Time to End the Neocon Con Game
As Washington’s long debate on the Afghan war unfolded, one group had an unhealthy advantage though – based on its record – it should have had no influence at all. These are the neoconservatives, and they have captured The Washington Post’s editorial pages along with other outlets of elite opinion.
Over the past three decades, the neocons have carved this important place for themselves in Washington by purporting to stand for liberal values, such as democracy and human rights, while using those worthy goals to justify the frequent use of military force.
For the neocons, war also is not just a last-resort option. Rather, it is how they have gained – and how they maintain – their prominence. When the United States is at peace – or without a war looming – the neocons are at a loss.
(Of course, one of the signature characteristics of the neocons is that few have served in the military next to the soldiers whose blood the neocons so reflexively are willing to spill as a “solution” to nearly any problem. As elite intellectuals, the neocons view soldiers from inner-city or small-town America as expendable for the grander cause.)
What the neocons do excel at is the internal Washington policy debate. They are well-schooled and self-assured; they are fierce debaters; they understand media; and they don’t hesitate to question the patriotism or toughness of anyone who disagrees with them.
On the Iraq War, the neocons were the ones who gave inspiration to two of their own, L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, head of the occupation, and Douglas Feith, Under Secretary for Policy in the Defense Department, who was responsible for day-to-day Pentagon operations in Iraq in 2003.
In eight days – after the U.S. invading force had ousted Saddam Hussein’s government – Bremer and Feith changed the whole tenor of the occupation from a quick get-in and get-out to a complex nation-building scheme that was designed to bring free-market “democracy” to Iraq.
Bremer and Feith did this by abolishing the Iraqi army and the civilian bureaucracy, thereby placing American solders in the middle of a Sunni insurgency that followed soon afterwards.
Neocons Abandoned Reagan
The neocons also have claimed as their chief credential, their participation in Ronald Reagan’s muscular foreign policy at the end of the Cold War. In reality, however, they abandoned Reagan from 1985 on, when he began the real work of ending the Cold War by negotiating with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
In his first term, Reagan was a neocon favorite, treating the Soviet Union in the black-and-white manner that the neocons prefer. He coined the phrase “evil empire”; promoted guerrilla warfare against leftist governments; and built up the U.S. military budget along with introducing the Star Wars missile defense.
Neocons played a major role in the intellectual architecture of these policies: Richard Perle on nuclear strategy, Elliott Abrams on the Nicaraguan contra rebels; Jeane Kirkpatrick on the immutability of leftist dictatorships.
However, as Reagan rethought the nuclear stalemate, the President became intellectually prepared, even eager, to embrace Gorbachev as a man who was sincere about changing the Soviet Union.
In Gorbachev, Reagan found a negotiating partner who would join in a game of give-and-take, and Gorbachev gave more than he took. Gorbachev was also capable of grand intellectual leaps.
At Reykjavik in October 1986, Gorbachev proposed eliminating all nuclear weapons by the year 2000. He renounced the Brezhnev Doctrine that had called for using force to keep Eastern Europe in the Soviet orbit.
Gorbachev and his commitment to perestroika – the restructuring of the Soviet system – confounded neocon ideology, which held that only force could roll back the Soviet empire and uproot its allied governments around the world.
The neocons had no intellectual framework for accepting the changes occurring under Gorbachev. The neocon view remained frozen: there would always be a Soviet Union; there would always be a Cold War; Gorbachev's reforms were a trick.
Perle kept insisting that the Soviets would revert to type and Reagan should make no substantial moves toward them. Kirkpatrick agreed, after all it was her doctrine that leftist dictatorships could not evolve toward democracy. Both eventually resigned.
To the neocons’ dismay, Reagan joined in the liberal give-and-take approach toward negotiations. Reagan “had an Emersonian sense of the becoming and unfolding of all things,” in the words of his biographer John Patrick Diggins. Reagan never saw the Soviet Union or nuclear weapons as permanent.
