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 by 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."
Alongside his voluminous collection of columns for the Weekly Standard, Kristol is the editor of several books and the co-author, with the New Republic 's Lawrence Kaplan, of the 2003 book The War over Iraq: Saddam's Tyranny and America's Mission.
He is also the co-author, with Robert Kagan, of a 1997 Foreign Affairs article titled "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," which became an important neoconservative rallying call. The piece, which proposed a U.S. foreign policy of "benevolent global hegemony," argued that "American hegemony is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order" and that "the main threat the United States faces now and in the future is its own weakness." The piece became an ideological blueprint for the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a neoconservative letterhead group Kristol and Kagan co-founded that same year. Cementing Kristol's influence well into the Bush years, PNAC rallied neoconservatives and liberal hawks inside the Beltway in favor of the Iraq War and, later, an expansive "war on terror."
Influence on the Republican Party
Well-connected in Republican politics, Kristol appears to have had some influence in his endorsements of GOP politicians. For example, 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.
During the lead up to the 2014 U.S. midterm elections, Kristol vociferously supported Republican candidates and started charting what he saw as the best course a Republican-controlled Congress should take. At the top of his list was curtailing President Obama and pursuing a more aggressive U.S. foreign policy. "Republicans have to constrain the president, rebuild American defenses, do their best to stop a bad deal with Iran," Kristol wrote in the Weekly Standard shortly before the November election. In another piece published in October 2014, Kristol postulated that "to have even a chance for a semblance of a conservative future in the United States," the United States needed to "restore" its "military strength and morale" and deal "urgently with serious threats abroad."
One of the more prominent candidates Kristol endorsed before the midterm elections was then Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who ultimately won his race for the Senate. Cotton, a staunch hawk who spurred widespread ridicule for a letter he crafted on behalf of himself and 46 other Republican Senators to Iran's leaders in March 2015, had been a disciple of Kristol's going back to 2006, after a letter he wrote calling for the imprisonment of two New York Times journalists had caught Kristol's attention. According to The Atlantic, "Kristol saw a kindred spirit in Cotton's aggressive national-security hawkishness, and the men developed what Kristol describes as 'a bond beyond pure policy.'"
In the lead-up to the November 2014 midterm elections, Kristol published several pieces in the Weekly Standard extolling Cotton. Kristol's Emergency Committee for Israel also supported Cotton's Senate run with a million-dollar contribution in the form of supportive political advertising. Kristol has gone on after the 2014 midterm elections to promote Cotton as a potential 2016 Republican vice-presidential candidate.
In September 2015, Kristol opined that if GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump were to win the Republican presidential nomination, he would "support someone good on the ballot as a third party candidate." He said an "excellent independent ticket" could be former Vice President Dick Cheney and Cotton.
Kristol has also lauded the Republican Party's sharply hawkish "pro-Israel" turn. Kristol said in early 2015 that "Bibi [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] would probably win the Republican nomination if it were legal" and that "the conservative belief in American exceptionalism is akin to Zionism."
Kristol's efforts to influence the course of Republican Party have been widely criticized for generally backfiring. 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."
In the wake of the election, Kristol turned his sights on key Obama administration appointees. He and his allies, noted a January 2013 analysis in Politico, wasted no time in advancing "their hawkish neoconservative foreign policy by pushing the controversy that sank Susan Rice's potential nomination for secretary of state." The episode served as a prelude to the right's prolific use of the 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya as a political cudgel.
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 Kristol 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 Emergency Committee for Israel launched a "substantial" ad blitz against Hagel's candidacy, accusing the Vietnam veteran of holding anti-Semitic views and being inadequately committed to regime change in Iran. 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."
Politicosuggested 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."
Intervention and the Obama Administration
Throughout the Obama presidency, Kristol has relentlessly pushed for U.S. military intervention across the globe, though with a clear emphasis on the Middle East. He has pushed for intervention in Iran and advocated U.S. strikes against militants linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Despite the blowback from other U.S. interventions the region that Kristol and his neoconservative comrades vociferously promoted, he has dismissed such concerns with respect to more recent U.S. interventions. "Intellectuals overthink things," he said in August 2014. "We allied with Stalin in World War II and helped create the captivity of Eastern Europe, you could argue. … We got involved in Afghanistan to bring down the Soviet Union and probably helped create, indirectly, some of what came about in Afghanistan and ideas that led to 9/11. That's life. Maybe we could have been cleverer in all these cases, but often, when you mess around in the real world, you have unintended effects and some of them are bad." Seeming to forget his previous point, Kristol concluded by wondering, "What's the harm of bombing [ISIS] at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens? I don't think there's much in the way of unanticipated side effects that could be bad there. We could kill a lot of very bad guys."
