The foolish hopes of Washington's new Jacobins

America's neoconservatives have the same utopian ambitions as the revolutionaries of 18th-century Fr

Around two hundred years ago, the great French reactionary thinker Joseph de Maistre wrote of "the profound imbecility of those poor men who imagine that nations can be constituted with ink". De Maistre, one of the fiercest critics of the Enlightenment, was targeting the radical philosophes, who believed that liberal republics could be established throughout the world. Against this sunny view, de Maistre insisted that nations are made from human suffering, as different cultures and traditions clash in unending historical conflict.

In de Maistre's day, it was the French Jacobins who believed that democracy could be spread throughout the world by fiat; today it is American neoconservatives. There are many differences between the two, some of them profound: the sense of mission that animates the Bush administration owes as much to Christian fundamentalism as it does to Enlightenment universalism. Yet American neoconservatives are at one with the French Jacobins on the most essential - and most dangerously misguided - point. Both are convinced that democratic government can be made universal, and in pretty short order.

To be sure, they also know that more than ink is required to realise this noble ideal. The Jacobins understood very well that blood would also have to be spilt. Equally, the neoconservative intellectuals who are calling the shots at the White House accept that terror will be necessary; but like their Jacobin predecessors they believe it will be just and merciful, a brief pang before the advent of a new world. A think-tank warrior such as Richard Perle may think of himself as a realist, but the cold frenzy with which he urges war reminds one more of Robespierre than Metternich. Like their Jacobin predecessors, Perle and his neoconservative confreres believe they can rewrite history and bring humanity to unprecedented freedom and harmony.

We have seen the awful consequences in Iraq in recent days; the people of that unhappy country, much as they hate Saddam Hussein, have not embraced the American invaders in quite the way that Washington hoped. And the rest of us are compelled to face an awful truth: that though we, too, wish for the sudden collapse of Saddam's regime, a swift and decisive American victory, even if it comes about, can only embolden the Bush administration in its revolutionary new policies. Flushed with victory, the neoconservatives would be ready to embark on a project of reconfiguring global politics as far-reaching as any attempted in the 20th century, exporting US-style democracy to the Middle East and thereby guaranteeing America's global hegemony.

The hawks now fully in charge of Washington policy spurn multinational institutions and scorn the traditional arts of diplomacy. They have turned their backs on the policies of deterrence and containment that preserved the world from disaster in the cold war. Instead, applying the new doctrine of preventive war, they are determined to eradicate threats to American power wherever they perceive them; but their objectives go far beyond simply defending the US from attack. They aim to entrench American global hegemony against any potential challenge. In their view, this demands more than disabling "rogue states" (such as Saddam's Iraq) and putting friendly regimes in place. It requires reshaping postwar Iraq and much of the rest of the Middle East in an American image. After Iraq, Iran and Syria are in line for regime change. The entire region is to be reshaped to reflect American values.

This fantastical scheme will be tested to destruction in postwar Iraq. Current US pronouncements on rebuilding the country change from one day to the next and need not be taken too seriously, but it is clear that the Bush administration means to govern Iraq itself, with the UK serving - as ever - as its obedient junior partner, and the UN and the EU playing only a peripheral role. With transnational institutions marginalised, the Americans will face a major problem in legitimating their occupation of Iraq in the Arab world and, for that matter, the world as a whole.

Perhaps with this in mind, they talk of holding democratic elections in the country within a year. They say they want Iraq to be a self-governing nation; but Iraq is not and has never been a nation state. Under Saddam, it has evolved into an extremely repressive regime in which power and privilege are concentrated in a single clan and its hangers-on; but it remains a multinational state, in some ways not unlike the former Yugoslavia. "The Iraqi people" does not exist. The country comprises several distinct ethnic and religious groupings, which have been at one another's throats for many years. Along with some elements in the fractious Iraqi opposition, the Americans talk of a federal Iraq in which these groups will live peacefully together. But history shows that such constructions are extremely fragile. Democracy - above all the federal variety - requires trust, but trust is a commodity in desperately short supply in communities divided by historical memories of savage conflict.

