How neoconservatives conquered Washington — and launched a war

April 15, 2003 at 2:06 am
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the second one. Of all the articles I’ve sent out about our foreign policy
problems, this is probably the best. Every word of it worth your time. Read it,

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.

By Michael

April 9, 2003
 |  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.

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

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.

– – – – – – – – – – –

About the writer
Michael Lind, the Whitehead Fellow at the
New America Foundation in Washington, is the author of “Made in Texas:
George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics.”

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