Daily Telegraph

An American Odyssey.  'The US isn't a super-power - we're a super-duper power and there hasn't been one before.'
Why is there such deep distrust between America and the rest of the world? To find out, I spent five weeks travelling across the country, talking to members of the administration, presidents of great universities, military commanders, chief executive officers of giant corporations and banks - and a host of ordinary citizens.  By Graham Turner. Monday, June 16, 2003.
"Is America fit to be an imperial power?" I asked the former head of the CIA, Admiral Stansfield Turner. I knew I was pushing my luck and the admiral, who was Director of Central Intelligence during the Carter years, was clearly irritated. "If anyone says that the United States is not fit to be an imperial power," he retorted, "the burden is on them to say why.

"I believe we're fit for three reasons. One, we won the Cold War resoundingly. Two: we're both the most democratic country in the world and the best example of free enterprise - and that's the way the whole world is moving. Those who don't go that way will simply be trampled under foot.

"Number three: the world needs a leader, and no one else can do it. The EU didn't stand up on Bosnia. We did. The EU couldn't stand up on Kosovo. We did. So it doesn't make much difference whether we're fit or not. We're there, and no one else is."

But, I ventured, did America know much about the world they were intending to lead? "No, we don't," conceded the admiral, "but we do believe ours is the right way. And why has all this criticism of the US come up now? Is it because you feel you don't need us as much as you did when the threat of communism was still around? Is that why people didn't show this jealousy before?"

Admiral Turner, who was born in (of all unlikely places) Ramsbottom in Lancashire, speaks in understandably truculent but decidedly imperial tones. Raymond Seitz, a former US ambassador in London and the most Anglophile of Americans, sounds a wryer, more ironic note - but his message is much the same.

"It's very hard," he said, "to think of anything international in nature which can be successfully launched if it doesn't have the backing of the United States. If we pull out of the Kyoto Protocol, it's a dead letter. If we're not part of the International Criminal Court, it's a sham court. If we're not participating vigorously in something, it's not going to work very effectively.

"A lot of national leaders recognise that the security of their countries depends on a good relationship with the US, so they value the opportunity to be received in the White House - the palace where all decisions are made. When America votes for the person who rules here, it has a huge effect around the globe. If you're in a bazaar in Cairo or pushing a cart in Shanghai, that choice will have a large effect on your personal security and prosperity.

"It is therefore important for their leaders to be able to go into the Throne Room. If they're lucky when they get there, they'll be given a bigger quota for their apples or, perhaps, American backing for the dam they want to build because we'll vote for the loan in the World Bank. It sounds arrogant, but it's true.

"Our power is so great, and so unlikely to be challenged for many, many years, that you have to go back to Rome for any kind of parallel. It's a misnomer to speak of the United States as being merely a super-power. We're a super-duper power, and I don't know that the world has seen one of those before."

When it comes to "old" Europe, there are echoes of Donald Rumsfeld everywhere in Washington and New York. "I spend a lot of time in Europe in political and intellectual circles," said George Weigel, biographer of the Pope and senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, "and I find them frankly boring. There is so much more going on here. It's we who frame the debate about the great global issues."

"There is a strong feeling here," said Father Richard Neuhaus, a leading Catholic theologian with many friends in the White House, "that Western Europe is literally a dying continent, demographically and spiritually; whereas in America, people are energetic, vibrant, filled with technical expertise, whistles and bells.

"Foreigners say our newspapers give little foreign news, which proves that we are insular - but that is nonsense. The reason that there is little foreign news is that so much happens in America and around the world because of America. America is the story! If you live in Belgium or Denmark, you're simply not making half an hour of news each night."

Even retired military men are contemptuous of what we have to offer intellectually. "I used to go to Europe with an inferiority complex," said Lieut Gen William Odom, a former director of the National Security Agency who now works for the Hudson Institute, "but now I can't find a decent debate over there. They don't think strategically, but then they don't have to because they're not in charge - and, in any case, they don't have any money."

He made the nations of Western Europe sound like a dull, insignificant province of the United States. "When an event happens in the world," he went on, "nobody calls those people, whereas they're calling our President all the time. When the intelligence community in this country hears about something which might cause the President to make a decision, they have 10 minutes to get it to the White House. [It evidently took rather longer in the days before 9/11].

