Stephen Walt forthrightly discusses numerous issues that have led us into our present predicament: being seen in much of the world, especially in the Middle East, as a rogue superpower and even an imminent danger to international peace. He soundly condemns our unilateralism, scorn for international organizations and world opinion, doctrine of preventive wars, uncritical support for authoritarian regimes, and, most specifically, the blank check issued to the Sharon government. As an alternative, Walt recommends a more balanced approach toward the Palestinians and the explicit rejection of the neoconservative quasi-imperial dream of using tanks to impose democracy on the Middle East. Iraq has proved this dream to be a hellish nightmare.

Although all these issues are pertinent and important, they miss a deeper and more disturbing problem that lies at the very heart of the present crisis—the attitude of our neoconservative policymakers toward war and peace. The neoconservatives flatter themselves, and are flattered by others, for being true radicals—freed from stifling traditions and customs, advocating clear breaks with the past, giving short shrift to “quaint” conventions, and wanting to scuttle the Sykes-Picot Agreement and redraw the whole map of the Middle East. One neoconservative describes himself as the new Lawrence of Arabia. Another boasts that his middle name should be “constructive destruction.” Yet another has adopted as his own Emperor Caligula’s motto Oderint dum metuant (“Let them hate so long as they fear”): “The question people are asking is why do they hate us? That’s the wrong question. . . . The question which we should be asking is why do they neither fear nor respect us?” He proposes three remedies to rectify the situation: force, more force, and yet more force. The Wall Street Journal credits him—and thus, indirectly, Caligula—for formulating the Bush Middle East doctrine.

Such sentiments reflect a fundamental break from mainstream Western tradition on the question of war. At least since the horrors of 1914–1918, we have shared the uncontested and overwhelming premise that war is a human disaster, that it should be used only as a last resort, and that only defensive wars are justifiable. Nuremberg even outlawed preventive wars. Through most of the 20th century, few on the left, in the center, or on the moderate right waxed eloquent over the virtues of war. Such sentiments were the prerogative of the extreme right.

A number of currents have converged to move the extreme to center stage. The unprecedented sums the United States now spends on its armed forces and related organizations—totaling over $450 billion a year, some $20 billion more than at the height of the Cold War and three times more than the other four major powers put together—provide Washington with the confidence (some would call it the hubris) that force can solve sundry problems throughout the world. The Vietnam Syndrome, paradoxically, pushed neoconservatives further into thinking that it is essential to act tough and never to lose face again. “Every ten years or so,” declares one neocon, “the United States needs to pick up some small, crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” Finally, Likud has brought to many neoconservatives, including Cheney and Rumsfeld, its doctrine that Arabs only understand force, that breaking bones cures acute intransigency, and that fear is the surest route to the heart. As Yitzak Shamir openly boasted, “We still need this truth today, the truth of the power of war, or at least we need to accept that war is inescapable, because without this, the life of the individual has no purpose.”

The language of our neoconservatives is now replete with terms and concepts that would have been unimaginable in previous decades. They talk of the virtues of robust imperialism; of tactical nuclear weapons, iron hammers, and shock and awe (the modern incarnation of blitzkrieg); of learning lessons from Kipling, Kitchener, and Roman emperors (they haven’t yet got round to rehabilitating Emperor Leopold of Belgium); of respecting the hard-nosed policies of General Sherman, Bomber Harris, and Curtis LeMay; of launching World War IV (the Cold War being World War III); and of treating any interlude in the ongoing war as merely brief bellum interruptum. They claim history teaches that war is natural; that it endows new generations with character; and that human nature respects force, might, and military victories. In the words of Victor Davis Hanson—our vice president’s favorite historian—war is an essential part of human nature. He claims that the West has consistently proved its “cultural superiority” over the rest of the world through such military victories as that of the Greeks over the “Peacock Throne,” the Romans over the Carthaginians, the Christian Crusaders over the Muslims, and the Spaniards over the Aztecs and the Incas.

The main “theorist” on the new thinking on war is Michael Ledeen, the in-house Middle East “expert” at the American Enterprise Institute and a veteran adviser to the White House since the Reagan years. In his hair-raising book Machiavelli on Modern Leadership: Why Machiavelli’s Iron Rules are as Timely and Important Today as Five Centuries Ago, Ledeen praises his hero for seeing with “brutal clarity” that “war is normal behavior,” that in life one either “dominates or is dominated,” that peace is “not normal,” and that war is the main leitmotif of history.” War, according to Ledeen, produces “virility,” “character,” and “virtue”; peace, on the other hand, leads to “servility,” “insolence,” “corruption,” “materialism,” and, horror of horrors, “effeminate behavior,” as demonstrated by the Clinton administration. Ledeen assures the world that “Americans are a warlike people and that we love war . . . What we hate is not casualties but losing.” When Ledeen is not waxing eloquent about war and the need to invade more countries, he is writing books on how the contemporary world has misunderstood Italian fascism.

To pursue a mature foreign policy we need to do more than harness and finesse the recent excesses spelled out so well by Stephen Walt. We need to get back to basics—back to the mainstream tradition of treating war as a horror to be used only as a very last recourse. We have to appreciate that our neoconservatives are as radical as they boast. They are an even greater danger to the world than Stephen Walt realizes.