The use and abuse of the “neocon” label

I’m disappointed that Ted Cruz has been describing as “neocons” some of the people whose foreign policy views don’t align with those he professes. Jonah Goldberg has called him out on this practice.

Throwing the neocon label around isn’t an argument; it’s name-calling. Cruz argues well enough that he shouldn’t have to rely on name-calling. It must have gone over well with focus groups.

Name-calling is bad enough. To make matters worse, as Goldberg explains, the name doesn’t really fit the view Cruz disagrees with — support of military intervention to bring about regime change.

Goldberg says that “neoconservatism is a product of the Cold War.” But his article suggests that it is actually the product of a debate over domestic policy.

As I understand it, neoconservatism is the product of the rise of the New Left and the failure of President Johnson’s Great Society. The New Left was a movement of juveniles (including me). It left more mature leftists with two obvious alternatives: first, embrace the New Left and have a second childhood; second, applaud the spirit of the New Left but reject its more outrageous tactics and flirtation with the likes of Chairman Mao, and double down on democratic socialism.

Neoconservatives rejected both alternatives. They were appalled by the spirit of movement with a clear totalitarian strain (manifested, for example, by attacks on academic freedom). In addition, the Great Society experiment, animated in part by the thinking of democratic socialists like Michael Harrington, helped move them well to the right of their socialist former comrades.

Goldberg reminds us that the most important early neoconservative foreign policy manifesto — Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous 1979 article in Commentary — was a brief against democracy promotion in authoritarian states friendly to the U.S. Moreover, Kirkpatrick was not a supporter of the war waged by President George W. Bush in Iraq. Indeed, she said she had serious reservations about it.

It’s true, of course, the most neoconservatives supported that war, in many cases avidly. But the decision to invade Iraq was not made by neoconservatives, and neither was the decision to remain in post-invasion Iraq rather than “get the heck out” (as Cruz likes to say). Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld were not part of the neoconservative movement. As for the Congress that voted to authorize war, only a handful of members were.

Neoonservatives (by now referred to, disdainfully and even venomously, as neocons by people who knew little about the movement) became scapegoats for the war. In part, as Goldberg says, this was because they continued to defend it and, above all, advocate that we win it. Some neocons pushed for the successful Iraq surge of 2007. For this, they should be commended.

What was Ted Cruz’s position, if any, on the surge? What is his position on it in retrospect?

Today, Cruz’s position on the general issue of U.S. intervention is:

[I]f and when we’re required to use military force, it should be with a clearly defined objective. It should be with overwhelming force, and then we should get the heck out. It is not the job of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines to transform foreign nations into democratic utopias. It’s [their] job to hunt down and kill terrorists who want to murder Americans before they can carry out jihad.

I don’t know of any neoconservatives who argue in favor intervention without a clearly defined objective and overwhelming force. As for how quickly we should get out, I’m not sure there is a neoconservative position. Most, perhaps, would say that this depends on the facts on the ground, the strategic importance of the country at issue, and so forth.

Reasonable people, including reasonable neoconservatives, can and do disagree on foreign policy issues like this one. For example, Bret Stephens, often labeled a neoconservative, argues that the U.S. should intervene in trouble spots but shouldn’t “spread the gospel of the American way” or try to change hearts and minds. Democracy promotion appears to be no part of his agenda.

That’s why I agree with Goldberg that it’s time to give the neocon label a comfortable retirement. Alternatively, it’s time to retire cartoonish use of the label, such as that in which Ted Cruz indulges.

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