Reagan’s engagement with the Soviet Union in his second term could be viewed as a continuation of the gradual, fits-and-starts winding down of the Cold War that began with John F. Kennedy’s arms-control outreach to Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s, through Richard Nixon’s Soviet détente in the early 1970s and Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on human rights which put the Soviets on the defensive in the late 1970s.
In that analysis, Reagan’s first term was more an anomaly than a turning point. But if that historical narrative were accepted, then the neocon war strategies would be viewed as unnecessarily brutal, inflicting widespread death and destruction in places like Central America, Angola and Afghanistan while accomplishing little.
So, in the years after Reagan engaged Gorbachev and Gorbachev’s perestroika sped the end of the Cold War, the neocons used their extraordinary influence in the opinion circles of Washington to reshape the history.
Rather than seeing the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as an outcome driven by Moscow’s own internal failings combined with a half century of Western containment policies – capped off by Reagan’s collaboration with Gorbachev – the neocons claimed that it was their application of force in the 1980s that did the trick.
The neocons, who had abandoned Reagan early in his second term, re-embraced him. They then whitewashed Reagan’s second-term emergence as Gorbachev’s peace partner and locked in the memory of Reagan’s “evil empire” phase.
For instance, neocon intellectual Joshua Muravchek called Reagan the arch-neocon, which is perhaps the greatest intellectual theft of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first centuries.
Neocons Screw Up Iraq
Having reinvented themselves as “winners of the Cold War,” the neocons became fixtures at key Washington think tanks and at prominent policy magazines. They became talking heads on the Sunday talk shows and wrote influential foreign policy pieces for major newspapers like The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and New York Times.
So, by the time George W. Bush entered the White House in 2001, the neocons were ready for phase two, with new plans for flexing American military muscle around the globe. Neocons filled key positions in Bush’s young administration, especially inside the Pentagon and the White House.
To replace the Soviet Union as the evil enemy, neocons targeted hard-line Arab states and looked forward to a “war of civilizations” with Islamic militants. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 opened the way for these ambitious neocon plans to remake the Middle East through violent regime change.
Within nine days of the 9/11 attacks, the neocon Project for the New American Century (PNAC) announced to the world:
“Even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.”
The PNAC had been organized by William Kristol, editor of the neocon magazine The Weekly Standard, and Robert Kagan, a contributing editor. The signers of PNAC’s letters and policy prescriptions read like a who’s who of the neocon community.
Yet, in their drumbeat for invading Iraq, the neocons were wrong about many of the supposed “facts” used to rally a frightened American public behind the neocon agenda. They were wrong about Iraq’s WMD stockpiles, about Saddam Hussein’s links to al-Qaeda, and about how the U.S. military conquest of Iraq would terrify other U.S. adversaries – like Iran, Venezuela, Syria and Lebanon – into retreat.
But perhaps the most costly neocon error was the mismanagement of the Iraq occupation.
Originally, Gen. Jay Garner was put in charge. When he arrived in Iraq after the invasion, he hoped the occupation could be over in 90 days. His plan was to find and eliminate any weapons of mass destruction, get the Iraqi government working again, hold a quick election to select new Iraqi leaders, and leave.
Soon, however, Garner – with little staff and less money – found himself in an uphill bureaucratic battle with powerful neocons at the Pentagon. Toward the end of April 2003, he was fired.
In his place came the new head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Jerry Bremer, who made common cause with Doug Feith, the Pentagon’s Undersecretary for Policy. The pair made key decisions that effectively destroyed the Iraqi bureaucracy and military.
Bremer and Feith put more than 500,000 Iraqis on the streets in one week, including disgruntled soldiers who kept their guns and seasoned bureaucrats who knew how to build an organization. These people would become the backbone of an insurgency that would kill more than 4,300 American soldiers.
