can’t see the forest

Déjà vu in the Persian Gulf

Posted in Bush, foreign policy, hegemony, Iran, Iraq War, neoconservative, Politics, USA by Curtis on 9/26/07

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The United States is a large and diverse country, and it is as difficult to make reasonable generalities about its people as about its landscapes. There are some awe-inspiring places and spaces to experience, and I believe that people here are, for the most part, what are called good folks—just as, anywhere one goes in the world, there are mostly good folks to be found.

If you’ve never been to America, you should check it out. There are way too many superhighways and supermarkets and superfactories, of course. But I can tell you from experience that having breakfast in New Orleans’ French Quarter and camping on the Oregon seashore are both great things to do, and there are probably plenty of unique, interesting places where you live, too.

Most Americans are as friendly as can be. It’s not Mayberry in springtime everywhere all the time, by any means, but you get what I mean.

There are some Americans, though—a relatively small but increasing number of them—who believe that America is just about the only place on Earth where one can find good things and good folks. They have taken nationalism too far. They mistake warmongering for defensive posturing, confuse marketing desk rhetoric with traditional values, and apparently don’t understand the difference between the worship of symbols and patriotism, between propaganda and news. Perhaps worst of all, they equate freedom with material prosperity and quality of life with creature comfort.

September 11, 2001 was both an ineffably immense tragedy and a green light for these guys to get serious. After September 11, you could ask any question you pleased except for: Why? Why did this happen? Why would anyone want to do this to us? You didn’t have to ask that question, because it had already been answered: You’re American, and they hate your freedoms because they’re violent savages, just like them injuns was.

This crowd is in power now, and they’re enlightening the less privileged as we speak.

bush-kissinger.jpgTo them, those inside the U.S. that disagree with their pomp and bigotry are mentally infirm, treasonous deviants, and outside dissenters are both deviant (since they’re not purebred neo-cons) and subhuman (since they’re not American). They are right about everything not because they are educated and experienced but because they are American—because, by the power of Grey Skull, they are anointed by divinity, in some conceptions. They’re your go-to guys: for the only credible answers to everything from religion, to history, to the diplomatic and economic affairs of other countries, to science and the environment, to whether or not people should be taken off life support regardless of their own wishes, just ask the ultra-nationalist neo-conservative leadership of the United States of America. They’ll take it in stride, no worries.

Let us go, you and I, back in time to February of 2003. Frontline, a program on public broadcast television, aired a piece called “The War Behind Closed Doors.” This was touted as a balls-to-the-wall, nitty-gritty exposé of the “grand strategy” behind Bush’s new foreign policy as America stood at the “brink of war” with Iraq:

As the U.S. stands at the brink of war with Iraq, many are now warning about the potential consequences: the danger of getting bogged down in Baghdad, the prospect of longtime allies leaving America’s side, the possibility of chaos in the Middle East, the threat of renewed terrorism.

But the Bush administration insiders who helped define the “Bush Doctrine,” and who have argued most forcefully for war, are determined to set a course that will remake America’s role in the world. Having served three Republican presidents over the course of two decades, this group of close advisers — among them Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and perhaps most importantly, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz — believe that the removal of Saddam Hussein is the necessary first act of a new era.

In “The War Behind Closed Doors,” FRONTLINE traces the inside story of how those advisers — calling themselves “neo-Reaganites,” “neo-conservatives,” or simply “hawks” — set out to achieve the most dramatic change in American foreign policy in half a century: a grand strategy, formally articulated in the National Security Strategy released last September, that is based on preemption rather than containment and calls for the bold assertion of American power and influence around the world.

Through interviews with key Republican insiders, foreign policy analysts, and longtime White House observers, the report reveals how America got to the brink of war with Iraq — and how a war and its aftermath will put these advisers’ big idea to the test.

“The War Behind Closed Doors” follows a long-running policy battle between two of Washington’s most powerful insiders and the philosophies they represent: Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Powell, who held the top military job at the Pentagon under President George H.W. Bush and other powerful posts at the highest levels of government, is a cautious realist who represents the establishment’s abiding belief in diplomacy and the containment of foreign enemies. Wolfowitz, who built a career as a smart and tough hardliner at the Departments of State and Defense, champions the idea of preemption, striking first to defend America and to project its democratic values.

At the time the Gulf War ended in 1991, Powell was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Wolfowitz was deputy secretary of defense for policy, the third-highest ranking civilian in then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney’s Pentagon. Powell was instrumental in stopping the war short of going to Baghdad and removing Saddam Hussein. Wolfowitz and other hardliners were less than enthusiastic about that decision.

“Paul Wolfowitz believed then that it was a mistake to end the war,” says Richard Perle, chairman of the influential Defense Policy Board and a veteran of the Reagan administration. “They underestimated the way in which Saddam was able to cling to power, and the means he would use to remain in power. That was the mistake.”

Soon after the Gulf War, Wolfowitz supervised the drafting of a set of classified policy guidelines, called a Defense Planning Guidance, for how the U.S. should deal with Saddam Hussein and the rest of the world in the post-Cold War era. Wolfowitz believed containment was an old idea — a relic of the Cold War — and that America should use its overwhelming military might preemptively, and unilaterally, if need be. His draft of these policy guidelines was leaked to the press in 1992.

