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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Neoconservatism and the White House -- Still Married

(updated below)

Apparently, it isn't enough that the U.S. has been defending without reservation the wisdom of the Israeli bombing campaign in Lebanon. Nor is it enough that we have been unilaterally blocking a cease-fire and other diplomatic solutions. Nor is it enough that the American taxpayer pays for enormous amounts of Israel's military equipment -- from the planes flying over Lebanon to the tanks entering it. Now we are handing Israel the very bombs that they drop in order to flatten more and more of Lebanon, on a bomb-by-bomb basis:

The Bush administration is rushing a delivery of precision-guided bombs to Israel, which requested the expedited shipment last week after beginning its air campaign against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, American officials said Friday.

The decision to quickly ship the weapons to Israel was made with relatively little debate within the Bush administration, the officials said. Its disclosure threatens to anger Arab governments and others because of the appearance that the United States is actively aiding the Israeli bombing campaign in a way that could be compared to Iran’s efforts to arm and resupply Hezbollah.

The debate over whether the Israeli war should be "our war" is becoming increasingly academic. Once one country starts supplying another country with bombs in the middle of a war, both are participants -- much the way it is said, as imperfect as the comparison is, that Iran is "behind" the actions of Hezbollah. Whatever else might be true, the bombs that will be blowing up all sorts of things and people (beginning) in Lebanon over the next weeks, likely months and perhaps longer will have come directly from the U.S. And everyone, including the Muslims whose "hearts and minds" were ostensibly the object of our invasion of Iraq, will know that. That doesn't exactly seem like a sound strategy for diffusing Muslim animosity towards the U.S. -- which happens to be the Bush administration's stated goal.

There is palpable and quite unseemly excitement gripping neoconservatives over what the world sees as a horrible and tragic war, but which they glowingly call a "great opportunity." They have an extraordinary goal that they intend to fulfill -- to somehow induce the U.S. to vastly expand its Middle East war to include yet more countries which have not attacked us, and more amazingly, to do so notwithstanding the fact that our current little experiment in Iraq is, arguably, in the worst shape it has been in some time, perhaps since we invaded.

The boldness of their objective, its sheer audacity, is requiring neoconservatives to throw all caution to the wind, to really put all of their rhetorical cards on the table and be open about what they really think and want, unburdened by all of the lofty pretenses about the virtues of spreading democracy and winning hearts and minds. The real underlying premises and impulses of neoconservatism are being laid bare for all to see. And what they really want is more war and destruction -- lots and lots and lots of it -- to rain down mercilessly on their enemies and anyone nearby.

The terms they are using to describe their grand war visions are "annihilation" and "cleaning out." They have had enough with restraint and limited strikes and a war that has been depressingly and weakly confined just to Iraq and Afghanistan. They want full-scale, unrestrained Middle Eastern war -- they always have -- and they see this as their big chance to have it.

And the more one reads and listens to neoconservatives in their full-throated war calls, the more disturbing and repellent these ideas become. So many of them seem to be driven not even any longer by a pretense of a strategic goal, but by a naked, bloodthirsty craving for destruction and killing itself, almost as the end in itself. They urge massive military attacks on Lebanon, Syria, Iran -- and before that, Iraq -- knowing that it will kill huge numbers of innocent people, but never knowing, or seemingly caring, what comes after that. And the disregard for the lives of innocent people in those countries is so cavalier and even scornful that it is truly unfathomable, at times just plain disgusting. From a safe distance, they continuously call for -- and casually dismiss the importance of -- the deaths of enormous numbers of people without batting an eye. And for what?

What is Lebanon going to look like -- let alone Syria and Iran -- once we decimate large parts of their infrastructure, kill, maim and render homeless thousands upon thousands of their citizens, and bring down their governments? Who cares. Let's just stop whining and appeasing and get on with the action. They're bored with Iraq because the killing and destruction part are done with, so they want to move on. It's the war and bombing that interests and excites them. At least for the neoconservatives I've been reading and hearing -- and they have been among the most influential -- the "arguments" aren't much more substantive or complex than that. More on that in a moment.

Ever since neoconservatives began openly salivating over this "great opportunity" -- beginning, I'd say, with Bill Kristol's soon-to-be infamous "Our War" column, followed by Newt Gingrich's declaration that World War III has begun -- there has been a sense that their war-mongering stance is too extreme, too transparently irrational, to really influence the Bush administration's decisions. After the disaster in Iraq, Bush is in no mood to be led by the same people into more wars, that line of thought goes. Cheney and Rumsfeld have been beaten and even humbled by Iraq, and are too preoccupied with it, to entertain thoughts about Syria and Iran. Because of everything from limited resources to electoral concerns, it's been assumed and suggested that it is simply not plausible that the White House will take the crazed neoconservative path with regard to Lebanon, Syria and Iran.

