by Sarkis Pogossian
There have been signs over the past three years, as the debacle in Iraq has gone from bad to worse, that the so-called “neo-cons”—the Pentagon-connected policy wonks with traditional ties to the Israeli right and ultra-ambitious schemes to remake the entire order of the Middle East—have been taken down a peg. With the US actually in danger of losing control of Iraq, the notion of attacking Iran, or even plotting against supposed allies like Saudi Arabia, is starting to look more dangerous than attractive to Washington pragmatists.
The turning point would seem to have been in March 2003, when US troops were still advancing on Baghdad. At this decisive moment, Pentagon official Richard Perle resigned as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a high-level group that advises Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on policy issues. On March 27, the same day he resigned, Perle told BBC: “This will be the short war I and others predicted… I don’t believe it will be months. I believed all along that it will be a quick war, and I continue to believe that.”
Stepping down as chair, Perle would remain on the board until 2004. Also serving on the Defense Policy Board at this time were former CIA director James Woolsey, former Vice President Dan Quayle, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Perle had become increasingly identified with a maximalist agenda to go beyond mere “regime change” in Iraq to topple regimes and even redraw borders throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds. On Oct. 1, 2002, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported on a recent meeting in which Perle told Pentagon officials that Iraq was just a tactical goal, while Saudi Arabia was the strategic goal and Egypt was the great prize. Other ideas he reportedly put forth included permanent Israeli annexation of the Palestinian territories, a Palestinian state in Jordan, and a restored Hashemite monarchy in Iraq.
Many analysts say the strategy for US domination of Iraq originated in a plan drafted in 1997, when the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) sent a letter to then-President Clinton urging him to take action to oust Saddam Hussein. The group also called for the “democratization” of Syria and Iran. Among the 40 neo-conservatives in the think-tank, 10 would go on to become members of the Bush administration–including Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle.
With Perle’s optimistic prediction about Iraq now proven so horribly wrong, the administration pragmatists (mostly in the State Department) seemed poised to seize the initiative and start bringing US policy back towards the center.
Then, on July 12, 2006, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, and Israel responded with massive air-strikes on Lebanon–ostensibly aimed at crushing Hezbollah, but actually widely targeting the country’s infrastructure. Hezbollah has been striking back with missile attacks on Israel, but has no capacity to inflict anywhere near equivalent damage. Some 600 are believed dead in Lebanon (compared to 50 in Israel), at least some 500,000 have been displaced, and there is no end in sight. A week into the campaign, the US Congress passed a resolution (unanimously in the Senate) endorsing Israel’s aggression.
Lebanon was actually something of a showcase for the neo-cons, a model for their vision of pro-Western revolutionary change in the region. Following the February 2005 car-bomb assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a longtime opponent of the Syrian presence in the country, a wave of protest was unleashed. In what would become known as the “Cedar Revolution,” a new government was elected and Syrian troops, which had occupied the eastern part of the country since 1976, were finally called home.
But the victory was incomplete. Power was still uneasily divided between the West-backed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. And Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, was allowed to maintain a virtual army within Lebanon’s borders.
Israel has been quick to portray the Lebanon campaign as a proxy war in which Syria and Iran are the real enemies. “This is about Iran as much as it is about Hezbollah or Lebanon‚” Lt. Col. Amos Guiora, the former commander of the Israeli Defense Forces’ School of Military Law and currently a law professor at Western Reserve University, told New York’s Jewish weekly The Forward July 14.
Such statements imply that Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution cannot be successfully consolidated unless there is a general re-shaping of the Middle East political order. And the American neo-cons who share this agenda have once again been on the offensive since Israel’s new war on Lebanon.
Return of the Prince of Darkness
Richard Perle was so strongly opposed to nuclear arms control agreements with the USSR during his days as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, that he became known as ”the Prince of Darkness.” Since leaving the Defense Policy Board, he has carried on a political blog for the Washington Post. On June 25, just before the Lebanon conflagration began, he wrote a piece that took on the State Department pragmatists for backing down from expansion of Washington’s war beyond Iraq. Unsubtly entitled “Why Did Bush Blink on Iran? (Ask Condi),” it stated:
“President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran knows what he wants: nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them; suppression of freedom at home and the spread of terrorism abroad… President Bush, too, knows what he wants: an irreversible end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the ‘expansion of freedom in all the world’ and victory in the war on terrorism. The State Department and its European counterparts know what they want: negotiations… And now, on May 31, the administration offered to join talks with Iran on its nuclear program. How is it that Bush, who vowed that on his watch ‘the worst weapons will not fall into the worst hands,’ has chosen to beat such an ignominious retreat?”
