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.

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.”

Clinton’s vision of a benign international order, conservatives argued, betrayed a discomfort with the murky world of power and violent conflict, of tragedy and rupture. “The striking thing about the 1990s zeitgeist,” complained Brooks, “was the presumption of harmony. The era was shaped by the idea that there were no fundamental conflicts anymore.” Conservatives thrive on a world of mysterious evil and unfathomable hatred, where good is always on the defensive and time is a precious commodity in the race against corruption and decline. Coping with such a world requires pagan courage and barbaric virtù, qualities conservatives embrace over the more prosaic goods of peace and prosperity. It is no accident that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was a student of Allan Bloom (in fact, Wolfowitz makes a cameo appearance in Ravelstein, Saul Bellow’s novel about Bloom); Bloom, like many other influential neoconservatives, was a follower of the political theorist Leo Strauss, whose quiet odes to classical virtue and harmonious order veiled his Nietzschean vision of torturous conflict and violent struggle.

But there was another reason for the neocons’ dissatisfaction with Clinton’s foreign policy. Clinton, they claimed, was reactive and haphazard rather than proactive and forceful. He did not realize that the United States could shape rather than respond to events. Breaking again with the usual stereotype of conservatives as non-ideological muddlers, Wolfowitz, Libby, Kaplan, Richard Perle, Frank Gaffney, Kenneth Adelman, and the Kagan and Kristol father-son teams called for a more ideologically coherent projection of U.S. power. They insisted that the United States ought, as Cheney said during the first Bush administration, “to shape the future, to determine the outcome of history,” or, as the Kagans would later put it, “to intervene decisively in every critical region” of the world, “whether or not a visible threat exists there.” What these conservatives longed for was an America that was genuinely imperial—not just because it would make the United States safer or the world better but because they wanted to see the United States make the world, to create history.

September 11 has given the neocons an opportunity to articulate, without embarrassment, this vision of imperial American power, which they have been quietly harboring for years. “People are now coming out of the closet on the word ‘empire,'” Charles Krauthammer accurately observes. Unlike empires past, conservatives claim, this one will be guided by a benign goal: worldwide improvement. Because of America’s sense of fair play and benevolent purpose, this new empire will not generate the backlash previous empires have generated. As a Wall Street Journal writer says, “We are an attractive empire, the one everyone wants to join.” In the words of Rice, “Theoretically, the realists would predict that when you have a great power like the United States it would not be long before you had other great powers rising to challenge it. And I think what you’re seeing is that there’s at least a predilection this time to move to productive and cooperative relations with the United States, rather than to try to balance the United States.” Imperial America will no longer have to “wait upon events while dangers gather,” as President Bush put it in his 2002 State of the Union Address. It will now “shape the environment,” anticipate threats, planning its empire not in terms of months or years, but in decades, perhaps centuries. The goal here is what Cheney first outlined in the early 1990s: to ensure, through prediction and preemption, that no regional powers ever attain preeminence in their local theaters, and that no other power ever arises to challenge the United States.

For conservatives, this is a heady time, a moment when their ambivalence about the free market—not about capitalism per se, which they refuse to challenge, but about the culture of capitalism, the elevation of buying and selling above political virtues like heroism and struggle—may finally be resolved. No longer hamstrung by the numbing politics of affluence, they believe they can count on the public to respond to the calls of sacrifice and destiny. With danger and security the watchwords of the day, the American state will be newly sanctified, without having to open the floodgates to economic redistribution and social welfare. The American empire, they hope, will allow America to have its market without being deadened by it.

Though it is too soon to make any definitive assessment of the domestic and international situation of the United States post-9/11, mounting evidence suggests that the American empire is encountering more than a few obstacles, at home and abroad. A 1997 Pentagon report identifies “a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States,” suggesting that additional U.S. military expeditions will only increase the likelihood of such attacks. This heightened vulnerability to terrorism, not just on American soil but on U.S. military bases around the world—portends a future that can only be more dangerous for Americans, here and elsewhere.

