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The Vision Thing

Reviewed by Stanley I. Kutler
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page BW05


The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order

By Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke

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Cambridge Univ. 369 pp. $28

Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke are experienced, conservative foreign policy experts. Halper served as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration, and Clarke had extensive service in the British diplomatic corps. In America Alone they document the neoconservative capture of American (and British) foreign policy, under the guise of a War on Terror, to reorder Middle East politics and initiate a newly proclaimed doctrine of preemptive war. Halper and Clarke are insiders who know the players and the sources. Their thoughtful, insightful work spans ideological and partisan differences, a rare phenomenon in these times.

The authors understand the two-centuries-long history of American foreign policy. Detente, bipartisanship and respect for the views of allies are at the center of that history; they are not, as the neocons would have it, notions of weakness best replaced by a militant American world view and unilateralism. Halper and Clarke blend realism and idealism. For them, victory in the Cold War resulted from a firm U.S. adherence to the doctrine of containment and a moral authority rooted in fostering the idea of a free, open society. Now, the authors contend, President George W. Bush and a band of ideological zealots have put that moral authority at risk.

America Alone levels a broad indictment against the Bush administration, which in the name of the war on terror has launched the Iraq war, mounted an assault on personal liberties at home, engaged in a purposeful deceit of the media and the public (both of which suspended any critical judgment) and, above all, has inflicted terrible damage on U.S. moral authority and international legitimacy. The chief culprits for the authors are the neocons, who are depicted as conspirators who hijacked American foreign policy.

This is not exactly news, but the argument never has been put together so persuasively, so conclusively and so effectively. The authors' conservative critique is part of a steadily growing chorus of opposition. The Democrats now are emboldened to challenge the president. The Internet offers numerous libertarian Web sites that, for more than two years, have consistently exposed the fallacy of the Bush administration's arguments. Patrick Buchanan, too, has spoken out from the right, though some are uneasy with his overt hostility to Israel. The authors reflect the views of these and other critics from traditional Republican and conservative camps.

What Halper and Clarke have done is to meticulously dissect the neocon world view. They trace the neocons' beginnings to their roots as Democratic dissidents, uneasy with a perception of their party's growing isolationism, softness toward national defense and reluctance to assert America's moral authority. The neocons saw the Vietnam War as an unduly paralyzing event. They began as an intellectual movement, and their adherents moved from the academy and the media into positions of power and policy influence, particularly in the Reagan administration.

Today neocons are the key players in the Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney; his chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; and his assistant Paul Wolfowitz. They are seconded by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and influential academic intellectuals and writers who preach warnings and celebrate their alleged triumphs. Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute has somberly described the French as a "strategic enemy." Max Boot, author of a book celebrating the United States' "splendid little wars," said that the American sweep through Iraq made "Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian seem positively incompetent by comparison." (Well, they were not fortunate enough to fight Saddam's vaunted Republican guard.) Boot loves war so much that he envisions a United States like the British Empire of old, always fighting some war, somewhere, against someone. And we thought that the British Empire collapsed under the weight of all that white man's burden.

The neocons have exalted values over interests in shaping American policy. To further their agenda, they have masked themselves as the true keepers of the Reagan flame, but Halper and Clarke will have none of that. The neocons, they bluntly charge, have "falsified history" and have inflicted a "historical mugging" on Reagan. Like George Orwell, the authors understand that those who control the past control the present and, eventually, the future.

The neocons have ignored Reagan's strong commitment to arms control, his summitry, his minimal use of military power and his rejection of the nuclear doctrines of their mentor, Albert Wohlstetter. They similarly ignore Reagan's China policy, his arms deal with Iran and his failed Lebanon intervention. They love Reagan's invasion of Grenada, which made the Caribbean safe for American medical students, but they insist that in doing so he thwarted a rising communist power. They were decidedly unhappy when Reagan lifted the grain embargo on the Soviets, a decision that he hoped would result in "meaningful and constructive dialogue which will assist us in fulfilling our joint obligation to find lasting peace."

