All the vice president's men

The ideologues in Cheney's inner circle drummed up a war. Now their zealotry is blowing up in their faces.

Published October 28, 2005 9:30AM (EDT)

As Washington waits on pins and needles to see if special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald hands down indictments, the focus falls on Dick Cheney's inner circle. This group, along with that surrounding Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, made up what Colin Powell's top aide, Lawrence Wilkerson, called "a cabal" that "on critical issues ... made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made." Cheney is the first vice president to have had, in effect, his own personal National Security Council. This formidable and unprecedented rump foreign policy team, composed of radical hawks, played a key role in every aspect of the war on Iraq: planning for it, gathering "evidence" to justify it and punishing those who spoke out against it. It is not surprising that members of that team, and Cheney himself, have now also emerged as targets in Fitzgerald's investigation of the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson to the press, along with Bush advisor Karl Rove.

Although the investigation has focused on Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a number of other Cheney staffers have been interviewed. Who are these shadowy policymakers who played such a major role in shaping the Bush administration's foreign policy?

Most of the members of Cheney's inner circle were neoconservative ideologues, who combined hawkish American triumphalism with an obsession with Israel. This does not mean that the war was fought for Israel, although it is undeniable that Israeli concerns played an important role. The actual motivation behind the war was complex, and Cheney's team was not the only one in the game. The Bush administration is a coalition of disparate forces -- country club Republicans, realists, representatives of oil and other corporate interests, evangelicals, hardball political strategists, right-wing Catholics, and neoconservative Jews allied with Israel's right-wing Likud party. Each group had its own rationale for going to war with Iraq.

Bush himself appears to have had an obsession with restoring family honor by avenging the slight to his father produced by Saddam's remaining in office after the Gulf War. Cheney was interested in the benefits of a war to the oil industry, and to the military-industrial complex in general. It seems likely that the Iraq war, which produced billions in no-bid contracts for the company he headed in the late 1990s, saved Halliburton from bankruptcy. The evangelicals wanted to missionize Iraqis. Karl Rove wanted to turn Bush into a war president to ensure his reelection. The neoconservatives viewed Saddam's Iraq as a short-term danger to Israel, and in the long term, they hoped that overthrowing the Iraqi Baath would transform the entire Middle East, rather as Kamal Ataturk, who abolished the offices of Ottoman emperor and Sunni caliph in the 1920s, had brought into being a relatively democratic Turkey that was allied with Israel. (This fantastic analogy was suggested by Princeton emeritus professor and leading neoconservative ideologue Bernard Lewis.) This transformation would be beneficial to the long-term security of both the United States and Israel.

None of these rationales would have been acceptable across the board, or persuasive with Congress or the American public, so the various factions focused on the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately for them, this rationale was discovered to be a mirage. And in the course of trying to punish those who were pointing out that the emperor had no clothes -- or, in this case, that the dictator had no weapons of mass destruction -- Cheney and Bush's underlings went too far. Ironically, their attempt to silence critics succeeded only in turning a harsh light on their own actions and motivations.

"Cheney Assembles Formidable Team," marveled a Page One article in the Feb. 3, 2001, edition of the New York Times. It turns out that Cheney had 15 military and political advisors on foreign affairs, at a time when the president's own National Security Council was being downsized. The number of aides who counseled Cheney on domestic issues was much smaller. In contrast, Al Gore had been advised by a single staffer on security affairs.

The leader of the team was Libby, Cheney's chief of staff. Libby had studied at Yale with Paul Wolfowitz, who brought him to Washington. He co-authored a hawkish policy document with Wolfowitz in the Department of Defense for its head, Dick Cheney, after the Gulf War in 1992. When it was leaked, it embarrassed the first President Bush. Libby was a founding member of the Project for a New American Century in 1997 during the Clinton years, when many neoconservatives were out of office. The PNAC attempted to use the Republican-dominated Congress to pressure Clinton to take a more belligerent stance toward Iraq, and it advocated significantly expanding military spending and using U.S. troops as "gendarmes" in the aftermath of wars to "shape" the international security environment.

Cheney was also a PNAC member, and his association with this group from 1997 signaled a shift from his earlier hard-nosed realism, as he allied himself with the neoconservatives, who dreamed of transforming other societies. The James Baker branch of the Republican Party had long been critical of Israel for causing trouble for the United States in the Middle East with its expansionist policies and unwillingness to stop the settlement of the West Bank, and Baker was well aware that the vast majority of American Jews do not vote Republican.

