Pity the Poor Neocons
As bloody and grotesque as Israel’s pounding of Gaza has been, it marks a bitterly disappointing end for seven-plus years of neoconservative dominion over U.S. foreign policy, a period that was supposed to conclude with the dismantling of Israel’s Muslim enemies in the region.
Contrary to those neocon plans, George W. Bush is limping toward a historical judgment as possibly “the worst President ever”; U.S. power is waning in Iraq under a “status-of-forces agreement” that is showing the Americans the door by 2011 if not earlier; and key neocon targets – Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon – have gained in regional influence.
All the neocons have left now is to cheer the Israeli air force as it, in effect, shoots fish in a barrel, i.e. blasting away at selected Palestinian targets inside the crowded confines of Gaza, killing more than 400 people, including many children and other civilians, over the past week.
In 2001, especially after 9/11, the neocon dreams were so much more ambitious. The neocons planned to achieve “regime change” in all Middle Eastern countries that were perceived as threats to Israel and replace them with compliant, pro-Western leaders.
First on the list was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which was a center for Arab nationalism and an advocate for resisting Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Since Iraq was too strong – and too far from the effective reach of the Israeli military – U.S. forces would be needed to conquer Iraq.
After that, Iraq was supposed to become the staging area for projecting American power across the region, with the governments of Iran and Syria the next targets.
A favorite neocon joke in 2003 was whether after capturing Baghdad, U.S. forces should go east or west, to either Damascus or Tehran, with the punch line: “Real men go to Tehran.” Of course, unlike American soldiers, the neocons weren’t really going anywhere, except to the next AEI conference or a Georgetown cocktail party.
By replacing the governments of Iran and Syria, the neocons would knock out the support structure for Israel’s two most immediate threats, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Then, with Israel – aided by some Arab allies – finishing off those two weakened militant groups, Israel could dictate terms of a final settlement to the Palestinians.
The Palestinians would have little choice but to accept an agreement even if it deprived them of the most desirable land. Peace would be imposed on the region by a neocon Pax Americana.
Throughout this ambitious process, the neocons wrapped their plans in pretty or high-blown rhetoric.
There was talk about spreading “democracy” to the region (even though the neocons have never had much use for real democracy, having secured their place of power under George W. Bush after he and five Supreme Court allies overrode the will of American voters in 2000. The neocons also never objected to the plans of Bush’s political operatives to create a “permanent Republican majority” in America – a virtual one-party state – so long as the neocons kept their seat at the table.)
Besides “democracy promotion” in the Middle East, the neocons talked about advancing “human rights,” even as their policies rained death and destruction upon countless thousands of defenseless Arabs. There was also the claim that the United States was acting in post-9/11 self-defense because Saddam Hussein was in league with al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden (even though the pair actually were bitter rivals in the Arab world).
So there were plenty of pleasant rationales to justify the brutal strategies, so many that thoughtful analysts to this day express uncertainty over what the Bush administration’s real motivation was for invading Iraq.
It has always been a key part of neocon PR strategy to follow Winston Churchill’s famous advice that "in wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." And for the neocons, it is always wartime, if not actual war then it’s the “war of ideas” or the “war on terror.”
Having covered the neocons since their emergence in the early 1980s as junior partners in the Reagan Revolution, I have always been amazed at their facility for clever arguments and their willingness to demonize or marginalize anyone who disagrees with them. In essence, they are intellectual bullies who care only about achieving their political ends.
Though Ronald Reagan “credentialed” many of the key neocons – the likes of Elliott Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Robert Kagan – he mostly kept them focused on Central America and other strategic backwaters.
This was not good news for Central Americans – who died by the tens of thousands as the neocons concealed or downplayed the human rights crimes committed by U.S.-supported military forces in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua – but at least Reagan knew enough not to give the neocons broad control over U.S. policy in the oil-rich Middle East.
Reagan’s key diplomats in the Middle East were more pragmatic operatives, such as James Baker and Philip Habib. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration mostly played Realpolitik games there, like helping both sides in the Iran-Iraq War to ensure that neither one got too much of an upper hand. There also was ambivalence toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.
That changed when George W. Bush became President as a born-again Christian devoted to Israel. Especially after 9/11, Bush handed control of Middle East policy to the neocons, with officials such as Elliott Abrams holding key posts on the National Security Council, Wolfowitz at the Pentagon, and Lewis Libby serving under the powerful Vice President, Dick Cheney.
By then, the neocons also had gained extraordinary sway over the Washington press corps.
In the 1980s, the neocons expanded their megaphone from relatively small-circulation magazines, like Commentary and Dissent, to more general-interest publications, such as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, The New Republic and later Newsweek (where I worked in the late 1980s).
