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viewpoint: debate over neoconservatism
'Normal' American neocon falls foul of philosopher
Caroline Daniel

          It was a battle between the buttoned-down American and the French philosopher, his signature hint of chest hair emerging from an open shirt.
The event at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies was billed as "a discussion" about Bernard-Henri LÚvy's new book American Vertigo between the author and William Kristol, conservative icon and editor of the Weekly Standard. It became a salon, with the talk ranging from neoconservatism to religion in America to the role of the public intellectual.
Mr LÚvy, with a bouffant of greying hair, is so famous he is known in France by his initials. "BHL" started modestly enough, apologising for his poor English, but soon after took a swipe at his host, Francis Fukuyama, the US academic moderating the discussion. Referring to Mr Fukuyama's most famous work, The End of History, Mr LÚvy praised it as "a book that moved the line", before dismissing it: "I deeply disagreed at the same time with what he said."
Mr Kristol fared worse. BHL, whose book follows the path across America taken by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, described meeting Mr Kristol last year for his book: "I was really embarrassed by this meeting with Bill Kristol ... I was trying to look at the phenomenon of the neoconservatives. Why my embarrassment? ... I oscillated between two feelings. I felt very close with this man, and felt very far, even revolted."
An already tan Mr Kristol seemed to redden. Beyond the personal, however, BHL, whose talk was punctuated by alternately twirling hands and scrunched fists, offered some support for neoconservatives. "I prefer a man who makes strong mistakes because he thinks democracy has to spread," he said. Traditional conservatives, in contrast, "support tyrannies around the world".
"I prefer this man whose enemies have names like Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, and maybe Putin. I fought all my life against the idea that universalism was something for French and American people, but not for Iraqi people."
Still, he denounced Mr Kristol for swallowing the whole of President George W. Bush's social agenda -- from the death penalty to intelligent design -- as well as his foreign policy agenda.
Having come of age in the 1968 revolution in France and then rejected Marxism, BHL felt confident to lecture: "The neocons remain more involved in our old historical optimism and messianism that I thought had died with Marxism ... I thought we had got rid of historical optimism and the providential design of history. After my 'Marxist season', I got rid of the idea. History is a painstaking process."
He offered his opinion on why the Bush administration had failed to prepare for post-war Iraq. "Like a fiat, it is done ... You have all the components of a philosophical mistake, a democratic messianism."
Mr Kristol, a confident man with a confident manner, took the critique well, bar some defensive sips of water. And he scored a small revenge with one admission: "It is ... a typical American offence: I haven't read the book."
"Influence and revulsion?" he mused in response to BHL's hand-wringing. "That did remind me of my kids' attitudes to me. Maybe I am a little bit useful but a little bit appalling."
He said BHL showed too much disdain for politics (a notion for which BHL in turn voiced disdain), and disagreed over the role of intellectuals.
"I don't think I have ever claimed to be an intellectual. Bernard says an intellectual or philosopher is always elsewhere, and never commits, or is a servant of an actual regime ... You have to order something from the menu. That is the way politics is ... to govern is to choose."
He denied that the neocons indulged in undue optimism. "Never having been a Marxist, I don't think I have jettisoned Marxist optimism ... I have not become pessimistic about projects succeeding. I don't think there is anything inevitable about the spread of democracy."
Mr Fukuyama tried to forge an intellectual peace, calling Mr Kristol a "Leninist". Mr Kristol was having none of it. "We are in some bizarre land where Frank [Fukuyama] is a Marxist and I'm a Leninist? I'm just a normal moderate conservative Republican American. I'm not any of these complicated things."
By the end, the body language said more than the spoken words. BHL crossed his arms and frowned. In a brief show of warmth, Mr Kristol reached over to awkwardly grip BHL's shoulder. Yet on the phone two days later, Mr Kristol said he still did not plan to read the book. (FT Syndication Service)


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