Today Iraq, tomorrow Iran

Neocons were dead wrong about Iraq in at least 21 (count 'em) ways. Yet Wolfowitz, Krauthammer et al. are nevertheless pushing for "preemption" in Iran.

Published August 11, 2004 9:26PM (EDT)

These must be strange days to be a neoconservative: caught between exultant hope and wild terror; utterly discredited, yet still securely in power; proven totally wrong on Iraq, yet still determined to believe against all odds that one more wild throw of the dice will recoup all.

To the casual observer, the neocons in the Bush administration and their impeccably drilled and regulated cheering section across the commanding heights of the U.S. broadcast and print media have been routed. Since the hand-over of power to the interim Iraqi government, the media have for the most part turned their sensitive faces away from Iraq, giving the public the false sense that it is becoming quiet there. The 138,000 U.S. troops still bogged down in Iraq know better, even if Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz can't recall before a congressional committee just how many Americans have died: Fifty-four were killed in July, a significant rise from the 42 who died in June, the month before the hand-over; and the total in August already looks as if it will exceed that in July.

But the perception that the neocons -- including Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith -- have been routed, or are in retreat, could not be further from the truth. They are as firmly in control of the levers of real power in the government as they were in the yearlong, synchronized buildup to their war in Iraq. Not a single National Security Council or Pentagon official who eagerly rode the bandwagon for the war has been fired. Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and aide John Hannah continue to enjoy the full confidence of the vice president.

In the media, it is the same story. Rupert Murdoch has not suffered a sudden fit of shame and forced William Kristol to relinquish control of the Weekly Standard. Time magazine and the Washington Post have not shown one iota of embarrassment that they continue to provide a platform for columnist Charles Krauthammer, whose histrionics have now ascended into a call for our next "preemptive" war -- this time with Iran. If that happens, of course, hundreds, probably many thousands, of young Americans will pay with their lives for a new wave of appalling bungles. And if the past is prologue, no neocon in government should ever expect to lose a job.

None of these characters (like the president) has said as much as an "I am sorry" or "I was mistaken" over their major assumptions and assertions about Iraq, every one of which has been proved wrong. They have shown no capacity whatsoever for self-criticism, so it is not surprising that they do not seem interested in self-correction that might prevent a repeat of their policy catastrophes.

What are all these wrong predictions, which are now at risk of being relegated down the memory hole as Orwellian nonhistory that never happened? There are at least 21.

First, that the Iraqi army would instantly collapse as soon as U.S. forces crossed their border in a "cakewalk."

Second, that Ahmed Chalabi, now charged by our own puppet Iraqi government with money laundering and counterfeiting, would quickly emerge as the popular natural leader of Iraq once President Saddam Hussein was toppled.

Third, that because no serious anti-American guerrilla operations could ever get established Iraq, only a small number of U.S. troops would have to remain after the fall of Saddam.

Fourth, that strong links between Saddam and al-Qaida would be found following our occupation.

Fifth, that overwhelming evidence of weapons of mass destruction would quickly be uncovered by U.S. troops.

Sixth, that the U.S. occupation of Iraq would discredit and weaken al-Qaida throughout the Arab and wider Muslim world.

Seventh, that Iraq would quickly develop a stable democracy after the fall of Saddam.

Eighth, that Sunni and Shiite forces would never find common cause against U.S. forces.

Ninth, that reconstruction in Iraq would occur quickly and easily (disproving the State Department's far more cautious assessment of how difficult it would be).

Tenth, that NATO didn't matter and we could safely ignore it in occupying Iraq.

Eleventh, that the United Nations didn't matter and that we could safely ignore it as well.

Twelfth, that we could put together a militarily significant "coalition of the willing" -- which recalcitrant allies like France and Germany would quickly regret not joining and thus finally be prevailed upon to send in troops to ease the burden on our own forces in Iraq.

Thirteenth, that leaders of countries such as Japan, Spain and Poland who took the plunge and sent forces to Iraq would not suffer enfeebling electoral or political losses as consequences of doing so.

Fourteenth, that Iraq's oil could be made to flow again on a lucrative scale within a few months of the invasion, and pay for everything from conquest to reconstruction.

Fifteenth, that the occupation of Iraq and opening up of its oil fields would rapidly cause global oil prices to drop back into the range of $20-$25 a barrel, if not even lower -- breaking the cartel power of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries led by Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Sixteenth, that the toppling of Saddam would demoralize the Palestinians and break the back of the second Palestinian intifada, thereby ending the wave of suicide-bombing massacres of Israeli civilians.

Seventeenth, that the occupation and remaking of Iraq would quickly boost the prospects for stable, pro-American democracies throughout the Middle East. (The prophets at the American Enterprise Institute, home to Lynn Cheney and, since he left the Pentagon, Perle, were particularly hot to trot on that one.)

Eighteenth, that the CIA and other primary elements of the U.S. intelligence community who could not be bullied or manipulated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Feith, Wolfowitz and their acolytes in the Pentagon could be ignored forever.

Nineteenth, that L. Paul Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority (heavily staffed by neocons, almost all of whom have since prudently fled back to suburban Washington) could ignore the intelligence assessments and policy recommendations of the U.S. Army on the ground.

Twentieth, that last spring's crackdown on Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr would be quickly and easily carried out and that he would enjoy no significant support from the wider Iraqi Shiite community.

Twenty-first, that any insurgency in Iraq would be carried out solely by embittered old Saddam loyalists and evil outside agents, none of whom would be able to operate for long because they would find no significant support among the wider Iraqi community. (Krauthammer was particularly enthusiastic about that one.)

