Bill Kristol’s Last Day (But He’s Not Gone)


Neoconservativism existed before Bill Kristol, but before him none had figured out how to market the brand and go viral.
Some may argue that Kristol’s neoconservative policy work never actually did go viral, but they’d be wrong. His thinking animated much of Washington, and a rather small group of thinker/activists commandeered the helm of America’s foreign policy establishment and changed the course of the nation and American history.
It took quite a while for a counter-force of intellectuals and policy practitioners, spread across numerous think tanks, academic institutions, Congress, and even some inside the Bush administration to nudge the neoconservatives from their privileged spot.
My work has been focused on taking that helm away from him and his group of acolytes and making clear that neoconservative hubris and recklessness undermined this nation’s place in the world and have sabotaged its power.
Bill Kristol has written his last column in the New York Times today in which he marks “the end of the conservative era.”
I always find Kristol essays worth reading — whether they are promoting Sarah Palin populism or trying to make the case for yet another war. It’s good to know what one’s rivals are thinking.
Kristol ends his op-ed today with:

Sixty-seven years ago, a couple of months after Pearl Harbor, at the close of a long radio address on the difficult course of the struggle we had just entered upon, another liberal president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also told the story of Washington ordering that “The Crisis” be read aloud, and also quoted Paine. But he turned to the more famous — and more stirring — passage with which Paine begins his essay:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
That exhortation was appropriate for World War II. Today, the dangers are less stark, and the conflicts less hard. Still, there will be trying times during Obama’s presidency, and liberty will need staunch defenders.
Can Obama reshape liberalism to be, as it was under F.D.R., a fighting faith, unapologetically patriotic and strong in the defense of liberty? That would be a service to our country.

It is unfortunate that Kristol sees American power and its purpose in the world in terms of militaristic metaphors, that he still thinks that American leadership needs to be measured by its messianism, by its ability to mount a “fighting faith.”
I think we need to show a bit of compassion in world affairs, to demonstrate an ability to listen, a show of humility, and need to encourage other major power stakeholders in the global system to collaboratively and cooperatively build a better order. American resources are still enormous compared on a bilateral basis with any other nation. We could be needed again if we adopt a constructive stance in the world, one that respects other powers and peoples.
America need not be shy about constructive power, but as Brent Scowcroft recently said in a forum I participated in at the Washington National Cathedral, “the nature of power is changing, and we need to understand that.” Scowcroft and his panel partners, Zbigniew Brzezinski and David Ignatius, understand that — but Bill Kristol does not.
And those other cultures, and peoples, and nations may not want to live in an American style democracy — but nor do they want to live in a throwback caliphate ruled by bin Laden or his followers. We have so many strengths in this country that could be unleashed with a different posture, and yet Kristol and his particular branch of neoconservatives seem to be satisfied only with strident chest-thumping and the deployment of force.
And while they had the wheels of the country under their control, we saw a massive collapse of American power, prestige and moral vision.
Kristol may finally be off the New York Times op-ed page, but he’ll still be in public life, and like my friend Kurt Campbell once joked, neocons never really go away.
— Steve Clemons


11 comments on “Bill Kristol’s Last Day (But He’s Not Gone)

  1. Steve Clemons says:

    DavidT — Thanks for your note. Liberal interventionism as a field has always been problematic for me, and the Bosnia War which I supported unenthusiastically but did — is one of those on the edge of what I would consider the sort of war that America should become engaged in. I don’t like blanket categories — but there are lots of shades of gray when it comes to wars of interests. The harder ones are the cases of genocide and when humanitarian disasters are at hand. I am a believer that our deep involvement in those wars needs to be accompanied by results oriented action plans and stability deliverables. If we are going to be involved in these kinds of wars, we need to pay the costs, sell the American public on their importance, and build alliance support. We can’t do them on the cheap or we undermine America’s ability to do other things in the future.
    On the question of rolling back the neocons, you are probably right that the “poor results” of our strategy were chastening — but I do think that our work inside DC had a lot to do with changing the policy tilt that neocons achieved here for a while. So, multifaceted factors — but you are right that one group didn’t do this unaided.
    Obama’s general proclivity to “engage” (though I think he’ll need to stop leaving Hamas and Hezbollah off that list at some point to be credible in the long run) is a very strong current — but while I like it, it’s not definitive in turning the foreign policy tide. I hope his engagement strategies yield fruit. We’ll see. Talking alone is not enough to win results, but it’s a necessary piece of the play book.
    I agree with you on Rice…though few here would. There are others, like Bob Gates, who were key as well.
    Thanks for good note. Gotta run, steve


