Abusing and Misusing The ‘Neo-Con’ Label

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Perhaps seeking to contrast himself with the rest of the 2012 Republican crowd, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour recently said the U.S. should consider reducing forces in Afghanistan.

Noting that Barbour is the lone voice among likely GOP candidates making this argument, Politico’s Ben Smith and Byron Tau argue that neo-cons are “winning the fight for the direction of the [Republican] party.”  (As far as I know, Barbour did not use the term neo-con).

The term “neo-con” originally was used to describe former Democrats (often Jewish intellectuals — but not always) who were, as Irving Kristol put it, “mugged by reality”.

Over time, the meaning has evolved — so much so that apparently the modern definition includes anyone who isn’t an isolationist.  Today, neo-con is essentially shorthand for “quixotic warmonger.”  (That Pawlenty, Romney, Gingrich — and the rest of the GOP field — are all essentially being labeled neo-cons speaks to the bastardization of the term.)

Putting aside whether or not Governor Barbour’s position on Afghanistan is correct or not, I can’t help thinking the label is now just a cudgel, casually employed by people who don’t know the original definition of the word — or are merely looking for a cheap way to discredit their adversaries.  (And for journalists, the term is simply a good shorthand — which makes its overuse all the more common).

Unfortunately, anyone who disagrees with a given instance of military intervention can dismiss their intellectual adversaries by simply labeling them with the term.  This, of course, dispatches with the messy work of actually debating the merits of intervention on an ad hoc basis (I would argue that sometimes intervention is good and sometimes it is bad).

Ronald Reagan bombed Libya and supported “Freedom Fighters”.  Was he a neo-con?

Matt K. Lewis