The weird men behind George W Bush's war
Monday 7th April 2003
Imagine a new British invasion of Egypt orchestrated by the followers of
Ian Paisley, and you will have some idea of what is happening in Washington.
Michael Lind dissects a neoconservative coup
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 American and European civilisation 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 over-representation 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 US 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 11 September -
the foreign policy of the world's only global power is being made by a small
clique that is unrepresentative of either the US population or the mainstream
foreign policy establishment.
The core group now in charge consists of neoconservative defence
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 defence intellectuals include Paul Wolfowitz,
the deputy secretary of defence. He is the defence mastermind of the Bush
administration; Donald Rumsfeld is an elderly figurehead who holds the position
of defence secretary only because Wolfowitz himself is too controversial.
Others include Douglas Feith, the number three at the Pentagon; Lewis "Scooter"
Libby, a Wolfowitz protege 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 US to Saddam Hussein, and Richard Perle, who has just resigned from his
unpaid defence department advisory post after a lobbying scandal. Most of these
"experts" never served in the military. But their headquarters is now the
civilian defence secretary's office, where these Republican political
appointees are despised and distrusted by the largely Republican career
Most neoconservative defence intellectuals have their roots on the left,
not the right. They are products of the largely Jewish-American 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 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 neo-con defence intellectuals, as well as being in or around the
actual Pentagon, are at the centre 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) and
the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) provide homes for
neo-con "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 neo-cons are ideologues, not
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 defence 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
co-signed a Jinsa letter that began: "We . . . believe that during the current
upheavals in Israel, the Israel Defence 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 Organisation of America, citing him as a "pro-Israel
activist". While out of power in the Clinton years, Feith collaborating with
Perle, co-authored for Likud a policy paper that advised the Israeli government
to end the Oslo peace process, reoccupy the territories and crush Yasser
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 subsidise 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 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, 1989-93),
acts as a mouthpiece for defence intellectuals such as Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith
and Woolsey as well as for Sharon's government. The National Interest (of which
I was executive editor, 1991-94) 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 centred on the Washington Times -
owned by the South Korean messiah (and ex-convict) the Reverend Sun Myung
Moon - which owns the newswire UPI. UPI is now run by John O'Sullivan, the
ghost-writer 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, as well as 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 PR technique pioneered by their Trotskyist
predecessors, the neo-cons 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 US to invade and occupy Iraq and to
support Israel's campaigns against the Palestinians (dire warnings about China
were another favourite). 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 neo-con defence intellectuals - a small group at odds with
most of the US 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 hardline 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 neo-cons 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 north-eastern, 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 culture.
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
authorisation from Congress and the UN.
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 US from Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass
destruction", something the leading neo-cons 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 US to invade and occupy
Iraq, to bomb Hezbollah bases in Lebanon and to threaten states such as Syria
and Iran with US 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 neo-cons 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 US. The
neo-cons urge war with Iran next, though by any rational measurement North
Korea's new nuclear arsenal is, for the US, a far greater problem.
So that is the bizarre story of how neoconservatives took over Washington
and steered the US into a Middle Eastern war unrelated to any plausible threat
to the US 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-Qaeda attacks, any US president would likely have gone to war to
topple Bin Laden's Taliban protectors in Afghanistan. But everything that the
US 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 Reverend Ian
Paisley, extreme Eurosceptics, 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.
Michael Lind, the Whitehead Fellow at the New America Foundation in
Washington, DC, is the author of Made in Texas: George W Bush and the southern
takeover of American politics. The book is reviewed on page 52
This article first appeared in the New Statesman. For the latest in
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