Neoconservatism dies in Gaza

The recent Israeli offensive has put the final nail in the coffin of the Bush administration's Middle East fantasy.

Published January 8, 2009 11:30AM (EST)

The Gaza War of 2009 is a final and eloquent testimony to the complete failure of the neoconservative movement in United States foreign policy. For over a decade, the leading figures in this school of thought saw the violent overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the institution of a parliamentary regime in Iraq as the magic solution to all the problems in the Middle East. They envisioned, in the wake of the fall of Baghdad, the moderation of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the overthrow of the Baath Party in Syria and the Khomeinist regime in Iran, the deepening of the alliance with Turkey, the marginalization of Saudi Arabia, a new era of cheap petroleum, and a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on terms favorable to Israel. After eight years in which they strode the globe like colossi, they have left behind a devastated moonscape reminiscent of some post-apocalyptic B movie. As their chief enabler prepares to exit the White House, the only nation they have strengthened is Iran; the only alliance they have deepened is that between Iran and two militant Islamist entities to Israel's north and south, Hezbollah and Hamas.

The neoconservatives first laid out their manifesto in a 1996 paper, "A Clean Break," written for an obscure think tank in Jerusalem and intended for the eyes of far right-wing Israeli politician Binyamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party, who had just been elected prime minister. They advised Israel to renounce the Oslo peace process and reject the principle of trading land for peace, instead dealing with the Palestinians with an iron fist. They urged Israel to uphold the right of hot pursuit of Palestinian guerrillas and to find alternatives to Yasser Arafat's Fatah for the Palestinian leadership. They called forth Israeli airstrikes on targets in Syria and rejection of negotiations with Damascus. They foresaw strengthened ties between Israel and its two regional friends, Turkey and Jordan.

They advocated "removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq," in part as a way of "rolling back" Syria. In place of the secular, republican tyrant, they fantasized about the restoration of the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq, and thought that a Sunni king might help moderate the Shiite Hezbollah in south Lebanon. (Yes.) They barely mentioned Iran, though it appears that their program of expelling Syria from Lebanon and weakening its regime was in part aimed at depriving Iran of its main Arab ally. In a 1999 book called "Tyranny's Ally: America's Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein," David Wurmser argued that it was false to fear that installing the Iraqi Shiites in power in Baghdad would strengthen Iran regionally.

The signatories to this fantasy of using brute military power to reshape all of West Asia included some figures who would go on to fill key positions in the Bush administration. Richard Perle, a former assistant secretary of defense under Reagan, became chairman of the influential Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee, a civilian oversight body for the Pentagon. Douglas J. Feith became the undersecretary of defense for planning. David Wurmser first served in Feith's propaganda shop, the Office of Special Plans, which manufactured the case for an American war on Iraq, and then went on to serve with "Scooter" Libby in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.

The neoconservatives used their well-funded think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP, an organ of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, and the Hudson Institute, among others, to promote this agenda of the conquest of Iraq as a solution of all ills.

They had cheerleaders and allies in major newspapers and political journals. Martin Peretz, owner of the New Republic, took up the neoconservative mantra on Sept. 5, 2002, writing that "The road to Jerusalem more likely leads through Baghdad than the reverse. Once the Palestinians see that the United States will no longer tolerate their hero Saddam Hussein, depressed though they may be, they may also come finally to grasp that Israel is here to stay and that accommodating to this reality is the one thing that can bring them the generous peace they require." (Peretz is a perennial embarrassment to his stable of often excellent journalists in that he occasionally hijacks the magazine for such pronouncements.)

Charles Krauthammer wrote in the Washington Post on Feb. 1, 2002, that "Iran is a deadly threat," insofar as it was trying "to establish a terrorist client state by arming and infiltrating Yasser Arafat's Palestine." How would he have us roll it back? "Overthrowing neighboring radical regimes shows the fragility of dictatorship, challenges the mullahs' mandate from heaven and thus encourages disaffected Iranians to rise." What did he mean by neighboring regimes? "First, Afghanistan to the east. Next, Iraq to the west." Leading neoconservative columnist William Kristol delivered himself of a daisy chain of false predictions, inaccurate pronouncements, and political wet dreams about Iraq and the Middle East, as David Corn of the Nation itemizes here. "Look, if we free the people of Iraq we will be respected in the Arab world," Kristol said in 2002.

The brutal Israeli war on the population of Gaza is the nail in the coffin of the neoconservative doctrine. Their policies have hardly strengthened ties between Turkey, Israel and the United States, as they had argued. Turkey had a special place in the thinking of figures such as Perle, who lauded it as a secular example for the Muslim world and a close ally of Israel. But in 2002 the Islamically tinged conservative Justice and Development Party (Turkish acronym AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdogan swept to power and has ruled Turkey ever since. In 2003, the AKP dealt a cruel blow to the hopes of Perle and his colleague Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz when its members of parliament voted against allowing the U.S. military to invade Iraq through Turkish territory. Erdogan more recently has been a profound disappointment to the Israeli right because of his willingness to talk with Hamas leaders. Hundreds of thousands of Turks, many of them AKP supporters, have demonstrated in Istanbul against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.


