How neoconservatives conquered Washington — and launched a war

First they converted an ignorant, inexperienced president to their pro-Israel, hawkish worldview. Then 9/11 allowed them to claim Iraq threatened the U.S. The rest is on CNN tonight.

Topics: Neoconservatism, Iraq, Middle East

How neoconservatives conquered Washington -- and launched a war

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 the American and European civilizations 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 overrepresentation 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 U.S. 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 Sept. 11 — the foreign policy of the world’s only global power is being made by a small clique that is unrepresentative of either the U.S. population or the mainstream foreign policy establishment.

The core group now in charge consists of neoconservative defense 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 defense intellectuals include Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense. He is the defense mastermind of the Bush administration; Donald Rumsfeld is an elderly figurehead who holds the position of defense secretary only because Wolfowitz himself is too controversial. Others include Douglas Feith, No. 3 at the Pentagon; Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a Wolfowitz protégé 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 U.S. to Saddam Hussein, and Richard Perle, who has just resigned his unpaid chairmanship of a defense department advisory body after a lobbying scandal. Most of these “experts” never served in the military. But their headquarters is now the civilian defense secretary’s office, where these Republican political appointees are despised and distrusted by the largely Republican career soldiers.

Most neoconservative defense intellectuals have their roots on the left, not the right. They are products of the influential Jewish-American sector of the 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 as 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 neocon defense intellectuals, as well as being in or around the actual Pentagon, are at the center 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) provide homes for neocon “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 neocons are ideologues, not opportunists.

The major link between the conservative think tanks and the Israel lobby is the Washington-based and Likud-supporting Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (Jinsa), which co-opts many non-Jewish defense experts by sending them on trips to Israel. It flew out the retired general Jay Garner, now slated by Bush to be proconsul of occupied Iraq. In October 2000, he cosigned a Jinsa letter that began: “We … believe that during the current upheavals in Israel, the Israel Defense Forces have exercised remarkable restraint in the face of lethal violence orchestrated by the leadership of [the] Palestinian Authority.”

The Israel lobby itself is divided into Jewish and Christian wings. Wolfowitz and Feith have close ties to the Jewish-American Israel lobby. Wolfowitz, who has relatives in Israel, has served as the Bush administration’s liaison to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Feith was given an award by the Zionist Organization of America, citing him as a “pro-Israel activist.” While out of power in the Clinton years, Feith collaborated with Perle to coauthor a policy paper for Likud that advised the Israeli government to end the Oslo peace process, reoccupy the territories, and crush Yasser Arafat’s government.

Such experts are not typical of Jewish-Americans, who mostly voted for Gore in 2000. The most fervent supporters of Likud in the Republican electorate are Southern Protestant fundamentalists. The religious right believes that God gave all of Palestine to the Jews, and fundamentalist congregations spend millions to subsidize Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

The final corner of the neoconservative pentagon is occupied by several right-wing media empires, with roots — odd as it seems — in the British Commonwealth and South Korea. Rupert Murdoch disseminates propaganda through his Fox television network. His magazine, the Weekly Standard — edited by William Kristol, the former chief of staff of Dan Quayle (vice president, 1989-1993) — acts as a mouthpiece for defense intellectuals such as Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith and Woolsey as well as for Sharon’s government. The National Interest (of which I was executive editor, 1991-1994) is now funded by Conrad Black, who owns the Jerusalem Post and the Hollinger empire in Britain and Canada.

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Strangest of all is the media network centered on the Washington Times — owned by the South Korean messiah (and ex-convict) the Rev. Sun Myung Moon — which owns the newswire UPI. UPI is now run by John O’Sullivan, the ghostwriter for Margaret Thatcher who once worked as an editor for Conrad Black in Canada. Through such channels, the “gotcha!” style of right-wing British journalism, and its Europhobic substance, have contaminated the US conservative movement.

The corners of the neoconservative pentagon were linked together in the 1990s by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), run by Kristol out of the Weekly Standard offices. Using a P.R. technique pioneered by their Trotskyist predecessors, the neocons published a series of public letters whose signatories often included Wolfowitz and other future members of the Bush foreign policy team. They called for the U.S. to invade and occupy Iraq and to support Israel’s campaigns against the Palestinians (dire warnings about China were another favorite). During Clinton’s two terms, these fulminations were ignored by the foreign policy establishment and the mainstream media. Now they are frantically being studied.

