What is Neoconservatism?

By Ryan McGreal
Published July 17, 2007

It's always a good idea to define your terms. I've made mention of neoconservatism and neoconservatives in my occasional blog posts that range outside urbanism into the larger political forces and dynamics in which we make our individual and local choices about energy, land use, political organization and public policy.

However, I'm not sure that I've defined just what I mean by neoconservatism. Since the term is in such casual use and since it contains the word "conservative", it's often misunderstood or, at least, used in different ways by different people.

So: here is my working definition. I don't aim to be politically neutral, but I do aim to be accurate in my vituperation.

A Definition of Neoconservatism

First of all, neoconservatives are not conservatives. They're ex-Trotskyists who switched to rooting for the other team. They're messianic, big-idea megalomaniacs who are 100 percent convinced they can run the world better than the rabble and, like any good dogmatist, they don't let facts get in the way of their enthusiasm.

They're committed to the normalization of deception and the inherent value of secrecy; favouring the exercise of force rather than diplomacy to make other countries obey America's will; and the moral supremacy of the United States and its unquestionable right to promote its interests and actively block real or potential rivals using any means necessary.

The neoconservative movement seems to have started with a group of Chicago school academics who congregated around a quirky classics professor named Leo Strauss, whose political philosophy was based around a mix of Platonism and his own theory that all classical works had an overt text plus a hidden, esoteric subtext that only great thinkers could decipher and interpret.

He was unapologetically aristocratic in the sense that he believed the general public was not intelligent and sophisticated enough to make policy decisions, and he supported Plato's idea of the Noble Lie, in which people are fed myths that allow them to live in an uncertain world and accept the authority of their betters.

His students and adherents include Allan Bloom, Paul Wolfowitz, Abram Shulsky, Elliot Abrams, and William Kristol (whose father, Irving Kristol, is sometimes called the "godfather of neoconservatism" and who shares many of Strauss' political beliefs).

As Kristol explained his political beliefs:

There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work.

That's neoconservatism in a nutshell. Take a guess which people qualify as the "highly educated adults" entitled to the most select truths.

Neoconservatism and Intelligence

In 1999, neoconservatives Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt wrote an essay, Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence (By Which We Do Not Mean Nous), in which they argued that setting high standards for evidence in intelligence gathering and interpreting it according to universal, empirical methods can lead analysts astray by "ignor[ing] the differences among 'regimes' (or types of government and society) in its search for universal truths of social science."

Shulsky and Schmitt counter that Strauss's emphasis on esoteric meanings

alerts one to the possibility that political life may be closely linked to deception. Indeed, it suggests that deception is the norm in political life, and the hope, to say nothing of the expectation, of establishing a politics that can dispense with it is the exception.

In other words, "regimes" based on deception must lying, and if social science-based intelligence cannot demonstrate those lies, that is simply evidence of its inferiority as a research tool. It allows analysts to draw conclusions before they start researching, and to interpret anything they find - or fail to find - in light of their conclusions.

Imagine the implications of this "esoteric" approach to evidence for neoconservative analysts trying to decide, say, whether Iraq was secretly restocking its prohibited weapons of mass destruction or whether Iraq had secretive connections to al-Qaeda.

Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld hid behind this reasoning in August 2003 when questioned about whether the US military had found any WMD in western Iraq. He talked about how hard it is to find anything in the desert and concluded, "as we all know, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

Shulsky himself went on to head the infamous Office of Special Plans in 2002, an ad hoc organization under the Department of Defense that second-guessed the traditional intelligence estimates and cherry-picked through US intelligence data to find connections between al-Qaeda and Irag after the CIA dismissed such claims.

Its claims about Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda and possession of prohibited weapons, always based on flimy evidence and the testimony of interested parties (like Ahmed Chalabi) and torture victims, turned out to be false.

Neoconservatism and Foreign Policy

In 1996, a group of prominent neoconservatives articulated their belligerent foreign policy in a strategy paper prepared for the Institute for an Israeli think tank titled A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.

According to the paper, Israeli foreign policy should emphasize a "clean break from the slogan, 'comprehensive peace' to a traditional concept of strategy based on balance of power" and "upholding the right of hot pursuit for self defense into all Palestinian areas [emphasis in original]".

Translation: There are no 'rights' in contests among nations; there is only strength.

The paper was written based on a discussion among Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser, and others.

