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The Neoconservative-Conspiracy Theory By: Robert J. Lieber
Chronicle of Higher Education | Tuesday, April 29, 2003


The ruins of Saddam Hussein's shattered tyranny may provide additional evidence of chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, but one poisonous by-product has already begun to seep from under the rubble. It is a conspiracy theory purporting to explain how the foreign policy of the world's greatest power, the United States, has been captured by a sinister and hitherto little-known cabal.

A small band of neoconservative (read, Jewish) defense intellectuals, led by the "mastermind," Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (according to Michael Lind, writing in the New Statesman), has taken advantage of 9/11 to put their ideas over on an ignorant, inexperienced, and "easily manipulated" president (Eric Alterman in The Nation), his "elderly figurehead" Defense Secretary (as Lind put it), and the "dutiful servant of power" who is our secretary of state (Edward Said, London Review of Books).

Thus empowered, this neoconservative conspiracy, "a product of the influential Jewish-American faction of the Trotskyist movement of the '30s and '40s" (Lind), with its own "fanatic" and "totalitarian morality" (William Pfaff, International Herald Tribune) has fomented war with Iraq -- not in the interest of the United States, but in the service of Israel's Likud government (Patrick J. Buchanan and Alterman).

This sinister mythology is worthy of the Iraqi information minister, Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who became notorious for telling Western journalists not to believe their own eyes as American tanks rolled into view just across the Tigris River. And indeed versions of it do circulate in the Arab world. (For example, a prominent Saudi professor from King Faisal University, Umaya Jalahma, speaking at a prestigious think tank of the Arab League, has revealed that the U.S. attack on Iraq was actually timed to coincide with the Jewish holiday of Purim.) But the neocon-conspiracy notion is especially conspicuous in writing by leftist authors in the pages of journals like The Washington Monthly and those cited above, as well as in the arguments of paleoconservatives like Buchanan and his magazine, The American Conservative.

Many of those who disseminate the new theory had strenuously opposed war with Iraq and predicted dire consequences in the event American forces were to invade. The critics had warned of such things as massive resistance by the Iraqi military and people, a quagmire on the order of Vietnam, Saddam's use of weapons of mass destruction (though some of the same voices loudly questioned whether Iraq had such weapons at all), Scud missile attacks that would draw Israel into the fray, destruction of Iraq's oil fields (thus creating an ecological catastrophe), and an inflamed and radicalized Middle East in which moderate governments would be overthrown by an enraged Arab street.

Authors disparaged the notion that the Iraqi people could ever welcome coalition forces as liberators. In words dripping with sarcasm, Eric Alterman asked readers of The Nation, "Is Wolfowitz really so ignorant of history as to believe the Iraqis would welcome us as 'their hoped-for liberators'?" And the inimitable Edward Said, writing in the London Review of Books, offered a scathing denunciation not only of Wolfowitz but of such apostates as Fouad Ajami, the Iraqi exile author Kanan Makiya, and the exile opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi for their "rubbish" and "falsifying of reality" in selling the administration a bill of goods about a quick war. Instead, Said asserted, "The idea that Iraq's population would have welcomed American forces entering the country after a terrifying aerial bombardment was always utterly implausible."

One of the less fevered explanations, as offered by Joshua Micah Marshall in the April Washington Monthly, asserts that the invasion of Iraq was not primarily about eliminating Saddam Hussein, "nor was it really about weapons of mass destruction." Instead, Marshall presents the war as the administration's "first move in a wider effort to reorder the power structure of the entire Middle East."

But more extreme versions of the argument are readily available. For example, Alterman writes that "the war has put Jews in the showcase as never before. Its primary intellectual architects -- Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle (former aide to Senator Henry M. 'Scoop' Jackson; assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration; now a member of the Defense Policy Board, an unpaid body advising Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld), and Douglas J. Feith (the No. 3 official at Defense) -- are all Jewish neoconservatives. So, too, are many of its prominent media cheerleaders, including William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and Marty Peretz. Joe Lieberman, the nation's most conspicuous Jewish politician, has been an avid booster."

