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The Neocons in Power

Despite the President’s position, Chalabi’s friends in Washington continue to back him strongly. A senior member of the administration says, “Their whole approach to life seems to be to get Mr. Chalabi in a position of authority.” A well-informed official told me recently that in National Security Council meetings, “Nobody would argue against the point that there had to be insiders and outsiders. Some people in the administration wouldn’t argue against that point but wouldn’t accept it.” This person said that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, along with their like-minded outsiders, took the position that “we’re going to fight this war and we’re going to install Chalabi.”

The British government takes a skeptical view of Chalabi—who spent several of his exile years in London—and has so informed the Bush administration. Even those outside the neocons’ circle who think well of Chalabi agree that it’s been a major mistake for Chalabi’s US supporters to make it so apparent that he’s their man in Iraq. US forces are now providing protection for Chalabi in Baghdad.

Perle says of Chalabi, “He’s an exceptional person, brilliant, with the disciplined mind of a mathematician. He’s someone you want to talk to—deeply knowledgeable of the region, its history and culture.” He adds, “One of the sources of opposition to Chalabi is the dictators of the countries around Iraq and the reason is obvious: he’s going to fight for democracy and other peoples will want it.” Woolsey said, “The State Department bureaucracy tilts pro-Saudi and anti-Chalabi. The key thing about Ahmed is not that he’s a banker, not that he wears $2,000 suits, not that he’s been in and out of Iraq since he was a teenager. I think that the key problem is that he’s Shiite: the State bureaucracy has been used to Sunni powers in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq—pretty much everywhere in the Middle East.” (Sixty percent of the Iraqi people are Shiite but there are as yet no signs that the secular Chalabi has the support of Shiite religious leaders in Iraq.) Woolsey added, “The State Department bureaucracy likes to get along with clients and the CIA likes to control things and Chalabi isn’t controllable, he has his own views.”

When we talked in April Kenneth Adelman told me, “The starting point is that conservatives now are for radical change and the progressives—the establishment foreign policy makers—are for the status quo.” He added, “Conservatives believe that the status quo in the Middle East is pretty bad, and the old conservative belief that stability is good doesn’t apply to the Middle East. The status quo in the Middle East has been breeding terrorists.”


In January, the President signed a secret National Security Policy Directive, giving the Defense Department the authority to manage postwar policy in Iraq, and directing other agencies to coordinate with Defense. But this didn’t settle things: conflict between the Defense Department and the State Department continued. The State Department submitted a list of people to serve in the reconstruction and the Defense Department rejected some of them without informing State.

The appointment of retired general James Garner to run the reconstruction effort in Iraq was controversial from the outset. Garner was a friend of Rumsfeld from the days when they served together in 1998 on a commission that strongly advocated missile defense. After the first Gulf War Garner was much praised in northern Iraq for his management of Operation Provide Comfort, a program of aid for Kurdish refugees. The Bush I administration had urged the Kurds in northern Iraq, as well as the Shiites in southern Iraq, to rise against the Saddam regime, but then abandoned them. Garner, the president of a company that supplies missile parts, had advised Israel on the use of the Patriot missile during the Gulf War. More recently he was one of forty-four retired military officers who signed a document praising the “remarkable restraint” of Israel’s defense forces “in the face of lethal violence orchestrated by” the PLO. Garner’s support of Israel’s government has been widely noted in the Arab press; the American conservative Jewish publication Forward in late March proudly published a piece headlined “Pro-Israel General Will Oversee Reconstruction of Postwar Iraq.”

Before the war ended, Garner and a staff of a few hundred people installed themselves in a row of beachfront villas in Kuwait, and, in the deepest secrecy, made plans for the postwar period. After they got to Baghdad, they remained largely inaccessible in a grand palace, trapped by the insecure surroundings which they hadn’t adequately planned for.

