Unconventional Allies Reunited: Liberal Hawks and Neoconservatives at the Turn of the Century

Unconventional Allies Reunited: Liberal Hawks and Neoconservatives at the Turn of the Century

Peter Just

A neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality. A neoliberal is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality but has refused to press charges. (Kristol)

Ever since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States have been faced with allegations of warmongering. While calls for quick revenge on the one hand, and for a spreading of American ideas of democratic order to secure global peace on the other soon rang around the globe, responsibility for action was widely attributed to the U.S. government, the only remaining superpower. General opinion went along these lines among commentators and journalists, especially in Europe, who soon found those responsible in Washington for a plan to realize an American empire: a small but influential group of political players who had convinced a weak-minded President Bush jr. of the idea of spreading democracy forcefully, thus getting rid of all the ‘evil dictators’ that stand between the U.S.A. and their business interests. The Bush Doctrine justified the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a preemptive measure that inaugurated a series of interventionist scenarios. Yet, in opposition to the sentiment of the day, anti-war movements made themselves heard around the world. Often, foreign media simply portrayed them as “liberals,” as doves who dared to speak up against the generally rather hawkish consensus in the country and who demanded that the government refrain from military action against Saddam Hussein.  Owing to the catchy metaphor of hawks and doves, however, the fine lines of political association among members of the liberal and conservative camps became blurred, compromising the analysis and understanding of political interest and motivation.

The purpose of this paper is to show parallels and differences between those liberals who have come to be regarded as hawks and the neoconservative camp by examining the common origins of their respective thought since the beginning of the Cold War. I will argue that neoconservative arguments caused some liberals to support the invasion of Iraq, thus turning themselves into hawks. The paper will also show how neoconservatives, or “neocons,” deliberately used liberal hawks’ rhetoric from earlier armed conflicts—for example Kosovo—in order to convince them of the need for military action.

As definitions of liberalism and neoconservatism have changed considerably during the second half of the twentieth century, it is important to look at their histories but also to establish a working definition and a dividing line between the ideologies. My main focus will thus remain directed at the foreign policy stance of the schools of thought. Following publicist Max Boot’s contention, “[n]eocons combine the best of the two dominant strains of US foreign policy: Wilsonian idealism and Kissingerian realpolitik. They have Wilson’s devotion to promoting democracy while at the same time recognizing—as Wilson did not—that this often requires force and that the US cannot rely on international treaties alone.”1 The stance taken towards foreign policy marks the major point of difference between neoconservatives and those liberals who despite their interventionist convictions acknowledge that American power is not necessarily a force of good. They would rather relinquish even little means of direct military control in favor of international agreements implemented through treaties and international organizations in order to stay true to liberal convictions (Beinart Xff, Snyder). It is therefore necessary to consider the common origins of liberal hawks’ and neoconservative thinking in order to analyze their congruities and discrepancies at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The period after World War II was a time of consensus in the United States. As the literary critic Lionel Trilling argued, in postwar America liberalism was “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” (qtd. in Bloom 178). The term “consensus liberalism,” which referred to the necessity of a strong state presence in securing the freedom of the individual, had already been coined in the New Deal era (Hochgeschwender 72ff). In the post-war era, the term acquired further implications as the emergence of a new threat brought the country together: With an empowered Soviet Union, seemingly willing to expand communist influence around the globe, most Americans stayed united behind a shared set of principles based on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”. Still, the question of how to deal with communism was contested. While some on the left in the United States were not entirely averse to the ideas of Marxism and favored an attempt of rapprochement, a different group of liberals quickly won the upper hand. Their position can be summed up in programmatic statements by liberals like the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger jr., for whom it was inconceivable “[that] totalitarianism and democracy can live together” (qtd. in Ehrman 2).2 In Schlesinger’s opinion, “[w]hen the challenge of Communism finally forced American liberals to take inventory of their moral resources, the inventory resulted in the clear decision that freedom had values which could not be compromised in deals with totalitarianism” (165). In that mindset, liberalism saw itself as the vital center between fascism and communism (Beinart 6; Schlesinger). A staunch anticommunism quickly became a core tenet of American foreign policy under President Harry S. Truman. Its position of containment, which arguably started with diplomat George F. Kennan’s Long Telegram and the Truman Doctrine, remained a fundamental principle despite changing administrations and constantly “forced the […] liberals to check their gut” (Beinart 7).