The neocons' mobilization for the Iraq war lies at the heart of this book. Saddam Hussein's tyranny apparently gave them no pause during his 10-year war with Iran, waged with arms provided by the United States and England. But George H.W. Bush's Persian Gulf War in 1991 left them embittered when Bush prudently decided that occupying Baghdad would only complicate the American role and endanger the grand alliance he had constructed. The neocons were convinced that toppling Saddam would enable the United States to make Middle East politics more responsive to American wishes -- and, not incidentally, also to help the Israelis. The idea had its origins in the late 1990s, when Richard Perle and Douglas Feith offered a bizarre plan to Israel's Likud Party calling for American-Israeli cooperation to overthrow Iraqi and Syrian regimes with covert and overt American assistance. Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud's leader, wisely rejected this grandiose vision.

The neocons, apparently aided by the incumbent president's "higher Father," persuaded Bush that regime change was essential in Iraq, although in his few pre-presidential foreign policy utterances he had specifically rejected such a course. After Sept. 11, the neocons advanced "evidence" that Iraq played a crucial role in al Qaeda's worldwide terrorism plans. Halper and Clarke demonstrate that the neocons knew that the fundamentalist-dominated al Qaeda had no connection to the secular Saddam. They knew that Saddam was no threat to American interests or values. The Persian Gulf War taught him not to threaten his neighbors -- exactly as Richard Clarke argued, to no avail. The administration had very little evidence -- precious little, as we have learned -- that Iraq had nuclear, biological or chemical weapons of mass destruction. As Wolfowitz famously said, "For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on."

Halper and Clarke denounce the Bush administration for effectively co-opting "important allies and entire government agencies in a pattern of deceit." The administration, they believe, created "a synthetic neurosis," which it buttressed by exploiting the Sept. 11 attack. The price has been enormous, they say, with "substantial damage" to both core American political institutions and to American "institutional legitimacy." The president, his advisers and Attorney General John Ashcroft have fostered a climate in which Americans are expected to believe that "our natural state is war -- war with no dimensions, with elusive enemies . . . and no definition of what constitutes victory and thus with no end in sight." The Bush and neocon policy, with its contempt for international opinion, has, according to the authors, inaugurated a new phenomenon of "counter-Americanism." We certainly have retaliated against such intransigence: no more french fries in the dining halls of Congress.

Halper and Clarke argue in favor of a "golden mean" for American foreign policy, which, they believe, need not be re-discovered, for it is rooted in centuries of successful policy. Since 1941, that policy also can be characterized as consensual and bipartisan. Today foreign policy is bipartisan only to the extent that the administration has been blessed with blindly loyal congressional allies and a supine, often meaningless, opposition.

With an election campaign looming, President Bush now concedes that "like 11 Presidents before me, I believe in the international institutions and alliances that America helped to form and helps to lead." Alas, the president and his advisers have rediscovered American history and policy only as our financial and military resources have dwindled, our moral authority has evaporated, our allies have become alienated and, worst of all, our adversaries are newly energized.

Regime change in Iraq, as this book tells us, has substituted one order of chaos for another, but this time at the cost of substantial American blood and treasure. The war in Iraq was imposed amid a climate of fear and patriotic fervor, with manufactured deceptions about our purposes and the enemy's. Our leaders mislead us with distortions of historical events, twisting and trivializing them as precedents when they are not applicable. For example, former secretary of state Dean Rusk regularly invoked the Munich agreement and the folly of appeasing Hitler as a warning for us to resist Soviet and Chinese communism in Vietnam. Saddam Hussein was a brutal, ruthless tyrant, but he was no Adolf Hitler, and no realistic threat to the United States and the rest of the world, whatever George W. Bush and his neoconservative warriors tell us. •

Stanley I. Kutler is the author of "The Wars of Watergate" and editor of "The Encyclopedia of the United States in the Twentieth Century."

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