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The Neocons in Power


The conflict within the Bush administration in recent months over policy for postwar Iraq has caused much confusion and has already damaged the reconstruction effort. The stakes are enormous not just for the US and for the people of Iraq, but for the entire Middle East, and the rest of the world. Almost from the outset of the Bush administration there have been battles between the State Department and the Defense Department, but the controversy over postwar Iraq has brought out bitterness and knife-wielding of a sort that Washington has seldom seen.

To some extent, the tension between the two departments is inherent because of their different missions. This conflict spills over into the White House and the think tanks and the offices of various consultants around town. It is really a conflict between the neoconservatives, who are largely responsible for getting us into the war against Iraq, and those they disparagingly call the “realists,” who tend to be more cautious about the United States’ efforts to remake the Middle East into a democratic region.

The word “neoconservative” originally referred to former liberals and leftists who were dismayed by the countercultural movements of the 1960s and the Great Society, and adopted conservative views, for example, against government welfare programs, and in favor of interventionist foreign policies. A group of today’s “neocons” now hold key positions in the Pentagon and in the White House and they even have a mole in the State Department.

The most important activists are Richard Perle, who until recently headed the Defense Policy Board (he’s still a member), a once-obscure committee, ostensibly just an advisory group but now in fact a powerful instrument for pushing neocon policies; James Woolsey, who has served two Democratic and two Republican administrations, was CIA director during the Clinton administration, and now works for the management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton; Kenneth Adelman, a former official in the Ford and Reagan administrations who trains executives by using Shakespeare’s plays as a guide to the use of power (www.moversandshakespeares .com); Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense and the principal advocate of the Iraq policy followed by the administration; Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, the Pentagon official in charge of the reconstruction of Iraq; and I. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff. Two principal allies of this core group are John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control (though he opposes arms control) and international security affairs, and Stephen Hadley, the deputy national security adviser. Cheney himself and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld can be counted as subscribing to the neocons’ views about Iraq.

A web of connections binds these people in a formidable alliance. Perle, Wolfowitz, and Woolsey have long been close friends and neighbors in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The three have worked with one another in the Pentagon, served on the same committees and commissions, and participated in the same conferences. Feith is a protégé of Perle, and worked under him during the Reagan administration. Adelman, a friend of Perle, Wolfowitz, and Woolsey, is very close to Cheney and Rumsfeld. The Cheneys and the Adelmans share a wedding anniversary and celebrate it together each year; Adelman worked for Rumsfeld in three government positions, and the Adelmans have visited the Rumsfelds at their various homes around the country. Woolsey and Adelman are members of Perle’s Pentagon advisory group. At the outset of this administration Perle made sure that it was composed of people who share his hawkish views. (Perle recently resigned the chairmanship over allegations of conflicts of interest with his private consulting business, but he remains a member of the advisory board, and his power isn’t diminished.) Bolton, over the objections of Colin Powell, was appointed to the State Department at the urging of his neocon allies. (A State Department official said to me recently, referring to the Pentagon, “Why don’t we have a mole over there?”)

Perle, Woolsey, and Wolfowitz are all disciples of the late Albert Wohlstetter, a University of Chicago professor who had worked for the RAND corporation and later taught at the University of California. Throughout the cold war he argued that nuclear deterrence wasn’t sufficient—that the US had to actually plan to fight a nuclear war in order to deter it. He strongly advocated the view that the military power of the USSR was underrated. Wolfowitz earned his Ph.D. under Wohlstetter; Perle met Wohlstetter when he was a high school student in Los Angeles and was invited by Wohlstetter’s daughter to swim in their pool. Later, Wohlstetter invited Perle, then a graduate student at Princeton, to Washington to work with Wolfowitz on a paper about the proposed Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Wohlstetter opposed and which has been abandoned by the Bush administration. Wohlstetter introduced Perle to Democratic Senator Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson of Washington, an aggressive cold warrior and champion of Israel’s interests. Woolsey (who calls himself “a Scoop Jackson Democrat”) came to know Wohlstetter in 1980, when they both served on a Pentagon panel. Of Wohlstetter Woolsey said in a conversation we had in mid-April, “A key to understanding how Richard and Paul and I think is Albert. He’s had a major impact on us.”

And through Wohlstetter, Perle met Ahmed Chalabi, then an Iraqi exile who had founded the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella organization of Iraqi groups, many of its members in exile.

