoconservatism, in addition to the notion that spreading democracy is intrinsically worthwhile? I need to know this so that I can distinguish “neoconservatives” from, let’s say, John F Kennedy and Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. All of who thought spreading democracy was intrinsically worthwhile, and none of whom have ever, to my knowledge, been called neo-conservatives.

  • Mark Thompson

    Actually, neo-conservatism largely views itself as a continuation of the foreign policy of JFK and Truman. Meanwhile, Carter’s foreign policy was far from neo-conservative, even if you accept my (admittedly oversimplified) definition – he was far more concerned with the spread of other human rights than about the spread, by any means necessary, of democracy. To a certain extent, the same was true of Clinton, although he was more willing to use military force than Carter.

    Anyways, I admit my suggestion above is overly simplistic (this being the problem whenever you try to boil a political philosophy down to just a few words). Perhaps a better (though still terribly simplistic) description would be a belief in the essential good of a robust, active national defense infrastructure as a means of advancing American interests and democracy abroad.

    Either way, the point is that, whatever I may think its faults, neoconservatism is ultimately highly concerned with taking an intellectually honest approach to how well the agencies we use to advance American democracy are functioning. It does not have the vested interest of the dogmatists in defending interrogation policies and the intelligence that led to the Iraq War.

  • kranky kritter

    Carter was more broadly concerned, but the base concern was as you admit a big part of it. Plus, he went on to become a big advocate for democracy and a regular election observer. So his sympathies clearly lie with promoting democracy.

    I think what you say is a good elaboration, that the neo view seems in part to want to achieve the spread of democracy through a robust MI complex.

    What really puzzles me when I see it is the regular plural usage such as in “tenets” of neoconservatism. When neoconservatism is discussed (largely by left-leaning critics) it seems to be talked about in such a way as to suggest that it’s a broad-reaching and comprehensive overarching philosophy. But really, it seems to me that all of the objections boil down to concern with an interventionist/preemptive foreign policy.

    And as my initial point tried to make clear, interventionist/preemptive foreign policy doesn’t really, in my view, have any particular connection to conservatism, either philosophically, or historically, prior to the last decade or two. Usually the prefix neo- is supposed to indicate something like an homage of sorts, right? Where’s that part? Not challenging you, just sort of wondering, expressing my puzzlement.

    I’m not a conservative, but I do like it when people use words that make sense. So I wonder when a progressive complains about neoconservatism whether that progressive is doing anything more than trying to get away with petulantly complaining that employing an interventionist/preemptive foreign policy is a bad idea when a conservative does it.

    So there’s something to look for if and when Obama fails to sufficiently diverge from current foreign policies to please progressives. [Which I have always expected, BTW]. Seems to me that progressive Obama supporters will split into 2 camps. The ones who defend Obama’s choices because he’s not viewed as a conservative, and the ones who become alienated from Obama because he doesn’t do what they thought he said he would do. This will be a neat split between the partisans and the ideologues, I guess.