The article appeared in 2004, so some of the references might already sound dated, but it still sheds light on many overlooked aspects of neoconservative ideology (yes, it exists) and American imperialism. I recall Niccolo and a few others frequently expressing befuddlement at the reckless mentality of American foreign policy. I think he might want to take a good look at this.
In 2000 I spent the better part of a late summer interviewing William F. Buckley and Irving Kristol. I was writing an article on the defections to the Left of several younger right-wing intellectuals and wanted to hear what the movement's founding fathers thought of their wayward sons. Over the course of our conversations, however, it became clear that Buckley and Kristol were less interested in these ex-conservatives than they were in the sorry state of the conservative movement and the uncertain fate of the United States as a global imperial power.
The end of communism and the triumph of the free market, they suggested, were mixed blessings. Although these developments were victories for the conservative movement, they had rendered the United States ill-equipped for the post–Cold War era. Americans now possessed the most powerful empire in history. At the same time, they were possessed by one of the most anti-political ideologies in history: the free market. According to its aggressive idealists, the free market is a harmonious order, promising an international civil society of voluntary exchange, requiring little more from the state than the occasional enforcement of laws and contracts. For Buckley and Kristol, this was too bloodless a notion upon which to found a national order, much less a global empire. It did not provide the gravitas and élan that the exercise of American power required at home and abroad. It promoted self-interest over the national interest, not the most promising base from which to launch an empire. What's more, the right-wingers in charge of the Republican Party didn't seem to realize this.
"The trouble with the emphasis in conservatism on the market," Buckley told me, "is that it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it's so repetitious. It's like sex." Conservatism, Kristol complained, "is so influenced by business culture and by business modes of thinking that it lacks any political imagination, which has always been, I have to say, a property of the Left." Kristol confessed to a deep yearning for an American empire: "What's the point of being the greatest, most powerful nation in the world and not having an imperial role? It's unheard of in human history. The most powerful nation always had an imperial role." But, he continued, previous empires were not "capitalist democracies with a strong emphasis on economic growth and economic prosperity." Because of its commitment to the free market, the United States lacked the fortitude and vision to wield imperial power. " It's too bad," Kristol lamented. "I think it would be natural for the United States . . . to play a far more dominant role in world affairs. Not what we're doing now but to command and to give orders as to what is to be done. People need that. There are many parts of the world—Africa in particular—where an authority willing to use troops can make a very good difference, a healthy difference." But with public discussion dominated by accountants—"there's the Republican Party tying itself into knots. Over what? Prescriptions for elderly people? Who gives a damn? I think it's disgusting that . . . presidential politics of the most important country in the world should revolve around prescriptions for elderly people. Future historians will find this very hard to believe. It's not Athens. It's not Rome. It's not anything." Kristol thought it unlikely that the United States would take its rightful place as the successor to empires past.
Since 9/11 I've had many opportunities to recall these conversations. September 11, we have been told, has restored to America's woozy civic culture a sense of depth and seriousness, of things "larger than ourselves." It has forced Americans to look beyond their borders, to understand at last the dangers that confront a world power. It has given the United States a coherent national purpose and a focus for imperial rule. A country that seemed for a time unwilling to face up to its international responsibilities is now prepared once again to bear any burden, pay any price, for freedom. This changed attitude, the argument goes, is good for the world. It presses the United States to create a stable and just international order. It is also good, spiritually, for the United States. It forces us to think about something more than peace and prosperity, reminding us that freedom is a fighting faith rather than a cushy perch.