Then, in early May, came word that a civilian, Paul Bremer, a former State Department official in charge of counterterrorism and former manager of Henry Kissinger’s consulting firm, would be installed as head of the reconstruction effort over Garner. The administration had become aware—belatedly—that it wasn’t brilliant public relations to have a military man in charge of the reconstruction effort and that it was running into serious difficulties. US officials had failed to anticipate the degree of chaos that followed the war: they didn’t have an adequate plan, didn’t protect hospitals and other public buildings from looters, or citizens from violent crime, and by early May still hadn’t restored many basic services. The leaders of long-repressed Shiite Muslims were taking charge of some neighborhoods and calling for a theocratic state. Iraqis were agitating for the US to leave. The State Department had argued from the outset that a civilian should run the reconstruction efforts, and the British government, among others, had complained to the Bush administration about the appointment of a military man.

Rumsfeld, I was told, suggested the appointment of Bremer, who is close to the neocons, and State Department officials were pleased with the idea because they considered Bremer, a former foreign service officer, to be one of them. Thus, Bremer’s appointment was a rarity: State and Defense were both enthusiastic—while Garner was highly displeased and is to leave Iraq soon, along with some of the officials who were found lacking in skills needed for the postwar administration. But Robert Oakley, a former ambassador to Pakistan and Zaire, a special envoy to Somalia for two presidents, a former head of the counterterrorism program (he was succeeded by Bremer), and now a visiting fellow at the National Defense University, said to me after the shake-up, “I don’t think it matters who’s leaving and who’s taking their place. It’s too late. In large part events are developing out there in ways that may now be beyond our control.”

Perle confirmed to me what others had told me—that he has been the leader of the pro-Chalabi group. “It may have been because I knew him longer and introduced him to others,” he said. He has known Chalabi for twelve years. It was Chalabi who encouraged the US planners of the war to believe that the Shiites in the south would welcome the US forces as liberators (despite the fact that the US had betrayed them in 1991), that the Iraqi army would lack the will to fight, and that there would be substantial defections by the Republican Guard. This advice led Cheney to say on Meet the Press, “I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators…. I think the regular army will not [fight, and that] significant elements of the Republican Guard are likely as well to want to avoid conflict”; and it led Kenneth Adelman to predict that defeating Saddam Hussein’s regime would be a “cakewalk.” The overconfidence of US officials was the result not only of Chalabi’s “information” but also of their and Chalabi’s eagerness to sell the war. Perle concedes having underestimated the role of the Fedayeen Saddam, a paramilitary force set up by Saddam’s son Uday after the Gulf War. “What we didn’t expect,” Perle said, “was that the Fedayeen Saddam got moved south, by the busload”—thus causing the taking of some southern towns to be more difficult than expected.

Perle and Chalabi had argued that between 40,000 and 80,000 American soldiers would suffice, that if a small number of troops were sent in they could be augmented by forces recruited by the INC, and that large parts of the Iraqi military would quickly join them. As Rumsfeld began planning for an invasion, he ordered, as one option, a study for a war strategy using 80,000 troops. He was eager to prove his point that the military, in particular the Army, could be slimmed down, that many of its previous roles in combat could be performed by sophisticated new weapons and by Special Operations forces.

In holding down the number of US forces to fight in Iraq to approximately 230,000 to 250,000—roughly half the number of troops that were sent to fight in the Gulf War—and belatedly redirecting the troops that had been supposed to be sent through Turkey (they didn’t arrive until after the fighting had ceased), Rumsfeld took some big chances. Among other consequences, there weren’t enough troops to deal with the chaos in Baghdad after it fell to the allies. Some military experts also argue that supply lines were unnecessarily endangered, and that lives were unnecessarily lost. Retired General Wesley Clark said on CNN, “We took the risk and it worked out…. But I’m still of the school that would say, don’t take risks if you don’t have to take the risk.” Rumsfeld has tried to have it both ways. In a single press briefing, he insisted both that there were adequate troops and that the Baghdad Museum couldn’t be protected (though the Oil Ministry was) because “when some of that looting was going on, people were being killed, people were being wounded.”

