The Neo-conservative asabiyya

By Arshin Adib-Moghaddam
July 4, 2006

Contemporary neo-conservatism reveals itself as a form of nativism, buttressed by a moral righteous and infallible American nationalism with a universal agenda. Charles Krauthammer, a Pulitzer Prize winner and syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, is amongst the most prolific writers, advocating neo-conservative ideas with passionate zeal. Extending his argument about the US role in world politics beyond the “unipolarity” hypothesis introduced after the demise of the Soviet Union, Krauthammer proposed in the aftermath of 11 September that the US should follow a new, “unilateralist” global strategy. ‘The new unilateralism argues explicitly and unashamedly for maintaining unipolarity, for sustaining America’s unrivaled [sic] dominance for the foreseeable future.’ [1] According to Krauthammer, ‘it could be a long future, assuming we successfully manage the single greatest threat, namely, weapons of mass destruction in the hands of rogue states.’ This requires ‘aggressive and confident application of unipolar power rather than falling back, as [the US] did in the 1990s, on paralysing multilateralism’. Before concluding with the note that ‘History has given you an empire, if you will keep it’, Krauthammer cautioned that the only way to retain global US pre-eminence is to prevent ‘gradually transferring power to multilateral institutions as heirs to American hegemony.'[2]

During the Clinton years the infrastructure supporting neo-conservative activism was only beginning to emerge and influence on the Washington establishment was still limited. The later 1990s and the beginning of the twenty-first century provided a more suitable atmosphere to extend the programme beyond the confines of institutionalised lobbying. Already before 11 September attacks on US interests at home and abroad were taken as opportunities to influence public discourse in the country. A plethora of theories, commentaries and policy manuals were produced, warning against the global threat of “fundamentalist Koran-waving zealots,” intent on destroying everything the US stands for. 11 September was taken as proof that the prophecies about the “global Islamic threat” were true. In a controversy with the late essayist and writer Susan Sontag, Charles Krauthammer countered the critique that such views were too abstract, too sanctimonious, and ‘unworthy of a mature democracy.’ [3] ‘Oversimplifying?’ Krauthammer argued, ‘Has there ever been a time when the distinction between good and evil was more clear?’ [4] For Ann Coulter, another prolific writer on the Washington scene the answer was quite clear:

‘They hate us? We hate them. Americans don’t want to make Islamic fanatics love us. We want to make them die. There’s nothing like horrendous physical pain to quell angry fanatics. So sorry they’re angry – wait until they see American anger. Japanese kamikaze pilots hated us once too. A couple of well-aimed nuclear weapons, and now they are gentle little lambs. That got their attention.’ [5]

We may detect the neo-conservative current in US politics on at least four interdependent levels: “populist-academic”, institutional, political and ideological. The last citation is to be positioned on the far right wing of the latter category, where it is joined by comparably radical ideas expressed by current and former decision-makers and leaders of Christian fundamentalist organisations, namely: Fred Ikle, Undersecretary of Defence during the Reagan administration, who alluded to a nuclear war that ‘might end up displacing Mecca and Medina with two large radioactive craters’; [6] Louisiana Republican John Cooksey, who suggested that any airline passenger wearing a ‘diaper on his head’ should be ‘pulled over’; or prominent Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell who asserted on the CBS news show 60 minutes that ‘Muhammad was a terrorist’ and that he was ‘a violent man, a man of war’, a statement for which he later apologised after protests from the governments of the US, UK and Iran. [7]