A major shift came on the heels of the Vietnam War. In the late 1960s and early 70s, a rift within American society over the role of the the United States in South East Asia became more and more apparent: supporters of the war, in fear of a domino effect and consequential communist takeover in many non-aligned states, openly clashed with anti-war protesters who grew more and more militant. Opponents not only questioned the reasons for the war, but also challenged the United States’ core values. Ambassador to the United Nations under President Reagan and famous neoconservative Jeane Kirkpatrick sums up the argument of her opponents from her point of view:

The central aspect of the anti-war movement was less its rejection of the Vietnam War than its rejection of the United States. The argument was less that the war was unwise or unnecessary than the United States was immoral—a ‘sick society’ guilty of racism, materialism, imperialism, and murder of Third World people in Vietnam  (Kirkpatrick qtd. in Keller 83).

The shift towards the political left and the counterculture alienated some of the Cold War liberals. The breakdown of the Great Society and the nomination of George McGovern—who embodied the new positions of the leftist turn—as Democratic presidential candidate in 1972 helped tagging a hitherto not identifiable group which at the same time was not new at all: “In order to become a neoconservative all you had to do was stand in place,” quipped Irving Kristol (qtd. in Hoeveler 85). The term “neoconservative” was coined by an outsider: publicist and then leader of the Democratic Socialists Michael Harrington started to refer to the group who took issue with the turn towards the left by that moniker in the late 1960s (Keller 47). Although there were never many neocons who liked it, the term stuck.

The realist foreign policy of influential National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger brought about a period of détente and general rapprochement with the communist nations. After the Nixon and Ford years, President Jimmy Carter implemented an even ‘softer’ course towards the Soviet Union and China. Especially his non-interventionist policy concerning revolutions in Third World countries frustrated the neoconservatives. They were forced to watch from the sidelines, though. During the Republican years, it was not yet attractive for them to switch parties. The Carter administration alienated many of the neoconservatives yet further—despite the fact that in the 1970s they had generally still supported liberal internationalists in the Democratic Party like Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, whose bids for the presidency in 1972 and 1976 were unsuccessful (Halper and Clarke 56, Keller 93ff).

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 brought a staunch Cold Warrior, ready to confront Communism, into the Oval Office. Although today often hailed as a representative of neoconservative ideas, President Reagan at the time was often criticized by contemporary neocons for his willingness to negotiate with the Soviets. His open anticommunism and promotion of American ideals, though, were applauded by the neocons, while liberals shivered at his confrontational rhetoric and perceived his approach as too bold and risky. Several events in the late 1980s led to the end of the Soviet Union and Reagan’s influence on that matter stays debatable. It is important to note that the crumbling of the rival superpower had immense consequences for the neoconservative school of thought. Their biggest foreign policy pillar—anticommunism—broke away in a matter of just a few years. Not only did this lead to a sense of accomplishment among the group, it eventually also led to its decline. Publicist Norman Podhoretz, one of the most outspoken neoconservatives, wrote a eulogy, and Irving Kristol, “The Godfather of Neoconservatism,” also saw himself merging with the larger conservative majority. The ideological backdrop of the Cold War, which had motivated U.S. foreign policy for half a century, came to an end. This resulted in a political vacuum that upset all schools of thought, but which hit the realists with their focus on the status quo especially hard. The last effort of neoconservatives to set new goals in American foreign policy during the realist administration of George H. W. Bush came with the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance (DPG). An early draft, written by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz under the supervision of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, was leaked to The New York Times. The DPG draft called for the promotion of America’s status as the sole remaining superpower in the world, while deterring and, if necessary, even unilaterally and preemptively attacking hostile nations (Burr). Only thanks to massive protest, especially by the media and high ranking officials like realist National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, was the paper revised and moderated. The realists in the administration kept the upper hand but did not know how to apply their ideas to the new situation. This in combination with a return to domestic problems of the American people made the sitting President George H.W. Bush vulnerable in the 1992 election (Keller 154f).

