One can be pro-Israel and anti-neocon. Not every neocon is Jewish, nor is every opponent of America's pro-Israel policy an anti-Semite. One of the worst fruits of the poisoned tree of "compassionate conservatism" is that it has popularized a superficial conception of "neocon" as an anti-Semitic slur meaning "Jewish Republican hawk." The implied "dual loyalty" smear and the notion that the only reason the U.S. invaded Iraq was to serve the interests of Israel -- well, these ideas didn't just materialize out of thin air, but are socially constructed, as the postmodernists would say.
In its original sense, "neo-conservative" meant liberals or leftists who had been "mugged by reality" and reoriented themselves to a conservative position. Irving Kristol wrote a book about it.
The fact that many of Kristol's ideological soulmates were likewise Jewish, and that among the "realities" by which they were "mugged" was leftist support for the Arab powers in the 1967 and '73 wars -- no one denies this. But the cause, character and conduct of neoconservatism as a school of political thought is varied and complex, and it was not until Bush's engagement with radical Islamic terrorism after 9/11 that the term "neocon" was dumbed-down to its current status as the equivalent in political discourse of "kike." (One wonders if Jewish boys today engage in schoolyard brawls after being called "neocon.")
Elitism and neoconservatism
My pet peeve with neoconservatives has nothing to do with foreign policy, as such, and everything to do with the characteristic style and content of their arguments. The contant factor of neoconservatism -- the thread connecting Irving Kristol with, inter alia, Bill Bennett and Peggy Noonan -- has been their preference for a conservatism that speaks to sensibilities considered "respectable" by a certain academically-oriented urban audience.
This is not quite the same as saying that neoconservatism is the conservatism of the elite, for most of the elite are not conservative and, in the person of Sean Hannity, we can see what populist neoconservatism looks like. And one might note, for example, that Bill Kristol -- who can claim the "neoconservative" label as a birthright -- did not jump into the elitist anti-Palin camp with the likes of David Brooks.
In general, however, neoconservatives insist on a Right that they are not ashamed to defend in Manhattan and Hollywood (or at Harvard), and this results in a certain habit of argument: Concede the desirability of liberal goals, but object to the specific policies by which liberals seek to obtain those goals.
Hard-core liberals aren't deceived by this half-a-loaf argument, but it does gain neoconservatism a hearing with bien-pensants who can't understand why such phrases as "social justice" and "world peace" are an invitation to folly. Because neoconservatism so often succeeds at this game, entire organizations (e.g., the Claremont Institute) are devoted to supporting those whose job is to craft arguments convincing the bien-pensant simpletons that they can have their "social justice" and low taxes, too.
Exoteric and esoteric
This is why the term "Straussian" has been applied to neoconservatism. Leo Strauss famously identified the difference between the exoteric meaning of an argument -- that is to say, its direct and superficial meaning, apparent to any reader -- and its esoteric meaning, which is perceived only by the enlightened, the insiders, the elite. Neoconservatives apparently think of political leadership in terms of the Platonic archons, who understand the need for the "noble lie" of popular mythology. This Straussian tendency leads directly to a species of Republican mythmaking that is ultimately self-defeating, especially when the Straussians lose sight of the distance between myth and reality.
American government was founded with the idea, expressed by James Madison in Federalist No. 10, that there is no shame in the political pursuit of self-interest -- i.e., "faction" -- and that the object of government is to reconcile such factions so as to prevent harm to "the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." Modern liberalism undermines this Madisonian conception by asserting that certain interests -- e.g., "children's health" -- are so unquestionably urgent and valuable that no decent person can oppose them.
The error of neoconservatism is that it refuses to engage directly the underlying anti-Madisonian impulse of modern liberalism, opting instead to counter with a "conservative" proposal to achieve whatever it is that liberals aim to achieve. Neoconservatives grant the premise of the liberal argument, but deny the conclusion. This produces arguments that are sometimes successful, without being fully persuasive, because they lack the kind of sturdy, honest truth perceived by "men of untaught feelings," to borrow a phrase.