That line of thought seems, at this point, to be more wishful thinking than reality. The administration is still composed largely of adherents to neoconservatism. John Bolton is at the U.N. for a reason. Richard Perle protegee Elliot Abrams is still running Middle East policy out of the White House. And, most importantly, anyone who thinks that Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld or George Bush have changed their mind about anything -- let alone about their biggest signature decision, the invasion of Iraq -- is attributing to them far more flexibility than they have ever before demonstrated. They see Iraq as a success and the rationale that led us there to be the right approach to the Middle East generally.

Neoconservatism is what brought us into Iraq, and there is no persuasive evidence that its influence in the administration has diminished. To the contrary, this article from the Washington Post yesterday reports that Bush and Cheney's working premises and assumptions with regard to the Middle East are indistinguishable from those evangelized by the likes of Daniel Pipes, Richard Perle, Kristol and Gingrich:

Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress, said Bush's statements reflect an unambiguous view of the situation. "He doesn't seem to allow his vision to be clouded in any way," said Rosen, a Democrat who has come to admire Bush's Middle East policy. "It follows suit. Israel is in the right. Hezbollah is in the wrong. Terrorists have to be eliminated, and he sees Israel fighting the war he would fight against terrorism."

George Bush is still on board with every neoconservative premise. And as Atrios put it yesterday:

Each crisis is an opportunity to wage a war they wanted to wage. The president believes Iraq is a success story. No one will tell him anything else.

Given what neoconservatism has revealed itself to be, that the administration continues to be driven by its "principles" is nothing short of alarming. The opportunities for even unintentional American involvement and escalation in this new war -- through miscalculation, deliberate provocation or simple accident -- are manifold. Add to that the warmongering rhetoric, our perceived proxy fighting through Israel, and the fact that we have 140,000 soldiers sitting in the middle of a virtual Shiite-Sunni civil war in Iraq, and it is not hyperbole to say that it would be miraculous if we did not become involved in expanded hostilities.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are now seeking full-on unrestrained war, to be fought more aggressively and less "delicately" than the prior and current wars. The neoconservatives are expressly saying so.

When we last heard from Shelby Steele, for instance, he was arguing in a column widely trumpeted by neoconservatives that America's problem is that it suffers from too much "white guilt," which prevents us from fighting wars such as the one in Iraq with the unrestrained "ferocity" we ought to be using, i.e., that we fail to use "the full measure of our military power." In his Townhall column yesterday, Thomas Sowell takes that a step further and, in the context of Israel's bombing of Lebanon, identifies the real problem as being that we don't "annihilate" our enemies -- using that word twice within two paragraphs:

Was World War II ended by cease-fires or by annihilating much of Germany and Japan? Make no mistake about it, innocent civilians died in the process. . .

There was a time when it would have been suicidal to threaten, much less attack, a nation with much stronger military power because one of the dangers to the attacker would be the prospect of being annihilated. . . .

One can find this sentiment everywhere among neoconservatives, who have now really released their war-loving id. The true enemy are those who stand in the way of all-out war, and all-out war is the only way to achieve peace. Peace is War and War is Peace. Listen to Sowell:

"Peace" movements are among those who take advantage of this widespread inability to see beyond rhetoric to realities. Few people even seem interested in the actual track record of so-called "peace" movements -- that is, whether such movements actually produce peace or war.

An aggressor today knows that if his aggression fails, he will still be protected from the full retaliatory power and fury of those he attacked because there will be hand-wringers demanding a cease fire, negotiations and concessions.

In the neoconservative mind, wars happen because we don't annihilate enough people, because we are insufficiently "ferocious," because we place limits on the "the full measure of our military power." Those who oppose such unrestrained destruction are, to use Bill Kristol's description from his new column yesterday, "weak horses" (quoting Osama bin Laden). In the Jerusalem Post yesterday, Daniel Pipes complained that each time it excitingly looks like Israel will finally wipe out the evil-doers, we instead get "an orgy of Israeli remorse and reconsideration, followed by a quiet return to appeasement and retreat." Victor Davis Hanson celebrates how great it is that "Israel is at last being given an opportunity to unload on jihadists."

Most striking is the casualness, even the self-satisfied joy, with which they regard the suffering, maiming, and slaughter of other people -- not "The Terrorists," but people whom even they acknowledge are innocent of wrongdoing. Here is National Review's Cliff May almost bored with having to acknowledge the irrelevant fact that hundreds, more likely thousands, of Lebanese are likely to be killed by the campaign which he urges from a safe distance:

Yes, innocent Lebanese are suffering in this conflict. That suffering at least should produce some good results. Lebanon’s liberation from the suffocating embrace of Hezbollah and its foreign sponsors would qualify.

