An American ideology: Neoconservatism under the microscope

Despite its disastrous effect on US foreign policy in recent years, the grassroots appeal of neoconservatism means that it is -probably here to stay, writes Justin Vogt.

A few weeks ago, General David Petraeus received the Irving Kristol Award, bestowed annually by the American Enterprise Institute, perhaps the most influential of Washington's many conservative think-tanks. The award is named for one of the progenitors of neoconservatism, a political tendency whose most fateful expression was the 2003 invasion of Iraq - a misadventure that Petraeus was asked to salvage in 2007, when George W Bush put him in command of all American forces in Iraq.

In a tribute to the late intellectual, Petraeus opened his acceptance speech with a passage from Kristol's book, Two Cheers for Capitalism. "The massive and seemingly-solid institutions of any society," Kristol wrote, "are always at the mercy of the ideas in the heads of the people who populate these institutions." Petraeus should know the truth of that statement better than anyone. Indeed, the disaster that confronted him in Iraq in 2007 was the result of the fact that the seemingly solid institutions of America were at the mercy of the ideas of the people who populated his audience - especially the idea that, through the application of overwhelming military force, America could quickly transform Iraq into a stable democracy.

But Petraeus wasn't seeking to remind the assembled thinkers just how wrong they had been. Instead, he lavished praise on the intellectual support they had provided to the so-called "surge" of troops that he implemented in Iraq. Of course, the surge was necessary precisely because the neoconservative vision of Iraq was a fantasy. And weren't these the same "neocons" who had been written off, discredited, declared irrelevant? Why would Petraeus - who was recently tapped up by President Obama to take over the war effort in Afghanistan - so heartily embrace Kristol and the heirs to his disgraced legacy?

Perhaps the politically savvy general is aware that previous obituaries for neoconservatism have proven premature. In the Obama era, the neocons may be sidelined, but everyone is still playing their game. Of course, measuring their influence at any given moment has always been tricky, because neoconservatism has always been tough to define. As Justin Vaïsse writes in his new book, Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement, neoconservatism is "such a diverse thing that the term has always been close to meaningless". That's particularly true now that "neocon" serves as a catch-all epithet, lazily hurled by critics of American foreign policy at anyone with whom they disagree.

But the term does mean something. Perhaps the best way to understand it is as a particularly aggressive form of American exceptionalism. According to the neoconservative worldview, America's liberal-democratic capitalism and the society it supports are uniquely valuable and meritorious, and should be actively promoted as a model for the rest of the world. What distinguishes this view from simple patriotism is its constant, almost hysterical anxiety about the threats to America and its "way of life". The US is the most powerful state in human history, but for the neoconservatives, its benevolent hegemony is forever vulnerable. Evil enemies are everywhere, and any sign of weakness, any willingness to compromise will invite existential risks. In this way, neoconservatism represents a quintessentially American combination of idealism ("Our power can change the world for the better") and cynicism ("Our foes are implacable and incapable of change"). These internal contradictions are partly the result of the strange path neoconservatism has taken since its birth. Like many other histories of neoconservatism, Vaïsse's begins in the 1930s, in the dining hall of the City College of New York, where Communist students gathered in Alcove 2 to prepare for intellectual battle with their anti-Stalinist Marxist rivals, who sat in Alcove 1. The latter group included a number of men - including Irving Kristol - who would later form the original cadre of neoconservatives. The men of Alcove 1 eventually shed their Marxism, adopting an anti-communist liberalism that became the guiding ideology of the Democratic Party (and the broader establishment) during the 1950s: military-backed "containment" of the Soviet Union and defence of democratic capitalism abroad, combined with devotion to New Deal economic progressivism and zealous vigilance against Communist influence at home. But this so-called "vital centre" did not hold.

By the mid-1960s, the rise of the New Left - a blend of civil-rights activism, opposition to the Vietnam War, and countercultural challenges to social norms - dealt a death blow to the liberal consensus. Between 1965 and 1972, liberals within the Democratic Party who attempted to preserve the status quo became, in the eyes of more radical opponents, "new conservatives". These neoconservatives did not flee the party, but sought to recapture it, publishing in influential journals like Kristol's The Public Interest and Norman Podhoretz's Commentary, and working for the hawkish Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, whose office produced such prominent future neocons as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, and Douglas Feith. Considering the hubristic overconfidence in American know-how that would define a later generation of neoconservatives, it may come as a surprise that the original generation saw themselves as a bulwark against inflated expectations of the government's ability to effect positive changes in society. Throughout the 1970s, neoconservatives opposed the realpolitik of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, whose détente approach to the communist bloc they rejected as an unacceptable form of "appeasement". Instead they pushed for a confrontational approach to the Soviets; unconditional support of Israel; and ever more military spending. Throughout, their chief mode of persuasion was the relentless exaggeration of threats. Towards the end of the decade, they concluded that President Jimmy Carter and the Democrats no longer took the Soviet threat seriously enough. Most eventually abandoned the party for good, became Republicans and, in some cases, joined the administration of Ronald Reagan. The end of the Cold War and the presidency of the centrist Democrat Bill Clinton posed obvious challenges to the neoconservatives. Communism was pretty much dead, and the radical left a distant memory.