"Does that give you a sense of empire? Which other capital can you go to where that is the case? Washington is full of foreign lobbies wanting something from America. Why would you want to lobby Chirac - to change the kind of cheese or something?"

I heard the same vainglorious imperial echoes again and again as I travelled around the United States talking with members of the administration, the presidents of great universities, celebrated columnists, the chief executive officers of giant corporations and banks, as well as a host of ordinary citizens.

I had first gone to America as a student at Stanford University 50 years ago. This time, I went not so much to enjoy myself as to try to understand that remarkable and, in many ways, mysterious country.

My conclusion, at the end of five weeks and 20,000 miles, is that although the war in Iraq may have provided a dramatic demonstration of Americans' overwhelming might, we ain't seen nothing yet.

In military terms, the United States is simply a generation or more ahead of the rest of the world. Its hi-tech capabilities make everyone else look Neanderthal; and even in the most mundane items of military hardware, such as transport aircraft, it dwarfs the rest of us. They have 87 C17s: Western Europe has four. Within a decade, the Americans expect to have supersonic weapons operating at Mach 25 - 19,000 miles an hour. "We are not even trying to keep up," said Andrew Brooks of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.

Military dominance, moreover, is but one aspect of America's overwhelming power. The United States produces more than 30 per cent of the world's goods and services. New York accounts for at least half of the world's capital market. And 70 per cent of the world's visual media comes out of America, and, in a large part, reflects an American view of things.

Yet despite their awesome dominance, many Americans confess to an underlying fear and insecurity which makes it plain that the very exercise of their power, far from giving them peace of mind, has merely heightened their anxieties. They have become uneasy citizens of the world they bestride.

"I'd say there's a lot of anxiety and edginess about," said Fred Barnes, a well-known Washington columnist and television personality. "We, for example, have bought duct tape for the windows, not to mention several days' supply of water and canned food - and my wife Barbara and I have agreed that, if something happens, we and our two daughters will try to meet at our other house in Middleburgh, which is 40 miles from here. We haven't been to that house for years, but I always keep the key in my pocket. A lot of other people have taken similar precautions."

Indeed they have. "My son, who is 10 and goes to school near the CIA's headquarters, always takes a biochemical change of clothes with him in case of attack," said George Will, a columnist who is syndicated in 490 papers across America. "All the family have little cell-phones in their backpacks, so we can find out where everyone is and take the next step. Mrs Will says she would head for a motel in Pennsylvania."

Nor is this merely a Beltway phenomenon. On the plane from Atlanta to Austin, Texas, I met Camille Brightman, a young nurse whose parents own a 50,000-acre ranch in the state. "I did say a prayer before we took off that we wouldn't be sabotaged," she said, "and I decided I'd better make a will just as soon as we landed. I have an Argentinian boyfriend and I've been wondering whether it wouldn't be safer for us to live in Argentina.

"Fernando doesn't want to go - he thinks the US is great - but I feel sure Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are still alive and will show up again pretty soon."

"Since 9/11," said an elderly lady in the bar of the hotel at West Point, "I'm just more mistrustful. I look at everybody in a completely different way. And they talk about the danger of terrorism all the time on TV, so you can't really be surprised if people like me are more frightened."

Uneasy, indeed, lies the head that wears the crown.

This unease is all the greater because, in their heart of hearts, many Americans find it hard to imagine why anyone should want to do them harm, still less hate them. The United States, they are convinced, is the first truly benign super-power in history. Having developed what they believe to be the most enlightened form of society ever conceived, they see themselves as wanting nothing but to do good in the world, in particular by helping others - in the nicest possible way - to become more like themselves.

One of the most revealing moments on my journey came over lunch with Irving and Bea Kristol in Washington. They are a delightful couple of high intelligence and sophistication. When I asked what kind of people made up America's imperial class, both strongly denied that there was any such thing. None the less, I said, America did seem to be behaving in a very imperial way. Bea looked puzzled and shocked. "But," she said, "the word 'imperial' implies that there is something in it for America."

To me, her remark bespoke an astonishing and unfathomable innocence. She seemed to imply that America was never self-interested, that it only ever acted for the good of others. Even at the height of the British Empire, we never managed to delude ourselves that the venture was purely altruistic.

