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Where Neo-Conservatism Was Born

Nathan Abrams

Reprinted with thanks to History News Network.

The roots of much of the now-discredited policies of the Bush administration can be found in Commentary magazine over fifty years ago. Commentary was the vehicle (or ‘soapbox’ as the New York Times called it) for the conception, gestation, birth, and transformation of neoconservatism from a small movement to a philosophy at the very center of government.

Launched in 1945 by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the oldest and most conservative Jewish defense organization in the United States Commentary was designed ‘to meet the need for a journal of significant thought and opinion on Jewish affairs and contemporary issues.’

Commentary’s first editor, Elliot E. Cohen, was a Southern-born Jew who had gone to Yale and had previously edited the celebrated Menorah Journal. Under Cohen, Commentary was a general and authoritative journal of the highest quality that was lively and relevant to the basic and most pressing issues on the national and the world scene and which reached a wide, if numerically small, audience. It covered matters of both universal interest but also of specifically Jewish concern, in a non-Zionist intellectual, broad-based Reform Jewish contemporary tone.

Cohen guided Commentary from a small, unknown periodical in 1945 into a significant journal of opinion and influence that Norman Podhoretz took over in 1960. He established its main concerns and set the precedent of an intellectual and Jewish magazine that spoke to power for the first time. But Cohen only hinted at the possibilities of an influential policy magazine; it was Podhoretz who took the hint and turned it into a full-blown reality.

Uniquely for an institutionally-funded Jewish journal in the 1940s, Cohen was granted editorial freedom. Although the philosophy of the Committee was to be implicit in the magazine’s contents, it was not intended to be a house organ. Rather it was to be nonpartisan with regard to the Jewish community politics and neither factional or parochial in its approach, but broad and far-ranging.

‘With a perspicacity rare in voluntary organizations, Jewish or otherwise,’ wrote Podhoretz, ‘the AJC understood that unless the editor of the new magazine were given a free hand and protected from any pressures to conform to the Committee’s own line, the result would be a pretentious house organ and nothing more.’ And which no one would read. The AJC had no intention of ‘doing anything that would parochialize the journal,’ or limit its appeal. It never explicitly intended the magazine to function as a public relations journal, or as a forum for its philosophies.

According to Podhoretz, this editorial independence ‘consisted simply in this: no person except the editor or anyone he might voluntarily wish to consult could read articles in advance of publication or could dictate what should or should not appear in the magazine.’ It meant that the AJC concerned itself only with Commentary’s budget, but did not interfere with the contents of the magazine. The journal has been seen as an exceptional enterprise in this respect: no other organization has so generously sponsored a publication and then left it to operate independently.

Taking full advantage of their editorial independence, Commentary’s editors turned Commentary into extensions of themselves, and by doing so it became an indispensable journal, a crucible in which neocon arguments, especially on foreign policy, were annealed and honed. Commentary was the womb in which neoconservatism was conceived and gestated.

Commentary was also the intellectual teat on which neoconservatism was suckled. Its bedrock formed the basis of that movement: staunch anti-Stalinism and liberal anti-Communism, pro-Americanism, pro-New Dealism, pluralism and secularism, iconoclasm, anti-Jewish Establishmentism, and, perhaps above all, confidence, because Commentary exemplified confidence. These provided the props for the neoconservative model.

In many of the current stories about neoconservatism, Commentary has been overlooked. But the magazine has played a vital part in both neoconservatism and the molding of Bush’s agenda. It was in Commentary that the props of Bush’s neocon foreign policy were refined. Once it had become clear that Saddam and Iraq would not be permanent enemies after the first Gulf War, the magazine filled the vacated space by eagerly evoking a new category of threats: radical Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, as well as their sponsors like Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Syria.

It focused on the need to confront the new transnational enemy from the East, what Charles Krauthammer called the ‘global intifada.’ As far back as 1989, Commentary argued that the terrorist threat posed by a radical, vengeful interpretation of Islam was the most urgent and ominous security threat and called for an immediate, intensified, and global confrontation of it. It warned of the threat Islamic militant fundamentalists posed to Western values, as signaled by the Salman Rushdie affair. It pointed out that Mohammed Aidid’s successful defiance of the United States in Somalia in 1993 might be only one small taste of things to come.

And following the bombing of the World Trade Center in February of 1993, it characterized Islamic fundamentalism as the clearest present danger and ominously predicted that, the fundamentalist struggle’s systemic preaching of hatred would eventually produce violence. Even more darkly prophetic was its observation: ‘Manhattan’s own nightmare could recur…’ for the ‘World Trade Center bombing suggests, the conduct even of those fundamentalists who were once American allies and clients cannot be predicted.’

The Wilsonian ideal of making the world safe for democracy found much support and space in Commentary, which revived a Wilsonian streak long before it became currently fashionable. Both during and after the Cold War, Commentary sought to ensure that the United States continued to play the part of a world power and remain involved overseas.

It was part of a group of academics, intellectuals, and commentators who styled themselves as ‘democratic internationalists,’ who emphasized the necessity of American leadership in a newly unipolar world to create the conditions for peace and security through the defense and advance of democracy, and who were skeptical of international organizations and institutions. They saw the post-Cold War task of the United States was to defend democratic allies and resist aggression by fanatical states, promoting democratic transitions where possible, and supporting democratic consolidation elsewhere. After the first Gulf War, in particular, Commentary pushed the United States to encourage liberalization and democratization in the Middle East in order to prevent the rise of another Saddam. It called for a refashioned American crusade for world democracy in which America would be globally active.

Thus, only by looking back to the past, to the magazine that Elliot Cohen created and which Norman Podhoretz inherited can we really come to a true understanding of the development of neoconservatism and the roots of the current malaise.

Dr Nathan Abrams is Lecturer in American History at University of Wales, Bangor. He is the author of Journal of Significant Thought and Opinion: Commentary Magazine 1945-1959.

August 2007

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