More important, treating neocons as an ideological community invites critics to treat their ideas as the product of an ideological heritage instead of as the product of hard-won, real-world experience. If they saw them as the latter, critics would set out instead to evaluate the validity of neocon ideas compared to other foreign policy proposals on offer. This should come naturally to Halper and Clarke. After all, they say neocons should be analyzed as a “political interest group,” and political science research on that subject usually highlights competition between interest groups. But Halper and Clarke focus only on neocons in isolation. This leaves them saying, with many others, that neocons took over after 9/11 because they “were ready with a detailed, plausible blueprint.” This suggests there wasn’t competition between points of view, and that neocons took over foreign policy without a fight because they were zealous and well-positioned.
This asks us to ignore the traditional realists and liberal institutionalists who were also full of advice and on the scene. As Norman Podhoretz says, it also asks us to believe “that strong-minded people like Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Rice could be fooled by a bunch of cunning subordinates.” Consequently, it precludes consideration of the crucial possibility that maybe those people adopted key neocon proposals because rival approaches did not provide credible alternatives. After the Cold War, and especially after 9/11, U.S. leaders faced two overarching national security questions: What should U.S. grand strategy be in a “unipolar” world? And how should America deal with violent Islamism and its global ambitions? “Neoconservatism” can be understood as an alternative, on these two matters, to traditional realism and liberal institutionalism. And a careful reading of the facts, as opposed to a reading of some texts, suggests that the common stereotype is a caricature of the neocons, not a useful guide to them.