William Kristol is a key public figure in U.S. neoconservatism, appearing frequently as a political pundit on news networks, working as editor of the Weekly Standard—the flagship neoconservative print publication—and advising a host of pressure groups aimed at promoting a hawkish, "pro-Israel" U.S. foreign policy. He is the son of the late Irving Kristol, considered to be one of the earliest neoconservatives, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, a conservative scholar known for her work on Victorian-era social mores.
From his various media and pressure group perches, Kristol has helped shape the public conversation on a host of foreign and domestic issues, promoting hawkish political candidates, launching advertising blitzes, and prodding the Republican Party to embrace a militaristic foreign policy agenda. "For a generation, stretching back to the 1980s," reported Politico in mid-2012, "Kristol has used his influence to goad Republicans to be bolder and more ambitious—and riskier, for themselves, the Republican Party, and the nation—in their decisions. This extends beyond political calculation to policy. In 2003, Kristol was at the forefront of the lobbying effort for the Iraq war, which—however history judges it—cost far more in blood and treasure than he and his fellow neoconservatives had anticipated."
Michael Goldfarb, a longtime Kristol acolyte, told Politico: "Bill is different than a George Will, who writes about what it means to be conservative, or a Charles Krauthammer, who lays out the coherent conservative criticism of the Obama administration. Bill writes about what ought to be done and then he follows it up with meetings and phone calls. … He really tries to make things happen."
Intervention and the Obama Administration
Key targets in Kristol's recent campaigns and writings have included Iran and Syria—where he promotes U.S.-led regime change—and the Obama administration, which he criticizes for its apparent reluctance to start new wars and antagonize world powers. Pointing to what he called"al Qaeda's resurgence in Iraq, our withdrawal from Afghanistan, our fecklessness with respect to Syria, Libya, and elsewhere," Kristol concluded in August 2013 that "Al Qaeda's not on the run. We are."
Similarly, in February 2014, Kristol argued that President Obama needed to take stronger steps to counter purported Russian aggression towards Ukraine in the wake of that country's political upheaval as well as Russia's support for the Assad regime in Syria. Responding to Obama's comment that Ukraine and Syria are not some pieces on a "Cold War chessboard," Kristol said in an interview on ABC's "This Week," "So, look; it's nice for President Obama to say it's not a Cold War chessboard. I don't know why he says that with some disdain. That was not an ignoble thing for us to play on that chessboard for 45 years. We ended up winning that Cold War."He added, "And I do think Putin thinks he's playing chess. He thinks he's playing even a rougher game than chess and we have to be able to match it."
Reprising a role he played in the run-up to the Iraq War, Kristol helped convene in mid-2013 a number of prominent neoconservatives—including Elliott Abrams, Max Boot, Eliot Cohen, Thomas Donnelly, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Robert Kagan, Joe Lieberman, and Dan Senor, among others—and a handful of liberal hawks to sign an open letter calling for the Obama administration to intervene in Syria's civil war. "At a minimum," the letter read, "the United States, along with willing allies and partners, should use standoff weapons and airpower to target the Syrian dictatorship's military units that were involved in the recent large-scale use of chemical weapons. It should also provide vetted moderate elements of Syria's armed opposition with the military support required to identify and strike regime units armed with chemical weapons."
In his own writings, Kristol has claimed that the goal of any intervention should be not simply to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons, but to topple him. "Whatever the president and the secretary of state may now say about the mission in Syria being 'limited' and 'narrow,'" Kristol wrote, "one trusts they know the mission will only be a success if Assad goes. Regime change is not only Assad's just reward. It's also the best hope for a modicum of stability in and near Syria. And it's the only message other WMD-loving dictators will understand."
Kristol has also maintained a steady drumbeat in favor of war with Iran, despite a favorable diplomatic climate following the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned on reaching a diplomatic accord with the West. Invoking the favored neoconservative comparison between Iran and Nazi Germany, Kristol wrote in September 2013 that "the accommodation of the Islamic Republic of Iran's quest for nuclear weapons lies ahead as surely as the accommodation of Nazi Germany's expansionist dreams. Moreover, Rouhani knows what he is doing. He was Iran's top nuclear negotiator for two critical years a decade ago and proved then his skill at duplicity in the furtherance of his regime's nuclear ambitions."