How did the neocon defense intellectuals — a small group at odds with most of the U.S. foreign policy elite, Republican as well as Democratic — manage to capture the Bush administration? Few supported Bush during the presidential primaries. They feared that the second Bush would be like the first — a wimp who had failed to occupy Baghdad in the first Gulf War and who had pressured Israel into the Oslo peace process — and that his administration, again like his father’s, would be dominated by moderate Republican realists such as Powell, James Baker and Brent Scowcroft. They supported the maverick senator John McCain until it became clear that Bush would get the nomination.

Then they had a stroke of luck — Cheney was put in charge of the presidential transition (the period between the election in November and the accession to office in January). Cheney used this opportunity to stack the administration with his hard-line allies. Instead of becoming the de facto president in foreign policy, as many had expected, Secretary of State Powell found himself boxed in by Cheney’s right-wing network, including Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, Bolton and Libby.

The neocons took advantage of Bush’s ignorance and inexperience. Unlike his father, a Second World War veteran who had been ambassador to China, director of the CIA, and vice president, George W was a thinly educated playboy who had failed repeatedly in business before becoming the governor of Texas, a largely ceremonial position (the state’s lieutenant governor has more power). His father is essentially a northeastern moderate Republican; George W, raised in west Texas, absorbed the Texan cultural combination of machismo, anti-intellectualism and overt religiosity. The son of upper-class Episcopalian parents, he converted to Southern fundamentalism in a midlife crisis. Fervent Christian Zionism, along with an admiration for macho Israeli soldiers that sometimes coexists with hostility to liberal Jewish-American intellectuals, is a feature of the Southern culture.

The younger Bush was tilting away from Powell and toward Wolfowitz (“Wolfie,” as he calls him) even before 9/11 gave him something he had lacked: a mission in life other than following in his dad’s footsteps. There are signs of estrangement between the cautious father and the crusading son: Last year, veterans of the first Bush administration, including Baker, Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger, warned publicly against an invasion of Iraq without authorization from Congress and the U.N.

It is not clear that George W fully understands the grand strategy that Wolfowitz and other aides are unfolding. He seems genuinely to believe that there was an imminent threat to the U.S. from Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction,” something the leading neocons say in public but are far too intelligent to believe themselves. The Project for the New American Century urged an invasion of Iraq throughout the Clinton years, for reasons that had nothing to do with possible links between Saddam and Osama bin Laden. Public letters signed by Wolfowitz and others called on the U.S. to invade and occupy Iraq, to bomb Hezbollah bases in Lebanon, and to threaten states such as Syria and Iran with U.S. attacks if they continued to sponsor terrorism. Claims that the purpose is not to protect the American people but to make the Middle East safe for Israel are dismissed by the neocons as vicious anti-Semitism. Yet Syria, Iran and Iraq are bitter enemies, with their weapons pointed at each other, and the terrorists they sponsor target Israel rather than the U.S. The neocons urge war with Iran next, though by any rational measurement North Korea’s new nuclear arsenal is, for the U.S., a far greater problem.

So that is the bizarre story of how neoconservatives took over Washington and steered the U.S. into a Middle Eastern war unrelated to any plausible threat to the U.S. and opposed by the public of every country in the world except Israel. The frightening thing is the role of happenstance and personality. After the al-Qaida attacks, any U.S. president would likely have gone to war to topple bin Laden’s Taliban protectors in Afghanistan. But everything that the U.S. has done since then would have been different had America’s 18th century electoral rules not given Bush the presidency and had Cheney not used the transition period to turn the foreign policy executive into a PNAC reunion.

For a British equivalent, one would have to imagine a Tory government, with Downing Street and Whitehall controlled by followers of the Rev. Ian Paisley, extreme Euroskeptics, empire loyalists and Blimpish military types — all determined, for a variety of strategic or religious reasons, to invade Egypt. Their aim would be to regain the Suez Canal as the first step in a campaign to restore the British empire. Yes, it really is that weird.

A version of this story appeared in the New Statesman.

Michael Lind is the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and co-founder of the New America Foundation.

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