Bill Clinton was by no means a foreign policy expert when he challenged President Bush, but he was able to read the signs of the American electorate’s changed priorities. For a president whose focus is on domestic policy, assigning superb foreign policy experts to the administration is key. But particularly during the first term of his presidency, Clinton’s adviser lacked a sense of direction or mission, in addition to inadequate communication within the administration (Halberstam 241-47). Instead of joining forces and coming up with a unifying broad concept, a ‘bumper-sticker-slogan’, for the post-Cold War Era, each member of Clinton’s foreign policy team tried to coin a phrase of their own. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake used a speech at Johns Hopkins University in late September 1993 to state:

The successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement—enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies. […] We should act multilaterally where doing so advances our interests—and we should act unilaterally when that will serve our purpose.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright and President Clinton himself also gave speeches on foreign policy in the space of only a few days. Although some themes overlapped, they could not agree on a new doctrine nor deliver a unified message. The response in the media was mediocre and the impact minor, as Clinton’s foreign policy team failed to rally support. As the world in the aftermath of the end of the Soviet Union grew more and more complicated, the time for doctrines and simple tag lines seemed to be over (Chollet and Goldgeier 68-71).

In 1993, the Clinton administration scrambled to find a suitable response to the—inherited—problems in Somalia. The pictures of humiliated corpses of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu after the infamous Black Hawk Down incident on October 3, 1993, had far reaching consequences.3 Huge public protest led to a retreat of American troops, making liberals even more cautious about the use of force in the international arena. One of the consequences can be seen in the decision not to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda in April 1994. The U.S. government decided against sending troops to the war-riddled African nation, thus foregoing a chance to stop the ongoing slaughter of civilians. Cynically, the Clinton administration did not term the conflict a genocide, talking instead about ‘acts of genocide’ in order to avoid implementation of the UN Genocide Convention. The slaughtering was essentially kept unchecked. Although the decision not to intervene in another country’ s affairs reflected the will of the American people, especially one that was on the other side of the globe and did not pose any national security risks, this particular inaction would haunt liberals’ minds in the years to come (Chollet and Goldgeier 90-93), in ways very similar to the Balkans crisis in the early 1990s (Halberstam 135). Clinton’s attitude changed as well. His complicated relationship with the Joint Chiefs of Staff improved, as he became more comfortable with his role as Commander in Chief and oversaw smaller interventions in Haiti and Iraq. Bolder gestures in foreign policy also came with the appointment of Madeleine Albright to Secretary of State in 1997. Journalist and historian David Halberstam describes her as an

activist at a nonactivist time. […] She was literally and figuratively a child of Munich, the Holocaust, and the post-World War II descent of the Iron Curtain, not of the Vietnam experience, and of the American military being impaled in an unpopular, unwinnable war twelve thousand miles away, and the doubts it had created among many of her contemporaries about America’s use of power. (377f)

Albright’s influence cannot be underestimated. Whereas other high ranking foreign policy officials did not have Clinton’s ear, the new Secretary of State became a key figure in the administration. For good reasons, critics and supporters alike dubbed the NATO intervention in Kosovo “Madeleine’s War” (Cf. Isaacson and Waller).

While the Clinton administration struggled to find a coherent voice on foreign policy, the neoconservatives again watched from the sidelines. The older protagonists of the movement seemed about to retire after the Soviet Union, their ideological rival, had vanished, a new generation took over. They went against the majority of Republicans, who as “Contract Republicans” had a rather isolationist bent, and disapproved of military commitments overseas. The most prominent figures in this neoconservative revival were certainly Robert Kagan and William Kristol.4 The two chairmen of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) think tank published the now famous essay Towards a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy right on time for the 1996 midterm elections. They called for a drastic spike in the defense budget and an active spreading of American values around the globe. In combination with the DPG from 1992, their essay may well be considered the foundation for second-generation neoconservatism (Kagan and Kristol “Neo–Reaganite”; Heilbrunn 214-21; Packer 13f). Moral ambitions and an optimistic missionary impulse concerning values characterized the discussion about another important scenario in the 1990s. In Kosovo, liberal hawks and neoconservatives fought together for an intervention.

