WHAT IS WISDOM? part 1 of 2

exploringOnce a dutiful and thrifty peasant’s wife wrapped her shawl about her shoulders, took up her basket, and told her husband, “Otto, I’m leaving now to go over the hill to nurse my sister Anna. She’s down with the fever and her children need lookin’ after. I won’t be returnin’ for several days. Look after yourself. And remember, when the cattle dealer comes to buy our three cows, make sure you don’t strike a bargain with him unless you can get at least two hundred thalers for them.  Nothing less. Do you hear?”
    “For ‘eaven’s sake, woman, just go. Go ‘n peace. I will manage that!”
    “You, ‘ndeed,” said the woman. “You who are wont to do the most foolish things. I’m tellin’ you now, we ourselves will be very lean cows this winter without that money.” And having said that, she went on her way.  
    Two mornings later the cattle dealer came. When he had seen the cows, he said, “I’m  willing to pay two hundred thalers. They’re worth that. I will take the beasts away with me at once.”
    He unfastened their ropes and drove them out of the cowhouse, but just as the cattle dealer was leaving the husband said, “Wait. You must give me the two hundred thalers now, or I cannot let the cows go.”
    “True,” answered the cattle dealer, “but I have forgotten to buckle on my money belt this morning. Have no fear, however, you shall have security for my paying.”
    “And what shall that be,” Otto asked, “as you have nothing with you?”
    “But I have these three cows with me,” said the cattle dealer. “I will take two cows with me and leave one, and then you will have a good pledge.”
    The man saw the force of this and let the cattle dealer go away with two cows, thinking, “How pleased my wife will be when she finds how cleverly I have managed it!”

That parable from early 19th century European folklore makes us smile. How easily old Otto got rooked, we tell ourselves. A fool and his money are soon parted. We know better. We are wiser than that guy. But why? Why do we think that? Well, we recognize which one of the parable’s three main characters is the fool, which is the con artist, and which is wise. And we’re pretty sure we’re like her.

At heart, the parable is about wisdom and folly. But what is wisdom? It’s such an important question, because when we act with wisdom we are kept from being foolish. For such an easily asked question, however, it’s not so easily answered. Take a stab at it yourself and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Yet we need an answer because wisdom is a big deal, both according to the Bible, which tells us to seek wisdom, and from the witness of history, where we see that wisdom has been one of the chief objects of human search as far back Eden. Wisdom is more precious than rubies and yields more profits than silver and gold, the book of Proverbs explains. Nothing you desire can compare with her, we are told in its pages. Therefore seek wisdom.

Like our longings for love, faith, truth, happiness, and freedom, wisdom is a deeply constituted human desire. Nearly a third of the Jewish Bible, the Writings, contains wisdom literature, and it is there that we find the well known first principle: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (e.g., Proverbs 9:10; Job 28:28). As David Ford, Britain’s leading wisdom theologian, writes: “In the Bible itself, apart from the desire for God there is no desire that is more passionately and loudly encouraged than the desire for wisdom” (Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love).

discoveryIn the Christian tradition, the New Testament indicates that from childhood Jesus grew in wisdom, and a close reading of much of Matthew’s and John’s Gospels will disclose Jesus’ wisdom-based way teaching about life and relationships (see: Ben Witherington, Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom). First Corinthians chapters one through four includes a sophisticated argument from St. Paul – a rabbi trained in the wisdom tradition – about the wisdom of the Cross. And much of the epistle of James is committed to a wisdom agenda.

Other traditions have also seen wisdom as a hallmark human concern. In conversations with his disciples, Buddha was known for his wisdom, as was Confucius, who, five hundred years before Christ, emphasized a practical moral and ethical wisdom that helped to change Chinese society.

The philosophers of ancient Greece were known as lovers of wisdom (philo = love; sophia = wisdom), and for at least one of them, Aristotle, practical wisdom (phronesis) entailed taking virtuous decisions that led to living well, including in political life. And in Islam, the Qur’an explains that God grants wisdom, and its readers are exhorted to pray for wisdom, as their Bibles exhort Jews and Christians to do.

The human race has a long history with wisdom, and it’s a history which discloses that wisdom is not confined to any one culture or people; instead, wisdom cries to be heard in every time and place. As Emerson wrote: “Wisdom has been poured into us as blood.”

