Not long ago, while visiting a friend at Oxford University, I found myself in a heated political discussion with a Scotsman. The subject of our dispute was the Iraq war, but the conversation turned toward the rise of latent anti-Semitism in once-respectable quarters of British opinion. Two years earlier, a story entitled “A Kosher Conspiracy?,” illustrated by a gold Star of David plunged into the heart of the Union Jack, graced the cover of Britain’s most prominent left-wing magazine, The New Statesman. Since then, the intellectual climate had only worsened. In response to my remark that many use the epithet “neocon” to describe Jews, my interlocutor replied, “I’d rather be an anti-Semite than a neocon.”
Today, no other political label gets thrown around as frequently, or with as much reckless abandon, as “neocon.” The most popular liberal blogs name and shame neocons, real or imagined, on a daily basis. The term is used in a fashion similar to the way “communist” was during the 1950s—an all-encompassing indictment—this time indicating an imperialistic and “warmongering,” even an “insane,” worldview. The anti-neocon fervor has reached truly McCarthyite proportions: just a few months ago, Steve Clemons of the left-wing New America Foundation argued in favor of “Purging the Neocons from the American Soul.”
The term “neoconservatism” has undergone a number of shifts in meaning. It was coined in 1973 by the socialist intellectual Michael Harrington to deride liberal thinkers such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer, who had begun to criticize the welfare state’s excesses. By the 1980s, its meaning expanded to include a small group of former liberal intellectuals who hewed to a strong anti-Soviet line and had defected from the Democratic Party to support Ronald Reagan. They were motivated in part by an increased awareness of, and distinctive moral clarity about, human rights in international affairs, a worthy tradition whose liberal incarnation found embodiment in figures such as Senator Scoop Jackson, labor leaders George Meaney, Lane Kirkland, and Al Shanker, and intellectuals Bayard Rustin and Michael Walzer. None of these people held traditionally “movement conservative” views on economics or social issues—far from it; some of them were outright socialists. Neoconservatives had not been content with the détente policies of Richard Nixon, because they wanted not to coexist with communism, but to end it—a more ambitious goal that Reagan shared.
After September 11, the “neocon” label, which had fallen into disuse, came back into vogue as a way to categorize the intellectual godfathers behind the Bush Doctrine, which of course has advocated both military responses to terrorist threats and promoting liberty around the world via “regime change” (not all necessarily through military means). According to the leftist narrative, the neocons got us into the Iraq war—never mind the widespread assumption among intelligence services around the world that Saddam Hussein did have WMDs, or that large segments of the Democratic Party and liberal opinion leaders supported the invasion of Iraq, etc., etc.
By now, “neocon” has mutated into a political curse word to discredit not just those who happily accept their status as neoconservatives, but also anyone who merely believes that the West should respond in muscular fashion to national security threats, such as those posed by the cooperation of Iran, Syria, and North Korea on nuclear weapons technology and the equipping of terrorist groups around the world. The chief purpose of this emergent rhetorical style is to cast aspersions on anyone who believes, say, that Iran must not attain nuclear weapons, even if it requires war. International Herald Tribune columnist Roger Cohen, for instance, notes that “neocon has morphed into an all-purpose insult for anyone who still believes that American power is inextricable from global stability and still thinks the muscular anti-totalitarian U.S. interventionism that brought down Slobodan Milosevic has a place, and still argues, like Christopher Hitchens, that ousting Saddam Hussein put the United States ‘on the right side of history.’”
Examples of this new, broader, definitional standard abound. In 2004, writing in The Nation, Michael Lind termed the National Endowment for Democracy—a nonpartisan institution that provides millions of dollars to democracy activists around the world—“the quintessential neocon institution.” French intellectual Bernard Henri-Lévy deems France’s Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, a “neoconservative,” a label that the socialist Kouchner would likely find surprising. But Kouchner, who founded Doctors Without Borders and was one of the very few left-wing supporters of NATO intervention in the Balkans, recently observed that “it is necessary to prepare for the worst” against Iran, adding, “The worst, it’s war”—enough to range him in the neocon camp, it seems. When Joe Lieberman, whose positions on domestic policy are indistinguishable from those of the majority of his colleagues in the Senate Democratic caucus, makes mere mention of Iranian or Syrian support for armed elements in Iraq, Matthew Yglesias—one of the most popular leftist bloggers, writing from his perch at The Atlantic—duly calls the senator a “neocon,” a “psychotic rightwinger,” and a “warmongerer.”
The long tradition of liberal anti-totalitarianism thus appears to have come to an end, at least in mainstream political rhetoric. What about human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch? Largely staffed by leftists, these days they escape the neoconservative charge because they generally presume moral equivalence between democracies and anti-American thuggocracies. Amnesty, for instance, has referred to Guantánamo as a “gulag” and Human Rights Watch has issued more press releases about the lack of gay rights in the United States than any other country on earth. Freedom House, on the other hand, which rates countries on a scale from 1 (most free) to 7 (least free), and explicitly ranks some nations (invariably Western democracies) as “more free” than others, has long been the bane of the leftist “human rights community.”
Welcome to the new political discourse.