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Appetite for Destruction

Neoconservatives have more in common with French

During his recent visit to England, President Bush enunciated a “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.” He pledged, “We will consistently challenge the enemies of reform and confront the allies of terror.” The speech was yet another sign that a new and hugely ambitious foreign policy, conceived by intellectuals many years ago, is being implemented.

For those who have been the most influential in shaping the Bush administration’s foreign policy, the war in Iraq was not a response to 9/11. It was a step in the execution of a long-standing plan to expand America’s role in the world, especially the Middle East. In his speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, on Nov. 6, the president referred to the invasion of Iraq as “a watershed event in the global democratic revolution” and said that America needs to give the Middle East its full attention for decades to come. He not only affirmed the mentioned strategy, but also employed the ideological language in which sweeping political reconstruction had been justified from the beginning.

Though centering at present on the Middle East, this agenda is global. It existed in broad outline even before the end of the Cold War. With the implosion of the Soviet empire, Americans who had seen a need for resisting communism broke into two camps. Many liberals and conservatives felt that a national emergency was over and that America could now afford to reduce its military and other international commitments. But some of the most ardent Cold Warriors sharply disagreed. According to them, the new historical situation presented the United States, now the only superpower, with an opportunity: America should assert its power throughout the world in behalf of democracy and capitalism. It should remove questionable regimes and other obstacles to a better world.

These Cold Warriors were mostly liberals of a special, ideologically zealous variety: many of them had come from the extreme Left. They had opposed communism because they had universalistic objectives of their own and did not want any competition. These proponents of a single model for all societies were able to form an alliance with putative conservatives, who had come to believe during the Cold War that to be conservative was always to be hawkish and assertive in foreign policy. Used to “standing up for America,” these nationalistic and saber-rattling conservatives found in the cause of a better world a new outlet for their desire to exercise American power. Oddly, this coalition to remake the world became known as neoconservatism.

According to proponents of this ideology, the United States is based on universal principles and has a higher mission than all other countries. America is unique, the hope of all humanity. It should bring its principles to the rest of the world—a belief that gave rise to an ideology of American empire. Having originated among intellectuals, the ideology reached political and journalistic maturity in the 1980s. Neoconservatives held key positions in the Reagan and Bush I administrations and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Clinton administration. In the Bush II administration, they have wholly dominated foreign policy-making.Neoconservatism draws from many intellectual sources. It has deep roots in the kind of anti-communist socialism that the late Sidney Hook represented. Its advocacy of universal principles owes much to the more conservative-appearing Leo Strauss (1899-1973) and his disciples. A refugee from Germany who taught for many years at the University of Chicago, Strauss contributed to an anti-traditional impetus by advocating an ahistorical way of thinking about political right. Only a universal standard for the good society deserves respect. Growing numbers of “Straussians,” most of them a good deal less subtle than Strauss, formed an extensive network of markedly sectarian traits that reaches far into government. They helped spread the notion that historically evolved societies and traditions should yield to what is universally right.

One of Strauss’s many doctoral students was Allan Bloom (1930-92), who also became a professor at the University of Chicago. Many celebrated his best-selling book, The Closing of the American Mind, as a defense of traditional Western values, but it was in fact a defense of Enlightenment civilization and of America insofar as it manifests that civilization. The book seemed conservative to careless readers because it defended this enlightened “American mind” against even more radical attacks on traditional Western civilization, specifically, those of the leftist campus extremism whose banner year was 1968. Conservatives grateful for any kind of intellectual defense of America read past Bloom’s sharp attacks on “reactionaries,” that is, those who were uncomfortable with Enlightenment and progressive thinking. They included Burkean conservatives and other traditional Christians and especially American Southerners, people whom Bloom called “malcontents.”

Bloom’s book actually exemplified just the anti-traditional, ideological universalism that is at the heart of the current push for American empire. Bloom wrote, for example, “When we Americans speak seriously about politics, we mean that our principles of freedom and equality and the rights based on them are rational and everywhere applicable.”

This kind of thinking bears a strong resemblance to that of the Jacobins, who inspired and led the French Revolution of 1789. Their ideology was summed up in the slogan “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” Equally universalistic and monopolistic, they demanded that other countries change their ways. Good stood against evil. Europe was thrown into protracted wars and upheaval.

The new Jacobins differ from the old in that they have appointed the United States rather than France as the savior nation, but, like the old Jacobins, they have no deep attachment to the actual, historically formed nation in which they live. That America, which is indivisible from the original U.S. Constitution, is an offshoot of ancient Western and especially English traditions. What the new Jacobins defend is America as they choose to understand it: a fresh start for humanity, an enlightened “idea” rather than a nation with a past. The America of which they approve is an instrument for enacting their cherished universally applicable principles. The new Jacobins are, as it were, nationalists without a nation.

The new Jacobins are intent on global reconstruction and rooting out “evil.” After 9/11 President Bush became their chief spokesman. Paradoxically, in his election campaign, Bush had repeatedly promised a more “humble” foreign policy and a move away from interventionism and nation building. If he had meant what he said then, 9/11 brought a metamorphosis. Neo-Jacobins who had worried that Bush might be an obstacle to their plans were delighted by the ease with which he could be converted to their cause. He adopted the neo-Jacobin rhetoric of his speechwriters with evident relish, explicitly committing America to armed world hegemony, portraying it as the savior nation: “There is a value system that cannot be compromised, and that is the values we praise. And if the values are good enough for our people, they ought to be good enough for others.”

Bush’s conversion, if indeed there was one, was no accident. Especially since the end of the Cold War, neo-Jacobin ideology had spread quickly through think tanks, magazines, newspapers, the electronic media, and the two main parties, especially the Republicans. The ideology had long been propounded by a profusion of writers and activists such as Robert Kagan, Charles Krauthammer, and William Kristol. In the president’s inner circle, it had a leading spokesman in Paul Wolfowitz. One of Wolfowitz’s old professors was Allan Bloom, with whom he had stayed in touch. Politicians and businessmen like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had been drawn into the neo-Jacobin ambit through protracted cultivation.

The new Jacobins are not content to promote and protect American and Western interests and to nurture a common ground with other countries. They have a panacea and insist that the world adopt it. Virtually all Americans recognized the necessity of an emphatic response to 9/11. The reason this atrocity did not elicit focused action against the perpetrators but became instead the justification for war against Iraq and a worldwide battle against terrorism is that neo-Jacobin intellectuals and activists had long prepared to launch such a policy. After 9/11 they could push through policies whose full implications were not obvious to their less ideological bosses. President Bush had the excuses that he confronted wholly unanticipated and unsettling circumstances and was not an intellectual and historian able fully to understand the cause that he adopted.

His recruitment to the ideology of empire and the war against Iraq were great victories for the new Jacobins. Now they are working towards the further implementation of their plans for an expanded American role in the world, especially in the Middle East. Other countries—Syria and Iran first of all—are said urgently to need “regime change.” Toppling the Saudi government is another important goal. Some neo-Jacobins want the U.S. to develop “small” nuclear weapons for use against entrenched terrorists and guerrilas and their buried weapons. Some seriously advocate a World War IV against the Muslim world before it has had a chance to build up its power.

Discouraging reports from Iraq are reinforcing the old American reluctance to commit military power abroad. When the American public becomes more fully aware of the ambitious, messianic strategy behind U.S. foreign policy they may come to realize that this design is a recipe for perpetual war and chronic domestic insecurity. They may also recall an older American sense of limits and humility and realize that only great conceit could inspire a dream of armed world hegemony.

The ideology of benevolent American empire and global democracy dresses up a voracious appetite for power. It signifies the ascent to power of a new kind of American, one profoundly at odds with that older type who aspired to modesty and self-restraint. That former personality was inseparable from, indeed, the creator of, the notion of limited, decentralized government. Traditional, constitutionalist America derived its moral and political assumptions from the classical, Christian, and British traditions.

For Christians as for the Greeks, pride is the most dangerous human weakness as it threatens to unleash the desire for power and invites nemesis. The push for American empire is contemporaneous with a gargantuan accumulation and centralization of federal power and a precipitous erosion of traditional American checks on power. This should surprise no one. Those who assume that they know better than all others consider themselves entitled to power. As if by sheer coincidence, their every new declaration of human need, in America or the world, places more power in their hands and undermines the ability of others to shape their own lives.

The notion of benevolent American empire is made to order for individuals of great pride who desire great power. In recent memory, the only ideology to have provided a better justification for unchecked power was communism, whose assertion of a need completely to remake the world supported giving unlimited authority to leaders who knew what to do.America is witnessing nothing less than an inversion of its traditional self-undertstanding and sense of priorities.


Claes G. Ryn is Professor of Politics at Catholic University and Chairman of the National Humanities Institute. He is the author of America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire.