Saturday, January 10, 2009

Broaching the Subject of the Neoconservatives' Role in Iraq

David Frum wrote recently about a challenging and controversial subject--the Neoconservatives role during the run-up and execution of the Iraq War. I'm glad he's making an effort, but I'm afraid he's falling into a certain tendency to "simplify and then exaggerate" rather than face real issues:  

During the Bush years, we heard a lot about the sinister influence of powerful Jews. Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, Doug Feith, Richard Perle: These were the men who supposedly led America to war.

There was always one flaw in the theory: none of these men held a top job. Wolfowitz was deputy secretary of defense, not secretary of defense. Libby was chief of staff to the vice president, not to the president. Feith ranked third at the Department of Defense; Perle headed an advisory board.

First of all, just saying they are Jewish is not very descriptive. Wolfowitz, Libby, Feith, and Perle were a very specific group of Jewish policymakers--the Neoconservatives. Jacob Heilburn has very helpfully described the Neoconservatives as having certain common intellectual roots, ideological commitments, concerns, backgrounds, and history which clearly identify them apart from their ethnic identity.

Secondly, Wolfowitz, Feith, and Perle, have been widely referred to as architects of the Iraq War. This is how Paul Bremmer characterized them. Recently, Wolfowitz and Perle have been trying to run away from this characterization, but not very convincingly. Doug Feith, on the other hand, has not tried to run away from that role--he owned too many of the key decisions to do that. Instead he's been busy trying to convince people that none of the failures were his (something that a large number of his former colleagues differ with him on).  

As State Department administrator Robin Raphel revealed, the Iraq occupation was rife with ideologically blinkered Neoconservatives who seemed to actively hamper the monumental--and abysmally planned--task of reconstruction.

Scooter Libby worked at the Office of the Vice President. But this was not an ordinary vice presidency. As the Guardian reported, the Office of the Vice President played an indispensable part in the bureaucratic fight during the run-up to the war. A December '03 New Republic article (link not available online) gives a flavor own what that fight was like:
For years, Libby and Hannah in particular had believed the Agency harbored a politically motivated animus against the INC and irresponsibly discounted intelligence reports from defectors the INC had brought forward. "This had been a fight for such a long period of time, where people were so dug in," reflects a friend of one of Cheney's senior staffers. The OVP had been studying issues like Iraq for so many years that it often simply did not accept that contrary information provided by intelligence analysts-- especially CIA analysts--could be correct. As one former colleague of many OVP officials puts it, "They so believed that the CIA were wrong, they were like, 'We want to show these f***ers that they are wrong.'" 

Intelligence analysts saw little difference between Cheney and his staffers. The vice president's aides may have made more trips to Langley and signed more memoranda asking for further information, but, as the CIA saw it, the OVP was a coordinated machine working for its engineer. "When I heard complaints from people, it was, 'Man, you wouldn't believe this shit that Libby and [Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J.] Feith and Wolfowitz do to us.' They were all lumped together," says an ex-analyst close to his former colleagues. "I would hear them say, 'Goddamn, that f***ing John Hannah, you wouldn't believe.' And the next day it would be, 'That f***ing Bill Luti.' For all these guys, they're interchangeable." Adds another, "They had power. Authority. They had the vice president behind them. ... What Scooter did, Cheney made possible. Feith, Wolfowitz--Cheney made it all possible. He's the fulcrum. He's the one." 

From the OVP's perspective, the CIA--with its caveat-riddled position on Iraqi WMD and its refusal to connect Saddam and Al Qaeda--was an outright obstacle to the invasion of Iraq. 

As David Frum points out, the Neoconservatives did not hold the executive positions that the president, vice-president, and secretary of defense did, but it seems unlikely that the war would have gone forward without the loyal Neoconservatives working the intelligence bureaucracy and also doing propagandistic work, like leaking unvetted and incorrect intelligence to outlets like the Weekly Standard where it could be subsequently pushed to other conservative news outlets, impacting their coverage (something that was apparently very effective). 

And as mentioned previously, much of the post-invasion planning was planned and steered by key Neoconservatives.

Frum continues (please note that I am excising quite a bit of text, which I feel a bit presumptuous doing, since this is a pretty sensitive subject):
...What, if any, special moral responsibilities do Jewish power-holders have as Jews?

The Catholic hierarchy has long demanded that Catholic officeholders oppose abortion. Indeed, individual bishops have sometimes threatened to refuse communion to those officeholders who do not comply.

American Jews, by contrast, have never expected any particular degree of observance from Jews in office...

...many reject any special duty to fellow Jews as improper, indeed a betrayal of a duty to the larger society. Any sense of special duty shows “dual loyalty”—a charge that has been flung about often in these past eight years...

Does any other group in American society feel such strong inhibitions about speaking for itself? Surely not—and for good reason. There are always those, and not small numbers of them, for whom Jews are inherently problematic—and Jews in positions of trust inherently illegitimate. In a city full of lobbies for everything from Albania to zirconium, it is the Jews who are damned as “the” lobby.
First, the social issues that Catholics are concerned with, although important, do not compare with a country's acts of war, which are life and death issues--not only for Americans and their families, but many thousands of people killed in our name. So it is not hard to see why passions run high.