Less fundamentalist voices, who cover their ideological elucidation with an erudite smoke screen, are institutionally embedded in think tanks and pressure groups such as the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, Committee for the Free World, Committee on Present Danger, Freedom Research Foundation, the Foundation for the Preservation of American Values and the Project for the New American Century. Established in 1997 as a non-profit educational organisation ‘whose goal is to promote American global leadership’, the role of the Project for the New American Century is especially significant in terms of immediate policy involvement. [8] Already in January 1998, the organisation sent a letter to then President Clinton, supporting a ‘strategy for removing Saddam’s regime from power,’ demanding a ‘full complement of diplomatic, political and military efforts’ to that end. This appeal was followed by a letter to Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House of Representatives and Trent Lott, Majority Leader in the US Senate, in May 1998, urging that ‘U.S. policy should have as its explicit goal removing Saddam Hussein’s regime from power and establishing a peaceful and democratic Iraq in its place.’ Out of the seventeen signatories to the two letters, eleven have held posts in the Bush administration since the invasion of Iraq was launched in March 2003. Elliot Abrams, who had orchestrated the Iran-Contra scandal when the Reagan administration used the proceeds of arms sales to Iran (despite its own embargo) to circumvent a congressional prohibition on funding Nicaraguan rebels, was recruited as Senior Director for Near East, Southwest Asian and North African Affairs on the National Security Council (promoted to Deputy National Security Adviser, responsible for promoting Bush’s strategy of advancing democracy abroad); Richard Armitage was named Deputy Secretary of State; John Bolton, Under Secretary, Arms Control and International Security (promoted to US Ambassador to the United Nations); Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs; Zalmay Khalilzad, Special Presidential envoy to Afghanistan and “Ambassador-at-large for Free Iraqis” (promoted to US Ambassador to Iraq); Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board; Peter W. Rodman, Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs; Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defence; William Schneider, Jr., chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board; Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defence (promoted to Director of the World Bank); and Robert B. Zoellick, the US Trade Representative (promoted to US Deputy Secretary of State).

The institutionalisation of the neo-conservative idea in a myriad of inter-linked, non-for-profit “think-tanks” and lobbying organisations, catered for the structural platform to position suitable candidates in high ranking political, business and academic positions after the election and re-election of George W. Bush. Following the 14th century Muslim Philosopher and Historian Ibn Khaldun, this systemic cohesiveness may be characterised as a “neo-conservative asabiyya“, where tribal loyalty is preserved by family ties, institutional/media power, and inroads into the most lucrative sectors of the US industry, most notably the oil sector. [9]

This article is a revised adaptation from chapter 4 of Arshin Adib-Moghaddam’s monograph The International Politics of the Persian Gulf: A Cultural Genealogy (London: Routledge, 2006).


1. Charles Krauthammer, ‘The Unipolar Moment Revisited: America, the Benevolent Empire’, in Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf, eds., The Iraq War Reader. History, Documents, Opinions (London: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 607. The article originally appeared in The National Interest No. 70, 2002/2003.

2. Krauthammer, ‘The Unipolar Moment Revisited’.

3. Susan Sontag, ‘Reflections on September 11th’, in Sifry and Cerf, The Iraq War Reader, 215. The article originally appeared in The New Yorker, 24 September 2001.

4. Charles Krauthammer, ‘Voices of Moral Obtuseness’, in Sifry and Cerf, The Iraq War Reader, 218. The article originally appeared in The Washington Post, 21 September 2001.

5. Ann Coulter, ‘Why We Hate Them’, in Sifry and Cerf, The Iraq War Reader, 333. The article originally appeared at, 26 September 2003. Coulter is a political analyst and attorney. In another commentary published in the National Review Online, written two days after 11 September, she wrote of ‘the ones cheering and dancing right now’, that ‘we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity’ , leading to her dismissal from The National Review. Her commentaries continue to be published at

6. Fred Ikle, ‘Stopping the Next Sept. 11. Intelligence is one element. Offence and defence are the others’, Wall Street Journal, 2 June 2002.

7. Later, Falwell apologised for the remarks see ‘Jerry Falwell Apologises for Mohammad Criticism’, Reuters, 12 October 2002.

8. All material quoted in relation to the Project is taken from the homepage of the organisation [accessed 12 June 2001].

9. The family and friendship ties are indeed extensive. Richard Perle’s close friend at the AEI is David Wurmser, who heads the Middle East Studies department at the organisation. Together with the former Israeli military intelligence official, Yigal Carmon, the wife of Mr. Wurmser, Meyrav, have established the Middle East Media Research Institute (Memri) which selectively translates the most radical pamphlets and articles published in the Muslim world. Ms. Wurmser also runs the Hudson Institute, where Richard Perle recently joined the Board of Trustees. In addition, she is a member of the Middle East Forum, where other activists with neo-conservative leanings such as Michael Rubin and Laurie Mylroie are organised. See Brian Whitaker, ‘US think tanks give lessons in foreign policy’, The Guardian, 19 August 2002. See also his ‘Selective Memri’, The Guardian, 12 August 2002.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is the author of The International Politics of the Persian Gulf: A Cultural Genealogy (Routledge, 2006) and Essays on Iran: Foreign Relations and Domestic Politics in the Islamic Republic (forthcoming). He teaches International Relations at Oxford University.