it's six months from now. The Iraq war is over. After an initial burst
of joy and gratitude at being liberated from Saddam's rule, the people
of Iraq are watching, and waiting, and beginning to chafe under American
occupation. Across the border, in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, our conquering
presence has brought street protests and escalating violence. The United
Nations and NATO are in disarray, so America is pretty much on its own.
Hemmed in by budget deficits at home and limited financial assistance from
allies, the Bush administration is talking again about tapping Iraq's oil
reserves to offset some of the costs of the American presence--talk that
is further inflaming the region. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence has discovered
fresh evidence that, prior to the war, Saddam moved quantities of biological
and chemical weapons to Syria. When Syria denies having such weapons, the
administration starts massing troops on the Syrian border. But as they
begin to move, there is an explosion: Hezbollah terrorists from southern
Lebanon blow themselves up in a Baghdad restaurant, killing dozens of Western
aid workers and journalists. Knowing that Hezbollah has cells in America,
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge puts the nation back on Orange Alert.
FBI agents start sweeping through mosques, with a new round of arrests
of Saudis, Pakistanis, Palestinians, and Yemenis.
- To most Americans, this would sound like a frightening
state of affairs, the kind that would lead them to wonder how and why we
had got ourselves into this mess in the first place. But to the Bush administration
hawks who are guiding American foreign policy, this isn't the nightmare
scenario. It's everything going as anticipated.
- In their view, invasion of Iraq was not merely, or even
primarily, about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Nor was it really about
weapons of mass destruction, though their elimination was an important
benefit. Rather, the administration sees the invasion as only the first
move in a wider effort to reorder the power structure of the entire Middle
East. Prior to the war, the president himself never quite said this openly.
But hawkish neoconservatives within his administration gave strong hints.
In February, Undersecretary of State John Bolton told Israeli officials
that after defeating Iraq, the United States would "deal with"
Iran, Syria, and North Korea. Meanwhile, neoconservative journalists have
been channeling the administration's thinking. Late last month, The Weekly
Standard's Jeffrey Bell reported that the administration has in mind a
"world war between the United States and a political wing of Islamic
fundamentalism ... a war of such reach and magnitude [that] the invasion
of Iraq, or the capture of top al Qaeda commanders, should be seen as tactical
events in a series of moves and countermoves stretching well into the future."
- In short, the administration is trying to roll the table--to
use U.S. military force, or the threat of it, to reform or topple virtually
every regime in the region, from foes like Syria to friends like Egypt,
on the theory that it is the undemocratic nature of these regimes that
ultimately breeds terrorism. So events that may seem negative--Hezbollah
for the first time targeting American civilians; U.S. soldiers preparing
for war with Syria--while unfortunate in themselves, are actually part
of the hawks' broader agenda. Each crisis will draw U.S. forces further
into the region and each countermove in turn will create problems that
can only be fixed by still further American involvement, until democratic
governments--or, failing that, U.S. troops--rule the entire Middle East.
- There is a startling amount of deception in all this--of
hawks deceiving the American people, and perhaps in some cases even themselves.
While it's conceivable that bold American action could democratize the
Middle East, so broad and radical an initiative could also bring chaos
and bloodshed on a massive scale. That all too real possibility leads most
establishment foreign policy hands, including many in the State Department,
to view the Bush plan with alarm. Indeed, the hawks' record so far does
not inspire confidence. Prior to the invasion, for instance, they predicted
that if the United States simply announced its intention to act against
Saddam regardless of how the United Nations voted, most of our allies,
eager to be on our good side, would support us. Almost none did. Yet despite
such grave miscalculations, the hawks push on with their sweeping new agenda.
