Why are the Neocons Still Around?

Paul Pillar

Recent attempts by adversaries of President Obama to blame him for yet another undesirable circumstance—in this case, popular outrage in the Middle East over an anti-Islam video—remind us of one of the oddest aspects of discourse in the United States about foreign and security policy: that the same people who not too many years ago inflicted on us the Iraq War are still part of that discourse. They get air time and column space, and evidently at least somebody seems to be listening to them.

One mistake should not condemn someone to silence, but we are not talking about just any old mistake. The Iraq War was one of the biggest and costliest blunders in the history of U.S. foreign relations. The human and material costs, including an ultimate fiscal and economic toll in the multiple trillions in addition to the political and diplomatic damage, have been immense. Moreover, promotion of that war demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of fault lines in the Middle East, political culture in the region, the nature of political change there, the roots of enmity and security threats toward the United States, and the limitations of U.S. power and especially military power. There is no reason anyone should pay one iota of attention to what the promoters of that war have to say today on anything related to those subjects. And yet those are the very sorts of subjects, often with particular reference to countries such as Iran, Syria and Libya, on which neocon promoters of the Iraq War expound today.

In some other political system, anyone who had been involved in an official capacity in promoting that war might, after resigning in disgrace, retire from public affairs to tend a garden, write fiction, or make money in private business. But somehow that has not happened with many of the people concerned in this instance.

Probably one reason it has not has to do with the evolution of the larger U.S. political system and especially of the Republican Party. The near-extinction of moderate Republicans has been reflected not only in positions on domestic policy but also in neoconservatism having become the dominant default ideology of Republican foreign policy. This sort of attachment to one of the two major political parties has sustained the neoconservatives, who based on their record are the ones who should have gone extinct.

The attachment to a major party has further effects. It means neoconservativism is viewed not as a fringe but as part of the mainstream. It means those (especially those with significant money) who favor Republican victories (for whatever reason, even if foreign policy has little to do with it) have reason to help sustain neoconservative voices. Moreover, in the dumbed-down, sound-bite world of partisan politics, some favorite neocon themes—assert American power, propagate American values, etc.—sound appealing.

The success the war-promoters had, with an energetic sales campaign amid a post-9/11 political milieu, in getting many Republicans and Democrats alike to go along with their project has lessened the inclination to call the neocons fully to account. Those who went along at the time do not want to be reminded of that. There has consequently been a blurring of the distinction between the promoters and mere followers. When Paul Wolfowitz was on Fox News the other day to join in criticizing the Obama administration for its “apologetic posture” toward the Muslim world, the host introduced him as “one of the people who believed that we needed to go to war with Iraq,” as if he had been just another Congressman who voted for the war resolution. He instead was perhaps the most fervid promoter of the war in the Bush administration, showing no compunction about whatever it took, including fabricating a supposed alliance between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda, to muster support for the neocons' long-sought invasion.

The way the war was manned, with the all-volunteer military, and financed (or rather, not financed) has obscured the costs and thereby further muted any demand to call the neocons to account. All the posturing these days about the deficit makes it easy to forget how much this completely unfunded and expensive war of choice contributed to ballooning of the deficit during the Bush administration. The political costs of the war within the Middle East, such as the exacerbation of sectarian tensions and expansion of Iranian influence, also are not the sorts of things that by their nature will hit the average American squarely in the eyes as what the neocons had wrought, even though they are very much that.

Then there are the conscious efforts to get Americans to forget about certain recent past experiences including the Iraq War. The war is one of two big things—the origin of the Great Recession being the other—that have led George W. Bush's own party to regard him during the current election campaign as He Who Must Not Be Named.

An appropriate response to any expounding by neoconservatives today about policy in the Middle East is to issue reminders, loudly and often, about their recent record there.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsIdeologyGrand Strategy RegionsIraqUnited States

Netanyahu's Arrogance

Paul Pillar

Maybe this time the Israeli prime minister has gone too far in his bullying and arrogance in dealing with the United States of America—so far as to undermine the habits and attitudes in the United States that have made such swagger possible in the first place. “This time” can refer to Benjamin Netanyahu's attention-getting outburst this week in which he criticized the Obama administration's posture regarding Iran's nuclear program, demanding that the United States impose a clear “red line” and declaring that those who do not impose such lines “don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” The harshness of Netanyahu's blast took aback even some American politicians accustomed to falling in line in the customary way on matters related to Israel. Senator Barbara Boxer of California said in a letter to Netanyahu, as “one of Israel's staunchest supporters in Congress,” that she was “stunned” by Netanyahu's remarks. Boxer is a Democrat who no doubt was also trying to soften any political impact of this latest indication of ill will between the Israeli prime minister and the U.S. president. But her response was still one indication of how far Netanyahu had gone beyond the bounds of what supposedly is a relationship between friends and allies.

