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Neoconservatism is a very small movement of highly educated people. It began in reaction to the Great Society projects of Lyndon Johnson's Presidency. Part of this reaction – more than they say in their memoirs – probably had to do with Johnson's crass style. Kennedy had been a smooth operator, in every sense. Johnson's crassness sent a message: it takes crassness and raw power to push through policies of liberal political redemption. This message began to bother a few intellectuals who had been card-carrying liberal Democrats.
Initially, neoconservatives focused more on economic policy than foreign policy. The movement's first major publication, The Public Interest, began in 1965. It featured readable, footnoted essays by scholars who had grown skeptical of the Federal government's programs to eliminate poverty, crime, racial discrimination, and similar domestic evils. To some extent, Commentary, the publication of the American Jewish Committee, also began to feature articles critical of existing government policy. The same authors wrote for both publications.
The Public Interest was a nuts-and-bolts academic journal. I began reading it by 1967 because of the influence of sociologist Robert Nisbet, who wrote for it and Commentary. I took classes under Nisbet, who was later one of the readers for my Ph.D. dissertation.
The "godfather" of neoconservatism is Irving Kristol, who had been a youthful Trotskyite. He defined a neoconservative as "a liberal who was mugged by reality." This definition is clever, memorable, and accurate. It called forth the definition of a neo-liberal by M.I.T. economics professor Lester Thurow: "A liberal who was mugged by reality, but who has declined to press charges."
Thurow's aphorism illuminates the primary difference between the paleoconservative and the neoconservative. The neoconservative has been mugged by reality, but when pressing charges, he always identifies the infraction as a misdemeanor. The paleoconservative wants a felony conviction. He wants the offender to go straight by going cold turkey: no more government money. In contrast, the neoconservative believes deeply in methadone therapy. The deviant's addiction will remain, but his behavior becomes more controllable by the authorities. The problem is, the authorities still run the programs that addicted the victims in the first place. The programs remain taxpayer-funded.
Neoconservatives want to impose a suspended sentence on the mugger or else immediate parole with counseling. There is a reason for this leniency: most of the movement's founders were liberals, and they have built up a list of infractions that could lead to criminal convictions in their old age. Today, the neoconservatives run the show politically, but this is only because the statute of limitations has run out.
Today, the neoconservatives are in the spotlight because of the influence of William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and others associated with The Weekly Standard. Their influence is primarily in the area of foreign policy and military affairs, not economic policy. This constitutes a major shift in neoconservatism's focus. What began a generation ago as an academic protest against failed and failing bureaucratic experiments by the Federal government has shifted to a concern about expanding democracy through American military intervention, especially in the Middle East.
Establishment liberals have been content since 1948 to defend the State of Israel, fund its experiments in government-subsidized housing, and maintain the flow of Arabian oil. In contrast, the neoconservatives see the defense of Israel as necessitating a shift in Islamic states to democracy. Their assumption is that democracy will somehow not lead to theocracy. This non-theocratic transition can be accomplished, if at all, only by American military force, i.e., permanent regional presence. They are willing to pay this price, i.e., have American taxpayers and troops pay it.
This policy is being carried out today in the name of reducing terrorism by cutting off the terrorists' flow of money and eliminating their safe national havens. Establishment foreign policy specialists have always seen the goal of democratizing Middle Eastern Islamic states as utopian and, if attempted by American military force, highly risky. The neoconservatives begged to differ. Today, it is the Establishment that is begging.
Liberal foreign policy officially has always been "butter and guns." Guns have always followed butter, but this has been seen as the unfortunate result of unexpected complications. Neoconservative foreign policy officially is "guns and butter." Butter always follows guns, but this is regarded as the inescapable price of American regional presence abroad. Neoconservatives openly accept the White Man's Burden, just as long as there is plenty of post-invasion construction contract money for the Good Old Boys back home. There will be plenty of butter, and neoconservative policy-makers know exactly on whose bread to apply it.
Conservatives of most varieties go along with this, despite higher taxes and ballooning Federal deficits, just as long as the wogs learn who's boss. Colonel Blimp is alive and well in America. He even has his own call-in radio talk show.