Published January 6, 2008
They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons
by Jacob Heilbrunn, Doubleday, 336 pages, $26.00.
In They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, Jacob Heilbrunn writes that he was “once attracted to neoconservatism.” Clearly, he's gotten over it.
Heilbrunn's new book is both a history of the neoconservative movement and the author's critique of it. The former is tedious, the latter is tendentious, and the entire book filled with bitterness, recriminations and reckless language.
Neoconservatism is an intellectual “tendency,” initially comprised of thinkers and writers on the left who eventually made their home within the conservative movement.
Heilbrunn utilizes a “narrative scheme,” dividing the book into three parts that “broadly recapitulate the ancient biblical narrative: exodus, the wilderness years, and redemption, followed by a return to exile.”
The exodus years cover the early part of the 20th century, during which a group of mostly Jewish intellectuals, many of whom were Trotskyites, battled Stalinists and started influential magazines like Partisan Review and, later, Commentary. The wilderness years span the 1960s and '70s, during which neoconservatives, reacting against an “adversary culture” and increasingly anti-Communist, began its move toward the right and, eventually, to the Republican Party. During 1980s and '90s — years of redemption — neoconservatives “thought of themselves as Reagan's intellectual shock troops” and then later key neoconservatives embraced the principles of liberal internationalism and democratic idealism.
Heilbrunn argues that today, particularly because of the Iraq war, neoconservatives are “back in exile, where they belong — and where they are, in some respects, most content.”
With his biblical narrative in place, however, Heilbrunn bludgeons us with it. He writes that early neoconservatives opposed capitalism with “prophetic austerity.” The younger generation of neocons “updated the Jewish prophetic tradition.” During the presidency of George H.W. Bush, these “would-be prophets” were sent packing “to the wilderness,” only to return to influence during the first term of George W. Bush, when the attacks on 9/11 moved Bush “further and further into the web that the neoconservatives had woven around him.” And for those who hold out hope that neoconservatism has run its course because of the Iraq war and its difficulties, Heilbrunn warns, “[p]rophets are not easily dissuaded from their crusade.”
Heilbrunn also can't control his animus. Neoconservatives are “radicals in temperament and style.” They are “zealots” characterized by “intellectual hubris,” “moral hubris” and “seething rage.” They are plagued by a “sense of embattlement and loneliness, of foes and enemies everywhere, that helps to account for the stridency and militancy.”
The author is forced to acknowledge that neoconservatives were right about a few things — like understanding early on that the Soviet Union and jihadism were genuine causes for concern. But, he quickly adds, even the proverbial stopped watch is right twice a day.
This is silliness. To have been right before it was fashionable about the nature and threat of Soviet Communism and militant Islam are deeply impressive achievements. Moreover, neoconservatism has correctly critiqued and offered remedies for many domestic ills. Neoconservatism is an imperfect movement comprised of people of sometimes different and competing views, but it has certainly enriched and deepened our public life.
Heilbrunn believes the Iraq war will return neoconservatives to exile since they were the primary advocates for the war, which to him has been a colossal failure. The bad news for Heilbrunn's book (and the good news for America and Iraq) is that 2007 was a year of remarkable improvement in Iraq, thanks to the counterinsurgency strategy. We have seen often staggering progress, on many key fronts.
Heilbrunn can also be sloppy. He writes that in the aftermath of the failure to find WMDs, President Bush “suddenly veered to embracing the democracy crusade” in his second inaugural (delivered in January 2005). Yet Heilbrunn cites President Bush's November 2003 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, in which Bush said, “Iraqi democracy will succeed and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran, that freedom can be the future of every nation.” The truth is that President Bush promoted the Freedom Agenda before the Iraq war began.
Heilbrunn also asserts that neoconservatives like William Kristol, in an effort to deflect criticism for their role in the Iraq war, turned on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on precisely Dec. 14, 2004, in a Washington Post op-ed. Except that Kristol and Robert Kagan were critical of Rumsfeld and his strategy as early as the summer of 2003, writing “[i]t is painfully obvious that there are too few American troops operating in Iraq.” The success of the surge is vindication for Kristol and Kagan. They, like Sen. John McCain, were right in their concerns — and Iraq would be in far better shape today had we heeded their early counsel.
— Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.