Friday, January 07, 2005

Neo-liberal with my neo-opinions when it comes to the matter of talking neo-bollocks about neo-cons

Following on from the query over whether John Bolton is or is not a "neo-con" (or, as regular comment box resident "J" - give his blog some hits, people - asserts, some form of dodgy fellow-traveller) I thought I'd try to make a couple of further points on the matter.

I have never particularly liked the phrase "neoconservative". Frankly - and probably not to my credit - I've never really taken the time to look into the intellectual foundations of it as a movement, in no small part because its founders seem to be made up largely of people who started off a lot more left wing than me and then suddenly became a lot more right wing than me. What's to like?

But regardless, it seems to me that whatever the term meant in the first place, it has in its use been rendered so loaded and so generally applied that it is almost useless (a la "militarism", "low intensity conflict" etc) and deserves to be, if not consigned to the scrapheap, at least issued with a warning label. A good start would be for news reporters to completely refrain from using it.

Whether one agrees with Eliot Cohen that "neocon" is increasingly shorthand for "Jew" (or perhaps, "Likudnik" an increasingly popular phrase that gets bandied about in Guardian-land by people like Jewish-cabal fantasist Tam Dalyell, noted human rights activist John "We can't afford to be choosy" Pilger and anti-semitic, woman-hating, gay-bashing moral hypocrite [sorry, sorry, Private Eye founding national treasure...] Richard Ingrams) or not, it seems to me that some sort of working definition needs to be arrived at. Is a neo-con simply an aggressive, pro-Israeli American? Well if it is then we might as well can the idea right now because it's pretty valueless.

In truth I haven't really figured it out. My thinking - and I'd love to receive input via the comments box - has tended to focus around idealism as the defining factor. Anthony Zinni got in enormous trouble when he talked about Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle (both Jewish) as "neocons" and Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (neither of which are Jewish) as thier "allies". In fact I think he was quite right to make a distinction. Don Rumsfeld is not a "neocon". He's just an old style hardline hawk (as, I'd argue, is Bolton). Nobody could accuse him of being a sentimentalist. Wolfowitz, on the other hand, is a man on a mission - whether you agree with that mission or not is another matter.

Also complicating the situation is the act that if we list some prominent "neocons" it becomes radily apparent that they are not all of one mind - Robert Kagan, Bill Kristol, Richard Perle, Max Boot, David Frum. Eliot Cohen, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, James Woolsey, Joshua Muravchik, Frank Gaffney, Laurie Mylroie, Michael Ledeen, Danielle Pletka, Michael Rubin etc etc. Can we really lump all these people together?

I'd argue not - or at least, not as casually as they often are lumped together. For a start, some of them are not mad. Eliot Cohen is a very, very sound member of the Strategic Studies community and generally seems like a reliable sort of bloke with well thought out ideas. I never read his articles and come away with the notion that what he really needs for his birthday is a triple lobotomy and twelve rolls of rubber wallpaper. Robert Kagan is also a substantial intellect and takes a more moderate view towards Europe than many of his apparent soulmates. Max Boot is also a serious figure. Kristol and Kagan are prepared to butt heads with the Bush administration, while some of the others... er... aren't. The intellectual backgrounds vary too. I believe that Cohen is a protege of Samuel Huntington, Joshua Muravchik is a lapsed pinko, while Perle (and some of the others including Paul Wolfowitz) emerged from a circle dominated politically by "Scoop" Jackson and intellectually by Albert Wohlstetter. The people who hang around the National Review tend to be noisily Anglophile (though this Brit is sometimes not convinced...), while Jeanne Kirkpatrick... isn't (this Brit is entirely convinced). Michael Ledeen claims - with varying degrees of credibility - that he doesn't believe that military force is key to transforming the Middle East, but has a strategic vision that is even more ambitious than, say, Kagan and Kristol.

Then there's the Israel issue. "Neocons" are often accused of harbour some sort of divided loyalty when it comes to the matter of Israel. I think that on this issue it is entirely fair for them to cry antisemitism. I don't expect to be accused of harbouring "dual-loyalty" with Britain and America and I wouldn't accuse my pro-European friends of being closet Frenchmen (well, not often...). It also ignores the fact that there are differences of emphasis with regard to any future solution to the Israel/Palestine problem. Some "neocons" support a two state settlement on the basis of the pre-1967 lines of control, simply taking the view that the onus is on the Palestinians to stop blowing stuff up. Others, frankly, don't. "There's already a Palestinian state. It's called Jordan" is a line that gets trotted out a lot.

Of course, there are different sorts of Liberals and different sorts of Realists too. Kenneth Waltz and Hans Morgenthau hardly represent a meeting of minds. So there is nothing to say that one cannot have different types of "neoconservatives" too. But so far the issue has not really been subjected to that sort of in depth examination, which I suspect merely serves as evidence of the fact that ultimately it's quite an ephemeral, politically loaded label that would do well to be pitched onto the scrap heap.

Anyway, while I don't endorse the Buchananite undertones behond it, I tend to divide conservatives into two groups - conservatives and pseudoconservatives. Works much better in my view.


Blogger J. said...

Hmmmm. Academically, I see your point, but neocon is so much jazzier. Brings to mind Neandrathalic conservatives. We'll see if pseudocons catches on.

BTW thanks for the mention, does this make us foxhole buddies?

10:07 PM  

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