You see, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess, that [the English] are generally men of untaught feelings; that instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. . . . Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, skeptical, puzzled and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man's virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.Now, you may say that I am prejudiced in Israel's favor, much as I am prejudiced against France. So be it. But I am far more prejudiced against liberalism and the Democratic Party, and it is these cherished prejudices -- widespread as they are -- that broadly unite the American Right. Our immediate challenge is to seek out and persuade those I have called "Future Ex-Democrats." Exactly how they will be persuaded, and what sort of agenda they will support in the future, is yet to be discovered. But we know that the Democratic agenda is doomed to failure ("It Won't Work") and we know that many who voted for Obama will be disillusioned by that failure.
-- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
Populism and the Palinites
My preference is for a conservatism that is more forthright and "mean-spirited" than John Podhoretz might accept as respectable, and this "libertarian populist" conservatism might appeal to many who don't share my favorable prejudice toward Israel. But foreign-policy arguments among conservatives are moot when conservatives have no influence over foreign policy, which is very nearly the case now.
Podhoretz recently published an article by Yuval Levin about Sarah Palin that expressed truth both exoteric and esoteric:
Many of those (including especially those on the Right) who reacted badly to Palin on intellectual grounds understand themselves to be advancing the interests of lower-middle-class families similar to Palin’s own family and to many of those in attendance at her rallies who greeted her arrival on the scene as a kind of deliverance. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that while these members of the intellectual elite want the government to serve the interests of such people first and foremost, they do not want those people to hold the levers of power. They see lower-middle-class populists like Palin and their supporters as profoundly ill-suited for governance, because they lack the accoutrements required for its employment -- especially in foreign policy, which, even more than domestic affairs, is thought to be an intellectual exercise.The esoteric significance of this class prejudice -- for it is nothing else -- can be observed in the way David Brooks inveighs against the anti-government rhetoric of populists. The meaning of Brooksian wrath can be summed up in two words: Pat Buchanan.
Because Buchanan is perceived as an anti-Semite, and because Buchanan has among his supporters some few who don't even flinch at the accusation of anti-Semitism, there is the suspicion that everyone who grumbles about big government is a Jew-hating troglodyte. This is "conservatism" as viewed through the paranoid lenses of Theodor Adorno and Richard Hofstadter, the crypto-Freudian belief that we're never more than one election away from that moment when the Republican Party unfurls the swaztika and the GOP brownshirts come goosestepping down Main Street.
Clever fellows that they are, the Brooksians conceal their silly fear with a superficially plausible argument that a more populist conservative rhetoric can't win, an argument that is made to appear all the more plausible because it serves to undermine support -- especially financial support -- for populist candidates in Republican primaries. (Giuliani spent $59 million to get 597,518 primary votes. We are left to wonder where that $59 million might have gone, and what it might have accomplished, had not the Brooksians promoted the absurd notion that a short, bald, pro-choice New Yorker was a serious candidate for the GOP presidential nomination.)
Is Sarah Palin a rabble rouser? Oh, hell, yes. I've seen the rabble, and I've seen her rouse them. Feel free to argue that she wasn't ready for presidential primetime on Aug. 29, 2008, but don't tell me that she can't possibly be ready by Jan. 20, 2013. And don't tell me she can't win. Whatever her deficiencies, she's got more natural political talent in her little finger than Rudy Giuliani's got in his entire body (and she's got a much better body, too).
It may be that a Palin candidacy attracts some Buchananites and Paulistas whose foreign-policy views are not shared by me or John Podhoretz or David Brooks. As it is now, however, the really dangerous Jew-haters (including some self-hating Jews) are in the Obama camp, and they are all the more dangerous because Democrats control both houses of Congress. To take back Congress and the White House from Democrats will require Republicans to assemble a coalition inclusive enough not to demand foreign-policy litmus tests as a condition of admission. We can be grateful that economic issues will be front and center for the foreseeable future, since this unites the Paulistas in common cause with the broad limited-government conservative coalition.
Slagging Sarah Palin and her supporters -- the Ordinary Americans, or "ordinary barbarians," as some of them have dubbed themselves -- because they appear to represent a Buchanan-style populism that inspires fear and loathing among the elite, is to push away the Reagan Democrats without whom Republicans can't win.
It is worth noting that Buchanan was an adviser to both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, which is to say, "At least Pat Buchanan knew how to win an election."