Remember communitarianism?  It was one of those embarrassing fads of the 1990’s, like Furbies, Beanie Babies, and the “Third Way,” a socio-moral movement that was meant to signify all things warm and cuddly.  As articulated in his 1993 book, The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda (1993), and in two sequels, communitarian guru Amitai Etzioni sought to solve the problem of “atomization” and individualism supposedly run rampant by embracing such large, nebulous bromides as “community,” “responsibility,” and “dialogue,” cloaking an essentially neoconservative critique of modern society in the therapeutic jargon of the era.

Bill Clinton left a copy of Etzioni’s book conspicuously on display at his White House office, and Hillary Clinton cited Etzioni in It Takes A Village.  Etzioni fondly recalls that, at a New Year’s Eve party, President Clinton confided, “You are my inspiration”—although for what, he did not say.

That was hardly Etzioni’s first visit to the corridors of power.  He was a senior advisor to President Jimmy Carter, and he is often credited with helping shape the determinedly centrist policy prescriptions of the Democratic Leadership Council.  In the 1990’s, his various attempts to make an impact as a “public intellectual” culminated in the birth of the communitarian movement, whose doctrines are fuzzy but whose purpose is clear.  As Richard Boynton put it in a review of Etzioni’s memoir, My Brother’s Keeper, the guru of communitarianism  has “spent much of his energy . . . trying to whisper in the ear—any ear!—of those in power.”

His purpose, aside from having access to power for its own sake, is hard to discern as we cut through the thickets of touchy-feely verbiage that describe communitarian doctrine.  One big surprise, however, is that a movement that sounds like one of those California cults devoted to the healing power of Cosmic Love also holds a hard-line pro-war, pro-interventionist position that might be described as New Age Militarism.

Etzioni was one of 59 prominent and would-be prominent writers and intellectuals who signed a declaration supporting the Iraq war, and he describes his travails while on an international speaking tour to promote the war.  All those ungrateful Germans did not seem to understand the sheer beneficence of the undertaking.  Etzioni was shocked—shocked!—to hear Prof. Ekkehart Krippendorff from the Free University, “a well known, left-leaning professor,” argue “that it is wrong in principle for intellectuals to support a government.  ‘They should be critical; you never know what a government will do with its power.’”  And those Frenchmen!  Why, the ungrateful cads, they had better shut up about Iraq because, as Etzioni relates:

At this point I lost it.  I allowed that they could afford to be de facto pacifists, as long as we were the bullies, on call to save them.  Who kept West Berlin free?  Our airlift.  Who stopped Hitler?  The Dutch?  The French?  Who stopped the military expansion of communism in Europe?

The answer to this last question might be another: Who handed half of Europe to Joe Stalin (without which the Berlin airlift would not have been necessary)?  What Leo Strauss called the argumentum ad Hitlerum only underscores the paucity of the communitarian case for launching a preemptive strike against a nation that had never attacked us and posed no threat to the continental United States.

Etzioni was in the vanguard of the War Party in December, 2001, when he argued that Iran was even more dangerous than Iraq.  The Iranian people are eager to be “liberated,” but “we can’t wait” until they liberate themselves, as Iran is working on missiles and nuclear-weapons technology.  Which country this threatens—the United States or Israel—he has never specifically said, but Etzioni’s main worry is that Iran is inciting Hezbollah to attack Israel via Lebanon.  Therefore, the United States must invade Iran: It’s the “communitarian” thing to do.  A few weeks after September 11, Etzioni had come up with the communitarian solution to terrorism: “The way to greatly [sic] curtail international terrorism is to do for more countries what we did for Japan after 1945: impose freedom.”  This is yet another great principle of the communitarian creed that gets lost in all the fluffy rhetoric about “unity,” “diversity,” and “responsiveness.”

There is also, says Etzioni, far too much talk about our “rights,” which must be largely sacrificed if we are to survive in the post-September 11 world.  On the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Etzioni wrote a scaremongering piece for USA Today claiming that it is just a matter of time before another massive terrorist attack occurs and that we must not be “complacent.”  The danger, he averred in National Review, could be avoided if we would only institute a national identity card: Sure, “many Americans have long had a strong visceral reaction against required I.D. cards, which they associate with ‘domestic passports’ used in the Soviet Union,” but they will get over it.  Etzioni calls them “safety cards,” in true fuzzy-wuzzy communitarian fashion.

On the subject of Israel, the com-muni-tarian position is that she can do no wrong: The “wall of separation” being constructed by the regime of Ariel Sharon, abhorred by the world—and even the U.S. government—is just fine with Etzioni.  Oh, and it is a “fence,” according to Etzioni, and not a wall—one of the finer points of communitarian linguistics.

This partisanship is hardly surprising, coming from someone who quit school at age 18 to fight in a commando unit of the Haganah.  His first book, A Diary of a Commando Soldier, was a best-seller.  The 21-year-old Etzioni was launched on an intellectual odyssey that would take him from the angular militance of his radical Zionist youth to the soft, rounded edges of a communitarian middle age: Inside the latter, however, the steely hardness of the former is detectable, like a saber wrapped in silk.  Etzioni’s creepier pronouncements all have a similar authoritarian style: He wants you to spy on your neighbors (to make sure they are not committing evil acts) and to shun anyone who swims against the current.  Although I am sure he would not approve of stoning someone to death, Etzioni’s ideal society would be, in spirit, the nightmare world projected in Shirley Jackson’s classic short story “The Lottery.”

In terms of public policy, the com-munitarian ideology is nebulous enough to take on whatever shape its current host gives it.  The Clintonians and the Blairites made use of Etzioni, but now it seems he is going where the real money—and, more importantly, the real power—is: the big neoconservative foundations.  George Washington University hosts his Center for Communitarian Policy Studies as well as a Department of Communitarian Studies, where Ronald Radosh, the neoconservative historian and pro-war polemicist, holds court.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars from the John M. Olin Foundation and other neocon big-money outfits have been poured into Etzioni’s attempt to marry the moral premises of socialist humanism with the neocon agenda of decreased liberties and perpetual war.  In 1999, Etzioni received $215,414 from the Smith-Richardson Foundation to do communitarian outreach in Hollywood; the previous year, he had garnered $45,426 for seminars lecturing the media on how to be more “responsible.”

Etzioni’s incorporation into the neocon Borg is clear enough when it comes to foreign policy: The wishy-washy rhetoric, the palaver about “dialogue” and “diversity within unity” is thrown overboard, and Etzioni bares his teeth.  In an op-ed piece for USA Today, shortly after September 11, he not only supported launching a new cold war against the entire Arab world but opined that we ought not to pretend that Islam is not the enemy: In the communitarian view, it is a danger on a par with the threat formerly posed by communism.  “The problems [sic] with the new antiterrorist agenda is not that it is too grand, but that it is not grand enough.”

Whether the unctuous exhortations of communitarianism and the beatific bromides of “compassionate conservatism” make for a good match depends, one supposes, on the vagaries of fortune.  Etzioni has spent years following one political leader after another, with mixed results: In aligning himself with the neocons, maybe this time he will hit it big.