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They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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“I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid,” goes the famous punch line of a now forgotten joke. Jacob Heilbrunn’s They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons suffers from the opposite malady.

The great merit of They Knew They Were Right is that it’s not crazy – a merit all too sadly unusual for a book on a subject that has provoked more paranoid raving than any except maybe the Bavarian Illuminati.

Unfortunately that one negative achievement is not accompanied by more positive accomplishments. It’s not perceptive, not original, not even particularly provocative. The author makes clear that he thoroughly disapproves of these neocons, but he never quite gets around to explaining why: the book deploys attitudes in place of arguments, and sarcasm in lieu of analysis.

The biggest deficiency of They Knew They Were Right is its lack of historical sense. Suppose you were to come across a book titled The Rise of the Southern Baptist Convention, From The Council of Nicea To 2008. The concept is not categorically wrong – without the important decisions reached at Nicea, there would indeed be no Southern Baptist Convention today. And yes modern Southern Baptists do indeed take sides on many of the controversies of the early Christian Church, and often identify with this school of thought rather than that one. Still, it would be odd, wouldn’t it, for a writer to draw a straight line backward from our time to theirs – and even to refer to these unknowing precursors of the future Southern Baptists as if they were Southern Baptists themselves? Or – since Southern Baptists takes too long to type – SoBaps?

Let’s try this:

“Throughout the 1490s and well into the 1500s, the Southern Baptists remained Roman Catholics and devoted themselves not to attacking the papacy but to saving it from the papists.” That is a rough but instructive parody of a sentence that appears on page 68 of They Knew They Were Right.


“The shock and the heady flush of victory that the discovery of America engendered among European Christians can hardly be exaggerated. It also gave the first real impetus to the birth of the Southern Baptist convention.” That’s adapted from page 83.

Generally in telling the story of the “rise” of something, you want to preserve a pretty clear distinction between the period before that thing comes into existence and the period after it has done so. This alas Heilbrunn does not do.

It’s generally agreed that the term “neoconservative” was first deployed in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a term of abuse by orthodox liberals against others who were felt to have strayed too far from the Great Society consensus. In the middle 1970s, some of these excommunicated liberals began to accept the former insult as a term of description. But it’s unhelpfully and indeed misleadingly anachronistic to use the term to describe 1930s or 1950s debates between different subgroups of Marxists – even if some members (but not others) of some of these subgroups did later move right.

Heilbrunn never quite gets around to defining what he thinks neoconservatism is. Instead, he traces a foundation myth stretching all the way back through Leo Strauss to Leon Trotsky … but at such a high level of generality that it never becomes clear how this influence was exerted.

“The neocons” do this and think that and were influenced thus – but it is very rare to hear from any actual individual person who did this or thought that or was so influenced. And when views are attributed to individuals, they are described in such a crude, slapdash way as to lose all contact with reality. Maybe I’m tetchy on this point because I three times found myself on the receiving end of this method. Thus on page 253 Heilbrunn claims that Richard Perle and I in our An End To Evil perceive

the US government itself as a hostile force needing to be end-run or undercut if anything serious was to be accomplished.

No quotation or citation is supplied to support this remarkable interpretation – for the very good reason that there is none to be found. It is a wild mischaracterization of an entire chapter that goes into some considerable detail about the way that the US government is poorly organized and prepared for the long war against terror – and that then offers an agenda for reform and modernization to correct the identified deficiencies. Seeing government institutions as outdated is rather different from seeing them as hostile and urging reform is rather different from plotting end runs.

Again on page 269 Heilbrunn says of Perle and me:

But as the US casualties mounted, the neoconservatives began to feel the heat. They adopted several strategies to deflect responsibility or urge a new course. One approach was to argue that there was no such thing as neoconservatism. Anyone who used the term was trying to turn it into a synonym for “anti-semite.” [Something seems to have been scrambled in that last setence, but you get Heilbrunn's drift.] … David Frum and Richard Perle repeated this point in their book, An End to Evil: “Most important, the neoconservative myth offers Europeans and liberals a useful euphemism for expressing their hostility to Israel.”

There then follows a citation to page 163 of our book. I hope it isn’t pettifogging to note that the quote in question is found on page 190. More to the point – the quote in question doesn’t say anything even remotely like what Heilbrunn claims it does. The “neoconservative myth” referred to in the Frum-Perle passage is the myth that the whole war on terror is the work of a tiny Jewish cabal within the US government. In other words, we were not asserting that there was no such thing as a neoconservative. We were asserting that these people, whatever term might be used to describe them, are not the controlling masterminds of US foreign policy. The paragraph immediately preceding Heilbrunn’s quotation should make clear how he has distorted our plain meaning:

In the highly centralized and bureaucratic countries of Europe, it often is possible for a relatively small number of people to push through a plan or concept over the objections of most of the population. It’s hard for many Europeans to appreciate that the United States does not operate like that: that, in fact, American policy is produced through representative institutions that cannot safely drift too far from public opinion.

I’ll complain less about Heilbrunn’s last reference to Richard and me (on his page 272). The reference is polemical and overstated, but not so indisputably erroneous as the previous two. Still, that last reference does reveal perhaps the most important overarching problem in Heilbrunn’s work.

That third misleading reference to Richard and me is based on an article in Vanity Fair by David Rose published in December 2006 in which various prominent supporters of the Iraq war tried to make sense of how and why things had gone wrong. Different people offered different theories.

A critic of these war proponents could have found much grist in the Rose piece. He could have seized on these second thoughts and used them to explain why the first thoughts had been wrong.

Heilbrunn does not do that. In fact, at almost no point in his book does he ever pause to debunk or refute anything. He takes the wrongness for granted. Instead of a refutation, he offers a distorted or even wholly false summary, accompanied by a sneer of the lip and a roll of the eyes. Attitude substitutes for argument. It’s the Daily Show masquerading as foreign policy analysis. But at least the Daily Show is funny.

I’m only a glancing target of Heilbrunn’s method of substituting sneers for ideas. Bill Kristol gets much worse treatment, for example here on page 221, where Heilbrunn takes up a 1996 Foreign Affairs article by Kristol and Bob Kagan urging a more aggressive policy of asserting American democratic values abroad.

Did they really think such a crusade could be launched? Perhaps not. But it was politically useful – the classic neconservative category. … Almost more important than being right was being noticed.

If you are going to charge that your political opponents argue in bad faith – if you are going to take the further step of suggesting that this kind of bad faith is habitual or “classic” – then you had better bring some kind of justification or support along with you. Instead, Heilbrunn has tossed a very ugly accusation on the basis of nothing more than speculative guesswork about what might “perhaps” be going on inside other people’s minds. 

Heilbrunn is obviously an intelligent man with strong ideas. He seems in this first book to have wanted to write a vehement “J’accuse!” He should have done just that rather than losing himself in this tangled and tendentious book. The result would have surely been – if not a better book – then at least a braver and more honest one.

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