The 2004 BBC Documentary The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear, created by Adam Curtis examines the rise of the so-called Neo-Conservatives in American politics. Curtis takes a negative view of the Neo-Conservatives, portraying them as responsible for an aggressive American policy concerned with only American interests and thus fundamentally realist in character. Namely, the film revolved around developing the thesis that the foundational aspect of the Neo-Conservatives is to create an ideology of fear, according to which the aim is to polarize American policy and by extension the American public against a geopolitical and ideological opponent, in this case Islamic fundamentalism. In other words, the Neo-Conservative ideology is crucially based on the need of an enemy: the “war” against this enemy serves as a certain precondition for a unity of American policy and thus paves the way for American hegemony.
One of the most important aspects of Curtis’ film, however, is his account of the Neo-Conservative ideology’s origins by paralleling it with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. In essence, therefore, what is at stake in Curtis’ account is a comparison of both of these movements extremism: Curtis wants to suggest to the viewer in this film that the Neo-Conservatives are essentially no different than the Islamic fundamentalists; furthermore, the implication is that the former needed the latter, in so far as the Neo-Conservatives’ ideology is based on the need, on the one hand, to create a distinct enemy in the American public imagination, and, on the other hand, focus American foreign policy according to this same presence of a singular threat.
Yet the path that the relationship between Neo-Conservatives and Islamic fundamentalism is even more intertwined. Curtis notes that in the 1980s the Neo-Conservatives and American foreign policy supported Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan, opposing the Soviet Union. Hence, the Islamic fundamentalist, once allies, from the Neo-Conservative viewpoint now become threats, since the collapse of the Soviet Union: what the Neo-Conservative ideology needs, therefore, is a distinct enemy, regardless of what the ideological hallmarks of this enemy are. That is to say, it does not matter if these ideologies are essentially atheist (i.e., the Soviet Union) or not (i.e., Islamic fundamentalism): their value to American foreign policy from the Neo-Conservative ideology, is the extent to which the U.S. can be mobilized against a singular threat.
Arguably, this is a weakness of Curtis’ film: he stresses the link between Neo-Conservatism and Islamic fundamentalism, while, as he also mentions what is essential to Neo-Conservatism is not Islamic fundamentalism itself, but rather the existence of a singular enemy, who, in a sense, becomes the focus of American foreign policy. Certainly, Curtis does make reference to this point, for example, in Part One of the series, when he describes the origins of the Neo-Conservatives, in particular, the political plans of Paul Wolfowitz and Irving Cristol. Yet Islamic fundamentalism is in no way “fundamental” to Neo-Conservatism: in so far as their program is realist and hegemonic, any type of “threat” would satisfy the precondition for their ideology.
From another perspective, however, Curtis can be said to emphasize the inter-tangled relationship of Neo-Conservatives and Islamic fundamentalism in order to show the false “patriotism” and essentially jingoistic rhetoric of the Neo-Conservatives. What is at stake in Neo-Conservatism is not a sincere commitment to opposing religious fundamentalism, as shown by the proto-Neo-Conservatives support of the Mujahadeen against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but rather a commitment to finding a legitimate enemy.
In this sense, Curtis’ documentary is most valuable in its exposure of rhetoric from various political sides, showing the underlying realist core of this same rhetoric. Patriotism and foreign policy aggression certainly can go hand in hand. What Curtis warns the viewer of, however, is that patriotism and differences between civilizations can be exploited to mobilize an aggressive foreign policy, namely, these ideologies become tools for a hegemonic and realist approach to political policy.