By Stephen J. Sniegoski
While a number of mainstream media pundits have acknowledged that the neocons played a major role in bringing about the war on Iraq (though usually without mentioning their connection to Israel or their predominantly Jewish ethnicity), there are stringent critics of Israel and US policy in the Middle East who totally reject this interpretation. One of the most notable of these is Norman Finkelstein, who expounds on his view in his latest book, “Knowing Too Much.” Because I must limit the length of this article, my argumentation must be kept to a minimum. My book, “The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel,” provides a detailed and extensively-documented account of all the issues covered here. It should be added that Finkelstein has labeled my book as conspiratorial—which is just the opposite of what the word “transparent” in the title conveys and what is explicitly stated in the book—and he denies that there is any evidence for my contentions. It does not appear that Finkelstein has actually read my book; he probably considers it not worth reading.
Despite denying that the neocons had an effect on US Middle East policy, Finkelstein does grant that the “Jewish neocons pushed long and hard for an attack on Iraq.” (p. 75, “Knowing Too Much”) Contrary to Finkelstein, the very fact that for many years the neocons had been the major exponents of an attack on Iraq, which did become US policy, is at least prima facie evidence for their vital role in bringing about the war. Finkelstein, however, firmly holds that the neocon agenda was irrelevant to US policy, and that what was achieved was done by others and would have occurred even if the neocons had not existed.
Finkelstein does accurately point out that “Every reconstruction of the 2003 war places Cheney and Rumsfeld at the helm of the decision-making process.” (p. 76, “Knowing Too Much”) Then he devotes some space to refuting John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s alleged insinuation that the two officials were “duped” by the neoconservatives. (The two academic scholars wrote the bombshell essay, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," later expanded into a book. And I should add that it is not apparent from my reading of their book that Mearsheimer and Walt necessarily imply that Cheney and Rumsfeld were “duped.”) Finkelstein maintains that “Cheney and Rumsfeld did not only partake of the ‘belief’ of Jewish neoconservatives that Saddam posed a mortal danger. Their own ‘American nationalist’ strategic vision also largely coincided with the neoconservative agenda.” In essence, they “shared basic assumptions.” (p. 78, “Knowing Too Much”) From these claims, which I would qualify but not fundamentally differ with, Finkelstein manages to derive the idea that Cheney and Rumsfeld were not influenced by the neocons, but somehow came up with the same war agenda independently. Evidence would indicate that this is highly unlikely to have been the case.
Undoubtedly, Cheney and Rumsfeld, rather than being tricked by the neocons, were in league with them, but it also seems almost certain that they were actually influenced by the neocon agenda. For Rumsfeld and, even more so, Cheney were personally close to the neocons. Prior to the start of the George W. Bush administration, Cheney, for example, was involved in a number of key neoconservative organizations: the board of advisors of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA); the board of trustees of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI); and the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). It would seem reasonable to believe that, instead of independently fashioning their own “strategic vision” that harmonized completely with that of the neocons, Cheney and Rumsfeld were influenced by the neocons’ well-developed positions, including specific strategies for action, which meshed with their own more general foreign policy attitudes—e.g., a proclivity for unilateral, aggressive action.
Although Cheney had for years identified with a tough-minded, militaristic foreign policy, he had, as Secretary of Defense, loyally adhered to the George H.W. Bush administration policy in 1991 of eschewing an occupation of Iraq, and continued to identify with that position after the end of the administration. As late as a 1996 interview for a documentary on the 1991 Gulf War for PBS’s “Frontline” program, Cheney declared: “Now you can say well you should have gone to Baghdad and gotten Saddam, I don't think so [rather] I think if we had done that we would have been bogged down there for a very long period of time with the real possibility we might not have succeeded.”
In short, it seems reasonable to conclude that during the latter 1990s, Cheney was persuaded by neocon claims backed by numerous facts and factoids that Saddam was dangerous—though whether he really believed that Saddam was a “mortal danger” is questionable—and that his removal would be good thing for the United States that would outweigh the costs of a war. Although Cheney undoubtedly must have realized that the neocons had cherry-picked and exaggerated the intelligence claims, his involvement in the highest levels of government and partisan politics for many years had habituated him to having the truth twisted to advance policy goals.
Furthermore, Cheney was known to pick up newer views expressed in conservative circles that entailed marked changes in his actual policy prescriptions, though leaving his overall conservative attitude unaffected. For example, in regard to economic policy, he moved from being a budget-balancer to a supply-sider willing to tolerate large budget deficits. (Barton Gellman, “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency,” 2008, pp. 257-259) And, as Vice President, Cheney specifically relied on advice from the eminent historian of the Middle East, Bernard Lewis, a right-wing Zionist and one of the neocons’ foremost gurus, who strongly advocated war against Iraq and other Middle Eastern states. (Gellman, “Angler,” p. 231) So while the neocon Middle East war agenda did resonate with Cheney’s general militant stance on foreign policy, there is little reason to think that he would have come up with the specifics of the policy, including even the identification of Iraq as the target, if it had not been for neocon influence.
The influence of ideas per se was not the only factor that likely motivated Cheney. The fact that Cheney and his wife, Lynne, who was with the American Enterprise Institute (known as “neocon central”), had close personal and professional relations with the neocons also would have predisposed him to give his support to the neoconservatives and their agenda.