Yet, to my astonishment, when I retailed the conversation to Robert Joss, Dean of the Stanford Business School, he found Bea's remark in no way surprising. "Yes," he said, "that is what Americans genuinely feel, that what we are doing is trying to bring goodness to everybody else, that we are ready to pay the highest price to bring them freedom and to make the world a safer place. I know that it sounds terribly naive to Europeans, but it is not phoney - it is the genuine conviction of most Americans.

"They are shocked that other people should see our motives differently. It's true that we want to project our kind of society around the world, but we don't see that as an exercise of power. And when other people ask: 'Who are you to tell us what is good for us?' or tell us that we are acting in an imperial way, that really hurts Americans.

"We don't like other people telling us how to live, but we can't understand it when folk in other countries object to us doing the same thing to them."

Father Neuhaus agreed that Bea was speaking for the mass of Americans. "What she said," he observed, "is a perfect reflection of how a great many Americans think. The political class in this country believes that America is founded on ideas which are moral in nature, so we can't possibly be imperialists in the way that other empires were."

To Tom Foley, Speaker of the House of Representatives for six years and now chairman of an international economic liaison body called the Trilateral Commission, America's belief in its own virtues is altogether less sacrosanct. "We have, unfortunately, a very pervasive notion of our good intentions," he said. "It leads to an assumption that any sort of objective examination of the United States must result in approval, if not vigorous applause.

"If it doesn't, we become confused and ask why others don't see us as we see ourselves - such evident virtue, such benign affability. We think we are a marvellous country. We are constantly praising ourselves. When others don't seem to appreciate how wonderful we are, we put it down to deliberate ignorance or malign attitudes.

"Our belief is that we are not self-interested. For example, our perception is that we didn't go to war against Iraq to dominate the oil market, and we're very offended if anyone suggests such a thing. Yet we advance the same charge against the Russians and the French. We say they're only interested in getting contracts there. We always excuse ourselves from self-interested motives."

This suggested, I said, that Americans had been thoroughly brainwashed with a belief in their own virtues. "There is a lot in that," replied Foley. "Individually, we are reasonably modest, but collectively, we have been told again and again that we are the greatest thing in the history of the world. And then there are the constant references to the blessings of the Deity, which pepper the speeches of our political leaders.

"We are not a nation which prays in its closet. We expect the President to be our principal preacher, to express constantly the idea that God has showered us with special blessings and that we, therefore, have a special identity, a special mission in the world. It is a mission which is realised in part just by being who we are, but which also requires us to encourage others to be just like us."

"Chip" Blacker, once Clinton's special assistant for national security affairs and now a senior academic at Stanford, said: "All big, continental countries tend to be self-regarding. We think democracy is good because it works for us. Capitalism is good for the same reason. That is why we end up doing things which are patently illegal and ignoble. We convince ourselves that, whatever it is we want, it must be good for others because it's good for us."

The innocence and arrogance that lie behind these attitudes go a long way to explaining why there is often such a profound misunderstanding between America and the rest of the world. It is hard not to agree with Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr centre in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, when he says: "There is nothing more frightening than American innocence. It's a fearsome, sometimes murderous innocence. Our inability to question our own motives is truly alarming."

How have so many Americans managed to get themselves into such an extraordinary frame of mind? It is partly the sheer size and remoteness of America. "People in Europe," said George Weigel, "can't grasp the geographical magnitude of the United States. I have in-laws who live in and around Edinburgh, and I tell them that to fly from Seattle to Washington is the equivalent of flying from Dublin to Kiev in the Ukraine."

A merica also has a powerful and all-pervasive culture that, combined with its great size, makes it feel like a world unto itself.

"Look at the distances," said Michael Shelden, Professor of English at Indiana State University, over supper in Indianapolis. "You can travel 1,500 miles from here and still be in the United States - so if it is a kind of bathysphere, it is a very big one. You don't have to bother with other cultures because they're so far away. Canada is essentially part of the US, so the only foreign culture many people have any contact with is Mexico.

"In Britain, you can spend half a day shopping in France, and still be back for dinner, but, in America, the boundaries confine you. It's easy to spend your whole life in your home state. I grew up in Oklahoma, which is almost as big as England and Wales, and I had the impression that there was nothing beyond its borders. That means that you never leave the reinforcement of the culture. It envelopes you totally. It's so overwhelming, it sweeps you up at every corner; it knocks you down and takes you away.

