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The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectuals and Foreign Affairs, 1945-1994
By John Ehrman
Yale University Press, 241 pages, $27.50

This slender volume delivers somewhat less than its imposing title promises. If it covers the ground assigned, it seldom probes beneath the surface. Useful as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough. Still, The Rise of Neoconservatism merits attention if only because it serves as a cautionary tale. Although not by design, this book highlights the pitfalls inherent in writing intellectual history across the divide separating our new era—incompletely formed and imperfectly perceived—and the postwar era that shaped our collective consciousness but that now lies decisively in the past.

The tale of the neoconservatives makes for a worthy topic, one rich with fascinating personalities and laden with drama. In the aftermath of Vietnam, a band of mostly New York-based, largely Jewish, passionately anti-Communist, and thoroughly combative literary intellectuals abandon liberalism and the Democratic Party (both of which they had come to view as irredeemably corrupted) and throw their impressive energies into a vigorous campaign aimed at salvaging American foreign policy. They succeed and in the process contribute mightily to the rise of a new conservative coalition that achieves political dominance: this is a story to which scholars will no doubt be returning again and again. The definitive study eventually resulting from that scholarly enterprise will yield a plethora of insights about the role of the intellectual in American life, the impact of ideas and ideology on American politics, and the temper of the American intellectual milieu at the close of the postwar era.

This book is not that definitive treatment. It is at best a preliminary report, a concise primer for the novice, the student of American politics who upon dipping into the fetid backwash of the 1960s comes across agitated references to Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, or the Committee on the Present Danger and wonders what all the fuss was about. In explaining the commotion stirred up by the “neocons,” John Ehrman, a lecturer in history at George Washington University, hews to the fundamentals. He identifies the main players, outlines the themes of their frequently controversial writings, and provides a straightforward (if peculiarly bloodless) account of their rise to public prominence.

It is a workmanlike performance: well-researched, well-organized, and informative. Yet the result succeeds as description rather than analysis. Respectful of his dramatis personae—perhaps unduly so—the author does not challenge them. Indeed, the book’s chief shortcoming lies in Mr. Ehrman’s seeming reluctance to grapple with the neoconservative legacy, to engage their Cold War ideas from our post-Cold War vantage point.

In characterizing one particular group of neoconservatives, the author observes that “They took words very seriously, believing that they had real consequences.” The remark is an apt one that applies to neocons generally. Indeed, this insistence upon taking words and ideas seriously is chief among the qualities that make writers like Podhoretz, Kristol, Midge Decter, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Walter Laqueur—all of whom figure prominently in this account—so interesting and so formidable.

As faithful readers of Commentary—long the leading journal of neoconservatism—know, when neocons engage in intellectual combat, they play for keeps. The game is not for the squeamish or thin-skinned. At the top of their form, neoconservative writers fashion polemics like a military campaign, employing massive force directed at the point of greatest vulnerability. The aim is not to trade blows with the adversary tit-for-tat. It is to overwhelm him. The intended result is not an “exchange” but victory: complete, decisive, and with no prisoners taken.

Having made their reputation by exposing the errors, inconsistencies, and inanities of their former compatriots on the left, neoconservatives expect to be held accountable for their own judgments and prescriptions: this too is the way that the game is played.

Thus, as today’s sprawling, vibrant, and fractious political right struggles to define the principles that should guide American foreign policy into the next century, a critical analysis of neoconservative thought during some of the Cold War’s darkest days would be both timely and beneficial. The point is not to second-guess. Rather, it is to determine whether there exists a discernible neoconservative angle of vision that remains relevant to the issues of the present day—issues that differ fundamentally from those that neocons addressed with such relentless ferocity and penetrating insight in the confused aftermath of the 1960s.

In short, with the Cold War won and threats to Israel’s security (arguably) in decline, how much there is still there? Do the ideas espoused by neoconservatives comprise a distinctive variant of modern conservatism? (Ehrman gives the question only passing attention.) Or are the neocons simply a cluster of cranky intellectuals animated by a shared disgust with the excesses of the 1960s and a contempt for the timorousness of the 1970s but now soon to pass from the scene? (The author’s effort to identify a successor generation is unpersuasive.) More to the point, on the eve of a new millennium, what do these apostates from the left—many of whom insist that labels notwithstanding they remain “true” liberals—bring to efforts to move the debate over American foreign policy beyond the stale dichotomy of globalism vs. isolationism?

Admirers of the neocons will argue that their accumulated writings have much to contribute to that debate. Yet to draw out that contribution requires not deference but a systematic effort to subject those writings to critical scrutiny. Only by evaluating neoconservative ideas—shaped by the ideological imperatives of the Cold War—in terms of the post-Cold War era’s radically altered frame of reference can we adapt the neocon legacy to our own purposes.

A.J. Bacevich is Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.