Jacob Heilbrunn: Confrontation is central to the neocon movement's origins and tactics, says the author of a new book

Historians in the News

Few terms in the American political lexicon have been as simultaneously ubiquitous and misunderstood as "neoconservative." Is it another word for a hawk on foreign policy? Does it refer to a conspiracy of cryptofascists in thrall to the esoteric teachings of the political philosopher Leo Strauss? A Jewish cabal primarily concerned for the survival of Israel? The ideology behind the war in Iraq?

Self-described neoconservatives themselves would differ in response to those questions. "That is why everyone has fits trying to define them," says a slightly exasperated Jacob Heilbrunn. And he should know. Heilbrunn, author of a new book, They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (Doubleday), has spent the past few years sorting through the many conflicting theories about neoconservatism.

This much seems beyond dispute: Neoconservatism grew out of the ideological battle between Stalinists and Trotskyites that consumed the left in the 1930s. More specifically, neoconservatives have traditionally been radicals or liberals who have tacked rightward on the political spectrum.

Heilbrunn, a senior editor at The National Interest, emphasizes that neoconservatism is not a systematic worldview but rather a malleable disposition that has gone through many transformations. He does highlight some consistent hallmarks: fierce anti-communism, a pugnacious intellectual style, a refusal to concede error, and a single-minded focus on vanquishing ideological foes, whether they be communists, liberals, or Islamofascists. Perhaps most controversially, Heilbrunn argues, neoconservatism is "ineluctably Jewish."...

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