Perle perceives that the White House has capitulated to the appeasement-oriented Europeans—and clearly places the blame with Rice’s promotion to Secretary of State. He laments that “the geography of this administration has changed. Condoleezza Rice has moved from the White House to Foggy Bottom… [S]he is now in the midst of—and increasingly represents—a diplomatic establishment that is driven to accommodate its allies even when (or, it seems, especially when) such allies counsel the appeasement of our adversaries.”
Oblivious to the torture state that has consolidated power in Iraq since its “liberation,” Perle portrayed the issue in terms of human freedom, and played openly to Reagan nostalgia:
“In his second inaugural address, Bush said, ‘All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for liberty, we will stand with you.’ Iranians were heartened by those words, much as the dissidents of the Soviet Union were heartened by Reagan’s ‘evil empire’ speech in 1983…. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) tried two weeks ago to pass the Iran Freedom Support Act, which would have increased the administration’s too-little-too-late support for democracy and human rights in Iran. But the State Department opposed it, arguing that it ‘runs counter to our efforts…it would limit our diplomatic flexibility.’ I hope it is not too late…to give substance to Bush’s words, not too late to redeem our honor.”
Since the Lebanon explosion, Rice has tilted back to the neo-con position, with rhetoric pointing to a fundamental power shift in the entire region as the only acceptable requisite for peace. She has argued against the international community demanding an immediate ceasefire, calling for a more “enduring” arrangement that would end Hezbollah’s presence in southern Lebanon and further diminish the influence of Syria and Iran in Lebanon’s affairs.
She told a press conference in Kuala Lumpur July 28 that the US would only support a ceasefire that “does not return us to the status quo ante. We cannot return to the circumstances that created this situation in the first place.”
A day earlier in Rome, she said: “Syria has a responsibility. And we are deeply concerned, as we have said, about the role of Iran. It is high time that people make a choice.”
Hindsight may reveal Israel’s Lebanon campaign as the strategic masterstroke that will force the Bush administration’s hand and put the neo-cons back on top.
Gingrich Sees World War III
Commentator Bill Berkowitz, a left-wing watchdog on the conservative movement, has been keeping close tabs on the ominous rhetoric emanating in recent weeks from Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, whose “Contract with America” legislative package provoked a shutdown of the federal government in 1995.
In a July 16 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Gingrich said that the US should be “helping the Lebanese government have the strength to eliminate Hezbollah as a military force.”
A day earlier, the Seattle Times reported that during a fund-raising trip in Washington state, Gingrich was even more bellicose. “This is World War III,” Gingrich said. “Israel wouldn’t leave southern Lebanon as long as there was a single missile there. I would go in and clean them all out and I would announce that any Iranian airplane trying to bring missiles to re-supply them would be shot down. This idea that we have this one-sided war where the other team gets to plan how to kill us and we get to talk, is nuts.”
Gingrich openly maintained that the use of the term “World War III” could re-energize the base of the Republican Party. He said that public opinion can change “the minute you use the language” of world war. “OK, if we’re in the third world war,” he asked, “which side do you think should win?”
On July 17, Gingrich restated his World War III contention on the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes.”
Berkowitz notes that the watchdog website Media Matters for America has documented a number of recent “World War III” references by cable television’s conservative commentators. On the July 13 edition of Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor,” host Bill O’Reilly said “World War III… I think we’re in it.” On the same day’s edition of MSNBC’s “Tucker,” a graphic read: “On the verge of World War III?” On July 12, “CNN Headline News” host Glenn Beck began his program, featuring an interview with former CIA officer Robert Baer. by saying “We’ve got World War III to fight,” while also warning of “the impending apocalypse.” Beck and Baer had a similar discussion the next day, in which Beck said: “I absolutely know that we need to prepare ourselves for World War III. It is here.”
Back in May, even President Bush told the CNBC cable TV network that the action taken by the passengers on the hijacked Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001 was the “first counter-attack to World War III.”
Bush said that he agreed with the description by David Beamer, whose son Todd died in the crash, in an April Wall Street Journal commentary that the act was “our first successful counter-attack in our homeland in this new global war—World War III.”
Woolsey Weighs in for World War IV
Writes Bill Berkowitz: “Hyping World War III isn’t new to conservatives. Some have even argued that the real World War III was the Cold War against the Soviet Union, and that now the US is engaged in World War IV.”
