Neocons Launch New Foreign Policy Group

A newly-formed and still obscure neoconservative foreign policy organization is giving some observers flashbacks to the 1990s, when its predecessor staked out the aggressively unilateralist foreign policy that came to fruition under the George W. Bush administration.

The blandly-named Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) – the brainchild of Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, neoconservative foreign policy guru Robert Kagan, and former Bush administration official Dan Senor – has thus far kept a low profile; its only activity to this point has been to sponsor a conference pushing for a U.S. “surge” in Afghanistan.

But some see FPI as a likely successor to Kristol’s and Kagan’s previous organization, the now-defunct Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which they launched in 1997 and which became best known for leading the public campaign to oust former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein both before and after the Sep. 11 attacks.

PNAC’s charter members included many figures who later held top positions under Bush, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and his top deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.

FPI was founded earlier this year, but few details are available about the group, which has so far attracted no media attention. The organization’s website lists Kagan, Kristol, and Senor, who came to prominence as a spokesman for the occupation authorities in Iraq, as the three members of its board of directors.

Two of FPI’s three staffers, policy director Jamie Fly and Christian Whiton, have come directly from foreign policy posts in the Bush administration, while the third, Rachel Hoff, last worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Contacted by IPS at the group’s office, Fly referred all questions to Senor, who did not return the call.

The organization’s mission statement argues that the “United States remains the world’s indispensable nation,” and warns that “strategic overreach is not the problem and retrenchment is not the solution” to Washington’s current financial and strategic woes. It calls for “continued engagement – diplomatic, economic, and military – in the world and rejection of policies that would lead us down the path to isolationism.”

The mission statement opens by listing a familiar litany of threats to the U.S., including “rogue states,” “failed states,” “autocracies” and “terrorism,” but gives pride of place to the “challenges” posed by “rising and resurgent powers,” of which only China and Russia are named.

Their prominence may reflect the influence of Kagan, who has argued in recent years that the 21st century will be dominated by a struggle between the forces of democracy (led by the U.S.) and autocracy (led by China and Russia). He has called for a League of Democracies as a mechanism for combating Chinese and Russian power, and the FPI statement stresses the need for “robust support for America’s democratic allies.”

This emphasis may also indicate that FPI intends to make confrontation with China and Russia the centerpiece of its foreign policy stance. If this is the case, it would mark a return to the early days of the Bush administration, before 9/11, when Kristol’s Weekly Standard took the lead in attacking Washington for its alleged “appeasement” of Beijing.

For its formal coming out, however, FPI has chosen to push for escalating the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan. The organization’s first event, to be held here Mar. 31, will be a conference entitled “Afghanistan: Planning for Success.”

The lead speaker will be Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate and long a favorite of both Kagan and Kristol. In February, McCain gave a well-publicized speech at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) arguing that the U.S. could not afford to scale back its military commitment in Afghanistan and calling for a redoubled effort to win the war.

Other speakers will include AEI fellow Frederick Kagan, Robert’s brother and one of the key proponents of the “surge” strategy in Iraq, counterinsurgency expert Lt. Col. John Nagl, the new director of Center for a New American Security, and hawkish Democratic Representative Jane Harman.

FPI has inevitably drawn comparisons to PNAC, a “letterhead organization” founded by Kristol and Kagan shortly after their publication in Foreign Affairs of an article entitled “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy” which called for Washington to exercise “benevolent global hegemony” and warned against what they saw as the post-Cold War drift of the Republican Party toward “neoisolationism” after it lost the White House to Bill Clinton.

“This reminds me of the Project for the New American Century,” said Steven Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. “Like PNAC, it will become a watering hole for those who want to see an ever-larger U.S. military machine and who divide the world between those who side with right and might and those who are evil or who would appease evil.”

PNAC’s membership was a veritable who’s-who of neoconservatives and other future Bush administration hawks. In addition to Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, charter members included then-Florida governor Jeb Bush, who was at the time considered a more likely presidential candidate than his elder brother; Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who left the administration after being indicted for perjury in October 2005; and Elliott Abrams, who became Bush’s top Middle East aide at the National Security Council; among several others who later served in senior Bush administration posts.

The group’s June 1997 statement of principles called for “a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity” that entailed “increas[ing] defense spending significantly” and “challeng[ing] regimes hostile to our interests and values.”

In January 1998, PNAC published an open letter to President Clinton calling for “the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power,” by military force if necessary. The letter was signed by many who would become architects and backers of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, including Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Abrams, future deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, and future U.N. ambassador John Bolton.

In September 2001, only days after the 9/11 attacks, another PNAC letter called on President Bush to broaden the scope of the “war on terror” beyond those immediately responsible for the attacks to include Iraq and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

And in April 2002, the group labeled Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority (PA) “a cog in the machine of Middle East terrorism,” compared Arafat to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and called on the U.S. to end support for both the PA and the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations as a whole.

“Israel’s fight against terrorism is our fight,” it said, urging Bush to “accelerate plans for removing Saddam Hussein from power.”

That FPI’s debut public event should focus on why Washington should escalate its involvement in Afghanistan is ironic given the role played by PNAC and other hawks in and outside the administration in pushing for the invasion of Iraq so soon after the U.S. campaign to oust the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in late 2001. Many experts believe the diversion of military and intelligence resources to Iraq made it possible for both the Taliban and al Qaeda’s leadership to survive and rebuild.

The top priority given by the Bush administration – again, with the strong encouragement of PNAC and its supporters – to Iraq as the “central front in the war on terror” also meant that aid needed to bolster the western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai was unavailable.

PNAC effectively ceased its activities at the beginning of Bush’s second term. This may partly have been due to the large amount of bad publicity the group attracted for its seminal role in bringing about the Iraq war.

But the formation of FPI may be a sign that its founders hope once again to incubate a more aggressive foreign policy during their exile from the White House, in preparation for the next time they return to political power.