Neoconservative clout seen in U.S. Iraq
Last Updated: April 5, 2003
Question: Why are we in Iraq?
Answer: The neoconservatives made us do
The buzz in Washington and beyond has
been that President Bush's attack on Iraq came straight from the playbook
of the neoconservatives, a group of mostly Republican strategists, many of
whom have gotten funding from Milwaukee's Bradley Foundation. The
neoconservatives differ from traditional conservatives in favoring a more
activist role for government and a more aggressive foreign policy.
Led by Weekly Standard editor William
Kristol, the neoconservatives have offered a sweeping new vision for U.S.
foreign policy: to restructure the Middle East and supplant dictators
around the world, using pre-emptive attacks when necessary against any
countries seen as potential threats. Traditional conservatives, such as
Heritage Foundation fellow John C. Hulsman, suggest that this will lead to
"endless war," while Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace has charged that "announcing a global crusade
on behalf of democracy is arrogant."
Whether Bush ends up sticking with the
neoconservative playbook remains to be seen, but a wide range of observers
suggest it is a key part of his current game plan.
"I think Bush has drawn upon that
thinking," said Michael Joyce, who led the Bradley Foundation, a
leading funder of neoconservative thinkers, from 1986 to 2001. Joyce added
that Bush's "key people," including Vice President Dick Cheney,
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul
Wolfowitz, "were clearly influenced by this thinking."
Under Joyce, the Bradley Foundation made
15 grants totaling nearly $1.9 million to the New Citizenship Project
Inc., a group Kristol led and which also created the Project for a New
American Century, a key proponent of a more aggressive U.S. foreign
policy. The foundation also is a significant funding source for the
American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank with many
Perhaps more important, noted Joyce, the
Bradley Foundation was a longtime funder of Harvard University's John M.
Olin Center for Strategic Studies, which until 2000 was run by Samuel P.
Huntington, who wrote the influential book "The Clash of
Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order" about the conflict
between the West and the Muslim world. Huntington trained "a large
number of scholars" who have helped develop neoconservative theories,
Read by the right people
But it is Kristol's Weekly Standard,
bankrolled by conservative media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, that has
popularized these viewpoints. The Standard may have a circulation of just
55,000, but it has aimed successfully at policy-makers rather than average
readers, making it "one of the most influential publications in
Washington," a story by The New York Times concluded. Hulsman calls
the Standard the "house newspaper" of the Bush administration.
Kristol and Gary Schmidt, executive
director of the Project for a New American Century, have accused the media
of exaggerating their impact.
"I think it's ludicrous to see all
these articles, in this country and in Europe, that somehow we are the
diabolical cabal behind the war in Iraq. It wasn't the case that Bill
(Kristol) was calling people in the White House advocating for
things," Schmidt told the Journal Sentinel. Their influence came from
"intellectual leverage, not personal leverage," he added.
In 1997, the Standard's cover story
announced that "Saddam Must Go." In 1998, the Standard published
a letter to then-President Clinton, calling on him to remove Hussein from
power. The letter was signed by 18 people, eight of whom would join the
Bush administration in senior positions, including Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and
Richard Perle, who serves on the influential Defense Policy Board and was
until last month its chairman.
Roman Empire of 21st century?
The neoconservatives argue that we no
longer live in a bipolar world, as when Russia faced off against the
United States. They see a unipolar world, with America as the Rome of the
21st century, a colossus that can dictate its will to the world, noting
that America spends as much on defense as the next 15 countries combined
and has troops stationed in 75 countries.
"The fact is," writes Charles
Krauthammer, a Washington Post columnist who espouses neoconservative
views, "no country has been as dominant culturally, economically,
technologically and militarily in the history of the world since the late
Hulsman summarizes the neoconservative
view this way: "We should acknowledge we have an empire. We have
power and we should do good with it."
In essence, the neoconservatives argue
that national sovereignty is an outdated concept, given the overwhelming
power of America, and the U.S. should do all it can to impose democracy on
countries. Some have called this approach democratic imperialism. It
echoes the do-gooder impulses of Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic president
who formulated the League of Nations as a solution to war, then
paradoxically blends it with American military might. Hulsman dubbed it
"Wilsonianism on steroids."
In a world where nuclear weapons are
proliferating, the neoconservatives argue, you can no longer put the genie
back in the bottle. "The hard truth is that unless you change some of
these regimes, you're going to be hard-pressed to get rid of the
threat," Schmidt noted. "Liberal democracies don't go to war
with each other."
The theory behind this, developed by
Michael Doyle, professor of international affairs at Princeton University,
is that democratic governments are reluctant to go to war because they
must answer to their citizens. And the history of liberal democracies,
though comparatively short in the grand scheme of history, tends to
buttress his point.
But for critics such as Hulsman,
democracy arises from the bottom up and is "intimately connected with
local culture and tradition. It can almost never be successfully imposed
from the top down," he contends.
Neoconservatives cite Germany and Japan,
but Hulsman noted that Japan is "98 percent ethnically
homogenous," unlike Iraq, which is split among three major groups.
Yet Japan still required five years of American occupation after World War
II before it became an independent democracy.
The mission of democratizing the world
may have no end, Hulsman says, because "there are always barbarians
But whatever his disagreement with it,
Hulsman called the neoconservatives' approach "the first new thought
in foreign policy for some time."
