What It Takes to Be a Neo-Neoconservative (JAMES ATLAS, 10/19/03, NY Times)
Among the enduring legacies of the earlier [Vietnam] 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. […]
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