"That's partly because of the wealth, which is dazzling even in a city such as this. You've been living in the Ukraine, you come here and, within a few years, you own a factory as big as a football pitch and have 70 or 80 people working for you. That happens routinely, certainly often enough to keep the American dream alive."

But what sets America apart from the rest of the world more than anything else is that it has an ideology every bit as powerful and all-embracing as Communism. When I was a student, the only ideology I was aware of was Marxism, which meant tightly-knit groups of conspirators fomenting more or less bloody revolution. Americans, to me, were merely libertarian free-wheelers.

However, the more I listen to Americans, these days, the more obvious it becomes that the United States is profoundly ideological.

"When you talk about American power," remarked Raymond Seitz, "you have to realise there is an ideological context. America is basically an idea. We have often been seen and, indeed, prided ourselves on being non-ideological, but we are, in fact, very ideological - and our ideology is America.

"One of the most astonishing events of the last dozen years has been the triumph of open-market economics and the democracy which goes with it. The only other idea in the field, Marxism, simply didn't work. God came down and said: 'These are the good guys, these are the bad' - to our immense satisfaction. Nations around the world see a great deal in us to be wished for, envied, copied."

Like the Marxists, the Americans are confident that they will conquer the world by the power of their idea. "The American empire is ideological, not territorial," declared General Odom. "We are the most ideological people in the world, and we are so united in our view that we don't understand there can be other views. We don't want to run your country but, by God, you'd better run it on liberal principles.

"We want stable property rights, free courts and full contract enforcement. The next point is that ours is a money-making empire, not a money-losing one. So it is an empire where people fight to get in, not out."

For those who deny that there is an American ideology, Michael Ignatieff has a crisp rebuttal: "Yes, we do have an ideology and, like all ideologies, it doesn't believe it is one. It just believes that it is The Truth. Bush believes in it to a degree which is astonishing. So far as he is concerned, America's way is God's way."

The United States, furthermore, is a society that does not have to dragoon the vast mass of its citizens into conformity. "This is a society of true believers," said Richard Neuhaus. "The belief in democracy, market economics and the importance of religion is far more pervasive here than Marxism ever was in Russia.

"Here, it is the people, not the apparatchiks who drive those ideas. Most Americans articulate and experience them in their everyday lives. And we have more voluntary immigrants than the rest of the world put together. At one level, America is like a Broadway hit musical. People are queueing around the block for tickets."

I said that I marvelled at how many of those at the bottom of the heap still clung to the idea of the American dream, the chance of making it big, however long the odds. There are, after all, 43 million people in America without any health insurance. It is an utterly harsh and unforgiving world for those who do not boast a great credit history.

"Where I live in New York," replied Neuhaus, "there is a fish market run by a Korean who works day and night. The other day, he stuck a notice on his door: 'Closed for day, son graduate college (Harvard)'. That man may have thought he had no chance to make it big, but he believed his son or daughter would and, if not them, his grandchildren."

I wondered whether the relentlessly upbeat lingua franca of American life - "How are ya today?" (expecting the answer "fine", "great," or "good"), "You're welcome", and always ending with either "Have a great day!" or "Have a wonderful day!" - far from being casual, throwaway phrases, were intended to provide mutual reassurance that the American dream is alive and well.

Margaret Wertheim, a distinguished Australian writer who lives in Los Angeles, agreed that this was the point of these exchanges. "They are a reassurance," she said, "that everything is fabulous, everything is going wonderfully and that if we all act happy, smile enough, say enough cheerful things, we will all be happy."

"You are absolutely right," replied Neuhaus. "They are all phrases of encouragement. None of them suggest pessimism. All of them suggest hopefulness."

Not once, in my five weeks in America, did anyone open a conversation in a downbeat way. The yellow brick road leads upward, ever upward, towards the Promised Land.

An ideology, of course, involves brainwashing; and, in America, it gets under way very early. Every morning, the 900 children of Glen Forest elementary school in Falls Church, Virginia - half of them Latinos, 20 per cent from the Middle East, only five per cent white Caucasians - stand, with bare heads and hands on hearts, and, facing the flag, repeat the same stirring words: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America... one nation under God, indivisible and with liberty and justice for all. "I have my three-year-olds doing it," said the head teacher, Teresa West.

