Where the neoconservative sensibility comes from, and what it resembles in philosophic speculation, are fascinating questions, though inevitably indeterminable and complicated. There have been ingenious attempts to trace the origins to controversies in the 1930s, when the first generation of neoconservatives (let’s call them pre-neos) fought it out in the cafeterias of City College over arcane points of Marxist doctrine, featuring tenacious slugfests between Trotskyites and Stalinists. This history, however, was not especially significant for the first generation, who grew up during World War II and then came to consider their previous ideas as rather infantile. Those distant controversies on the left had no effect at all on the second generation of neoconservatives, people like Kagan or William Kristol or John Podhoretz, who generally came of age in the 1970s. They read about those disputes in Commentary or heard about them from their fathers, but that history had no real effect on them. If not that, then what?
Here I just have to blurt out my answer, one that would not have occurred to me to give five years ago. I think they are best seen as neo-Machiavellians, who view the world, as Machiavelli did, as hostile and forever bearing seeds of war, and who conclude, as he did as well, that odious means are sometimes required to achieve good results. Kagan relishes that insight and announces it with somber rectitude, quoting Reinhold Niebuhr’s words, but failing to note that Niebuhr made that allowance to embolden resistance to Hitler when he was staring down the throat of civilization, not to justify dirty tricks against less powerful nations. The steps from “we must do this out of dire necessity” to “we should do this for our advantage” to “we can do whatever we like, because we are better” are the easiest in the world for the powerful to take. It would have been exceptional in history if Americans did not take them. In doing so, they proved to be not so exceptional after all. God no longer reserves a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.
The parallel with Machiavelli goes beyond that of the immunity of evil deeds to condemnation when committed for a good cause. Machiavelli in his Discourses distinguished between the “Tuscan” and the “Roman” methods of expansion, the former favoring confederation, the latter empire, the former closely resembling in key respects the liberalism built into European institutions after World War II, the latter the Mars-like infatuation with armed overthrow that became emblematic of neoconservatism. Machiavelli pronounced emphatically for the latter choice, as does Kagan. What Machiavelli called “the Roman method” meant acting preemptively, never allowing your enemies a chance to coalesce against you. It meant holding out a false promise of equality, and then reducing your associates to subjects. It meant the acquisition of protectorates, the more the merrier if your purpose was expansion. No better method suggested itself than hitting hard, seeking more, but doing so under a smokescreen of pieties about the equality of your associates and the nature of your enterprise. Is this not Kagan and neoconservatism in a nutshell?
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