The violent disorder in Iraq also created fertile ground for al-Qaeda extremists to put down roots. Though Islamists had been kept in check by Saddam Hussein, they flourished for a time as the neocons organized a long-term U.S. occupation of Iraq. Extremist violence was soon ripping the country apart.
The Iraq War disaster and the growing American public awareness of the neocons’ central role in the catastrophe created a new crisis for the neocons. But they still had an important card to play – their dominance of the opinion centers of Washington.
Much as the neocons rewrote the closing narrative of the Cold War – by whiting out Reagan’s second-term collaboration with Gorbachev – the neocons claimed that their courageous support for George W. Bush’s Iraq troop “surge” in early 2007 brought the violence under control and “won” the war.
Over the past two years, this story of the “successful surge” has essentially rehabilitated the neocons. Yet the surge was only one of many components that contributed to the lessening of the Iraqi bloodshed, and the surge was possibly one of the least significant.
In 2006, before the surge began, Sunni tribal leaders had turned against the excessive violence of al-Qaeda’s Iraq faction under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The U.S. military also had begun paying the Sunni leaders to turn their guns on al-Qaeda extremists, a process that became known as the Sunni Awakening.
In June 2006, Zarqawi’s location was betrayed and he was killed by a U.S. airstrike.
The sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite also began burning out as the two groups, which had once lived side by side in peace, retreated to their own enclaves, separated by concrete walls running through Iraqi cities. With the targets of sectarian violence harder to reach, the killing declined.
There were other important factors unrelated to the surge, like the decision of the anti-American Shi’a leader Muqtada al-Sadr to order his militias to demobilize. By 2008, it also became apparent to Iraqis that their government would succeed in forcing the Bush administration to accept a timetable for U.S. military withdrawal, thus calming down those insurgents motivated by nationalism and hatred of foreigners.
Yet in the neocon domain of Washington, the decline in Iraqi violence was simply explained as the “surge worked.” Despite the horrendous loss of life and the war’s cost of some $900 billion, the neocons were largely forgiven and kept their prized spots on the talk shows and op-ed pages.
Manichean World View
Another signature characteristic of the neocons is that they far better understand how to shape perceptions in Washington than to deal with realities in other countries. Indeed, despite their confidence in expounding about foreign policy, they really don’t know much about specific countries or regions.
After all, such detailed knowledge would disrupt their easy prescription of more war, since anyone who truly knows a country and its people would not so casually advocate violence or arrogantly dictate its domestic policies.
But what the neocons do know is what sells in Washington. So, they have consistently professed their love of “democracy” and put it at the center of what they do.
In my view, all the neocon hoopla about spreading freedom is a public relations device to put a patina of democratic nobility on right-wing, often repressive governments that the neocons view as desirable allies.
Too many times in the 1980s, I saw neocons rush to embrace governments that may have shown some democratic promise, but still had deep-seated human right problems.
However, by making “democracy” at least a rhetorical goal, the neocons were picking up on a favorite theme of Ronald Reagan, who prescribed “democracy” as a necessary cure for leftist dictatorships even as he made excuses for brutal right-wing regimes in countries such as Argentina and Guatemala.
Though Reagan deserves credit for recognizing the promise of Gorbachev’s initiatives to resolve the Cold War, Reagan viewed the Third World with a Manichean eye, seeing too much "good versus evil" and overlooking the complexities of any specific country, as the neocons did.
One of the most tragic examples of Reagan’s distorted Third World vision was El Salvador.
In the early 1980s, tens of thousands of Salvadorans – including Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, four American churchwomen and six civilian leaders of the political opposition – were butchered, but Reagan and the neocons insisted on viewing the violence through a Cold War lens. They deflected guilt away from the right-wing regime in order to justify increasing U.S. military aid.
After a series of elections put a Christian Democrat at the head of the government – even as the military continued its brutal counterinsurgency practices in the field – El Salvador faded as an issue of controversy in U.S. political circles. (The civil war was resolved only after the Reagan administration ended and more pragmatic leaders, including Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, and Salvadoran exile Leonel Gomez, stepped forward with new approaches.)