Alterman adds, "Then there's the 'Jews control the media' problem....Many of these same Jews joined Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice President Richard B. Cheney in underselling the difficulty of the war, in what may have been a deliberate ruse designed to embroil America in a broad military conflagration that would help smite Israel's enemies."

Michael Lind's language is more overtly conspiratorial. In an essay appearing in London's New Statesman and in Salon, after dismissing the columnist Robert Kagan as a "neoconservative propagandist," Lind confides the "alarming" truth that "the foreign policy of the world's only global power is being made by a small clique." They are "neoconservative defense intellectuals," among whom he cites Wolfowitz; Feith; Lewis Libby, Cheney's chief of staff; John Bolton at the State Department; and Elliott Abrams on the National Security Council.

Most of these, we are told, have their roots on the left and are "products of the largely Jewish-American Trotskyist movement of the 1930s and '40s, which morphed into anti-communist liberalism" and now "into a kind of militaristic and imperial right with no precedents in American culture or political history." Lind complains that in their "odd bursts of ideological enthusiasm for 'democracy,'" they "call their revolutionary ideology 'Wilsonianism,' ... but it is really Trotsky's theory of the permanent revolution mingled with the far-right Likud strain of Zionism." Along with the Kristol-led Weekly Standard and allies such as Vice President Cheney, "these neo-cons took advantage of Bush's ignorance and inexperience."

Lind's speculation that the president may not even be aware of what this cabal has foisted upon him embodies the hallmarks of conspiratorial reasoning. In his words, "It is not clear that George W. fully understands the grand strategy that Wolfowitz and other aides are unfolding. He seems genuinely to believe that there was an imminent threat to the U.S. from Saddam Hussein's 'weapons of mass destruction,' something the leading neocons say in public but are far too intelligent to believe themselves."

Those themes are echoed at the opposite end of the political spectrum, in The American Conservative, where the embattled remnants of an old isolationist and reactionary conservatism can be found. Buchanan, the magazine's editor, targets the neoconservatives, alleging that they have hijacked the conservative movement and that they seek "to conscript American blood to make the world safe for Israel."

Even in its less fevered forms, the neocon-conspiracy theory does not provide a coherent analysis of American foreign policy. More to the point, especially among the more extreme versions, there are conspicuous manifestations of classic anti-Semitism: claims that a small, all-powerful but little-known group or "cabal" of Jewish masterminds is secretly manipulating policy; that they have dual loyalty to a foreign power; that this cabal combines ideological opposites (right-wingers with a Trotskyist legacy, echoing classic anti-Semitic tropes linking Jews to both international capitalism and international communism); that our official leaders are too ignorant, weak, or naive to grasp what is happening; that the foreign policy upon which our country is now embarked runs counter to, or is even subversive of, American national interest; and that if readers only paid close attention to what the author is saying, they would share the same sense of alarm.

A dispassionate dissection of the neocon-conspiracy arguments is not difficult to undertake. For one thing, the Bush administration actually has very few Jews in senior policy positions and none among the very top foreign-policy decision makers: the president, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Secretary Rumsfeld, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice -- all of whom are Protestants. (British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the most influential non-American, is also Protestant.)

But even identifying policy makers in this way carries the insidious implication that religious affiliation by itself is all-controlling. In reality, Americans of all persuasions have exhibited deep differences
about foreign policy and war with Iraq. Before the war, public-opinion polls consistently showed Jews about as divided as the public at large, or even slightly less in favor of the war, and Jewish intellectual and political figures could be found in both pro- and antiwar camps. For example, the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, the professor and author Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins University, and Senator Lieberman of Connecticut supported the president, while opposition came from a range of voices, including the radically anti-American Noam Chomsky, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the moderate-left philosopher Michael Walzer, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.; Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan; and a bevy of leftist Berkeley and New York intellectuals -- Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine; Norman Mailer; Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University; and many others.

More to the point, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, and Rice are among the most experienced, tough-minded, and strong-willed foreign-policy makers in at least a generation, and the conspiracy theory fails utterly to take into account their own assessments of American grand strategy in the aftermath of 9/11.