Down the road at the Lake Anne school in Reston, half of the children take many of their classes in Spanish and make the pledge in the same language: Juro fidelidad a la Bandera de los Estados Unidos de Norte America. In both schools, it is a solemn moment.

"We do it at 8.25 every morning," said Wanda Nelson, Lake Anne's deputy head. "If one of the children comes late with their parents, and the pledge is announced over the loudspeakers, they stop dead in their tracks and say it right there, children and parents alike."

I asked a group of delightful six-to-eight-year-olds how they feel when they recite the pledge. Does it make them feel respectful or, perhaps, bored? No, they cried out! "I feel proud when I do it," said Acadia, "because America is a very good country, a free country." A little boy murmured: "Sometimes, my heart is beating."

"Most children want to be American," said Nelson, "and saying the pledge gives them a sense of pride. They are absolutely uplifted by it. They feel they're tasting the American dream."

Every classroom in both schools - like their counterparts right across the United States - had a flag. When I confessed that we do not have flags in our classrooms, Ms Nelson was mystified. "You have no flags?" she asked. "How on earth do you engender patriotism?"

The pledge and the ever-present flags are by no means the end of it. In both schools, the children learn a whole range of patriotic songs - The Star-Spangled Banner, This Land is your Land, America the Beautiful. I asked the children at Lake Anne whether they would sing for me and, squatting on the ground in a semi-circle, they immediately struck up America the Beautiful - led by a little black girl called Jasmin, with meticulously braided hair.

"America, America," piped the childish voices, "God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea". It was impossible not to be moved.

Her personal goal, said Teresa West, was to create not Americans but "educated people who will make a stronger America" - yet 12 years of repeating the Pledge, studying America's patriotic symbols, taking part in patriotic singalongs and listening to bands playing John Philip Sousa is bound to have a profound effect.

For some immigrants, however, it is too much, too soon. I went out to dinner in Atlanta with Mike McCarthy and his wife Christina. Mike recently arrived from Britain to be managing editor of CNN International. They both love the city. "I'd never go back to London," said Christina.

On the other hand, within a month of putting their two little boys into the local elementary school, they were startled to find them coming back home singing patriotic American songs and telling them that they really ought to be going off to Washington to see the Lincoln Memorial. In September, Mike and Christina are moving the boys to an international school.

Often, elementary schools also prepare their pupils to be fully-fledged members of a capitalist, free-market society. On a flight from Bentonville, Arkansas, I sat next to Steve Kaza, a 33-year-old who works for a company selling toys to Wal-mart, America's largest corporation. A month or so earlier, he told me, his eldest son Tanner, who is 11, had a project in which each of the pupils was given a fictional $100,000 and told to invest it on the stock market.

"They were helped with stats, the 52-week high and PE ratios of various stocks and, of course, their parents were expected to help them," said Kaza. "Wal-mart was down to $47 at one point, so I told Tanner to buy, and they shot up to $56. He was up to $118,000 by the end of the fourth week.

"He checks the market every couple of days to see how he's doing and, two weeks ago, he told me he was number two. 'In the school?' I said. 'No,' he replied, 'in the state.'

"It's interesting to see," he added blandly, "how young they're starting them on the stock market. It's not brainwashing, but it's close to it."

V irtually everything that Americans see on their cinema or television screens serves to reinforce the capitalist, consumerist ideology. "Films made in Hollywood," said Adrian Wootton, then acting director of the British Film Institute, "usually reflect the nature of the American dream - the better life, the things you might want and don't have but might be able to get.

"They do make films which explore social and political issues but, for the most part, they're driven by leisure and consumption, the American ideology. The industry is not geared to criticising the way in which America makes money."

It is the same on television. "US soaps and dramas never question that capitalism is the best way of doing things," said Toby Scott, editorial director of TV International in London, a newsletter that covers the global industry. "It is simply the accepted way." Hollywood, in other words, is part of capitalism's ideological machinery.

The West Wing, which features a fictional Democratic president, opens against a backdrop of the White House and the flag with the words: "The West Wing is about the never-ending battle for truth and justice - and the American way," delivered in reverential tones. If the words were much the same but the backdrop were Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street, the whole of Britain would fall about laughing.

