Andrew J. Bacevich on Neoconservatism



Observers soon dubbed this insurgency “neoconservatism,” a singularly inapt label that suggests an ideological rigor that neocons have never demonstrated nor perhaps even sought. Irving Kristol is surely correct in observing that neoconservatism is best understood not as a political movement or school of thought but as a “persuasion.” At least initially, the spirit animating that persuasion was a negative one. United by their common antipathy for the 1960s, neoconservatives knew precisely what they were against: the nihilism, untruths, and sheer silliness to which the radical decade had given birth. And, wherever it might appear, they were opposed to Communism. By all outward appearances, neoconservatism was, as Peter Steinfels observed in 1979, “ideology as anti-ideology.”…

…The conception of politics to which neoconservatives paid allegiance owed more to the ethos of the Left than to the orthodoxies of the Right. Their ultimate ideological objective was not to preserve but to transform. They viewed state power not as a necessary evil but as a positive good to be cultivated and then deployed in pursuit of large objectives.

Much as the counterculture had hijacked what had once been mainstream liberalism, neoconservatives set out to infiltrate a conservative movement that for decades had languished on the margins of American politics. On the Right they hoped to find the opportunity to create that alternative perception of reality necessary for fulfilling their radical aspirations. The essence of those aspirations was simplicity itself: to fuse American power to American principles, ensuring the survival of those principles and subsequently their propagation to the benefit of all humankind.

In our own time—and especially since the ascendancy of George W. Bush to the presidency—“neoconservative” has become a term of opprobrium, frequently accompanied by ad hominem attacks and charges of arrogance and hubris. But the heat generated by the term also stands as a backhanded tribute, an acknowledgment that the neoconservative impact has been substantial.


  1. Bacevich, Andrew J. The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print. 70-71.

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Filed under History, Notes on History, Politics

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