Joshua Muravchik, a leading proponent of interventionist U.S. foreign policies, has played an important role in shaping neoconservative ideology and agendas, including pushing for war with Iran. An erstwhile Socialist Party activist, Muravchik has been affiliated with numerous political pressure groups, right-wing think tanks, and organizations associated with the "Israel lobby" in the United States.
Muravchik has been a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a trustee at Freedom House, a board member of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), a promoter of Project for the New American Century (PNAC) advocacy campaigns, and an adjunct scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs (WINEP). Since 2009, Muravchik has been a fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at John Hopkins University, a Washington, D.C.-based graduate school that has served as home base for numerous figures associated with neoconservatism, including Paul Wolfowitz, Eliot Cohen, and Thomas Donnelly.
Muravchik has been unabashed in his one-sided support of Israel. During the 2014 conflict in Gaza, he lashed out at Human Rights Watch for highlighting Israeli human rights abuses during the conflict. Writing for the Weekly Standard, he criticized the group for purportedly waging "a relentless campaign against the Jewish state" and endorsing the "Palestinian 'right of return.'" He argued that any endorsement of the idea that Palestinian refugees have a right to return to their homes is equivalent to endorsing "a formula for abolishing Israel as a Jewish state." He added, "To endorse it is implicitly to endorse the destruction of Israel."
In 2014, Muravchik published Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel, which according to the book's Amazon.com description purports to explain why "Israel has become perhaps the most reviled country in the world." In an interview with theWashington Post's Jennifer Rubin, Muravchik argued that Israel's reputation was due to the "old Leftist paradigm of class struggle" becoming "superseded by national/ethnic struggle." He added: "Instead of workers against capitalists it became 'the rest against the West.' Through that lens, Israel is inherently on the wrong side of progress—and of 'progressives.'"
In a separate interview about his book, Muravchik lamented what he saw as biased coverage of Israel in the U.S. media. "The coverage is biased, especially in theNew York Times, which once was fair and balanced but today filters the whole world through a leftish lens."
In a May 2015 interview, Muravchik stated that global criticism of Israel is due to Israelis being "white" and Palestinians "people of color." He opined: "After World War II ethnic, racial, or national struggles became dominant, growing out of anti-colonial movements. People of color against the white man, a great redemptive struggle, and in the Arab-Israel conflict the Israelis are the Western, white guys and the Arabs/Palestinians are the anti-colonial people of color. The people who used to be down are now fighting to be up and that's what's important. You're on their side regardless of how many bombs they put in pizza parlors."
Muravhcik has advocated U.S. military intervention abroad on numerous occasions, including supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq and promoting the bombing of Iran. In a 2006 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Muravchik opened with the line, "WE MUST bomb Iran." In November 2011, Muravchik wrote in an op-ed for USA Today that sanctions had failed to halt Iran's nuclear program and that military options must be pursued. "President Obama has pursued diplomacy doggedly to no effect," wrote Muravchik. "Regime change would be the best solution, but Iran's Green Movement seems quiescent while time ticks down, leaving only the military option. Of course, force should always be a last resort, but perfect certainty that nothing else will work only comes when it's too late."
Muravchik was staunchly opposed to the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations and argued for imposing additional sanctions on Iran while the diplomatic efforts were on-going. In January 2014, he signed a letter published by the William Kristol-founded Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) that suggested additional sanctions on Iran could help the negotiations succeed, despite the fact that many experts, the Obama White House, and the rest of the P5+1 believed that adopting additional sanctions would have scuttled talks. One journalist commented that the FPI letter "implicitly endorses" a bill that had been floated in Congress by hawkish Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) that would impose new Iran sanctions.
After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a controversial speech to Congress in March 2015 criticizing the Obama White House's diplomacy with Iran, Muravchik argued that war was the only way forward. In a Washington Post op-ed titled "War with Iran is probably our best option," Muravchik posited that Netanyahu's "alternative" to the P5+1 current strategy with Iran was unworkable. "The logical flaw in the indictment of a looming 'very bad' nuclear deal with Iran that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered before Congress this month was his claim that we could secure a 'good deal' by calling Iran's bluff and imposing tougher sanctions," he wrote. "Sanctions could succeed if they caused the regime to fall. Does this mean that our only option is war? Yes, although an air campaign targeting Iran's nuclear infrastructure would entail less need for boots on the ground than the war Obama is waging against the Islamic State, which poses far smaller a threat than Iran does." Ha added: "Wouldn't destroying much of Iran's nuclear infrastructure merely delay its progress? Perhaps, but we can strike as often as necessary."
Daniel Larison of The American Conservative issued a rebuke of Muravchik's argument: "On the one hand, he pretends that starting a war against Iran will be less risky than the relatively small air campaign against ISIS, but wants us to believe that Iran is a much greater threat than ISIS. It doesn't make sense for both of those claims to be true at the same time." Larison added: "Whenever anyone concludes that war is the 'only option,' we can safely assume that this was his preference all along and his conclusion should be viewed with extreme skepticism. The U.S. can easily live with a limited Iranian nuclear program, and the best remaining way to get that is for the P5+1 and Iran to conclude an agreement. Muravchik's 'alternative' is appalling and unnecessary, and should be derided as such."
After a comprehensive nuclear deal was reached between Iran and the P5+1 in July 2015, Muravchik seemingly back-tracked from his March 2015 call for war with Iran and criticized President Obama for saying congressional rejection of the deal would lead to "some form of war." He opined in an August 2015 op-ed for the Weekly Standard: "But it is Obama's deal itself that is more likely to lead to such a regrettable outcome." He also said that Obama: "mocks his critics as warmongers, but it is his ill-conceived policy that is most likely to get us into a war."
Bush Presidency and Aftermath
Muravchik used his perch at the American Enterprise Institute to advocate attacking Iraq in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and has since been a proponent of the "war on terror." During the years following 9/11, he was signatory to multiple open letters that were produced by the Project for the New American Century and called on political officials to support a string of newly created "pro-war" pressure groups.
Muravchik also lent his support to the 2002 creation of the Coalition for Democracy in Iran, a group spearheaded by Michael Ledeen and Morris Amitay that has advocated for regime change in Iran; he became an advisory board member of the now-defunct Committee for the Liberation of Iraq; he joined a plank of other neocons in forming a revived version of the Cold War Committee on the Present Danger; and he served as an "international patron" of the Cambridge, England-based Henry Jackson Society, a neoconservative-inspired organization that claims to promote a "forward strategy" aimed at assisting democratization across the globe.
Despite the deteriorating situation in Iraq and the gradual following out favor of neoconservative advisers and views by the end of President George W. Bush's first term, Muravchik secured an appointment during the second Bush administration to the State Department's Advisory Committee on Democracy along with like-minded ideologues Vin Weber and Carl Gershman of the National Endowment for Democracy, Lorne Craner of the International Republican Institute, and Clifford May of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The committee—which was created in 2006 "to advise the Secretary of State and the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development on the consideration of issues related to democracy promotion in the formulation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy and foreign assistance"—received unfavorable media attention in April 2007 after the press was forced out of one of its meetings.
Reported the Washington Post: "About a third of the way through the meeting, and not long after Undersecretary Paula Dobriansky boasted to the television cameras that 'our entire session today is open to the public' and attended by the press, State Department officials ordered reporters to leave. 'This is the way they wanted it to happen, and this is the way it's going to be,' explained department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos. … The spokesman declined to say who 'they' were. 'You got a problem?' Gallegos challenged. 'Write a letter.'"
In late 2006, Muravchik attempted to rally neoconservatives behind a reinvigorated agenda, which he spelled out in a November 2006 Foreign Policy article stylized as a memo to "My Fellow Neoconservatives." In the article, Muravchik lamented the tarnished reputation of neoconservatives after the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, and tried to revive the spirits of his ideological colleagues, many of whom he said had attempted to distance themselves from the "neoconservative" label. "Where is the joie de combat?" pleaded Muravchik. "The essential tenets of neoconservatism—belief that world peace is indivisible, that ideas are powerful, that freedom and democracy are universally valid, and that evil exists and must be confronted—are as valid today as when we first began. That is why we must continue to fight. But we need to sharpen our game."