“This time” also could refer more generally to the whole warpath-blazing campaign of agitation about the Iranian nuclear program. That campaign clearly is mainly an Israeli thing, and especially a project of Netanyahu and his rightist government. Historians decades from now will be trying to explain how the superpower of the day allowed itself to get so preoccupied with a still-nonexistent weapon in the hands of a second-rate power that, even if the weapon came into existence, could not pose a threat to U.S. interests anywhere near what the preoccupation implies. Israel, with its longstanding and sizable nuclear arsenal of its own as well as its conventional regional military superiority, also does not face a threat that warrants all the agitation and warmongering. Maybe preventing the mere possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon would mean Israeli leaders would think only once and not twice before the next time they throw their weight and armed might around in Gaza or Lebanon or someplace else. And the drum-beating about Iran does divert attention away from that pesky matter involving political rights and self-determination for Palestinians.

Perhaps there is seeping into the consciousness of more and more informed Americans the realization that Netanyahu—with his drum-beating, his complete rejection (in defiance of the policies of the United States and other Western powers) of the very idea of negotiations with the Iranians, and his demand for red lines—is trying to lead America by the nose into a war that would be profoundly against U.S. interests. And it would be a war fought primarily to maintain Israel's regional nuclear weapons monopoly and—also not in U.S. interests—untrammeled ability to throw its weight around.

Even for those attuned less to specific calculations about U.S. interests and more to general concepts of right and wrong, Netanyahu has provided much to offend. A military attack launched to damage or destroy somebody else's nuclear program—launched, no less, by a state that long has had nuclear weapons completely outside any international monitoring or control regime—would be an act of aggression clearly in violation of international law. The infliction of casualties involved, inflicted to maintain the aggressor's nuclear weapons monopoly, would be an immoral act. And yet Netanyahu says those who may object to any of this “don't have a moral right” to do so. Incredible.

The prime minister's behavior can be interpreted in multiple ways. His latest tantrum may be part of his effort to sink the re-election chances of the incumbent U.S. president, in favor of an alternative who would be beholden to interests whose primary affinity is to the Israeli right, by accentuating Barack Obama's supposed inability to get along with Israel. This is probably at least part of the explanation for the behavior.

Some have questioned Netanyahu's stability and temperament, in ways that go beyond merely having a short temper. Some Israeli commentators have spoken most recently in terms of Netanyahu “going berserk” or being a “mythomaniac” guided by a sense of heroic mission. Given all we have heard, in connection with Iran's nuclear program, about the hazards of irrational or fanatic people with their fingers on the button, perhaps we should ask about Netanyahu: is this a man who can be trusted with nuclear weapons?

Even assuming rationality on the prime minister's part, there probably is an emotional element involved in his recent outburst in the sense of someone used to getting his way being flummoxed by even the slightest push-back. Netanyahu probably has been conditioned, through such experiences as speaking to Congress with a gallery stacked with AIPAC supporters, to believe that the bullying will always work. Even sensible and mild push-back, such as Secretary Clinton's statement that the United States is not going to set deadlines on the Iranian nuclear issue, then becomes disturbing to him. Netanyahu also may have been reacting to increased acceptance in mainstream discourse in the United States of the concept that an Iranian nuclear weapon would not be the calamity he insistently portrays it as and that trying to preclude one would certainly would not be worth starting a new war.

Going beyond the Iranian nuclear issue, perhaps we are seeing some fear that the whole political edifice that has enabled Netanyahu and other Israeli prime ministers to get their way in the United States is showing some cracks. It ought to crack. After all, the overall nature of the relationship, in which the superpower that lavishes billions of aid and dozens of United Nations vetoes on the smaller state gets pushed around by the latter, rather than the other way around, is crazy and illogical. Ultimately the power of the edifice depends on fear of confronting that power. Theoretically to break down that edifice it would take one courageous American political leader, in a bold FDR-like move, to point out that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

That is not about to happen, and the lobby in question will fight hard to make sure it does not happen. But over the last few years some cracks have become visible. Some people thought they saw a crack at the Democratic national convention when repeated voice votes were required to override the “noes” that opposed the platform plank about declaring Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel.

Maybe Netanyahu's arrogance, greater than the norm even for Israeli prime ministers dealing with the United States, may be a force that eventually reshapes the relationship. It can do so by making it painfully clear to Americans what they are dealing with. M. J. Rosenberg evidently is talking about this when he goes so far as to say that Netanyahu “poses an existential threat to the Jewish state.” He is referring to the damage being done to the relations with the superpower patron—that “all Netanyahu is accomplishing with his ugly saber-rattling is threatening the survival of the US-Israel relationship.” That may well be the effect of Netanyahu's behavior on the relationship, but perhaps we should not speak of this in terms of threats. Replacing the current pathological relationship with a more normal one certainly would be good for U.S. interests. Ultimately, however, it also would be good for the interests of Israel, which, in order to get off its current path of endless conflict and isolation, desperately needs the sort of tough love that it is not getting now. 

