Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke’s America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order thus arrives at an opportune moment. It offers the most comprehensive critique to date of neoconservatism from writers who are themselves traditional conservatives. Halper served in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations, while Clarke, a former British diplomat, is a member of the Cato Institute. They trace the origins of neoconservatism to the 1960s, its links to the Reagan administration, and the rise of a new, younger generation led by William Kristol and Robert Kagan. They do a brilliant job of detailing and analyzing the shadow defense establishment, based in organizations like the Project for a New American Century and the American Enterprise Institute. Based on solid research and deftly written, their book provides a rousing, if ultimately unconvincing, case for a return to realist tenets.

Halper and Clarke offer a sturdy recapitulation of the by-now familiar story of how the formerly liberal New York intellectuals turned right in the late 1960s. Whether that story is altogether accurate is another matter. The truth is that beginning with their Trotskyite phase in the late 1930s, Irving Kristol and others were already hostile to liberalism, viewing Franklin Roosevelt as an imperialist. Kristol, for instance, denounced World War II in 1943. It’s hard to see much distinction between his blast at liberalism as the enemy in some of his earliest efforts and in The National Interest in the years following the end of the cold war.

But from the late 1940s on, such intellectuals as Kristol and Lionel Trilling did experience a reconciliation with America, as a Time magazine cover story put it. The collapse of Nazism and Stalin’s takeover of Eastern Europe made it impossible for any but the most ardent leftists not to acknowledge that the United States was a force for freedom. Kristol and others were also taken aback by the economic prowess of the United States during the postwar economic boom. The turgid disquisitions that they had been reading by Trotsky and others about the imminent fall of capitalism soon seemed dated indeed. The United States was to be celebrated, not disparaged. This new era of contentment prompted the socialist to bemoan in Partisan Review a “new age of conformity.”

But it was not until the 1960s that the first generation of neocons really emerged as a coherent group of thinkers. Affirmative action, detente with the Soviet Union, and Arab attacks on Israel at the United Nations led what Frances FitzGerald denounced in Harper‘s in 1976 as the rise of the “warrior intellectuals,” starting with Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Norman Podhoretz. Moynihan abandoned the neoconservatives, but others kept up the fight even past the days when the Soviet Union constituted a real threat to the United States.

Halper and Clarke draw a sharp distinction between the first and second generations of neoconservatives. The first generation was quite a heterogenous lot, ranging from sociologists Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset to historians Gertrude Himmelfarb and Donald Kagan. “Generally speaking,” the authors write, “the older neo-conservatives were not a force in the Republican Party … Even though the majority of older neoconservatives twice voted for Reagan and a number worked for him, most had avoided becoming Republicans.” Not so with the second generation. Halper and Clarke point to William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas J. Feith, David Brooks, John Podhoretz, and Robert Kagan as neoconservatives who have jumped into the political fray, either as journalists or administration officials, and sometimes both. They argue that by the 1990s, “the younger neo-conservatives had filled a space left by the increasing inability [of] older neo-conservative views to provide a sufficient interpretive framework for the changing realities of international events in the 1990s.” Halper and Clarke’s most important point is that Kristol and others had replaced the Soviet threat with a broad idea of “American global leadership,” not in the form of multilateralism, as the Clinton administration had worked for, but with the United States as numero uno, acting unilaterally whenever and wherever it saw fit. The authors unsparingly portray the younger generation as impetuous and naive.

To forward their vision of American empire, Halper and Clarke argue that the neocons have twisted and distorted the true Reagan legacy. The authors adduce powerful evidence that Reagan would not have approved of a war on terror, conducted on Bush’s endorsement of preemptive warfare. But that notion is bunk. They want to show, in other words, that Bush has strayed from the wisdom of the great man. Consistent with their attempt to portray the neocons as defiling the conservative temple, they cite a number of denunciations in the mid-1980s by Norman Podhoretz, among others, of Reagan’s insufficient zeal in attack of the Soviet empire. But might not many of these utterances about Reagan have simply been maximalist rhetoric aimed at keeping him to a hard line?

Halper and Clarke strive to fashion a realist Reagan, cautious about employing force abroad and careful to work with allies. “The neoconservative assertion of a line of descent from Reagan’s foreign policy,” they write, “is far-fetched.” Well, maybe. But the Reagan they construct is as much a caricature as the one they accuse the neocons of retrospectively creating. Reagan financed an enormous buildup of the military and hardly shrank from turning Nicaragua into a front and center issue in U.S. foreign policy debates. His legacy is more mixed than they would care to acknowledge.

What’s more, Halper and Clarke would like to depict Reagan as someone who was no champion of exporting democracy, arguing instead that the neoconservatives are more like the human rights obsessed Clintonites. In their words, the neoconservative “obsession with firepower had more in common with Madeleine Albright’s approach to the Balkans.” Reagan, they maintain, would have had no truck with nonsensical policies like trying to stop the Serbs from slaughtering the Bosnians.

Indeed, to prove that Reagan was wary of democratization, the authors appropriately comment that he once described “the need to recognize the electoral defeat of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos as ‘inevitable but not enjoyable.’” But pushing for Marcos’s ouster was not only a triumph for Secretary of State George Shultz and his assistant secretary Elliot Abrams, both of whom argued against the notion espoused by Jeane Kirkpatrick that it was a bad thing to topple friendly authoritarian regimes; it also marked a change in Reagan’s approach to the evil empire. Once Shultz gained the upper hand, it was possible for Reagan to deal with Mikhail Gorbachev not as a foe but as a possible partner.

Reagan, as Garry Wills notes in the new introduction to his book, Reagan’s America, was not a traditional conservative. He was a radical. As Wills puts it, “Older-style conservatives were not comfortable with Reagan’s fondness for a citation from the radical Tom Paine: ‘We have it in our power to start the world over.’” Sound familiar? That’s precisely the type of rhetoric that neocons were espousing on the eve of the war against Iraq. The tie between Reagan and the neoconservatives is much closer than Halper and Clark can bring themselves to admit, forcing them to fantasize a Reagan who supposedly believed what they believe. Fortunately, he didn’t. Had Reagan followed traditional realist precepts, he would have viewed Gorbachev as an adversary, which is what the realists in the first Bush administration, such as Brent Scowcroft, did. They initially saw Gorbachev as a sneakier version of previous Soviet leaders. Then they embraced him because they didn’t want the Soviet empire to collapse for fear that it would result in instability.

Halper and Clark score telling points in recounting the neoconservative saga. But to argue, as they do, for a complicit silence over human rights and to dismiss any role for the United Nations is no solution to today’s foreign policy ills. They may have diagnosed some profound ailments, but their version of realism isn’t all that realistic.

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Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.