The response was to view this unilateral moment as a chance to create a Pax Americana built around an uncontestable, uniquely benevolent global hegemony. There's hardly any need to retell the story of how the "neocons" within the Bush administration were empowered by the attacks of September 11, 2001, or how they exploited public fear to push for the invasion of Iraq. What is worth noting is the distance travelled between the original neoconservatism, which disdained radical ideas and cautioned against faith in the power of government to engender social change, and the ideology that endorsed a plan for the US to invade and remake another country, all in a matter of months. As a result of the Iraq fiasco, the direct influence of neoconservatism has clearly waned. But nearly two years into the Obama era, it has become clear that its most lasting legacy is not a set of policies or strategies, but a reframing of debates about American foreign policy around a number of neoconservative assumptions. To a surprising degree, those assumptions - among them, that the current threats facing the US are unprecedented; that, in a time of war, military strategy must guide diplomacy, and not vice versa; and that even modest compromises with opponents would call America's "credibility" into question - continue to dominate the agenda in Washington and the mass media. The last decade has shown, again and again, the failures of this line of thinking - and yet it continues to haunt American discourse, a zombie ideology that refuses to die. Consider the debate over Afghanistan. Recent polling indicates that barely 40 per cent of Americans believe the US can "win" the war. A plurality of 48 per cent actually believe that ending the war is more important than winning it. Yet it's difficult to find a major political figure of either party who advocates for a change of course any more dramatic than Obama's tepid commitment to begin a "transition phase" in July next year, at which point the US will begin withdrawing an unspecified number of troops at an unspecified pace.

Empowered as never before during the Bush era, it seems that neoconservatism touched a deep nerve in American political consciousness. Vaïsse makes a persuasive case that neoconservatism has become an outlet for American nationalism, cloaking it in the rhetoric of freedom and liberty. Nationalism may be the most underestimated force in American politics, possibly because it is difficult to express coherently in the context of a multi-ethnic democracy. Neoconservatism failed to offer a successful model of governance, but it has proven a remarkably effective vessel for a nationalistic vision of American global dominance that has long transcended ideological and party borders. This goes a long way towards explaining its survival - and suggests it will be with us for quite a while. Justin Vogt, a regular contributor to The Review, is a writer living in New Orleans.

The best travel writers are anecdotalists. They don't waste time trying to write prose-poems about the topography or spiritual essence of the people they encounter as they make their rounds. They don't make recommendations for places to eat or stay. Their job is to tell tales, to note absurdities and suggestive incidents: in effect, to paint the world through gossip. Paul Bowles was an Renaissance man who moved to Tangiers and produced The Sheltering Sky, one of the definitive novels of the 1940s. Earlier, he ensconced himself among the lions of modernism in Paris - Pound, Stein, Picasso - and apprenticed himself to the composer Aaron Copland. He had the twin virtues of knowing where to go and who to talk to. Happily, he wrote a good number of travel essays for magazines - Forbes, GQ, Holiday - all of which exhibit his flair for illuminating tattle, as well as an enjoyably tart style. This collection dwells mainly on North Africa and Bowles's beloved Tangiers, "this unique city where everything can be counted on to go wrong". Detours into parrot lore acquired in central America and "rest-house" etiquette in Ceylon keep the scenery moving.

The vanished Babylon is a city of the mind, a construct of the modern imagination brought to fantastic life less by archaeologists than by artists whose vision, seduced by myths and blurred by cultural agendas, cannot be trusted. Brueghel's Tower of Babel, William Blake's Nebuchadnezzar, Heemskerck's Hanging Gardens of Babylon (complete with a distant Tower of Babel that makes the Burj Khalifa look half-hearted) and a thousand others: all exaggerate and misrepresent. Kriwaczek's book is the ­antidote to such inspiring but absurd fictions, an elegant, entertaining and precisely factual telling of the rise and fall of an empire that spanned 2,500 years and which, at its fifth-­century BC peak under Nebuchadnezzar, extended from Egypt to the Gulf. It is the invention of writing - or, at least, of the crude cuneiform symbols that would evolve into writing - that is the true foundation of Babylon's claim to fame as the birthplace of civilisation. Today, Babylon is just a bump in the ground between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but for the evidence that it changed the human landscape forever, look no further than the words on the page you hold in your hands.