Still, none of this answers the important question: What is wisdom? I offered some answers, beginning here, as this blog was launched. But as i said in those posts, that did not exhaust the possible answers, because the closer you explore the historic wisdom tradition, the more you discover more about wisdom than you thought you knew. At least, that has been my experience.

So in the next post I want to offer some further possibilities to: What is wisdom? For it is in knowing and practicing wisdom more fully and consistently that we become less foolish actors on this great stage God has created for us.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Tartarin2009 & Seattle Municipal Archives respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

THE FALL OF THE WALL: WHAT YOU NEVER KNEW

fall of Berlin wallIn what I jokingly call my spare time, I recently took time to send an impromptu email to some friends whom I thought might like to read some historically fascinating insider-information about the fall of the Berlin wall. I sent it after checking out a short article on the National Security Archive (Georgetown University) that referred to several just released documents (linked at the end of the article) that cut through all the media hoo-ha that’s recently been in the news about the fall of wall.

These archival documents reveal from behind-the-scenes – mostly from European leaders but from some from American sources as well – how this world-historical change really occurred and why some leaders, like Thatcher, did not want it to.

As often happens, I’d run across this info while researching something else entirely. Mostly when this happens, and it can happen many times a day to me, I resist the urge to go there – lest I get even further behind in the day’s work. But after perusing this info, I knew that some friends in the U.S. and overseas might like to see it. So out went my email.

What I didn’t know – until they started replying in emails – was the fascinating stories and memories some had about those weeks when the wall was coming down. One guy, an American scholar, was at an International Book Fair in Frankfurt. Another guy, a British musician, was on tour playing in Berlin. And so on.

As I’ve been reading their replies, I thought if would be cool to hear from a wider audience here on my blog. So if you have a story, do let us know by using the Comments area. Even if you don’t have a personal story about those weeks, check out the National Security Archive release for the behind-the-scenes story. Here’s the URL:

Documents show accident and contingency, anxiety in world capitals.

East German crowds led the way, with help from Communist fumbles, self-fulfilling TV coverage, Hungarian reformers, Czechoslovak pressure, and Gorbachev’s non-violence.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Raphael Thiemard (permission via Creative Commons)

IRAN NUKES DEAL

hour glass 1 (Willi Heidlebach)Behind the cautious rhetoric from President Obama about reaching an agreement with Iran on its nuclear energy program, you don’t have to listen very hard to know that he really wants a deal. And for more than a year now, the public pronouncements about the talks from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani seem to indicate that he has the same hope. But Rouhani’s most recent comment, made in Tehran, is instructive for both the United States and Iran.

As talks between Iran and the P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) wind down in Vienna this week, with the November 24 deadline fast approaching, the U.S. and Iran held a session of bilateral talks on the deal. In Tehran on Wednesday, November 19, Rouhani said that if “the opposite party in the negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran has the political will for a deal and avoids excessive demands, the conditions are prepared for the conclusion of a deal.” Apparently this means that the key players in Tehran are of one mind on core issues.

But this may be a misleading assumption. Although Rouhani and his team of nuclear negotiators are of a moderate political persuasion, at least according to Middle East lights, and may indeed be united in reaching an agreement, they have been battling strong opposition to a deal from political hardliners in the regime. And of course the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has the make-or-break authority on any international deal. (For the record, he has stated many times that Iran does not want nuclear weapons because it is against Islamic law.)

Concurrently in the States, as Obama’s team seeks to reach an agreement, it too has been facing strong and sustained opposition from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and at home from political hardliners in Congress, the Jewish lobby, and talk radio pundits. The word “compromise” is anathema to the “anti-deal” groups, who are unable, or unwilling, to see the wisdom of keeping diplomacy going in order to bring this cliffhanger to an equitable agreement.

I wrote several posts, beginning here, about the serious ramifications that followed for many years after the George W. Bush administration’s diplomatic snub of Iran in 2003. When Iran reached out to the United States in 2003, Iran had a reform-minded president, Seyyed Mohammed Khatami, and a foreign policy team that sought, under Khatami’s leadership, cooperation with America and the rest of the West. The Bush White House rudely nixed further progress on that.

Now that the two states have been holding high-level talks for more than a year, a fair and just agreement must not be lost by the two president’s caving in at the last minute to the opposition groups.

