Inventing Demons

There is a coalition of the radical right in the United States, including the odd Democrat, that has long held that patriotic mobilisation is important in holding American society together. When detente broke out in the 1970s, these hawks worried about any reduction in international tension, however slight. Since 11 September 2001 they have had no more worries.

The neo-conservative right has been attempting, with varying success, to establish itself as the dominant ideological force in the United States for more than 25 years, especially in the definition of foreign policy. Long thwarted by democratic process and public resistance to the national security state, it is now on the brink of success, thanks to George Bush’s disputed electoral victory in 2000, and to 11 September 2001, which transformed an accidental president into an American Caesar. President Bush has become the neocon vehicle for a policy that is based on unilateralism, permanent mobilisation and “preventive war”.

War and militarisation would have been impossible without 11 September, which tipped the institutional balance in favour of the new right. There were other possible responses that would have had a less destabilising effect on the world. One would have been to strengthen multilateral cooperation to contain the stateless trans-national terrorist threat, and seek to reduce tensions and resolve conflicts in areas at risk, notably the Middle East. Another would have been Keynesian-style regional development on Marshall Plan lines. This would have encouraged local forces for democracy, and would undoubtedly have been more effective than war in stimulating the US and global economies.

As we know, neither course was followed. Instead, the Bush administration has allowed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fester, mobilised massively, and opted for “preventive war” as a means of policing the planet. Apart from such opportunist motives as seizing the strategic chance to redraw the map of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf (1), this choice reflects much more far-reaching imperial ambitions. In the words of Anatol Lieven of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, “the basic and generally agreed plan is unilateral world domin ation through absolute superiority, and this has been consistently advocated and worked on by the group of intellectuals close to Dick Cheney and Richard Perle since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s” (2).

This authoritarian project became feasible in the unipolar world after 1991, when the US got a monopoly on the use of force in interstate relations. But it was conceived in the 1970s, when the extremist coalition now in control was first formed. The aim is to unite the nation and secure US strategic supremacy worldwide. The instruments are war and permanent mobilisation, both requiring the constant identification of new enemies and the establishment of a strong national security state, which is independent of society.

This project is now obvious, but it was already apparent in the mid-1970s, when the radical right sabotaged the new East-West detente. It took shape during the 1980s, when the same players ordered the biggest peacetime mobilisation ever, and in the early 1990s, when the neo-conservatives worked out the doctrine of US primacy (3). The demolition of East-West detente in the mid-1970s was a crucial moment in this process. In response to the broad popular revolt against the national security state and widespread cultural changes in US society, the radical right wing of the Republican party, led by Ronald Reagan, joined forces with elements in the national security apparatus bent on revenge for the humiliating defeat in Vietnam, and neo- conservative Democrats from the hardline anti-communist wing of the party. This coalition was determined to restore the state’s authority and the national cold-war consensus, and to re-establish US strategic supremacy, and it conducted a political and ideological campaign to bury detente.

The campaign was directed at the realistic balance of power policy that was being pursued by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, which in the coalition’s view represented a dangerous weakening of the collective US will. Rather than detente, the radical right coalition advocated massive mobilisation and a strategic offensive to roll back the Soviet regime. Containment and armed coexistence, the two pillars of George Kennan’s cold war strategy, were to be abandoned in favour of active measures designed to induce a collapse of the Soviet system. As Kissinger once said, “whereas the early cold warriors had been content to rely on containment to bring this change about in the fullness of time, their successors were promising significant changes in the Soviet system as the result of direct American pressure” (4).

Richard Perle, one of the most influential neoconservatives in the current administration and an early critic of detente, is quite open about it: “We had to show that detente could not work and re-establish objectives of victory” (5). Helped by Nixon’s ignominious downfall and the accession of Gerald Ford, who became a weak and un impressive president, the radical right rapidly consolidated its position.

