Neoconservative clout seen in U.S. Iraq policy

Last Updated: April 5, 2003

Question: Why are we in Iraq?

Answer: The neoconservatives made us do it.

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 neoconservative scholars.

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, Joyce noted.

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 Roman Empire."

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 to convert."

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 things:

  • The anthrax attacks in New York, Washington and Florida in October 2001 raised fears of Saddam Hussein's involvement.
  • 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 such regimes.

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 differently.)

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 elsewhere.

"To these states," Richard Perle recently suggested, "we could deliver . . . a two-word message: You're next."

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.

War's naysayers

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