The Contra War
By the mid-1980s, El Salvador had been replaced at the top of the neocons’ Central American agenda by Nicaragua, which emerged as a test of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s theory that a Soviet client state could only be dislodged by force – that reform was impossible.
In December of 1985, I found myself, a liberal, supporting the contras in their war with Nicaragua’s leftist government. In this heresy, I had been joined by three other Democrats: Bob Leiken, the late Penn Kemble, and Bernie Aronson.
One night we gathered at Kemble’s house to receive a visit from Elliott Abrams, the Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, who was accompanied by Robert Kagan, Abrams’s personal assistant, and a State Department officer.
Abrams had been in his job for only three months, but he had been well briefed on who the Sandinistas were and what they had done.
He spent some time describing the contents of a weapons-bearing truck that had been blown up in Honduras, transiting from Nicaragua to its destination, a leftist rebel camp in El Salvador. He knew the contents, and the backgrounds of the people who had been driving it. He knew a lot about the Sandinistas.
But Abrams knew next to nothing about the contras, especially the rifts between the civilian and military leadership.
When Abrams and Kagan finally left, the four of us sat stunned, speaking not a word. Although each of us had our neocon friends, we were not ourselves neocons. To us, it was important who the contras were and what they were fighting for.
With this unwillingness to master details about the excessive violence and troubling corruption within the contra movement, the Reagan administration’s neocons could not fashion a sensible policy that would inspire widespread support inside Nicaragua.
The neocons could not understand the dreams for Nicaragua of the two moderate leaders – Arturo Cruz and Alfonso Robelo – whom they had convinced to join the contras. Each battle that Cruz and Robelo had with the old contra leadership started out on a very idealistic plane and wound up as a fight for jobs and money.
Cruz and his associates had big ideas about middle-class recruitment, but in the end his aides only struggled for a stipend for Cruz and for someone to fill the human rights slot in the contra leadership. Finally, after 2 ½ years of futility trying to secure reforms, Cruz resigned for good.
That following Monday, Robert Kagan went to the morning State Department staff meeting with a paper bag on his head, to announce to his colleagues that he was a dunce for supporting Cruz for so long. In my view, he should have brought dunce caps for his colleagues who had resisted Cruz’s initiatives.
Kagan knew very well that Cruz had finally resigned because of a message brought to him by someone from Elliot Abrams’s office. Cruz was told that he would not be allowed to challenge Enrique Bermudez, the notoriously corrupt head of the contra army, over the issue of civilian control of the contra military forces.
In tearing up a contra unity document that had accepted civilian control, Bermudez had said, “I have signed hundreds of agreements and have never complied with any of them.”
Cruz was told he could not hold Bermudez accountable for what Cruz had been hired and rehired by the Reagan administration to do – lead. After Cruz resigned, the administration never won another major vote on aid to the contras.
By July 1987, the Nicaraguan conflict was in a standoff, both in the field and in Washington where Reagan and his team wanted to overthrow the Sandinistas and the Democrats in Congress did not.
At that point, House Speaker Jim Wright agreed to a joint statement with Reagan regarding a peace plan for Nicaragua. Its formula was simple: in exchange for the Sandinistas allowing free elections there would be no more contra aid and the contras would be demobilized.
This plan was issued on a Monday; by Friday night it was one of two peace plans being considered by five Central American Presidents. At the end of Saturday night, there was tentative agreement on the plan by Costa Rica’s Oscar Arias, which was essentially the same as the Wright-Reagan plan: elections in exchange for an end to the contras.
Hesitation by Honduras, which had become the major staging base for contra military operations, was overcome by the indirect intervention of Wright and the plan became binding on all Central Americans by Sunday morning.
The Arias Accords were not self-executing, however. Arias, Wright and other members of the Democratic leadership of the House had to intervene forcefully with the Sandinistas and occasionally with the opposition.
