Within the past 10 days, conflicting reports on the Bush administration’s solutions for the “Iraq problem” have been divulged. A July 5 article in The New York Times detailed a Pentagon battle plan that centers around a multi-faceted, 3-sided attack on Iraq. The exhaustive document indicated an advanced level of military planning. Six days later, USA Today led with the news that “senior officials” had a radically different outlook on the possibility of war. They depicted a cautious strategy that would bar large-scale intervention unless tensions with Iraq were dramatically escalated.
While it is possible to explain the divergent reports by the Department of Defense’s predilection for thorough contingency plans, their existence points to a rift in the center of the administration. This rift, which exists throughout modern conservatism, is between traditional conservatives and a small group of self-styled foreign policy wonks, the neoconservatives.
The neoconservative revolution that began in the 1950s and reached its culmination with Ronald Reagan’s presidency has now thoroughly infiltrated the foreign policy establishment. Their worldview, as evidenced by former President Clinton’s championing the NATO-led intervention in Kosovo, has even made inroads into the Democratic Party. But, its core remains among conservatives.
From positions at the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute and, most famously, Commentary magazine, prominent neoconservatives have called for military campaigns to indirectly combat the Soviet menace and unyielding support for Israel. The band of intellectuals is often credited with accelerating the Soviet Union’s collapse. Another aspect of their legacy is the United States’ support of “freedom fighters” throughout the ’80s – a legacy that has subverted democratic interests in nations as diverse as Nicaragua and Angola. Their beliefs have caused both suffering and an erosion of the United States’ popularity throughout the world.
Neoconservatives, however, have yet to achieve the hegemony they seek in the administration. And for one reason: Their ideas don’t work. Although their support of Israel is legendary, both their prescriptions for U.S. foreign policy and Israeli foreign and domestic policy have helped lead Israel to its most precarious situation in 30 years. Yet, neoconservative strategies enjoy broad popular support. Their simplistic policies which apply moral absolutes to every nation, with the exception of the United States, sow war for the sake of war.
While they have repeatedly earned well-deserved criticism from the Left, perhaps their most persistent opponents can be found in the military’s elite. None of the major neoconservative figures have served in the military. This lack of first-hand knowledge of combat also helps explain their cavalier approach to battle. For them, war is a precision tool. A belief that is irreconcilable with the experiences of seasoned military officials. Their unfamiliarity with actual combat also leads to wildly unrealistic ideas. In a column in The Nation, David Corn discussed a conversation in which arch neo-con Richard Perle argued that the United States could successfully invade Iraq with a mere 40,000 soldiers. The Pentagon’s current figure is 250,000.
The apogee of neoconservative policy was the support of a group of warriors against a Soviet invasion. The mujahideen and a minor student-led movement that eventually seized power in Afghanistan were nourished by an influx of kalashnikovs and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles from an amicable Reagan administration. The same school of thought that helped empower the Taliban is now the advocate for a major military campaign that poses similar long-term repercussions. While it would be difficult to find a government as equally vile as the Taliban for the United States to support in its efforts to overthrow Hussein, an invasion of Iraq would alienate European allies and leave the United States as a solitary actor.
The neoconservatives have fiercely pleaded for a final confrontation with Saddam Hussein since 1998 and their voices grew louder after Sept. 11. The Bush administration (Secretary of State Colin Powell) has recognized that a hasty, poorly-planned invasion of Iraq would be disastrous. They have been able to hold off the advances of the administration’s neoconservatives like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. But their defenses could be crumbling – and the nation’s international ethos will fall with it.
Zac Peskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.