But with terrorism classified by the current administration as a symptom of unfathomable evil or antimodernist hostility to Western values, it does not register as a reaction to imperial power. After the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, which did not immediately produce the opposition in the Muslim world that had been widely anticipated, the Administration came to believe, according to a former high-level intelligence official, that it did not need to worry about any violent backlash its power: “They went against the established experts on the Middle East who said it [the bombing of Afghanistan] would lead to fundamental insurrections in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Not so, and anyone who now preaches any approach of solving problems with diplomacy is scoffed at. They’re on a roll.” Even though it took Osama bin Laden some ten years after the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia to exact his revenge against the United States, the failure of anti-American violence to materialize within three months was taken as proof that such a backlash was no longer a threat—a point reinforced in a December 2001 presentation at the White House by the historian Bernard Lewis. According to one White House staff member, Lewis said, “In that part of the world, nothing matters more than resolute will and force,” which means, according to a New Yorker report, that “the United States needn’t proceed gingerly for fear of inflaming the ‘Arab street,’ as long as it is prepared to be strong.”

Violence against the United States might not prove to be a problem, at least not in the short term; after all, other empires have weathered it for a time. What makes it such a destabilizing factor over the long haul is that despite all the talk of the United States being prepared to accept casualties in the war on terrorism, at moments when that war has seemed to blunder or miscarry, naysayers in the media and even the Democratic Party—not to mention in Western Europe—have managed to raise serious questions about the viability of the Bush administration’s imperial project. After a mere few weeks of bombing in October 2001 had failed to dislodge the Taliban, for example, critics started murmuring their fears that the war in Afghanistan would be a reprise of the Vietnam quagmire. Likewise, as soon as it became apparent that the war in Iraq was settling into a nasty, brutish, and long campaign and that the United States had become an occupying power, Democrats began to probe the edges of acceptable criticism of the war. With the 2004 presidential campaign now in full swing, willingness to voice that criticism has become a litmus test among the candidates. Moreover,the gathering of nations to oppose the imperial hegemon, which Rice and others declared unlikely before the Iraq war, now seems quite possible.

Though none of these critics has yet to challenge the full-throttle militarism of Bush’s policies, their periodic appearance, particularly in times of trouble or defeat, suggests that the administration’s vision is politically compelling only so long as it is successful. And this is as it must be. Because the centerpiece of the neoconservatives’ promise is that the United States can govern events—that it can determine the outcome of history—their vision cannot sustain the suggestion that events lie beyond their control. Indeed, as soon as violence in the Middle East began to escalate in March 2002, even the administration’s defenders began jumping ship, suggesting that any invasion of Iraq would have to be postponed indefinitely. As one of Reagan’s high-level national security aides put it, “The supreme irony is that the greatest power the world has ever known has proven incapable of managing a regional crisis.”

Ironically, insofar as the Bush administration avoids those conflicts in which it might fail, such as that between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it is forced to forgo the very logic of imperialism that it seeks to avow. The ideology of empire, premised as it is on the ability of the United States to control events, cannot accommodate failure, but by avoiding failure, the imperialists are forced to acknowledge that they cannot control events. As former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger has observed, in a discussion of the crisis in the Middle East, Bush realizes “that simply to insert himself into this mess without any possibility of achieving any success is, in and of itself, dangerous because it would demonstrate that, in fact, we don’t have any ability right now to control or affect events.” This Catch-22 is no mere problem of logic or consistency; it betrays the essential fragility of the imperial position itself.

That fragility also reflects the hollowness of the neocons’ imperial vision. Though the neocons see imperialism as the cultural and political counterpart to the free market, they have not yet come to terms with how the conservative opposition to government spending renders the United States unlikely to make the necessary investments in nation-building that imperialism requires. It has been only two years since the United States promised the people of Afghanistan that it would never abandon them, and already it’s clear that the Bush administration has done just that. Outside of Kabul, warlords rule the country, women’s rights are nonexistent, heroin production is up, roads and other forms of infrastructure have not been built, and the Taliban has publicly announced its intention to drive an increasingly cash-strapped United States from the field. According to Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, “It is like I am seeing the same movie twice and no one is trying to fix the problem. What was promised to the Afghans with the collapse of the Taliban was a new life of hope and change. But what was delivered? Nothing. Everyone is back in business.”

