Patrick Seale: Tremors will hit the Bush camp if neocons are sacked
Although the Bush administration is reluctant to admit it, the United States is facing what is arguably its worst crisis since the Second World War. It is a crisis of leadership, of reputation, of military capability and of moral authority. A radical change of strategy and of high-level government personnel is urgently required, but can the embattled President George W Bush, whose qualities of mind and character leave much to be desired, bring it about?
Few observers believe he can rise to the challenge. Newsweek this week described the administration as "the most foolhardy civilian leadership in the modern history of the United States." Referring to the war in Iraq, the news magazine wrote: "American soldiers have been put in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong reasons."
Bush is coming to Europe this month in a desperate bid to boost his domestic standing and his international image, but the differences are too great to be papered over. Relations with key European countries have been strained almost to breaking point by his earlier disdain for his allies, by his cult of military power, his unilateralist policies, his dangerous doctrine of pre-emption, and his apparent indifference to basic civil rights and the Geneva Conventions.
Writing this week in Britain's Financial Times, Lawrence Freedman, Professor of War Studies at King's College, London, said: "a vacuum has opened up at the heart of world politics where US leadership ought to be found."
Bush, he added, had "gambled on Iraq and lost. The US could no longer impose its will on Iraq 'because it lacks the moral authority to do so."
These remarks by a leading British commentator are significant because Freedman had been an early supporter of the war. They have been echoed by many senior Americans.
The unpalatable truth is that the Bush administration has failed in almost everything it has touched. The war in Iraq, based on lies and incompetence, has been a catastrophe, its always doubtful legitimacy fatally undermined by the torture of Iraqi detainees. The "war on terror" has greatly increased, rather than diminished, the threat from radical political Islam, both to the US itself and to its friends, as countries like Saudi Arabia are learning to their cost.
Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at the very heart of the region's discontents, has been allowed to sink to new depths of barbarism, largely owing to Bush's irresponsible support for Israel's bull-dozing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
For all these reasons, US relations with the Arab and Muslim world have never been so bad and Americans have rarely been so hated. The terrorists, who last weekend seized hostages in the compound at Al Khobar, were reported to be looking for Americans to kill.
Having enjoyed uncritical support at home in its early years, the Bush administration is today facing a torrent of criticism. Congressional committees, investigative journalists like Seymour Hersch of The New Yorker, a phalanx of retired generals and senior officials, pundits of all sorts in dozens of new books – all want to know who must be held responsible for the catalogue of failures.
The answer many are giving is that responsibility lies primarily with the neoconservatives, that is to say the pro-Israeli ideologues at the heart of the US government who set the agenda of the Bush foreign policy. Marine General Anthony Zinni, a former commander-in-chief of US forces in the Middle East, has openly called for the Pentagon's top civilian leadership to resign. As he said recently, "There is no serious political or military leader or diplomat in Washington who doesn't know about the neocon agenda and how it led America to war."
Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, has condemned the administration's "extremist foreign policy", whose "strategic content", he wrote, "has been manipulated by officials preoccupied more with reshaping the security landscape of the Middle East [to Israel's advantage] than with maintaining America's ability to lead globally."
This is the heart of the charge now being made against the neocons: that their desire to enhance Israel's ability to seize the West Bank and defeat the Palestinians led them to devise a US strategy to attack, invade and overthrow a number of Middle Eastern regimes.
Iraq was only the first on their list. The intention was to occupy Iraq, turn it into a US client state which would make peace with Israel, and then move on to other countries in the region, notably Iran and Syria, then perhaps even Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Condemnation by Zinni and Brzezinski are just two examples of the outrage in America's military, political and intellectual establishment at the tremendous damage caused by this now widely discredited foreign policy.
Who are the principal neocons? They are the men behind Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Ronald Rumsfeld, the two belligerent heavyweights in the administration. If he dared, Bush could sack Rumsfeld, but Cheney could not be ousted without action by Congress. But for Bush even to contemplate such radical measures he would have publicly to admit that the "war on terror" was misconceived, that the war in Iraq was a costly blunder, that he was misled by the men on whose advice he relied, and that he intended to learn from his mistakes and put things right.
Identified scores of times in the American and international press, the principal neocons are Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, numbers two and three in the Pentagon hierarchy, Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defence Policy Board, Eliott Abrams, director of Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, and many others at all levels.
Perle has already been forced out, but the others are clinging to their jobs and will not go easily. If Bush were to fire them, he would be applauded by much of the world, but it would represent a political earthquake in American politics and in US-Israeli relations, almost unimaginable a mere five months from the US presidential elections in November.
But can Bush avoid the "fundamental strategic reappraisal" which Brzezinsky and other have called for? No one really knows how he intends to extricate himself and his administration from the current mess. His meetings with European and world leaders this month will give him a chance to explain himself.
With the Middle East racked by violence, with the failure to find a solution to the problem of nuclear proliferation, with the mushrooming of militant Islamic groups determined to hit back against what they see as the arrogance and brutality of the West, we are witnessing nothing less than the failure of the American-dominated "unipolar" system in place since the Soviet Union collapsed more than a dozen years ago.
Could a "multipolar" world do better? Europeans will shortly be voting to select members of the European Parliament, a little known but increasingly powerful body.
A key question underlying these elections is whether Europe should move towards greater political union – perhaps, in time, a United States of Europe strong enough to act as a counterweight to American power - or whether it should content itself with being an island of free trade, prosperity, democracy and human rights in a violent and dangerous world.
Tony Blair's Britain took, in my view, the mistaken course of opposing European political union and of aligning itself with America's failed policies in the Middle East. By so doing it has weakened Europe and silenced Britain's independent voice, and must therefore assume some part of responsibility for the current chaos.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs. He can be contacted at: psealegulfnews.com