When Neocons Ruled Washington

When Neocons Ruled Washington

By Michael Flynn

GENEVA, Dec 16 (IPS) – In the first two pages of his book on the neoconservative movement, historian Stephen Sniegoski tells us that U.S. Mideast policy during the George W. Bush presidency has been “colossally erroneous” and “disastrous to U.S. interests”, that the Iraq War is a “blunder of colossal proportions”, and that an attack on Iran is a “highly likely” “disaster” unless the country “eschews all elements of the Middle East war policy”.

It is hard to argue with these points. But the book’s relentless, partisan rhetoric serves to confirm what is obvious from its title: “The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel” is yet another treatise on the pernicious influence of the neocons on foreign policy.

So many studies have been penned on this subject that the noted international relations scholar Robert Jervis, in a 2005 review of a similar book, wrote that “one may wonder whether more is needed”.

Sniegoski’s contribution is to thoroughly review the mountain of material already published on the neocons to support a thesis held by many war critics — that neocons, abetted by the 9/11 attacks and their supporters within the administration, were able to “gain control” of U.S. policy.

The book does one thing better than most other treatments — it hones in on the centrality of Israel in the neoconservative worldview, drawing out the significance of the relationship between neocons and the Israeli right, and placing the “war on terror” squarely within the neocon-Likud vision of Mideast peace.

Much of the book is a conscientious — if tedious — exercise in checking off all the boxes about the neocons. We read about the leftist origins of many early neoconservatives; their “powerful, interlocking network of think tanks, organisations, and media outlets”; misconceptions spurred by their support for democratic change, which Sniegoski dismisses as a rhetorical “weapon, not a political objective”; and their tendency to accuse critics of anti-Semitism (the author could have added a fuller assessment of how racists have exploited the Jewish backgrounds of many neoconservatives to stoke anti-Semitism).

It describes the relationship between neocons like Richard Perle and the Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi; how Douglas Feith and his colleagues in the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans pushed through cherry-picked “evidence” on Iraq; and the alliance between neocons and the Christian Right.

Sniegoski is at his best when he departs from these well-worn narratives to assess the geopolitical context within which Bush administration decision-making occurred and analyses issues that have vexed observers, like the role of the oil lobby in influencing policies after 9/11 and the reason Iraq emerged as a target.

Chapter 8, titled “George W. Bush Administration: The Beginning”, is a case in point. The chapter opens with a discussion of how a network of neocons were given mid-level posts in the Office of the Vice President and the Pentagon, and how this insider position proved instrumental once the country and the president were willing to accept their ideas.

After discussing several key neocons and their ties to Israel, Sniegoski abruptly shifts to an assessment of what Business Week described as a struggle between “the pro-Israeli lobby and the U.S. oil industry” over Mideast policy.

It is here that the book gets interesting. Many observers argue that “Big Oil” was the driving force for the war. However, Sniegoski argues that oil interests lobbied the Bush administration to ease sanctions on Mideast countries and improve ties in the region. He also cites analysts who pointed to the diminishing role of the oil lobby after 9/11, including Salon’s Damien Cave, who wrote in late 2001 that “there is no clear evidence …of oil company desires affecting current U.S. foreign policy. If anything, the terrorist attacks have reduced oil industry influence.”

The results of this were felt in a number of policy areas, including Central Asia, which had long been in the crosshairs of analysts and energy suppliers because of its proximity to Caspian oil. After 9/11, however, it lost importance. Writes Sniegoski: The terrorist attacks “provided the United States with the golden opportunity to intervene militarily in Afghanistan on a major scale and thus go far to achieve its hegemonical goal in Central Asia… [B]ut any effort at establishing stability in Afghanistan was irretrievably undermined by the American focus on the war on Iraq. The goals of the American establishment imperialists and energy producers…thus would be overcome by the neoconservatives with their Israelocentric view of American foreign policy.”

Why Iraq? Going back to the origins of the Likud Party in the early 1970s, Sniegoski shows how the Israeli right has consistently advocated destabilising the Middle East so as to leave its opponents powerless and ensure Israeli security. He points to a widely cited 1982 publication by Oded Yinon, a one-time Israeli Foreign Ministry official. Calling Iraq “the greatest threat to Israel”, Yinon argued that the “dissolution” of Lebanon, which Israel invaded in 1982, was a “precedent for the entire Arab world including Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula”

The 1982 invasion of Lebanon, however, was widely condemned in and out of Israel, and spurred criticism from President Ronald Reagan. This debacle taught the Israeli right a key lesson, writes Sniegoski: It showed that “no military campaign to destabilize Israel’s enemies could achieve success if it antagonized Israeli public opinion and… lacked extensive backing from Israel’s principal sponsor, the United States.”

This Likud notion, which was reinforced after the first Gulf War when George Bush pere failed to overthrow Hussein and pressured Israel to draw back from the West Bank, was championed by neocons during the 1990s, when many of their publications argued for using an attack on Iraq as a lynchpin for a Mideast restructuring along lines elaborated by Israeli hardliners.

One such publication, titled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm”, was issued in 1996 by the Israel-based think tank the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies. A policy proposal for the then-incoming Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the paper argued for dropping the Oslo peace process and putting in place a plan — with U.S. support — to reconfigure the Mideast political map using the overthrow of Hussein as a starting point.

Among the participants in the study group that produced this paper were eventual Bush administration advisers Perle, Feith, and David Wurmser. Sniegoski calls the study an “astounding document”, adding: “Though written to advance the interests of a foreign country, it appears to be a rough blueprint for actual Bush administration policy, with which some of [its] authors — Perle, Feith, and Wurmser — were intimately involved… When formulating and implementing American policy for the Bush II administration, were they acting in the interests of America or of Israel?”

This is a very controversial question, one which goes to the heart of Sniegoski’s book — but one which many U.S. readers who support Israel will find unsettling. Scholars should not be afraid to ask the questions their evidence leads to; but when broaching such divisive topics, it might be best to take a less partisan approach than Sniegoski’s. (END/2008)

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