It goes without saying that war is one of the most serious pieces of public business that the US Constitution deals with, and there were historical reasons why the founders were so careful about this kind of business, and they wanted to be sure that due public deliberation happened before the country went to war. So it's not a trivial question: if the issues discussed in public during the run-up the Iraq War weren't the real ones, what were the real ones? What does it say about our democracy that these issues weren't publicly discussed? One of the few reporters to broach the most sensitive aspect of this subject was Michael Kinsley:
Bush's public case for going to war against Iraq is full of logical inconsistencies, exaggerations, and outright lies. It reeks of ex-post-facto: First came the desire, and then came the reasons. But this raises a troubling question, especially for opponents of Bush's policy: If his ostensible reasons are unpersuasive even to him, what are his real reasons? There must be some: Nobody starts a war as a lark. It would be easier to dismiss the whole exercise if there were an obvious ulterior motive. Without one, you are left wondering, "Am I missing something?"

...The lack of public discussion about the role of Israel in the thinking of "President Bush" is easier to understand, but weird nevertheless. It is the proverbial elephant in the room: Everybody sees it, no one mentions it. The reason is obvious and admirable: Neither supporters nor opponents of a war against Iraq wish to evoke the classic anti-Semitic image of the king's Jewish advisers whispering poison into his ear and betraying the country to foreign interests. But the consequence of this massive "Shhhhhhhhh!" is to make a perfectly valid American concern for a democratic ally in a region of nutty theocracies, rotting monarchies, and worse seem furtive and suspicious.

Having brought this up, I hasten to add a few self-protective points. The president's advisors, Jewish and non-Jewish, are patriotic Americans who sincerely believe that the interests of America and Israel coincide. What's more, they are right about that, though they may be wrong about where that shared interest lies...
OK, why does Kinsley feel he has to add "self-protective points?" Surely he wouldn't have been so concerned about the "Albanian" or "zirconium" lobby. Most likely, Kinsley is concerned about power of this lobby, the tactics it uses, and the level of emotional intensity and also, perhaps, calculation that it uses to attain its ends. If you do things to earn a reputation for sharp elbows, you can't be surprised when you get that reputation.

But back to Kinsley's point about the possibility of people being "wrong about where that shared interest lies." Here is Neoconservative Francis Fukuyama from a few years ago commenting on what he feels are Charles Krauthammer's views on American and Israeli foreign policy:
Krauthammer has thought long and hard about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and his views on how the Israelis need to deal with the Palestinians colors his views on how the United States should deal with the Arabs more broadly. Krauthammer has not supported strongly engaging the Arab world through political strategies. In the past, he has put forward a particular view of Arab psychology, namely, that they respect power above all as a source of legitimacy. As he once said in a radio interview, if you want to win their hearts and minds, you have grab a lower part of their anatomy and squeeze hard.

Towards the end of his AEI speech, Krauthammer speaks of the United States as being in the midst of a bitter and remorseless war with an implacable enemy that is out to destroy Western civilization. This kind of language is appropriate as a description of Israel's strategic situation since the outbreak of the second intifada. The question is whether this accurately describes the position of the United States as well. Are we like Israel, locked in a remorseless struggle with a large part of the Arab and Muslim world, with few avenues open to us for dealing with them other than an iron fist? And in general, does a strategic doctrine developed by a small, vulnerable country surrounded by implacable enemies make sense when applied to the situation of the world's sole superpower, a country that spends as much on defense as the next 16 most powerful countries put together?

I believe that there are real problems in transposing one situation to the other. While Israel's most immediate Arab interlocutors are indeed implacable enemies, the United States faces a much more complex situation. In Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups, we do in fact confront an enemy that hates us for what we are rather than for what we do. For the reasons given above, I do not believe they are an existential threat to us, but they certainly would like to be, and it is hard to see how we can deal with them other than by killing, capturing or otherwise militarily neutralizing them.

But the radicals swim in a much larger sea of Muslims--1.2 billion of them, more or less--who are not yet implacable enemies of the United States. If one has any doubts about this, one has only to look at the first of the United Nations Development Program's two Arab Human Development reports, which contained a poll asking whether respondents would like to emigrate to the United States if they had the opportunity. In virtually every Arab country, a majority of respondents said yes.
If Fukayama is right here, and Krauthammer's thinking is shared by other Neoconservatives, then the problem of what Joe Klein has called "conflated loyalties" is a real one. You could see how someone might fail to objectively parse Israel's interests and the US's--which is a critical thing to parse (ignoring the real possibility that Krauthammer's reading may not be good for Israel's interests, either--an argument that many Israelis would even make). 

The nightmare scenario would be the US getting sucked into a conflict because of the angry paranoia of a few like Krauthammer, from their bureacratic perches provoking events that lead the nation to going to war against its real collective interests--and probably against Israel's interests. (This is something we arguably almost did with Iran.)  

Parts of Madison's Federalist Paper #10 read like they were tailor made to describe situations like this:
By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.
And he writes about what those passions or interests might consist of:
A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.
The solution is to prevent factions from being sole powers unto themselves:
No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time...
Should someone like Krauthammer be allowed to "judge his own cause," and make critical decisions affecting everybody? Certainly not. Critical decisions like the motivations for going to war need to be discussed publicly, and within the confines of government as well. Bodies like Doug Feith's Office of Special Plans, with its secretive and propagandistic intelligence activities, and its poorly formed plans for the occupation, put critical matters beyond informed deliberation across different parts of government (mirroring the fact that critical matters were put beyond public deliberation as well). Indeed, Feith's office even referred to themselves jokingly as a "cabal." For good reason, the kind of activity that he and his cohorts engaged in during the pre-war was made illegal when our present espionage institutions were created. Unfortunately, Feith and others lacked respect for these laws--as well as for the deliberative institutions that those laws were designed to serve. 

And we're living with the consequences.

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