What It Takes to Be a Neo-Neoconservative

JAMES ATLAS
The New York Times

A war against an enemy whose threat to us remains a matter of debate. The need to commit troops indefinitely. Growing doubts at home. As the American involvement in Iraq has become a commitment of unknown duration, comparisons to the Vietnam War are more and more common.

Whether or not the comparison proves valid, there is another historical parallel to the Vietnam War, one that involves a group of intellectuals responsible for articulating the rationale for the Iraq war. Among the enduring legacies of the earlier era was the split between liberals who opposed the war and the small splinter group that would become known as the neoconservatives. The group's decision to support the Vietnam War — or at least to oppose those who opposed it — was a shift that would lead them to a new level of power and influence.

The war in Iraq has shown signs of a similar split: a pro-war faction of the liberal intelligentsia has rejected a reflexive antiwar stance to form a movement of its own. The influence of these voices isn't to be underestimated. The marginality of intellectuals is a myth; even in the resolutely hermetic world of Washington, their voices are heard.

For the liberal intellectuals of this generation, the war in Iraq has required nuanced positions. Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a self-styled "liberal centrist," focused on the human rights issue: if liberating Iraq from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein saved opponents of the regime from torture or death, that in itself justified the war.

The political philosopher Michael Walzer, the editor of Dissent magazine, was ambivalent, but directed much of his anger at the rigid politics of the anti-interventionist left in the face of Sept. 11.

Christopher Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair who had disapproved of United States intervention in the first Persian Gulf war, was excited about Americanization as a revolutionary force. Calling himself a "Paine-ite," he saw the new war as an uprising against an illegitimate state.

The writer Paul Berman forcefully expressed the opinion that not only was President Bush justified in his prosecution of the war but that he had dragged his feet. Terrorism, Mr. Berman wrote in his book "Terror and Liberalism," is a form of totalitarianism; the war in the Middle East is a war to defend liberal civilization.

How does the war look seven months later? Mr. Ignatieff hasn't changed his mind. "Would you prefer to have Bremer in Baghdad or Saddam Hussein?" he asked, referring to L. Paul Bremer III, the top American administrator in Iraq. "For me the key issue is what would be the best result for the Iraqi people — what is most likely to improve the human rights of 26 million Iraqis? What always drove me crazy about the opposition was that it was never about Iraq. It was a referendum on American power."

The going has been tougher than he expected, Mr. Ignatieff said: "I freely admit, the one thing I didn't anticipate was hit-and-run guerrilla attacks. The regime didn't fall when the statue came down."

But this is hardly a propitious moment to oppose the war, he was quick to add. "Anybody who wants the people who are shooting American soldiers in the backs at night to win ought to have their heads examined," Mr. Ignatieff said, referring to a recent Gallup poll showing that two-thirds of Baghdad residents believe that the removal of the Iraqi dictator has been worth the hardships. "Do I think I was wrong? No."

Mr. Walzer said he was just as uncertain as he was at the beginning, but for different reasons. "The issues that were in dispute last March have been superseded by new issues," he said. "Many of us who opposed the war are not prepared to call for the withdrawal of American troops. It's hard to work out a political position opposed to that of the administration. The issues now are not the kinds of issues around which you can have a political mobilization: issues like not enough troops, no unilateralism, no domestic security."

Mr. Hitchens is more gung-ho than ever. In his October column for Vanity Fair, he reports from his latest trip to Iraq that definite progress is being made. United States military officers are kinder, gentler men than the "grizzled, twitchy" American veterans of Cambodia or El Salvador. "Their operational skills are reconstruction, liaison with civilian forces, the cultivation of intelligence, and the study of religion and ethnicity," he wrote.

Mr. Berman said he supported the American occupation but not the Bush administration. "Before the war I took the position that it was important to overthrow Saddam and that I couldn't stand Bush — the worst president the U.S. has ever had," he said. "My prediction was that we were going to pay for this, and we are paying for it."

What's the solution? "Everybody else — the United Nations, Democrats, liberals, the left — has to do their best," Mr. Berman said. "To overthrow Saddam is still a good thing, and we must ensure that it turns out to be a success and not a failure. Cheering on the sidelines doesn't do a lot of good. What we need to do is try and persuade people that this is not a war about Bush but about totalitarianism in the Middle East."

A mandate of intellectuals is that they be open to changing their opinions. Skepticism, the weighing of options, "the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind simultaneously," in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, are the tools of the trade. Why should a liberal be required to be a liberal at all costs? What if historical events demand a revision of beliefs?

For the neoconservatives who emerged out of the Vietnam era — most notably Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer and Irving Kristol — that war had what they felt was a persuasive rationale: the need to avoid the spread of Communism. The analogy is clear: Just as the neoconservatives' support for the Vietnam War grew out of their disenchantment with the Stalinist left during the cold war, so has the support for the war in Iraq and Sept. 11 become the defining issue for a new generation of intellectuals. To oppose the war and occupation in Iraq, according to this argument, is to embolden Mr. Hussein. Or to suggest, as the liberal journalist Ian Buruma put it, that "liberalism is strictly for sissies."

"The administration has the upper ground," said Nathan Glazer, professor emeritus at the Harvard School of Education. "You don't want to go against the commander in chief. The afterglow of the war against terrorism inhibited people from making the argument against it."

In the early stages of their ideological development, neoconservatives saw themselves more as reformed liberals than as true conservatives. Mr. Bell, who predicted "the end of ideology," identified himself as a socialist; Mr. Kristol identified himself — in a famous formulation — as a liberal who has been "mugged by reality."

Yet in the end, all were liberals who, by the 1970's and the midpoint in their careers, were proud to identify themselves as neoconservatives, who were not the heirs of classical conservatism but rather had discovered the limitations of liberalism. A neoconservative, it might be postulated, is one who read and repudiated Marx; a conservative, one who read and embraced Hume, Locke and Hobbes.

This generation of liberal intellectuals, like its precursors, prefers to see itself less as a political coalition than as an assemblage of writers with diverse views — which of course it is. Ideological labels are always provisional. Yet however much their attitudes toward the war in Iraq differ from those of such contemporary neoconservatives as William Kristol and Robert Kagan, they are heirs of the same intellectual tradition. Given this, can they still be classified as liberals? Or could it be that they've become . . . neoconservatives?

James Atlas is the president of Atlas Books and the author of "Bellow: A Biography."