- Like any group of permanent Washington revolutionaries
fueled by visions of a righteous cause, the neocons long ago decided that
criticism from the establishment isn't a reason for self-doubt but the
surest sign that they're on the right track. But their confidence also
comes from the curious fact that much of what could go awry with their
plan will also serve to advance it. A full-scale confrontation between
the United States and political Islam, they believe, is inevitable, so
why not have it now, on our terms, rather than later, on theirs? Actually,
there are plenty of good reasons not to purposely provoke a series of crises
in the Middle East. But that's what the hawks are setting in motion, partly
on the theory that the worse things get, the more their approach becomes
the only plausible solution.
- Moral Cloudiness
- Ever since the neocons burst upon the public policy scene
30 years ago, their movement has been a marriage of moral idealism, military
assertiveness, and deception. Back in the early 1970s, this group of then-young
and still mostly Democratic political intellectuals grew alarmed by the
post-Vietnam Democrats' seeming indifference to the Soviet threat. They
were equally appalled, however, by the amoral worldview espoused by establishment
Republicans like Henry Kissinger, who sought co-existence with the Soviet
Union. As is often the case with ex-socialists, the neocons were too familiar
with communist tactics to ignore or romanticize communism's evils. The
fact that many neocons were Jewish, and outraged by Moscow's increasingly
visible persecution of Jews, also caused them to reject both the McGovernite
and Kissingerian tendencies to ignore such abuses.
In Ronald Reagan, the neocons found a politician they could embrace. Like
them, Reagan spoke openly about the evils of communism and, at least on
the peripheries of the Cold War, preferred rollback to coexistence. Neocons
filled the Reagan administration, and men like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard
Perle, Frank Gaffney, and others provided the intellectual ballast and
moral fervor for the sharp turn toward confrontation that the United States
adopted in 1981.
- But achieving moral clarity often requires hiding certain
realities. From the beginning, the neocons took a much more alarmist view
of Soviet capacities and intentions than most experts. As late as 1980,
the ur-neocon Norman Podhoretz warned of the imminent "Finlandization
of America, the political and economic subordination of the United States
to superior Soviet power," even raising the possibility that America's
only options might be "surrender or war." We now know, of course,
that U.S. intelligence estimates, which many neocons thought underestimated
the magnitude and durability of Soviet power, in fact wildly overestimated
- This willingness to deceive--both themselves and others--expanded
as neocons grew more comfortable with power. Many spent the Reagan years
orchestrating bloody wars against Soviet proxies in the Third World, portraying
thugs like the Nicaraguan Contras and plain murderers like Jonas Savimbi
of Angola as "freedom fighters." The nadir of this deceit was
the Iran-Contra scandal, for which Podhoretz's son-in-law, Elliot Abrams,
pled guilty to perjury. Abrams was later pardoned by Bush's father, and
today, he runs Middle East policy in the Bush White House.
- But in the end, the Soviet Union did fall. And the hawks'
policy of confrontation did contribute to its collapse. So too, of course,
did the economic and military rot most of the hawks didn't believe in,
and the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, whom neocons such as Richard Perle
counseled Reagan not to trust. But the neocons did not dwell on what they
got wrong. Rather, the experience of having played a hand in the downfall
of so great an evil led them to the opposite belief: that it's okay to
be spectacularly wrong, even brazenly deceptive about the details, so long
as you have moral vision and a willingness to use force.
- What happened in the 1990s further reinforced that mindset.
Hawks like Perle and William Kristol pulled their hair out when Kissingerians
like Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell left Saddam's regime in place after
the first Gulf War. They watched with mounting fury as terrorist attacks
by Muslim fundamentalists claimed more and more American and Israeli lives.
They considered the Oslo accords an obvious mistake (how can you negotiate
with a man like Yasir Arafat?), and as the decade progressed they became
increasingly convinced that there was a nexus linking burgeoning terrorism
and mounting anti-Semitism with repressive but nominally "pro-American"
regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In 1996, several of the hawks--including
Perle--even tried to sell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on
the idea that Israel should attack Saddam on its own--advice Netanyahu
wisely declined. When the Oslo process crumbled and Saudi Arabian terrorists
killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11, the hawks felt, not without some justification,
that they had seen this danger coming all along, while others had ignored
it. The timing was propitious, because in September 2001 many already held
jobs with a new conservative president willing to hear their pitch.