Responding to a mixed record of the Clinton administration that included blunders along with smaller achievements in foreign policy, the neoconservatives balanced their praise for and criticism of the President depending on the occasion (Halper and Clarke 83–90).5 On the question of intervention in Kosovo, they found common ground. In the late 1990s, Serbian forces repeatedly attacked the Albanian ethnic minority in Kosovo. These attacks, though, had been provoked by paramilitary forces of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which had killed several Serbian officials in the region. They counted on a disproportionate response of Slobodan Milosevic’s forces, with images of the results broadcast around the globe. The Yugoslav President’s reputation was already tainted by earlier conflicts in the Balkans, and he was under close watch by the U.S. government after agreeing to the Dayton Accords in 1995. The events, which eventually led to a joint NATO air campaign, were heavily discussed in the toxic political climate of the late 1990s.6 For the liberal hawks, the killings of civilians in the Balkans evoked painful memories of the genocide in Rwanda and the inaction of the U.S. government at the time. The hawkish advisers called for military action in order to stop the killings, protect the civilian population in Kosovo from starvation, and quell the spreading of violence throughout the fragile region. A humanitarian intervention was portrayed as a moral necessity (Daalder and O’Hanlon 5). As the situation in the Balkans posed no threat to American security, several realists and isolationists were skeptical about sending troops into battle, evoking then Secretary of State James Baker’s words from the early 1990s that “we don’t have a dog in that fight” (qtd. in Halberstam 349). Unexpectedly, the liberal hawks were supported by one particular group from the right: the neoconservatives. Their own moralism saw the need for action in the region as long overdue and, as a consequence of their militaristic leanings, they called for a swift use of force to quell any wrongdoing in the region. Neoconservative thinking thereby connected the moral imperative to help with a realist call for decisive action and justified it as a vital national interest. Their main point of criticism was the government’s hesitation to swiftly send troops and retain control over the forces at the same time.7 For them, the situation presented itself quite clearly. The larger liberal majority, though, had to be convinced by stressing the pending humanitarian crisis. Some believed a credible threat of force would be sufficient to scare Milosevic into an agreement. This tactic in combination with negotiations proved to be unsuccessful, as the Yugoslavian President called the bluff (Daalder and O’Hanlon 63–69).8 A major and distinctly liberal point of the intervention in Kosovo was the multilateralism that working through NATO witnessed to—instead of unilateral action. For neoconservatives, this would prove a point of consequence for later conflicts—as became evident in the build-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

It is often said that war should be employed only in the last resort. I reluctantly believe that in the case of the threat from Iraq, we have come to the last resort. (Pollack XIV)

While George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign presented himself as a nationalist against the Democratic candidate and liberal hawk Albert Gore, he certainly changed his position after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 (Micklethwait and Wooldridge 219). More moderate, realist advisers like Secretary of State Colin Powell were unable to win internal debates against a coalition of Jacksonian nationalists, like Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, or neoconservatives like Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz and Cheney’s Chief of Staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. While a broad consensus was reached concerning an invasion of Afghanistan to hunt down members of Al Qaeda and destroy their safe haven, the next step in the War on Terror was a much tougher sell. “The Iraq War will always be linked with the term ‘neoconservative,’” predicted Packer in 2005, but one must not forget the liberal support for the intervention (15). Despite intelligence reports about a possible rearmament of Iraq with biological and chemical weapons, many liberals had not seen the necessity to topple Saddam Hussein, and had preferred a continuation of containment. Although President Clinton had half-heartedly implemented an American policy towards regime change in Iraq, a full blown invasion went a step too far for many mainstream liberals. The neocons thus advertised their idea of democratizing Iraq by using the language of the liberal hawks in order to trigger positive memories about earlier successful interventions for humanitarian reasons and subsequent compliance in the pending military action. A very influential but often unacknowledged person in this regard is the exiled Iraqi academic Kanan Makiya. In a memorable panel discussion at New York University on November 22, 2002, he turned the tide among liberals with his heartfelt plea to free the Iraqi people and start a democratic domino effect in the Middle East pushing many of them towards supporting the invasion. Makiya made his case by appealing to his audience’s conscience: “If there is a sliver chance of what I just said happening, a five to ten percent chance, you have a moral obligation, I say, to do it” (qtd. in Packer 83). As McKelvey suggests, liberal hawks were highly receptive to moralistic arguments like Makiya’s. The successful interventions of the late 1990s, especially in Kosovo where no American soldier was killed in combat, led to a new confidence in military action. Heilbrunn points to the coincidence of sentiment between liberals and neoconservatives when he remarks that “[a] remarkable combination of arrogance and obtuseness characterized the liberal hawks, who flattered themselves on their higher morality. Similarly, the neoconservatives, militaristic idealists who never missed a chance to scorn the motives and assertions of their opponents on the left and right, were hopelessly naive about the Arab predicament” (225f). Despite their differences, even leading neoconservatives pointed out the similarities with prominent liberals and only then added a little twist to their positions:

The lesson for Americans, including the top officials in the Clinton administration, was that even with the best intentions, multilateral action could not succeed without a significant element of American unilateralism, an American willingness to use its overwhelming power to dominate both war and diplomacy when weaker allies hesitated. The Clinton administration had come into office talking about “assertive multilateralism”; it ended up talking about America as “the indispensable nation.” (Kagan 52)

The belief in a mechanism of international organizations and treaties which keep imperial/hegemonic tendencies in check remained the biggest dividing point between liberal internationalists and neoconservatives. In the case of Iraq, the liberal hawks accepted the neoconservative premise of an ad-hoc coalition to pursue an invasion. Kaplan and Kristol try their best to present Kosovo as a similar case: an intervention without a Security Council resolution. Thereby, they unwillingly equate NATO with a loosely aligned Coalition of the Willing (90f).

“Well, I haven’t been mugged lately.” (Boot 2002)

Recent strategic interventions show that neoconservatism and a hawkish liberalism share a common origin. Although they had grown apart in the late 1960s, neoconservatives succeeded in invoking the common source and both political positions moved closer around the turn of the twenty-first century. While they remained separated by issues and semantics, they now pursued similar goals on more occasions than each side might acknowledge. The biggest dividing factor might be the neoconservative skepticism as to the effectiveness of international organizations and treaties, versus the liberal reluctance to embrace ad-hoc coalitions built only for one common goal at a time. A moralistic rhetoric and the will to spread values do not make one a liberal hawk or a neoconservative.9 Still, it is fair to speculate that the Democratic Party might once again become the home of the neoconservatives. Second generation neoconservatives like the publicist Max Boot see themselves disconnected from their ideological fathers, reflecting a development that could trigger various responses: will neoconservatism eventually really blend in with conservatism in general, as predicted in the early 1990s by Irving Kristol, or will it even return to its roots in the Democratic Party and join forces there with the liberal internationalists? One thing is certain—the United States will not stop promoting American values and ideals. But the debate over the specific ways and means to achieve that goal is far from over.


1 For an overview of the history of neoconservatism, see Micklethwait and Wooldridge (2004).

2 Still, it must be noted that even some mainstream liberals at first were not entirely opposed to communist ideas—a fact that was quickly exploited by their political opponents (Beinart 1–6).

3 For a military assessment of the intervention see Hoffman.

4 As the son of Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb, he can be considered a real second generation neoconservative, just like John Podhoretz, son of Norman Podhoretz.

5 For example, they criticised him for not appointing any neoconservatives—yet applauded his taking a swift stance on human rights issues towards China or, more prominently, his bombing of Iraq.

6 For a conscientious day-to-day rundown of the intervention in Kosovo see Daalder and O’Hanlon; Perritt provides a closer examination of the KLA.

7 Acting on a NATO mandate, all partners had the right to object to certain targets that U.S. generals wanted to attack. This arguably prolonged the bombings and gave Serbian forces the time to intensify the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

8 For an example of the neoconservative position see Kagan and Kristol ”National Interest” who connect the intervention in Kosovo with the possible breakup of NATO. For an in-depth analysis of the military operation of NATO, see NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe during the Kosovo crisis in Wesley Clark’s memoirs.

9 Such assumptions lead to false interpretations like of the one proposed by Posener, who dubs even President Obama a neocon. See also the obviously frustrated Robert Kagan on that issue in his “Neocon Nation.”

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