[This review was published in the Summer 2005 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 249-256.  It is also Chap. 3 of the book America Challenged.]


Book Review 


America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order

Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke

Cambridge University Press, 2004 


            The scholarly background of these two authors shows in the encyclopedic knowledge they bring to bear on their subject.  Stefan Halper is a Fellow at  Cambridge University, and a Senior Fellow in the Centre for International Studies; Jonathan Clarke is a Foreign Affairs Scholar at the CATO Institute in Washington, D.C.  The great merit of this book is that it provides a detailed account of neo-conservative themes, key documents, origins, personalities, and supporting media and organizations.  This makes America Alone an ideal place to begin a study of the neo-conservative movement. 

            Because Halper and Clarke are not neo-conservatives, but rather critics of it, a conscientious reader will want to supplement it by a generous reading of neo-conservative writing per se.   Halper and Clarke refer us to Irving Kristol, Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (1995); Robert Kagan and William Kristol (ed.s), Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy (2003), where contributions by several prominent authors make it “close to a neo-conservative canon”; David Frum and Richard Perle, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror (2003); and a good many other books as listed in their bibliography.  The ideas have come to rest, too, in certain key neo-conservative policy statements.  One of the most comprehensive of these is the 1997 “Statement of Principles by the Project for the New American Century.”

            Because Halper and Clarke are critics rather than acolytes, their book is necessarily not merely about neo-conservatism.  Since a criticism presupposes a position from which the criticism is made, the authors’ own mindscape is evident in the book.  They bring their own baggage, good or bad, to the table.  We will discuss that after we see what they tell us about neo-conservatism.   

            The neo-conservative movement as described in America Alone brings to mind the statement Shakespeare has Cassius make about Julius Caesar: “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus; and we petty men walk under his huge legs….”   The neo-conservatives are remarkable for their “presence.”  They command attention and exude intellectuality.  Halper and Clarke tell how the early neo-conservatives – the “first generation” – got their start in a “brief association” with “the Trotskyist left in the 1930s.”  Alcove 1 of the cafeteria at the City College of New York was the site where “America’s future neo-conservative intellectuals such as Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol, Melvin Lasky, Seymour Martin Lipset, Seymour Melman, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Philip Selznick received enduring parts of their education.”  During that and the ensuing generation, this group and those who have found common cause with them have engaged in the most remarkable “networking” – a web of interlocking organizations, journals, media outlets, books, articles, open-letter signings, etc., that is powerfully reminiscent of the similar networking that occurred within the Left during the 1930s.  The strategy of the “front organization” has been replicated, with each individual lending his reputation to countless outlets.  The effect is to make the neo-conservative voice ubiquitous, and necessarily to push other voices to the fringe.

            For most of the lifetime of this reviewer, the “liberal-Left” dominated American media, so that “liberal bias in the media” was a matter of perennial complaint by those outside the Left.  In recent years, however, the situation has changed dramatically.  Now, it is neo-conservative media that stand “bestride the world like a Colossus.”  Here are just a few the details supplied by Halper and Clarke: the Weekly Standard, for whom William Kristol (son of first-generation neo-conservative Irving Kristol) has been editor since it was founded in 1995, is the “neo-conservative flagship publication.”  The American Jewish Committee, publisher of Commentary, made Norman Podhoretz the chief editor of that journal in 1959.  The journal Public Interest was founded by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell in 1965. The editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal are neo-conservative.  Rupert Murdoch, a neo-conservative who has “strong personal and business attachments to Israel,” owns Clear Channel radio (with over 1200 stations), the Fox Broadcasting Network, Fox Television Stations (covering “40 percent of U.S. TV households”), Fox News Channel, “more than 130 newspapers” which include the London Times and the New York Post. Prominent institutes and think tanks supply money, talent and articulation: the American Enterprise Institute, “some twenty-five magazines,” and such major publishing companies as HarperCollins, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, Sarah Scaife Foundation and Castle Rock Foundation.  The list goes on.

            What stands out starkly, too, is the neo-conservatives’ adaptive propensity always to stand close to the center of power, or at least to aspire to.  Prominent neo-conservatives were “of the Left” when that was fashionable; were Democrats, but “migrated to the Republicans” after a January 1980 meeting with President Jimmy Carter “ended disastrously”; were active in the Reagan administration and see themselves now as inheritors of the “Reagan legacy” (a claim that Halper and Clarke dispute); served under the first President Bush; supported Bill Clinton in varying degrees until they became “disappointed” with him, primarily over policy but in part because he upset some of them by not giving them positions in his administration; then shifted strongly to George W. Bush, “taking key positions in the Pentagon, the Vice President’s Office, and the National Security Council.”  The last of these put them in the ideal position to become ascendant in the George W. Bush administration after 9/11: “Hijack may be a harsh word, but there is no better description for what occurred.”  The neo-conservatives “captured the language of the debate” and “choked off options they did not like.”  They then advanced “the long-cherished objective of an almost-exclusive focus on the Middle East,” as well as other policy initiatives.