Kristol endorsed a proposal by the neoconservative writer Max Boot to send 10,000 U.S. troops to Iraq to "annihilate ISIS" and accused the Obama administration of doing "nothing" to counter the threat purportedly posed by the group—a remark, many critics observed, he made some two weeks after the White House had begun launching airstrikes on ISIS positions in northern Iraq.
"'Nothing' is a curious term for Kristol to use," wrote Salon's Simon Maloy, "since the administration has spent the past two weeks dropping explosives on ISIS and assisting Kurdish militias in halting and pushing back the terrorists' advance. … You can criticize the extent of the action taken by the president, but it's not 'nothing.'"
Other key Kristol targets have been Iran and Syria, where he has promoted U.S.-led regime change. He has criticized the Obama administration for deploying force "hesitantly, defensively, and haphazardly." 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."
Reprising a role he played in the run-up to the Iraq War, in August 2013 Kristol helped convene 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 in Syria should be not simply to punish 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."
Kristol concluded that in the absence of military action by the Obama administration, it fell to Israel to launch a war with Iran. Kristol even 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 was a strong supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial March 2015 speech to Congress criticizing President Obama's diplomatic efforts to peacefully resolve the Iranian nuclear dispute. Kristol wrote just prior to the speech: "The prime minister of Israel, speaking on behalf of not only his country and millions of Jews, but on behalf of the West itself, will command the world's attention as he declares his refusal to appease the enemies of Israel and the West. Both Jabotinsky and Churchill, both Ben-Gurion and Truman, would appreciate the moment."
Kristol vociferously opposed the nuclear agreement reached between Iran and six major world powers in July 2015, calling it "a deal worse than we even imagined possible." He declared at the time that the "deal cannot stand" and that Congress should overturn it.
Kristol is also a vocal commentator on a variety of other 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 PNAC successor Foreign Policy Initiative; the Institute for the Study of War; and the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.
In the media realm, Kristol—aside from being a cofounder of the Weekly Standard—is a founding board member of the Center for American Freedom, which publishes theneoconservative Washington Free Beacon—a website described by one critic as a "down-market version" of theStandard.
One recent initiative is 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 have included the late Rachel Abrams, the wife of Iran-Contra veteran Elliott Abrams, and Gary Bauer, a well-known Christian Zionist who serves on the executive board of Christian United For Israel and leads the lobby groups American Values and Keep Israel Safe. The group has made a name for itself by running fear-mongering ad campaigns accusing President Obama of failing to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, despite the administration's progress toward a nuclear accord with Tehran and the U.S. intelligence community's longstanding assessment that Iran is not currently developing a bomb.
Perhaps Kristol's signature endeavor was the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), established in the late 1990s by Kristol, Kagan, and a passel of other prominent national security hawks to promote 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 that helped promote public and official acceptance of an aggressive "war on terror" aimed at reshaping the Middle East.
In early 2009, Kristol and Robert Kagan reconvened to cofound 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 democracy and human rights director, and Dan Senor, another cofounder of the group.
In late 2009, Kristol teamed up with Liz Cheney, the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, to create Keep America Safe, a now defunct pressure group that viciously attacked the Obama administration for attempting to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and for suspending the use of torture in the interrogation of detainees. 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. ISW's founding president is Kimberly Kagan, a military historian who is married to Frederick Kagan.
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 1993, 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 right wingers 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 and John Podhoretz cofounded the Weekly Standard, which quickly became the core publication of so-called second-generation neoconservatives, displacing the role of the Norman Podhoretz-run Commentary. "Some not insignificant number of people always assume that the Weekly Standard isn't really published in English, but in code," Kristol has said of his magazine—"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 that produced the 1994 Republican congressional election victory. Such was his stature by 2000 that the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz wrote that Kristol had "become part of Washington's circulatory system," describing him as "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 has sat on the board of advisers of Clifford May's Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Policy Advisory Board of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and served as a trustee for the Manhattan Institute, among many other affiliations. Kristol is also a frequent conservative pundit on Fox News and has written for such high-profile outlets as Time and the New York Times.