On the domestic front, there is little evidence to suggest that the political and cultural renewal imagined by most commentators has taken place, or will take place. September 11 may have temporarily increased popular trust in government and interest in public affairs, but it has not displaced the free-market ideology that makes government action an instant source of suspicion among Republicans and conservative Democrats. When politicians have proposed government intervention in national security–related sectors of the economy, free-marketeers have been surprisingly effective at stymieing them. In March of 2002, for example, 62 senators, including 19 Democrats, rejected higher fuel-efficiency standards in the automobile industry, which would have reduced dependence upon Persian Gulf oil. Missouri Republican Christopher Bond declared on the Senate floor, “I don’t want to tell a mom in my home state that she should not get an SUV because Congress decided that would be a bad choice.” Even more telling was just how vulnerable proponents of higher standards were to these arguments. John McCain, for one, was instantly put on the defensive, promising that “no American will be forced to drive any different automobile,” as if that would have been an inconceivable imposition in this new era of wartime sacrifice and solidarity.

Even within and around the military, the ethos of patriotism and shared destiny has given way to the logic of the market. The government’s desire not to spend too much money and thereby raise taxes has forced American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq to spend their own money on such items as night-vision goggles, desert-camouflage boots, baby wipes, radios and communications equipment, and rucksacks. Military recruiters admit that they still entice enlistees not with the call of patriotism but with the promise of economic opportunity. As one recruiter puts it, “It’s just business as usual. We don’t push the ‘Help our country’ routine.” When patriots burst into a recruiting office and say, “I want to fight,” another recruiter explains, “I’ve got to calm them down. We’re not all about fighting and bombing. We’re about jobs. We’re about education.” Recruiters confess that they continue to target immigrants and people of color, on the assumption that these constituencies’ lack of opportunity will drive them to the military. The Pentagon publicly acknowledges that it hopes to increase the number of Latino recruits in the military from the current 10 percent to 22 percent. Recruiters in Southern California have even slipped across the border, promising instant citizenship to poor Mexicans willing to take up arms on behalf of the United States. According to one San Diego recruiter, “It’s more or less common practice that some recruiters go to Tijuana to distribute pamphlets, or in some cases they look for someone to help distribute information on the Mexican side.”

The fact that the war has not yet imposed the sort of sacrifices on the population that normally accompany national crusades has provoked occasional bouts of concern among politicians and cultural elites. “The danger, over the long term,” writes the Times’s R.W. Apple, “is loss of interest. With much of the war to be conducted out of plain sight by commandos, diplomats and intelligence agents, will a nation that has spent decades in easy self-indulgence stay focused?” A former aide to LBJ says, “People are going to have to get involved in this. So far it’s a government effort, as it should be, but people aren’t engaged.” Without consecrating the cause in blood, Americans will not have their commitment tested, their resolve deepened. As Doris Kearns Goodwin complained on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer:

Well, I think the problem is we understand that it’s going to be a long war, but it’s hard for us to participate in that war in 1,001 ways the way we could in World War II. You could have hundreds of thousands joining the armed forces. They could go to the factories to make sure to get those ships, tanks, and weapons built. They could have victory gardens. They could feel not simply as we’re being told: go back to your ordinary lives. It’s harder now. We don’t have a draft in the same way we did, although there’s some indication I’d like to believe that that younger generation will want to participate. My own youngest son, who just graduated from Harvard this June, has joined the military. He wants that three-year commitment. He wants to be part of what this is all about instead of just going to work for a year and going to law school; he wants to be a part of this. And I suspect there will be a lot of others like that as well. But somehow you just keep wishing that the government would challenge us. Maybe we need a Manhattan Project for this antibiotics vaccine production. We were able to get cargo ships down from 365 days in World War II to one day by the middle with that kind of collective enterprise.