Kristol concluded that in the absence of action by the Obama administration, it fell to Israel to launch a war with Iran—and christened the hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the "leader of the West" for his confrontational stance toward the Islamic Republic. "Ariel Sharon once famously said that Israel would not play the role of Czechoslovakia in the 1930s," wrote Kristol, continuing the World War II analogy. "Nor will it play the role of Poland. Despite imprecations from the Obama administration, Israel will act. One prays it will not be too late. It is a strange course of events, heavy with historical irony, that has made the prime minister of Israel for now the leader of the West. But irony is better than tragedy."
Kristol has also remained a vocal commentator on a variety of Republican concerns. He has spoken out against comprehensive immigration reform, called Obamacare worse than Watergate, dismissed rising reports of sexual assault in the U.S. military as a "pseudo-crisis," and defended the broadly unpopular GOP shutdown of the federal government in the fall of 2013 by dismissively suggesting that "no one no one is going to starve" and that it's "not the end of the world."
A key tool used by Kristol in advancing his agenda are the numerous advocacy groups he has created and supported during the last two decades, most of which have been dedicated to promoting militarist, "pro-Israel" U.S. foreign policies. Among the groups are the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which Kristol cofounded with another neocon scion, Robert Kagan; the Liz Cheney-led Keep America Safe; the Foreign Policy Initiative; the Institute for the Study of War; and the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.
Kristol has most recently been associated with the founding of the Emergency Committee for Israel, a Washington-based advocacy group established in mid-2010 that claims "to provide citizens with the facts they need to be sure that their public officials are supporting a strong U.S.-Israel relationship." Alongside Kristol, ECI board members include Rachel Abrams, the wife of Iran-Contra veteran Elliott Abrams, and Gary Bauer, a well-known Christian Zionist who leads the lobby groups American Values and Keep Israel Safe and serves on the executive board of John Hagee's Christians United for Israel. Noah Pollack, a contributor to Commentary and former assistant editor at the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center, served as the group's executive director.
Perhaps Kristol's signature endeavor was the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), established in the late 1990s by a passel of prominent neoconservatives and hardline nationalists promoting a "Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity." During the lead-up to the Iraq War, PNAC was one of several so-called letterhead groups led by neoconservatives—others included the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, for which Kristol served on the advisory board, and Americans for Victory over Terrorism—that helped promote public and official acceptance of an aggressive "war on terror" aimed at reshaping the Middle East.
In early 2009, he and Robert Kagan cofounded the Foreign Policy Initiative, which many observers regarded as a more anodyne-sounding successor to PNAC. Like PNAC, the group is devoted to maintaining a U.S. military engagement abroad. And also like PNAC, hardliners are well represented in the group. Staff members have included Ellen Bork, a former PNAC director who was tapped to serve as FPI's director of the democracy and human rights program, and Dan Senor, who is an FPI cofounder.
In late 2009, Kristol teamed up with Liz Cheney, the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, to create Keep America Safe, which operates like a standard neoconservative pressure group — working to build public support for militarist foreign policies and attacking "liberals" through TV adds and issue campaigns. Initial board members and staff included Cheney, Kristol, Michael Goldfarb, and Debra Burlingame, the widow of one of the pilots who died on 9/11.
Kristol has also served on the board of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that advocates long-term U.S. military intervention abroad, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Liz Cheney has also served on the board, as well as Jack Keane, a retired four-star general who coauthored "Choosing Victory"—a 2007 study that served as a blueprint for the so-called surge in Iraq—and Dennis Showalter, a highly regarded military historian. ISW's founding president is Kimberly Kagan, a military historian who is married to Frederick Kagan.
2012 Election and Aftermath
Kristol enthusiastically encouraged Mitt Romney to tap Paul Ryan as his 2012 vice presidential running mate—reprising a role he played in 2008, when Kristol's advocacy helped put the previously little-known Sarah Palin on John McCain's 2008 ticket. "While Kristol's support may not have directly influenced Romney's decision," reported Politico, "his support for Ryan intensified the buzz surrounding the 42-year-old congressman and brought excitement over the possibility a Romney-Ryan ticket to a fever-pitch."
Kristol's efforts to influence the course of Republican Party politics, however, came under scrutiny in the wake of Romney's loss in the 2012 election. Wrote Jacob Heilbrunn at the National Interest, "A good case could be made that the author, in many ways, of the GOP's problems is William Kristol. Kristol saddled John McCain with Sarah Palin. He's the biggest backer of Paul Ryan, a Washington creature, who is being talked up as a potential presidential candidate in 2016—when was the last time a Congressman won the presidency? And Kristol, of course, has dominated foreign policy debate in the GOP by ceaselessly purveying neocon malarkey about American militarism abroad, but Romney's bluster about a new American century went nowhere. Had Romney shunned the neocon bluster and campaigned as a Massachusetts moderate, he would have posed a much greater threat to Obama than he did."