Reagan also balked. Even as he opened up to Gorbachev on the world stage, he continued to empower the neocon hardliners on Central America. Reagan refused to let Secretary of State George Shultz send his negotiator to strengthen provisions of the Arias Accords.
Instead, Reagan backed Abrams in his hostility to the Arias plan. Reagan and Abrams staked everything on a Feb. 3, 1988, vote on providing more aid to the contras, which they lost 219-212.
By failing to show flexibility, Reagan didn’t share in the success in Nicaragua that was achieved with the Arias Accords by opening up the political system. In February 1990, abiding by the accords, the Sandinistas held an election and lost 55 percent to 41 percent. They didn’t regain power until 2007.
Though the neocons and other hardliners dominated Reagan’s policies toward most Third World hot spots – from Central America to Africa to Afghanistan – there was one major exception, Mozambique, where Reagan showed flexibility and it worked.
Mozambique was a former Portuguese colony that won its independence late and had to fight for it. In the 1970s, Mozambique embraced Marxism-Leninism as the ruling ideology of its one party, the Frelimo, and concluded a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union.
However, the Reagan administration did not embrace the rebels fighting the Frelimo. In fact, the administration concluded that the Mozambican rebels were a proxy force of South Africa’s apartheid regime and guilty of horrific human rights violations.
Under the policy of Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker, the Reagan administration called for “constructive engagement” with Mozambique and offered the government military aid and special assistance to its railroads. However, Congress said no to these initiatives and prohibited seven different kinds of aid.
I was hired by the Mozambique government in 1987 to lobby for the removal of these restrictions. On the theory that Mozambique was ready to abandon the Soviet model and embrace multi-party elections and a free-market economy, I was successful in the first three months in winning the removal of three of the seven restrictions.
Was I telling the truth or were the right-wingers right?
Everything I saw and every person I talked to convinced me there was no deception. But the final event that cinched my belief in the Mozambicans was a conversation I had with President Chissano in May 1988.
He related a recent conversation with an Eastern European president, who told him that although we say we are for the people, those who do well under our system are the Party and its apparatchiki. Where the people do well and where the governments have succeeded is Western Europe. Those are the countries we must now emulate.
Today, Mozambique is on the path of peace, yearly economic growth, and a maturing citizenry. Reagan showed good sense on Mozambique; to my knowledge no neocon played a role in moving Mozambique toward the West.
I cite these three examples – El Salvador, Nicaragua and Mozambique – because I was involved in each of them and each showed the folly of following the Manichean view of two sides – one good and one bad.
The Nicaraguan war – and the bloody struggle in nearby El Salvador – were finally resolved when more flexible individuals, who did not see the situations in blacks and whites, took control of the policy and recognized how to put together a package that gave peace a chance.
I thus fear the real-life consequences when the neocons declare how they will bring “democracy” to the Third World by force of arms if necessary. They respect neither the role of history nor the power of culture in determining how a country will respond to democratic initiatives.
Neocons – absorbed by their ideological certitude – don’t know when to back off. Country specialists often do.
Neo-Cons on Afghanistan
Despite the neocons’ long history of bloody and costly miscalculations, they are back at center stage again, influencing the new Obama administration and setting the parameters for Washington’s debate about the war in Afghanistan.
Again, highflying rhetoric at the conceptual level is where the neocons are most comfortable. Read the words of Robert Kagan, now an influential columnist, and a Washington Post editorial (both published in March 2009) as they celebrated President Obama’s initial decision to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.
As Kagan wrote: “An effective counter terrorism approach requires an effective counterinsurgency strategy aimed … at strengthening Afghan civil society and governing structures, providing the necessary security to the population so that it can resist pressures from the Taliban, and significantly increasing the much-derided ‘nation-building’ element of the strategy.