  2. DavidT says:

    First off thanks for referring above to those who have sympathy for, for example the US’s efforts in Bosnia and feel we tragically missed an important opportunity in Rwanda and hopefully won’t miss one in the Sudan as “liberal interventionists.” I am of this mind though have always been very mixed on Iraq. What’s important is to understand that some liberals were sympathetic with the Iraq venture for very different reasons than the neocons.
    I might add, as well, with the utmost respect, that the US’s conduct of the Iraq War did more to undermine the neocons than any Think Tank (as much as its pr operations might wish to argue otherwise). Its good to stand up for principles you believe in and I’m sure you played an important role but American democratic forces are more powerful than all the think tanks in our fair land put together.
    I think you also have to credit (as much as it might pain you :)) our new president. He was the only serious candidate who argued for sitting across from your adversary and trying to negotiate, one of the neocons biggest historical bugaboos (like negotiating with the Soviets through arms control which their most prominent Reagan representative, Richard Perle, stood in the way of as much as he could). Unlike you, I feel that Obama took a big risk in advocating this position, which was ridiculed by Senator Clinton, since it had the potential to make him look weak (even if from a more nuanced perspective it looks otherwise since political campaigns are not usually waged with a lot of nuance).
    Finally, and maybe this is who you mean when you mention members of the Bush Administration, Secretary Rice (and Cheney’s overreach perhaps) deserves some credit on this score (and in other places I think you’ve wisely suggested this). One of my first recollections of your blog was reading your prescient contention that one should watch if John Bolton (not really a neocon though with similar ideological views) moves up a notch at the State Department or is sent away from DC upon Secretary Rice’s ascension to being in charge at State. Your insight in this instance was most valuable in helping me understand the challenges Secretary Rice faced.


  3. Steve Clemons says:

    Bob…don’t think you targeted this one right. Very few wars I would ever approve of….I’m not a pacifist, but lately war is a sign of weakness, not of power….
    and anyone who reads this blog knows that I’m not a part of the liberal interventionist crowd.
    best, steve clemons


  4. Bob says:

    “America need not be shy about constructive power”
    You mean wars that you and yours approve of.
    Kristol is headed back into your neck of the woods — the interventionist, busy-bodying, hubristic left.
    Ain’t no change coming to America, except such that would please Lenin, Trotsky, and Mussolini.


  5. ... says:

    maybe the new york times can let go tom friedman while they are at it…
    stephen walt has a good article up that some will find informative and worthwhile reading..


  6. Bil says:

    Thanks for this Steve and Amen.
    As regards Neocons, Krystol was COFOUNDER of the hideously
    wrong wrong wrong Project for the New American Century.
    I can’t believe anybody as consistently wrong, a LEADER of WRONG,
    as Krystol got hired by anybody other than the Heritage


  7. PissedOffAmerican says:

    As one business after another fails, the banking crisis deepens, layoffs occur in alarmingly larger numbers, and our manufacturing base hits the skids, Washington insiders still say things like “American resources are still enormous compared on a bilateral basis with any other nation”.
    Why? So they can justify a consistent pattern of the United States meddling in foreign affairs, most of the time incompetently and destructively, while ignoring the accelerating decay of our own infrastructure and foundational tenets.
    It is a Washington community in total denial, inflicting each other with the contagious myth of national immortality. The country is truly in deep shit, and all these fuckers in Washington can do is point fingers at each other, and presume that if we only fix the rest of the world, our own problems will simply dissappear.


  8. michael claussen says:

    For those of us who had the pleasure (not) of trying to carry-out the policies of “messianic interventionism”, I can only barely hold back the flash-back memories of what terror and shock can do to the soul of man. That those that hold such views can avoid those experiences just perpetuates the faith of power rather than the power of faith. Faith in man, not in some god figure, I mean. Let them see the ground kick up around them, as their friends fall and scream and die. To think that a presupposed creation of democracy comes out of destruction is lunacy.


  9. Dan Kervick says:

    Of course, Kristol is probably self-consciously referring to Peter Beinart’s book here. In foreign policy, there has never been much space between Kristol’s neoconservativism and Beinart’s New Republic liberalism. Now that he sees the conservative era coming to an end, Kristol is trying to reach out to his natural allies in the “fighting faith” and “all our might” camp, to keep alive the more bi-partisan movement of aggressive, messianic interventionism.
    Was there ever any formal news on Michael McFaul? It was rumored last week that he would be appointed to the NSC position for Russian affairs. Was he appointed? McFaul is another fanatical believer in the permanent global American revolution, and penned these words in 2002:
    “The United States cannot be content with preserving the current order in the international system. Rather, the United States must become once again a revisionist power – a country that seeks to change the international system as a means of enhancing its own national security. Moreover, this mission must be offensive in nature. The United States cannot afford to wait and react to the next attack. Rather, we must seek to isolate and destroy our enemies by eliminating their regimes and safe havens. The ultimate purpose of American power is the creation of an international community of democratic states that encompasses every region of the planet.”


  10. PissedOffAmerican says:

    I am beginning to see “neo-con” as nothing more than a label, that really doesn’t describe a difference in foreign policy advocations between the our lying posturing power brokers. With Obama staffing his cabinet with hawks, continuing to turn a blind eye to Israel’s extermination policies, widening our military engagement in Pakistan and Afganistan, waffling on his Iraq promises, using AIPAC rhetoric in regards to Iran, and supporting Bush’s FISA stance, what difference does a label make? They’re all neo-monsters.


  11. Helena Cobban says:

    Steve, I hadn’t realized today was Kristol’s last till I read this. Hallelujah. (Though as you say, it is always handy to hear the uncensored thoughts of those one disagrees with.)
    I completely agree with you on this: I think we need to show a bit of compassion in world affairs, to demonstrate an ability to listen, a show of humility, and need to encourage other major power stakeholders in the global system to collaboratively and cooperatively build a better order. Well said.


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