The Hollywood studios also play a key role in allowing America to remain a huge, inward-looking bathysphere. "They worry a great deal," said Wootton, "about whether an American audience will identify with the people on the screen. And if they imagine they'll just think: 'This is about a bunch of Brits', they'll replace them with a bunch of Americans. If an American audience isn't going to relate to the story, they'll just change it."

It is not merely that in the film U571, it was an American submarine that captured an Enigma machine from a Nazi U-boat at a point when the United States had not even entered the Second World War. It is not merely that, in reformatting Winnie the Pooh for the American screen, they have made Tigger as frantic as the Pink Panther but with an American accent. Crucially, it is that all experiences, no matter what their original cultural context, are turned into American experiences. Without Americans somewhere in the picture, it seems, the world is altogether less interesting.

"I find America enormously insulated, shockingly alien and unaware of the world," said Margaret Wertheim. "They grow up with the notion that America is the centre of everything. They have little experience of anything other than their own world, and they simply can't relate to other cultures. They have no sense that other kinds of experience are valuable or interesting."

Philip Reeker, a refreshingly honest State Department spokesman, does not basically disagree. "Yes," he said, "it's true that our people do not understand strangeness. When they see how others do things, they'll say: 'Oh, how quaint, how neat, how interesting!', but what they really mean is: 'How bizarre!'

"We are good at sympathy when people are in a fix, but not so good at empathy, at understanding how other people think and feel. It's partly that we're such a huge country. If you live in Nebraska, you're apt to have a very provincial view. People tend to say: 'Why don't they do it the same as us?"'

None of this, it seems to me, helps make America fit to be an imperial power.

In some cases, even the more intelligent Americans are simply not interested in finding out more about the outside world. "I was at UCLA [University of California Los Angeles], working on a PhD," said Anila Daulatzai, a young American of Afghan parentage, "when my prof asked me whether I'd teach a class on Afghanistan in political science. I asked the students whether they would like to know more about Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the majority said they just didn't have time.

"Almost 60 per cent of the class were white American males who wanted to serve in the US Government. Several made it clear to me that they were interested in joining the CIA, and thought it would look good on their CVs if they'd done one course on the area. They didn't really want to know what was going on there, though the Americans were bombing Afghanistan at the time.

"I suggested that we might take a more critical look at the nature of the US involvement in that area. How they had built up the Taliban to fight against the Soviet Union. How they had used Osama bin Laden in that effort. How they had built up Saddam, used him and then turned against him as the evil one. I said those things in a very neutral way - and I did know something about the area, because I'd spent a long time working in refugee camps there.

"It didn't make any difference. Students started raising their hands and saying: 'I don't agree with what you're saying', 'America is the best place on earth', 'If you don't like it here, go back to where you came from'. I pointed out that I had been born up the street, that I had thought the point of an academic institution was to debate issues in a courteous way and that we were not on a Fourth of July parade or in a bar. This, I'm afraid, is an ignorant and arrogant nation."

Ignorance, at least, is not something of which Washington can be accused. It is a city bulging with brains, bursting with ideas, conscious that no metropolis in history has ever had such power at its fingertips. And yet, for all its pomp, it is deeply and passionately divided about how America should use its mighty power.

The one thing everyone is agreed on is that it is ideas that really matter; that they are far more powerful than bombs and far less expensive. "The most effective way to maintain an empire," said John Hamre, who runs the Centre for Strategic and International Studies - one of the scores of think tanks that festoon Washington and often drive the American political machine - "is not through military means but through the power of ideas."

Sadly, from his point of view, the military option has been on the front burner. The invasion of Iraq would not have been his first priority. "We're so close to Israel, so one-sided," he remarked, "that people in the Middle East don't take us seriously."

I visited Richard Perle at his home in the suburbs. He is a leading Jewish neo-conservative of considerable reclame, for whom the invasion of Iraq was a priority. According to his enemies, he has so many cronies in the White House that they are known as "the string of Perles".

