Fourteen months after reaching the zenith of their influence on U.S. foreign policy with the invasion of Iraq, neoconservatives appear to have fallen entirely out of favor, both within the administration of President George W. Bush and in Baghdad itself.
The signs of their defeat at the hands of both reality and the so-called “realists,” who are headed within the administration by Secretary of State Colin Powell, are virtually everywhere but were probably best marked by the cover of Newsweek magazine last week, which depicted the framed photograph of the neocons’ favorite Iraqi, Ahmad Chalabi, which had been shattered during a joint police-U.S. military raid on his headquarters in Baghdad. “Bush’s Mr. Wrong” was the title of the feature article.
The victory of the realists, who also include the uniformed military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), appeared complete Monday with the unveiling of the interim Iraqi government to which an as-yet undefined sovereignty is to be transferred from the U.S.-led occupation authorities Jun. 30.
Not only was Chalabi’s archrival-in-exile, Iyad Allawi, approved by the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) as prime minister, but neither Chalabi nor any of his closest IGC associates, especially Finance Minister Kamel al-Gailani who is accused of handing over much of Iraq’s banking system to Chalabi during his tenure made it into the final line-up.
“It looks like Chalabi is the big loser,” said one congressional aide who follows Iraq closely. “And neocon has become a dirty word up here,” he added, referring to the Congress, where Republicans have become increasingly restive as a result of recent debacles in Iraq, including the scandal over the abuse by U.S. soldiers of Iraqi detainees and leaks that Chalabi had been passing sensitive intelligence to Iran, and may have done so for years.
“We need to restrain what are growing U.S. messianic instincts a sort of global social engineering where the United States feels it is both entitled and obligated to promote democracy by force if necessary,” said Senator Pat Roberts, a conservative Kansas member of Bush’s Republican Party and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a speech last week that was understood here as a direct shot at the neocons.
The neoconservatives, a key part of the coalition of hawks that dominated Bush’s post-9/11 foreign policy, were the first to publicly call for Saddam Hussein’s ouster, which they saw as a way to transform the Arab world to make it more hospitable to western values, U.S. interests and Israel’s territorial ambitions.
Since the latter part of the 1990s, when they led the charge in Congress for the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act (ILA), Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress (INC) was their chosen instrument to achieve that transformation.
While no neocons were appointed to cabinet-level positions under Bush, they obtained top posts in the offices of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld where Paul Wolfowitz was named deputy defense secretary and Douglas Feith undersecretary for policy and Vice President Dick Cheney, whose chief of staff and national security adviser was I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
On the White House National Security Council staff, they were able to place former Iran-contra figure Elliott Abrams and Robert Joseph in key positions dealing with the Middle East and arms proliferation, respectively.
Rumsfeld’s Defense Policy Board (DPB) was dominated by neocons, notably its former chairman, Richard Perle, former CIA chief James Woolsey, former arms-control negotiator Kenneth Adelman and military historian Eliot Cohen.
Neocons, more than any other group, pushed hardest for war in Iraq after 9/11 and predicted, backed up by Chalabi’s assurances, that the conflict would be, among other things, a “cakewalk” and that U.S. troops would be greeted with “flowers and sweets.”
Within the administration, the neocons, again relying heavily on Chalabi’s INC, developed their own intelligence analyses to bolster the notion of a link between former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaeda terrorist group, and exaggerated Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to provide a more credible pretext for war.
Their friends on the DPB and in the media then stoked the public’s fears about these threats through frequent appearances on television and a barrage of newspaper columns and magazine articles.
While analysts and regional experts at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the State Department, which had dropped Chalabi as a fraud and a con-man in the mid-1990s, tried to resist the juggernaut, they were consistently outflanked by the neocons, whose influence and ability to circumvent the professionals was greatly enhanced by their access to Rumsfeld and Cheney, who served as their champions in the White House and with Bush personally.
Their influence reached its zenith in early April when Chalabi and 700 of his paid INC troops were airlifted by the Pentagon to the southern city of Nasiriya on Cheney’s authority against Bush’s stated policy that Washington would not favor one Iraqi faction over another. Bush’s own national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, professed surprise when informed of the move by reporters.
While they were still riding high as U.S. troops consolidated their control of Iraq, the neocons’ star began to wane already last August when it became clear that their and Chalabi’s predictions about a grateful Iraqi populace were about as well-founded as their certainties about Hussein’s ties to al-Qaeda and his WMD stockpiles.
Sensing trouble ahead, Rice asked former ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, to return to the White House, where he had been her boss during the presidency of George HW Bush, the current leader’s father (1989-93). By October, she and he had formed an inter-agency Iraq Stabilisation Group (ISG) that gradually wrested control of Iraq policy from the Pentagon.
It was a process in which Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chief Paul Bremer, who had come to detest Chalabi and his neocon backers in Baghdad and Washington, was an enthusiastic participant and which was effectively completed with the announcement late last month that the State Department was taking over the $14 billion in reconstruction money for Iraq that the Pentagon has not yet spent.
In the last month, the neocon retreat has turned into a rout, particularly as reports of Chalabi’s coziness with Iran gained currency and, just as important, senior military officers indicated that a military victory over the Iraqi insurgency was not possible.
The public attention given to a blistering attack on the neocons by the former chief of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Anthony Zinni, on the popular television program, 60 Minutes, also demonstrated that the media, ever cautious about taking on powerful figures, now saw them as fair game.
When Perle, Woolsey and several other neocons visited Rice at the White House on May 1 to protest the shoddy treatment Chalabi was receiving at the hands of the CIA, Bremer and the State Department, participants said she thanked them for their views and offered nothing more. Neither Rumsfeld nor Cheney nor any of their neocon aides attended.