In outlining a new approach, Muravchik listed a number of mistakes neoconservatives had made, notably not including the group's efforts to drive the United States into an ill-advised war in Iraq. Instead, according to Muravchik, neoconservatives are guilty "of poorly explaining neoconservatism"; of being "glib about how Iraqis would greet liberation"; of supporting "the revolution in military strategy that our neocon hero, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, has championed" and which "has left our armed forces short on troops and resources"; of failing to foresee the "difficulties in "democratizing the Middle East," where elections had seen the emergence of radical Islamists; and of insufficiently influencing Bush's disastrous public diplomacy efforts, since after all "no group other than neocons is likely to figure out how to do that."
Muravchik's suggestions for the future were unsurprising; Neoconservatives "need to pave the way intellectually now and be prepared to defend the action" when Bush bombs Iran's nuclear facilities, which—"make no mistake"—he will have to do "before leaving office."
Arguing that "twice in the last quarter-century we had the good fortune to see presidents [Reagan and Bush the younger] elected who were sympathetic to our understanding of the world," Muravchik implored his comrades to begin preparing for the 2008 presidential campaign, promoting "Sen. John McCain [or] former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani," both of whom "look like the kind of leaders who could prosecute the war on terror vigorously." He added: "As for vice presidential candidates, how about Condoleezza Rice or even Joe Lieberman?"
During the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, Muravchik championed the candidacy of Senator McCain. Discussing his support for the senator, Muravchik told a debate audience at the Nixon Center in September 2008, "If McCain is president, there will be an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities."
Commenting on the talk, journalist Jim Lobe wrote: "I would have to take Muravchik's prediction seriously given his longtime perch at AEI, McCain's favorite foreign-policy think tank, and his long association with some of McCain's closest advisers, including Robert Kagan.… Of course, bombing Iran has been a devout and explicit wish on Muravchik's part for nearly two years if not more, so this may be an example of wishful thinking, but I can't help but believe his associations give him some real insight on this question."
In December 2008, Jacob Heilbrunn of the National Interest reported that Muravchik, who had been at AEI for more than two decades, was forced out of the think tank by a faction more favorable to the traditional realist wing of the Republican Party, including Danielle Pletka, a former staffer of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC). Heilbrunn reported that several neoconservatives he had spoken to viewed Muravchik's departure, as well as the then-recent resignations of two other high profile neocons at AEI (Michael Ledeen and Reuel Marc Gerecht), as part of "purge" at the think tank.
Wrote Heilbrunn: "Muravchik has never been as unbridled in his writings as some other neocons. To put it another way, he does nuance. As the Soviet Union was collapsing, for example, he wrote an article stating that perhaps Mikhail Gorbachev was a Menshevik even as other neocons such as Norman Podhoretz condemned Gorbachev. Muravchik's main mission has been to forward the democracy crusade. … I myself do not agree with his current endorsement of bombing Iran, but a recent piece in World Affairs, in which he gave a guarded endorsement to President Bush's foreign policy, underscored that he is not simply a cheerleader for the administration."
Impact on Neoconservatism
Muravchik has been a key player in the neoconservative advocacy world since the mid-1970s, when he served as the director of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, a hardline Democratic Party pressure group led by, among others, Penn Kemble and Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-WA), that aimed to curb the influence anti-war elements within the party in the wake of the Vietnam War.
Muravchik, like many neoconservatives, shifted to the Republican Party after being largely ignored by his Democratic colleagues. In the early 1980s, Muravchik and a group of like-minded hawkish foreign policy elites tried to build on the momentum of Ronald Reagan's presidential election victory by forming the Committee for the Free World, a group led by Midge Decter (married to Commentary editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz) and Donald Rumsfeld. The group was devoted to promoting freedom "in the world of ideas" and opposing the influence of those in and outside the United States "who have made themselves the enemies of the democratic order."
