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Neocon Amorality

By Robert Parry
March 3, 2005

For a government that wraps its actions in moral absolutes about good versus evil, while deriding liberal relativism, the Bush administration may rank as the most committed in modern American history to an ends-justify-the-means ethos.

Indeed, to understand the administration’s neoconservative foreign policy, one must recognize how this moral framework works: First, it sets out worthy-sounding goals – freedom, democracy, security – and then it applies whatever tactics are deemed necessary – torture, murder, unprovoked invasions – along with an aggressive propaganda strategy at home.

Next, when events take a positive turn, the neoconservatives claim credit, even if they had only a minor role or the events were largely coincidental. Criticism of the bloody means is washed away by celebration of the virtuous ends. Mainstream commentators join in, cheering the neocons’ farsightedness. Those who opposed the original actions are pushed to the political margins.

After two years of bloody war in Iraq and 1,500 U.S. soldiers dead, the neocons have reached such a moment. They are claiming vindication because of several developments in the Middle East, including the Iraqi election, tentative progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and Lebanese demands for a full Syrian withdrawal.

'Tipping Points'

This triumphal moment was noted by New York Times foreign policy columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who hailed the three developments as historical “tipping points” possibly foreshadowing “incredible” changes in the Middle East. [NYT, Feb. 27, 2005]

A lead editorial in the New York Times expanded on Friedman’s thesis. “The Bush administration is entitled to claim a healthy share of the credit for many of these advances,” the editorial said. [NYT, March 1, 2005]

Editorialists at the Washington Post, another bastion of establishment thinking, picked up the same point. “Could it be that the neocons were right and that the invasion of Iraq, the toppling of Hussein and the holding of elections will trigger a political chain reaction throughout the Arab world?” marveled Post columnist Richard Cohen. [Washington Post, March 1, 2005]

Another influential Post columnist, David Ignatius, also was swept up in the excitement. “The old system (in the Middle East) that had looked so stable is ripping apart, with each beam pulling another down as it falls,” Ignatius wrote. Crediting the U.S. invasion of Iraq for the “sudden stress” that started this collapse, Ignatius wrote, “It’s hard not to feel giddy, watching the dominoes fall.” [Washington Post, March 2, 2005]

Of course, Washington columnists are famous for spotting trends that may be nothing more than disparate events. And there is an alternative explanation for each of these Middle East developments that is rooted in local circumstances.

In Iraq, the Shiites and the Kurds turned out in large numbers for the Jan. 30 election – not to endorse George W. Bush’s invasion – but because the election let them consolidate control of the country at the expense of their longtime tormentors, Iraq’s formerly dominant Sunni minority.

The Sunnis now have a choice of accepting a politically subordinate position or continuing to resist in what is increasingly looking like a sectarian civil war. As far as some Shiite leaders are concerned, it would be fine for U.S. troops to bear the brunt of this fighting, as the enforcers for the new Iraqi power structure. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Sinking in Deeper.”]

Peace Talks

Similarly, recent cracks in the Palestinian-Israeli stalemate relate far more to last year’s death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat – and to aging Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s quest for a positive legacy – than to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

But even if Sharon feels he can negotiate with new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, long-term peace prospects are threatened by another stubborn Sharon legacy, his “facts-on-the-ground” strategy that put about 230,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank. As difficult as Sharon may find removing much smaller settlements in the Gaza Strip, the far more daunting challenge will be finding a West Bank solution.

In Lebanon, popular resistance to Syrian troops has been growing for years, especially since Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in 2000. The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was the catalyst for the recent public demands for a complete Syrian withdrawal, but there is no evidence that the Lebanese protests have anything to do with the Iraq War.

Another argument cited for the neocons’ “tipping point” optimism already is crumbling. An Iraqi government claim about Syria arresting one of Saddam Hussein’s half-brothers and surrendering him to Iraqi authorities has now been contradicted by Iraqi defense minister Hazim al-Shalaan. He said the half-brother, Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan al-Tikriti, was seized by Iraqi and allied soldiers, not by Syrians.

Al-Shalaan refused to say where Hassan was captured, although the earlier Iraqi assertion described the operation as occurring inside Syrian territory. [NYT, March 2, 2005] If at least that part of the story is correct and if the “allied” soldiers were American, it would mean Bush has authorized secret cross-border raids into Syria, a suggestion that the neocons may be dusting off their original plan of following the “liberation” of Baghdad with “regime change” in Damascus and Tehran.

Unasked Question

Indeed, that is the big unasked question, which should follow from the media’s showering of credit on Bush’s neocons: Will they now exploit this supposed “vindication” to plunge further down the path of an indefinite U.S. military expedition in the Arab world?

Remember the braggadocio of Bush’s advisers in March 2003 when they joked that taking Baghdad wouldn’t be enough, nor would taking Damascus, because “real men go to Tehran.”

That potential for escalation was captured in the enthusiasm of the Post’s Ignatius, who argued that the only appropriate U.S. policy reaction to what he called “the Middle East’s glorious catastrophe” is to accelerate it.

