The Bush Team Reloaded

by Jim Lobe
published in MER234

On September 20, 2001, just nine days after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) laid out a consensus agenda for President George W. Bush's “war on terrorism.” In addition to military action to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan and “capture or kill” Osama bin Laden, PNAC called for regime change in Iraq “even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack,” and “appropriate measures of retaliation” against Iran and Syria if they refused to comply with US demands to cut off support for Hizballah. Signed by prominent neo-conservatives and a smattering of liberal interventionists, the letter also called for a cutoff in aid to the Palestinian Authority unless it immediately halted attacks against Israel and a “large increase” in defense spending in order to prevail in the conflict many of the signers, notably former CIA director James Woolsey and former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, were soon describing as “World War IV.”

A little over six months later, on April 3, 2002, PNAC released a second letter directed more specifically at US policy toward Israel-Palestine. The project's chairman, Weekly Standard editor and neo-conservative prince William Kristol, gathered the signatures of 34 like-minded power players, including a good slice of the membership of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Policy Board. Richard Perle, then chairman of that body, joined his fellow signers in urging Bush to sever all ties with Yasser Arafat and to “lend full support to Israel as it seeks to root out the terrorist network that daily threatens the lives of Israeli citizens.” “Mr. President, it can no longer be the policy of the United States to urge, much less to pressure, Israel to continue negotiating with Arafat, any more than we would be willing to be pressured to negotiate with Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar,” the letter exhorted the White House. “Israel’s fight against terrorism is our fight. Israel’s victory is an important part of our victory.”

Meanwhile, the PNAC heavyweights continued, the US should “accelerate plans for removing Saddam Hussein from power.”

Upping the Ante

Six months later, as war planning for Iraq was revving up in earnest, Perle and former Bush speechwriter David Frum upped the ante in their book, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror, an agenda that could best be described as “hard-core neo-conservatism.” In addition to boilerplate demands for ousting Saddam, it called for engaging in “hot pursuit” of “terrorists” into Syria, cutting off Iraqi oil supplies and outside arms supplies to Damascus, and an outright rejection of Palestinian national ambitions.

Among its other recommendations, the slim volume encouraged the Bush administration explicitly to reject the jurisdiction of the UN Charter unless amended to accommodate Washington’s new strategic doctrine of “preemption,” to cleanse the CIA and State Department of their “realists” and “Arabists,” and to undertake a new campaign to help “dissidents” in Iran overthrow their government. “The regime must go,” Perle and Frum wrote, a theme that would be echoed by Kristol in the Weekly Standard as Bush was declaring the end of major hostilities in Iraq aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. “The next great battle -- not, we hope, a military battle -- will be for Iran,” Kristol declared. “We are already in a death struggle with Iran over the future of Iraq.”

Of course, the neo-conservatives have provided no end of suggestions to the White House over the past three and a half years -- many of them ignored. But the texts cited above offer useful benchmarks for gauging their past effectiveness and future ambitions, at least for Bush’s second term. More than any other group within the coalition of right-wing and unilateralist hawks that has propelled the radical trajectory of US foreign policy since September 11, the neo-conservatives have provided the ideological coherence of the “vision” they sometimes call the “Bush Doctrine” for “transforming” the Middle East. Even though the neo-conservatives clearly lost influence over management of Iraq beginning in the fall of 2003 -- as it became clear that the insurgency did not consist only of “Baathist dead-enders and foreign fighters” -- their record of accomplishment to date has been little short of amazing. Not only did they push the Bush administration into overthrowing Saddam Hussein and embracing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but they also scored both successes at the expense of their primary foes in Washington -- the “realists” -- who promote a narrower view of the national interest and a more sanguine view of the status quo.

The question now, of course, is: what are the neo-conservatives’ prospects in the second Bush term?

Hands on Deck

The neo-conservatives themselves are ebullient, particularly in light of the missionary rhetoric of Bush’s inaugural and State of the Union addresses, both of which drew heavily from Natan Sharansky’s new book, The Case for Democracy. Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who currently serves as Israel’s minister for diaspora and Jerusalem affairs, is a long-time favorite of the neo-conservatives. His book appears to have been the literary equivalent of a precision-guided missile aimed -- with almost embarrassing flattery -- at the mind of the Reader-in-Chief. “A president who tells his advisers to go read Sharansky is way ahead of his advisers,” Perle told an audience at the right-wing Hudson Institute on February 11.