            Much of America Alone reviews neo-conservatism’s ideas.  We get an intellectual profile of the movement as we note its major points:

·        The movement’s thought is ideological in the sense that it shares an overarching outlook that provides invariable solutions to problems no matter what the circumstances.  Speaking of the neo-conservatives’ “objective of imposing market democracy” on the entire Middle East, Halper and Clarke say “they beg the question of whether such a policy is realistic, whether it is achievable given the resource restraints….”  

·        The first generation of neo-conservatives “had an intense interest in religion.”  The mindset is Manichaean, perceiving a clear dichotomy between good and evil.  Even though there is an overlay of seemingly “democratic optimism,” the mood is profoundly Hobbesian, which posits a “state-of-nature primitivism and conspiracy.”  Thus, “the policy mindset is to look for enemies.”

·        It is not too much to say that the aspiration is to use American power to refashion the world.  In a book they co-authored in 2003, Lawrence Kaplan and William Kristol said candidly that “America must not only be the world’s policeman or its sheriff, it must be its beacon and guide.”  “Absent the United States,” they asked, “who else could uphold decency in the world?” As long ago as 1989, Charles Krauthammer “described America’s foreign policy as one of ‘universal dominion’ in a ‘unipolar world.’”  This was the guiding project set out in 1997 by the Project for a New American Century.  In effect, this is an “evocation of the Trotskyite notion of permanent revolution.”

·        The focus is on confrontational postures and military power.  High-tech, precision warfare, it is thought, can make wars easy and inexpensive (although the messy aftermath of the “Iraqi Freedom” victory should give pause).  “They pay little heed to the role of non-military factors such as economic incentives, poverty alleviation, soft power, environmental loss, or international commerce.”  The emphasis is on state-to-state conflict, rather than on the shadowy, diffuse apparatus of radical Islamism.

·        The belief is that deterrence no longer plays a role in the post-9/11 world.  Rather, threats must be preempted.  In his speech at the West Point graduation in 2002, President George W. Bush argued that “if we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long.”

·        The desire is for American freedom-of-action.  This unilateralism was strengthened by what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s: “the key lesson they derived from this period was that multilateralism was doomed to ineffectiveness.”

·        Although the broader aspiration is worldwide, the central focus has been on the Middle East.  Halper and Clarke say that “Iraq, Iran, and Syria… had been in the neo-conservative sights for at least a decade” [which, of course, goes back to before 9/11].   In 2003, Michael Ledeen called for regime change in “the big four”: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia.  To these, Ledeen then added Libya and North Korea.

·        Perhaps the key to understanding this Middle Eastern focus lies in the neo-conservatives’ “staunch defense of Israel.”  Halper and Clarke speak of “the neo-conservative unspoken agenda,” a major principle of which is that “the security of Israel is a core commitment of the U.S.  The administration of the first President Bush “alienated” neo-conservatives when it “demanded from Tel Aviv that the $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to Israel not be used in the building of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.”

·        In domestic policy, the neo-conservative movement has not shared with American “conservatism” a hostility toward the Welfare State.  This was reflected in the title to Irving Kristol’s 1978 book Two Cheers for Capitalism.  With this exception, “the neo-conservative economic lexicon is conventional Chicago-school capitalism with a dash of religious and cultural spice.”  They “maintain a generic presumption in favor a free trade.”

            America Alone provides an ample sampling of each of the above tenets.  It also contains Halper and Clarke’s criticisms of those tenets.  It is worth noting that the outlook from which the authors’ criticisms emanate is not that of traditional American thinking such as one finds in The American Conservative magazine today or in the posture the United States embraced more or less consistently until 1898, which was that the United States should set an example of freedom but should mind its own business and not “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”  [This is a position that Halper and Clarke dismiss as “nativism and isolationism.”]

            Rather, the collaboration of Halper and Clarke brings together a mixture of conventional twentieth-century-style American “establishment” and “liberal-Left” thinking (though modified in some ways) with the libertarianism of the CATO Institute, to which Clarke is attached.   They are internationalist and Wilsonian, basing their criticism of the neo-conservatives on what they see as its “conceptual overreach and absence of pragmatism.”  They praise the post-1898 global meliorism, saying that “growing American power enabled a more robust emphasis on values.”  In particular, they see “great benefit” in the 1990s “strategy of openness” that sought “the removal of barriers to trade, capital flows, and ideas.”  The objective, they say, “was an international order based on the principle of democratic capitalism with the United States as the guarantor of order and the enforcer of norms” (emphasis added).  This sounds very much like the neo-conservative “project for the American century.”  The difference lies in the authors’ belief, in effect, that the neo-conservative project flies off into tangents, amounting to a heresy within the melioristic faith.  Halper and Clarke would approach world meliorism “with balance and caution” and would pursue “interest-driven, consensus-seeking, risk-conscious policies.”  One way they modify the earlier “establishment” thinking comes when they acknowledge that “the U.N. has failed in its primary mission, namely to provide a forum for rational exchange and a mechanism to avert military confrontation.”  They would have the United States seek a modified internationalism that would operate through “refashioned international structures.”

