Understanding neoconservatism is requisite to understanding post-Cold War US foreign policy.  Discerning neoconservatism’s motives can be frustrating.  How is it that they honestly believed and justified some of the things they said and did?  How is it they repeatedly denied their many failures, sometimes even citing documents which prove a point opposite the ones they attempted to make?  How are they allowed to remain a part of the political system?  Are their loyalties to the Likud Party, arms dealers, or do they somehow have a Hobbesian view of the world that simply entails a perpetually offensive military posture?  There is certainly nothing new about belligerent elements in governments, but with the neoconservatives there is an element of utter incompetence that nearly defies understanding.

These questions went unanswered for some time until I saw The Power of Nightmares, a three part documentary produced by the BBC in 2004, that tied up a lot of loose ends in my mind.  I recently re-watched it because I was in a class that covered “Team B” and am also working on a post about Michael Ledeen, who is featured prominently.  Some high-profile interviews are featured in the film (I’m not sure if they were done for this film exclusively or were part of BBC’s archival footage, which was drawn upon for parts of the film) including Richard Perle, William and Irving Kristol, Michael Ledeen, Richard Pipes, Milt Bearden, Mikhail Gorbachev, Gilles Kepel, Brent Scowcroft, Melvin Goodman, Vincent Cannistraro, David Brock and Anne Cahn, author of  Killing Detente:  The Right Attacks the CIA, amongst others.  The Power of Nightmares traces in parallel the rise of radical Islam and the rise of neoconservatism.  Sayid Qutb, an Egyptian teacher and extremist, is shown as the intellectual architect of much of the strategy and thinking of radical Islam, and the University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss is shown as the godfather of neoconservative thought.

Qutb and Strauss are similar as they thought their respective societies could be saved from decay only by an elite vanguard–groups such as radical Muslims or neoconservatives–who would deceive their countrymen into constructing a kind of society that those thinkers thought desirable.  The interweaving of these stories is masterfully done.  Qutb’s writings remain a watershed for modern radical Muslims, and, interestingly, Strauss is praised by neoconservatives for his insights into Western society.

All three parts can be streamed here and here.

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