Although a staunch defender of Israel, Cheney at one time was at least on speaking terms with this wing of the Republican Party. (The sense of betrayal felt by his old colleagues was summed up by Bush I's national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, who told the New Yorker he considered Cheney a friend, "But Dick Cheney I don't know anymore." As time went on, however, he increasingly chose to ally with neoconservatives and the Jewish right in the U.S. and Israel, accepting them as powerful allies and constituents for his vision of a post-Cold War world dominated by an unchallenged American hegemony that would be backed by a vast military-industrial establishment fed by U.S. tax dollars. He continually promised skeptical Jewish audiences that a democratic Iraq would benefit Israel. His choice of advisors when he became vice president demonstrated a pronounced preference for the neoconservatives.

But Cheney's alliance with the neocons was probably driven more by his Manichaean, Cold War-inspired worldview -- in which the U.S. battled an evil enemy -- and his corporate ties, than by an obsession with Israel or remaking the Middle East. Islamist terror provided a new version of the Soviet "evil empire." And the neocons' dynamic foreign policy vision, their "liberalism with guns," offered more opportunities for the military-industrial complex than did traditional Republican realism in a post-Soviet world, where peer states did not exist and no credible military threat menaced the U.S. Only a series of wars of conquest in the Middle East, dressed up as a "defense" against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, could hope to keep the Pentagon and the companies to which it outsourced in the gravy.

Such wars could no longer be fought in East Asia, given Chinese and North Korean nuclear capabilities, and there were no U.S. constituencies for such wars in most other parts of the world. The Middle East was the perfect arena for a renewed American militarism, given that the U.S. public held deep prejudices against the Arab-Muslim world, and, after Sept. 11, deeply feared it.

A key, but less well-known, Cheney advisor on the Middle East is John Hannah, a former Soviet expert. He had been part of a policy group assembled by Cheney when he was secretary of defense, in 1989, under the direction of Paul Wolfowitz. Hannah was distinguished for his distrust of Soviet reformist Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev, according to the New Republic.

Hannah then came to head the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a stridently pro-Israel think tank that has gained enormous influence in Washington. WINEP had been founded in the 1980s with the backing of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the legendarily powerful pro-Israel lobbying group. The initial impetus for it was that think tanks like the Brookings Institution were felt to be insufficiently pro-Israel. Initially WINEP tended to support the government in power in Israel, but in the past 15 years it has increasingly been drawn into the orbit of the right-wing, expansionist Likud Party.

WINEP wields enormous influence, to the point where it almost functions as a governmental entity. The director of a private consulting firm with a contract from the Department of Defense that involved trying to think about the future of the main political parties in Iraq told me in 2004 that he was specifically instructed, as part of his contract, to depend on the material at the WINEP Web site. State Department officials and U.S. military officers are detailed to WINEP to learn about the Middle East and are indoctrinated into a pro-Likud point of view at taxpayers' expense. Despite its highly political activities, WINEP has the status for tax purposes of a nonprofit charitable foundation.

When Hannah was at WINEP, he was still deeply concerned with post-Soviet Russian foreign policy toward the Middle East. The Soviets had been major patrons of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Syria and Iraq, all of whom Hannah viewed as enemies. In a 1993 interview with the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, another pro-Israel, right-wing organization, Hannah expressed anxiety about the rise of Russian nationalists who, he claimed, sought to undermine United Nations sanctions against Libya and to position Russian companies to invest in Iraq should the sanctions on that country begin to slip. For figures such as Hannah, Russian nationalism and Middle Eastern rogue states like Libya and Iraq represented unfinished business left over from the Cold War. For the Israeli hawks and their American supporters, the Cold War was not really over as long as the former Soviet allies in the Middle East continued to express enmity to Israel.

As former Secretary of State Warren Christopher once remarked, the U.S. State Department probably owes WINEP a finder's fee for providing it with key personnel. From the institute, Hannah came to work for Christopher (who served from 1993 to 1997). During this period, Hannah cultivated ties with Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, an expatriate group funded by the CIA and the State Department to overthrow Saddam. One of the things that made Chalabi attractive to Hannah and other neocons was that he promised them that if he came to power he would recognize Israel and take Iraq in the same direction as Turkey, a Muslim country allied with the Zionist state.

We next meet Hannah as an aide to John Bolton. Bolton, a curmudgeonly lawyer who helped stop the Florida recount in 2000, was rewarded by Bush by being made undersecretary of state for arms control and international proliferation. Bolton detailed Hannah to Cheney's office as chief adviser on the Middle East. (Hannah actually knew little about the Middle East and knows no Arabic, being primarily an old Russia hand.)