The theory also wrongly presumes that Bush himself is an empty vessel, a latter-day equivalent of Czarina Alexandra, somehow fallen under the influence of Wolfowitz/Rasputin. Condescension toward Bush has been a hallmark of liberal and leftist discourse ever since the disputed 2000 presidential election, and there can be few readers of this publication who have not heard conversations about the president that did not begin with offhand dismissals of him as "stupid," a "cowboy," or worse. An extreme version of this thinking, and even the demonization of Bush, can be found in the latest musings of Edward Said, as quoted in Al-Ahram Weekly: "In fact, I and others are convinced that Bush will try to negate the 2004 elections: We're dealing with a putschist, conspiratorial, paranoid deviation that's very anti-democratic." That kind of disparagement has left critics ill prepared to think analytically about the administration or the foreign-policy imperatives facing the United States after 9/11.

Whether one favors or opposes the Bush policies, the former Texas governor has proved himself to be an effective wartime leader. The Bush Doctrine, as expressed in the president's January 2002 State of the Union address ("the United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons") and the September 2002 document on national-security strategy set out an ambitious grand strategy in response to the combined perils of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Reactions to the doctrine have been mixed. Some foreign-policy analysts have been critical, especially of the idea of pre-emption and the declared policy of preventing the rise of any hostile great-power competitor, while others (for example, John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University) have provided a more positive assessment. But the doctrine has certainly not been concealed from the public, and the president and his foreign-policy team have spoken repeatedly of its elements and implications. While Bush's February 2003 speech to the American Enterprise Institute, in which he articulated a vision for a free and democratic Middle East, has been criticized as excessively Wilsonian, its key themes echo those found in the widely circulated Arab Human Development Report 2002, written by a group of Arab economists for the United Nations Development Program, which decried Arab-world deficits in regard to freedom, knowledge, and the role of women.

Partisanship aside, the president has shown himself to be independent and decisive, able to weigh competing advice from his top officials before deciding how to act. In August of last year, for example, he sided with Secretary of State Powell over the initial advice of Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Cheney in opting to seek a U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraq. Powell's own February 5 speech to the Security Council was a compelling presentation of the administration's case against Iraq, and well before the outbreak of the war, Powell made clear his view that the use of force had become unavoidable.

Conspiracy theorists are also naive in expressing anxieties that the Defense Department may sometimes be at odds with State or the National Security Council over policy. Political scientists and historians have long described policy making as an "invitation to struggle," and Richard E. Neustadt's classic work Presidential Power characterized the ultimate resource of the presidency as the power to persuade. Franklin D. Roosevelt deliberately played his advisers against one another, the Nixon presidency saw Henry Kissinger successfully undercut Secretary of State William P. Rogers, and the Carter and Reagan presidencies were also conspicuous for the struggles between their national security advisers and secretaries of state. In short, competing views among presidential foreign-policy advisers are typical of most administrations.

Nor is Bush's support for Israel somehow a sign of manipulation. From the time of Harry Truman's decision to recognize the Jewish state in May 1948, through Kennedy's arms sales, the Nixon administration's support during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the close U.S.-Israeli relationships
during the Reagan and Clinton presidencies, this is nothing new.

American public opinion has consistently favored Israel over the Palestinians by wide margins, and a February Gallup poll put this margin at more than 4 to 1 (58 percent versus 13 percent). The strongest source of support for Israel now comes from within Bush's own Republican base, especially among Christian conservatives; and in addition to his own inclinations, as a politically adroit president, he has repeatedly shown the determination not to alienate his political base.

Ultimately, the neocon-conspiracy theory misinterprets as a policy coup a reasoned shift in grand strategy that the Bush administration has adopted in responding to an ominous form of external threat. Whether that strategy and its component parts prove to be as robust and effective as containment of hostile Middle Eastern states linked to terrorism remains to be seen. But to characterize it in conspiratorial terms is not only a failure to weigh policy choices on their merits, but represents a detour into the fever swamps of political demagoguery.

Robert J. Lieber is a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University and the editor of Eagle Rules? Foreign Policy and American Primacy in the Twenty-First Century (Prentice Hall, 2002).




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