Like any historical moment, today's imperial political culture has multiple dimensions. It is the product, in part, of a surprise attack on civilians, an increasing need for security, and the political economy of oil. But while these factors play a considerable role in determining U.S. policy, they do not explain entirely the politics and ideology of the imperial moment itself. To understand that dimension, we must examine the impact on American conservatives of the end of the Cold War—of the failure of communism and the ascendancy of the free market. For neoconservatives, who had thrilled to the crusade against communism, all that was left of Ronald Reagan's legacy after the Cold War was a sunny entrepreneurialism and market joie de vivre, which found a welcome home in Bill Clinton's America. While neocons are not opposed to capitalism, they do not believe it is the highest achievement of civilization. Like their predecessors—from Edmund Burke to T.S. Eliot, Samuel Coleridge to Martin Heidegger, Henry Adams to Michael Oakeshott—today's conservatives prize mystery and vitality and are uncomfortable with rationalism and technology. Such romantic sensibilities are uneasy about the market but friendly to politics, particularly at moments when politics is consumed with questions of war. It is only natural, then, that the neocons, enthralled by the epic grandeur of Rome, the ethos of the pagan warrior rather than the comfortable bourgeois, would take up the call of empire with a vengeance, seeking to create a world that is about something more than money and markets.
But this envisioned imperium may not resolve the challenges confronting the United States. Already the American empire is coming up against daunting obstacles in the Middle East and Central Asia, suggesting how elusive the reigning idea of the new imperialists—that the United States can govern events and make history—truly is. Domestically, the renewal that many hoped 9/11 would produce is proving difficult to achieve, the victim of a free-market ideology that shows no sign of abating. While it is still too soon to make any definitive assessment, there are already many signs that 9/11 will not—and perhaps cannot—bring about the transformation that the neocons have long desired.
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Immediately following 9/11, intellectuals, politicians, and pundits—not those of the radical Left, as is often claimed, but mainstream liberals and conservatives—seized upon the terrorist strikes as a deliverance from the miasma Buckley and Kristol had been criticizing. The World Trade Center was still on fire and the bodies entombed there still being recovered when Frank Rich announced in The New York Times that "this week's nightmare, it's now clear, has awakened us from a frivolous if not decadent decadelong dream." What was that dream? The dream of prosperity, of surmounting life's obstacles with money. During the 1990s, David Brooks wrote in Newsweek, we "renovated our kitchens, refurbished our home entertainment systems, invested in patio furniture, Jacuzzis and gas grills." This ethos had terrible domestic consequences. It encouraged "self-indulgent behaviour," wrote Francis Fukuyama in The Financial Times, and a "preoccupation with one's own petty affairs." It also had international repercussions. According to the Bush administration official Lewis Libby, the cult of peace and prosperity found its purest expression in Bill Clinton's weak and distracted foreign policy, which made "it easier for someone like Osama bin Laden to rise up and say credibly, ‘The Americans don't have the stomach to defend themselves. They won't take casualties to defend their interests. They are morally weak.'"
But after that day in September, the domestic scene was transformed. America was now "more mobilized, more conscious and therefore more alive," wrote Andrew Sullivan in The New York Times Magazine. As a result, wrote Brooks in The Weekly Standard, "commercial life seems less important than public life. . . . When life or death fighting is going on, it's hard to think of Bill Gates or Jack Welch as particularly heroic." Writers repeatedly welcomed the galvanizing moral electricity now coursing through the body politic, restoring trust in government, a culture of patriotism and connection, a new bipartisan consensus, the end of irony and the culture wars. According to a reporter at USA Today, President Bush was especially keen on the promise of 9/11, offering himself and his generation as exhibit A in the project of domestic renewal: "Bush has told advisors that he believes confronting the enemy is a chance for him and his fellow baby boomers to refocus their lives and prove they have the same kind of valor and commitment their fathers showed in WWII."
Internationally, 9/11 forced the United States to reengage with the world, to assume the burden of empire without embarrassment or confusion. Whereas George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton had fumbled in the dark, the mission of the United States was now clear: to defend civilization against barbarism, freedom against terror. As Condoleezza Rice told The New Yorker, "I think the difficulty has passed in defining a role. I think September 11th was one of those great earthquakes that clarify and sharpen. Events are in much sharper relief." An America thought to be lulled by the charms of the market was now recalled to a consciousness of a world beyond its borders and was willing to sustain casualties on behalf of a U.S.-led global order. As Joseph Nye, a top Clinton defense aide and subsequent dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, concluded, "Americans are unlikely to slip back into the complacency that marked the first decade after the Cold War."
