The real Irving Kristol

Jonathan Bronitsky writes: If neoconservatism is to be classified, first and foremost, as a foreign-policy agenda comprised of preemption and democracy promotion, then Kristol was certainly not the “godfather.” Contrary to popular belief, he consistently subscribed to realpolitik. Throughout the Cold War, he supported détente and arms control. “Just for the record,” he told his friend Daniel Bell in 1986, “I believe American foreign policy is ideological in purpose, but should be realistic in strategy and tactics.” Kristol also resisted majestic plots to proliferate Western modes of commerce and governance abroad. “The prospect of the entire world evolving into a cheerless global Sweden, smug and unhappy, had no attraction for me,” he wrote in 1995.

For the most part, Kristol seldom commented on foreign policy and military affairs — even after inaugurating The National Interest in 1985. Indeed, the hazard of merely attempting to clarify his views pertaining to international relations is ascribing disproportionate weight to them. The vast majority of his corpus consists of essays of a philosophical disposition, mostly concerning the loci of virtue, morality and liberty. When neoconservatism became synonymous with a muscular foreign policy during George W. Bush’s administration, a small chorus arose, maintaining that Kristol was no progenitor of Middle Eastern imperial designs. “There is very little connection between those called ‘neoconservatives’ 30 years ago and neoconservatives today,” sociologist Nathan Glazer avowed in a New York Times letter to the editor in October 2003, seven months after the invasion of Iraq. Shortly after Kristol passed away in September 2009, Glazer, still trying to shield the legacy of his friend, “a realist and cautious on these matters,” declared that the term “neoconservatism” had been “hijacked” by those pushing a “vigorous and expansionist democracy-promoting military and foreign policy.” Around this time, historian Justin Vaïsse took an even bolder step in Foreign Policy, writing an article entitled “Was Irving Kristol a Neoconservative?” Like Glazer, he too lamented that “the ‘godfather’ of neoconservatism started a movement that moved away from him.”

So why has the conventional wisdom remained pretty much undisturbed? [Continue reading…]

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