TopicsDomestic PoliticsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Everyone is a Middle Power Now

The Buzz

Many things are better in theory than practice: Eating an ice cream cone while driving, running for president, walking twenty miles a day to stay fit. Now add to that list an op-ed by Bruce Gilley in the New York Times, “The Rise of the Middle Powers.”

The nugget of Gilley’s piece is this: “As China’s influence grows, the United States is struggling to come up with an effective strategic response. . .Through proactive and nonaligned diplomacy, middle powers may be able to influence the rise of China in ways the United States cannot.”

Fair enough, but who are these so-called “middle powers”? Every analyst seems to have his own definition, and that is where the trouble begins for Gilley. He defines them to be “the 10 or 20 influential states, like South Africa and Australia, that aren’t permanent members of the UN Security Council or global giants.” Okay, but who else makes his cut? Countries as disparate as Ghana, Egypt, Sweden and Bangladesh.

The author claims that pursuing middle-power options “on conflicts like the South China Sea and Syria would mean allowing friendly countries to take the lead on diplomatic work, because they are less threatening to China. While this may entail some compromises for Washington,” Gilley says, “it is more likely to generate solutions that Beijing will heed.”

And yet, herein lies the problem: What use is a solution that Beijing will heed if it’s not necessarily what we want? Gilley’s motley middle powers have complex demographic, governmental and societal differences that make them hugely varied, not to mention they are of contrasting economic strengths. Some may share similarities and alliances with the United States, but each has its own goals and agenda. The “compromises” for Washington in any given case could change dramatically depending on which middle power was in charge.

The notion that Washington should occasionally take a backseat to regional powers is certainly not new nor is it in poor judgement. Yet it’s clear that in this case, Gilley needs to narrow his definition of middle power before we can employ U.S. diplomacy in the manner he envisions.

TopicsGrand StrategyGreat Powers

Violence in the Maghreb

Paul Pillar

Reactions to the deadly incident in Benghazi and the less lethal protest at the U.S. embassy in Cairo have been part of a swirl of grief, anger, bigotry, diplomacy, politics and much else. We should keep a few essentials in mind.

What took place was not a single type of phenomenon, executed by a single type of perpetrator. We are seeing not only spontaneous sentiment of masses, and not only conspiratorial behavior by small nefarious groups. It is instead a mixture. The still-inconclusive reporting from Benghazi suggests that an armed group may have taken advantage of what would otherwise have been an unarmed though still ugly protest.

As for the mass, mostly spontaneous, portion of what has occurred, there is enough history of this sort of outburst involving Western interests in that part of the world to conclude that this is a phenomenon that for all practical purposes is here to stay. We will be unable to eliminate it; we need to deal with it and try to mitigate its damaging effects. The history prior to the most recent episode includes popular reactions to perceived offenses ranging from cartoons in European periodicals to destruction of Korans by American forces in Afghanistan. However much we may understandably believe that “a fifth of humanity surely...can withstand the insults of a half-wit,” telling that to ourselves—or others—does nothing to calm things down or to preclude future occurrences.

It also is inevitable there will be more actions or statements by Westerners that will trigger such outbursts. Some triggers will be accidental, such as the destruction of the Korans in Afghanistan. Others will involve the thoughtless comments of televangelists or two-bit pastors, or even—as in the current case—instigators who expect a violent response but go ahead and do what they are going to do anyway.

In light of these inevitabilities, the main policy objective should be to dissociate the United States, and the U.S. government and Americans generally, as much as possible from what is thoughtless and offensive, while reiterating the importance of freedom of speech despite the unpleasant products that exercise of that freedom sometimes entails. In the current case, as viewing of the video in question ought to make clear, policy-makers need have no concern that they are criticizing something that has artistic or any other value. The statement that the U.S. embassy issued after the video had begun stirring resentment—but before the protest at the embassy or the attack in Benghazi—may not have been perfect but it exemplified the kind of message that needs to be conveyed. To suggest that the message in such situations ought to be substantially different or to be replaced by mere pugnaciousness is dumb. To suggest that the embassy's statement was not issued before the incidents at the embassy and the Benghazi consulate but instead was “the Obama administration's first response” to the incidents is dishonest.