To revive America’s will to win and neutralise the advocates of armed coexistence (who were hardly doves themselves), they rigged data, exaggerated the threat, and abused individuals or institutions that dared to contradict them. The State Department and the CIA were favourite targets. In 1974 Albert Wohlstetter of the Rand Corporation, father-in-law of Richard Perle and guiding spirit of the neo-conservative movement, fired the first shot. “He accused the CIA of systematically underestimating Soviet missile deployment, and conservatives began a concerted attack”, led by the then defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, his protégé Richard Cheney, Ford’s chief of staff at the time, and by the president’s foreign intelligence advisory board (PFIAB).

One key result was the establishment, on 26 May 1976, of Team B, a group of outside experts commissioned by the new director of central intelligence, George Bush Senior, to produce competitive assessments of the Soviet threat. (6) This move to force the CIA to compete with its denigrators (on the right – nobody on the left was asked) was all the more surprising in that Bush’s predecessor at the CIA, William Colby, had rejected a similar initiative in 1975. It was, Colby said, hard “to envisage how an ad hoc independent group of analysts could prepare a more thorough, comprehensive assessment of Soviet strategic capabilities than could the intelligence community”.

Team B was headed by Richard Pipes, an “expert” on Soviet affairs and father of neo-conservative publicist Daniel Pipes, and its members included Paul Wolfowitz, now deputy defence secretary, and other eminent cold warriors drawn from PFIAB and the committee on the present danger (CPD). As Anne Hessing Cahn has shown, Team B produced a series of ideological reports with no basis in fact that inflated the Soviet threat. The Pipes team was sharply critical of CIA analysts and the whole policy of detente. Its report stated that “the national intelligence estimates [of the CIA] are filled with unsupported and questionable judgments about what it is that the Soviet government wants and intends. It is this practice that has caused recurrent under-estimations of the intensity, scope and implicit threat of the Soviet strategic build-up.”

Team B prided itself on knowing the real truth about Soviet intentions: “Russian, and especially Soviet political and military theories are distinctly offensive in character. Their ideal is the science of conquest formulated by the 18th century Russian commander, Field Marshal AV Suvorov”. The Soviet leadership, armed with intercontinental nuclear missiles and filled with Clausewitzian ideas about the merits of adopting an offensive strategy, was not only capable of launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the US but was culturally predisposed to do so.

These absurd generalisations, punctuated with outright lies – Soviet military expenditure had passed its peak by 1975, with an estimated annual growth rate of 1.3% between 1975 and 1985 (7) – were simply invented to tip the institutional balance in the US.

According to Howard Stoertz, the CIA official responsible for USSR analyses, Bush’s Team B exercise “was an absolute disaster for the CIA” (8). But it was an important success for the radical right and was crucial to the decision to abandon detente in 1976, when the term was banished from official use. Reagan himself adopted Team B-style termin ology during the 1976 presidential elections (in which the outgoing president, Ford, defeated him by a narrow margin in the Republican primaries): “This nation has become number two in a world where it is dangerous, if not fatal, to be second best.” As we know, a few years later Reagan, the man who coined the phrase “evil empire” (or at least his speechwriters did), took up where Ford left off. His team included key figures from the Ford era, headed by Perle and Wolfowitz. He embarked on a vast defence mobilisation programme and resumed, notably in Afghanistan and Central America, the wide-ranging clandestine operations that had ended after the defeat in Vietnam.

In March 1983 President Reagan called into question the global nuclear architecture established by the Nixon administration and embodied in the 1971 anti-ballistic missile treaty by launching the strategic defence initiative [“Star Wars”], a research and development programme designed to create a terrestrial and space-based anti-ballistic shield over the US landmass. At the same time, the White House ordered a series of offensive intelligence operations within the Soviet Union and across Soviet airspace. These “major political provocations”, to quote a CIA analyst, were designed to show up any weaknesses in the Soviet early warning defence systems (9).