Cheney's other major advisor besides Libby on Middle East affairs is David Wurmser, a Johns Hopkins Ph.D. in international relations. He served as project officer at the congressionally funded U.S. Institute of Peace, from 1988 to 1994. He then moved for two years to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he was director of institutional grants until 1996. In the latter year he co-authored, with Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and others, a now-famous policy paper for incoming Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," that advocated a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein and install a Hashemite monarchy in Iraq as a way of moderating the Shiites of the region and securing "the realm" of Israel. Since post-Khomeini Shiites despise monarchy as un-Islamic, and since the Hashemites, who used to rule Iraq before 1958 and still rule Jordan, are Sunni Muslims, this plan was worse than science fiction. Science fiction is coherent and often involves some actual knowledge.

The neoconservatives were actually more concerned with Syria initially than Iraq, since it more directly threatened Israeli security. Indeed, "A Clean Break" advocated the removal of Saddam Hussein mainly as a way of pressuring Damascus. The policy paper said, with astonishing ignorance, "Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq -- an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right -- as a means of foiling Syria's regional ambitions. King Hussein may have ideas for Israel in bringing its Lebanon problem under control. The predominantly Shia population of southern Lebanon has been tied for centuries to the Shia leadership in Najf [sic] Iraq rather than Iran. Were the Hashemites to control Iraq, they could use their influence over Najf to help Israel wean the south Lebanese Shia away from Hizballah, Iran, and Syria. Shia retain strong ties to the Hashemites: the Shia venerate foremost the Prophet's family, the direct descendants of which  and in whose veins the blood of the Prophet flows  is King Hussein."

This paragraph must be the most absurd, ill-informed and frankly lunatic pieces of prose ever produced by any policy advisor anywhere. It is full of false premises and ignorant assumptions. Saddam Hussein's branch of the Baath Party was a rival of the Syrian Baath Party, not a supporter. Syria had joined Bush I's coalition against Iraq, allying with the Americans in 1990-91. Removing the Iraqi Baath would more likely strengthen Syria than weaken it. As for the Shiites in Iraq and southern Lebanon, they had been deeply influenced by the ideology of Ayatollah Khomeini, who preached that monarchy is incompatible with Islam. The idea that the old Hashemite monarchy could be revived and reinstalled in revolutionary Iraq was itself absurd. That a Sunni king in Baghdad might have any appeal to the Shiites of southern Lebanon, who favored Hezbollah and Khomeinism, would only occur to someone completely ignorant of the actual politics of Tyre and Nabatiya. The tragedy is that this sort of hallucination appears actually to have underpinned real policy moves by the neoconservatives as they became powerful in Washington under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

Wurmser is married to Meyrav Wurmser, director of Middle East programs at the right-wing Hudson Institute. She was listed as a co-author of "A Clean Break." She had also co-founded, with a former colonel in Israeli military intelligence, the MEMRI translation service, which cherry-picks Arabic newspapers for the more outrageous articles and political cartoons, and translates them into English for the purpose of creating a negative view of the Arab world.

In 1999 David Wurmser published "Tyranny's Ally: America's Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein." In 2000, Wurmser authored a paper urging the U.S. government to push Syria out of Lebanon and to refuse to engage with Damascus that was published by the Middle East Forum of Daniel Pipes. The Middle East Forum advisory board is primarily composed of leaders of right-wing organizations such as the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and the Zionist Organization of America.

Wurmser was picked by fellow neoconservative and Undersecretary of Defense for Planning Douglas Feith (whom the departing Colin Powell denounced to George W. Bush as a "card-carrying member of the Likud") after Sept. 11 to form part of the notorious Office of Special Plans in the Near East and South Asia division of the Department of Defense. That unit cherry-picked intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and Saddam's alleged links to al-Qaida, singling out unreliable, single-sourced accounts and stripping them of any context that would show where they came from. These were then stovepiped to Libby and Hannah in Cheney's office, so as to go directly to Bush and make an end run around the professional intelligence agencies. When allegations emerged that corrupt Iraqi businessman and longtime expatriate politician Ahmad Chalabi had been given classified information about U.S. intelligence efforts against Iran, and had promptly passed it on to Tehran, Wurmser was among the officials the FBI interviewed searching for the leak.

When the OSP was dissolved after the Iraq war, Wurmser went back to work for Bolton. Although Wurmser only came to Cheney's shadow national security council in September 2003, after the Plame leak, he had been in close contact with Libby and Hannah all along. Close observers noted a distinct turn toward belligerency against Syria in White House pronouncements soon after Wurmser's advent. (He replaced old Soviet hand Eric Edelman, who was sent as ambassador to Turkey.)

On Sept. 10, 2002, the Boston Globe had reported that ascendant hawks in the Bush administration saw the overthrow of Saddam as a first step toward democratizing and transforming the Middle East. John Donnelly and Anthony Shadid wrote, "The argument for reshaping the political landscape in the Mideast has been pushed for years by some Washington think tanks and in hawkish circles. It is now being considered as a possible US policy with the ascent of key hard-liners in the administration -- from Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith in the Pentagon to John Hannah and Lewis Libby on the vice president's staff and John Bolton in the State Department, analysts and officials say."