A bust of Winston Churchill sits on his desk, and he is accompanied by a dog called Reagan. As I climbed the stairs, she took a friendly nip at me. Perle is a portly figure who struck me as rather pleased with himself, despite having been forced to resign as chairman of the Defense Policy Board. His influence, he said, has very little to do with the board. On the other hand, "if people look back and think Iraq was an error, whatever influence I have will be greatly diminished. But I assure you we will find weapons of mass destruction."

Perle must have had some anxious days since we met. Nor is he the only one. Tom Foley told me he would be "flabbergasted" if nothing came to light.

"In any event," Perle went on, "it's not a case of 'who's next?' in the Middle East, so far as I'm concerned. Iraq is unique. We don't make a habit of changing regimes. I would not counsel the use of force in Iran. I'd sooner wait. People there are so dissatisfied with the government that there's potential for a change from within."

But could there eventually be a case for the use of force, I asked? "That's very difficult to answer," Perle replied. "As of now, I don't think it would be wise to deal with the Iranian regime in that way, but I can't tell how the situation will look in two years' time. We've somehow got to make it clear that harbouring terrorist organisations is going to be a costly business."

A s for Syria, "my impression is that, at the moment, if you fly to Damascus, you can just ask a cab driver to take you to any number of terrorist addresses - and that is intolerable. Somehow, we've got to isolate Assad and make him realise that there's very little benefit in playing host to these people."

Given that so many of the leading neo-cons were Jewish and sympathetic to Sharon, was this, I asked, merely an Israeli-driven agenda? "That assumes," retorted Perle, "that it was in Israel's interest for us to remove Saddam. They've always said that Iran was the main threat because of their support of Hezbollah. In any case, I don't even know Sharon. The only time I've met him was after the Yom Kippur war in a team with the senator I then worked for - and that was 45 minutes at most. I don't think Paul Wolfowitz [the deputy defense secretary] knows him either."

I called on Michael Ledeen, one of Perle's soul mates at the American Enterprise Institute, yet another leading think tank. The entrance hall has a marble floor and it is clearly not a nickel-and-dime outfit. Wolfowitz used to work there and Dick Cheney's wife Lynn still does. Ledeen, too, does not think in parish-pump terms. Taking on the Middle Eastern terror masters, he once said, "may turn out to be a war to remake the world".

On his desk is a model of Darth Vader, the villain of Star Wars, and a pop-up of George W that plays Hail to The Chief when you crank the handle. It is easy to see where he is coming from and where he is going to. "Iraq," he declared, "is not what it's all about. We have been at war for 20 years with a terror network supported by Iraq, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia - ships attacked, embassies blown up. Bush is the first person to actually wage war against them.

"Now, like it or not, we're in a regional war, and we can't opt out of it. We shall never go back. We have to bring down these regimes and produce free governments in all those countries. A lot of what we have to do isn't military at all. In Iran, for example, we need to support democratic revolution, give them money, satellite phones, communications equipment, so they can organise.

"If they go on strike, we must make sure they have money in their pockets. We'd have a moral obligation to provide that, even without terrorism. Undermining the governments of other countries? No big deal."

He is utterly contemptuous of the State Department. "All they'd have done in Iraq is organise a coup and replace Saddam with another tyrant. As for the CIA, they'd just have said: 'We have a very good colonel - he'll take care of things'.

"Of course," Ledeen went on, "there are people who want to put all this down to a Jewish plot - but where are the Jews in the Cabinet? Then, people say it's because the Jews are so clever. I just remind you of the story of the man who asked: 'Why are Jews so goddamn smart?' The answer was: 'Because every time we find a stupid one, we have him baptised'. Israel is a total mess, and you can hardly put that down to Episcopalians, can you?"

I observed that a lot of Americans seemed to feel that the rest of the world should be just like them. "All empires are the same," replied Ledeen, who has a doctorate in modern European history. "They imagine they've found the secret of life. In the case of Britain, it was 'Queen and Country - we know how to do things better!' Well, there's a lot of that in America, too."

Meanwhile, those who regard the neo-cons and their policies as lunatic seethe over filets mignons in Washington's smart clubs and restaurants. "There is, I tell you," snorted a former ambassador and White House aide who now has a top job in one of the largest think tanks, "an underlying ferment of anger in this town which emerges whenever people talk one-on-one."