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Muravchik played an important role trying to adapt neoconservative ideas to the rapidly evolving international situation. Muravchik endeavored to craft a new interventionist mission for the United States as the Soviet Union crumbled, an event that wreaked havoc on the neoconservative anticommunist and anti-détente consensus that had been in place since before the election of Reagan.
As scholar John Ehrman put it, "The neoconservatives' view of the world assumed a stable, malevolent Soviet Union that was immune from drastic change." With the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and the ensuing warming relations between the two superpowers, neoconservatives experienced a sharp decline in their influence in the Reagan administration and a rupture within their own ranks.
The neoconservatives entered "a period of increasing confusion," writes Ehrman, which was characterized by "an intellectual failure." Lacking a clear enemy, some neoconservatives, like Irving Kristol, began reconsidering whether the United States needed to undertake an aggressive role in global affairs, while others sought to find renewed justification for continued military mobilization—some by attempting to rehabilitate the Soviet threat, others by envisioning new threats and missions for the United States.
Among the second group were people, including MuravchikandWashington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who championed a new mission, one aimed at capitalizing on the U.S. position as lone superpower to aggressively promote democracy and American values as a replacement for militant anticommunism. In his seminal 1990 Foreign Affairs article, "The Unipolar Moment," Krauthammer wrote that if "America wants stability, it will have to create it." The alternative to "such a robust and difficult interventionism," he argued, "is chaos." For his part, Muravchik argued that if "communism soon completes its demise, U.S. foreign policy still should make the promotion of democracy its main objective."
For many first-generation neoconservatives like Irving Kristol, these ideas represented "a dangerous manifestation of Wilsonianism," as the conservative scholars Stephen Halper and Jonathan Clarke characterized the dissent in their 2004 book America Alone. Instead, Kristol advocated a new realism based on the prevailing circumstances in the international system. Arguing that there was no longer any "balance of power for us to worry about," efforts at "monitoring and maintaining a balance of power among other nations, large and small, in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere, would make the United States the world's policeman." "We are simply not going to be that kind of imperial power," he concluded.
Likewise, Robert Tucker, a longtime contributor to neoconservative journals, warned against undertaking a new mission to impose freedom, promoting instead "a framework of stability and moderation within which democratic institutions may take root and grow." Presciently, however, although he opposed these new trends in neoconservative discourse, Kristol recognized that they would appeal "not only to liberals but to many conservatives who are ideologically adrift in the post-Cold War era." In the late 1990s, neoconservative-led groups like PNAC successfully began to exploit the appeal of their democracy rhetoric to enlist various factions, including many liberal internationalists and Christian Right leaders, behind their appeals for a more interventionist U.S. foreign policy. These neocon-led coalitions proved invaluable as neoconservatives began to push for war in Iraq after 9/11.
For Muravchik and other neoconservative hardliners, people like Kristol had ceased being neoconservatives by the end of the 1980s. Instead, they were, according to Muravchik, conservative neo-realists or "right isolationists." Around the ideas promoted by Muravchik and Krauthammer a new era of neoconservatism began to emerge, one spearheaded by what conservative scholars Stephen Halper and Jonathan Clarke called a "Young Turk faction," which grew to include the offspring of many of the earliest neoconservatives, including William Kristol (son of Irving), Robert Kagan (son of Donald), John Podhoretz (son of Norman), and Daniel Pipes (son of Richard).
Among this faction's early agenda items were: 1) aggressively advance democracy across the globe as the "touchtone of a new ideological American foreign policy," as Krauthammer phrased it in his 1989 article "Universal Dominion: Toward a Unipolar World," which appeared in the Irving Kristol-founded National Interest; and 2) in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, promote the idea that rogue states equipped with nuclear weapons were America's new enemies—or, as Krauthammer defined them in "The Unipolar Moment:" "small aggressive states armed with weapons of mass destruction and possessing the means to deliver them." Such states, argued Krauthammer, "will constitute the greatest single threat to world security for the rest of our lives."