“The United States, he [Obama] argues, has to help the Afghan people fulfill ‘the promise of a better future,’ by rooting out government corruption, helping the elected government provide basic services, fighting the narcotics trade, and, in general, advancing ‘security, opportunity, and justice.’ This is the opposite of a ‘minimal’ approach.” [Robert Kagan, “Obama’s Gutsy Decision on Afghanistan” The Washington Post, March 27, 2009. Emphasis added.]
The next day, Kagan’s views were echoed in a Washington Post editorial, which instructed its readers that:
“The lesson is that only a strategy that aims at protecting and winning over the populations where the enemy operates, and at strengthening the armies, judiciaries, and police and political institutions of Afghanistan, can reverse the momentum of the war and, eventually, allow a safe and honorable exit for U.S. and NATO troops.” [Editorial “The Price of Realism,” Washington Post, March 28, 2009. Emphasis added.]
If Kagan and the Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt cared about details or even bothered to read the reporting in The Washington Post, they would know that beneath the terms “governing structures” (Kagan) and “political institutions” (Hiatt), at least outside Kabul, there is nothing.
The fundamental problem with Obama’s Afghan counterinsurgency strategy is the lack of qualified government officials and a functioning Afghan government. Afghanistan has been without a qualified cadre of bureaucrats since the communist government collapsed in 1992.
While President Hamid Karzai’s administration is rightly denounced for corruption, it also deserves condemnation for ignoring the tedious work of building a skilled cadre of government workers.
And it makes little sense for a beefed-up U.S. military to occupy unsecured areas and provide government services when Afghanistan lacks the civil affairs personnel to take over those jobs.
This past summer, after 4,500 U.S. Marines routed Taliban forces from parts of Helmand Province, U.S. officials were struck by the shortage of trained Afghan troops to augment the force and by the unwillingness of Afghan officials to provide government services in a relatively remote and dangerous area.
Rather than a second wave of Afghan bureaucrats providing civilian services, the Marines were followed by a small international “stabilization team.”
As Post correspondent Pamela Constable reported, U.S. and British officials said “several factors, including a lack of qualified and educated workers in the remote province, a shortage of housing and office facilities for professionals from larger cities like Kandahar or Kabul, and a series of tensions and rivalries among various Afghan agencies, were impeding the kind of follow-up needed to convince residents that the Afghan government is credible, committed and a better alternative than the Taliban …
"‘What we need is to put visible Afghan government in these areas,’ said John Weston, a U.S. civilian aide in Helmand who also had worked in Iraq. … Without a solid Afghan presence, he added, 'we will have a lot of well-meaning Americans doing good things, but it will be a trap.’" [Washington Post, July 18, 2009]
In Afghanistan, the key issue is not specific U.S. troop levels, but the need to build up a government infrastructure, a competent Afghan military, and an effective army of government bureaucrats.
On Oct. 22, another intrepid Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran found little progress on the problem that Constable identified.
He wrote: “Skeptics of [Gen. Stanley] McChrystal's [counterinsurgency] strategy worry that the Afghan government will not move with haste to take advantage of security improvements created by the United States. Despite repeated requests, the government in Kabul has not sent officials to Nawa to help on issues that matter most to local people: education, health, agriculture and rural development. …
“For now, the Marines are focused on another big risk to progress here – the lack of basic services. They are working with diplomats and U.N. officials in Kabul to prod key ministries to set up offices in Nawa.”
Still, Robert Kagan and his neocon allies in charge of the Post’s editorial pages gave full support for a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan that the newspaper’s own reporters revealed is possibly fatally flawed because of the dearth of qualified civilian experts who can take on the job of providing basic services at the local level.
Why, at long last, should we pay any attention to what the neocons have to say? They miss the essence of things every time.
Bruce P. Cameron has served as a Washington lobbyist for various governments over the past several decades, including Nicaragua, Mozambique, Portugal and East Timor. He is the author of My Life in the Time of the Contras.
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