“Inside the U.S. defense planning establishment, there were people who thought this thing was nuts,” Barton Gellman of The Washington Post tells FRONTLINE. “The first draft said that the United States would be prepared to preempt the use of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons by any other nation, even, the document said, ‘Where our interests are otherwise not engaged.’ … It spoke of punishing or retaliating for that use, but it also said ‘preempt.’ This was the first time.”

“Wolfowitz basically authored a doctrine of American hegemony,” says historian and foreign policy expert John Lewis Gaddis, “a doctrine in which the United States would seek to maintain the position that it came out of the Cold War with, at which there were no obvious or plausible challengers to the United States. That was considered quite shocking in 1992. So shocking, in fact, that the Bush administration, at that time, disavowed it.”

As the first President Bush left office, Wolfowitz’s draft plan went into the bottom drawer, but it would not be forgotten.

“The War Behind Closed Doors” goes on to recount how the Clinton administration struggled to deal with Saddam Hussein’s defiance of U.S. and U.N. containment policies, while hawks in the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party grew increasingly impatient.

With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, however, the hawks saw a new opportunity to implement a stronger, forward-leaning American stance in the world. Yet during the new president’s first year in office, skirmishing between Colin Powell’s State Department and Rumsfeld’s Pentagon — where Wolfowitz is now the second-ranking civilian — left the adminstration’s foreign policy stalled in a kind of internal gridlock.

All that would change on Sept. 11, 2001.

Four days after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, President Bush and his Cabinet held a war council at Camp David. “From the first moments after Sept. 11, there was a group of people, both inside the administration and out, who believed that the war on terrorism should target Iraq — in fact, should target Iraq first,” says Kenneth Pollack, author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (2002) and a former member of the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration.

But Colin Powell and Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, were determined to rein in the hawks. Powell’s argument — that an international coalition could only be assembled for a war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, not an invasion of Iraq — won the day, and Iraq was put on the back burner.

Yet President Bush had made it clear that the U.S. would not stop at pursuing terrorists and bringing them to justice. “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them,” the president told the nation on the evening of Sept. 11.

Four months later, with the Taliban defeated and Al Qaeda largely dispersed, Bush was ready to move on to the next phase of the war on terrorism. In his State of the Union address, he laid the groundwork for an invasion of Iraq, tying Saddam Hussein’s regime to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

“States like these,” Bush declared, “and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil arming to threaten the peace of the world. … The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”

The stage was set. Phase two was underway, and preemption would get its test case. The president had set a course for the U.S. to use its military power not only to topple Saddam Hussein but to promote democracy in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. Wolfowitz and the hawks, by all appearances, had succeeded.

“I wrote a piece in the Post two days after the State of the Union,” recalls William Kristol, editor of the influential neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard, “saying we’ve just been present at a very unusual moment: the creation of a new American foreign policy.”

In the thirteen months since that speech, the Bush administration has moved steadily toward war with Iraq, though Colin Powell was able to convince the president to seek U.N. backing. Whether that approval is won or not, it is clear that this administration intends to alter America’s strategic relationship to the world.

So, let’s take inventory: It was all Colin Powell’s fault for being such a sissy, Paul Wolfowitz was tough and smart, and Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for 9/11 in a Dr. Claw kind of way. No more pushin’ us around with your WMDs and your secret terrorist supersquads, neither of which—if you really had them at all, which we somehow need not conclusively prove—you could possibly have come to possess without our express approval and assistance in the first place—but, hey! That was years ago. It’s the start of a Brand. New. Era. You can just imagine the specter of George Washington smiling down upon its moment of creation, just as he is about to be joined by Jesus Christ, perhaps.

I am sorry that some Americans, academic luminaries, ersatz pundits, and disinterested suburbanites among them, saw the need to make complete asses of themselves and their countrymen and countrywomen during the president of Iran’s recent visit to New York City. Curiously, I get the feeling that most of the worst offenders had, only the day before Ahmadinejad’s speeches (it having been a Sunday, you see), believed in kissing cheeks, loving enemies, universal brotherhood, and altruism to the point of self-immolation if necessary. “Half-truths, canards and lies,” as one friend described the scene, somehow abounded on Monday.

America’s massive occupation of Iraq is being resisted with weapons that may—may—have trickled in from Iran, and Tehran is to blame, even though, when American-built planes drop American-made bombs to churn up the farms, cities, arms, and legs of the Lebanese, Washington whistles absently across the Atlantic. Palestinians resist their colonial overlords with whatever desperate means are available, and Tehran is to blame. Iran wishes to exercise its right to peaceful nuclear energy without having to obtain the permission of the only nation ever to detonate atomic weapons in heavily populated civilian areas, and so Tehran is certainly on the path to a nuclear war against the world. The president of Iran quips outrageously provocative one-liners which are widely mistranslated, and that is inexcusable; the president of the United States sweeps whole nations into an ‘axis of evil’ and warns the international community to back off, and is lauded as a visionary.

Gargantuan military bases are being erected throughout Iraq and on the border with Iran. A great deal of the oil from the Gulf must pass through the Straits of Hormuz. A successful defiance of unilateral imperialism anywhere near Iraq cannot be tolerated by the neo-conservative elite management caste. Just one war could hardly constitute a whole new radiant era of murderous magnanimity, anyway.

We know what to expect, all the same hoping fervently that we must be wrong to expect it. We know who to thank for the policies and propaganda. But we live in a land where free speech is ubiquitous, and enough outcry is to injustice what water was to the Wicked Witch. This time, can there be any excuse for the inaction of concerned citizens?

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