If an agreement cannot be reached by the November 24 deadline, the talks should be extended to iron out the minutia. If an agreement is not reached and the talks end sans an extension, potential for cooperation between the West and Iran may be set back for years if not for decades.

Worse, hardliners in the U.S. who have been calling for bombing Iran may then get their way. If so, the hardliners in Iran will have the excuse they have been waiting for, as they had in 2003 with Khatami, to blackball the moderate Rouhani and install another Ahmadinejad. Worse still, you won’t like the blowback to the bombing.

Wisdom is better than weapons of war. Outside the meeting rooms of power, we ordinary mortals can feel so helpless in these situations. But there is an old saying: Prayer changes things. If you are a praying person, pray that the two presidents will succeed.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Willi Heidelbach (permission via Creative Commons)

CONSERVATIVES BEWARE

smoking volcanoAfter the immediate success of the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003 turned into a worst-of-all-worlds counter-narrative, many keyboards were worn out in the ensuing years documenting what went wrong on many levels. There is no need, here, to go into what Thomas Ricks, the acclaimed Pentagon correspondent, aptly called a “fiasco,” in his book with that title.

Many analysts held neoconservative foreign policy thinkers responsible for it, and Donald Rumsfeld’s top neoconservative advisers – Paul Wolfowitz (deputy secretary of defense), Richard Perle (assistant secretary of defense), and Douglas Feith (undersecretary of defense for policy) – began demurring when critics implicated them, big time, in the unfolding disaster. As well, a chill toward neoconservatism set in among Washington’s political elite.

Then in 2005 and 2006, President Bush began removing neoconservative advisors from his administration and filling the positions with those who could be trusted to shift America’s Middle East policy in a more realist direction. Right after the November 2006 midterm elections, Bush accepted Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation and appointed the well-experienced Roberts Gates, a foreign policy realist, as his secretary of defense. In 2006, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), a neoconservative think tank, was shut down, and by 2008 most of the Bush administration’s many neoconservative advisors were out of government.

Although neoconservative ideology nose-dived, it would be a mistake to assume that its adherents crashed and burned. As in the 1990s, they busied themselves. Many leading neocon thinkers engaged in what critics have called a rewriting of their role in the Bush White House, trying to salvage their political philosophy. Claiming that they were merely getting the truth out, setting the record straight, their revisionist history typically has included identifying the State Department, the CIA, and many realists and idealists as having had an exaggerated the role of neoconservatism in the Bush White House. It also has included blaming CIA intelligence, the State Department, President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and other high-level targets for the debacle that arose in Iraq.

Certainly there is enough finger-pointing to go around, but the neoconservatives go too far, accepting little if any responsibility for the fiasco – everyone else is at fault (see, e.g., Douglas Feith, War and Decision; Richard Perle, “Ambushed on the Potomac,” The National Interest online; and Nathan Guttman, “No Longer in Power, Free to Talk, Neocons Seek to Rewrite History,” The Jewish Daily Forward online.) In my view, the neocons lack the humility to see that when you point a finger elsewhere, three more fingers point back at you.

The neoconservatives, however, still had many high-level admirers, such as Republican Senator John McCain. When he was running for the presidency against Barack Obama in 2008, McCain included leading neoconservatives on his team of foreign policy and national security advisors (he also received ad hoc advice from realists Henry Kissinger and Richard Armitage).

human eyeAlso around this time, formidable neoconservative thinkers such as the columnists Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol were getting regular bylines in Time magazine, and Kristol was writing for The New York Times. And both men became FOX News analysts. But also by this time, the word “neoconservative” wasn’t heard much in the mainstream media, and commentators such as Kristol and Krauthammer were doing their thing under the umbrella “conservative.”

That is, the mainstream media, not to mention talk radio, was now content to use the word “conservative” to test drive neoconservative ideas for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities and denouncing President Obama’s diplomatic efforts toward Iran are part of that ride. Of course it is not only the neocons and some conservatives who push such ideas but liberal hawks as well.

Jacob Heilbrunn, a foreign policy realist who knows a thing or two about neoconservatism, writes that the neocons want to engage in regime change around the world, and because that’s not current U.S. foreign policy they are blaming President Obama, big time, and anyone else of consequence who does not believe what they believe. “What the neocons are offering,” Heilbrunn concludes, “is a message of power worship, one that is a recipe for a permanent revolution abroad that will further ensnare the United States in foreign predicaments that it cannot reasonably hope to resolve.” To much of the world, then, it seems as if all the United States has to offer it is “unremitting combat.”

Conclusion. Much of American foreign policy conservatism during the Cold War era saw the world through an “us vs. them” / “good vs. evil” lens. Communism was the enemy, and many of  conservatism’s staunchest foreign policy apologists followed William F. Buckley Jr., whose aggressive anti-communism was at odds with the bipartisan doctrine on “containment – the organizing principle of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union – because it was not consistent with his “good vs. evil” policy frame for U.S. – Soviet relations. Unlike the majority of Americans and U.S. presidents (liberals and conservatives) who supported containment, Buckley was not opposed to rolling back the spread of communism with the weapons of wars, and many conservative politicians followed his lead.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, these conservatives lost the foreign enemy over against which they had organized their foreign policy, and their Manichean frame of reference virtually dissolved, at least until the neoconservatives reconstituted it on September 11, 2001. Now intoxicated with power inside the George W. Bush administration, they used their considerable intellects to sway Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld to restore America’s “us vs. them” / “good vs. evil” foreign policy militarism and point it not toward Eastern Europe but the Middle East.

Despite the fact that “neoconservatism” is little heard today, its militarism since 9/11 has been, and continues to be, a heady brew, and much of foreign policy conservatism in America today walks around in that stupor. If you are an American and consider yourself a conservative, pay attention to the language you’re hearing on talk radio and from conservative politicians about what ought to be U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Caveat emptor.

The previous three posts discuses the strange history of political neoconservatism.

Wisdom is better than weapons of war.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Rudolfo Araiza G. & Cesar R. respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

THE PATIENT RISE TO POWER OF THE NEOCONSERVATIVES part 3 of 3

Story continued from the previous post.

green sky at night (Adrian Kingsley-Hughes)Perhaps the boldest move by neoconservatives during the 1990s, when they were rethinking their political involvement in U.S. foreign policy, was their January 26, 1998 letter to President Clinton that called for regime change in Iraq. Written on Project for a New American Century stationery, the formal letter argued that “the aim of American foreign policy” should be “removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power.”

“We urge you to articulate this aim,” the letter concluded. “We stand ready to offer our full support in this difficult but necessary endeavor.” It was signed by Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kagan, William Kristol, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and eleven other influential political allies.

Many analysts have concluded that Clinton ignored the PNAC letter. Maybe. Certainly he never made any attempt to remove Saddam Hussein from power. But regime change takes time. Consider what did take place quietly in the halls of power. In September 1998, just nine months after Clinton received the PNAC letter, a bill was introduced to both the House and the Senate under the cumbersome title: “To establish a program to support a transition to democracy in Iraq.” It sailed through Congress and was signed into law by President Clinton on October 31 as “The Iraq Liberation Act.”

The implication ought to give us pause. Conventional wisdom lays the decision to change the regime in Iraq squarely at the feet of President George W. Bush, who used the U.S. military to remove Saddam Hussein from power in early 2003, but the policy had in fact become official U.S. policy under Clinton, who, with Congressional sanction, got the ball rolling by signing the bill.

So we may never know just what occurred. As Al Gore once told Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, the public only knows one percent of what goes on at the White House (The Charlie Rose Show, PBS-TV, July 16, 2009).

2000-2004. For the neocon intellectuals and professional who were in place as high-level advisers to secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on America was their “Aha!” foreign policy moment. Several things converged in a short space of time to give them the opportunity they had been waiting for to showcase their militaristic foreign policy in real time.

The first thing was the terrorist attack itself. “In an instant,” writes Andrew Bacevich, “the world was once again divided into two opposing and irreconcilable camps” (Bacevich, American Empire: The Reality and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy). And this was going to be “the world’s fight,” President Bush told Congress and the nation on September 20. “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” Bush warned.

skyscraper at night (Jon Herbert)The neocons warmed to the president’s words. Voilà! Right before their very eyes, a replacement enemy to the collapsed Soviet threat had suddenly materialized – Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network – over against which they could seek to put the militarism of their worldview to test in real time.

