They Knew They Were Right
The Rise of the Neocons
Doubleday, $26, 336 pp.
The rise(s) and fall(s) of neoconservatism is an oft-told tale. So why do we need to hear it again? Three decades ago, Peter Steinfels offered a fair-minded but critical diagnosis of the neoconservative persuasion (The Neoconservatives, 1979). At the end of his narrative, Steinfels observed that neoconservatism had begun as an “antibody on the Left”—a corrective to the excesses of the 1960s rather than an abandonment of liberalism. During the ’70s, however, it had become an “independent force” that might end by destroying what it had sought to preserve. Less than a year after the publication of Steinfels’s book, many leading neoconservatives endorsed Ronald Reagan and effectively, if not officially, severed their links with the Democratic Party.
It is no criticism of Steinfels to observe that he did not anticipate the cause of this rupture. Most of his account is devoted to domestic policy and broader cultural issues. But neoconservatives did not then (and do not to this day) repudiate the New Deal or espouse limited government. It was dismay over Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy, not welfare and affirmative action, that led them into Reagan’s camp.
Jacob Heilbrunn’s new book rectifies the balance. While he gestures toward neoconservatives’ “trenchant social and political critique of the Great Society,” he focuses on their “vigorous, Israel-centered anti-Communist foreign policy.” In...