On Thursday’s Special Report, a heated exchange broke out between synidcated columnist Charles Krauthammer and The Weekly Standard’s Stephen F. Hayes and USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers over the meaning of the word “neoconservative.” The quarrel grew tense at times as Powers struggled with her fellow guests over whether the word aptly described a particular worldview, or even if it had a universally understood definition at all.
The entirety of this seven-minute exchange is worth reviewing, and both sides made some particularly compelling points.
Powers charged that both Hayes and Krauthammer would have at one point been considered neoconservatives, as would columnists like Irving and Bill Kristol, and former Deputy Defense Sec. Paul Wolfowitz. When asked to define the term, Powers insisted that “They’re people who mostly used to be liberals, who became Republicans over foreign policy, they are more hawkish on foreign policy.”
But Hayes and Krauthammer noted that this is an unsatisfying and unduly simplified attempt to explain the “neocon” weltanschauung. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has always been a foreign policy hawk, but at no point could he ever have been described as liberal. Similarly, if favoring the robust application of American hard power to safeguard U.S. interests or to prevent humanitarian crises overseas makes one a neoconservative, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could reasonably be considered a member of the clan.
“It is somebody who I think is hawkish on foreign policy and who had a view –maybe the view has changed– for a quite a period of time that we could spread Democracy,” Powers explained when pressed. “I think they were behind the ‘Democracy-spreading’ idea that George W. Bush endorsed, that we could remake the Middle East through American power.”
“If Hillary and Obama buy into the neoconservative thing, then the word is meaningless,” Krauthammer shot back.
“I named neocons as being Bill Kristol, you, Paul Wolfowitz,” Powers replied. “Are you going to tell me that those three people have never considered themselves neocons?”
“What we have in common is all of us are Jews, but not all of us were once liberals,” Krauthammer, a former columnist for The (old) New Republic and Walter Mondale speechwriter, replied.
To this, Powers took some rather justified exception, though her contention that Krauthammer was subtly attempting to cast her as an anti-Semite seems overwrought. Her claim that the term “neoconservative” was once shouldered proudly by members of the political commentary community is accurate. While Bush administration officials in the pre-Iraq War days might not have self-applied that label, few ran away from it either. At least, not before it fell out of favor with an influential set of political columnists.
But Hayes and Krauthammer were correct when they contended that the term has no unifying definition outside of the nation’s cable news studios, where it is uniformly understood as a pejorative.
“If the criteria are two,” Krauthammer added, “used to be a liberal and hawkish, it doesn’t apply to Bill Kristol. It doesn’t apply to anybody who was hawkish on the Iraq War who was actually in power at the time.”
Ultimately, however, the argument here seems to have strayed from the original point of the conversation, which was that many on the left and on the non-interventionist right (namely, Sen. Rand Paul) are engaged in the post hoc revision of history to make it suit their ideological predilections.
If the neoconservative contention is that interventionism is often necessary in order to safeguard U.S. interests and prevent cascading catastrophes like that which is unfolding in Iraq and Syria, it is a principle upheld by both Democratic and Republican administrations. Dismissing interventionism as a problematic approach to foreign affairs from the campaign trail is apparently much easier than doing so from behind the Resolute Desk.
In that sense, Krauthammer and Hayes have made the better argument. As a descriptive adjective, the term “neoconservative” is perfectly useless unless it is used as an insult. Therefore, the term has no place in constructive discourse and is better suited for liberal blogs where the sole purpose is to confirm the reader’s biases.