[This book review was published in the Fall 2009 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 385-388.

Book Review 

 

The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel

Stephen J. Sniegoski

Enigma Editions, 2008 

 

            Knowing that a sizeable literature already exists about American “neoconservatism,” Stephen Sniegoski gave himself a specific assignment.  Paul Gottfried says in his Introduction that “Sniegoski has cut out for himself an… historiographically valuable task, which is to detail exactly how the neoconservatives moved into a position to realize their purposes and, moreover, how closely their purposes dovetail with the foreign-policy aims put forth by the Israeli right since the 1980s and even earlier.”

            The recounting of this detail, in a volume that is nevertheless easily readable, coherent and restrained, makes the book a valuable contribution to the ever-growing discussion within the United States of the relationship between American and Israeli interests.  Sniegoski is well-placed to make that contribution.  He is a widely published author whose doctoral dissertation at the University of Maryland was on a subject – The Intellectual Wellsprings of American World War II Interventionism – that provided experience in researching the origins of a political movement.  Before we conclude, we hope to recount enough of his detail to give an appropriate sense of the book’s value.

 

But first, there is a fascinating and instructive “dialectic” to notice about how the book handles its subject and the taboo that constrains it.  Sniegoski speaks of the neoconservatives’ “connection to Israel” and is quite well aware “of the taboo nature of the issue.”  He quotes John Mearsheimer as saying that “the whole subject of the Israel lobby and American foreign policy is a third-rail issue.”  (An issue is an electrified “third-rail” if touching it is political or social suicide.)  

            Sniegoski no doubt knows that he is walking perilously close to the boundary of the taboo (even though it has been pushed back some in recent years), and this leads him to employ the defensive measures anyone would take under such circumstances.  Accordingly, he makes it clear that his research is no reason to stamp him as anti-Semitic, such as when he explains that “analysis of the role of ethnic groups in American politics is commonplace in political science and history and is not considered evidence of hostility toward the groups being analyzed.”  Every scholar knows, of course, that this point is valid.  But it really shouldn’t have to be mentioned.  It is almost certainly out of defensiveness that an author will do so.  The same can be said for Sniegoski’s other caveats designed to show that he has not gone out of bounds, such as when he says that “in order to dispel any notion of a monolithic Jewry pushing for war [with Iraq], it should be noted that [Sen. Carl] Levin is Jewish.”  He makes it clear that not all neoconservatives are Jews, and that some of the opponents of neoconservatism are Jewish.  We are told also that American neoconservatives have not been connected with overall Israeli public opinion, but rather with that of Israel’s right wing.    Again, each of these points, though valid, is hardly necessary, since no one reading the book could reasonably take him to be saying otherwise.        

            The interplay (“dialectic”) between his effort and the taboo goes an important step further.  One can well imagine a no-holds-barred discussion of the intellectual penumbra surrounding American-Israeli relations that would dig deeply into a number of things that Sniegoski doesn’t mention.  To say this is not to criticize him or his work, since even without broaching those subjects his research elaborates on much that deserves to be known.  His book wouldn’t be available to make its contribution if it were denied publication or shunted off into some dark corner.  Readers will do well to realize, though, that the third rail is still there barring the way to a deeper examination.

 

Sniegoski speaks of neoconservatism as a “transparent cabal,” and explains why this is not the oxymoron it seems to be.  “Cabal” is a self-description used by neoconservatives themselves, and is not out of place for a tightly-knit network pursuing a shared program.  The reason for calling it “transparent,” Sniegoski says, is that the network has “worked very much in the open,” albeit with a “certain measure of secrecy, especially regarding their connection to Israel, because of the taboo nature of the issue.” 

            Who are the neoconservatives?  Sniegoski says “the term was coined by socialist Michael Harrington as a derisive term for leftists and liberals who were migrating rightward.  Many of the first generation neoconservatives were originally liberal Democrats, or even socialists and Marxists, often Trotskyites.  Most originated in New York, and most were Jews.  They drifted to the right in the 1960s and 1970s as the Democratic Party moved to the anti-war McGovernite left...” 

            Over time, they developed an elaborate network of journals and think tanks, best understood as a “network” because of their extensive overlapping membership.  Commentary magazine, published by the American Jewish Committee and with Norman Podhoretz as its editor for the 35 years preceding his retirement in 1995, has been considered “the neocon bible.”   The Weekly Standard was founded by William Kristol in 1995 and funded by Rupert Murdoch, a “media mogul” and “strong proponent of Israel.”  It “immediately became the leading voice of the neoconservatives… because of its greater frequency of publication.”  William Kristol is the son of Irving Kristol (“regarded as the ‘godfather’ of neoconservatism”) and his wife Gertrude Himmelfarb, herself prominent as a neoconservative author.  The American Enterprise Institute started years ago as a standard free-market think-tank, but eventually became so permeated by neoconservatives that it is “sometimes referred to as ‘Neocon Central.’”   In like fashion, National Review magazine was transmogrified into a neoconservative bastion.  Not to be overlooked are the Hudson Institute and the “Rupert Murdoch global media empire,” which includes Fox News.  Many of the personalities active in one or more aspects of the network are instantly recognizable to anyone conversant with recent American politics.  They include, among others, those already mentioned and Midge Decter, Joshua Muravchik, Kenneth Adelman, Laurie Mylroie, Frank Gaffney, Max Kappelman, Max Boot, Arnold Beichman, John Bolton, Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Pipes, Michael Ledeen, Douglas Feith, Karl Rove and David Frum.

            Neoconservatism’s origins in the far left of the 1930s help explain its labyrinthine nature.  The Left in that decade carried the creation of “front groups,” with a given individual belonging not just to one but to a great many, to almost unbelievable lengths.  There are echoes of this when Sniegoski tells us that “it was this interlocking group of organizations, staffed by many of the same individuals, that helped give the neocons power far transcending their small numbers.  As Jim Lobe points out, the neocons have been extremely adept ‘in creating new institutions and front groups that act as a vast echo chamber for each other….’”

            A number of the people listed above occupied influential positions in the Reagan administration, but it wasn’t until after the shock of September 11, 2001, that neoconservatives, sponsored by Vice President Dick Cheney, gained the upper hand in American foreign policy.  Whereas the traditional “realist” American foreign policy establishment had centered its Middle Eastern policy on stability, Sniegoski says, the neocons’  “Middle East agenda paralleled that of the Israeli Likudnik right,” which was to destabilize the existing governments, causing a fragmentation that would weaken Israel’s adversaries.  On a global basis, major neoconservative position papers have called for the assertion of American hegemony, with a crusade for a worldwide spread of democracy.  But Sniegoski is skeptical of “the idea that they are really wedded to the democratic ideal,” since they “conceive democracy as a system that neither ensures majority rule or freedom of speech.”  Rather, “the idea of instant democracy [in a place like Iraq] would seem to be simply a propaganda device to mobilize public support for the war.”

            An especially valuable part of the book is Chapter 17, which gives a detailed account of the propaganda lead-up to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.  That lead-up is of special interest in any student of American government, since it was a barrage of puffery unlike any other in this reviewer’s (rather long) memory.  It deserves much study for its own sake as an example of how subject to being stampeded a country like the United States, reputed to be “the world greatest democracy,” really is.

            Although a postscript brings the book’s discussion up to the spring of 2008, there is nothing about neoconservatism’s situation now that Barack Obama is president.  That will an important area for future study.

            We will stop here.  There is much information in the book, and much that is worth pondering.  We have touched on only a part of it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Dwight D. Murphey