Indeed, to understand the administration’s
neoconservative foreign policy, one must recognize how this moral
framework works: First, it sets out worthy-sounding goals – freedom,
democracy, security – and then it applies whatever tactics are deemed
necessary – torture, murder, unprovoked invasions – along with an
aggressive propaganda strategy at home.
Next, when events take a positive turn, the
neoconservatives claim credit, even if they had only a minor role or the
events were largely coincidental. Criticism of the bloody means is
washed away by celebration of the virtuous ends. Mainstream commentators
join in, cheering the neocons’ farsightedness. Those who opposed the
original actions are pushed to the political margins.
After two years of bloody war in Iraq and
1,500 U.S. soldiers dead, the neocons have reached such a moment. They
are claiming vindication because of several developments in the Middle
East, including the Iraqi election, tentative progress in
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and Lebanese demands for a full Syrian
This triumphal moment was noted by New York Times
foreign policy columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who hailed the three
developments as historical “tipping points” possibly foreshadowing
“incredible” changes in the Middle East. [NYT, Feb. 27, 2005]
A lead editorial in the New York Times expanded on
Friedman’s thesis. “The Bush administration is entitled to claim a
healthy share of the credit for many of these advances,” the editorial
said. [NYT, March 1, 2005]
Editorialists at the Washington Post, another
bastion of establishment thinking, picked up the same point. “Could it
be that the neocons were right and that the invasion of Iraq, the
toppling of Hussein and the holding of elections will trigger a
political chain reaction throughout the Arab world?” marveled Post
columnist Richard Cohen. [Washington Post, March 1, 2005]
Another influential Post columnist, David Ignatius,
also was swept up in the excitement. “The old system (in the Middle
East) that had looked so stable is ripping apart, with each beam pulling
another down as it falls,” Ignatius wrote. Crediting the U.S. invasion
of Iraq for the “sudden stress” that started this collapse, Ignatius
wrote, “It’s hard not to feel giddy, watching the dominoes fall.”
[Washington Post, March 2, 2005]
Of course, Washington columnists are famous for
spotting trends that may be nothing more than disparate events. And
there is an alternative explanation for each of these Middle East
developments that is rooted in local circumstances.
In Iraq, the Shiites and the Kurds turned out in
large numbers for the Jan. 30 election – not to endorse George W. Bush’s
invasion – but because the election let them consolidate control of the
country at the expense of their longtime tormentors, Iraq’s formerly
dominant Sunni minority.
The Sunnis now have a choice of accepting a
politically subordinate position or continuing to resist in what is
increasingly looking like a sectarian civil war. As far as some Shiite
leaders are concerned, it would be fine for U.S. troops to bear the
brunt of this fighting, as the enforcers for the new Iraqi power
structure. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Sinking
Similarly, recent cracks in the Palestinian-Israeli
stalemate relate far more to last year’s death of longtime Palestinian
leader Yasir Arafat – and to aging Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s
quest for a positive legacy – than to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
But even if Sharon feels he can negotiate with new
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, long-term peace prospects are
threatened by another stubborn Sharon legacy, his “facts-on-the-ground”
strategy that put about 230,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank. As
difficult as Sharon may find removing much smaller settlements in the
Gaza Strip, the far more daunting challenge will be finding a West Bank
In Lebanon, popular resistance to Syrian troops has
been growing for years, especially since Israel withdrew its troops from
southern Lebanon in 2000. The assassination of former Lebanese Prime
Minister Rafik Hariri was the catalyst for the recent public demands for
a complete Syrian withdrawal, but there is no evidence that the Lebanese
protests have anything to do with the Iraq War.
Another argument cited for the neocons’ “tipping
point” optimism already is crumbling. An Iraqi government claim about
Syria arresting one of Saddam Hussein’s half-brothers and surrendering
him to Iraqi authorities has now been contradicted by Iraqi defense
minister Hazim al-Shalaan. He said the half-brother, Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan
al-Tikriti, was seized by Iraqi and allied soldiers, not by Syrians.