I am almost done reading John Dean's now #2 NYT best-selling new book, Conservatives Without Conscience, and will likely have a review up tomorrow. But one of the central points he makes is highly relevant here -- that what is called the "conservative movement" these days has no real unifying or cohesive ideas, but instead, what binds it and defines it is an authoritarian impulse to identify the Enemy (the Terrorist, the Liberal, the Communist, the illegal immigrant), followed by a swarming, hateful, rage-fueled desire to destroy it:

Given the rather distinct beliefs of the various conservative factions, which have only grown more complex with time, how have conservatives succeeded in coalescing as a political force? The simple answer is through the power of negative thinking, and specifically, the ability to find common enemies. . . . Today's conservatives. . . define themselves by what they oppose.

That is clearly not only the Republican electoral strategy again, but more disturbingly, it appears to be the full extent of the neoconservative foreign policy. There are bad people over there. The Enemy. And we need to attack and kill them without restraint, regardless of the cost or consequences or alternatives or what might come after that. And anyone who doesn't agree, or who wants to negotiate with the Enemy, is weak, an appeaser, someone who likely is even on the side of the Enemy. That is the crux of our foreign policy at this point.

Beyond all of that, our neoconservative policy in the Middle East has become as incoherent as it is bloodthirsty. The President argued in December of last year that "by helping Iraqis to build a democracy, we will gain an ally in the war on terror." But the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iraq, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, has "forcefully denounced" Israel for the bombing campaign which we are defending and supplying -- a fact which led a confused and enraged Laura Ingraham last night on Bill O'Reilly's show to protest the unfairness that the person she called "our guy in Iraq" was supporting the other side.

What is the Iraqi Government's position going to be if we wage war on its Iranian ally? I doubt it will be what we would want from an "ally in the war on terror." So what are we hoping to achieve in Iraq? The whole project makes no sense because there really never was anything that came after the invasion and destruction part.

And the supposed Middle Eastern allies we do have -- the ones who issued the terse anti-Hezbollah statements which neoconservatives have been parading around -- are not democracies, but instead, are the tyrants, dictators, and emirates whom we support and prop up. Conversely, the democratically elected governments in the Middle East beyond Iraq -- such as Lebanon, the Palestinians, and one could even add Iran -- are on the other side of this conflict. And two Middle Eastern democracies, Israel and Lebanon, are at war with one another.

All of this is the exact opposite of the glorious neoconservative promises that invading and bombing countries and bringing democracy to the Middle East will foster pro-U.S. alliances and ensure peace. And literally, the only thing which neoconservatives seem to want to do in response to all of this patent failure is bomb and invade more and more countries because that's worked so well so far.

One can easily lose sight of how bizarre it is that we now so frequently debate whether we should attack countries who have not attacked us nor pose any real threat to attack us. As was true for the "debates" over whether we should use torture (or even "debates" over whether the President can break the law), when something is advocated openly and frequently enough, even the most reprehensible and previously insane ideas can become acceptable and mainstream. We have become a country that now casually and without much trauma debates which countries we should preemptively invade next.

Neoconservatism in its basest and most unadorned form very well may be dangerous, morally repugnant, and completely irrational. But it has also been a leading influence in our country's foreign policy decisions over the last five years, and there is no sign that that has changed. Quite the contrary. The White House seems to be operating in accordance with the neoconservative script as much as ever, and it is hard to imagine why that would stop any time soon.

UPDATE: Anonymous Liberal argues that this event will be seen as the moment when neoconservatives lost all credibility by abandoning any pretenses of rationality or reasonableness. That might be, but he also quotes Paul Krugman today as pointing out:

Mr. Kristol is, of course, a pundit rather than a policymaker.But there's every reason to suspect that what Mr. Kristol saying public is what Mr. Cheney says in private.

If the neoconservatives are articulating crazed and extremist ideas publicly, it is highly likely that it reflects what the Vice President and Defense Secretary are saying privately.

A.L. also links to this excellent video, where Chris Matthews and Pat Buchanan angrily highlight the intellecutal and moral bankruptcy of neoconservatives in a way that ought to be much more common. I don't recall Matthews doing anything of the sort prior to the invasion (although he did question its rationale more than most national journalists), but better late than never. By contrast, Buchanan, whatever else one might think of him, has been among the most prescient and insightful commentators on Bush administration foreign policy in the Middle East for several years now.

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