Rumsfeld’s determination to hold down the number of troops in Iraq carried over from the war to the postwar period. Earlier this year, General Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff, testified to Congress that at least 200,000 troops would be needed after the fighting ended. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, loath to have the public think that waging war in Iraq would impose a long-term burden on the US, were angered by Shinseki’s testimony, which the next day Wolfowitz called “wildly off the mark.” So then they were stuck with staying below 200,000 troops in Iraq. Rumsfeld rejected requests to have a sizable number of military police ready to impose order and protect facilities when the fighting ended. As of May 12, there were roughly 150,000 US troops inside Iraq, with many more in the region. Of late, officials have privately admitted that they underestimated the degree of lawlessness and looting that would follow the fighting—but this kind of activity has had many precedents in postwar situations.

Like Perle, Wolfowitz had favored bringing down the Saddam regime since before the Bush administration took office, and in meetings of the President’s national security advisers just after September 11, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz put forward their view that Saddam’s regime should be eliminated. Iraq was a terrorist state, they argued, and should be made a target of the “war on terrorism.” Kenneth Adelman says, “At the beginning of the administration people were talking about Iraq but it wasn’t doable. There was no heft. That changed with September 11 because then people were willing to confront the reality of an international terrorist network, and terrorist states such as Iraq. The terrorist states are even worse than terrorist networks because they have so many more resources at their disposal—they have money, they have weapons, and they can send contraband material in diplomatic pouches.”

Iraq’s supposed ties to al-Qaeda have still not been proved; but Bush apparently became convinced that they existed. (Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, unhappy that the CIA and the Penta-gon’s own Defense Intelligence Agency weren’t confirming their charges about Iraq’s ties to terrorist groups, set up their own intelligence group, one more likely to tell them what they wanted to hear.) By repeating the charge that Iraq was linked with international terrorism, the President and other officials succeeded in convincing nearly half the US public before the war that Iraq was involved in the attack on the World Trade Center. Several sources told me that if Cheney and his neocon allies had had their way, the war with Iraq would have begun in the fall of 2002; they attribute the delay to Powell’s success in convincing Bush to take his case to the UN and send weapons inspectors to Iraq.

Not long after September 11, high US military officials were told by members of the Bush administration that the regimes of six other countries besides Iraq would eventually have to be removed because they harbored terrorist groups: Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan, and Libya. The administration had declared a “war on terrorism,” but, unsure how to fight it, adopted the strategy of “draining the swamps” in which it was said to breed. In announcing on May 1 the end of “major combat” in Iraq, Bush called that war “one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11, 2001, and still goes on.”

The neocons’ assurance that the United States could not only remove Saddam Hussein but also convert Iraq and the rest of the Middle East into democratic nations relies on several false analogies. Wolfowitz, his neo-con allies, and the journalists who circulate their ideas often cite Germany and Japan after the Second World War as examples of countries that were transformed into democracies. But unlike Iraq, Japan had a largely homogeneous culture and a symbol of national unity, the Emperor, who kept his title if not his power. Japan, in any case, has had essentially one-party rule since the end of the war. And Germany, which also had a cohesive society, had a democratic constitution and parliamentary institutions until Hitler was barely elected chancellor in 1933. Moreover, the US occupied Japan for seven years and Germany for four. Rumsfeld has said that no time limit can be set on the US occupation of Iraq, but US officials are aware that the longer it goes on the greater will be the danger to US troops there—and perhaps domestic pressures to bring them home. (The neocons—as well as officials of previous administrations and some academics—also assert that democracies don’t make war on each other, but this is a highly debated proposition.)