Al-Shalaan refused to say where Hassan was
captured, although the earlier Iraqi assertion described the operation
as occurring inside Syrian territory. [NYT, March 2, 2005] If at least
that part of the story is correct and if the “allied” soldiers were
American, it would mean Bush has authorized secret cross-border raids
into Syria, a suggestion that the neocons may be dusting off their
original plan of following the “liberation” of Baghdad with “regime
change” in Damascus and Tehran.
Indeed, that is the big unasked question, which
should follow from the media’s showering of credit on Bush’s neocons:
Will they now exploit this supposed “vindication” to plunge further down
the path of an indefinite U.S. military expedition in the Arab world?
Remember the braggadocio of Bush’s advisers in
March 2003 when they joked that taking Baghdad wouldn’t be enough, nor
would taking Damascus, because “real men go to Tehran.”
That potential for escalation was captured in the
enthusiasm of the Post’s Ignatius, who argued that the only appropriate
U.S. policy reaction to what he called “the Middle East’s glorious
catastrophe” is to accelerate it.
“We are careening around the curve of history, and
it’s useful to remember a basic rule for navigating slippery roads: Once
you’re in the curve, you can’t hit the brakes. The only way for America
to keep this car on the road is to keep its foot on the accelerator,”
Ignatius wrote. [Washington Post, March 2, 2005]
It’s not clear where this Post columnist went to
driving school, but one has to doubt that his teacher actually taught
him to step on the gas while the car is hurtling into an icy curve. The
usual advice is to let up on the accelerator and – if needed – to
lightly pump the brakes, bringing the car down to a safe speed.
But Ignatius’s metaphor is a perfect example of the
pseudo-logic that has long permeated neoconservative thinking. When a
reckless driver puts the car and its passengers into a dangerous
predicament, the answer is not to replace the driver or even urge better
driving habits; it’s to brag about how brilliantly the car is handling
and to increase the speed.
Of course, the neocon tough talk is always backed
up by someone else’s blood or the blood of someone else’s kid. Not only
have 1,500 U.S. soldiers died in the Iraq War (along with tens of
thousands of Iraqis) but thousands more U.S. veterans are suffering from
lost limbs and other severe injuries.
Other veterans have experienced psychological
crises after returning from a war zone where U.S. soldiers must make
split-second decisions about whether to shoot an Iraqi who gets too
close and may be carrying a bomb – or may be a parent rushing home after
work or a child late for school.
Jeffrey Michael Lucey, a 23-year-old lance corporal
in the Marine Reserves, returned from Iraq to his home to Belchertown,
Mass., suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. On June 22, 2004,
he went down to the cellar of his family’s home and hanged himself with
a garden hose.
Surely speaking for many mothers who have lost
their children because of the Iraq War, Joyce Lucey said of her son, “He
wasn’t an important person, but he was very important to us.” [Boston
Globe, March 1, 2005]
As their own humanitarian argument, Bush supporters
say the ouster of Saddam Hussein has spared Iraqis from atrocities in
his prisons, including the notorious “rape rooms.” However, even on that
point, the United States has lost the moral high ground.
The new U.S. State Department’s human rights report
admits that rape, torture and extrajudicial murder have been used by the
new Iraqi government. Plus, there were the well-known cases of sexual
abuse against Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison and
torture cases implicating U.S. intelligence personnel.
These grisly realities should demand that any
neoconservative claims of “vindication” be carefully assessed before
they become justification for a wider war. A similar situation in the
early 1990s saw the neocons claim credit for “winning the Cold War” and
thus let them walk away from accountability for supporting brutal
right-wing regimes and even terrorists in the 1980s.
The success of that Cold War
“ends-justify-the-means” rationale, in turn, positioned the neocons –
such as deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and deputy national
security adviser Elliott Abrams – to return to the Executive Branch with
Bush in 2001 and to promote the invasion of Iraq in 2002-03. Absolved
once before and now ensconced at the center of Washington power, the
neocons act as if there should be no moral prohibitions in U.S. foreign
policy, that situational ethics should always prevail.
