The term “neo-conservative” is a very odd term: on its surface, you would think that the term means an updating of conservativism as a political/philosophical tradition. But then you’d be wrong.
For the current neo-conservative moment looks almost nothing like conservatism as it has been known in the history of ideas. Conservatism, as a philosophical tradition, dates back all the way to Aristotle, but “classical” conservatism can traces its origin to Edmund Burke, which lays it all out most famously in Reflections on the Revolution in France.
This kind of conservatism emphasizes continuity with tradition and history, conformity with natural laws, and pragmatism. The failure to adhere to these things, according to Burke, is the reason why the French Revolution produces chaos and terror. It is one of Burke’s main points that the French Revolution completely cut itself off from tradition and history: instead of adjusting tradition to modernity, the French revolutionaries completely abandoned it, thus removing an anchor that stabilizes society, thus producing chaos.
The same kind of criticism can be applied to Iraq: in trying to export democracy, American-style, the neo-con movement has failed to deal with the existing facts: namely, that Iraq, a country divided along religious lines, would lapse into chaos once a stabilizing force (in this case Saddam’s regime). Instead, the neo-cons had a fantasy of spreading democracy in the Middle-East while ignoring the region’s history, trying to instill something which does not take into account existing situations.
This is why neo-cons are not true conservatives. Their foreign policy is completely ideological and overly moralized; it is impractical, unrealistic, and uncompromising. It is not moderate, nor deliberate, but full of macho and high rhetoric. All of these things are anti-thetical to true conservatism in the Burkean and Aristotlean vein.