For his part, Kristol appeared to search for common ground with Democrats in the wake of the election, going so far as to ridicule a key Republican talking point on taxes. A few days after the election, he said on Fox News: "It won't kill the country if we raise taxes a little bit on millionaires." As one commentator noted, however: "The truth is that neocons have never been economic conservatives. Instead, they have favored lavishing money on military programs and financing warfare to implement their imperial strategy of imposing political change by force. The budget has never been a high priority."
According to a January 2013 analysis in Politico, Kristol's overture on taxes was one component of a larger strategy aimed at resetting the direction of the party in the wake of Romney's defeat in the 2012 election. Amid a low-level House GOP revolt against Speaker John Boehner and a high-profile meltdown in the Tea Party group FreedomWorks, Politico noted that "Kristol was among the first conservatives to break with GOP orthodoxy on raising taxes, and he and his allies advanced their hawkish neoconservative foreign policy by pushing the controversy that sank Susan Rice's potential nomination for secretary of state."
Shortly after the Susan Rice fight, Kristol helped lead neoconservative opposition to the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE)—a foreign policy realist whom Kristol has characterized as "very weak on Iran" and "a bitter opponent of Israel"—to replace Leon Panetta at the helm of the Pentagon. As buzz about Hagel grew, Kristol's advocacy outfit the Emergency Committee for Israel launched a "substantial" ad blitz against his candidacy, accusing the Vietnam veteran of holding anti-Semitic views and being inadequately committed to regime change in Iran. Noting Kristol's role in the effort, Slate political blogger Dave Weigel described the entire "anti-Hagelverse" as "a relatively small group of D.C. conservatives and hawks … connected to Bill Kristol."
Politico suggested that the Hagel fight portended a more ambitious effort by Kristol and his allies to influence the post-Romney Republican Party, including launching a potential foray into domestic issues. "Kristol and his allies," wrote Kenneth Vogel, "have been talking about starting a 'reformist' organization to recraft Republican fiscal policies and champion a rising generation of Republicans, such as Kristol favorites Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. The hypothetical group, modeled on the defunct Democratic Leadership Council, would join an expanding network of media platforms and nimble nonprofits for Kristol and mark an ambitious expansion into domestic policy."
At the New York Times
Kristol worked briefly as an op-ed writer for the New York Times. Added to the Times's roster of columnists in December 2007, Kristol penned his final column in late January 2009, concluding a turbulent tenure. His final column began, "All good things must come to an end. Jan. 20, 2009, marked the end of a conservative era." It concluded, "[T]here will be trying times during [Barack] Obama's presidency, and liberty will need staunch defenders. Can Obama reshape liberalism to be, as it was under F.D.R., a fighting faith, unapologetically patriotic and strong in the defense of liberty? That would be a service to our country." A note at the end of the column unceremoniously stated, "This is William Kristol's last column."
The decision by theTimes to hire Kristol sparked a wave of consternation from liberal readers of the newspaper. As media reporter Charles Kaiser wrote: "Many Times readers consider Kristol a third-rate neocon apparatchik, a stark symbol of the steep decline of the Washington culture—and arguably the most consistently mean-spirited and wrong-headed pundit of our time…. Hence the outrage of that diminishing number of people who still think of the Times as the indispensable engine of American journalism." Kaiser also highlighted the relationship between Kristol and Andrew Rosenthal, the Times editorial page editor: "Kristols and Rosenthals go back a long way together. Bill's father, Irving, and Andy's father, Abe—both charter neocons—were good friends, and Irving Kristol was a proud member of the 'Rosenthal for President' lunch club. ... And when Andy Rosenthal covered the Bush I White House with Maureen Dowd, Bill Kristol—then vice president Dan Quayle's chief of staff—was a source for both Times reporters."
During Kristol's stint with the Times, his columns were heavily scrutinized by media observers and bloggers, who often found fault with his work. Kristol's sometimes sloppy writing didn't help his cause. His very first column, for example, misattributed a comment made by conservative talk show host Michael Medved to ultra-conservative blogger Michelle Malkin.