Unknown to most people at the time, however, the neocons immediately pushed for invading Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein instead of going after al Qaeda, bin Laden, and the Taliban government  in Afghanistan. As investigative journalist Bob Woodward writes: “the Pentagon had been working for months on developing a military option for Iraq,” and Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfled’s deputy secretary of defense and a leading neoconservative thinker, was committed to a policy that “would make Iraq a principal target of the first round in the war on terrorism” (Woodward, Bush at War).

During the highest-level discussions at the White House and Camp David between September 12-15, on how best to respond to the terrorist attack, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld suggested striking Iraq. Secretary of state Colin Powell voiced his opposition, and President Bush nixed the idea for the time being, saying that the American people “want us to do something about al Qaeda” in Afghanistan (Bush at War; see also: Thomas Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq).

By the time bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the Taliban had been driven from power in Afghanistan, there was widespread acceptance across the political spectrum in America and in Congress for removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – the primary reason, of course, being the continual circulation by the CIA and the American mainstream media “proving” a threat to the United States from Iraq’s WMD.

Story continued in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes & Jon Herbert respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

THE PATIENT RISE TO POWER OF THE NEOCONSERVATIVES part 2 of 3

Story continued from the previous post.

Brandenburg Gate1970s-1980s. The neoconservatives now shift from the Democrat to the Republican Party. The move made some sense. For one thing, in 1975, President Gerald Ford, a Republican, had appointed Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a political neoconservative, as U.S. ambassador to the UN. Also, neoconservatives in general were not fans of the human rights foreign policy of U.S. President Jimmy Carter (1976-1980). And by 1980, as the Carter – Reagan presidential election loomed, most had become convinced that they would never become lieutenants of power in the Democrat Party. During the Carter – Reagan presidential campaign, many transferred “their hopes to Ronald Reagan and the Republicans, expecting that a conservative victory would bring them all the opportunities and rewards they had been denied by the Democrats” (John Ehrman, The Rise of Neoconservatism).

But that was not to be. The stars had yet to align. After Reagan won the presidency he did bring in the neoconservative intellectual Jeane Kirkpatrick as a foreign policy advisor and in 1981 named her U.S. ambassador to the UN. As with Gerald Ford, this gave neoconservatives at least one high-level access to the Reagan administration. But then in 1983, Reagan, during the Lebanese civil war, acted on reports from the Department of Defense and the NSA and withdrew U.S. troops from Lebanon after a terrorist bombing in Beirut killed 241 American servicemen. Removing those troops did not set well with neoconservatives.

It became clear to the neoconservatives that President Reagan was never going to buy into their political philosophy. This was especially true regarding their foreign policy. Reagan may have gone so far as to call the Soviet Union an evil empire and promote the development of a bizarre “Star Wars” missile defense system against the Soviet threat, but he avoided neoconservative ideas for rolling back communism through military interventions.

In fact, Reagan was the U.S. president who, reached out skillfully diplomatically to the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Over a several year period, and against great political pushback in both countries, they hammered out and signed nuclear arms control treaties. Further, Reagan and Gorbachev are key players for anyone wishing to understand the end of the Soviet Union.

Losing their perennial enemy. With Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (“restructuring”) and glasnost (“opening”), the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the formal dissolution in of the Soviet Union, or USSR, neoconservatism by the end of 1991 had lost the perennial communist enemy over against which much of its foreign policy had been organized. The net result, politically, was that whatever appeal neoconservatives may been accumulating during the Cold War decades as  dependable guides for U.S. foreign policy dwindled considerably.

engineers (Seattle Municial Archives)1990s. Clinton and the neoconservatives. Their political marginalization was ensured with the election of Bill Clinton to the White House in 1992. Clinton, a liberal internationalist and a Democrat, had no time for “the neocons.” But they had time for themselves, and they spent it rethinking their image. Although small in numbers compared to realist and idealist networks, neoconservatives are well-funded and resourceful. Garaged during Clinton’s two terms in office (1992-2000), they plied their time, re-engineering their basic political philosophy in a language and with policy proposals suited to what now occupied everyone’s mind in Washington: America’s changing role in the world – what would it be, now that the world was no longer divided into two opposing superpower camps?