            Their criticisms of neo-conservative “overreach” are similar to those heard elsewhere, but are no less telling for that reason.  They argue that even though the neo-conservatives became ascendant as a result of 9/11, most of the neo-conservative program has little relation to combating terrorism.  With its emphasis on state-to-state confrontation, the program adopts “a questionable model for the threat of terrorism.”  The threat from radical Islam is diffuse, and rooting it out requires patient intelligence and police work, done in cooperation with intelligence and police agencies worldwide.  Moreover, it is vital to address the political causes of the dysfunction that lead to the 9/11 attacks, and this involves mobilizing the “silent, stability-seeking majority” within Islam.   The crusade against Iraq was, in this context, a quixotic misadventure: Saddam Hussein was a life-long adversary of radical Islam, and ousting him had little to do with going after Osama bin Laden or building ties with the main body of Islam.  The neo-conservatives have been fixated within an ideological paradigm, a paradigm that was set far in advance of 9/11.

            These criticisms provide the strength of Halper and Clarke’s critique.  The weaknesses, however, are many – too many to examine exhaustively.  Those weaknesses have value in provoking serious discussion, however, and that makes it worthwhile to examine a few of them.

            We see that many of Halper and Clarke’s views repeat a dubious “conventional wisdom” and are “politically correct.”   This may reflect an impulse toward ideological conformity or may simply stem from an unquestioning acceptance of certain truths that seem to them self-evident.  An example: in line with the American liberal-Left and a prominent branch of libertarian thought, they see the Communist expansionism that threatened the world for seventy years as having been highly exaggerated.  Accordingly, they speak of “the apocalyptic vision of the Soviet threat [that was] articulated by ideologues.”  At the same time, they say that America’s fighting of World War II was “necessary and effective.”  What this tells us is that they share the double standard, so engrained in the mentality of the past decades, that holds Nazism to have been the blackest of evils but Communism, despite its tens of millions of victims, as something much more morally benign.   It is on this basis that Halper and Clarke are able to speak of the Vietnam War as an example of American hubris; i.e., of an attempt by “elite special interests to remake Southeast Asia in the American image.”   Another example of their politically correct conventionality can be seen in their praise for “multiculturalism,” despite the imminent existential threat the demographic invasion and ideology that accompanies it pose to Western civilization.

            Oddly, Halper and Clarke seem to diminish the terrorist threat to the United States to the point of treating it virtually as a figment of American imagination.  They speak of “the contrived neurosis of the post-9/11 era, where abstract terror abounds.”  It is similar to their view of Communism, in effect wishing it away.  One of the remarkable things on American college campuses during the weeks after 9/11 was the preoccupation of the university communities with opposing any increase in police power.  The premise was that the threat of massive “asymmetrical warfare” attacks was not real.  It was a premise that served nicely for those who thought it comfortable to oppose the PATRIOT Act.  In line with the libertarianism that Clarke represents, the authors are able to argue that the United States shouldn’t “cut constitutional corners” to prevent terrorism, and that “in combating terrorism… [we must] conduct ourselves according to our rules, not theirs.”  What this amounted to was a monstrous blindness, since any advanced society under asymmetrical attack, and especially an “open society” such as the United States, is exceedingly vulnerable.  Attacks are entirely possible that can produce hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of casualties, as well as social and economic chaos.  In that context, the very “liberty” that libertarians claim as their own special protectorate would be one of the first things to vanish.  It would be a fallacy to say that “the threat must have been a figment, because the United States clearly has not suffered such attacks” [at least to the time this is written – always an important caveat].  It will be many years, if ever, that the public becomes aware of what attacks may have been prevented by the very police and intelligence measures the libertarians oppose. 

            But even this, when recognized, does not dispose of the matter.  There is, indeed, a profound danger to individual liberty in the United States.  It comes from the fact that, under neo-conservative influence, the United States has launched on a course of protracted conflict with the world at large, both because of its melioristic crusade and because it has not adopted a strategy of seeking common ground with the main body of Islam.  This means the PATRIOT Act, or something like it, will have to remain as a permanent feature of American life.  With the passage of that Act, the United States in effect pursued the old Roman policy of appointing a “dictator for a year.”  If such extended powers are to remain in place for a long period of time, the truth of Lord Acton’s dictum – that “power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely” – looms large.  No free society can afford to engage in a decades-long asymmetrical conflict.  Here, we see Halper and Clarke get back on track when they oppose neo-conservatism’s “permanent revolution.”

            America Alone is a valuable book.  But, as is always the case, it is also one that must be approached with critical detachment, by a reader who is mentally active on his own behalf.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Dwight D. Murphey