The neocon editorialists – people like Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes – also excelled at amplifying their political message through their seats on TV news chat shows, such as “Inside Washington,” “Crossfire” and “The McLaughlin Group.”
By the 1990s, with the emergence of right-wing talk radio and Fox News, the neocons consolidated their power in the national news media. Most notably, the Washington Post’s editorial section fell firmly under neocon domination.
As much as the Right still uttered its ritualistic complaints about the “liberal press,” the reality was quite different. As became acutely clear in 2002 and early 2003, the neocons in the news media worked hand in glove with the Bush administration to rally public support behind the Iraq War by citing such canards as the risk of Saddam Hussein giving his WMD to al-Qaeda.
It turned out, however, that manipulating reality inside the Washington Beltway was a lot easier than controlling it inside Iraq. Rather than happily accepting U.S. occupation, many Iraqis joined an armed resistance, tying down American troops in a bloody quagmire.
Also, failing to find the promised caches of Iraq’s WMD and facing new skepticism about Hussein’s ties to al-Qaeda, Bush elevated “democracy” to be the prime post facto justification for the invasion. But that led to Iraqi elections in early 2005 and they installed a Shiite government with close ties to Iran.
Similarly, U.S.-demanded elections in the Palestine territories led to victory by Hamas and its eventual takeover of Gaza. Other elections in Lebanon strengthened the position of Hezbollah.
So, very few of the Middle East plans were working out as the neocons had airily envisioned them.
Tied down by worsening violence in Iraq, the Bush administration issued belligerent warnings to Syria and Iran but lacked the military manpower to back up the threats.
Stymied on plans to roll up Israel’s enemies via U.S.-imposed “regime change” in Iran and Syria – and thus undermine Hamas and Hezbollah – the neocons pinned their hopes on Israel’s ability to punish those two groups with military offensives in 2006 and then possibly move on to invading Syria.
After consultations between President Bush and Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israel engaged in a series of low-key tit-for-tat exchanges with Hamas and Hezbollah, which responded by capturing several Israeli soldiers (the U.S. press corps preferred the word “kidnap”). That was followed by a massive Israeli retaliation that killed more than a thousand people, including many civilians, in Lebanon.
Inside the United States, there was a reprise of the war-drum-beating that had preceded the Iraq War. Well-placed neocons in Washington and elsewhere tried to whip the American people into a new war frenzy. Again, U.S. politicians and much of the U.S. news media fell into line.
On July 17, 2006, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton shared the stage in a pro-Israel rally with Dan Gillerman, then Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations who had espoused anti-Arab bigotry in the past and proudly defended Israel’s violence inside Lebanon.
Responding to international concerns that Israel was using “disproportionate” force by bombing Lebanon and killing hundreds of civilians, Gillerman said, “You’re damn right we are.” [NYT, July 18, 2006]
In other statements, Gillerman had been even more disdainful about Muslims. At the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington on March 6, 2006, Gillerman virtually equated Muslims with terrorists.
“While it may be true – and probably is – that not all Muslims are terrorists, it also happens to be true that nearly all terrorists are Muslim,” Gillerman quipped to the delight of the AIPAC crowd. [Washington Post, March 7, 2006]
Despite Gillerman’s professed uncertainty about whether “all Muslims are terrorists,” this anti-Muslim bigotry didn’t generate any noticeable protest from American politicians and pundits. It would have been hard to imagine any other ethnic or religious group being subjected to a similar smear without provoking a noisy controversy.
Four months later, Sen. Clinton and other Democrats joined Gillerman at the New York rally to endorse Israel’s devastating military attacks on Lebanon. Clinton, who was then considered the Democratic presidential frontrunner, denounced Hezbollah and Hamas as “the new totalitarians of the 21st Century” who believe in neither human rights nor democracy, even though both groups had done well in elections.
Clinton was joined by two Democratic congressmen who also endorsed Israel’s bombing raids on Lebanon.
“Since when should a response to aggression and murder be proportionate?” asked Rep. Jerrold Nadler.
“President Bush has been wrong about a lot of things,” said Rep. Anthony D. Weiner. “He’s right about this.” [For more details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “A New War Frenzy.”]
However, as it turned out, the Israeli offensive against Lebanon – though very bloody – was generally ineffective. It may even have been counterproductive by enhancing Hezbollah’s status within Lebanon and around the Muslim world for having fought the potent Israeli military to a standstill.
As 2006 wore on, things went from bad to worse for the neocons. Their dreams of a “permanent Republican majority” – with them in charge of U.S. foreign policy – collapsed on Nov. 7, 2006, when American voters turned both houses of Congress over to the Democrats.
