The Weird Men Behind George
W. Bush's War
by Michael Lind
New Statesman, London, April
America's allies and enemies alike are
baffled. What is going on in the United States? Who is making
foreign policy? And what are they trying to achieve? Quasi-Marxist
explanations involving big oil or American capitalism are mistaken.
Yes, American oil companies and contractors will accept the spoils
of the kill in Iraq. But the oil business, with its Arabist bias,
did not push for this war any more than it supports the Bush administration's
close alliance with Ariel Sharon. Further, President Bush and
Vice-President Cheney are not genuine "Texas oil men"
but career politicians who, in between stints in public life,
would have used their connections to enrich themselves as figureheads
in the wheat business, if they had been residents of Kansas, or
in tech companies, had they been Californians.
Equally wrong is the theory that American and European civilisation
are evolving in opposite directions. The thesis of Robert Kagan,
the neoconservative propagandist, that Americans are martial and
Europeans pacifist, is complete nonsense. A majority of Americans
voted for either Al Gore or Ralph Nader in 2000. Were it not for
the over-representation of sparsely populated, right-wing states
in both the presidential electoral college and the Senate, the
White House and the Senate today would be controlled by Democrats,
whose views and values, on everything from war to the welfare
state, are very close to those of western Europeans.
Both the economic-determinist theory and the clash-of-cultures
theory are reassuring: they assume that the recent revolution
in US foreign policy is the result of obscure but understandable
forces in an orderly world. The truth is more alarming. As a result
of several bizarre and unforeseeable contingencies - such as the
selection rather than election of George W Bush, and 11 September
- the foreign policy of the world's only global power is being
made by a small clique that is unrepresentative of either the
US population or the mainstream foreign policy establishment.
The core group now in charge consists of neoconservative defence
intellectuals (they are called "neoconservatives" because
many of them started off as anti-Stalinist leftists or liberals
before moving to the far right). Inside the government, the chief
defence intellectuals include Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary
of defence. He is the defence mastermind of the Bush administration;
Donald Rumsfeld is an elderly figurehead who holds the position
of defence secretary only because Wolfowitz himself is too controversial.
Others include Douglas Feith, the number three at the Pentagon;
Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a Wolfowitz protege who is Cheney's
chief of staff; John R Bolton, a right-winger assigned to the
State Department to keep Colin Powell in check; and Elliott Abrams,
recently appointed to head Middle East policy at the National
Security Council. On the outside are James Woolsey, the former
CIA director, who has tried repeatedly to link both 9/11 and the
anthrax letters in the US to Saddam Hussein, and Richard Perle,
who has just resigned from his unpaid defence department advisory
post after a lobbying scandal. Most of these "experts"
never served in the military. But their headquarters is now the
civilian defence secretary's office, where these Republican political
appointees are despised and distrusted by the largely Republican
Most neoconservative defence intellectuals have their roots on
the left, not the right. They are products of the largely Jewish-American
Trotskyist movement of the 1930s and 1940s, which morphed into
anti- communist liberalism between the 1950s and 1970s and finally
into a kind of militaristic and imperial right with no precedents
in American culture or political history. Their admiration for
the Israeli Likud party's tactics, including preventive warfare
such Israel's 1981 raid on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, is mixed
with odd bursts of ideological enthusiasm for "democracy".
They call their revolutionary ideology "Wilsonianism"
(after President Woodrow Wilson), but it is really Trotsky's theory
of the permanent revolution mingled with the far-right Likud strain
of Zionism. Genuine American Wilsonians believe in self-determination
for people such as the Palestinians.
The neo-con defence intellectuals, as well as being in or around
the actual Pentagon, are at the centre of a metaphorical "pentagon"
of the Israel lobby and the religious right, plus conservative
think- tanks, foundations and media empires. Think-tanks such
as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Centre for
Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) provide homes for neo-con
"in-and- outers" when they are out of government (Perle
is a fellow at AEI). The money comes not so much from corporations
as from decades-old conservative foundations, such as the Bradley
and Olin foundations, which spend down the estates of long-dead
tycoons. Neoconservative foreign policy does not reflect business
interests in any direct way. The neo-cons are ideologues, not
The major link between the conservative think-tanks and the Israel
lobby is the Washington-based and Likud-supporting Jewish Institute
for National Security Affairs (Jinsa), which co-opts many non-Jewish
defence experts by sending them on trips to Israel. It flew out
the retired General Jay Garner, now slated by Bush to be proconsul
of occupied Iraq. In October 2000, he co-signed a Jinsa letter
that began: "We . . . believe that during the current upheavals
in Israel, the Israel Defence Forces have exercised remarkable
restraint in the face of lethal violence orchestrated by the leadership
of [the] Palestinian Authority."
The Israel lobby itself is divided into Jewish and Christian wings.
Wolfowitz and Feith have close ties to the Jewish-American Israel
lobby. Wolfowitz, who has relatives in Israel, has served as the
Bush administration's liaison to the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee. Feith was given an award by the Zionist Organisation
of America, citing him as a "pro-Israel activist". While
out of power in the Clinton years, Feith collaborating with Perle,
co-authored for Likud a policy paper that advised the Israeli
government to end the Oslo peace process, reoccupy the territories
and crush Yasser Arafat's government.
Such experts are not typical of Jewish-Americans, who mostly voted
for Gore in 2000. The most fervent supporters of Likud in the
Republican electorate are southern Protestant fundamentalists.