In perhaps the strangest spectacle of the entire war, the nation’s leaders are now looking for things for people to do—not because there’s much to be done, but because they fear that without something to do, the ardor of ordinary Americans will grow cold. Since these tasks are unnecessary—and mandating them would violate market ideology—the best the administration has come up with is to announce Web sites and toll-free numbers that enterprising men and women can contact in order to help the war effort. As Bush declared in North Carolina the day after his 2002 State of the Union address, “If you listened to the speech last night, you know, people were saying, ‘Well, gosh, that’s nice, he called me to action, where do I look?’ Well, here’s where: at Or you can call this number—it sounds like I’m making a pitch, and I am. This is the right thing to do for America. 1-877-USA-CORPS.” What are the duties these volunteers are to perform? If they are doctors or health-care workers, they can enlist to help out during emergencies. And everyone else? They can serve in Neighborhood Watch programs to guard against terrorist attacks—in North Carolina.

We thus face a dangerous situation. On the one hand we have neoconservative elites whose vision of American power is recklessly utopian, who seem increasingly disconnected from any coherent conception of the national interest. On the other hand we have a domestic population that shows little interest in this far-flung empire. The political order projected by Bush and his supporters in the media and academia is just that: a projection, which can only last so long as the United States is able to put down, with minimum casualties, challenges to its power. If this assessment is correct, we may well be entering one of those famed Machiavellian moments discussed by J.G.A. Pocock a quarter century ago, when a republic opts for the frisson of empire, and is forced to confront the fragility and finitude of all political forms, including its own.

We may also be seeing, and I suggest this only tentatively, the slow decomposition of America’s ruling class. Ever since the end of the Cold War—some might even say since Vietnam—there has been a growing disconnect between the culture and ideology of American business elites and that of political warriors like Wolfowitz and other neocons. Whereas the Cold War saw the creation of a semi-coherent class of Wise Men who brought together, however jaggedly, the worlds of business and politics—men like Dean Acheson, the Dulles brothers, and Averell Harriman—the Reagan years and beyond have witnessed something altogether different. On the one hand, we have a younger generation of corporate magnates who, though ruthless in their efforts to secure benefits from the state, have none of the respect or passion for government that their older counterparts had. These new CEOs respond to their counterparts in Tokyo, London, and other global cities. So long as the state provides them with what they need and does not interfere unduly with their operations, they leave it to the apparatchiks. As one Silicon Valley executive said to Thomas Friedman, when asked how often he talks about Iraq, Russia, or foreign wars, “Not more than once a year. We don’t even care about Washington. Money is extracted by Silicon Valley and then wasted by Washington. I want to talk about people who create wealth and jobs. I don’t want to talk about unhealthy and unproductive people. If I don’t care about the wealth destroyers in my own country, why should I care about the wealth destroyers in another country?”

On the other hand, we have a new class of political elites who have little contact with the business community, whose primary experiences outside of government have been in either academia, journalism, think tanks, or some other part of the culture industry. As corporate elites set their sights upon an increasingly global economy, the neocons have been given, it seems, the run of the farm. They traffic in ideas and see the world as a vast landscape of intellectual projection. Unconstrained by even the most interested of interests, they are free to advance their cause, in the Middle East and elsewhere. Indeed, according to press reports, most corporate elites in the United States and elsewhere, even in the oil industry, have been either uninterested in or firmly opposed to the Bush administration’s expedition in Iraq. Like their corporate counterparts, the neocons view the world as their stage, but unlike their corporate counterparts, they are designing that stage for an altogether more theatrical, other-worldly drama. Their endgame, if they have one, is an apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil, civilization and barbarism—categories of pagan conflict diametrically opposed to the world-without-borders vision of America’s free-trading, globalizing elite.