Two years later, the Republicans (and the neocons) fared even worse, also losing the White House to Barack Obama, despite a GOP and neocon smear campaign that featured Obama’s middle name “Hussein” and called him a secret Muslim.
Also disheartening was Bush’s capitulation in accepting a timetable for U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq. The President was forced to accept a “status-of-forces agreement” with a timetable for American withdrawal – first from the cities by the end of June and from the country as a whole by the end of 2011 – and possibly earlier if the SOFA is rejected by an Iraqi referendum.
In Washington, the neocons now are scrambling to find themselves new places of influence. Some neocon-lites are hoping to decamp inside Hillary Clinton’s State Department. However, rumors also are rife in Washington that some think tanks are lightening their ranks of neocons in order to retain some influence with the new administration.
Ironically, one of the few remaining neocon strongholds is the Washington news media, where support for Israel’s punishing bombing campaign against Hamas in Gaza -- in retaliation for missiles fired into southern Israel -- is nearly unanimous.
For instance, the Washington Post’s op-ed page has shed even the pretense of offering a balanced picture. On New Year’s Day, the Post ran two long op-ed pieces – one by Ephraim Sneh, chairman of the Strong Israel party, and another by Robert J. Lieber, author of The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century. Both articles defended Israel’s bombing attacks in retaliation for Hamas rocket fire.
The next day, Jan. 2, the Post offered two more columns, one by neocon stalwart Charles Krauthammer and the other by former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson. Both op-eds enthusiastically endorsed Israel’s bombing campaign as morally righteous.
“Some geopolitical conflicts are morally complicated,” Krauthammer wrote. “The Israel-Gaza war is not. It possesses a moral clarity not only rare but excruciating.”
Gerson added, “There is no question – none – that Israel’s attack on Hamas in Gaza is justified.”
Though typical of the absolutist neocon view that Israel is always right, the articles still are striking in their unwillingness to see any gray areas relating to the moral ambiguities that have surrounded the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for more than six decades.
Not only has Israel committed its share of outrages against Palestinians (and vice versa) but the neocons of the Washington news media still refuse to acknowledge the fundamental humanity of people from the Muslim world. In the neocon view, the lives of Arabs and other Muslims are cheap and their aspirations are of even less consequence.
The American neocons echo the stunning opinion of Israel Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who stated on Jan. 1 that – despite the widespread carnage in Gaza – “there is no humanitarian crisis in the strip, and therefore there is no need for a humanitarian truce.”
But that is not the view of everyone. In contrast to the Washington Post editorial section’s inability to see any moral ambiguity in the Israeli bombing campaign, Richard Falk, the United Nations rapporteur for the Palestinian territories, has deemed the Israeli attacks war crimes.
“The Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip represent severe and massive violations of international humanitarian law as defined in the Geneva Conventions, both in regard to the obligations of an Occupying Power and in the requirements of the laws of war,” Falk wrote on Dec. 30. 2008.
Among those violations, Falk cited: “Disproportionate military response. The airstrikes have not only destroyed every police and security office of Gaza's elected government, but have killed and injured hundreds of civilians; at least one strike reportedly hit groups of students attempting to find transportation home from the university.
“Earlier Israeli actions, specifically the complete sealing off of entry and exit to and from the Gaza Strip, have led to severe shortages of medicine and fuel (as well as food), resulting in the inability of ambulances to respond to the injured, the inability of hospitals to adequately provide medicine or necessary equipment for the injured, and the inability of Gaza's besieged doctors and other medical workers to sufficiently treat the victims.”
But the American neocons care little what happens to the Palestinians of Gaza. It matters not that they have been denied basic human rights for the past six decades, nor that some 1.5 million impoverished Palestinians are packed into the Gaza Strip with little hope for meaningful work or the ability to escape from what amounts to a giant prison.
Similarly, the neocons feel little or no remorse for the butchery in Iraq where hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died and many more have been horribly maimed as a result of the U.S. invasion that the neocons demanded and rationalized. Indeed, it is difficult not to judge the neocons to be racist in their nonchalance toward the killing of Muslims, though the neocons would bristle at the assessment.
In many civilized societies, the intellectual and political authors of a crime against humanity as egregious as the Iraq War would be dragged from their offices in handcuffs and put on trial. In modern Washington, however, they don’t even lose their privileged spot on the Washington Post’s op-ed page.
But perhaps we all should feel some pity for the neocons. Their grand dreams of Middle East conquest – with them as modern-day Alexanders – have been reduced to them cheering as Israeli bombs smash apart the crowded neighborhoods of Gaza.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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