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Et Tu, Kristol?

by Daniel W. Drezner

Only at TNR Online
Post date: 05.14.03

Conspiracies are all the rage in world politics these days. A majority of Arabs believe that Israel was responsible for the September 11 attacks. Antiwar activists believe that the U.S. government "created" Saddam Hussein. And, of course, there's endless innuendo surrounding the relationship between prominent neoconservatives and U.S. foreign policy. Critics across the ideological spectrum accuse neocons of being a foreign policy cabal, stealthily fomenting their own conspiracy theories as a way of manipulating the Bush administration. Or are the critics themselves guilty of conspiracy-mongering? Will the real paranoids please stand up?

Amid all this back and forth, it's both instructive and eerie to re-read Richard Hofstadter's classic essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Conservatives have never been fond of the essay, since its chief target is "the Goldwater movement." But Hofstadter was careful to note that the conspiratorial bent has infected disparate ideological movements over the course of American history. And today, though Hofstadter's description fits some aspects of neoconservative discourse, it applies with far greater force to neoconservatism's wild-eyed critics.

Hofstadter clinically observed key symptoms that were emblematic of the paranoid style:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms--he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization....

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.

No doubt, neoconservativism's Manichean worldview fits nicely with this description. Former CIA Director James Woolsey, for example, characterizes current operations in the Middle East as part of "World War IV," lumping all of America's disparate adversaries into a single enemy. Neocons also have a tendency to link together the myriad actors that oppose the United States--hence the conviction that Iraq and Al Qaeda must have been in cahoots on September 11, despite the paucity of evidence corroborating that theory. More broadly, most Americans would agree that Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, and Iran's mullahs are evil--but labeling them an "Axis" implies a degree of coordination in their activities that simply does not exist.

And yet critics of neocon foreign policy embrace the rhetoric of conspiracy with an even greater vengeance. "Cabal" has become the word of the day. For Patrick Buchanan, neocons are a "cabal of intellectuals" luring President Bush into assuming that "what's good for Israel is good for America." Britain's longest-serving MP, Tam Dalyell, believes that Tony Blair was "being unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers." The Washington Post writes that many in Europe and the Middle East believe that the neocons have "hijacked U.S. foreign policy." Prominent commentators--Eric Alterman, Michael Lind, William Pfaff--have pushed a similar meme.

Interestingly, the conspiracy seems to narrow with the passage of time. First, it was neoconservatives in general who had taken over the American foreign policy apparatus. Now it's Straussian neoconservatives. Recently, the New York Times breathlessly revealed, "The Bush administration is rife with Straussians." Seymour Hersh wrote earlier this month in The New Yorker, "The Straussian movement has many adherents in and around the Bush Administration."

But these conspiracy theories about neoconservatives suffer from multiple logical flaws. First, the ideologies involved don't mix well together. Neoconservatives are fundamentally optimistic about the future--Straussians are not. Second, as evidenced by the fact that most of the Straussians mentioned by name in the Times article do not hold official government positions, the conspiracy theories tend to vastly overestimate the influence of adherents to these ideologies. If nothing else, it's worth remembering that many of these neocons preferred John McCain to George W. Bush in the 2000 election.

The notion that such a conspiracy exists rests on the belief that the administration's foreign policy principals--Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and Bush himself--have somehow been duped by the neoconservatives into acting in a manner contrary to their beliefs. But while critics have never lacked for accusations against these officials, being weak-willed is not among them. In the end, it's far more likely that Bush is exploiting the neoconservatives' ideological arsenal to advance his preferred set of policies than vice versa.

Finally, all the conspiracy rhetoric suggests that U.S. foreign policy has been hijacked in secret, behind closed doors. Of all the charges leveled against neocons, this is the most absurd. Neocons have been so prolific in their writings that critics would have a much easier time accusing them of anti-environmentalism--for having destroyed entire forests to advance their cause.

Hoftstadter provides one telling explanation for the ever-growing number of conspiracy theories out there presuming to explain the administration's foreign policy:

Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest--perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands--are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power--and this through distorting lenses--and have no chance to observe its actual machinery. [emphasis added]

One of the tropes that commentators have hung on this administration is its tendency to dismiss criticism of its policies. The paranoid style may be the last refuge of the ignored critic.

Links to relevant documentation and further information can be found here.


Daniel W. Drezner is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Sanctions Paradox (Cambridge 1999). He writes regularly at


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