Perle’s career has been an astonishing one. Though he has held only one government position—that of an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration—he has had tremendous influence over the administration’s Iraq policy. He openly advocated the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime shortly after he left the Pentagon in 1987. In the 1970s, while working on Jackson’s Senate staff, he opposed détente, helped to stop ratification of the SALT II arms control agreement, and aided Jackson in getting through Congress the Jackson-Vanik law, which cut off trade with the Soviet Union if it continued to bar the emigration of Jews.

During the Reagan administration, when he was assistant secretary of defense for policy, Perle became famous for opposing arms control agreements and acquired the nickname “The Prince of Darkness.” Working with a small group of journalists who circulate his views, he’s been known to savage someone he opposes on a big issue. He makes his influence felt through frequent television appearances, through his network of allies in the bureaucracy, and through his strategy of staking out an extreme posi-tion and trying to make the ground shift in his direction—which it often has. He is a strong advocate of the views of right-wing Israeli leaders, and serves on the board of the company that owns the pro-Likud Jerusalem Post. When he’s not working with his clients, who include defense contractors, he is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. From this position Perle invites people to an annual conference in Beaver Creek, Colorado, cosponsored by AEI and former president Gerald Ford, and he has several times invited Ahmed Chalabi as his guest there. At the conferences, Chalabi was able to meet Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz.

Chalabi fled Iraq when he was thirteen, along with other members of his wealthy and prominent Shiite family, after the military coup in 1958 that overthrew the British-installed monarchy. He studied in America—earning an undergraduate degree in mathematics at MIT, and then a doctorate, also in mathematics, at the University of Chicago (where he met Wohlstetter)—and then went into banking. He has been tried and convicted, in absentia, in Jordan on charges of fraud and embezzlement over the collapse of the Petra Bank, which he founded and ran. (Chalabi has said that the bank’s collapse was the result of a plot by Saddam Hussein’s government.*) After founding the Iraqi National Congress in 1992, he received CIA funds. In 1995, working from Kurdish territory in northern Iraq, he promoted a coup against Saddam Hussein, but his plan fizzled. Even one of his current allies says he “may have overstated” the degree of support his attempted coup would receive from disaffected members of the Iraqi military.

Chalabi claimed at the time that the CIA supported him, but Anthony Lake, then Clinton’s national security adviser, denies this. “Fearing another Bay of Pigs,” he told me, “everyone agreed that we needed to be crystal clear with Chalabi. The United States had already betrayed the Kurds twice, and we didn’t want to see it happen again by our encouraging such a dubious operation. So I personally sent him a message that we didn’t support him.” A current senior administration official says that Saddam’s government knew in advance about Chalabi’s plan, and had penetrated it.

Back in Washington, where he spent a great deal of time, Chalabi impressed various members of Congress, among them John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, and was the moving force behind the passage in 1998 of the Iraq Liberation Act, which called for the overthrow of the Saddam regime and directed that the State Department grant $97 million to the INC. But before long the department, suspicious that the organization had misallocated funds, ordered an audit, announced “accounting irregularities,” and held up further contributions—to the everlasting fury of Perle and other neocons. When the Bush administration came in, the Pentagon began funding the INC.

Chalabi’s role in postwar Iraq has become one of the most contentious issues within the Bush administration. The State Department considers him “damaged goods,” and someone who has been out of touch with Iraq for too long. The neocons admire him as a man of strong intelligence and a courageous fighter for the overthrow of Saddam and for democracy in Iraq; they see him as the perfect person to lead postwar Iraq. After the start of the war, without informing the State Department, the Pentagon flew Chalabi and his paramilitary forces, which the American military had trained in Hungary, back into Iraq. Their intention was to give him a strong head start toward becoming the leader of the new Iraqi government. But the State Department objected to the US installing Iraq’s new leader, and Colin Powell argued strenuously in National Security Council meetings that the United States should not impose a new ruler on Iraq, a position that the President adopted during discussions in February with his national security advisers: Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Rumsfeld, Powell, and George Tenet of the CIA. The official position of the US government became that the Iraqi people should decide the future of Iraq and that the future leaders should be drawn from Iraqis who had been both inside and outside the country during the Saddam regime. But there’s a question of how many anti-Baathist leaders could survive in Iraq during Saddam’s reign. The neocons argue that no one comparable to Konrad Adenauer or Václav Havel is likely to be found inside Iraq.

  1. *

    According to the London Guardian of April 14, “Reports compiled…by investigators in London and Jordan, including investigations by the accountants Arthur Andersen, describe how millions of dollars of depositors’ money [in the Petra Bank] was transferred to other parts of the Chalabi family empire in Switzerland, Lebanon and London, and not repaid.”

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