These ideas had little impact on
presidential candidate George W. Bush, who espoused a humble foreign
policy that emphatically rejected the kind of nation-building he now
envisions for Iraq. In the early days of Bush's administration, Secretary
of State Colin Powell's less aggressive views on foreign policy prevailed.
But after the attack on the World Trade
Center, everything changed. Wolfowitz was soon declaring that America's
intention was not just to target terrorists connected to Osama bin Laden,
but to fight a "global war" and eliminate any sovereign states
"who sponsor terrorism."
'Critical' voice in Pentagon
Wolfowitz had long held similar views.
While third in command at the Pentagon (under Cheney) in 1991, Wolfowitz
had argued in favor of pre-emptive action against countries such as Iraq
and North Korea. "He was criticized as unduly hawkish prior to
September 11th, but you don't hear that criticism now," Joyce said.
Wolfowitz was also unique in that he was
comfortable in academia and connected to intellectuals.
"Wolfowitz is critical,"
Hulsman said. "He's the link between intellectual neocons like
Kristol and the world of decision-makers."
Wolfowitz hammered away at the need to
attack Iraq, backed by the Weekly Standard and the huge American
Enterprise Institute. The institute has supplanted the more traditionally
conservative Heritage Foundation, which was more influential with the
senior George Bush as the key think tank for GOP insiders. Heritage
scholars argue in favor of building alliances, as in the first Gulf War,
while the American Enterprise Institute scholars say America's leadership
can be decisive, with or without allies.
Turning point of Sept. 11
Joyce said it was inevitable that the
younger Bush would embrace the neoconservative view. "I'm not sure
September 11th did more than push the timetable up," he said. But
press accounts suggest that the events of Sept. 11 were crucial for Bush,
and even after this his thinking changed gradually in response to several
- The anthrax attacks in New York,
Washington and Florida in October 2001 raised fears of Saddam
- Evidence found in Afghanistan the next
month that showed Osama bin Laden's group had been trying to secure
weapons of mass destruction raised the question again of whether
Hussein could be a possible supplier.
- And by early 2002, a source told Time
magazine, the stories of Hussein's cruelty to his own people had
convinced Bush that the dictator was "insane" and therefore
capable of giving weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaida terrorists.
By January 2002, Bush signaled his
embrace of the neoconservative vision, declaring Iraq, Iran and North
Korea were an "axis of evil" that must be resisted. By May, Bush
announced that the U.S. would take pre-emptive action against threats from
To the neoconservatives, the question of
what weapons Hussein might actually possess was less important than his
intention to get them. "Once the nuclear materials are there, you're
screwed," argued Schmidt of the Project for a New American Century.
"When you can really do pre-emption is when it's early."
'Draining the swamp'
Overthrowing Hussein could also
accomplish broader goals.
Neoconservatives often talk about
"draining the swamp" in the Middle East. Once Hussein is
removed, Hudson Institute co-founder Max Singer has predicted, "there
will be an earthquake throughout the region" that could topple the
leadership of Saudi Arabia.
Even more pressing, says Schmidt, is the
need to create a more moderate regime in Iran, which could have a nuclear
weapon in 18 to 24 months, he predicted. (By contrast, North Korea, which
already has nuclear weapons, would have to be approached very
If the goal is to transform the Middle
East, the obvious place to start is with Iraq, which was already in
trouble with the United Nations, had little international standing and was
reviled even by some Arab nations.
A recent story in Time suggests that
Cheney became convinced by his discussions with Fouad Ajami, professor and
director of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University, that the
people of Iraq would "erupt in joy" at the arrival of the
Americans. Others have predicted a victory in Iraq could lead to regime
changes in Iran, Syria, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Yemen and
"To these states," Richard
Perle recently suggested, "we could deliver . . . a two-word message:
Some Middle Eastern leaders have already
gotten this message.
"We are all targeted," Syrian
President Bashar Assad told an Arab summit meeting on March 1.
Quick action required
If the war in Iraq lasts months rather
than weeks, the theory that overwhelming American power can simultaneously
pursue objectives in Iraq and beyond will be tested.
"If this is to be done, it has to be
done rapidly," Schmidt said of the Iraq war.
Lawrence F. Kaplan, Kristol's co-author
of the influential book "The War Over Iraq," has put it this
way: "The real question is not whether the American military can
topple Hussein's regime, but whether the American public has the stomach
for imperial involvement of a kind we have not known since the United
States occupied Germany and Japan."
The public's stomach could be affected
not just by the war's cost in lives, but also by its costs in dollars.
Beyond the $380 billion defense budget, the war already is expected to
cost an additional $80 billion, with some administration officials
estimating it could go as high as $200 billion.
Michael O'Hanlon, a defense policy expert
at the Brookings Institution, a liberal Washington, D.C., think tank, has
argued that most university experts oppose U.S. policy in Iraq.
There are even naysayers within the Bush
administration and among retired military officials.
Hulsman described the neoconservatives as
"a very incestuous, self-referential group of people."
"It's like what we saw with Vietnam.
If you surround yourself with people who agree, you get in trouble."
But Hulsman noted that the secretary of
state and his staff have been less enthusiastic about the neoconservative
vision and are probably more comfortable with the international
"realists" at the Heritage Foundation, such as Hulsman himself.
And whatever the seeming unity in the Bush administration is now, the
president could change his mind again as world events change.
Which is just what Hulsman and other
"outs" are waiting for.
"If Iraq goes badly, then I think
the realists are ready to take control," he predicts.
A version of this story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
on April 6, 2003