Because some—but certainly not all—of the neoconservatives are Jewish and virtually all are strong supporters of the Likud Party’s policies, the accusation has been made that their aim to “democratize” the region is driven by their desire to surround Israel with more sympathetic neighbors. Such a view would explain the otherwise puzzling statements by Wolfowitz and others before the war that “the road to peace in the Middle East goes through Baghdad.” But it is also the case that Bush and his chief political adviser Karl Rove are eager both to win more of the Jewish vote in 2004 than Bush did in 2000 and to maintain the support of the Christian right, whose members are also strong supporters of Israel. The neoconservatives are powerful because they are cohesive, determined, ideologically driven, and clever (even if their judgment can be questionable), and some high administration officials, including the vice-president, are sympathetic to them. (Rove is known to have bought the road-through-Baghdad argument, which gave them a powerful boost.)

But the neocons don’t win all the time. In the argument over how involved the UN should be in postwar Iraq, the State Department and Tony Blair favored a fairly large role whereas the Defense Department preferred virtually none at all. The President came down somewhere near the middle, saying that the UN should have a “vital” role. On May 9, the US circulated a draft resolution providing for a United Nations “special coordinator” who would work with the US on humanitarian activities and help US administrators in setting up political and civic institutions. Colin Powell is skilled in bureaucratic infighting, yet when the White House makes a decision that favors Powell, the ideologues on the right don’t take this as final: they keep pushing. Powell’s general inclination, after he has fought for a position, is to support his commander in chief—as he did on going to war in Iraq. A diplomatic source has called Powell “The Unsackable,” because of his national popularity rating (higher than Bush’s) and his international standing.

Rumsfeld was reported to be in trouble before September 11 for having alienated almost everyone—Congress, the military, defense contractors (who are big campaign contributors to the Republicans)—and his ideas for restructuring the military were going nowhere. He has been riding high since the war. On the Sunday after Baghdad fell, The Washington Post and The New York Times ran front-page stories saying that Rumsfeld was now in a commanding position within the government. This was no accident. The stories were apparently encouraged by Rumsfeld’s people. Rumsfeld and his associates saw the victory in Iraq as providing leverage for his struggles with other agencies and support for his program to change the military. So now Rumsfeld is “unsackable,” too. As a result, as long as Powell and Rumsfeld choose to remain in place, the conflicts between the two departments—unprecedented in their intensity and openness—will go on.

Bush, who can by several accounts be snappish and harsh with his staff, even his highest-placed advisers (and has a fearsome temper), hates leaks and tolerates no open disagreement among advisers in other matters. He has fired some members of his administration for raising questions about his policies, in particular his economic program; yet he tolerates open conflict among his national security team. Some people argue that Condoleezza Rice should foster greater cooperation, but a former high State Department official says, “You can’t coordinate people who refuse to be coordi- nated.” The President himself seems unable or unwilling to impose order. People familiar with how Rumsfeld operates say that he cows people, makes them ill at ease in his presence; a former Republican official calls him “unsettling.” Powell, for his part, raised questions about the planning for the war in meetings of the national security advisers, but said nothing publicly about his doubts. He has told people, “I’m no longer a soldier. I’m not going to manage defense policy.” Rumsfeld has no corresponding reluctance about foreign affairs. In his virtually daily televised briefings—unprecedented for a cabinet officer—on which he clearly thrives, he has unhesitatingly insulted other countries, France and Germany among them.

The problems in a postwar Iraq were always going to be difficult, but they have been made worse as a result of several factors: the administration’s zeal—particularly on the part of the neocons and their allies—to remove Saddam Hussein from power while failing to plan for the peace; Bush’s pretense that he hadn’t decided to go to war long after he apparently had in fact decided to; the administration’s relative lack of interest in peacekeeping and belief that such efforts are politically unpopular (a carryover from the 2000 campaign that is also proving destructive in Afghanistan); and Rumsfeld’s determination to hold down the number of troops in Iraq after the war—at whatever cost.

Senator Richard Lugar, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has publicly complained that the planning for the aftermath of the war “started very late…. A gap has occurred, and that has brought some considerable suffering.” Bush, whose presidency has been audacious and even radical, is now embarked on his riskiest gamble so far.

—May 14, 2003

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