Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Neoconservatism and the war on terror

American foreign policy is effectively being driven by a small and extremely rightwing clique of warmongers, known as the neoconservatives. Left to their mercies, the world faces war without end. At least, that’s received wisdom for much of the liberal left, particularly in the US itself.

The position has influential supporters at the other end of the spectrum. Let’s give a big hand to Mr End of History himself, Francis Fukuyama. Early notices of his book ‘After the Neocons’ - yet to be released in Britain - indicate that just such a premise forms a central contention. Fukuyama, who once counted himself a neoconservative, opines:

‘More than any other group, it was the neoconservatives inside and outside the Bush administration who pushed for democratising Iraq and the Middle East. They are widely credited (or blamed) for being the decisive voices promoting regime change in Iraq.’

Over not to the isolationist right, where some hint openly at this group’s secretive world-controlling supposed ethnic origins, often describing them as a cabal. In short, the neocons make ideal all-purpose whipping boys and girls for opponents of the war on Iraq. As one American commentator notes, the very term itself has become so loaded that it obliterates civil discussion.

Yet overstressing neoconservative culpability for either the war on terror or the attack on Iraq is an over-simplistic approach to these questions. While neoconservatism is beyond doubt influential in the Bush administration, it is but one faction among many, and by no means clearly dominant among the Washington foreign policy elite. The war on terror is motivated not so much by any one rightist ideology, but by baser considerations of US imperialism, particularly the need to ensure control of Middle East oil.

There are various accounts of the origins of neoconservatism as a distinct faction. One popular view is exemplified in Adam Curtis’s television documentary series, ‘The Power of Nightmares’, first broadcast on BBC Two in autumn 2004, which seeks to establish that the doctrine is some sort of western mirror image of political Islam. Indeed, by their successful advocacy of US intervention on the side of Islamists fighting the USSR in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the neocons inadvertently fostered the birth of al Qa‘eda.

According to Curtis, Neoconservatives seized on 9/11 as an extended marketing opportunity, ensuring the western world remains on security alert 24/7. A neat polemical thesis, of course, and one that made for entertaining television. Unfortunately, it can only be sustained by sometimes impressive determination to ignore inconvenient facts.

Curtis contends that the credo’s intellectual founding father was Leo Strauss, a philosopher at the University of Chicago, who in his own way was as disgusted at the false consciousness of postwar USA as Sayyid Qutb - the theoretician of radical Islam - was during his visit to the country in the later 1940s.

Strauss argued that liberal tendencies to nihilism could best be countered by promoting ‘necessary myths’, such as religion, nationalism and, specifically in the US, that contention that the country had a unique destiny to combat forces of evil throughout the world. In Strauss’s time, communism played the latter role.

Yet this is hardly the whole story of the origins of neoconservatism. It‘s not even the half of it. No serious account of of the doctrine can fail to address the inputs of Max Shachtman and Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson. But astonishingly, Curtis rates neither as worthy even of a name check.

The exact extent of the influence of the breakaway Trotskyist faction around Shachtman - supported by others such as Irving Kristol, James Burnham, and the subsequently famous novelist Saul Bellow - on the rise of neoconservatism is disputed in the literature. But most commentators put more emphasis on this group than on Strauss. Their 1930s and 1940s revolutionary opposition to Stalinism had, by the 1960s, evolved into liberal anti-communism. Shachtman explicitly supported the Bay of Pigs incursion in Cuba and the Vietnam war.

A number of prominent neocons were associated with Shachtman in their youth, including Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. However, it should be stressed that by this stage Shachtman had long severed ties to revolutionary socialism. Attempts to paint neoconservatism as a lineal descendent of Trotskyism are usually motivated by a desire to denigrate one, the other, or both.

Prominent among those that try to link the two schools is ex-neocon Michael Lind, who argues that neoconservatism effectively inverts the Trotskyist concept of permanent revolution into a notion of ‘global democratic revolution’. He also believes it imported from Marx’s historical materialism an understanding of liberal democracy as essentially an epiphenomenon of capitalism.

Fukuyama also levels such charges for standard Trot-bashing purposes, while Slate.com editor Jacob Weisberg is another who points to an ostensibly Marxist strand in neocon thought, on which he blames the Iraq misadventure:

‘What ultimately undid the neocons may have been a residual fondness for Marxist-Hegelian thinking. People who should have known better came to believe that one place was like another and that historical inevitability would do the heavy lifting for them.’

Ironically, several authorities have drawn parallels between Qutbism and Leninism, particularly in respect of vanguardism. It seems that for many commentators, revolutionary socialism is still the original sin.

