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HomeArchive-1The Long Fuse to the Iraq War

The Long Fuse to the Iraq War

They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, Jacob Heilbrunn, Doubleday, 289 pages

by Philip Weiss

It is hard to imagine a title more overdue than They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons. Ever since neoconservatism’s chief contribution to world betterment, the Iraq War, began losing its luster, its adherents have gone into a kind of hiding, and the media has given them cover. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and New York Times columnist David Brooks, one or both of whom are neoconservatives, have suggested that the word is an anti-Semitic epithet. Others try to avoid it entirely: when Bill, who was definitely once a neoconservative, was hired by the New York Times as a columnist, the paper called him a “conservative” and said his father Irving Kristol, one of the movement’s founders, was a leader of “modern conservatism.”Jacob Heilbrunn asserts that neoconservatives have so far gotten away “scot-free” with planning the greatest foreign-policy disaster since Vietnam. And so his book will call them to account. Not quite.

Heilbrunn achieves one important chore: a forthright social narrative of the neocons as a Jewish movement. Tracing ideological currents in the Jewish community from the 1940s to the 1970s, Heilbrunn, a journalist who himself flirted with neoconservatism, describes how the neocons were propelled by resentments against WASP elites—the men who had ignored the Holocaust, they felt, and “frozen out” Jews from the establishment. It would be hard to overemphasize Heilbrunn’s accomplishment. There has been endless prevarication about the fact that neoconservatism is an element of the Jewish experience, even from liberal Jews. Yet Heilbrunn will have none of it. He says that neoconservatism is “intimately linked with the memory of the Holocaust and the allies’ failure to save the Jews during the war” and notes that a “peculiar amalgam of intellectual rigor and ethnic resentment … lies at the heart of the neoconservative outlook.”

And here’s the topper: a “lifelong antipathy toward the patrician class among the neocons … prompted them to create their own parallel establishment.”

The sociological insights in his story are often exciting. Neocon godfather Norman Podhoretz had “the classic Jewish experience with the WASP elite” but became a “social climber” himself Heilbrunn says. The other godfather, Irving Kristol didn’t at first take the late Allan Bloom seriously. Bloom told Heilbrunn that his relationship with Kristol got “easier” once Bloom, like Kristol, had wealth. The neocons didn’t like Kissinger because he was hofjude, “a court jew of the WASP foreign policy establishment.” They didn’t like Zbig Brzezinski because he was Polish and the neocons suspected him of Pale-era anti-semitism.


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