Pay any price, bear any burden?

Idealism and vision have returned to America. Why, ask some, should the Arab world, with a US-led dr

In the polemics between Europeans and Americans on the need for a war on Iraq, one large component of the US view is largely missed by Europeans. It is a new version of US idealism, or can-do-ism: the determination not just to remove the threat inherent in Iraq's ruthless leadership and its possession of weapons of mass destruction, but in doing so reshape its politics and society, and the politics and society of the Middle East.

The main reason why this movement for state-building is not much noticed here is that there is almost no constituency for it outside the US. The European "hawks" - who are disproportionately British - concentrate on Saddam Hussein's present and past wickedness, not the future of his country. As Sir Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King's College London, writes, "the UN has to show that it can act decisively against a regime which has behaved so viciously and duplicitously against its own people, its neighbours and the UN". No authoritative voice has been raised to argue for democratisation of the Middle East - the project now under discussion in the Bush administration, and one which has seemed to be favoured by Bush himself.

The impetus to extend the war into a democratic mission comes most strongly from a group of officials who hail from new- conservative intellectual backgrounds - such as Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defence secretary, and Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon's advisory board. They are supported by two of the most powerful of the administration's high officers: Dick Cheney, the vice-president, and Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary. President Bush shares at least a taste for this project: in a talk to a private gathering of business leaders a few weeks after 9/11 - reported in Bob Woodward's book Bush at War - he said: "I truly believe that out of this [war on terror] will come more order in the world - real progress to peace in the Middle East - stability in the oil-producing regions of the world."

More explicitly, David Frum, a speechwriter to Bush from January 2001 to February 2002 and author of the phrase "axis of evil", has written (in his memoir of Bush, The Right Man):

the terror and burden of war were thrust on George W Bush. To defeat that terror, the United States has been drawn into an ambitious campaign to undo and recreate the repressive and intolerant Middle Eastern status quo. If successful, this campaign will bring new freedom and new stability to the most vicious and violent quadrant of the earth - and new prosperity to us all, by securing the world's largest pool of oil.

Frum also writes that "the Palestinian Authority is the epicentre of world terrorism".

Powerful and powerfully supported though it is, this vision is probably in a minority within the US. The political commentator Anthony Lewis, in the New York Review of Books, argues that "it is an example of that most dangerous of political illusions, utopianism: the belief in perfect solutions, the rejection of incremental change that usually characterises any political leader's efforts". More mundanely, most people would worry about the risks and costs. A quick war to unseat Saddam is one thing; reshaping the Middle East - Syria? Iran? Saudi Arabia? - would be a project without end requiring a treasury without limits.

Why then is it still under active consideration? Much of the reason stems from the nature of the US political process and its geopolitical engagement. America has, even more since the end of the cold war than during it, become the centre of thought as well as action on international affairs. Just as passionate conservative versus liberal debate on foreign engagement convulsed Britain during its hegemonic period, so it does the US: and the lobbies for this or that position are much stronger, better funded and more prone - given the lobby/think-tank-dominated culture of Washington - to have their views heard and to put some of their champions into one administration or other. In a system where the president appoints officials down to the level of deputy assistant secretary, and in some cases lower, the position of the policy intellectual is immeasurably stronger than in career civil- and diplomatic-service-run states, as most European countries are.

The influential neoconservatives and their allies are, in at least one sense, very American, as both Americans and non-Americans understand it. They are optimistic can-do-ers: they believe US power must have a large purpose and that it can achieve this purpose with the exercise, in the first place, of will. Underpinning that is a steady, and deepening, belief in the greater intellectual clarity and moral rightness of American action to bring solutions to the largest threats. Americans do not believe that any other centre of power, including Europe, offers any geopolitical wisdom or insight superior to that available at home. This, in American eyes, is the mental counterpart to the superiority of US arms.

