November 10, 2010

How neoconservatism came to be

Dr. Joshua Muravchik, who has been called “maybe the most cogent and careful of the neoconservative writers” by the Wall Street Journal, is used to having his ideas challenged. In a talk presented at Knox on Nov. 9, he encouraged students to think critically about neoconservatism and consider its merits as well as its flaws.

“’Neoconservative’ has become an epithet for views one finds repugnant,” Muravchik said. “My goal is to present the true history of neoconservatism and what it has historically represented.”

Muravchik’s talk, entitled “The Wisdom of Neoconservatism?”, explained that neoconservatism has its origins in the Vietnam War. While most of the country was frustrated and upset with the results of the war, a group of Democrats maintained that the U.S. could still be “a great force for good” in the world. Because this view was unpopular, the term “neoconservative” was applied to the ideology by those who wished to condemn it.

“We considered ourselves liberals,” Muravchik said. “We are the ones who are true to what liberals usually stand for. Our ideas are pretty much the same as what has been called liberal internationalism.”

Although there is no doctrine of neoconservatism, Muravchik said that neoconservatives generally believe that all countries, by association with other countries, are in America’s sphere of interest. Neoconservatives also justify the use of force in defense of the rights and freedoms of peoples around the world and have a “very strong belief in America.”

Sophomore Beatrice Halbach questioned the universal applicability of American values, asking if Muravchik believed all countries were suited for democracy. Muravchik cited data from the Freedom House organization, explaining that 60 percent of governments around the world have been fairly elected.

“Democracy has taken hold in lots of non-Western places,” he said, citing countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia as examples.

After the Vietnam War, neoconservative views were overwhelmingly validated, Muravchik believes. He cited evidence of the American public’s discontent with President Jimmy Carter, who pursued what Muravchik called the “antithesis” of neoconservative policies, and the success of President Ronald Reagan, who upheld the neoconservative values of promoting American values around the world and restoring the country’s strength. It was because of Reagan, Muravchik said, that neoconservatives moved from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

“We kind of had a love affair with Reagan,” Muravchik said. “Reagan’s actions climaxed in victory in the Cold War. It was the most sublime victory history has ever seen.”

Junior Greg Noth noted to Muravchik that many of the groups Reagan supported overseas were anti-communist but not necessarily pro-democracy, calling into question neoconservatives’ priorities.

“The disconnect you’re seeing is real, but I think you’re reading too much into it,” Muravchik said in response to Noth. “You can’t achieve all of your goals at once. The biggest thing was to win the Cold War and preserve American security. We had to make…troubling compromises to achieve that goal.”

The happiness of neoconservatives changed, however, after 9/11. While Muravchik was initially unimpressed with President George W. Bush, he admitted that Bush pursued policies that were very close to what neoconservatives were advocating.

“The myth grew up that the Bush administration had been taken over by neocons,” he said. “’Neocon’ was an obscure term that suddenly came into the popular lexicon. You could read it almost daily in the U.S. press.”

Bush’s actions in Iraq, which were originally supported by neoconservatives, turned out horribly for democracy in the Middle East, Muravchik believes.

“We have to face up to the responsibility of being wrong about things after decades of being right all the time,” he said.

Still, Muravchik does not feel that the foreign policy strategies of President Barack Obama are any better than Bush’s. Obama’s practice of negotiating with and trying to pacify countries that are angry at America is “foolish and incoherent,” he said.

“We have propitiated Syria and Venezuela, and they have showed no signs of softening their hostility towards us. Various negotiating proposals about the biggest looming threat—the Iranian nuclear program—have been spurned by Iran,” he said.

While Muravchik was faced with many highly critical questions after his talk, he still enjoyed his time at Knox.

“When you speak to an audience that’s predisposed against you, you have nothing to lose,” he said. “If you haven’t been persuasive, you haven’t lost anything. But if you have been persuasive, and you have some people thinking ‘hmm, that’s more interesting than I thought,’ then you get a sense of gratification.”

Muravchik’s talk was funded by the Center for Global Studies, the Cultural Events Committee, and the Intellectual Diversity Foundation.

Anna Meier

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