- Prime Minister bin Laden
- The pitch was this: The Middle East today is like the
Soviet Union 30 years ago. Politically warped fundamentalism is the contemporary
equivalent of communism or fascism. Terrorists with potential access to
weapons of mass destruction are like an arsenal pointed at the United States.
The primary cause of all this danger is the Arab world's endemic despotism,
corruption, poverty, and economic stagnation. Repressive regimes channel
dissent into the mosques, where the hopeless and disenfranchised are taught
a brand of Islam that combines anti-modernism, anti-Americanism, and a
worship of violence that borders on nihilism. Unable to overthrow their
own authoritarian rulers, the citizenry turns its fury against the foreign
power that funds and supports these corrupt regimes to maintain stability
and access to oil: the United States. As Johns Hopkins University professor
Fouad Ajami recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, "The great indulgence
granted to the ways and phobias of Arabs has reaped a terrible harvest"--terrorism.
Trying to "manage" this dysfunctional Islamic world, as Clinton
attempted and Colin Powell counsels us to do, is as foolish, unproductive,
and dangerous as dtente was with the Soviets, the hawks believe. Nor is
it necessary, given the unparalleled power of the American military. Using
that power to confront Soviet communism led to the demise of that totalitarianism
and the establishment of democratic (or at least non-threatening) regimes
from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea to the Bering Strait. Why not use
that same power to upend the entire corrupt Middle East edifice and bring
liberty, democracy, and the rule of law to the Arab world?
- The hawks' grand plan differs depending on whom you speak
to, but the basic outline runs like this: The United States establishes
a reasonably democratic, pro-Western government in Iraq--assume it falls
somewhere between Turkey and Jordan on the spectrum of democracy and the
rule of law. Not perfect, representative democracy, certainly, but a system
infinitely preferable to Saddam's. The example of a democratic Iraq will
radically change the political dynamics of the Middle East. When Palestinians
see average Iraqis beginning to enjoy real freedom and economic opportunity,
they'll want the same themselves. With that happy prospect on one hand
and implacable United States will on the other, they'll demand that the
Palestinian Authority reform politically and negotiate with Israel. That
in turn will lead to a real peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.
A democratic Iraq will also hasten the fall of the fundamentalist Shi'a
mullahs in Iran, whose citizens are gradually adopting anti-fanatic, pro-Western
sympathies. A democratized Iran would create a string of democratic, pro-Western
governments (Turkey, Iraq, and Iran) stretching across the historical heartland
of Islam. Without a hostile Iraq towering over it, Jordan's pro-Western
Hashemite monarchy would likely come into full bloom. Syria would be no
more than a pale reminder of the bad old days. (If they made trouble, a
U.S. invasion would take care of them, too.) And to the tiny Gulf emirates
making hesitant steps toward democratization, the corrupt regimes of Saudi
Arabia and Egypt would no longer look like examples of stability and strength
in a benighted region, but holdouts against the democratic tide. Once the
dust settles, we could decide whether to ignore them as harmless throwbacks
to the bad old days or deal with them, too. We'd be in a much stronger
position to do so since we'd no longer require their friendship to help
us manage ugly regimes in Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
- The audacious nature of the neocons' plan makes it easy
to criticize but strangely difficult to dismiss outright. Like a character
in a bad made-for-TV thriller from the 1970s, you can hear yourself saying,
"That plan's just crazy enough to work."
- But like a TV plot, the hawks' vision rests on a willing
suspension of disbelief, in particular, on the premise that every close
call will break in our favor: The guard will fall asleep next to the cell
so our heroes can pluck the keys from his belt. The hail of enemy bullets
will plink-plink-plink over our heroes' heads. And the getaway car in the
driveway will have the keys waiting in the ignition. Sure, the hawks' vision
could come to pass. But there are at least half a dozen equally plausible
alternative scenarios that would be disastrous for us.
- To begin with, this whole endeavor is supposed to be
about reducing the long-term threat of terrorism, particularly terrorism
that employs weapons of mass destruction. But, to date, every time a Western
or non-Muslim country has put troops into Arab lands to stamp out violence
and terror, it has awakened entire new terrorist organizations and a generation
of recruits. Placing U.S. troops in Riyadh after the Gulf War (to protect
Saudi Arabia and its oilfields from Saddam) gave Osama bin Laden a cause
around which he built al Qaeda. Israel took the West Bank in a war of self-defense,
but once there its occupation helped give rise to Hamas. Israel's incursion
into southern Lebanon (justified at the time, but transformed into a permanent
occupation) led to the rise of Hezbollah. Why do we imagine that our invasion
and occupation of Iraq, or whatever countries come next, will turn out
- The Bush administration also insists that our right to
act preemptively and unilaterally, with or without the international community's
formal approval, rests on the need to protect American lives. But with
the exception of al Qaeda, most terrorist organizations in the world, and
certainly in the Middle East, do not target Americans. Hamas certainly
doesn't. Hezbollah, the most fearsome of terrorist organizations beside
al Qaeda, has killed American troops in the Middle East, but not for some
years, and it has never targeted American civilians on American soil. Yet
like Hamas, Hezbollah has an extensive fundraising cell operation in the
States (as do many terrorist organizations, including the Irish Republican
Army). If we target them in the Middle East, can't we reasonably assume
they will respond by activating these cells and taking the war worldwide?
- Next, consider the hawks' plans for those Middle East
states that are authoritarian yet "friendly" to the United States--specifically
Egypt and Saudi Arabia. No question these are problem countries. Their
governments buy our weapons and accept our foreign aid yet allow vicious
anti-Semitism to spew from the state run airwaves and tolerate clerics
who preach jihad against the West. But is it really in our interests to
work for their overthrow? Many hawks clearly think so. I asked Richard
Perle last year about the dangers that might flow from the fall of Egyptian
President Hosni Mubarak. "Mubarak is no great shakes," he quipped.
"Surely we can do better than Mubarak." When I asked Perle's
friend and fellow Reagan-era neocon Ken Adelman to calculate the costs
of having the toppling of Saddam lead to the overthrow of the House of
Saud, he shot back: "All the better if you ask me."
- This cavalier call for regime change, however, runs into
a rather obvious problem. When the communist regimes of Eastern and Central
Europe fell after 1989, the people of those nations felt grateful to the
United States because we helped liberate them from their Russian colonial
masters. They went on to create pro-Western democracies. The same is unlikely
to happen, however, if we help "liberate" Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
The tyrannies in these countries are home grown, and the U.S. government
has supported them, rightly or wrongly, for decades, even as we've ignored
(in the eyes of Arabs) the plight of the Palestinians. Consequently, the
citizens of these countries generally hate the United States, and show
strong sympathy for Islamic radicals. If free elections were held in Saudi
Arabia today, Osama bin Laden would probably win more votes than Crown
Prince Abdullah. Topple the pro-Western autocracies in these countries,
in other words, and you won't get pro-Western democracies but anti-Western
- To this dilemma, the hawks offer two responses. One is
that eventually the citizens of Egypt and Saudi Arabia will grow disenchanted
with their anti-Western Islamic governments, just as the people of Iran
have, and become our friends. To which the correct response is, well, sure,
that's a nice theory, but do we really want to make the situation for ourselves
hugely worse now on the strength of a theoretical future benefit?
- The hawks' other response is that if the effort to push
these countries toward democracy goes south, we can always use our military
might to secure our interests. "We need to be more assertive,"
argues Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, "and
stop letting all these two-bit dictators and rogue regimes push us around
and stop being a patsy for our so-called allies, especially in Saudi Arabia."