Besides, the pro-reconstructionists would argue that the US has reconstructed successfully before. The Soviet Union was the west's enemy for 50 years: it collapsed, leaving a US-led effort to bring democracy and capitalism to the Soviet bloc, a continuing project that has been a fitful one, neither triumph nor disaster, and which depends much more on indigenous changes and choices than on external aid. Most importantly in this instance: the west withstood the Soviet challenge by an adamantine assertion, especially during Ronald Reagan's presidency, of western democratic and liberal values as well as a blunt condemnation of the totalitarian essence of Soviet rule. "The evil empire", the 20-year-old equivalent of "the axis of evil", was seen - the hawks note with pleasure - as a dangerous provocation at the time, but it presaged a collapse. Better, the reasoning goes, to call dictators dictators, as clarity is the first stage in learning how to deal with them. "The critics who argue that we ought to keep quiet about the mullahs," writes Frum, "were the very same people who argued in the 1980s that we ought to accommodate ourselves to the Soviet Union, lest we 'strengthen the hardliners in the Kremlin'."

Not "accommodating oneself to the mullahs", as Frum puts it, means knowing which of them is the enemy. One beneficial side effect of the focus on the Middle East is that we now have available much more information on the discourse of the Arab world. The most powerful medium for this is (naturally) a Washington-based think-tank, the Middle East Media Research Institute (Memri), started in 1998 by the former Israeli intelligence officer and Arabist Yigal Carmon. Memri aimed to bring the previously largely enclosed and unknown Arab talk about the west to western eyes and ears: it is a sobering experience to read on the internet Memri's vast store of translations from many media, and to note how much of what is written is conspiratorial, vicious and unyieldingly hateful. Memri and Carmon have been accused of selecting the worst of a diverse media: however, the sheer range of what is available weakens that criticism, as does support for the initiative by Arab liberals. The Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya, for example, wrote in the spring 2002 issue of Dissent that Arab intellectuals have allowed a mixture of victimhood and revenge to take hold of popular culture, with few if any dissenting voices.

The largest problem for the reconstructionists is the position of Saudi Arabia. It qualifies, squarely, as a repressive authoritarian state, which tortures and kills its citizens (and others) for what the west sees as relatively minor infractions. Members of its ruling house, including high officials, have been exposed as sponsors of terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda. Saudi money has backed radical Islamists everywhere - and still does. Yet the US administration and the west generally regard the kingdom as largely untouchable; the stability of the House of Saud has been a prime aim of western governments concerned with the continued flow of oil.

While the US leads the west in supporting and endorsing the Saudis, any protestation that it is working for an end to tyranny and the spread of civil society in the region will be hollow. Yet if it begins to show its hostility to its ally, it faces a huge problem, most of all for this administration.

In a recently published study (The Two Faces of Islam) of the House of Saud, and of its extreme and intolerant Wahhabist faith, which cannot countenance coexistence with any other, the journalist Stephen Schwartz argues that three of the highest Bush administration officials - Dick Cheney in particular, and to a lesser extent Donald Rumsfeld and the secretary of state, Colin Powell - have all been "seduced" by Saudi royalty, and protect Saudi interests within the administration. Cheney, whose former company Halliburton does hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of business with Saudi Arabia, once glossed over the problem by saying that "the good Lord didn't see fit to put oil and gas only where there are democratically elected regimes friendly to the United States". This folksy rendering of realpolitik, however, stands in the way of the reconstructionist idealists: one side or the other will have to give. "Saudi Arabia," writes Schwartz, "is still viewed by many in the west - however wrongly - as a force of stability in the region; but so was Yugoslavia once upon a time."

As yet, there seems no resolution among the US hawks between a quick, minimalist, in-and-out intervention and a maximalist reconstruction - with a stay in Iraq long enough to secure the future of a new government as an intermediate option. However, it is clear that the vestiges of the blanket hostility to state-building that characterised the administration in its pre-9/11 term of office - what it would call, with reference to Bill Clinton's policy, "foreign relations as social work" - have now gone. Wolfowitz, on a recent visit to Afghanistan, spoke of the need for the west to "do more" to build up the still fragile state; and the planning for after the war in Iraq shows a recognition that, just as in Afghanistan and Kosovo, the quick in-and-out is barely a tenable option.

The reconstructionists look at the Arab world and see a mass of hatred. But they also see a few willing to oppose that hatred from within, and liken that to the apparent contempt the Soviets had for the west, and the real hollowing out of that regime from within by a few brave dissidents. They see the pro-western young in Iran, the furtive dissidents who smuggle out intelligence from Iraq, the occasional liberal intellectual in any of the Middle Eastern states, as carriers of a democratic future, who need support for a vision to be realised. If the reconstructionists win in Washington, it could be a very long war indeed.