Richard Perle is known in Washington as the "Prince of Darkness" and went on to lead the influential Defense Policy Board in its relentless pursuit of a war against Iraq. He generated additional controversy by admitting that the war was illegal but that "international law stood in the way of doing the right thing." He eventually quit the DPB over a conflict of interest based on his business interests in the defence industry.

Douglas Feith was Donald Rumsfeld's Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and oversaw the controversial Office of Special Plans. Feith resigned in 2005.

David Wurmser, in turn, went from the American Enterprise Institute to the Pentagon and then to the State Department to work under John "There's no such thing as the United Nations" Bolton, then an Under Secretary of State and later the US ambassador to ... the United Nations. Wurmser jumped to the National Security Council and now works in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Neoconservatives in US Government

The chief neoconservative enclaves are the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), two organizations whose members have had an extraordinary influence and direct involvement in the Bush administration.

One reason PNAC jumps out is that its members include a who's who of Bush administration policymakers and GOP apparatchiks, including: Vice President Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, former Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, former Vice Presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby (who just had his prison sentence for obstruction of justice commuted by the President), US Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad (formerly US ambassador to Afghanistan and then to Iraq), Under-Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky, and former Assistant Secretary of Defence Peter Rodman.

The neoconservatives sold the American public a false bill of goods, invading countries to serve their pre-existing geostrategic objectives under the cover of the "war on terror". (Rumsfeld ordered his staff to start making a case against Iraq within hours of the 9/11 attacks, even though there was no evidence Iraq had anything to do with it.)

All the things the PNAC neoconservatives promised - the invasion was necessary to protect Americans against WMD attacks, it would be quick and easy, it would pay for itself, US troops would be welcomed as liberators, etc. - were slowly, grindingly revealed as a fetid mash of lies, distortions, and wishful thinking.

The neoconservative promise that the war would strengthen the US by spreading "democracy" and stability through the Middle East while asserting the primacy of US power is a painful embarrassment today. Unfortunately, we see the next step unfolding with the ongoing campaign to soften the American public for some kind of strike against Iran.

Neoconservative Goals

The neoconservatives steering the Bush administration want to control the world in the interest of US corporate power for as long into the future as they can. They want the controversial Defense Policy Guidance draft written in 1992 by then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney's under-secretaries, Paul Wolfowitz and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, to be America's official foreign policy:

Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defense strategy and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power. These regions include Western Europe, East Asia, the territory of the former Soviet Union, and Southwest Asia.

There are three additional aspects to this objective: First the U.S must show the leadership necessary to establish and protect a new order that holds the promise of convincing potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests. Second, in the non-defense areas, we must account sufficiently for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political and economic order. Finally, we must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role. [emphasis added]

That strategy re-emerged in the 1990s in PNAC. Their principal policy document, titled Rebuilding America's Defenses (PDF), advocates:

At present the United States faces no global rival. America's grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible. ...

Preserving the desirable strategic situation in which the United States now finds itself requires a globally preeminent military capability both today and in the future. ...

In broad terms, we saw [this] project as building upon the defense strategy outlined by the Cheney Defense Department in the waning days of the Bush Administration. The Defense Policy Guidance (DPG) drafted in the early months of 1992 provided a blueprint for maintaining U.S. preeminence, precluding the rise of a great power rival, and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests.


[T]he process of [military] transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.

PNAC Influence

Don't underestimate this group's influence. Under the Bush administration, which is packed with PNAC members, it doesn't take long for the think tank's recommendations to become government policy.

PNAC also demanded that America pursue regime change as well as maintaining a permanent military presence in geostrategic regions, stating:

The need to respond with decisive force in the event of a major theater war in Europe, the Persian Gulf or East Asia will remain the principal factor in determining Army force structure ... it is essential to retain sufficient capabilities to bring them to a satisfactory conclusion, including the possibility of a decisive victory that results in long-term political or regime change


the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

As former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, former counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke and others have made clear, the Bush administration had its sights on Iraq as early as January 2001. Right from the start, they planned to topple Saddam Hussein and remake the Middle East. September 11 was the perfect red herring and they've exploited it for all it's worth.


Finally, US journalist Ron Suskind summarized the neoconservative view on reality in a 2004 essay that explored the certainty of President Bush through this exchange with a senior Bush advisor:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued.

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

As such, Leo Strauss's disdainn for empiricism and emphasis on esoteric meanings comes full circle.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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