How did neoconservatives get their name?

It started out as an insult. The founders of the movement were liberal intellectuals who became disenchanted with the direction of the American left during the 1960s and 1970s. Their original goal was to reform the Democratic Party from within. But mainstream leftists scoffed at these people who called themselves new, or neo-, liberals, saying it was more apt to call them neo-conservatives. The first neocons soon embraced the name. To them the prefix highlighted the fact that while they had once been leftists, they now had a new orientation. Irving Kristol, the godfather of the movement, defined a neoconservative as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”

What was this reality?

The failure of Marxist ideology to produce a utopian state. The original neoconservatives started off in the 1930s and 1940s as Marxists. This tight-knit circle of intellectuals included Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, and Nathan Glazer. They came to be deeply disillusioned by Stalin’s brutal dictatorship, abandoned their hope for communism, and began to perceive the Soviet Union as an aggressive enemy of liberal democracies. It was this issue that split the early neocons from the Democratic Party, which they saw as alarmingly indifferent to the Soviet threat. As their alienation from the Democrats grew, they also moved to the right on domestic issues. Inspired by philosophers such as University of Chicago professor Leo Strauss, the neocons argued for a greater role for religion and morality in the public realm.

What made them different from other conservatives?

They remained attached to a basic tenet of liberalism: that the federal government could be a force for good. Neocons, for example, strongly supported the civil rights movement, and believed government could play a role in lifting blacks out of poverty. “A welfare state, properly conceived, can be an integral part of a conservative society,” wrote Kristol. The neocons, though, did not think most Democratic programs were properly conceived. They believed government should promote traditional families, hard work, enterprise, and faith as solutions to social ills.

Were they successful?

The neocons claimed their first major political victory with the presidency of Ronald Reagan. His willingness to use American might around the globe and many of his domestic policies jibed with neoconservatism. Though Reagan himself was not a neocon, many of his advisors were, including U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, and Assistant Secretaries of State Paul Wolfowitz and Elliot Abrams (Podhoretz’s son-in-law). The neocons’ influence waned with the election of George H.W. Bush, a so-called realist who did not share the neocons’ grand dreams of remaking the world. But while they were out of power during the first Bush and the Clinton presidencies, the neocons built a powerful intellectual infrastructure. With funding from wealthy patrons like Rupert Murdoch and Roger Hertog, think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and especially The Weekly Standard—founded by Kristol’s son William—nurtured a new generation of neoconservatives.

What have they accomplished?

As a candidate, George W. Bush adopted the neocons’ domestic agenda—he called it “compassionate conservatism.” His foreign policy goals, however, ran counter to theirs. Bush spoke of a “humble” America and derided “nation building.” In contrast, the neocons called for America to become an “unapologetic, idealistic, assertive” force for democracy throughout the world. Throughout the ’90s, the neocons had called loudly for “change of regime” in Iraq—they were furious that the first President Bush had left Saddam Hussein in power after the Gulf War. America, they said, should take an aggressive new role in the Middle East to oppose Islamic fanaticism and make the world safer. The neocon Project for the New American Century conceded that this policy would have to be advanced slowly, “absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event like a new Pearl Harbor.” At first, the neoconservatives in and around the Bush administration took a back seat to realists Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. After Sept. 11, the neocons’ view of the world suddenly seemed amazingly prescient.

How did Bush respond?

He quickly adopted much of the neoconservative foreign policy agenda as his own. In the “Bush doctrine,” the president asserted that the U.S. had the right to reach into other countries to crush threats to American interests. The doctrine was first proposed by Wolfowitz in 1992. For the neocons, toppling Iraq was an important statement to governments throughout the world who harbored Islamic terrorists; it was the second battle (after Afghanistan) in a long-term “World War” against Islamic fascism. It’s unclear how far Bush plans to follow the neocon prescription, which also calls for ousting undemocratic regimes in Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. “We’re going to get criticized for being an imperial power anyway,” says William Kristol, “so you might as well make sure that the good guys win.”

Do other conservatives agree?

Emphatically not. The so-called “paleoconservatives” on the far right say a small group of Bush advisors have “hijacked” American foreign policy. Pat Buchanan, one of the old guard’s leading voices, has described the neocons as a “cabal” acting in collusion with Israel. The Buchanan wing of the Republican Party—classic isolationists—has noted that many of the neocons are Jewish, and have accused them of “dual loyalties.” But the recent military victory in Iraq has all but ended the intra-conservative debate. Neoconservatism, says scholar Mark Gerson, has “become what we now identify as American conservatism; in that sense, they have been so successful that it is now appropriate to drop the prefix ‘neo’ from their appellation.”

The leftover right

If the rise of neoconservatism has flustered the left, it has infuriated some on the right, who see it as a betrayal of everything conservatives are supposed to stand for. They call themselves traditional conservatives or constitutional conservatives, but everyone else calls them paleoconservatives. Paleocons—the most prominent are Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak—reject the neoconservative agenda of transforming the globe, which they see as radical, the exact opposite of conservative. What the neocons call free trade and globalization, paleocons see as the sacrifice of American independence, and American workers, to a one-world agenda. At home, they are aghast at the neocon embrace of big government, including the hated Department of Education. “What then is a neoconservative?” asked John F. McManus, president of the ur-paleo John Birch Society. “Briefly, he is a supporter of socialism and internationalism. A case can be made that Karl Marx himself was a neocon.”