He looked around the restaurant carefully before really loosing off, kept his voice down and insisted on remaining anonymous. For those with careers to cultivate, free speech has a price. "This bunch of interlopers who've latched on to George are stark, staring bonkers," he declared. "Their policies are insane. There's no doubt that Syria and Iran are the next on their hit-list. You might be able to reform the Middle East in 30 or 40 years, but the idea of trying to do it in 18 months is simply childish.

"Ninety-five per cent of Democrats, apart from the Jews, were always doubtful about the war, and so were 80 per cent of Republicans, but they kept their mouths shut. Why? Because if you were wrong-footed on the result, you didn't want the President coming after you.

"The other thing was the Sharon lobby. One Congressman, Jim Moran, said that if it weren't for Israel, we wouldn't have been going to war, and he was accused of anti-Semitism. Because of the atmosphere of war, deference to the President and the huge power of the Israeli lobby, we didn't even have a debate about whether we should go to war. We simply jumped into it."

It was a complaint I heard again and again, all over the United States.

In other parts of town, the language was more measured, but the anxieties were just the same. "There's going to be no recession in terrorism," said Tom Foley, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, "and the US is going to need even more allies than we did in the Cold War. Al Qa'eda isn't going to settle for anything less than the demise of America; and we need, for example, to be able to clear cargoes from all over the world before they sail for our ports. Yet Bush has offended so many of our allies, and there was a dismissive contempt about the way he dealt with the issue of the International Criminal Court.

"We're going to be a super-duper power for many years and, since we've got a big stick, we should speak softly. We may see ourselves as benign but, unless we develop a better voice to the world, we are going to invite a coalition of resentment and disapproval. When will it seep into the American consciousness that others see us as an imperial entity led by a new imperial class?"

He also found the growth in presidential power deeply worrying. "The President is now the great Pope," said Foley. "He's not infallible yet, but he's coming close. Bush has all the constitutional power of George III."

Even George Will, the conservative columnist who lives just two doors away from Richard Perle ("He's a sweet guy") declares that some of the neo-cons have neglected the first principle of conservatism, which is that the world is complicated and cannot be controlled. "Some of them say we are powerless to do anything about the South Bronx, but that we are able to fine-tune the political culture of the Middle East. Anyone who has seen the Washington traffic has some idea of the limits of government."

"Did George say that?" asked Henry Kissinger, when I saw him in New York just as the US attack on Iraq was beginning. "I sympathise with him. That's why I look at what is happening with such a sense of foreboding. I strongly supported the decision to make an example of Iraq, but I'm very uneasy about the proposition that it's possible to turn it into a western-style democracy in a time-frame compatible with American occupation. I also believe other allies should be involved."

Even distinguished former diplomats express their opposition to the neo-cons with a vitriol that is distinctly undiplomatic. Stephen Bosworth, formerly ambassador to Korea and Tunisia and now Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, says flatly that "the people who have influence in Washington are absolutely loony."

Arthur Schlesinger, the distinguished historian and former special assistant to JFK, damns the Bush doctrine of preventive war as "exactly the same tactic as the Japanese used at Pearl Harbor. Today, the lunatics who believe in that doctrine dominate American foreign policy. They lack any decent respect for the opinions of the rest of mankind; and cast themselves as the world's jury, judge and executioner in deciding which country to attack, which people to bomb.

"The fact that they think it's possible for the United States to go into Iraq - a country where we have no historic experience - and establish a liberal democracy beggars belief. The invasion of Iraq will create hundreds of Osama bin Ladens. This is a very dangerous time for America."

But you are, I pointed out, totally dominant. "Except in the case of Israel," Schlesinger replied. "Israel dominates us."

With the war won and an apparently endless war against terrorism in prospect, all kinds of questions are now being asked about the conduct of American policy. Why was there not a proper public debate before America went to war? Why, in the view of many public figures and even some senior television executives, did the American media behave more like cheerleaders than sceptical watchdogs? Is presidential power getting out of hand? The debate on these issues is only just beginning.

Many experienced operators, such as Raymond Seitz, believe that America does not know how to use its imperial power. The one thing that is certain is that its power has increased, is increasing and will continue to increase - if only because the United States has become a shrine of success for the rest of the world, which is beating a path to its door.

The heartlands of American power are to be found in some surprising places. It is instructive to discover that Harvard and Hollywood were also on the hit-lists of the 9/11 bombers.