Hopefully, in Boot's view, laying down the law will be enough. But he envisions
a worst-case scenario that would involve the United States "occupying
the Saudi's oil fields and administering them as a trust for the people
of the region."
- What Boot is calling for, in other words, is the creation
of a de facto American empire in the Middle East. In fact, there's a subset
of neocons who believe that given our unparalleled power, empire is our
destiny and we might as well embrace it. The problem with this line of
thinking is, of course, that it ignores the lengthy and troubling history
of imperial ambitions, particularly in the Middle East. The French and
the English didn't leave voluntarily; they were driven out. And they left
behind a legacy of ignorance, exploitation, and corruption that's largely
responsible for the region's current dysfunctional politics.
- Another potential snafu for the hawks is Iran, arguably
the most dangerous state in the Middle East. The good news is that the
fundamentalist Shi'a mullahs who have been running the government, exporting
terrorism, and trying to enrich their uranium, are increasingly unpopular.
Most experts believe that the mullahs' days are numbered, and that true
democracy will come to Iran. That day will arrive sooner, the hawks argue,
with a democratic Iraq on Iran's border. But the opposite could happen.
If the mullahs are smart, they'll cooperate just enough with the Americans
not to provoke an attack, but put themselves forth to their own people
as defenders of Iranian independence and Iran's brother Shi'a in southern
Iraq who are living under the American jackboot. Such a strategy might
keep the fundamentalists in power for years longer than they otherwise
might have been.
- Then there is the mother of all problems, Iraq. The hawks'
whole plan rests on the assumption that we can turn it into a self-governing
democracy--that the very presence of that example will transform politics
in the Middle East. But what if we can't really create a democratic, self-governing
Iraq, at least not very quickly? What if the experience we had after World
War II in Germany and Japan, two ethnically homogeneous nations, doesn't
quite work in an ethnically divided Iraq where one group, the Sunni Arabs,
has spent decades repressing and slaughtering the others? As one former
Army officer with long experience with the Iraq file explains it, the "physical
analogy to Saddam Hussein's regime is a steel beam in compression."
Give it one good hit, and you'll get a violent explosion. One hundred thousand
U.S. troops may be able to keep a lid on all the pent-up hatred. But we
may soon find that it's unwise to hand off power to the fractious Iraqis.
To invoke the ugly but apt metaphor which Jefferson used to describe the
American dilemma of slavery, we will have the wolf by the ears. You want
to let go. But you dare not.
- And what if we do muster the courage to allow elections,
but the Iraqis choose a government we can't live with--as the Japanese
did in their first post-war election, when the United States purged the
man slated to become prime minister? But if we do that in Iraq, how will
it look on Al Jazeera? Ultimately, the longer we stay as occupiers, the
more Iraq becomes not an example for other Arabs to emulate, but one that
helps Islamic fundamentalists make their case that America is just an old-fashioned
imperium bent on conquering Arab lands. And that will make worse all the
problems set forth above.
- None of these problems are inevitable, of course. Luck,
fortitude, deft management, and help from allies could bring about very
different results. But we can probably only rely on the first three because
we are starting this enterprise over the expressed objections of almost
every other country in the world. And that's yet another reason why overthrowing
the Middle East won't be the same as overthrowing communism. We did the
latter, after all, within a tight formal alliance, NATO. Reagan's most
effective military move against Moscow, for instance, placing Pershing
II missiles in Western Europe, could never have happened, given widespread
public protests, except that NATO itself voted to let the weapons in. In
the Middle East, however, we're largely alone. If things go badly, what
allies we might have left are liable to say to us: You broke it, you fix
- Whacking the Hornet's Nest
- If the Bush administration has thought through these
various negative scenarios--and we must presume, or at least pray, that
it has--it certainly has not shared them with the American people. More
to the point, the president has not even leveled with the public that such
a clean-sweep approach to the Middle East is, in fact, their plan. This
breaks new ground in the history of pre-war presidential deception. Franklin
Roosevelt said he was trying to keep the United States out of World War
II even as he--in some key ways--courted a confrontation with the Axis
powers that he saw as both inevitable and necessary. History has judged
him well for this. Far more brazenly, Lyndon Johnson's administration greatly
exaggerated the Gulf of Tonkin incident to gin up support for full-throttle
engagement in Vietnam. The war proved to be Johnson's undoing. When President
Clinton used American troops to quell the fighting in Bosnia he said publicly
that our troops would be there no longer than a year, even though it was
widely understood that they would be there far longer. But in the case
of these deceptions, the public was at least told what the goals of the
wars were and whom and where we would be fighting.
