What's the difference between "conservative" and "neoconservative"? Who are the "neocons," anyway? And were they, as some charge, an unduly influential cabal of intellectuals who talked President Bush into going to war in Iraq after 9/11 as part of their long-planned crusade to plant democracy in the Middle East?
To seek enlightenment on things neoconservative, I rang up four of the biggest names in the punditry business and asked them the same questions. Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. Paul Weyrich is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation. Paul Gigot is editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. And George Will is the famous syndicated columnist:
Q: What is a neoconservative and who are they?
Rich Lowry: Historically, 30 years ago it meant a former liberal who became a conservative. The cliche was because "they were mugged by reality," but it was because they saw the empirical failures of liberal welfare, state and foreign policies, and they were therefore less ideological than other conservatives and brought much more of a social science background to their argumentation.
They were associated with Irving Kristol's journal, the Public Interest, that had a lot of social-science pieces poking empirical holes in liberal theory. These people were former liberals, former Democrats, and in some cases former communists, but gradually over 30 years they really merged into the conservative mainstream, and the difference was very difficult to tell.
In fact, one of the foremost neoconservatives, Norman Podhoretz, wrote an obituary for this distinction several years ago because it just seemed to no longer matter. We've seen the rise of it again, first of all, with John McCain's candidacy in 2000, where the segment of conservatives that supported Sen. McCain tended to have more neo-kind of tendencies and tended to sort of self-consciously describe themselves as "neoconservatives," foremost among them Bill Kristol and David Brooks.
Neoconservatives are less skeptical of government than other conservatives. They are less worried about reducing the size of government, less enthusiastic about tax cuts, more concerned about forging national crusades that can tap either the American public's patriotism or its desire for reform. You saw this in McCain with his campaign finance proposal and a little bit in his foreign policy.
And with the war on terror, you saw neoconservatives emerging as a distinct tendency within conservatism, mostly on foreign policy; its hallmarks being extreme interventionism, extremely idealistic foreign policy, and emphasis on democracy building and spreading human rights and freedom and an overestimation, in my view, of how easy it is to spread democracy and liberty to spots in the world where it doesn't exist currently.
Paul Weyrich: They are mostly ex-liberals, by and large out of the intellectual community. These are people who came to the realization that modern liberalism was not the kind of liberalism that they had subscribed to. They are a fairly small group of people, both in and out of government. Those who are out of government are in either the media or academia. They are influential because they promote each other. They are very skilled at that.
Paul Gigot: I think of neoconservatism as having a very specific meaning related to history. That is, the neoconservatives were people who in the 1970s were former liberals, in some cases socialists, who moved right in reaction to the left's shift on cultural mores, personal responsibility and foreign policy. So I think the term "neoconservative" has that narrow meaning of that historical period. I think of them as the Podhoretzes and the Kristols and others. I don't think "neoconservative" means much anymore. I don't know what it means now or who they're referring to.
George Will: Oh gosh, that's not simple. Neoconservatives are persons who in domestic policy often were former Democrats who felt that conservatives had erred in not accepting the post-New Deal role of the central government. They were in their early incarnation focusing on domestic policy and were distinguishing themselves from Goldwater conservatives.
Also in domestic policies, however, as the '60s unfolded into the '70s and '80s, they led the critique of overreaching in domestic social engineering, saying that we accept the post-New Deal role of the central government, but the accumulated powers thereof are being wielded in a way too confident and optimistic and hubristic, if you will.
In foreign policy, and here's where it gets interesting, they have a more ambitious, more confident approach to the use of power than regular conservatives -- if you see the symmetry here? They say that America is a nation uniquely equipped as the sole remaining superpower to order the world and spread our values, etc., etc.
Who are they? The ones most commonly mentioned are Charles Krauthammer, Paul Wolfowitz, maybe Dick Cheney and his aide, Scooter Libby, Doug Feith in the Pentagon, Bill Kristol.
Q: Is this a neoconservative war in Iraq?
Rich Lowry: No. We've editorialized about this a couple issues ago. It was a war of national interest, and it was broadly supported on the right for that reason. You had someone like (Rep.) Tom DeLay, who is as conservative as you can get -- he's an unhyphenated conservative through and through -- strongly supporting this. You had all factions of conservatism supporting it, except for a fringe represented by Pat Buchanan, and that's because it was a war of national interest.
Paul Weyrich: I don't think that you could make that case. Certainly, neoconservatives were pushing for this war. But Vice President Cheney was the principal proponent of the war. He is certainly not a neoconservative. The president himself made the decisions. He's not a neoconservative. There are any number of people in the administration -- Condoleezza Rice, for example -- who were very much in favor of the war but who are not neoconservatives.
On the other hand, neoconservatives were very involved in the planning and execution of the war -- Paul Wolfowitz being very prominent among them. Conspiratorialists could make the case, I suppose, that it was a neoconservative war. But I think it's much more complex.
Paul Gigot: No. It's an American war in Iraq. I don't think the Marines who are putting their lives on the line in Fallujah think of themselves as neoconservatives.
George Will: It had a neoconservative overlay, to the extent that it was a war -- however mistakenly -- based on the confident belief that there was a growing arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; that was not a distinctly neoconservative rationale.
Neoconservatives supported the war for that reason, among others. It's the other reasons where it acquired its neoconservative patina. The neoconservative patina is that Iraq should become a secular, pluralist, multiparty, market-oriented democracy with the power of its example to transform the greater Middle East. That's the neoconservative edition.
Q: Is it automatically anti-Semitic to single out neocons as being the planners and instigators of the war in Iraq?
Rich Lowry: No. No. It would be false. It wouldn't necessarily be anti-Semitic. It would be accurate to say that some of the most articulate and powerful expressions of the case for war have come from people who are neoconservatives. So that's not anti-Semitic. But if you take a couple of steps beyond that, you begin to get into territory that is a little shady, I would think.
Paul Weyrich: No. That is really outrageous. I really resent the idea that if you question who it is that planned the war -- just because you ask questions about them -- it is automatically anti-Semitic. It is not. It is legitimate to ask these questions. It is legitimate to have a debate about the legitimacy and effect of this war. If that means questioning some of the people who are involved in it, so be it. The president is a very committed Christian. Should we say that, "Well, we can't question anything that Bush does, because if we did it would be anti-Christian"? That's silly.
Paul Gigot: No. Unlike a lot of the people on the left, I'm not going to question the motives of people who use the phrase. I think a lot of people just use it as a short-term shortcut for anyone who supported the war. But in the mouth of some people, there is an anti-Semitic overtone. I would point to recent remarks by (Sen.) Fritz Hollings. He clearly was attempting to link support for the war to Jews who also support Israel -- and I think that's a slur.
George Will: It's not necessarily anti-Semitic. There is often an anti-Semitic twist to it, yes.