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Bush's Neocons Unbridled

By Robert Parry
March 9, 2005

By giving George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisers far too much credit for recent political shifts in the Middle East, the U.S. news media is emboldening these architects of the Iraq War to escalate their regional strategy, which may include a military solution in Iraq that could cross into genocide.

Over the past two weeks, both conservative and mainstream news outlets have fallen over themselves to attribute the democratic rumblings in countries from Egypt to Lebanon to the hard-headed wisdom of Bush’s invasion of Iraq and his idealistic rhetoric about “freedom” in the Middle East. This press coverage, in turn, has reinvigorated the neocons, giving them renewed confidence about the rightness of their cause.

The Washington Post’s neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer sounded like a combination of Trotsky and Robespierre as he proclaimed that now is the time to escalate Bush’s policies in the Arab world. “Revolutions do not stand still,” Krauthammer wrote. “They either move forward or die.” [Washington Post, March 4, 2005]

Other more mainstream commentators who supported Bush’s Iraq invasion have cited the several small steps toward Middle Eastern democracy as vindication for their approach toward Iraq, which included misleading the American people to war with false claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

“The last couple of years have not been easy for anyone, myself included, who hoped that the Iraq war would produce a decent, democratizing outcome,” wrote New York Times foreign policy analyst Thomas L. Friedman. [NYT, March 3, 2005] Of course, the last two years haven’t been very easy either for the tens of thousands of U.S. troops sent to Iraq, for the families of the 1,500 dead U.S. soldiers or for the Iraqi people.

'Powerful Confluence'

This new Washington conventional wisdom of an all-wise George W. Bush also has permeated the news pages.

“A powerful confluence of events in the Middle East in recent weeks has infused President Bush’s drive to spread democracy with a burst of momentum, according to supporters and critics alike,” reported the Washington Post in an awestruck page-one article. [March 8, 2005]

Encouraged by this media acclaim, Bush now appears ready to ladle more bitter medicine down the throats of the Arab people and the world community. Abandoning his charm offensive to the world, widely hailed by the U.S. press just a week earlier, Bush picked conservative hardliner John Bolton to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The appointment of Bolton, a harsh critic of the U.N., sends the message that Bush and the neoconservatives are again full of the self-certainty that infused the run-up to the Iraq War in late 2002 and early 2003. Bolton can be expected to serve as the point man for an even-tougher U.S. strategy toward the U.N. and the Middle East.

But the conventional wisdom – crediting Bush and his neoconservatives for democratic breezes blowing in the Middle East – appears to be just the latest case of dangerous wishful thinking, the kind of rush to judgment that surrounded the erroneous acceptance of Bush’s WMD claims in fall 2002 and the premature celebration of U.S. military victory in Iraq in spring 2003.

As this Web site has noted, the Middle East developments, now getting lumped together as a “confluence” of democratic changes, can be better explained as local political developments, with the U.S. role either marginal or potentially negative. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocon Amorality.”]

Arab Backlash

There is also the danger that this latest misinterpretation of events – that the Arab world is rallying behind Bush’s leadership – is already contributing to a backlash that could undermine democratic advances.

For instance, after demonstrations in Lebanon turned out thousands to demand withdrawal of Syrian military forces, Bush put himself out front, bluntly challenging Syria and aligning himself with the protesters. “Freedom will prevail in Lebanon,” Bush declared, giving rhetorical assurances that he stands with the anti-Syrian demonstrators.

In Lebanon, the pro-Syrian group, Hezbollah, countered on March 8 by turning out an estimated half million demonstrators in a central Beirut square. The massive demonstration represented a powerful rebuff to Bush, a reminder that he remains a deeply unpopular figure in the Middle East, whose embrace can hurt more than help.

Beyond the political consequences on the ground, however, the U.S. media commentaries largely have missed a central point in the Middle East developments: they have their roots in local political conditions and trends almost completely unrelated to U.S. intervention in the region.

The anti-Syrian agitation in Lebanon, for example, looks to have arisen from grassroots Lebanese fed up with decades of occupation by Syrian troops and angered by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

But the story is not as black-and-white as the Bush administration presents it. In the 1970s and 1980s, Syria was only one of several foreign countries to intervene in a sectarian civil war that was devastating Beirut and other parts of Lebanon. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, became bogged down in a guerrilla war and didn’t end its occupation of the country’s south until 2000.

Reacting to the bloody chaos in the early 1980s, the Reagan-Bush administration dispatched troops for an ill-fated peacekeeping mission, which ended after 241 U.S. soldiers and Marines were killed by a suicide bomber in Beirut in 1983.

By the end of the decade, Syria’s military intervention had brought Lebanon a measure of stability. Now, however, with memories of the civil war receding, many Lebanese agree it’s time for Syria to go. The Hariri assassination – which has not been solved and has many suspects besides Syria – brought matters to a head. [For an analysis of the Hariri case, see the Guardian’s “Who Killed Rafik Hariri?,” Feb. 23, 2005.]

Yet, there is little or no evidence that the Lebanese protests were triggered by Bush’s invasion of Iraq or his speeches.