“We are careening around the curve of history, and it’s useful to remember a basic rule for navigating slippery roads: Once you’re in the curve, you can’t hit the brakes. The only way for America to keep this car on the road is to keep its foot on the accelerator,” Ignatius wrote. [Washington Post, March 2, 2005]

It’s not clear where this Post columnist went to driving school, but one has to doubt that his teacher actually taught him to step on the gas while the car is hurtling into an icy curve. The usual advice is to let up on the accelerator and – if needed – to lightly pump the brakes, bringing the car down to a safe speed.

But Ignatius’s metaphor is a perfect example of the pseudo-logic that has long permeated neoconservative thinking. When a reckless driver puts the car and its passengers into a dangerous predicament, the answer is not to replace the driver or even urge better driving habits; it’s to brag about how brilliantly the car is handling and to increase the speed.

Of course, the neocon tough talk is always backed up by someone else’s blood or the blood of someone else’s kid. Not only have 1,500 U.S. soldiers died in the Iraq War (along with tens of thousands of Iraqis) but thousands more U.S. veterans are suffering from lost limbs and other severe injuries.

Other veterans have experienced psychological crises after returning from a war zone where U.S. soldiers must make split-second decisions about whether to shoot an Iraqi who gets too close and may be carrying a bomb – or may be a parent rushing home after work or a child late for school.

Jeffrey Michael Lucey, a 23-year-old lance corporal in the Marine Reserves, returned from Iraq to his home to Belchertown, Mass., suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. On June 22, 2004, he went down to the cellar of his family’s home and hanged himself with a garden hose.

Surely speaking for many mothers who have lost their children because of the Iraq War, Joyce Lucey said of her son, “He wasn’t an important person, but he was very important to us.” [Boston Globe, March 1, 2005]

Rape Rooms

As their own humanitarian argument, Bush supporters say the ouster of Saddam Hussein has spared Iraqis from atrocities in his prisons, including the notorious “rape rooms.” However, even on that point, the United States has lost the moral high ground.

The new U.S. State Department’s human rights report admits that rape, torture and extrajudicial murder have been used by the new Iraqi government. Plus, there were the well-known cases of sexual abuse against Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison and torture cases implicating U.S. intelligence personnel.

These grisly realities should demand that any neoconservative claims of “vindication” be carefully assessed before they become justification for a wider war. A similar situation in the early 1990s saw the neocons claim credit for “winning the Cold War” and thus let them walk away from accountability for supporting brutal right-wing regimes and even terrorists in the 1980s.

The success of that Cold War “ends-justify-the-means” rationale, in turn, positioned the neocons – such as deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams – to return to the Executive Branch with Bush in 2001 and to promote the invasion of Iraq in 2002-03. Absolved once before and now ensconced at the center of Washington power, the neocons act as if there should be no moral prohibitions in U.S. foreign policy, that situational ethics should always prevail.

Key Bush advisers even assert that there should be no legal accountability for the administration’s complicity in torture, extrajudicial murders and other practices prohibited both by U.S. and international law.

That view was at the heart of Justice Department memos written by John C. Yoo, a deputy assistant attorney general during Bush’s first term. Yoo’s memos argued that Bush’s commander-in-chief powers give him the right to authorize any actions he deems necessary to prosecute the “war on terror.”

Secret Battle

In a behind-the-scenes battle in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, State Department lawyers disagreed that Bush possessed unfettered powers that let him disregard the Geneva Conventions and other international legal standards.

A memo from State’s legal adviser William Taft IV termed Yoo’s analysis “seriously flawed.” For instance, Taft argued that it was unjustifiable to retroactively label Afghanistan a “failed state” – when the U.S. had official relations with it prior to the Sept. 11 attacks – and thus permit Bush to categorize all fighters for the Taliban government as “unlawful combatants.”

Taft’s memo effectively put Bush on notice that he could be viewed as a war criminal by other nations for acting outside international law. But Yoo’s analysis prevailed, becoming a guide for administration policies that have included shipping captives to countries that routinely practice torture, permitting indefinite detentions under harsh conditions, and even absolving senior officials of responsibility for deaths of captives under abusive U.S. interrogation. [See Jane Mayer’s “Outsourcing Torture,” New Yorker, Feb. 14, 2005.]

As opportunistic as Yoo’s legal memos appeared to the State Department, he now has unveiled a novel additional argument for absolving Bush and other top officials. Yoo, now a professor at Berkeley, suggests that Bush’s victory in last year’s election makes the question of his accountability for torture and other crimes moot.

“The issue is dying out,” Yoo told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer. “The public has had its referendum.”

Few American voters, however, cast their ballots for Bush with the thought that they were endorsing torture, nor would that matter under international law. Elections in one country don’t create immunity for crimes committed in other countries.

Convenient Arguments

But this style of irrational or convenient argument has a history with the neoconservatives, having served them well since they rose to prominence during the latter days of the Cold War.

At the center of neoconservative thinking has always been the elitist concept that the American population must be led by using simple messages, heroic imagery or fear. Historians trace this thinking back to the teaching of the late political philosopher Leo Strauss, a neoconservative icon.