The role that any organized violent groups had in the Benghazi event is a reminder of two things. One is the nature of what was left in Libya after Muammar Qadhafi was overthrown, how far Libyan politics and society have to go to reach anything approaching stability, and how insufficient was the thought given to this when the West intervened in the Libyan insurrection. Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment observes that “the weak legitimacy and resources of the country's provisional government” have resulted in a governmental response to Salafi violence that “has blended toleration and active collaboration.”

The situation also is a reminder of how even small terrorist groups feed off larger resentments. Radical ideologies and conspiratorial plots may be part of any act of terrorism, but widespread anger and anti-Americanism provides fuel that determines to a large extent what conspirators can do. General sentiments toward the United States matter.

The most general lesson to take away from this week's incidents is that they are a manifestation of a context of suspicion that colors how almost anything the United States does in the Muslim world is interpreted. That context helps to explain why some things the United States does that are in no way anti-Muslim are nonetheless viewed as if they are. The context also exacerbates the negative repercussions of some U.S. postures and initiatives, from use of military force to maintenance of some alliances, making the repercussions worse than one might otherwise expect.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionReligionTerrorism RegionsEgyptLibyaUnited States

The Katyn Massacre Cover-Up

Jacob Heilbrunn

World War II is the good war, the one where evil was defeated. But there was always a rub. The great ally of England and America was not a democracy. It was a totalitarian power. And it did the heavy lifting, which is to say that Stalin's Red Army carved up the German Wehrmacht. It engaged, at a horrific cost, in the big battles that settled the course of the war that Stalin's original gamble—conniving with Hitler and his henchmen to conquer and divide Poland, the western Ukraine and the Baltic States in 1939—had helped bring about. It was the Red Army, in short, not the American or British one, that fought the battle of Berlin in the spring of 1945 to liberate the German capital from the Nazis, a pivotal moment closely covered by Michael Dobbs in his forthcoming book Six Months In 1945.

Winston Churchill had said he he would "sup with the devil" if it would help bring about victory. So he—and Franklin Roosevelt—did. They allied themselves with Stalin, even pretended, at least publicly, that he was a fine man and the Soviet Union an even finer place. Now, with the release of numerous documents from the National Archives about Stalin's murder of over twenty thousand Polish officers and intellectuals in the Katyn forest in 1940, we know in even more detail just how far they were prepared to go to extol and defend the Soviet Union.

Stalin's aim was to break the spirit of the Polish nation, to destroy its governing class. The Nazis discovered the graves in the spring of 1943 and tried to blame the massacre on the Soviets. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels hoped the announcement would cause dissension among the wartime allies. But Churchill and Roosevelt were having none of it. England had gone to war over Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939. Churchill and Roosevelt didn't want to disrupt relations with Stalin, who was always accusing them of trying to cut a separate peace with Berlin. What Katyn indicates, I think, is that the West had effectively given up on Poland's freedom far before the Yalta conference.

All along Stalin was intent on installing his Polish creatures based in Lublin as a postwar communist government. The Polish government in exile in London, by contrast, wanted to investigate the Katyn massacres. Roosevelt's response? "I am inclined to think that Prime Minister Churchill will find a way of prevailing upon the Polish government in London in the future to act with more common sense," he wrote to Stalin, and the British, as the AP further notes, were not inclined to press the matter, either:

"We have been obliged to . . . restrain the Poles from putting their case clearly before the public, to discourage any attempts by the public and the press to probe the ugly story to the bottom," wrote Owen O'Malley, Britain's ambassador to the Polish government in exile, in a May, 1943 letter. "We have in fact perforce used the good name of England like the murderers used the conifers to cover up a massacre."

In 1944 Kathleen Harriman, the twenty-five year-old daughter of American ambassador to Moscow W. Averell Harriman, traveled to western Russia to visit the Katyn site, a visit well described by Allen Paul in his meticulous book on the executions. She concluded that the Nazis had committed the atrocity. She had been spun by her Soviet handlers. Her father wasn't going to disagree—he had been sent to Moscow to maintain smooth relations, though he tolerated his assistant George F. Kennan, who took a bleak view of Stalin's intentions. American POWs had sent a coded message in 1943 that Russians were responsible, but it didn't make, or was not allowed to make, an impression. It wasn't until the 1950s that Congress, in the form of the "Madden Committee," began taking a second look at the Katyn massacre.

On the basis of the new documents, it seems abundantly clear that Roosevelt and Churchill entertained few illusions about what had actually occurred in the forest of Katyn. The two Western leaders were engaging in a brutal act of realpolitik. With Stalin's forces overrunning Eastern Europe and the Western allies unwilling, or at least reluctant, to sacrifice the lives of their own troops to attack Berlin, they had a very weak hand to play. Now, decades later, it is even clearer just how many conifers they were prepared to use to disguise the actions of one of the most murderous tyrants in history.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States