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'Neocons' espouse preemption policy

By DAVID BALLINGRUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 6, 2003

With the resignation of Pentagon adviser Richard Perle a few days ago, the Bush administration lost one of its most visible, most vocal spokesmen not only for the war in Iraq, but for similar preemptive actions elsewhere in the world.

Perle has been a controversial point man for the "neocon," or "new conservative" way of looking at the world -- the idea that U.S.-style democracy is worthy of export around the globe, and that we should strike our enemies before they strike us.

But Perle is embroiled in questions about his business dealings while acting as adviser to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, and has resigned his chairmanship of the Pentagon's influential Defense Policy Board.

The neocons aren't going anywhere, though. A tough, preemptive foreign policy remains a hallmark of the George W. Bush presidency despite an ongoing war in Iraq, and despite worries that the Middle East may be headed more toward chaos than stability.

What happens when the war in Iraq is over? Will the United States threaten Syria? Iran? North Korea? Are more preemptive strikes in the works? Top level officials in the Bush administration have said no, but sometimes the signals have been mixed.

Last week Rumsfeld warned Syria and Iran about meddling in the U.S. war with Iraq. Syria is shipping military supplies across its border to Iraq, he said, and if it continued it would be considered a "hostile act."

Secretary of State Colin Powell echoed those remarks a few days later in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He warned that Syria -- a longtime enemy of Israel -- "faces a critical choice" and will be held responsible for help it gives to the government of Iraq.

But various forms of "new conservatives" have been around for years. The current group wearing the label is, for the most part, made up of government officials, think-tank academics and writers, bound together by a common vision of the United States and the future of the world -- in particular the future of the Middle East.

There's no official membership list, but some names are familiar: President Bush could be called one. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was one of the first neocons, as was Vice President Dick Cheney. Powell has been at odds with Cheney and Rumsfeld from time to time, so he may not not consider himself one.

Others are less well known, but influential nonetheless: Paul Wolfowitz is Rumsfeld's top deputy and, with Perle, has been an early and frequent supporter of war with Iraq; John R. Bolton is Undersecretary of State For Arms Control and International Security; Douglas J. Feith is Undersecretary of Defense For Policy; William Kristol publishes the Weekly Standard, reportedly a must-read in Cheney's office.

In one view the neocons are patriots who have convinced President Bush to seize a historic opportunity to disarm enemies and spread U.S.-style democracy around the world.

In another view, they are a group of opportunistic hawks -- often Jews and evangelical Christians -- whose support for Israel underpins and colors their thinking about U.S. policy in the Middle East.

"It's a matter of public record that this war with Iraq is largely the brainchild of a group of neoconservative intellectuals, who view it as a pilot project," said economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.

Ideas for a new century

Sept. 11, 2001, opened a door for ideas that were taking shape among a group of conservative hawks since the mid 1990s.

This group pined for the days of Ronald Reagan, when, they believed, the United State was not afraid to use a strong military "to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests."

In 1997, they formed the Project for the New American Century. At first it was one of many Washington think tanks jostling for attention. A year or so later it had a lengthy list of well-known conservative members, including soon-to-be-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, soon-to-be Vice President Cheney, Dan Quayle, Jeb Bush and others.

"American foreign and defense policy is adrift," the group says in its statement of principles. "We aim to change this. We aim to make the case and rally support for American global leadership."

This group of "new" conservatives was particularly unhappy with the foreign policy of President Bill Clinton, and in 1998 wrote to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, warning that Clinton was "capitulating" to Saddam Hussein.

"Our friends and allies in the Middle East and Europe will soon be subject to forms of intimidation by an Iraqi government bent on dominating the Middle East and its oil reserves," they wrote.

The letter warned that a strong Iraq might make Hussein the "driving force" in the Middle East peace process, and concludes with an argument for preemption: "We should establish and maintain a strong U.S. military presence in the region, and be prepared to use that force to protect our vital interests in the (Persian) Gulf -- and, if necessary, to help remove Saddam from power."

The letter got little attention at the time, but Sept. 11, 2001, changed that: Soon the ideas were rolling.

Since the World Trade Center attacks, President Bush has said repeatedly he will not wait for another attack against the United States, but instead will strike first at terrorists or their supporters wherever he can.

"If we wait for threats to fully materialize," the president said in a speech at West Point last summer, "we will have waited too long."

Shared purpose with Israel

Some administration critics say preemption represents a major shift in U.S. policy, and that it was embraced without enough public discussion. Others say the policy too often and too predictably mirrors the policy of Ariel Sharon, leader of the right-wing Likud Party and prime minister of Israel.

Sharon is a controversial figure worldwide and in his own country, largely because of a preemption policy of his own -- one that includes military occupation and targeted assassinations in the West Bank and Gaza.

Sharon says he is simply fighting the war against terrorism -- the same war, he argues, that the United States is waging. His critics say his policies ensure a steady supply of new terrorists, no matter how many he can round up or kill.

Israel is important in any discussion of Middle East policy because the historically strong ties between the United States and that nation seem to have grown stronger, to the dismay of some European leaders who think the United States must better balance its influence in the region.