Key Bush advisers even assert that there should be
no legal accountability for the administration’s complicity in torture,
extrajudicial murders and other practices prohibited both by U.S. and
That view was at the heart of Justice Department
memos written by John C. Yoo, a deputy assistant attorney general during
Bush’s first term. Yoo’s memos argued that Bush’s commander-in-chief
powers give him the right to authorize any actions he deems necessary to
prosecute the “war on terror.”
In a behind-the-scenes battle in the months after
the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, State Department lawyers disagreed
that Bush possessed unfettered powers that let him disregard the Geneva
Conventions and other international legal standards.
A memo from State’s legal adviser William Taft IV
termed Yoo’s analysis “seriously flawed.” For instance, Taft argued that
it was unjustifiable to retroactively label Afghanistan a “failed state”
– when the U.S. had official relations with it prior to the Sept. 11
attacks – and thus permit Bush to categorize all fighters for the
Taliban government as “unlawful combatants.”
Taft’s memo effectively put Bush on notice that he
could be viewed as a war criminal by other nations for acting outside
international law. But Yoo’s analysis prevailed, becoming a guide for
administration policies that have included shipping captives to
countries that routinely practice torture, permitting indefinite
detentions under harsh conditions, and even absolving senior officials
of responsibility for deaths of captives under abusive U.S.
interrogation. [See Jane Mayer’s “Outsourcing
Torture,” New Yorker, Feb. 14, 2005.]
As opportunistic as Yoo’s legal memos appeared to
the State Department, he now has unveiled a novel additional argument
for absolving Bush and other top officials. Yoo, now a professor at
Berkeley, suggests that Bush’s victory in last year’s election makes the
question of his accountability for torture and other crimes moot.
“The issue is dying out,” Yoo told The New Yorker’s
Jane Mayer. “The public has had its referendum.”
Few American voters, however, cast their ballots
for Bush with the thought that they were endorsing torture, nor would
that matter under international law. Elections in one country don’t
create immunity for crimes committed in other countries.
But this style of irrational or convenient argument
has a history with the neoconservatives, having served them well since
they rose to prominence during the latter days of the Cold War.
At the center of neoconservative thinking has
always been the elitist concept that the American population must be led
by using simple messages, heroic imagery or fear. Historians trace this
thinking back to the teaching of the late political philosopher Leo
Strauss, a neoconservative icon.
To neoconservatives, therefore, truth is not a
value in its own right. To them, information must be culled for useful
kernels, facts that can then be exploited to create an emotional
response within the target audience. Once this desired political climate
– manufactured consent, if you will – is created, the neoconservatives
are free to promote an aggressive policy to achieve their policy goals.
As the operation advances, secrecy becomes a
crucial factor, with the need to keep the dark underbelly of the project
outside the view of the American public. When unpleasant facts do come
to light, the neoconservatives count on their allies in the elite
opinion circles to contain the damage.
Later, if a positive outcome can be claimed, the
neoconservatives dismiss any ugly realities as a small price to pay for
the success. The American people and their political representatives are
urged to look forward, not to re-fight the old battles of the past.
This strategy first surfaced in the 1970s when the
neoconservative movement took shape around a group of former leftists
and anticommunist intellectuals, the likes of Irving Kristol and Richard
Pipes, who were determined to build a power base by hyping the threat
from the Soviet Union. To do this, the neocons teamed up with some
old-line conservatives to challenge the détente strategy of President
Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
The neocons’ problem was that CIA analysts already
were detecting signs – from both technical and human intelligence – that
the Soviet Union was in steep decline and desperate for accommodation
with the West. One senior CIA officer told me that he was hearing this
news from some of his most trusted agents inside the Soviet Union.