But the roots of neoconservatism are more complex still. Another key figure in its development was senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, a Democrat who challenged his party’s perceived leftwards shift on defence issues in the 1970s. As an elected member of the senate, Jackson was able to offer the trend an influential voice in Washington.

The main British neocon grouping has named itself the Henry Jackson Society in his honour. Those signing up as patrons include MPs from both the Conservative and Labour Parties. Importantly for our story, Jackson’s staff included for more than a decade from 1969 to 1980 a young activist named Richard Perle.

In the Reagan years, a number of neocon Democrats happily took jobs in a Republican administration. The figureheads here were Kirkpatrick, hired as the president’s foreign policy adviser, and Perle, assistant secretary of defence. It was during this period that he acquired the unflattering soubriquet of ‘The Prince of Darkness’.

Viewing the USSR invasion of Afghanistan as a classic piece of Soviet expansionism, the neoconservatives were able to secure US backing - not least in the form of weaponry - for an Islamist guerilla group, the mujahideen.

Among the combatants on the ultimately successful Islamist side was Osama bin Laden, who led a group of volunteer combatants from across the Muslim world, known as the Arab Aghans. Under the subsequent Taliban regime in the 1990s, bin Laden exploited Afghanistan as a base for al Qa’eda training camps. Ironically, neoconservatism created the conditions in which modern Islamic terrorism was able to cultivate itself.

However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the neocons seemingly lost their anti-communist raison d’etre. Out of favour during the Bush senior and Clinton administrations, the neocon cadre grouped together in the Project for a New American Century, a Washington think tank founded in 1997. Among those signing up were Perle, Wolfowitz, Irving Kristol’s son William, and Bush senior administration veterans Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. As the name implies, PNAC explicitly counsels American global dominance.

One of the more unpleasant subtexts in some critiques of the PNAC has been scarcely-veiled anti-semitism, given that a number of its initiators are of Jewish origin. Prominent rightists such as Pat Buchanan have accused them of ‘dual loyalty’, and of putting the interests of Israel above those of the US. As one commentator aptly remarks: ‘To hear these people describe it, PNAC is a sort of Yiddish Trilateral Commission.’ But surely George W Bush is about as far from a Jewish intellectual as it is possible to get?

Following Bush’s disputed electoral victory of 1999, PNAC found itself welcome in the White House. Cheney was appointed vice president, while Rumsfeld became defence secretary.

The mainstream liberal argument runs that the neocons had been itching for a showdown with Saddam ever since the first Gulf War ended in 1991. Thus they viewed 9/11 as a political godsend, and were instrumental in convincing George W Bush to proclaim war on terror, retaliating initially against Afghanistan as a warm-up for the eventual invasion of Iraq. This latter move is wholly of a piece with their concept of spreading democracy by force of arms.

The invasion of Iraq is widely presented as an acid test of neoconservatism in action. If the outcome really is a stable democracy based on a free market economy, acting as a beacon for the whole Middle East, neoconservatism will be seen to work. And more wars will result. This outcome seems unlikely, to say the least.

But while it is obvious that many adherents have held influential positions under Bush, is it really axiomatic that the White House is indeed in thrall to neoconservatism? Colin Powell - secretary of state during the crucial 2001-2004 period is not a neocon. Nor is his successor Condoleezza Rice, a protégé of old school realist Brent Scowcroft.

Belief in a US mission to export democracy is not a recent development, either. It easily pre-dates Strauss. Thus some have described the neocons as essentially ‘“hard” Wilsonians’. The reference here is, of course, to Woodrow Wilson, US president at the time of world war one. In his most famous soundbite, he contended that the world must be made safe for democracy, and that political liberty is the foundation of peace.

Even some neocons candidly admit that Bush’s foreign policy is essentially traditional US foreign policy realism, sexed up with quasi-neoconservative rhetoric where necessary. Paul Mirengoff - writing in neocon house journal The Weekly Standard - points out that after 9/11, any US president would have been compelled by public opinion to retaliate against Afghanistan:

‘War in Afghanistan … was virtually unopposed … and even today receives little second-guessing. No one can seriously contend that neoconservative thinking was necessary to reach that decision.’

The decision to invade Iraq is more complicated, Mirengoff concedes. His main argument here is that Bush genuinely believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. So war was not waged on the basis of the neocon principle of exporting democracy by any means necessary. Nor should its ex post facto justification as such be taken at face value:

‘The administration has, of course, continued to defend the intervention in Iraq even though WMD have not been found, relying in part on neoconservative-sounding arguments about promoting freedom and democracy. But the administration’s claim that our military action has been beneficial hardly demonstrates that it would have undertaken that action knowing what it knows now about WMD.’

This is beyond doubt the weakest aspect of Mirengoff’s case. First, there is no doubt that neocons such as Perle were vocal advocates of the armed overthrow of Saddam. Second, many find the idea that either Bush or Blair truly believed Iraq possessed WMDs strains credulity.