There is certainly no inherent reason why “American nationalists” (as Finkelstein styles Cheney and Rumsfeld) qua “American nationalists” would identify with Israeli interests and pursue wars in the Middle East against the Islamic states. If global power were the American nationalist goal, one could easily argue that supporting the Islamic world would best serve its advancement. For by pursuing such an alternative policy, the United States would have the support of the major oil-producing region of the world. And if the more than one billion Muslims were friendly to the United States, they could be used, if such a weapon were necessary, to undermine America’s most powerful military adversaries—Russia and China—since both have restive Muslim populations.
It should be noted that representatives of the “realist” camp of foreign policy, which focuses on concrete national interests rather than ideals—and includes such luminaries as Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor for George H. W. Bush; James Baker, Secretary of State for George H. W. Bush; and Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter—did not push for the war on Iraq, and Brzezinski and Scowcroft openly opposed it.
Furthermore, large numbers of nationalist conservatives, such as Pat Buchanan and other traditional conservatives, have opposed globalist American intervention and believed from the outset that wars in the Middle East were not in America’s interest. These conservative nationalists had supported a hard-line Cold War policy long before the neoconservatives came onto the scene—though while opposing Communism they were wary of American global involvement, especially nation-building, perceiving the global policy against Communism as a something of a necessary evil. During most of the Cold War, they had been the dominant face of American conservatism, but the neocons, by the end of the 1980s, would achieve a leading position in the conservative movement. They quickly purged or marginalized those who dissented from their positions, especially in regard to Israel, and mainstream conservatism itself was transformed in a neoconservative direction, a change which has been lauded by the neocons and lamented by those purged and marginalized conservatives and their followers, now called paleoconservatives. The upshot of all of this is that being an “American nationalist” did not ipso facto make one a supporter of the neoconservative Middle East agenda, as Finkelstein would imply.
Being in charge of the incoming Bush administration transition team, Cheney used that position to staff national security positions in the government with his neocon associates.While the neocons could not actually make the ultimate decisions in the Bush administration, they were in sufficiently authoritative positions inside the administration to influence the decisions that would be made. And the anger and fear resulting from the 9/11 terror attacks enabled the neocons, with their already existing war agenda, to markedly increase their influence in the administration. Significantly, the administration’s neocons were not only providing what was regarded by President Bush as expert advice but, as mentioned above, they also cherry-picked the spurious intelligence that depicted Saddam Hussein as a threat to the United States.
The formidable power of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration derived from the fact that they worked in unison to advance their war agenda and override and marginalize all opposition. Not only was there no consensus for war in the foreign policy and national security components of the executive branch, but crucial aspects of the neocon war agenda were opposed by significant elements of the military brass, the State Department, and the CIA.
Bob Woodward in his “Plan of Attack” (p. 292) notes that Secretary of State Colin Powell saw a “separate little government,” consisting of “Wolfowitz, Libby, Feith,” and what Powell privately called Feith’s “Gestapo office.” According to Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Powell’s chief of staff, “There were several remarkable things about the vice president’s staff. One was how empowered they were, and one was how in sync they were. In fact, we used to say about both [Rumsfeld’s office] and the vice president’s office that they were going to win nine out of ten battles, because they are ruthless, because they have a strategy, and because they never, ever deviate from that strategy . . . . They make a decision, and they make it in secret, and they make [it] in a different way than the rest of the bureaucracy makes it, and then suddenly foist it on the government – and the rest of the government is all confused.”
Regarding the concomitant loss of power by the State Department, Wilkerson remarked: “I’m not sure the State Department even exists anymore.”
Also of vital importance was a cohesive neocon network outside the Bush administration, which helped to mobilize crucial public support for the war. Social anthropologist Janine R. Wedel in her book, “The Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market,” provides a detailed description of the neoconservatives as an example of an interlocking network of organizations, agencies, and think tanks united behind a shared agenda that was capable of driving government policy.
It seems apparent that without all-out support from the neocon network, Cheney and Rumsfeld could not have brought about the attack on Iraq, even if that had been their goal. For the neocon network had to overcome significant opposition to achieve the implementation of their war agenda, as well as generate public and congressional support for war. For example, the neocons had championed Ahmed Chalabi and enabled much of his spurious intelligence to receive the imprimatur of the US government—though the established intelligence community regarded him as a con man.
Although Cheney and Rumsfeld could not have brought off the war without the neocon network, those two were not indispensable to the neocons, who could have likely achieved war with other individuals at the helm. For example, the hawkish pro-Israel John McCain was the favorite Republican candidate for numerous neocons in 2000 (and, of course, was the Republican presidential nominee in 2008). Given McCain’s penchant for neoconservative foreign policy advisors, his advocacy of forcible regime change in Iraq prior to 2001, and his staunch support for the attack on Iraq during the war build-up (and his later hawkishness on Iran), there is no reason to think that a President McCain, surrounded by neocon advisers, would have avoided a war on Iraq.
Nothing of what I have written is intended to imply that the neoconservatives were the sole cause for the war on Iraq or that they single-handedly drove the country to war. While neoconservatives spearheaded the war on Iraq, and without the neoconservatives the war would have been highly improbable, they obviously needed auxiliary support, in which category I would include Cheney and Rumsfeld. Most significantly, the 9/11 terror attacks created the ideal milieu to generate government and popular support for such a military endeavor, as those attacks certainly enabled the neocons’ Iraq war agenda to move to the forefront in the Bush administration. Without the popular fear and anger generated by the 9/11 attacks, it is unlikely that the neocons would have been able to successfully promote a war on Iraq. Nonetheless, the neoconservatives were the primary actors. It was they who created the war agenda, and it was they who played a key role in its implementation.