Uncertain Anniversary for Iraq War Champions

It was four years ago that a little-known group called the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) published an open letter to President George W. Bush advising him on how precisely he should carry out his brand-new “war on terrorism.”

In addition to ousting Afghanistan’s Taliban, the letter’s mostly neoconservative signatories called for implementing regime change “by all necessary means” in Iraq, “even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the [Sept. 11] attack.” It also urged “appropriate measures of retaliation” against Iran and Syria if they refused to comply with U.S. demands to cut off support to Hezbollah, which they considered part of the terror network.

The letter called for cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority unless it immediately halted attacks against Israel and Israeli settlements, and for a “large increase in defense spending” in order to rein in the conflict that some of its signers, notably former CIA director James Woolsey, were soon describing as “World War IV.”

Six months later, PNAC published a second letter – again little-noticed by the U.S. mainstream media – calling for Washington to “accelerate plans for removing Saddam Hussein from power,” “lend full support to Israel” whose “fight against terrorism is our fight,” and greatly increase the defense budget to ensure that the impending war could be successfully carried out in all its aspects.

PNAC’s prescription and subsequent events fostered the impression, particularly in Europe and the Arab world, that the group had successfully and – given the lack of media coverage – covertly “hijacked” U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East.

These included the administration’s fulsome embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, followed by the invasion of Iraq, not to mention the effective cutoff of communications with both Damascus and Tehran (albeit not precisely because of their ties to Hezbollah).

Indeed, when the historical record of what the Bush administration has actually done in the region is compared with PNAC’s recommendations, the correspondence can only be described as stunning.

But they were hardly the result of some covert conspiracy.

In fact, PNAC, whose staff consists of only about half a dozen people, had been issuing letters, statements, and reports quite openly for several years before. It called in particular for regime change in Iraq as part of a larger foreign policy project inspired mainly by a policy paper drafted by hawks in the Pentagon under former President George H.W. Bush after the first Gulf War, and by a 1996 article by PNAC co-founders William Kristol and Robert Kagan in Foreign Affairs that called for the U.S. to practice “benevolent global hegemony” based on “military supremacy and moral confidence.”

The ideas contained in those works attracted – indeed reflected – the thinking of what could best be called a coalition of hawks, including assertive nationalists, neo-conservatives, and the Christian Right, that have worked together since the mid-1970s.

And it was that coalition that seized the initiative after Sept. 11, 2001 within the administration. Guided by Kristol, who doubles as editor of The Weekly Standard, PNAC simply became the public voice of that coalition.

After all, among the signatories of its 1997 charter statement were Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and their two top aides, I. Lewis Libby and Paul Wolfowitz (who had authored the 1992 Pentagon paper), respectively, as well as several other top administration officials.

Thus, in its Sept. 20, 2001 letter to Bush, PNAC was not “recommending” anything that these men were not already pushing within the administration’s highest councils, as Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward among others has since made clear. It was acting as a combination of transmission belt, echo chamber, and cheerleader on the outside, as it has since.

So, four years later, how is PNAC is doing?

The short answer is not so well.

Because it represents a coalition of different, although like-minded varieties of hawks, its own influence – or at least the perception of that influence – is highly dependent on the coalition’s unity.

But that unity began to fray even as U.S. troops were flowing into Iraq. Sensing that Rumsfeld, in particular, was not committed to using the kind of overwhelming force – and keeping it there – necessary for “transforming” Iraq (and the region), Kristol and Kagan, among other neoconservatives, began attacking the defense secretary and have repeatedly called for his resignation.

Moreover, their tactical alliance with “liberal internationalists” – mostly Democrats – in appealing for the resources required for “nation-building” has, by many accounts, deeply offended Rumsfeld and other “assertive nationalists” in and outside the administration.

Some in turn have blamed neoconservatives for deluding themselves and Bush into thinking that U.S. troops would be greeted with “sweets and flowers” in Iraq. The exile of Wolfowitz to the World Bank and the resignation last summer of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith should be seen in this light.

But the breakdown in the coalition’s unity and coherence resulted at least as much from external factors, as well, beginning with the tenacity of the Iraq insurgency. In bogging down U.S. land forces, it has put paid to the coalition’s original dreams of the armed forces prepared to intervene in any crisis anytime, anywhere.

In addition, the unanticipated and enormous costs associated with the occupation in Iraq – to which might now be added the unanticipated and enormous costs of recovery from Hurricane Katrina – has also demonstrated, both to some right-wing but budget-conscious nationalists, as well as to the rest of the world, that the money for the kind of military PNAC has always lobbied for is simply not available.

Thus, significant hikes in the defense budget, or for the occupation force in Iraq, as called for by PNAC in its most recent letter this January, are simply beyond the political pale.

Indeed, the growing public perception that Iraq has become a “quagmire” has added to the burdens of the PNAC coalition, members of which now must spend an inordinate amount of time defending the original decision to invade. A group that is temperamentally best suited to offense has found itself over the past two years in an increasingly defensive crouch.

Another external event that has clearly divided the PNAC coalition, and even the neoconservatives who have dominated it, was Sharon’s determination to disengage from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

The Sept. 20, 2001 letter and its April 3, 2002 follow-up on the Israel-Palestinian conflict both reflected the coalition’s commitment to the closest possible alliance between the U.S. and a Likud-led Israel.

But just as the Likud Party in Israel has split over Sharon’s disengagement, so PNAC hawks, particularly the neoconservatives and the Christian Right, have split here. And because Israel holds such a central position in the worldview of both groups, internal disagreement on such a key issue is particularly debilitating.

But it would be a mistake to believe that because PNAC and the coalition it represents are down, they must be out, particularly with respect to the other policy initiatives they recommended four years ago.

Confrontation with Iran, particularly under the leadership of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, is something that the coalition remains unified about, particularly with respect to the prospect of Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

While PNAC has not explicitly addressed what to do about Iran, there is little question that the coalition – like the hawks within the administration – remains fundamentally united on its own hardline policy and, in any event, an absolute refusal to directly engage the new government.

What to do about Syria is more uncertain, although more hawkish sectors within the coalition clearly favor “regime change,” possibly with the help of cross-border attacks in the name of preempting the infiltration of insurgents into Iraq, as has been called for by Kristol, among others.

While realists within the administration argue in favor of engaging President Bashar Assad, if only because the alternative could be so much worse, the hawks, particularly the neoconservatives who often refer to Damascus as “low-lying fruit,” appear determined to prevent any weakening of their policy of isolation and economic pressure on the assumption that the regime will soon collapse.

As in Iraq, however, the question of what will take its place has not yet been fully thought through.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.