His Toughness Problem—and Ours

Norman Podhoretz
Norman Podhoretz; drawing by David Levine


Not so long before the war in Iraq was launched, I was the only European at an American dinner party in Brussels. My fellow guests were a motley group of youngish diplomats, think-tank pundits, ex-spooks, and journalists, most of whom had established reputations as promoters of neoconservatism. Many topics were discussed, but two stand out in my memory: French wines and the “projection of force.” Despite the praise for fine French wines, “the Europeans” were rather sneered at, as namby-pamby, frivolous, anti-Semitic appeasers, too far gone in spineless pacifism and political decadence to share America’s burden of projecting force to make the world safe for democracy. They spoke with great confidence about military matters, of which none of them, to my knowledge, had any personal experience.

Listening to them talk, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have been a youngish Old Etonian Foreign Office man at a smart London club around the time of the Boer War. I imagine it might have been something like that Brussels dinner party—the same sense of being just within fingertip reach of great power, the heady feeling of shouldering the burdens of that great power, and the contempt for those who fail to understand its basic benevolence, or indeed that a certain amount of unpleasantness (“messy” was the word in Brussels) is inevitable when such benevolence is to be spread forcefully to the benighted world.

If Irving Kristol is the godfather of neoconservatism, Norman Podhoretz is the patriarch. Podhoretz himself might not see all neocons as his intellectual offspring, although his son John has certainly followed in his footsteps. In fact, Podhoretz has a rather narrow definition of neoconservatism. He talks about “repentant liberals and leftists,” mostly Jewish, who broke ranks with the left and “moved rightward” in the 1970s. “Strictly speaking,” he says, “only those who fitted this description ought to have been called neo- (i.e., new) conservatives.” Those who mimic the views of their parents (John P., say, or William Kristol) cannot be called “new.” True, but simply to call them conservatives (or vieux cons, as the French would say) would not do justice to the Napoleonic radicalism of their project.

Since he brings the matter up himself, it is worth pondering why Jews have played such a prominent part in the short history of neoconservatism, despite the fact that most American Jews would still regard themselves as liberals. Much has already been written on this topic, some of it scurrilous; conspiracies and so forth. Could it have something to do with an old attraction to utopian visions of universal liberty, which once drew many Jews to the left? Or with the traditional appeal of strong, benevolent empires, from the monarchy of Franz Joseph to George W. Bush’s republic, as shields against bigots, racists, and tyrants? Of course, the specter of 1938, of not nipping a mortal danger in…

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