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They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neoconsby Jacob Heilbrunn
"Despite its shapelessness and its lack of a real thesis, They Knew They Were Right does have something to contribute. Heilbrunn...knows where the ideas are buried, unlike most journalists who have tried tackling this subject....He has...talked at length to the people who really matter — not just the public faces of the Bush administration's foreign policy....He has a good feel for the mercurial neocon mood....Since Heilbrunn is something of an insider with his own neoconservative past, his book will help outsiders understand the intellectual background to the Washington madness of the past five years." Mark Lilla, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
Synopses & Reviews
The neocons have become at once the most feared and reviled intellectual movement in American history. Critics on left and right describe them as a tight-knit cabal that ensnared the Bush administration in an unwinnable foreign war.
Who are the neoconservatives? How did an obscure band of policy intellectuals, left for dead in the 1990s, suddenly rise to influence the Bush administration and revolutionize American foreign policy?
Jacob Heilbrunn wittily and pungently depicts the government officials, pundits, and think-tank denizens who make up this controversial movement, bringing them to life against a background rich in historical detail and political insight. Setting the movement in the larger context of the decades-long battle between liberals and conservatives, first over communism, now over the war on terrorism, he shows that they have always been intellectual mavericks, with a fiery prophetic temperament (and a rhetoric to match) that sets them apart from both liberals and traditional conservatives.
Neoconservatism grew out of a split in the 1930s between Stalinists and followers of Trotsky. These obscure ideological battles between warring Marxist factions were transported to the larger canvas of the Cold War, as over time the neocons moved steadily to the right, abandoning the Democratic party after 1972 when it shunned intervention abroad, and completing their journey in 1980 when they embraced Ronald Reagan and the Republican party. There they supplied the ideological glue that held the Reagan coalition together, combining the agenda of “family values” with a crusading foreign policy.
Out of favor with the first President Bush, and reduced to gadflies in the Clinton years, they suddenly found themselves in George W. Bushs administration in a position of unprecendented influence. For the first time in their long history, they had their hands on the levers of power. Prompted by 9/11, they used that power to advance what they believed to be Americas strategic interest in spreading democracy throughout the Arab world.
Their critics charge that the neo-conservatives were doing the bidding of the Israeli government — a charge that the neoconservatives rightfully reject. But Heilbrunn shows that the story of the neocons is inseparable from the great historical drama of Jewish assimilation. Decisively shaped by the immigrant exerience and the trauma of the Holocaust, they rose from the margins of political life to become an insurgent counter-establishment that challenged the old WASP foreign policy elite.
Far from being chastened by the Iraq debacle, the neocons continue to guide foreign policy. They are advisors to each of the major GOP presidential candidates. Repeatedly declared dead in the past, like Old Testament prophets they thrive on adversity. This book shows where they came from — and why they remain a potent and permanent force in American politics.
"News of neoconservatism's demise has been greatly exaggerated, according to prolific journalist Heilbrunn, who profiles the largely (though by no means exclusively) Jewish makeup of the movement. Heilbrunn roots his interpretation of neoconservatism's Jewish character in the American immigrant experience, the persistent memory of the Holocaust and Western appeasement of Hitler, among other phenomena. Charting the movement's philosophy from its inception through the foreign policy vision crafted in the 1970s and the culture wars of the 1980s and '90s, Heilbrunn employs a quasi-biblical spin echoed in Old Testament-inspired chapter headings. With the exception of his grasp of neoconservatism's right-wing Christian contingent, Heilbrunn displays an innate understanding of the movement. He argues persuasively that though these self-styled prophets embrace an outsider stance, and though he believes they are happiest when viewed as the opposition, they will remain a formidable influence for the foreseeable future. Heilbrunn's analysis lacks rigor concerning foreign policy assumptions and ideological and economic motives, thus unintentionally leaving his subjects more historically isolated than they really are. His proximity to the conservative movement brings benefits and limitations to this historical analysis." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"There was always something a little strange about the neo-conservatives, beginning with the oxymoron of their name. The term 'neocon' entered the zeitgeist in the months leading up to the Iraq war, when it became clear that a clique of sorts existed, united around the reverse domino principle that democracies would sprout like jimson weeds in the Middle East once Saddam Hussein was toppled. Intriguingly,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) many of these new rightists were the children of old leftists, and a winding pedigree could be traced to unlikely starting points — the classroom of Leo Strauss, the mid-century political philosopher at the University of Chicago who trained Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the invasion of Iraq; or even further back in the mists of time, the fantastically loud alcoves of the cafeteria at the City College of New York, where in the 1930s a passionate and incessant debate embroiled young immigrant children, mostly Jewish, over Trotskyism, Leninism and everything in between. Helpfully, Jacob Heilbrunn has penetrated these thickets to explain how these obscure intellectual movements (not always united) ascended to power under the second President Bush and then suffered a fall nearly as unexpected as their rise. Difficult to place even in their own time, the neocons now seem even more out of date, discredited in the Middle East and at home. In a sense they have come full circle, and are back in the exile they originated in. As Heilbrunn suggests, that may be where they most truly belong. 