Berkowitz notes that the idea that the Cold War was World War III originates from PNAC, and that the concept has taken on growing currency among the neo-cons since 9-11. In April 2003, at a teach-in at UCLA sponsored by Americans for Victory Over Terrorism, James Woolsey, the former CIA director and founding member of PNAC, told the audience: “This fourth world war, I think, will last considerably longer than either World Wars I or II did for us; hopefully not the full four-plus decades of the Cold War.”
Appearing on Fox News’ “The Big Story” this July 17, Woolsey weighed in on the Lebanon crisis in frighteningly bellicose terms.
“I think we ought to execute some air-strikes against Syria, against the instruments of power of that state, against the airport, which is the place where weapons shuttle through from Iran to Hezbollah and Hamas,” Woolsey said. “I think both Syria and Iran think that we’re cowards. They saw us leave Lebanon after the ’83 Marine Corps bombing. They saw us leave Mogadishu in ’93.”
The former Central Intelligence director, now a vice president at the global consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, flatly rejected calls for a cease-fire in Lebanon. “I think the last thing we ought to do now is to start talking about cease-fires and a rest,” he said.
Iran, of course, did not escape Woolsey’s ire either: “Iran has drawn a line in the sand. They’ve sent Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel. They’re pushing their nuclear weapons program. They’re helping North Korea, working with them on a ballistic missile program. They’re doing their best to take over southern Iraq with [radical Shiite cleric] Muqtada al-Sadr and some of their other proxies. This is a very serious challenge from Iran and we need to weaken them badly, and undermining the Syrian government with air-strikes would help weaken them badly.”
Asked by host John Gibson if he also advocated air-strikes against Iran, Woolsey replied: “One has to take things to some degree by steps,” Woolsey responded. “I think it would be a huge blow to Iran if the Israelis are able after a few more days’ effort to badly damage Hezbollah and Hamas as they are doing, and if we were able to help undermine the continuation of the Assad regime [in Syria] – without putting troops on the ground, I wouldn’t advocate that. We’ve got one major war in that part of the world on the ground in Iraq and that’s enough for right at this moment I think.”
The “Clean Break”
Joseph Cirincione, writing for the ThinkProgress blog, traces the plan for Lebanon to a controversial document prepared in 1996 by Richard Perle, Douglas Feith (undersecretary of defense for policy until last year) and David Wurmser (former American Enterprise Institute wonk and now Dick Cheney’s Middle East adviser). They document was prepared for the newly-elected Likud government in Israel, and called for “A Clean Break” with the policies of negotiating with the Palestinians and trading land for peace.
According to the document, the problem could be solved “if Israel seized the strategic initiative along its northern borders by engaging Hizballah, Syria, and Iran, as the principal agents of aggression in Lebanon.” The document also called for removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and “reestablishing the principle of preemption.” It anticipated that the successes of these wars could be used to launch campaigns against Saudi Arabia and Egypt, reshaping “the strategic balance in the Middle East profoundly.”
Writes Cirincione: “Now, with the US bogged down in Iraq, with Bush losing control of world events, and with the threats to national security growing worse, no one could possibly still believe this plan, could they? Think again.”
He notes that William Kristol, neo-con editor of the Weekly Standard, wrote in a column entitled “It’s Our War” July 24 that Hezbollah is acting as Tehran’s proxy and that the US should respond with air-strikes against Iran: “We might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait? Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained? That the current regime will negotiate in good faith? It would be easier to act sooner rather than later. Yes, there would be repercussions—and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.”
Cirincione concludes: “The neoconservatives are now hoping to use the Israeli-Lebanon conflict as the trigger to launch a US war against Syria, Iran or both. These profoundly dangerous policies have to be exposed and stopped before they do even more harm to US national security then they already have.”
Among the most ambitious of the neo-con voices demanding a reshaping of the Middle East is Michael Ledeen, an American Enterprise Institute wonk and National Review columnist. While Perle advocates restoring a Hashemite king to the throne of Iraq, Ledeen’s personal crusade is a restoration of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran. His writing frequently affects a nervous impatience. In a December 2005 National Review Online column calling for “active support of the democratic forces” in Syria and Iran as a strategy for “regime change in Tehran [and] Damascus,” he concluded: “Faster, confound it.” In August 2002 he wrote in NRO: “One can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please. That’s our mission in the war against terror.” In a December 2002 piece in the Wall Street Journal, “The War Won’t End in Baghdad,” Ledeen wrote that after taking Baghdad, “we must also topple terror states in Tehran and Damascus… If we come to Baghdad, Damascus and Tehran as liberators, we can expect overwhelming popular support.”