To understand why so many have embraced the political opportunities allegedly created by 9/11, we must return to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when American elites first realized that the United States could no longer define its mission in terms of the Soviet Union. While the end of the Cold War unleashed a wave of triumphalism, it also provoked among American elites an anxious uncertainty about U.S. foreign policy. How should the United States now define its role in the world, many asked. When should it intervene in foreign conflicts? How big a military should it field? Underlying these questions was a deep uneasiness about the size and purpose of American power. The United States seemed to be suffering from a surfeit of power, which made it difficult for elites to formulate any coherent principles for its use. As Richard Cheney, the first President Bush's secretary of defense, acknowledged in February 1992, "We've gained so much strategic depth that the threats to our security, now relatively distant, are harder to define." Almost a decade later, the United States would still seem, to its leaders, a floundering giant. As Condoleezza Rice noted during the 2000 presidential campaign, "The United States has found it exceedingly difficult to define its ‘national interest' in the absence of Soviet power." So uncertain about the national interest did political elites become that Nye would eventually throw up his hands in defeat, declaring the national interest to be whatever "citizens, after proper deliberation, say it is"—an abdication simply unthinkable during the Cold War reign of the Wise Men.
When Clinton assumed office, he and his advisers took stock of this unparalleled situation—in which the United States possessed so much power that it faced, in the words of Anthony Lake, Clinton's national security adviser, no "credible near-term threat to [its] existence"—and concluded that the primary concerns of American foreign policy were no longer military but economic. After summarily rehearsing the various possible military dangers to the United States, President Clinton declared in a 1993 address, "We still face, overarching everything else, this amorphous but profound challenge in the way humankind conducts its commerce." The great imperative was to organize a global economy where citizens of the world could trade across borders. For that to happen, the United States and other nations would have to get their own economic houses in order. The primary goal of U.S. foreign policy was thus, according to Lake, the "enlargement of the world's free community of market democracies."
Clinton's assessment of the challenges facing the United States was partially inspired by political calculation. He had just won an election against a sitting president who had not only led the United States through its victory in the Cold War but had also engineered a stunning rout of the Iraqi military. A southern governor with no foreign-policy experience—and a draft dodger to boot—Clinton concluded that his victory over Bush meant that questions of war and peace no longer resonated with American voters as they might have in an earlier age. But Clinton's vision also reflected a conviction, common in the 1990s, that globalization had undermined the efficacy of military power and traditional empires. Force was no longer the sole, or most effective, instrument of national will. "Soft power"—the cultural capital that made the United States so admired around the world—was as important to national preeminence as military power. In what may be a first for a U.S. official, Nye invoked a Marxist intellectual, the Italian Antonio Gramsci, to argue that the United States would only maintain its hegemony if it persuaded—rather than forced—others to follow its example. "If I can get you to want to do what I want," wrote Nye, "then I do not have to force you to do what you do not want to do."
For conservatives, who yearned for and then celebrated socialism's demise, Clinton's promotion of free trade and free markets was anathema. Though conservatives are reputed to favor wealth and prosperity, law and order, stability and routine—all the comforts of bourgeois life—they hated Clinton for his pursuit of these very virtues. His quest for affluence, they argued, produced a society that lost its sense of social depth and political meaning. "In that age of peace and prosperity," David Brooks would write, "the top sitcom was Seinfeld, a show about nothing." Robert Kaplan emitted barb after barb in The Coming Anarchy about the "healthy, well-fed" denizens of "bourgeois society," too consumed with their own comfort and pleasure to lend a hand—or shoulder a gun—to make the world a safer place. "Material possessions," he concluded, "encourage docility" and a "lack of imagination." In an influential manifesto published in 2000, Donald and Frederick Kagan could barely contain their hostility for "the happy international situation that emerged in 1991," which was "characterized by the spread of democracy, free trade, and peace" and was "so congenial to America" with its love of "domestic comfort."