Adding to the neo-conservatives’ confidence, of course, was the unexpectedly smooth running of the January 30 elections in Iraq, even if the ultimate results may produce something rather distant from the pro-Israel, pro-Western secular government in Baghdad that the war party had envisioned. Meanwhile, the impasse that stalled Iran policy during the first term may finally be breaking the neo-conservatives’ way. Tensions between the US and the Islamic Republic are clearly on the rise, as evidenced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s characterization of Tehran as “totalitarian” during her maiden voyage to Europe and her stubborn refusal to repeat her predecessor’s denial that Washington seeks “regime change” in Iran. Crowning the favorable auguries was the mid-February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. When the administration cast suspicion so eagerly on Damascus, immediately recalled the US ambassador and offered up such menacing mutters as Bush’s observation that Syria was “out of step” with the rest of the region, neo-conservatives welcomed a golden opportunity to move Damascus into the slot vacated by Iraq in the “axis of evil.”

Even before the inaugural, however, the realists led by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, long a neo-conservative nemesis, appeared to be in retreat. By the end of 2004, not only had Powell been told his services would no longer be required, but the new CIA director, Porter Goss, and his coterie of former Congressional aides appeared to be engaged in a thoroughgoing purge of top-level operations and analytical personnel at the CIA, the other realist bastion in the national security bureaucracy. At the same time, arch-realist Brent Scowcroft, who had served as chairman of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, found to his surprise and evident embarrassment that his pro forma resignation at the end Bush’s first term was rather ungraciously accepted. One could almost hear the exultant back slapping among neo-conservatives inside and outside government when journalist and Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal reported that the dismissal had been accompanied by the presidential observation, “Scowcroft has become a pain in the ass in his old age.”

Finally, the promotion of Ambassador to Romania and long-time nuclear enthusiast J. D. Crouch II to the position of deputy national security adviser under Stephen Hadley constituted a net gain, if not for the neo-conservatives as such, then certainly for their aggressive nationalist and Christian right partners. Like Hadley, Crouch is a protégé not only of Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, with whom he helped prepare the 1992 Defense Policy Guidance draft on which the December 2002 National Security Strategy is based, but also of William Van Cleave, a nuclear strategist who also serves on the boards of advisers of the far-right Center for Security Policy here and the Ariel Center for Policy Research in Israel. (In a 1999 letter to the Washington Times that must warm the hearts of Wahhabis everywhere, Crouch blamed the massacre of students at Columbine High School in Colorado on “30 years of liberal social policy that has put our children in day care, taken God out of the schools, taken Mom out of the house and banished Dad as an authority figure from the family altogether.”) Crouch's little-noted appointment capped a series of personnel moves that certainly looked like an extremist makeover.

Lingering Uncertainty

Yet, despite all these post-election developments, it is not yet clear that the neo-conservatives and their allies are indeed in the driver’s seat. In the round of second-term appointments, the neo-conservatives have suffered a few losses, the most significant of which are the impending departure of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith and the still uncertain fate of the administration’s quintessential unilateralist, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton.

Feith has been at the center of charges of “stovepiping” unvetted evidence of Iraq’s ephemeral ties to al-Qaeda to confederates in Cheney’s office and of excluding regional specialists at the State Department and the CIA from post-war planning. He is a long-time supporter of the Israeli far right. According to the insider newsletter The Nelson Report, Rice once remarked after a Feith presentation on the Middle East at a National Security Council principals’ meeting in which he stood in for Rumsfeld, “Thanks Doug, but when we want the Israeli position, we’ll invite the ambassador.” Bolton, who had actively campaigned, with Cheney’s support, to become Rice’s deputy at the State Department, is now in limbo, although there have been persistent reports that he may take I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s place as Cheney’s national security adviser. That move would send Libby, another committed neo-conservative who also contributed to the 1992 Defense Policy Guidance draft under Wolfowitz, to take Feith’s post at the Pentagon. Such a scenario would constitute a major victory for the hawks over the realists.

Still, the realists are not entirely out of the picture, as demonstrated by Rice’s appointments. Not only did she resist Cheney in declining to appoint Bolton as her deputy, but her appointment of Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, a life-long Atlanticist and top adviser to James Baker when he served as treasury secretary and secretary of state, could almost be seen as a deliberate act of defiance. A consummate pragmatist, Zoellick combines intellectual brilliance and a strong strategic sense with bureaucratic skills that are probably Powell’s equal and may nearly match Cheney’s. Adding to the impression that Rice may lean to her own realist roots is the appointment of another pragmatist, NATO Ambassador Nicholas Burns as undersecretary for policy, as well as the naming of Ambassador to Egypt David Welch as head of the Near East bureau. (Welch’s “Arabist” tendencies may be held in check by his new deputy, Elizabeth Cheney, whose nomination Rice was clearly not in a position to resist.) Rice’s choices for counselor, Philip Zelikow, and for policy planning director, Stanford political scientist Stephen Krasner, also suggest that her realist reflexes are asserting themselves, even as she steadfastly echoes the grandiose rhetoric of Bush’s major presidential addresses. Given her unusually close personal relationship with Bush, her views, if she chooses to press them, could balance out those of the administration’s two leading hawks, Cheney and Rumsfeld, in ways that her predecessor could hardly dream of.