Predictably, Ledeen sees the current Lebanon crisis as good news for his agenda. On July 25, he wrote on his National Review Online blog: “Remember that the Iranians believe(d) that we (US and Israel) are hopelessly internally divided, politically paralyzed, and hence unable to take a difficult decision and react forcefully. Ergo they thought they had a free hand. A few days ago I compared the attack on Israel to the same blunder Osama made on 9/11. If only we take full advantage.”
Redrawing the Map
In another sign of revived neo-con ambitions, the June 2006 edition of Armed Forces Journal, a private publication that cultivates a high-level Beltway readership, retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters called for actually redrawing the map of the Middle East “according to the situation of the ethnic minorities.” This echoes a periodically re-emergent neo-con strategy of exploiting the real grievances of ethnic minorities in the Islamic world to affect not only “regime change” but an actual dismantling of the major states of the Middle East.
The Kurds are of course particularly strategic because giving them a unified national state would diminish both Syria and Iran, as well as Iraq, where it seems increasingly likely anti-Western forces could once again gain the upper hand. Peters does not seem bothered by the fact that such a state would also diminish US ally Turkey. He wrote that a Kurdish state “stretching from Diyarbakir [in eastern Turkey] through Tabriz [in western Iran] would be the most pro-Western state between Bulgaria and Japan.”
In Peters’ vision, Iran would also lose territory to a Unified Azerbaijan in the north, an Arab Shia State in the west and a Free Baluchistan in the east.
Peters also suggested a break-up of Saudi Arabia, with the Saudi family continuing to rule the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the west as a sort of Muslim “super-Vatican,” but a Shi’ite rebellion bringing a separatist, pro-Western state to power in the east—where the oil is.
This idea has been heard before in neo-con circles. In July 2002, a Rand analyst presented a briefing in Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s private conference room titled “Taking Saudi Out of Arabia.” Assembled members of the Defense Policy Board were told that the US should demand Saudi Arabia stop supporting hostile fundamentalist movements and curtail the airing of anti-US and anti-Israel statements—or face seizure of its financial assets and oilfields. A month later, Max Singer of the Hudson Institute gave a presentation to the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment advising the US to forge a “Muslim Republic of East Arabia” out of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.
Peters, predictably, is also heartened by the bloodbath in Lebanon—and only fears it won’t go far enough. In his July 28 column in the New York Post, he chastised Israel for its perceived restraint: “Yesterday, Israel’s government overruled its generals and refused to expand the ground war in southern Lebanon. Given the difficulties encountered and the casualties suffered, the decision is understandable. And wrong. In the War on Terror—combating Hezbollah’s definitely part of it—you have to finish what you start. You can’t permit the perception that the terrorists won. But that’s where the current round of fighting is headed.”
What is truly amazing about these schemes is the assumption, even after disastrous results in Iraq, that the break-up of the Middle East’s states would be in the US interest. The US has played a Shi’ite card in Iraq against the Sunni Arabs–and is consequently in danger of losing control of southern Iraq and even the Baghdad government itself to Iran. Peters would have the US replicate this strategic blunder in Saudi Arabia—forgoing Washington’s most strategic ally in the Arab world.
Similarly, Peters would forgo Washington’s traditional alliance with NATO-member Turkey to gamble on a Kurdish state which could ultimately come not under the control of Iraq’s US-aligned Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), but of the radical Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)—one of the State Department’s official “terrorist organizations,” but the group which has actually made significant inroads in fomenting Kurdish separatism in Turkey and, more recently, Syria and Iran. The PKK, ironically, has even found haven in “liberated” Iraq for its guerilla attacks on US ally Turkey.
In another indication of how the Iraq adventure could ultimately prove disastrous for US interests in the region, on July 18, the Turkish government summoned the US and Iraqi ambassadors in Ankara to the Foreign Ministry, and warned: “Our patience is not endless. Root out Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerillas immediately, otherwise, we will be forced to resort to our right of self-defense.” The statement from the Turkish government said Ankara will wait for the US and Iraq to take “necessary steps”; and if they fail to do so, Turkey might resort to a “cross-border operation.”
Not only is the specter of Kurdish separatism pitting US ally Trukey against US proxy state Iraq, but it is even leading to a rapprochement between Turkey and Iran. The Iranian Ambassador to Ankara, Firouz Dowlatabadi, has said Iran will support Turkey in the event of a military operation against the PKK in northern Iraq. “Turkey has the right to annihilate terrorists wherever they are found,” Dowlatabadi told Turkish television July 19. “Iran is ready to do its best to help Turkey.”