Neoconservative thinkers addressed this by rolling out their views through the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a respected and influential right-wing think tank, and in National Interest, a foreign affairs journal founded in 1985 by Irving Kristol. Another outlet, The Weekly Standard, was founded in 1995 by William Kristol (son of Irving). These three outlets provided public platforms for a new generation of keen neoconservative intellects, including Elliot Abrahams, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Charles Krauthammer, to disseminate their views.

In 1997, several influential neoconservatives, led by William Kristol and Robert Kagan, founded the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), which promoted an aggressive U.S. foreign policy that they called neo-Reaganite. In America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, former neoconservative thinker Francis Fukuyama writes that the 1990s, neoconservative intellectuals “proposed a foreign policy agenda involving concepts like regime change, benevolent hegemony, uni-polarity, preemption, and American exceptionalism.”

Perhaps their boldest move during these years of their marginalization and rethinking was when they sent a formal letter to President Clinton in 1998 arguing for regime change in Iraq. We’ll pick up the story here in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Werner Kunz & Seattle Municipal Archives respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

THE PATIENT RISE TO POWER OF THE NEOCONSERVATIVES part 1 of 3

the white houseIn January 2001, political neoconservatism moved from think tanks, journals, and university classrooms into the foreign policy decision-making process of the Bush White House as vice-president Dick Cheney and secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld appointed leading neoconservative thinkers as advisers at the highest levels on their teams. The most notable of these appointments included, in the White House, I. Lewis “Scooter’ Libby as the vice-president’s chief of staff, and at the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz (deputy secretary of defense), Richard Perle (assistant secretary of defense), and Douglas Feith (undersecretary of defense for policy). Many other neoconservatives also held advisory roles in the administration, such as Elliott Abrams, one of President Bush’s deputy national security advisers.

As we will see, Rumsfeld’s stacking of his team with neoconservative advisers at the Pentagon well-suited the militaristic foreign policy of the United States that emerged after 9/11. Many Americans at the time, and I admit to having been one of them, were unaware of neoconservatism as an approach to U.S. foreign policy or what that would mean militarily. And when we began hearing about it after 9/11, it seemed to have come from out of nowhere. Not so. The neoconservatives rise to power has a patient history tracing back decades.

I thought it would be good to look at its odd history, its leading figures, and its foreign policy influence, especially its militarism, in order to come to grips with its absorption into American conservatism today.

1930s-1950s. Francis Fukuyama, a former neoconservative thinker, wrote in America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy that neoconservatism traces its origins to “a remarkable group of largely Jewish intellectuals who attended City College of New York (CCNY) in the mid- to late-1930s and early-1940s, a group that included Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Seymour Martin Lipset, Philip Selznick, Nathan Glazer, and, a bit later, Daniel Patrick Moynihan.” (In an email to me in July 2006, Fukuyama said: “even though I continue to agree with them [neoconservatives] on some issues, I don’t feel like I’m in their camp anymore.”) During the 1930s-1950s, this loose-knit group of liberal politicians, social scientists, and intellectuals belonged to the Democrat party, and the two most important ideas around which most of these liberal intellectuals coalesced, writes Fukuyama, was an intense anticommunism and opposition to utopian social engineering.

1960s. Things now get interesting. During the 1960s, this loose-knot Democrats began tightening around what they had concluded were a number of wrong-headed approaches to the most pressing issues of the decade.

orange flowerDomestically, they were rattled by flower power and by the decade’s social upheavals, fearing that America was becoming ungovernable. They were, however, sympathetic to domestic social reform, racial justice, and to tackling poverty – all of which were towering issues in the 1960s. But they did not like the way President Lyndon Johnson (a Democrat) was handling these issues, and they reproached him for the expansive government policies behind his Great Society program, which arose in 1964-1965 to deal with such issues and sounded a bit utopian to these Democrats. Irving Kristol, for one, believed “that poverty could be overcome,” but not by government gigantism, “only by gradual economic growth that brought with it greater economic opportunities for outsiders” (Murray Friedman, The Neoconservative Revolution: Jewish Intellectuals and the Shaping of Public Policy).

Regarding U.S. foreign policy, the group in principle was not opposed to international organizations, treaties, international law, and the UN, but their higher principle was that the United States ought to spread democracy in the world unilaterally. And they were serious supporters of Israel.

Key to understanding them for our purposes in this series of posts is that the group was strongly anti-communist. They loudly criticized what they perceived was the too-soft approach of the radical left to the Soviet threat, and their approach to diplomacy was more hard-nosed than what either realists or idealists practiced. They favored an aggressive agenda to Soviet expansion that included not only the promotion of American ideals, democracy, and free market economics overseas but also the rollback of Soviet expansion by military interventions. This went against the grain of all U.S. presidents during the Cold war era, as well as many other powerful Democrats and Republicans, who adhered to “containment” – the perennial U.S. policy of preventing communist expansion by means other than military interventions.

The group’s foreign policy in general made them unpopular with the political left, who criticized them for having left liberalism. It was during the 1960s the word “neoconservatism” began to be used invidiously by such opponents to describe the group’s move to the right and its emerging political philosophy.

In 1965, Kristol, with help from Daniel Bell, founded the journal Public Interest, which addressed questions about Democrat policy, such as urban renewal, law and order, education, and racial justice, and communism. “Led by Podhoretz and Kristol,” writes historian John Ehrman, “the neoconservatives used the pages of Commentary and Public Interest to warn against the dangers of radicalism at home and Soviet expansionism abroad” (The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectuals and Foreign Affairs 1945-1994.)

Story continues in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Adam_Inglis & marcusrg respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE NEOCONSERVATIVES?

spiral staircase (Chris Smith Out of Chicago)You don’t hear the word “neoconservative” very often these days. It’s funny that, considering how much press the neoconservatives received not long ago, when they were high-level foreign policy advisers to President George W. Bush during his first term (2000-2004). In 2005, however, beginning with his second presidential term, Bush began replacing the neoconservatives in his administration with realists. They had fallen out of favor because neoconservatism was the prominent political ideology behind the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Begun in March 2003, the war after less than two months seemed to have ended with an unquestionably decisive U.S. victory. The neoconservatives, whose program includes reordering the Middle East, were flying high. By late 2003, however, the situation in Iraq was rapidly deteriorating and in 2004 the project was turning into a disaster. In 2005, President Bush had become wise enough to discern the limits of neoconservative militarism, not to mention the gloomy mood of the electorate concerning U.S. policy in Iraq (many pundits were shocked, especially in Europe, that Bush had been reelected).

As the neocon advisers were being replaced, two important trends emerged. One, editorials, major articles, and books critical of neoconservative foreign policy fell from the publishing skies. Two, leading neoconservatives, seeking to dig themselves out from under the avalanche of criticism, responded on television, in print, and on the Web by blaming CIA intelligence, the State Department, President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and other high-level targets for the debacle in Iraq. There was blame enough, of course, for widespread sharing, but the neocons overreached. They pushed a revisionist history in which they accepted little if any responsibility for the debacle. When that did not convince people, the word “neoconservative” was quietly exorcised from the American political lexicon.

But neoconservatism itself, particularly its militaristic foreign policy toward the Middle East, has not disappeared. For one thing, neoconservative foreign policy under a different name, “conservative,” now finds a voice with numerous men and women in the U.S. Congress. As well, leading neoconservative thinkers have for several years been welcomed by the media and the press in America as “conservative” commentators and writers, including in Time and The New York Times. And it is not possible for the discerning to listen to conservative talk radio or Fox News political analysts for very long, on topics such as Iraq, Syria, and Iran, without hearing neoconservative militarism being touted as the solution.

As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge say in their book The Right Nation, the role of the neocons “may be exaggerated both by themselves and their enemies, but conservative American has moved in their direction.” This explains a good deal of the strong “conservative” pushback in America to President Obama’s diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East, especially regarding negotiating with Iran.

The absorption and promotion of neoconservative foreign policy into the worldview of American conservatism is an alarming development and little understood in this country outside of Washington, including by the conservative electorate that has bought into it. It is especially troubling to me as a Christian to see many well-meaning conservative Christians supporting it just because it’s being passed off as conservative. If they knew what they were being asked to sign off on, many would most likely reject it.

Beginning in the next post, I want us to look at this alarming development by exploring the fascinating history and influence of neoconservatism, its leading figures, and its militarism.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Chris Smith/Out of Chicago (permission via Creative Commons)