"This is the best administration for Israel since Harry Truman (who first recognized an independent Israel)," Thomas Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, told Robert G. Kaiser of the Washington Post.

Sharon, Kaiser noted, has boasted of his "deep friendship," and "special closeness" he has with the Bush administration.

But those close ties have sometimes been a problem for other allies -- Tony Blair, for example, as he tried to win support for the Iraq war in British Parliament.

"George Bush and Tony Blair tell us that failure to act on U.N. resolutions brings the U.N. into disrepute," complained MP John Austin. "Yet neither does anything whilst Israel flouts resolution after resolution.

"No wonder there are accusations of double standards."

Some neocons who helped create the Project For the New American Century in 1997 were, a year earlier, advocating similar policies for incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Perle was then part of a small group that authored a report called "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm." The realm, in this case, was Israel.

The group also included current U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser, now a senior assistant to Undersecretary of State John Bolton.

The "new strategy" makes it clear that Iraq's Hussein must go. A threat from Syria must be met, it says, perhaps preemptively.

"Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria," the report said. "This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq -- an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right -- as a means of foiling Syria's regional ambitions."

Under a heading: "Securing the Northern Border," the paper suggests confronting, perhaps even attacking Syria.

"Syria challenges Israel on Lebanese soil," the document says. "An effective approach, and one with which American(s) can sympathize, would be if Israel seized the strategic initiative along its northern borders by engaging Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran . . ."

Sometimes public discussion of the strong U.S.-Israel ties can be difficult.

When U.S. Rep. James P. Moran of Virginia declared at an anti-war rally that "if it was not for the strong support of the Jewish community," the war against Iraq would not be happening, he set off a round of charge and counter-charge.

Moran's voting record has angered the Jewish community before, and although he quickly tried to distance himself from his own words, some supporters of Israel demanded his resignation.

Michael Kinsley, the founding editor of the online publication Slate, wrote that he understood the comments had "historic association with some of the classic themes of anti-Semitism: the image of Jews as a monolithic group suffering from 'dual loyalty' and wielding nefarious influence behind the scenes."

And so, "when someone touches even lightly on these themes in public," he wrote, "it's only natural to wonder whether his or her actual views are a lot darker."

But he applied a gentle needle, too, when he said that a visit to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Web site reveals that the group is proud of its ability to successfully lobby Washington.

He concludes: ". . . you shouldn't brag about how influential you are if you want to get hysterically indignant when someone suggests that government policy is affected by your influence."

When the war is over . . .

In recent months, some neocons have spoken in blunt terms about what a policy of preemption might bring next.

In February, Undersecretary of State Bolton reportedly told Israeli officials that not only will the United States attack Iraq, but that it will be necessary "to deal with threats from Syria, Iran and North Korea afterward." It was not clear what he meant by "deal with."

A few months ago, the recently-resigned Perle startled some members of British Parliament by saying that the United States would attack Iraq even if U.N. inspectors failed to find weapons of mass destruction.

Some critics of the Bush administration fear that preemption, when practiced by a military colossus like the United States will drive away friends and create new enemies.

"The strategic doctrine of containment and deterrence that led us to peaceful victory during the Cold War has been replaced by the Bush Doctrine of preventive war," historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said in a recent column. "The president has adopted a policy of 'anticipatory self-defense' that is alarmingly similar to the policy that imperial Japan employed at Pearl Harbor."

What's a Neocon?

Neocon comes from the term "neoconservative," one who believes that because of the power of the United States, the country has a responsibility to promote and, if necessary, impose the values of a free democracy on others to prevent terrorism and the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Lesser-known 'neocons'

Meet just a few of the lesser-known "neocons," or new conservatives, holding positions of power in Washington:

Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense

Probably Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's closest adviser, and one of the earliest, most persistent advocates of war with Iraq. He reportedly favored an immediate strike on Iraq after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center.

Richard Perle

Until recently, the hawkish chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, an influential advisory group made up of ex-government officials, defense contractors and defense experts. Perle resigned as chairman over questions about potential conflicts of interest in his business dealings and his advisory role. He remains a member of the board and a friend of Rumsfeld. He is a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

John R. Bolton, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security

Bolton has sometimes been called the administration's hatchet man in the State Department. A lawyer, his knowledge of election law got him a job on the Bush legal team during the 2000 Florida recount, and his nomination to the arms control job was widely seen as a reward.

William Kristol

Editor of the Weekly Standard, a journal of commentary. He is also chairman and co-director of the Project for the New American Century, and thus one of the first "neocons." Sometimes called The Happy Warrior, the genial Kristol appears frequently on television public affairs programming. He was chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle during the first Bush administration.

Robert Kagan

Washington Post columnist and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Kagan writes for Kristol's Weekly Standard and directs Kristol's think tank. Kagan and Kristol co-wrote the 1996 Foreign Affairs piece "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," a neocon manifesto advocating that the United States pursue "benevolent global hegemony."

James Woolsey

Not all neocons are Republicans. Woolsey was CIA director under President Clinton. Reportedly said weapons inspections would fail in Iraq because Hans Blix leads a gang of "Inspector Clouseaus, wandering around a country the size of California, with an inspection force the size of the Chico, Calif., police force."

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