The end of the cold war in 1991 confirmed US strategic supremacy and gave Washington a de facto monopoly on the use of force in international relations. But the collapse of the Soviet Union simultaneously removed the only justification for the national security state: a mortal enemy. As two North American observers put it: “One would think that neo-conservatives are happy about the death of their old enemy.”

Not so. Haunted by the spectre of national demobilisation, the neo-conservatives “worry about the cultural and political legitimacy of the American regime more than anything else”, and search for a new “demon which can unite and inspire the American people – an enemy to fight, so that they can be reminded of the meaningfulness and precariousness of their culture and polity” (10).

The 1991 Gulf war and the discovery of a new global strategic adversary, “rogue states”, to replace the Soviet Union, were reasons enough to remobilise, and to maintain and extend the global military archipelago of the US. For Cheney, then defence secretary, that war presaged “very much the type of conflict we are most likely to confront again in this new era. In addition to southwest Asia, we have important interests in Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and Central and Latin America. We must configure our policies and our forces to effectively deter, or quickly defeat, such future regional threats” (11).

A few months later, Paul Wolfowitz and I Lewis Libby, now deputy defence secretary and security adviser to Richard Cheney respectively, drafted the Pentagon paper, Defense Policy Guidance 1992-1994 (DPG), which recommended “preventing a hostile power from dominating regions whose resources would allow it to attain great power status, discouraging attempts by the advanced industrial nations to challenge US leadership or upset the established political and economic order, and precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor” (12).

In the aftermath of 11 September, the Bush administration turned the campaign against terrorist networks into a war against the “axis of evil”. In so doing, it was simply pursuing a stra tegic and political policy defined in the 1970s and revised in the early 1990s to meet the needs of the post-cold war era. The doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, officially adopted in September 2002, certainly breaks with the policy of containment and deterrence the US had consistently pursued. But it is in line with the unwavering determination of the radical, nationalist and neo-conservative American right to wage war to establish its authority.

As William Kristol, neo-conservative theoretician, and founder of the Project for the New American Century, once said: “It is a positive sign when the American people are prepared to go to war” (13).

Philip Golub is a journalist and lecturer at the University of Paris-VIII. This article originally appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique.

(1) For an account of the neo-conservative strategic fantasy map of the Middle East, see Joe Klein, “How Israel is wrapped up in Iraq”, Time magazine, 10 February 2003.

(2) Anatol Lieven, “The Push for War”, London Review of Books, vol 24 n° 19, 3 October 2002.

(3) Defined in “Defence Policy Guidance 1992-1994”, Defence Department, Washington, 1992.

(4) Quoted in Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1994.

(5) Interview with Richard Perle, 13 March 97,

(6) Quotations and references to Team B are taken from Anne H Cahn, “Team B: The Trillion Dollar Experiment”, and John Prados, “Team B: The Trillion Dollar Experiment, Part II”, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 49, n° 3 (1993).

(7) See Frances Fitzgerald, Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2000.

(8) J Prados, op cit.

(9) See Benjamin B Fischer, “A Cold War Conundrum”, an analysis published by the Centre for the Study of Intelligence, CIA, Washington DC, 1997. According to Fischer, these US moves were actually interpreted in Moscow as preparations for war.

(10) See Grant Havers and Mark Wexler, “Is US Neo-Conservatism Dead?”, The Quarterly Journal of Ideology, vol 24 (2001), n° 3-4, Louisiana State University, 2001.

(11) Statement to the Senate Defence Committee, 21 February 1991.

(12) Quoted in the New York Times, 8 March 1992. The words concerned are almost identical with the key phrases from Defence Policy Guidance 1992-1994, as used in National Security Strategy , published by the White House in September 2002.

(13) Paraphrased by Grant Havers and Mark Wexler, op. cit.

Translated by Barbara Wilson



Philip S. Golub is professor of international relations at the American University of Paris. His latest book is East Asia’s Reemergence (Polity Press, forthcoming March 2016).