Commenting on Perle’s purported October 2002 meeting with Pentagon officials to chart the future shape of the Middle East, Egypt’s Al-Ahram weekly opined the following February: “What all this makes clear is that the future map of the region is a subject of discussion in Washington and dialogue with Israel. The Arab countries are not party to the talks. The scene brings to mind the events of World War I and how the victorious countries reshaped the region after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat, divvying it up among themselves in a secret deal by the name of Sykes-Picot in 1916.”
The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, codified by the League of Nations in 1920, divided the crumbling Ottoman Empire’s holdings in the Arab world between Britain and France, which then drew the new boundaries in the interests of control of oil. The Sykes-Picot boundaries, calling for a British-controlled Iraq and a French-controlled Syria, were actually redrawn after World War I, when it became clear that the Ottoman province of Mosul, originally apportioned to French Syria, was a source of much oil wealth. Britain threatened war with France to have Mosul attached to Iraq rather than Syria.
For generations thereafter, Britain looked to the Sunni Arabs of central Iraq to hold the oil-rich north around Mosul and the oil-rich south around Basra together in one national state, suppressing Kurdish national aspirations in the north and Shi’ite ambitions in the south. The US inherited this strategy when it groomed Saddam Hussein as a proxy in the 1980s. It has only been since Desert Storm and, more significantly, since 9-11 and the neo-con revolution that Washington has reversed this strategy. But already the Shi’ites are showing unambiguous signs of being unreliable proxies, and the Kurds could easily follow suit. Having already dismantled or radicalized virtually all the Sunni Arab leadership, the US could be left with no effective proxies in Iraq at all before too long.
If the Lebanon crisis spins out of control and is further internationalized—as Perle, Woolsey, Gingrich, Ledeen and Peters so ardently hope—Washington could a year or two hence be facing a similar situation throughout the Middle East. Taking the war to Syria and Iran could leave those countries yet further radicalized, the authoritarian but stable regimes there subsumed by ethnic warfare and jihadist terror.
Even Bush seems to be at least vaguely aware of the risks. His one caveat in supporting the Israeli aggression is that it not destabilize the government of Fouad Siniora and wipe out the gains of the Cedar Revolution.
And in Washington itself, a backlash against the hubristic neo-cons is virtually inevitable sooner or later. But if the chaos goes on long enough and reaches sufficiently apocalyptic proportions, the likelihood increases that it will come not from pragmatists and technocrats but nativists and anti-Semites.
The Lebanon crisis represents a tipping point. If voices for peace across ethnic, national and sectarian lines cannot be brought to bear, and quickly, the Middle East—and, indeed, the planet—could be going over the edge into something that will make all the horrors that have unfolded since 9-11 seem a mere prelude.
“Why Did Bush Blink on Iran? (Ask Condi),” by Richard Perle,
Washington Post, June 25, 2006
“GOP Tests How ‘World War III’ Sounds to Voters,” by Bill Berkowitz,
PNS, July 20
“Bringing on ‘World War III’,” by Bill Berkowitz,
Working for Chnage, July 27, 2006
“Ex-CIA chief: Bomb Syria!” WorldNet Daily, July 17, 2006
“Ex-CIA Director: US Faces WWIV,” CNN, April 3, 2003
Media Matters for America
“Neocons Resurrect Plans For Regional War In The Middle East,” by Joseph
Cirincione, Think Progress, July 17, 2003
The “Clean Break” document, Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political
“It’s Our War,” by William Kristol, The Weekly Standard, July 24, 2006
“How a Better Middle East Would Look,” by Ralph Peters
Armed Forces Journal, June 2006
“PKK Warning to US and Iraq: We are Losing Patience,” Zaman, July 18, 2006
“Iran: We Support Turkey’s Possible Cross-Border Operation,”
Zaman, July 19, 2006
“Hezbollah: Iran’s proxy?”
WW4 REPORT, July 16, 2006
“Eastern Anatolia: Iraq’s Next Domino,” by Sarkis Pogossian
WW4 REPORT #115, November 2005
“Lebanon’s Post-Electoral Crossroads,” by Bilal El-Amine
WW4 REPORT #111, July 2005
“Welcome to World War IV,” by Bill Weinberg
WW4 REPORT #106, January 2005
“‘Three-State Solution’ for Iraq’s Future?”
WW4 REPORT #93, December 2003
“Prince of Darkness Perle Resigns”
WW4 REPORT #79, March 31, 2003
“New Imperialist Carve-Up of Middle East Planned”
WW4 REPORT #63, Dec. 9, 2002
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Aug. 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution