Neoconned Again?

That the rhetoric used to justify war against Iraq sounds eerily similar to the case being made to start a war against Iran and Syria is not purely a coincidence. Many of the advocates of a muscular policy against countries regarded as outside the pale or perceived as a threat to Israel come from the same circle of neoconservatives, "resident scholars," and sound-bite experts who move seamlessly from think-tank to advocacy group to academia and back again. The pundits who made the case that led to the Iraq catastrophe are continuing to urge a larger, greater war that would engulf the entire Middle East, though many of them are now arguing that negotiations should precede nuking, if only to prove that diplomacy does not work.

The desire to remake all of the Middle East, not just Iraq, has been around for some time. In April 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz warned, "There’s got to be a change in Syria." Friends of Israel have frequently argued that Iran was the "real" enemy in 2003, not Iraq. As before, the advocates of war are being seconded by major voices in the media, including The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, US News & World Report, and The Weekly Standard. All of the arguments against Iran, Syria, and Iraq have a common source, and they all make two basic points that are constantly repeated for maximum impact: the "axis of evil" states are developing weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorism. To make the case even more compelling, the assumption is then made that the weapons of mass destruction will inevitably be given to the terrorists to use. More recently, the allegations that Iran is supporting Iraqi insurgents and that Syria has been letting foreign jihadists infiltrate across its border have been added to the mix to make the case that Damascus and Tehran are actively engaged in killing American soldiers.

Current efforts to generate war hysteria parallel developments in 2002-3, in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. To generate bipartisan support for the war, leading neoconservatives including Bruce Jackson, Richard Perle, and William Kristol launched in 2002 the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Active on the committee were Stephen Solarz, Robert Kagan, Newt Gingrich, and James Woolsey. Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman served as honorary chairmen. They were supported by a broad range of other groups sharing the same agenda, notably the American Enterprise Institute and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). The Committee was disbanded after Iraq was invaded. Mission accomplished.

Currently, groups similar in sound and style have been actively making the case for war against Iran and Syria. Organizations like the Foundation for Democracy in Iran (FDI) and the Lebanon Study Group are essentially neocon-funded-and-staffed advocacy groups that argue for the military option as the only way to end the threats posed by "rogue regimes." The FDI, which is headed by Kenneth R. Timmerman and includes fellow neocons Joshua Muravchik and Peter Rodman as founding members, features on its Web site the headlines "How to Topple the Mullahs" and "There Is an Alternative to the Baker-Hamilton Capitulation." All three are regarded as particularly close to the Israel lobby, and Timmerman in particular has frequently been linked to Mossad. He published a newsletter in Paris some years ago, Med News, that was believed to be funded by the Israeli intelligence service, and Mossad almost certainly provided material for his book Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran. He has also written The French Betrayal of America. The FDI also cites American Enterprise Institute alum Michael Ledeen as an apparent authority on Iran, which is not at all surprising, as Ledeen is a self-described expert on practically everything. Referring to Iran and Syria, Ledeen has written, "It’s time to bring down the other terror masters. Faster, please."

The Lebanon Study Group, which issued its 48-page strategy document in 2000 calling for ending Syria’s presence in Lebanon, featured many of the same players. Richard Perle, Doug Feith, and Elliot Abrams were all signatories of the call-to-arms manifesto, which was co-authored by Daniel Pipes. Ironically, the report pitched its argument around the need the preserve Lebanon’s Christian community. Christians have been in sharp decline in the Middle East since 2001, largely because of the collateral damage caused by aggressive Bush administration policies such as those advocated by the Lebanon Study Group. Congressman Eliot Engel of New York, a signatory to the document, followed up on its recommendations by introducing the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act, which was passed with overwhelming majorities in Congress in 2003.

The founder of the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon (USCFL), Lebanese businessman Ziad Abdelnour, co-authored the Lebanon Study Group report with Pipes. The Committee has been relatively quiet since the passage of the Syrian Accountability Act in 2003, but it once included a whole pantheon of neocon luminaries in its Golden Circle of contributors, including Abrams, Perle, Feith, Ledeen, Paula Dobriansky, Michael Rubin, David Wurmser, Frank Gaffney, and Jeane Kirkpatrick. When the USCFL was founded in 1997, it found supporters among neoconservatives, Christian Zionists, and the Likud Party of Israel. It has links to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and the Christian Coalition on its Web site.

Apart from the incestuous nature of the groups advocating terrible retribution for recalcitrant Arabs and Persians, there are several major logical disconnects in the case being made against Syria and Iran. There is no actual evidence that either Syria or Iran has any weapons of mass destruction program. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Iranians between 1983 and 1986, but the Iranians did not retaliate in kind, possibly because they were either not able or unwilling to do so. Iran’s government insists that its nuclear program exists for the peaceful generation of electricity, and there is no actual evidence to suggest that it is anything but that, only suspicions. Syria likewise might well have limited bio-chem weapons capabilities, but it has never used such weapons and evidence that they exist at all is lacking. Damascus does not have the technical capabilities to develop a nuclear weapon, and it is not likely that it will ever have the resources to do so.

Regarding the terrorist links, attempts to tie Iran to al-Qaeda are far-fetched for a number of reasons, including the historical antipathy of al-Qaeda to the Shi’ite religion. Syria likewise has no demonstrable ties to al-Qaeda. Both Iran and Syria do have links to Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as to several Palestinian terrorist groups, including Hamas. The groups in question all have one thing in common: they are directed against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and parts of south Lebanon, not against the United States. As such, whatever one believes about the rights and wrongs of the Israel-Palestine conflict, these groups do not constitute a threat to the United States, and their relationships with Syria and Iran should not constitute a casus belli for Washington. Former Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a Christian, has recognized Hezbollah as a "respected and legitimate part of the Lebanese people and government." Most Lebanese would agree, in spite of real concerns about the long-term political objectives of the group, particularly in light of Hezbollah’s extremely popular defeat of Israel’s July 2006 invasion. A solid majority of Palestinians voted for Hamas the last time they were allowed to cast ballots, an exercise in democracy that the Bush administration is not likely to permit a second time.

Finally, there is the argument that Iran in particular and Syria to a lesser extent are both responsible for killing "our soldiers" in Iraq. One thing that all the stories about alleged Iranian and Syrian involvement have in common is their lack of substantiating detail. The stories are light on names, dates, places, and corroborating information. Most rely on anonymous government sources or unsourced assertions that are presented as fact.

In March 2006, even Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted that there was no evidence to back up the claims of direct Iranian involvement in the development of the more effective IEDs. IEDs, which have been used by the Irish Republican Army and the Basque separatists ETA among others, are not an Iranian innovation or something that is unique to Tehran’s arsenal. The Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein included many specialists in ordnance-design working in its armories, nearly all of whom have been unemployed since 2003. Iraq’s arsenals contained all the artillery shells and bombs one might possibly need to construct huge and highly sophisticated roadside weapons, all without any need for Iranian assistance. By one estimate, Iraqis have enough high explosives on hand to continue IED attacks at the current rate for the next 274 years. Hopefully, the United States will not still be occupying Iraq at that time.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.