In much the same vein, Bush's surprise choice as national intelligence director, John Negroponte, marks another potentially major victory for the realists, despite Negroponte’s fearsome and ruthless reputation earned in Honduras 20 years ago. A former ambassador to Mexico, the Philippines, the UN and, since coming out of retirement last summer, Iraq, Negroponte served as deputy national security adviser under Powell in the last two years of the Reagan presidency of accelerated détente with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev. Although more hard-line than Powell, Negroponte, who will probably enjoy as much “face time” with the president as any other major foreign policy figure, is known for his supreme self-confidence and assertiveness in private, even as he faithfully hews to the official line in public. “You can be sure he will be hawkish in policy preferences, but definitely on the realist side of the spectrum,” said one retired foreign service officer who has been close to Negroponte since the 1960s when they served in Vietnam together. “If Cheney and Libby and the Pentagon civilians tried to cherry-pick the intelligence and send it up to the White House as they did before the war in Iraq, he would resist it. This is the guy who stood up to Henry Kissinger.”

Bush reportedly asked at least three other realists, including former CIA deputy director Robert Gates, to take the new intelligence chief’s job. He did not ask neo-conservative favorites Judge Lawrence Silberman, co-chairman of the presidential commission on pre-Iraq war intelligence, or John Lehman, a former business partner of Perle, hinting that the president may have become more skeptical about the “intelligence” provided by the more ideological personalities around him.

Geostrategic Constraints

As the Bush administration sets sail on its second term, the rhetoric is pure neo-conservative bombast, but the personnel choices present a far more mixed picture, suggesting that the impasse between ideological hawks and realists on key issues -- notably Iran, Syria and North Korea -- that made it so difficult for the administration to develop coherent policy after the Iraq war may well persist.

But even if Rice and Negroponte have become born-again neo-conservatives, the hawks face a larger reality that threatens to frustrate their ambitions in much the same way that that a legendary iceberg ultimately made irrelevant the arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Despite confident neo-conservative predictions that only 30,000 US troops would be needed to police Iraq by the current date, the reality is that more than four times that number are likely to remain there through at least the end of 2005. Instead of coddling a secular, pro-Western successor regime to Saddam Hussein, the US may spend the year wrangling with newly elected religious parties over key issues of domestic policy in Iraq. Meanwhile, the financial costs of the US presence have already far surpassed the estimates that got former Bush economic adviser Lawrence Lindsay fired two years ago. Negroponte, who is reported to believe that the US is far from out of the woods in Iraq, probably will not be shy about reminding the hawks of the yawning gap between their pre-war confidence and the post-war reality.

Not only are US land forces overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Congress, including a steadily growing number of Republican lawmakers, is increasingly concerned about a budget deficit that is undermining investor confidence in the dollar and shows few signs of fading. With the cost of US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan running at some $5 billion a month, the idea of a major new commitment to “boots on the ground” -- such as the kind that PNAC and Perle would presumably like to hold in reserve for Iran, if not Syria -- seems quite frankly out of the question.

Moreover, the fact that key Congressional committees are already undertaking a review of the intelligence on Iran suggests that the administration, even if Negroponte plays along, will face significantly more skepticism about its claims regarding the threat posed by Tehran to the US and its allies than was the case with Iraq. The same applies in spades to Washington’s European allies, including Great Britain, which will very strongly oppose any US military action against Iran without a serious and sustained commitment by Washington to the EU-3 effort to negotiate a resolution of the nuclear question. While the hawks may still be able to assemble a “coalition of the willing” made up in part of Arab Gulf states worried about the absence, apart from presumed US bases in Iraq for the foreseeable future, of a regional check on Iran’s power, an Iraqi government dominated by leaders who were sheltered by Tehran for more than two decades is most unlikely to go along. Even Afghanistan may be reluctant to serve as a launching pad for a US offensive against a neighbor that so far has been quite helpful to the Karzai government.

The same considerations apply even to commando and aerial strikes against nuclear and regime targets -- an option a number of predominantly neo-conservative groups, including the Committee on the Present Danger and the Iran Policy Committee, insist must be available if indeed Washington concludes that Iran is on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons. Indeed, as with Iraq, where the neo-conservatives predicted that US troops would be welcomed as “liberators” with flowers and sweets, they now insist fancifully that airstrikes would spark a popular uprising that would bring about the immediate collapse of the regime.

Next Steps

Apart from geostrategic constraints, the hawks, including the neo-conservatives, face internal disagreements as well. While the coalition of neo-conservatives, aggressive nationalists and the Christian right was united on key objectives during the first term, particularly with respect to sidelining Arafat and ousting Saddam, clear differences within and among the groups have emerged over next steps.

Rumsfeld’s aversion to “nation-building” and his explicit repudiation of former Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki's recommendation for an occupying force of “several hundred thousand” for Iraq have come under sustained attack from Kristol and his sidekick, Robert Kagan. Amid the uproar over Rumsfeld’s dismissive response to a soldier’s complaint about unarmored Humvees in Iraq, Kristol penned an op-ed in the Washington Post demanding that “the defense secretary we have” step down. Similarly, Rumsfeld’s refusal to support the permanent expansion by as much as 150,000 troops for US land forces over the next several years has spurred repeated calls for his resignation by many of the same individuals who charge that he and his supporters, including Perle, are both exhausting the US military and reducing its credibility as a global power capable of waging war in North Korea or Iran at the same time that it is fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Interestingly, the same individuals who have supported a major expansion of the US military also have appealed, sometimes with liberal interventionists, for greater flexibility and tact in dealing with European allies and even the United Nations.

A second cause of discord has been Iran. While the hawks are agreed that Washington’s aims should be to achieve “regime change” and prevent Tehran from becoming a nuclear power with unilateral military action, if necessary, they have not agreed on intermediate steps. One faction, whose thinking is represented in a policy paper published in late 2004 by the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), has called for Washington to back the EU-3 process and engage Tehran to the extent of opening an embassy there, actively promoting people-to-people exchanges and supporting the political opposition in much the same way it did in the Soviet bloc in the 1980s. The paper was adopted only after heated arguments with the more hard-line neo-conservative faction, led by Perle disciple Michael Rubin, that would have killed it if not for the intervention of former secretary of state and CPD honorary co-chairman George Shultz, who is perhaps the administration's least talked about but most influential foreign policy eminence grise, as well as a Rice patron. The more hard-line faction, which is best represented by the Iran Policy Committee, calls for a campaign of active destabilization, including using the cultish Mojahedin-e Khalq as a vanguard for Iran’s “liberation” from the “totalitarian” mullahs.

A third area of internal disagreement may be the most difficult for the neo-conservatives and leaders of the Christian right, who together have been most responsible for the historic realignment of US policy behind Israel’s Likud Party. As in Israel, where Sharon’s Gaza “disengagement” plan has badly split the Likud and its extreme-right allies, so it has split the Likud’s biggest fans in the US, particularly after the death of Arafat and the subsequent rise of Mahmoud Abbas. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, for example, has become a mouthpiece for extremist settlers, while hard-line neo-conservatives, such as Daniel Pipes, Frank Gaffney (who is funded by casino king Irving Moskowitz) and the Zionist Organization of America, are actively campaigning against disengagement. Somewhat more politely, Perle and his protégé Danielle Pletka, once rumored to be in the running to head the State Department’s Near East bureau, express great skepticism and urge Bush not to get too involved. So far, however, the Bush administration is strongly supporting the plan. Guiding the process is another neo-conservative prince, Elliott Abrams, who not only enjoys Rice’s full confidence, but has also been promoted to deputy national security adviser for promoting global democracy. Despite his own intensely ideological background, Abrams, another Shultz acolyte who reportedly also enjoys a close personal relationship with Sharon, is regarded above all as a Bush loyalist determined to achieve his boss’s vision of a two-state solution in which “Palestine” (an appellation that top administration officials began using for the first time in January) will be both “democratic” and “viable.” In spite of his public embrace of Sharansky, a vocal Israeli opponent of Sharon’s plan, Bush may have actually gained some appreciation for the realist position that Washington’s standing in the Arab world and in Europe requires at least the semblance of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

All of these internal disagreements can only add to the administration’s difficulties in formulating a coherent policy for Iraq since the invasion. Before the November election, the administration was obviously constrained by its fear that more military action would scare off too many voters. While that factor has now receded, nothing else -- including, arguably, the balance of power within the administration, has really changed. Reality is resistant to the radical rhetoric emanating from the presidential podium.

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