Prophecies Unfulfilled

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April 1, 2008
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Jacob Heilbrunn, They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 320 pp., $26.00.

Reviewed by Sean R. Singer

“Neoconservative cabal” has become a familiar phrase. Some say both words have Jewish roots. Kaballah (from which cabal comes) fittingly has mystic connotations, for neocons have cast a spell over the U.S. and transformed it into a nuclear-armed Golem. Others believe the slightest insinuation of any connection is antisemitic.

These are both exaggerations (mostly), but the relationship between Jews and neoconservatism is a sensitive one indeed. They Knew They Were Right explores this relationship candidly. Jacob Heilbrunn argues that “Neoconservatism isn’t about ideology. It isn’t about the left. It is about a mindset, one that has been decisively shaped by the Jewish immigrant experience, by the Holocaust, and by the 20th-century struggle against totalitarianism.”

Heilbrunn, an editor at the National Interest (my former employer, though our tenures did not overlap) is well positioned to make this argument. In a heartfelt prologue Heilbrunn — the son of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and once an aspiring neoconservative — places himself in the drama about to unfold. His personal investment in the subject resonates from start to finish.

In the interwar years, young (mostly Jewish) men and women united around radical leftist politics in Manhattan. Their Jewishness was irreligious — most were completely secular — and had even less to do with Zionism, to which they were hostile or indifferent. It also had little to do with the Holocaust, as most were aloof to its horrors, philosopher Sidney Hook being a notable exception.

Instead, in the words of Lionel Trilling, whom Heilbrunn labels a proto-neoconservative, Jewishness provided a “sense of identity” developed in opposition to “social antagonisms.” In that sense, there is nothing innately Jewish about neoconservatism’s origins. It is a phenomenon Jews have steered, not, as Heilbrunn suggests, a “Jewish phenomenon” or “ineluctably Jewish.”

Pushing this line, Heilbrunn’s narrative is religiose. The biblical allusions — starting with the chapter names: Exodus, Wilderness, Redemption, and Return to Exile — that litter the book are often trite, seemingly the inspiration of multiple viewings of The Ten Commandments. The Republican Party is described as a “new Promised Land” and Irving Kristol is “like Joshua leading the Israelites into Canaan.” Commentary was Norman Podhoretz’s “private Sinai.” We get it, they’re Jewish.

In the postwar era two major developments shaped the neoconservatives’ trajectory: First, disillusionment with the Soviet Union, Communism, and then the American Left, and

second, the disappearance of institutional antisemitism, which opened doors that were previously closed.

At this nexus, Heilbrunn judiciously tracks the academic maturation of leading Bush Administration figures, examining the intellectual foundations of neoconservative luminaries like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith. One such pillar is the nuclear strategist Albert Wolhsetter, who, as Heilbrunn writes, believed that “There was no real distinction between defense and offense,” a concept discernible in the aftermath of 9/11 and palpable among some presidential candidates.

As the neoconservative story races toward the present, They Knew They Were Right transitions from intellectual to political history, taking the reader into the heart of the Reagan and Bush 43 administrations, where many other writers have ventured. The narrative becomes increasingly familiar; the intellectual battles throughout the Cold War make for more stimulating reading than the bureaucratic battles inside the Beltway.

September 11 revealed a new antagonism — Al-Qaeda and “Islamofascism” — that dwarfed the others. In the War on Terror, Israel fits seamlessly into the neoconservatives’ Manichean worldview. Contrary to allegations from both the Left and the Right, Heilbrunn argues, convincingly, the neocons have not subordinated America’s interests to those of Israel, but rather conflated them at times. Though this doesn’t excuse the policy missteps such a facile worldview produces, being wrong and being treasonous are quite different.

Heilbrunn repeatedly compares the neoconservatives to the prophets and writes that, “they belong” in exile. With chimerical promised lands, perhaps they have no choice.

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