False Optimism

Another regional development lumped into this supposedly Bush-inspired rise of Middle East democracy is the renewed negotiation between Israel and Palestine. But the catalyst to that development was the death of Yasir Arafat last year, not Bush’s Iraq War or his Inaugural Address.

Also, despite early optimism, the Israel-Palestine peace talks seem to be foundering over the practical difficulties of reaching an agreement about Palestinian independence while more than 200,000 Jewish settlers are living in West Bank communities.

Minor political openings in Egypt and Saudi Arabia also are cited as evidence that Bush has sparked a surge of democratic change in the region. But there is little proof that these steps by the two U.S. allies are much more than cosmetic gestures aimed at relieving mounting political pressures against longtime autocratic regimes.

Even in Iraq, the widely praised Jan. 30 election was primarily an affirmation by the Shiites and the Kurds of their new dominance over the Sunnis, who have long ruled Iraq and are leading the resistance to the U.S. military presence. Some Shiite leaders now see the U.S. military as a handy means of pounding the Sunnis into submission.

Indeed, the question little asked by the U.S. press corps is what realistically happens if the Sunnis refuse to accept their virtual exclusion from the new Iraqi government and their new subordinate status.

Since the Bush administration has rhetorically merged the Sunni insurgency with al-Qaeda and terrorism, the logic is that U.S. forces will spearhead an increasingly ruthless campaign to crush this minority population, either through destruction of cities – as happened in Fallujah – or through the kinds of mass arrests that have jammed thousands of suspected insurgents into Iraqi prisons.

Either way, the strategy courts the real possibility of actions than could spill over into what much of the world might deem war crimes, including genocide, the mass slaughter of an ethnic or religious group.

The al-Jazeera Factor

The U.S. news media also appears to be missing an important point about what’s really behind the broader trend toward freedom in the Middle East.

While eager to give credit to Bush and his neoconservatives – the likes of deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams – the U.S. press corps has largely ignored a far bigger factor, the emergence of independent Arab satellite news networks, most notably al-Jazeera.

Over the past decade, Qatar-based al-Jazeera has led the way in shattering autocratic control of information by Middle Eastern dictators. Relying on a staff built from BBC-trained Arab journalists, al-Jazeera gave viewers across the Arab world a taste of what freedom looks and sounds like, with diverse opinions presented and the claims of government spokesmen challenged.

Al-Jazeera also has highlighted stories of government corruption. As a New York Times profile noted, “There was a long list of offended powers: Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority; the Jordanian government, which closed the Amman bureau and recalled its ambassador from Doha; the Algerian, the Moroccan, the Kuwaiti and the Israeli governments, all separately offended. The Saudi government to this day operates a crippling advertising ban against the station.”

Some Arab governments accused al-Jazeera of disloyalty to the Muslim cause by allowing Israelis to state their views directly to Arab audiences, but the station responded by defending the need for open debate. Al-Jazeera also contributed indirectly to media diversity in the region, when a Saudi sheik started Al Arabiya as a rival network in 2003. [NYT, March 6, 2005; or see the book Al-Jazeera by Hugh Miles.]

Anti-U.S. Bias?

While arguably a far more significant force for democratic change than any Bush initiative, al-Jazeera has faced hostility from Washington.

U.S. officials have accused the station of anti-U.S. bias for showing graphic scenes of death and destruction inflicted on Afghan and Iraqi civilians by the U.S. military. The Bush administration has argued that al-Jazeera should follow the lead of the U.S. news media in censoring disturbing images of war that may provoke anti-American sentiment.

Al-Jazeera officials have countered by arguing that it is the duty of professional journalists to present reality as it is, not to sugarcoat images of war to make them more pleasing to politicians or more palatable to viewers. The al-Jazeera position is that it is the U.S. news media that has acted unprofessionally by sanitizing the horrors of war – and thus making war an easier choice.

Still, the Bush administration has treated al-Jazeera as part of the enemy infrastructure. During the Afghan war, the U.S. military obliterated al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Kabul with a 500-pound bomb. After initially claiming the attack was an accident, the Pentagon later admitted that the bombing was deliberate and justified by alleged al-Jazeera ties to al-Qaeda terrorists.

To muzzle al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraq War, the Bush administration has put intense diplomatic pressure on the government of Qatar to eliminate subsidies that allow the network to function. The U.S.-backed Iraqi government also shut down al-Jazeera’s bureau in Baghdad in 2004.

The Bush administration’s heavy-handed tactics aimed at silencing one of the region’s most independent journalistic voices have created another dilemma for the U.S. news media. While U.S. news outlets have relied on al-Jazeera’s on-the-ground video of the war – minus scenes of civilian casualties – American media has mostly fallen into line with Washington’s hostility toward the network for supposedly lacking the high professional standards of U.S. journalists.

So, the U.S. news media – unwilling to give al-Jazeera much credit for spreading the seeds of democracy and seemingly ignorant of local political trends in the region – has defaulted to the preferred Washington narrative: that George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisers are the new liberators of the Middle East.

Beyond whether this analysis is utterly sophomoric, an even more pressing question may be whether this new conventional wisdom opens the gates to more bloodshed, more devastation and possibly more shame for the United States.


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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