Neoconservatives have been at the center of American foreign policy news for years. And they've been getting more coverage recently as part of the discussion about whether democracy is indeed on the march in the Middle East. They played a central role in developing the Bush administration's worldview that led to the war in Iraq, which, some say, played a role in creating momentum for other anti-authoritarian events in the region. But the decade-old ideological underpinning of their push for war with Iraq and the groundwork they laid during the Clinton presidency haven't received a lot of attention.
With the influence they have had in Washington, the debate over whether democracy is spreading in the Arab world begs the question of whether the often-maligned neocon vision has been vindicated as well. And if Iraq proves to be a case in which America's military might helps spread democracy, then what's next? Iran? Syria? North Korea?
In this debate, it seems certain that Neoconservatives were eager to attack Iraq long before 9/11 happened, looking for a politically viable pretense under which they could proceed. And maybe the administration implicitly misled the nation about Iraq's role in the al Qaeda attack, as the left argues. But it's also possible that the action Neoconservatives urged after 9/11 may end up planting the seeds of democratic reform in the region and resulting in a safer world for Americans, as the right argues.
A Decade Preparing
The term neoconservative generally refers to former liberals who embraced the hawkish legacies of Democratic presidents such as Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. These leaders believed America had a moral duty to spread democracy across the globe, by aggressive means if necessary. (Remember Bob Dole's controversial assertion during the 1976 presidential campaign that the wars of the 20th century were "Democrat wars"?). The neocons grew disenchanted with their party's increasing dovishness and opposition to boldly confronting the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
Ronald Reagan became their new hero. But the neocons also believed conservatives went adrift on foreign policy in the 1990s after the demise of Soviet empire. It was their job, they believed, to right ship.
Fast forward to July 1996. Richard Perle helped write a memo that was prepared by the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, a Jerusalem-based think tank, for Benjamin Netanyahu's new Israeli government. Perle, a former Reagan assistant defense secretary, urged aggressive and robust tactics to secure Israel's interest in a "dangerous neighborhood."
Perle urged a hegemonic approach by Israel, suggesting that it could shape "its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq -- an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right -- as a means of foiling Syria's regional ambitions."
The document created a stir in the small community of Middle East policy analysts. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute attacked the memo. "In their duel capacities as advisors to the Republican nominee [Dole] and strategists for the Likud Prime Minister, the Study Group is calling for an end to the peace process and the beginning of a Reagan-style Cold War campaign in the Middle East that will establish Israeli hegemony, destabilize the Arab world and, in effect, institute a new world order based on peace by conquest."
The same month Perle penned his strategic document for Netanyahu, two other Neoconservatives, William Kristol (former chief of staff to Vice President Quayle) and Robert Kagan (who wrote speeches for Reagan Secretary of State George P. Shultz) wrote a 5,570-word opus for Foreign Affairs magazine under the headline "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy." The central theme was "benevolent hegemony," a belief that America is inherently good and powerful and should wield its authority unabashedly to protect its interest and security and promote democracy throughout the world.
Kristol and Kagan argued that the question about whether a nation poses a threat to the United States was the wrong one to ask in a post-Cold War world. "In a world in which peace and American security depend on American power and the will to use it, the main threat the United States faces now and in the future is its own weakness," they wrote. "American hegemony is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order. The appropriate goal of American foreign policy, therefore, is to preserve that hegemony as far into the future as possible. To achieve this goal, the United States needs a neo-Reaganite foreign policy of military supremacy and moral confidence."
The neoconservative thinking continued to evolve. In 1998, Perle, Kristol and Kagan were among 18 well-known political heavyweights who wrote a letter to President Clinton, urging him to attack Iraq and remove Hussein from power.
"We believe the U.S. has the authority under existing UN resolutions to take the necessary steps, including military steps, to protect our vital interests in the Gulf," they wrote. "In any case, American policy cannot continue to be crippled by a misguided insistence on unanimity in the UN Security Council. . . . We urge you to act decisively. If you act now to end the threat of weapons of mass destruction against the U.S. or its allies, you will be acting in the most fundamental national security interests of the country. If we accept a course of weakness and drift, we put our interests and our future at risk."
Their memo focused on the pragmatic aspects of national security rather than the broader concepts of American hegemony, the spread of democracy and protection of the Middle East's sole democracy, Israel. It was a pivot point in neoconservative strategy, and the first prominent public attempt to make a politically viable argument of the immediate risks posed by weapons of mass destruction rather than a purely moral argument. It was the emergence of the theme of preemption that would coalesce under Bush after 9/11 and so roil the world.
The group wrote to Clinton under the banner of the Project for a New American Century, a Washington think tank whose members believed "American foreign and defense policy is adrift" and that "conservatives have not confidently advanced a strategic vision of America's role in the world." Among those who signed PNAC's statement of principles was Dick Cheney. The signers also included a host of influential Republicans who had played key advisory roles in the Reagan or first Bush administrations -- Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Robert B. Zoellick, Richard Armitage, William J. Bennett, and Kristol and Kagan.