America's allies and enemies alike are baffled. What is going on in the United States? Who is making foreign policy? And what are they trying to achieve? Quasi-Marxist explanations involving big oil or American capitalism are mistaken. Yes, American oil companies and contractors will accept the spoils of the kill in Iraq. But the oil business, with its Arabist bias, did not push for this war any more than it supports the Bush administration's close alliance with Ariel Sharon. Further, President Bush and Vice-President Cheney are not genuine "Texas oil men" but career politicians who, in between stints in public life, would have used their connections to enrich themselves as figureheads in the wheat business, if they had been residents of Kansas, or in tech companies, had they been Californians.
Equally wrong is the theory that American and European civilisation are evolving in opposite directions. The thesis of Robert Kagan, the neoconservative propagandist, that Americans are martial and Europeans pacifist, is complete nonsense. A majority of Americans voted for either Al Gore or Ralph Nader in 2000. Were it not for the over-representation of sparsely populated, right-wing states in both the presidential electoral college and the Senate, the White House and the Senate today would be controlled by Democrats, whose views and values, on everything from war to the welfare state, are very close to those of western Europeans.
Both the economic-determinist theory and the clash-of-cultures theory are reassuring: they assume that the recent revolution in US foreign policy is the result of obscure but understandable forces in an orderly world. The truth is more alarming. As a result of several bizarre and unforeseeable contingencies - such as the selection rather than election of George W Bush, and 11 September - the foreign policy of the world's only global power is being made by a small clique that is unrepresentative of either the US population or the mainstream foreign policy establishment.
The core group now in charge consists of neoconservative defence intellectuals (they are called "neoconservatives" because many of them started off as anti-Stalinist leftists or liberals before moving to the far right). Inside the government, the chief defence intellectuals include Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defence. He is the defence mastermind of the Bush administration; Donald Rumsfeld is an elderly figurehead who holds the position of defence secretary only because Wolfowitz himself is too controversial. Others include Douglas Feith, the number three at the Pentagon; Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a Wolfowitz protege who is Cheney's chief of staff; John R Bolton, a right-winger assigned to the State Department to keep Colin Powell in check; and Elliott Abrams, recently appointed to head Middle East policy at the National Security Council. On the outside are James Woolsey, the former CIA director, who has tried repeatedly to link both 9/11 and the anthrax letters in the US to Saddam Hussein, and Richard Perle, who has just resigned from his unpaid defence department advisory post after a lobbying scandal. Most of these "experts" never served in the military. But their headquarters is now the civilian defence secretary's office, where these Republican political appointees are despised and distrusted by the largely Republican career soldiers.
Most neoconservative defence intellectuals have their roots on the left, not the right. They are products of the largely Jewish-American Trotskyist movement of the 1930s and 1940s, which morphed into anti- communist liberalism between the 1950s and 1970s and finally into a kind of militaristic and imperial right with no precedents in American culture or political history. Their admiration for the Israeli Likud party's tactics, including preventive warfare such Israel's 1981 raid on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, is mixed with odd bursts of ideological enthusiasm for "democracy". They call their revolutionary ideology "Wilsonianism" (after President Woodrow Wilson), but it is really Trotsky's theory of the permanent revolution mingled with the far-right Likud strain of Zionism. Genuine American Wilsonians believe in self-determination for people such as the Palestinians.
The neo-con defence intellectuals, as well as being in or around the actual Pentagon, are at the centre of a metaphorical "pentagon" of the Israel lobby and the religious right, plus conservative think- tanks, foundations and media empires. Think-tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) provide homes for neo-con "in-and- outers" when they are out of government (Perle is a fellow at AEI). The money comes not so much from corporations as from decades-old conservative foundations, such as the Bradley and Olin foundations, which spend down the estates of long-dead tycoons. Neoconservative foreign policy does not reflect business interests in any direct way. The neo-cons are ideologues, not opportunists.