Cheney and other advocates of this policy promised that an Iraq war would break the deadlock between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Donnelly and Shadid quote Meyrav Wurmser, "Everyone will flip out, starting with the Saudis ... It will send shock waves throughout the Arab world ... But if we can get a democracy in the Palestinian Authority, democracy in Iraq, get the Egyptians to improve their human rights and open up their system, it will be a spectacular change. After a war with Iraq, then you really shape the region." Since both Wurmsers and their circle had argued forcefully for the destruction of the Oslo peace process and against the surrender by Israel of any of the Palestinian territories captured in 1967, it seems most likely that they hoped that getting the U.S. to produce chaos in the Middle East by undermining its allies would give hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a free hand to annex most of the West Bank, and perhaps other Arab lands, rather than that it would lead to a just peace. Weakened by the loss of their backers in Baghdad and Damascus, the Palestinians would be forced to make peace on Sharon's terms.

Libby, Hannah and Wurmser were at the center of the production and purveying of bad intelligence on alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Hannah received intelligence directly from the Iraqi National Congress, according to a leaked memo from that organization. He was also a liaison with Wurmser when the latter was in the Office of Special Plans.

According to a Newsweek article of Dec. 15, 2004, "a June 2002 memo written by INC lobbyist Entifadh Qunbar to a U.S. Senate committee lists John Hannah, a senior national-security aide on Cheney's staff, as one of two 'U.S. governmental recipients' for reports generated by an intelligence program being run by the INC and which was then being funded by the State Department." The article explains that the program arranged for the raw information coming from defectors and other sources to be "reported to, among others, 'appropriate governmental, non-governmental and international agencies.'" The memo explicitly mentioned Hannah as "a principal point of contact" for the program. The other point of contact, according to Newsweek, was William Luti, who headed the Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon under Feith. (Luti, also known as "uber-Luti," was such a zealot that he denounced retired Gen. Anthony Zinni as a "traitor" for expressing reservations about the impending Iraq war.) Chalabi's lie factory thus had two main customers, both of them wholesalers to Cheney. (These alleged contacts are an apparent violation of the National Security Act, which prohibits federal officials from engaging in unauthorized intelligence gathering.)

These, then, were the key neocon players gathered around Cheney. Cheney's office was key to the manufacturing of the bogus case for Iraq being close to having a nuclear bomb (it had no nuclear weapons program at all after the mid-1990s) and for it having a biological weapons program on wheels (biological weapons labs require clean rooms and cannot be mounted in Winnebagos). Cheney's office was among the originators of the smears against critics of such allegations, such as Joseph Wilson. Wilson's attack on the integrity of their intelligence gathering deeply threatened them. At the time he began speaking out, no high U.S. government official had dared name their fantasy for what it was -- a tissue of innuendo and falsehoods fed to them by the ambitious and swallowed by the greedy and the gullible. That he was connected to the CIA's own unit on weapons proliferation through his wife, Valerie, made him all the more dangerous in their eyes, once Cheney had ferreted out that link.

The New York Times reported on Oct. 24, 2005, that it was Cheney who told Libby that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. White House chief of staff Karl Rove also learned of Plame's identity, although it is not known how. Both of them shared the information with the press, including Matt Cooper of Time magazine, Robert Novak of CNN and Judith Miller of the New York Times. Their aim was to discredit Wilson in official Washington as a tool of CIA disinformation, someone determined to make the White House the fall guys in the intelligence scandal, so as to spare the Company criticism. Some have a dark suspicion that they may also have wished to disrupt the CIA unit on anti-proliferation, which continued to doubt the case they were making about the rogue Middle East states. When confronted by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, Libby and Rove seem to have claimed that they did not reveal the name of Valerie Plame Wilson. In fact, they had called her "Joe Wilson's wife." This denial, however, is strikingly disingenuous and unconvincing.

Clearly Cheney's men had powerful domestic political reasons to try to destroy Wilson. But considering the larger geopolitical ambitions of the neocons in Cheney's inner circle, and their combination of ignorance and arrogance, it could be argued that Iraq and Iraqi weapons were all along a mere pied-à-terre. Syria, Iran and the rest of the Middle East were in the cross hairs, and Wilson and Plame were getting in the way of the next projects.

With the war in Iraq a disaster, possible indictments looming and polls showing that 80 percent of Americans believe that revealing Plame's identity was either illegal or unethical, those dreams of world domination have crumbled to dust.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


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Dick Cheney Iraq War Middle East