As events in the Balkans have shown, when an authoritarian multinational state collapses, the result is not federalism. It is war and ethnic cleansing. The threat that Turkish forces will move into zones claimed by the Kurds is just the first sign of the bloody fragmentation that may lie in store for Iraq. To think that democracy can be established under such conditions is not just far-fetched, it is imbecilic.

From one angle, then, the Bush administration's project in Iraq is an exercise in the most radical utopianism. From another, it is pure geopolitics. Public statements show that the hawks in the White House and among the Pentagon's civilian leadership see the war as part of a grand strategy to shore up American hegemony, not just in the Middle East but throughout the world. This is where Iraq's oil comes in - not so much as a secure source of supply for America's profligate energy users, but as a lever against potential challenges to US supremacy. Remember the first Gulf war. That war was fought - rightly, as I still think - to stop Saddam gaining control of the oil supplies of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and so acquiring a stranglehold over the global economy. The second Gulf war is being fought to enable the US to seize the same prize. Controlling Iraq's oil will not only allow the US to loosen its ties with Saudi Arabia and break the power of Opec. It will give the US a powerful weapon against states that it regards as strategic rivals - above all, China. Over the next decade or so, as industrialisation in Iraq gathers speed, China will become heavily dependent on oil supplies from the Gulf. So, still, will be much of the rest of the world. If the Americans succeed in Iraq, they will have achieved what Saddam sought in vain a dozen years ago, an unchallengeable hold over the global economy.

The mismatch between the Bush administration's schemes for postwar Iraq and its geopolitical goals is clear enough. What is less clear is how this disconnection will be resolved. There is a widespread view in Europe, Asia and parts of the Middle East that, when the US discovers how difficult it is to govern postwar Iraq, it will do what it always does in such circumstances: pack up and leave others to police the ruins.

Ruling postwar Iraq will be even more demanding than ruling Afghanistan. It will involve more than rebuilding its infrastructure - a vast enterprise that the US, with its ballooning budget deficits and sagging economy, cannot sustain. It requires a willingness to accept casualties.

Will American voters be ready to pay, in higher taxes and a steady flow of body bags, the price of the Bush administration's grand strategy? If not, it is hard to see how the US can remain in Iraq for the long haul. Yet its retreat would amount to a devastating defeat - even in the aftermath of an overwhelming military victory. American power would be damaged beyond repair.

America's war in Iraq is the brainchild of neoconservative intellectuals who despise the traditional diplomacy of the State Department and the seasoned caution of the professional soldiers at the Pentagon. Like the Jacobins in the late 18th century and Lenin's Bolsheviks in the early 20th, the American neoconservatives who are now calling the shots at the White House are revolutionary intellectuals with a very hazy view of the world in which most of humanity actually lives.

They do not grasp the depth and intensity of the hatred with which American power is viewed in the Middle East. They have closed their ears to the derision with which America is discussed in much of Europe and Asia - in sharp contrast to the wide admiration it enjoyed in the wake of 11 September. They have shut out of their minds awkward questions about how counter-terrorist strategies can be effective when some of the countries that know most about the threat - notably France - may in future be less ready to co-operate with the US. They appear unaware of the mounting risks of trade war that go with the threat of American economic sanctions against European countries such as France and Germany. With all their talk of weapons of mass destruction, they seem oblivious to the accelerating proliferation produced by their own rejection of arms control agreements. They are animated by the faith that American firepower can protect America from attack; but America's superiority in high-tech weaponry cannot protect it against the sort of asymmetric warfare practised by Osama Bin Laden.

This is an alarming state of affairs, but it is not surprising. It is a natural result of the bizarre world-view of the neoconservatives who have taken America into Iraq. An exotic mix of Dr Strangelove and Dr Billy Graham, they believe that once the war is won they can convert the Middle East to US-style democracy. As Joseph de Maistre knew, such attempts to rewrite history always end in tears. The dark forebodings of that sage of old Europe may have missed the gains in human well-being that were being achieved even as he lived; but they were borne out by the murderous history of the 20th century. It looks like they will be vindicated again.

John Gray's next book is Al-Qaeda and What It Means To Be Modern, published by Faber and Faber in May