Kristol began his political activities early. At the age of 12, he served as an aide on the City Council election campaign of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the future Democratic U.S. senator from New York whose writings on social issues were frequently published by William's father Irving, but whose relationship to neoconservatism soured by the late 1980s. (In his 1993 book Pandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics, Moynihan wrote of the neocons: "They wished for a military posture approaching mobilization; they would create or invent whatever crises were required to bring this about.")
In 1968, while he was in high school, Kristol volunteered to work on the campaign of Hubert Humphrey. Four years later, in 1972, Kristol helped organize the Harvard-Radcliffe Students for Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the hawkish Democrat from Washington and fierce supporter of Israel around whom many neoconservatives organized in the early 1970s in a last-ditch effort to turn the Democratic Party away from the more dovish politics of the McGovernites. When Jackson's presidential ambitions were spurned by Democrats, the neoconservative shift to the Republican Party began in earnest.
During Ronald Reagan's presidency, Kristol worked on the staff of then-Secretary of Education William Bennett, a firebrand social conservative who went on to found a number of rightist letterhead groups, including Empower America and Americans for Victory over Terrorism. Kristol also ran the unsuccessful 1988 Maryland Senate campaign of Alan Keyes, a conservative Republican and former graduate school roommate of Kristol who was part of a team of rightists hired by Paul Wolfowitz to serve in the first Reagan administration's State Department policy planning staff. During the administration of George H.W. Bush, Kristol was chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, earning the moniker "Quayle's Brain."
By the 1990s, Kristol had become a staple in the Washington political scene. With support from Rupert Murdoch, he cofounded with John Podhoretz the Weekly Standard, which quickly became the core publication of so-called second-generation neoconservatives, displacing the role of the Norman Podhoretz-run Commentary. Kristol has explained his magazine thusly: "Some not insignificant number of people always assume that the Weekly Standard isn't really published in English, but in code—that its contents are designed to advance a surreptitious political agenda. The Weekly Standard is a conservative magazine, of course. We make no bones about it. And ours tends toward a particular kind of conservatism; our pages are its home, we like to think."
Prior to co-founding PNAC in 1997, Kristol was involved in forming the Project for the Republican Future, an organization that was credited with helping shape the strategy produced the 1994 Republican congressional election victory. Such was his stature by 2000 that the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz described Kristol as having "become part of Washington's circulatory system, this half-pol, half-pundit, full-throated advocate with the nice-guy image" who was "wired to nearly all the Republican presidential candidates."
Kristol's many affiliations illustrate just how tightly woven he is in the fabric of neoconservatism. Alongside the numerous groups he has founded, he is a member of the board of advisors for Clifford May's Foundation for Defense of Democracies, sits on the Policy Advisory Board of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and serves as a trustee for the Manhattan Institute, among other projects. Kristol is also a frequent conservative pundit on Fox News and wrote regularly for Time magazine until he began his stint with the New York Times.
Kristol is coauthor, with the New Republic 's Lawrence Kaplan, of the 2003 book The War over Iraq: Saddam's Tyranny and America's Mission, in which the authors state that the "wisdom of regime change, the merits of promoting democracy, the desirability of American power and influence—these issues extend well beyond Iraq. So we dare to hope that this work will prove useful even after Baghdad is finally free." He also co-edited, with American Enterprise Institute president Christopher DeMuth in 2000, a volume of neocon love letters to his father, The Neoconservative Imagination: Essays in Honor of Irving Kristol.
In 1997, Kristol coauthored, with Robert Kagan, a notable Foreign Affairs article titled "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," which served as a precursor to the formation of PNAC and laid out the ideas for a new neoconservative agenda for the post-Cold War period. What should the U.S. role be, they asked rhetorically? Their answer: A "Benevolent global hegemony. Having defeated the 'evil empire,' the United States enjoys strategic and ideological predominance. The first objective of U.S. foreign policy should be to preserve and enhance that predominance by strengthening America's security, supporting its friends, advancing its interests, and standing up for its principles around the world." As for potential enemies, the article suggested that the United States would need to devise an "overall strategy for containing, influencing, and ultimately seeking to change the regime in Beijing."
In the meantime, however, they argued that the main enemy was internal. Invoking past efforts to rally the U.S. populace to accept a leading U.S. role in international affairs, the authors argued that "it is time once again to challenge an indifferent America and a confused American conservatism." They added: "In a world in which peace and American security depend on American power and the will to use it, the main threat the United States faces now and in the future is its own weakness. American hegemony is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order. The appropriate goal of American foreign policy, therefore, is to preserve that hegemony as far into the future as possible."