Some liberal hawks, such as Joshua Micah Marshall, David Remnick, Michael O'Hanlon, Kenneth Pollack and even Thomas Friedman, have actually had the grace to admit they were mistaken. But none of the stalwarts of the Washington Post editorial page has yet done so. The Post has published no editorial accounting of how it allowed itself to be misled by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and others on WMD and everything else involving the war until its conscience awoke over Abu Ghraib. The newspaper's editorial board cannot shake its Stockholm syndrome, perhaps because it is a voluntary hostage. And naturally, not a single neocon has confessed error.

What a contrast to Vietnam! Within two and half years of major U.S. ground troops being committed, President Johnson had already dropped Defense Secretary Robert McNamara overboard. Then Johnson himself decided he had to abandon his hopes of reelection. That decision, 36 years on, looks like a paragon of self-denial, patriotism and nobility in the interest of genuine peace compared with the crass and desperate efforts to cling to power of the current White House incumbent.

The only senior official to fall in the Bush administration, strangely enough, is the only one appointed by President Clinton: former CIA Director George Tenet. None of those who endlessly pressured or disparaged the U.S. intelligence community or cooked up the flow of now utterly discredited intelligence estimates for Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith have even been demoted, let alone lost their jobs. The almost unknown Harold Rhode, the longtime right-hand man of serial plotter Michael Ledeen at the AEI, continues to whisper his sweet nothings into Rumsfeld's ear as his advisor on Islamic affairs. And Ledeen, Rhode's mentor and partner as far back as the days of the Iran-Contra fiasco, has been openly trumpeting the deadly dangers of Iran and the need to take preventive action against it in the National Review Online.

With their every dream, ambition and prediction for Iraq in ruins, the Bush administration and its neocon court are now in a panic. What can they do next? How can they distract the American people from their catastrophic and incompetent record on Iraq before the November election?

The answer is simple. It was stated quite expressly by Rice this past weekend: Don't worry about our failure to find any evidence of WMD after our preemptive war on Iraq -- we may be forced to take such preemptive action very soon against its neighbor, Iran.

If that October surprise doesn't rally voters back around Bush and ensure four more years for him and the neocons, what will?

The pattern of preparation for this is all too familiar from the buildup to war with Iraq. First, the war drums are sounded by the same old "experts"; then they are amplified by alarmist columnists. Once you see Krauthammer or Ledeen opining, as they have over the past two months, that Iran's nuclear capability poses the gravest possible threat to Civilization as We Know It, and that The World Cannot Afford to Wait and Negotiate, then you can guarantee -- conveniently close to the election to panic voters into supporting the president -- that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld will pick up the chorus.

Ledeen has already written at least two columns on the subject. Krauthammer, prophet of the Iraq war, has made quite clear his determination to unleash a new one. In his July 23 Post column he wrote: "The long awaited revolution [in Iran] is not happening. Which makes the question of preemptive attack all the more urgent ... If nothing is done, a fanatical terrorist regime openly dedicated to the destruction of the 'Great Satan' will have both nuclear weapons and the terrorists and missiles to deliver them. All that stands between us and that is either revolution or preemptive strike."

From the perspective of the chimerical and deranged weltpolitik, or "global strategy," of the neocons, targeting Iran is not merely a tactic of desperation but the fulfillment of what their plans were from the beginning. For the subjugation of Iraq under the puppet Chalabi was always seen as only the first step toward toppling target No. 2 -- Iran -- in the president's famous "axis of evil."

Chalabi, of course, blotted his copybook by being exposed as having been entirely compromised by Iranian intelligence in the first place (though many would still rather defend him and slander the integrity of the institutions of U.S. intelligence that exposed him). And so the unfortunate Iyad Allawi was hastily shoehorned into the high-risk job of prime minister of Iraq that had been lovingly prepared for Chalabi. But the neocon goal remains the same: Use the new, "strong fortress" of pro-American Iraq as the launching point to destabilize and topple the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In reality, of course, Iraq is anything but a fortress. The embattled U.S. troops there are on the defensive -- an understaffed, overstretched, exhausted force in a nation that has almost universally rejected them and about which they were given tragically inadequate preparation.

However, blaming Iran for America's continued failure to tame Iraq conveniently creates a new demon, distracting the public once again from the incompetence and irresponsibility of those who plunged the United States into that quagmire in the first place. And once a new, far bigger conflict has been generated and Bush has been safely reelected, the American public can presumably be rallied around the flag once again.

Certainly, Iran's steady moves toward acquiring nuclear weapons are a major challenge for the United States and the rest of the world. But there are other ways to deal with them. Joseph Stalin's acquisition of nuclear weapons in 1949 did not prompt the United States to launch a preemptive nuclear attack against the Soviet Union. And although Mao Zedong killed at least 30 million of his own people with lunatic policies, massacres, purges and wild utopian experiments, neither Democratic nor Republican presidents ever came close to considering a preemptive nuclear attack against the People's Republic of China when it developed thermonuclear weapons in the 1960s. Why, then, is an action that could very well trigger nuclear warfare with Iran urgent and vital now when it was not necessary against far more dictatorial regimes that slaughtered infinitely larger numbers of people in the past?

Can Bush and his neocons get away with such an outrageous thing a second time after being so thoroughly discredited the first time? Why not? They got away with it before.

By Martin Sieff

Martin Sieff is chief news analyst for United Press International in Washington.

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Al-qaida Iran Iraq War Middle East Neoconservatism