Erdogan drew anguished Israeli protests when he told an election rally in Ankara that Israel was "perpetrating inhuman actions which would bring it to self-destruction. Allah will sooner or later punish those who transgress the rights of innocents." Turkey has received Hamas leader Khalid Mashal and has worked for an early cease-fire in the current conflict, putting the blame for it on Israel. The right-wing Jerusalem Post observed ominously, "Turkey has just taken its seat as a non-permanent member of the Security Council and Ankara pledges to be Hamas's conduit to the United Nations," and urged Israel to recall its ambassador from Ankara.

Massive demonstrations and protests in Jordan calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador over the Israeli military's disregard for civilian life have caused Prime Minister Nader Dahabi to tell the parliament, "Jordan will look into all options, including reconsidering relations with Israel." So much for Feith, Perle and Wurmser's plan to solidify ties between Israel, Turkey and Jordan.

But at least the new Iraqi government will support Israel rather than Hamas now that Saddam Hussein is gone, right? Think again. The Islamic Da'wa Party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called last week for all Muslim countries to cut off diplomatic relations with Israel and to cease all public and behind-the scenes contacts with it. Large demonstrations have been staged against Israel in Mosul, Baghdad and the holy city of Karbala. The spiritual leader of many of the world's Shiites condemned Israeli aggression in Gaza and said that "mere verbal expressions of condemnation and disapproval" were not enough, calling instead for "practical steps" to break the Israeli blockade and stop the attack. For a fatwa of the chief Shiite authority in Iraq to demand practical steps against Israel is a little noticed but ominous development for the Israelis that could help politicize Shiites even further on this issue.

Wurmser's conviction that Iranian Shiite influence would not spread if the Sunni bulwark were demolished in Mesopotamia has proved as wrongheaded as all the other neoconservative predictions. The 2005 parliamentary elections were won by the most hard-line, pro-Tehran Shiite fundamentalist parties, who have ruled Iraq ever since. Iran has warm relations with the ruling Islamic Da'wa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, headed by Shiite cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, whose party was founded by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1982.

Iran's influence with Hezbollah in south Lebanon has grown from strength to strength, and was enhanced after Israel's disastrous 2006 war on that country when it sent extensive reconstruction aid. Hezbollah has been able to rearm, and has joined a national unity government that recognizes its militia as a sort of national guard for the south of Lebanon. It gained new allies in Iraq. It had been formed in part by the Islamic Da'wa Party of Iraq, which naturally supports it, as does the large and influential Sadr Movement in Iraqi Shiism. Hezbollah, more popular than ever, was able to get out massive crowds in Beirut to protest Israel's assault on Gaza. And Gaza itself is now viewed by the Israeli establishment as an Iranian beachhead on the Mediterranean, the sort of development that the neoconservatives confidently predicted their policies would forestall.

Krauthammer's conviction that the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and of Saddam Hussein in Iraq would weaken the Iranian regime was wrong because it exalted ideology over power politics. Baathist Iraq and Sunni fundamentalist Afghanistan had walled Iran in. Destroying them no more weakened Iran than blowing up the Hoover Dam would tame the Colorado River. From an Iranian point of view, an elected Shiite parliament in Iraq morally guided by Ayatollah Sistani does not represent a significant departure from their own form of government, except that Iran is blessed with much greater stability, security and prosperity than its Mesopotamian sibling. Likewise, Syria's regime has been undisturbed by the changes in Iraq, and, recognizing at last that it would have to deal with Bashar al-Asad, the government of outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had initiated indirect negotiations with Damascus rather than, as the neoconservatives had insisted, bombarding it.

The neoconservatives made almost as big an error in working to destroy the peace process of the 1990s as they did in fostering a war on Iraq. A two-state solution was not far from being concluded in 2000, but negotiations were abruptly discontinued by the government of Ariel Sharon in spring of 2001 with the encouragement of the Bush administration. (It is not true that the Palestinian side had ceased negotiating, or "walked away," from the Clinton plan, nor is it true that the Israelis had as yet formalized a specific offer in writing.) In the past eight years, Israel has greatly expanded its settlements in the West Bank and around Jerusalem, fencing the Palestinians in with checkpoints, superhighways that cut villages off from one another, and a wall that has stolen from them key agricultural land. Ariel Sharon's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza made no provisions for what would happen next, and in any case Israel continued to control Gaza's borders and denied it a harbor, an airport and, more recently, enough food to eat.

As a result of the deliberate destruction of the peace process by the Israeli right and by Hamas, a two-state solution seems increasingly unlikely. This tragic impasse, one phase of which is now playing out with sanguinary relentlessness, was avoidable but for the baneful influence of the neoconservatives and their right-wing allies in the U.S. and Israel.

The neoconservatives had prided themselves on their macho swagger, their rejection of namby-pamby Clintonian multilateralism, and on their bold vision for reshaping the Middle East so that the Israeli and American right would not have to deal with existing reality. In the cold light of day, they look merely petulant and arrogant. The ancient Greek poet Bion said that boys cast stones at frogs in sport, but the frogs die in earnest. The neoconservatives were the boys, and the people of Iraq, Israel, Palestine and Lebanon have been their frogs. The biggest danger facing the United States is that there will be no true "Clean Break" -- that the neoconservatives will somehow find a way to survive the Bush administration, and continue to influence American foreign policy.


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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