'They Knew They Were Right' will fit nicely on the rapidly expanding shelf explaining Iraq. Heilbrunn candidly admits that he is not the first writer to probe the neocons (James Mann, Francis Fukuyama and Sidney Blumenthal, among others, preceded him), but he spends more time than most on the group's deep history. It is a wise choice, for the formative period remains poorly understood. Like an archaeologist probing Easter Island, Heilbrunn explains what the giant heads once stood for, bringing back obscure names like Max Shachtman, Melvin Lasky and Albert Wohlstetter, and explaining their impact on such intellectuals as Irving Kristol, Irving Howe and their contemporaries, who in the 1940s were just beginning their long swim against the mainstream of American political opinion. In a way, it is a political tale — for, amazingly, these leftists snuck into power by finding their way into the right, after a long pilgrimage (Heilbrunn uses the biblical term 'exodus') that brought them from 1950s anticommunism to Scoop Jackson centrism to their 'redemption' under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (but pointedly not under George H.W. Bush, who called them the 'crazies in the basement'). It is also a religious narrative, as 'exodus' and 'redemption' suggest, for Heilbrunn shows the intrinsic connection of Judaism to nearly every stage of this journey, and an attachment to Israel that at times bordered on the obsessive. And it is nothing if not an old-fashioned American story, for what could be more familiar than poor immigrants making good, sons trying to impress fathers and a cabal torn by internal disputes, infidelities and a take-no-prisoners attitude that often backfired? With a little tweaking, and better hairdos, it could easily be an Aaron Spelling vehicle. Heilbrunn is well-placed to tell this story, as a former writer for the National Review, the magazine that sustained conservatism in its long wilderness years, and someone who drank the Kool-Aid when the neocons were up and coming. He still relishes the ancient arguments of the clique, paying Talmudic reverence to obscure essays from the early days of Commentary and the Partisan Review. Not all readers will share his zeal for this now distant past, but his research is thorough and his judgments fair. To his credit, he finds plenty of fault with the neocons, and his book is sprinkled liberally (is there any other word?) with criticisms of their failings and internal contradictions, including his belief that Iraq is the 'greatest foreign policy disaster since Vietnam.' He shows what an odd mentor Leo Strauss must have been, counting the numbers in Machiavelli's writings to see if secret meanings lurked there. And he reminds us that the neocons were as clueless as the rest of the Bush administration about the imminence of the 9/11 attack (the cover story of the National Review that week was an essay by David Brooks probing the cultural significance of 'Gilligan's Island'). Tellingly, he suggests that the older neocons, who decades later developed a cultish admiration for Winston Churchill as the embodiment of anti-totalitarian resistance, were invisible when it mattered, during World War II, a period they squandered writing irrelevant essays about political theory. At other times, Heilbrunn seems defensive, as if a trace of the virus remains in his bloodstream. He oddly suggests that the United States should have overthrown Egyptian president Gamal Nasser in 1956 to let democracy bloom, an act that would have been illegal and insane. He is very severe on Democratic foreign policy, targeting George McGovern (who inflicted more harm on Nazis than any neocons did), ridiculing Jimmy Carter and launching the usual tired attacks on Bill Clinton, whom he finds both too slow (to combat terrorism) and too eager (to conduct humanitarian interventions). He excoriates Madeleine Albright for daring to express the 'hubristic belief' that the United States is indispensable to the rest of the world. More hubristic than the neocons? Heilbrunn tries acrobatically to defend Reagan's Iran-Contra mess, and Elliott Abrams in particular, while denouncing the specific crime (withholding information from Congress) that Abrams was convicted of, and he argues that El Salvador became a 'thriving democracy' as a result of Reagan's policy, a lofty claim. These neocon thought bubbles can be disorienting inside a book that is generally critical of the movement. A quirky ending imagines George W. Bush looking back with satisfaction on world events in 2016, suggesting that history may ultimately redeem the neocons, which seems unlikely at best, and possibly delusional. But when historians gather to render that judgment, this mostly even-handed book will deepen the context of a very strange time. Ted Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, was a foreign policy speechwriter for President Clinton. His next book, 'Ark of the Liberties: America and the World,' will be out in July." Reviewed by Ted Widmer, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
Heilbrunn presents a sympathetic yet honest portrait of the men who make up the inner circle of neoconservatism today, bringing them to life against a background rich in historical detail and political insight.
About the Author
JACOB HEILBRUNN is a frequent columnist for the Los Angeles Times and has written for a wide variety of publications, including The New Republic and The Weekly Standard. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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