To neoconservatives, therefore, truth is not a value in its own right. To them, information must be culled for useful kernels, facts that can then be exploited to create an emotional response within the target audience. Once this desired political climate – manufactured consent, if you will – is created, the neoconservatives are free to promote an aggressive policy to achieve their policy goals.

As the operation advances, secrecy becomes a crucial factor, with the need to keep the dark underbelly of the project outside the view of the American public. When unpleasant facts do come to light, the neoconservatives count on their allies in the elite opinion circles to contain the damage.

Later, if a positive outcome can be claimed, the neoconservatives dismiss any ugly realities as a small price to pay for the success. The American people and their political representatives are urged to look forward, not to re-fight the old battles of the past.

Soviet Giant

This strategy first surfaced in the 1970s when the neoconservative movement took shape around a group of former leftists and anticommunist intellectuals, the likes of Irving Kristol and Richard Pipes, who were determined to build a power base by hyping the threat from the Soviet Union. To do this, the neocons teamed up with some old-line conservatives to challenge the détente strategy of President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The neocons’ problem was that CIA analysts already were detecting signs – from both technical and human intelligence – that the Soviet Union was in steep decline and desperate for accommodation with the West. One senior CIA officer told me that he was hearing this news from some of his most trusted agents inside the Soviet Union.

Drawing on such CIA assessments, Nixon and Kissinger favored a policy of engaging Moscow in a policy aimed at eliminating some of worst dangers from the nuclear arms race and gradually reducing tensions. Some U.S. policymakers saw a realistic hope of negotiating an end to the Cold War, while opening up the Soviet bloc by pressing for improved human rights and supporting fledgling democracy movements.

But the neocons had other ideas. They were determined to present the Soviet Union as a country on the rise both militarily and economically with plans to destabilize the United States through terrorism and eventually conquer it, possibly by attacking through the “soft underbelly” of Central America.

In 1976, then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush gave an important boost to this alarmist vision by allowing a group of right-wing academics, including a young Paul Wolfowitz, inside the CIA’s analytical division.

The group, known as “Team B,” was permitted to review highly classified U.S. intelligence on the Soviet Union. Though the evidence contradicted the neoconservative view, Team B still adopted conclusions matching its preconceptions, that the CIA had underestimated the Soviet military ascendancy and its plans to gain world domination. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

Reagan Offensive

With Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the neocons went on the offensive against the CIA analysts by attacking their patriotism and injecting an exaggerated threat analysis of the Soviet Union into U.S. policy. That, in turn, justified aggressive policies against leftist movements around the world.

When it came to combating the supposedly all-powerful Soviet Union and its perceived allies, virtually anything went. In Central America, the Reagan administration backed rightist governments and paramilitary forces that routinely used secret detentions, torture, rape and mass murder to crush leftist peasant uprisings.

In the 1980s in Guatemala, Reagan aided military regimes that waged scorched-earth campaigns against rural Mayan populations, while he disputed reports of widespread human rights atrocities. On Dec. 4, 1982, after meeting with Guatemalan dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, Reagan hailed the general as “totally dedicated to democracy” and asserted that Rios Montt's government was “getting a bum rap.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "Reagan & Guatemala's Death Files."]

When the U.S. government declassified some secret records in the 1990s, a Guatemalan truth commission used them to conclude that the Reagan administration had aided and abetted genocide against Mayan tribes in the highlands. In a separate investigation in the late-1990s, the CIA inspector general discovered that the Reagan administration had even protected anticommunist forces in Central America that were implicated in the cocaine trade. [For details, see Parry’s Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & Project Truth.]

But Reagan and the neoconservatives never were held accountable for their roles in these crimes and human rights abuses, nor for the dangerous policies of arming Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan or for secretly supplying military assistance to Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq.

No Soul-Searching

Following the end of the Cold War, while other countries went through soul-searching by appointing truth commissions, the United States mostly just turned the page.

Ironically, too, Reagan and the neoconservatives, who were most responsible for building up the ten-foot-tall Soviet straw man, got most of the credit when it fell down. The CIA analytical division, which was silenced in the early 1980s after correctly spotting Soviet weaknesses, got beat up again in the early 1990s for “missing” the Soviet collapse.

When Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992, the Democrats had an historic opportunity to set the Cold War historical record straight. But the Clinton administration focused instead on domestic issues and let the neoconservatives write their own histories of how they and Reagan “won” the Cold War. [See Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Now the neocon process is coming full circle in Iraq. As occurred with the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, the threat from Iraq was wildly exaggerated in 2002-03.

Just as any evidence was twisted to frighten the American people about Soviet intentions earlier, every scrap of intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was reshaped to transform Iraq into a clear and present danger to the United States. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "America's Matrix."]

The neoconservative goal may always have been to project U.S. power in the Middle East by establishing a pro-U.S. government in Iraq, but the neocons had learned from their Cold War experience that Americans were best motivated by fear, even if that required distorting the public record.

Another echo of the late Cold War can be heard in the neocons’ interpretation of recent events in the Middle East as vindication for their policies, though a more dispassionate analyst might argue that the neocons deserve little credit for either the Soviet collapse or the political stirrings in the Middle East.

But without wonderful ends, what could possibly justify such horrible means?


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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