- Today, however, the great majority of the American people
have no concept of what kind of conflict the president is leading them
into. The White House has presented this as a war to depose Saddam Hussein
in order to keep him from acquiring weapons of mass destruction--a goal
that the majority of Americans support. But the White House really has
in mind an enterprise of a scale, cost, and scope that would be almost
impossible to sell to the American public. The White House knows that.
So it hasn't even tried. Instead, it's focused on getting us into Iraq
with the hope of setting off a sequence of events that will draw us inexorably
towards the agenda they have in mind.
- The brazenness of this approach would be hard to believe
if it weren't entirely in line with how the administration has pursued
so many of its other policy goals. Its preferred method has been to use
deceit to create faits accomplis, facts on the ground that then make the
administration's broader agenda almost impossible not to pursue. During
and after the 2000 campaign, the president called for major education and
prescription drug programs plus a huge tax cut, saying America could easily
afford them all because of large budget surpluses. Critics said it wasn't
true, and the growing budget deficits have proven them right. But the administration
now uses the existence of big budget deficits as a way to put the squeeze
on social programs--part of its plan all along. Strip away the presidential
seal and the fancy titles, and it's just a straight-up con.
- The same strategy seemed to guide the administration's
passive-aggressive attitude towards our allies. It spent the months after
September 11 signaling its distaste for international agreements and entangling
alliances. The president then demanded last September that the same countries
he had snubbed support his agenda in Iraq. And last month, when most of
those countries refused, hawks spun that refusal as evidence that they
were right all along. Recently, a key neoconservative commentator with
close ties to the administration told me that the question since the end
of the Cold War has been which global force would create the conditions
for global peace and security: the United States, NATO, or the United Nations.
With NATO now wrecked, he told me, the choice is between the Unites States
and the United Nations. Whether NATO is actually wrecked remains to be
seen. But the strategy is clear: push the alliance to the breaking point,
and when it snaps, cite it as proof that the alliance was good for nothing
anyway. It's the definition of chutzpah, like the kid who kills his parents
and begs the judge for sympathy because he's an orphan.
- Another president may be able to rebuild NATO or get
the budget back in balance. But once America begins the process of remaking
the Middle East in the way the hawks have in mind, it will be extremely
difficult for any president to pull back. Vietnam analogies have long been
overused, and used inappropriately, but this may be one case where the
comparison is apt.
- Ending Saddam Hussein's regime and replacing it with
something stable and democratic was always going to be a difficult task,
even with the most able leadership and the broadest coalition. But doing
it as the Bush administration now intends is something like going outside
and giving a few good whacks to a hornets' nest because you want to get
them out in the open and have it out with them once and for all. Ridding
the world of Islamic terrorism by rooting out its ultimate sources--Muslim
fundamentalism and the Arab world's endemic despotism, corruption, and
poverty--might work. But the costs will be immense. Whether the danger
is sufficient and the costs worth incurring would make for an interesting
public debate. The problem is that once it's just us and the hornets, we
really won't have any choice.
- Joshua Micah Marshall, a Washington Monthly contributing
writer, is author of the <http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com>Talking
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