But neither point represents proof that invasion occurred simply because neocons willed it so. Correlation is not causality. The US ruling class is far too hard-headed to leave key foreign policy decisions to the whims of small groups of ideologues. That’s why even such a world-class intellectual as Immanuel Wallerstein gets it wrong when he ascribes the invasion to ‘a clique of hawks’ easily able to manipulate a ‘geopolitical incompetent’ of a president.

Iraq’s possession of the world’s second-largest reserves of oil is the most compelling explanation for the US decision to go to war. Obviously this is a motivation that cannot speak its name.
Yet the desire to secure access to fossil fuel supplies has been an important factor in US foreign policy since domestic oil production peaked in 1970. According to one recent account of the oil industry, in the wake of the 1973 Opec price hike, Nixon drew up plans for troops to seize oilfields in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman. This in Kissinger’s hey-day.

Oil has also been key to understanding much of what the Bush administrations have done in foreign policy terms, from situating military bases in the Caspian region to support for the unsuccessful putsch against Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez four years ago.

Recent thinking on oil is codified in the May 2001 National Energy Plan, an official document written by a team headed by Cheney, assisted by a now defunct Texas energy concern by the name of Enron. This noted that by 2020, America will have to import two out of every three barrels of oil it consumes. Thus a wide range of initiatives need to be taken to secure the oil flow.
Cheney doesn’t explicitly argue that some ’initiatives’ may well turn out to be military in nature. Then again, he doesn’t have to. As its track record for many decades amply underlines, the US freely uses force whenever and wherever it perceives this to be in its interest, irrespective of the ostensible ideological alignment of the man occupying the White House.

Thus Bill Clinton - neocon bête noire-in-chief throughout the 1990s - invaded Haiti (twice), invaded Somalia, bombed Yugoslavia (again twice) and bombed Iraq from time to time. Not bad for just eight years in the Oval Office. But this clear penchant for armed force didn’t make him a neoconservative.

Nor was support for the invasion an exclusively neocon province. The build up to military action even saw the emergence of a so-called pro-war left around Christopher Hitchens, Norman Geras, Nick Cohen, Paul Berman and others.

In the political centre, Kenneth M Pollack, affiliated to the Brookings Institution, was among the leading advocates of invading Iraq. Pollack made a book length case for the move in ‘Threatening storm: the case for invading Iraq’. In the journal Foreign Policy, he summates his position thus:

‘The strategic logic for invasion [of Iraq] is compelling. It would eliminate the possibility that Saddam might rebuild his military or acquire nuclear weapons and thus threaten the security of the world’s supply of oil.’

But let’s get back to Mirengoff’s argument. The US is attempting to secure elected governments in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where realists would presumably have been happy with authoritarian regimes, the better to underpin stability. Detractors see this as yet another hallmark neocon position. Mirengoff points to the purely pragmatic arguments against the installation of local strongmen, most obviously the increased likelihood of civil war as a result.

Much of the supposed evidence for President Bush’s neoconservative inspiration is drawn from analysis of recent speeches. However, an essay in Wall Street Journal by leading rightwing columnist Charles Krauthammer argues persuasively that while Bush talks the neocon talk, he walks the good old fashioned realist walk. Given his eminence, it is worth quoting Krauthammer at length here:

‘The chief spokesman for democratic globalism is the president himself, and his second inaugural address is its ur-text. What is most breathtaking about it is not what most people found shocking - his announced goal of abolishing tyranny throughout the world.

‘Granted, that is rather cosmic-sounding, but it is only an expression of direction and hope for, well, the end of time. What is most expansive is the pledge that America will stand with dissidents throughout the world, wherever they are.

‘This sort of talk immediately opens itself up to the accusation of disingenuousness and hypocrisy. After all, the United States retains cozy relations with autocracies of various stripes, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Russia.’

For Mirengoff and Krauthammer, then, Bush administration foreign policy is the product of a convergence of neoconservatism - now a mature ideology devoid of any taint of dissidence - and mainstream pragmatic conservatives. Those who dub it distinctively neocon do so largely in a bid to demonise it. In the meantime, pragmatism continues to rule the roost.

But in the final analysis, whether America’s post 9/11 foreign policy can be labelled distinctively neoconservative or not is a point of crucial importance to perhaps two groups. The first is the hardened factionalists jockeying for position on the US right. The second is that section of liberal opinion that - to invert a Straussian idea - needs the neoconservative threat as a ‘necessary myth’ to rally its forces.

It is far more important to determine whether or not it is a just policy, or even a policy capable of achieving its stated ends. Seen in that light, it must be harshly judged.

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