The weird men behind George W Bush's war
By: Michael Lind
Cover story - New Statesman (UK)
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 soldiers.
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 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 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 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 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 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