The religious right believes that God gave all of Palestine to
the Jews, and fundamentalist congregations spend millions to subsidise
Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
The final corner of the neoconservative pentagon is occupied by
several right-wing media empires, with roots - odd as it seems
- in the Commonwealth and South Korea. Rupert Murdoch disseminates
propaganda through his Fox Television network. His magazine the
Weekly Standard, edited by William Kristol, the former chief of
staff of Dan Quayle (vice-president, 1989-93), acts as a mouthpiece
for defence intellectuals such as Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith and
Woolsey as well as for Sharon's government. The National Interest
(of which I was executive editor, 1991-94) is now funded by Conrad
Black, who owns the Jerusalem Post and the Hollinger empire in
Britain and Canada.
Strangest of all is the media network centred on the Washington
Times - owned by the South Korean messiah (and ex-convict) the
Reverend Sun Myung Moon - which owns the newswire UPI. UPI is
now run by John O'Sullivan, the ghost-writer for Margaret Thatcher
who once worked as an editor for Conrad Black in Canada. Through
such channels, the "Gotcha!" style of right-wing British
journalism, as well as its Europhobic substance, have contaminated
the US conservative movement.
The corners of the neoconservative pentagon were linked together
in the 1990s by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC),
run by Kristol out of the Weekly Standard offices. Using a PR
technique pioneered by their Trotskyist predecessors, the neo-cons
published a series of public letters, whose signatories often
included Wolfowitz and other future members of the Bush foreign
policy team. They called for the US to invade and occupy Iraq
and to support Israel's campaigns against the Palestinians (dire
warnings about China were another favourite). During Clinton's
two terms, these fulminations were ignored by the foreign policy
establishment and the mainstream media. Now they are frantically
How did the neo-con defence intellectuals - a small group at odds
with most of the US foreign policy elite, Republican as well as
Democratic - manage to capture the Bush administration? Few supported
Bush during the presidential primaries. They feared that the second
Bush would be like the first - a wimp who had failed to occupy
Baghdad in the first Gulf war and who had pressured Israel into
the Oslo peace process - and that his administration, again like
his father's, would be dominated by moderate Republican realists
such as Powell, James Baker and Brent Scowcroft. They supported
the maverick senator John McCain until it became clear that Bush
would get the nomination.
Then they had a stroke of luck - Cheney was put in charge of the
presidential transition (the period between the election in November
and the accession to office in January). Cheney used this opportunity
to stack the administration with his hardline allies. Instead
of becoming the de facto president in foreign policy, as many
had expected, Secretary of State Powell found himself boxed in
by Cheney's right-wing network, including Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith,
Bolton and Libby.
The neo-cons took advantage of Bush's ignorance and inexperience.
Unlike his father, a Second World War veteran who had been ambassador
to China, director of the CIA and vice-president, George W was
a thinly educated playboy who had failed repeatedly in business
before becoming the governor of Texas, a largely ceremonial position
(the state's lieutenant governor has more power). His father is
essentially a north-eastern, moderate Republican; George W, raised
in west Texas, absorbed the Texan cultural combination of machismo,
anti- intellectualism and overt religiosity. The son of upper-class
Episcopalian parents, he converted to southern fundamentalism
in a midlife crisis. Fervent Christian Zionism, along with an
admiration for macho Israeli soldiers that sometimes coexists
with hostility to liberal Jewish-American intellectuals, is a
feature of the southern culture.
The younger Bush was tilting away from Powell and toward Wolfowitz
("Wolfie", as he calls him) even before 9/11 gave him
something he had lacked: a mission in life other than following
in his dad's footsteps. There are signs of estrangement between
the cautious father and the crusading son: last year, veterans
of the first Bush administration, including Baker, Scowcroft and
Lawrence Eagleburger, warned publicly against an invasion of Iraq
without authorisation from Congress and the UN.
It is not clear that George W fully understands the grand strategy
that Wolfowitz and other aides are unfolding. He seems genuinely
to believe that there was an imminent threat to the US from Saddam
Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction", something the
leading neo- cons say in public but are far too intelligent to
believe themselves. The Project for the New American Century urged
an invasion of Iraq throughout the Clinton years, for reasons
that had nothing to do with possible links between Saddam and
Osama Bin Laden. Public letters signed by Wolfowitz and others
called on the US to invade and occupy Iraq, to bomb Hezbollah
bases in Lebanon and to threaten states such as Syria and Iran
with US attacks if they continued to sponsor terrorism. Claims
that the purpose is not to protect the American people but to
make the Middle East safe for Israel are dismissed by the neo-cons
as vicious anti-Semitism. Yet Syria, Iran and Iraq are bitter
enemies, with their weapons pointed at each other, and the terrorists
they sponsor target Israel rather than the US. The neo- cons urge
war with Iran next, though by any rational measurement North Korea's
new nuclear arsenal is, for the US, a far greater problem.
So that is the bizarre story of how neoconservatives took over
Washington and steered the US into a Middle Eastern war unrelated
to any plausible threat to the US and opposed by the public of
every country in the world except Israel. The frightening thing
is the role of happenstance and personality. After the al-Qaeda
attacks, any US president would likely have gone to war to topple
Bin Laden's Taliban protectors in Afghanistan. But everything
that the US has done since then would have been different had
America's 18th-century electoral rules not given Bush the presidency
and had Cheney not used the transition period to turn the foreign
policy executive into a PNAC reunion.
For a British equivalent, one would have to imagine a Tory government,
with Downing Street and Whitehall controlled by followers of Reverend
Ian Paisley, extreme Eurosceptics, empire loyalists and Blimpish
military types - all determined, for a variety of strategic or
religious reasons, to invade Egypt. Their aim would be to regain
the Suez Canal as the first step in a campaign to restore the
British empire. Yes, it really is that weird.
Michael Lind, the Whitehead Fellow at the New America Foundation
in Washington, DC, is the author of Made in Texas: George W Bush
and the Southern Takeover of American Politics.