Drawing on such CIA assessments, Nixon and
Kissinger favored a policy of engaging Moscow in a policy aimed at
eliminating some of worst dangers from the nuclear arms race and
gradually reducing tensions. Some U.S. policymakers saw a realistic hope
of negotiating an end to the Cold War, while opening up the Soviet bloc
by pressing for improved human rights and supporting fledgling democracy
But the neocons had other ideas. They were
determined to present the Soviet Union as a country on the rise both
militarily and economically with plans to destabilize the United States
through terrorism and eventually conquer it, possibly by attacking
through the “soft underbelly” of Central America.
In 1976, then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush gave an
important boost to this alarmist vision by allowing a group of
right-wing academics, including a young Paul Wolfowitz, inside the CIA’s
The group, known as “Team B,” was permitted to
review highly classified U.S. intelligence on the Soviet Union. Though
the evidence contradicted the neoconservative view, Team B still adopted
conclusions matching its preconceptions, that the CIA had underestimated
the Soviet military ascendancy and its plans to gain world domination.
[For details, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
With Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the neocons
went on the offensive against the CIA analysts by attacking their
patriotism and injecting an exaggerated threat analysis of the Soviet
Union into U.S. policy. That, in turn, justified aggressive policies
against leftist movements around the world.
When it came to combating the supposedly
all-powerful Soviet Union and its perceived allies, virtually anything
went. In Central America, the Reagan administration backed rightist
governments and paramilitary forces that routinely used secret
detentions, torture, rape and mass murder to crush leftist peasant
In the 1980s in Guatemala, Reagan aided military
regimes that waged scorched-earth campaigns against rural Mayan
populations, while he disputed reports of widespread human rights
atrocities. On Dec. 4, 1982, after meeting with Guatemalan dictator Gen.
Efrain Rios Montt, Reagan hailed the general as “totally dedicated to
democracy” and asserted that Rios Montt's government was “getting a bum
rap.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "Reagan
& Guatemala's Death Files."]
When the U.S. government declassified some secret
records in the 1990s, a Guatemalan truth commission used them to
conclude that the Reagan administration had aided and abetted genocide
against Mayan tribes in the highlands. In a separate investigation in
the late-1990s, the CIA inspector general discovered that the Reagan
administration had even protected anticommunist forces in Central
America that were implicated in the cocaine trade. [For details, see
Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & Project Truth.]
But Reagan and the neoconservatives never were held
accountable for their roles in these crimes and human rights abuses, nor
for the dangerous policies of arming Islamic fundamentalists in
Afghanistan or for secretly supplying military assistance to Saddam
Hussein’s government in Iraq.
Following the end of the Cold War, while other
countries went through soul-searching by appointing truth commissions,
the United States mostly just turned the page.
Ironically, too, Reagan and the neoconservatives,
who were most responsible for building up the ten-foot-tall Soviet straw
man, got most of the credit when it fell down. The CIA analytical
division, which was silenced in the early 1980s after correctly spotting
Soviet weaknesses, got beat up again in the early 1990s for “missing”
the Soviet collapse.
When Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992, the
Democrats had an historic opportunity to set the Cold War historical
record straight. But the Clinton administration focused instead on
domestic issues and let the neoconservatives write their own histories
of how they and Reagan “won” the Cold War. [See Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]
Now the neocon process is coming full circle in
Iraq. As occurred with the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, the threat
from Iraq was wildly exaggerated in 2002-03.
Just as any evidence was twisted to frighten the
American people about Soviet intentions earlier, every scrap of
intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was reshaped to
transform Iraq into a clear and present danger to the United States.
[For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "America's
The neoconservative goal may always have been to
project U.S. power in the Middle East by establishing a pro-U.S.
government in Iraq, but the neocons had learned from their Cold War
experience that Americans were best motivated by fear, even if that
required distorting the public record.
Another echo of the late Cold War can be heard in
the neocons’ interpretation of recent events in the Middle East as
vindication for their policies, though a more dispassionate analyst
might argue that the neocons deserve little credit for either the Soviet
collapse or the political stirrings in the Middle East.
But without wonderful ends, what could possibly
justify such horrible means?