The neoconservatives were the driving force in the George W. Bush administration’s war on Iraq and, in so doing, went a long way toward forming US policy in the Middle East that has continued under Obama.
Neoconservatism emerged at the tail end of the 1960s as some individuals, predominantly pro-Zionist Jewish intellectuals, became disenchanted with the more radical turn of mainstream liberalism, which among other things, they believed, had become threatening to Jewish interests, including Israel.
After failing in efforts to convert the Democratic Party to their thinking, the neocons would switch from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party as Ronald Reagan became president in 1980 and would play a significant role in pushing the Reagan administration’s hardline anti-Soviet foreign policy. With the demise of Soviet Communism, the neocons’ foremost concern became Israel and the Middle East.
Before the beginning of the George W. Bush administration in 2001, the neocons had developed plans for reconfiguring the Middle East, involving the use of military force to replace dictatorial regimes with democracies. Not by happenstance, the targeted dictatorial regimes were staunch enemies of Israel, and included Iraq, Iran, Syria, and even Saudi Arabia. The neocons planned to begin with Saddam’s Iraq, seen as the weakest link, the elimination of which would pave the way for regime change elsewhere.
The neocons acknowledged that their policies would benefit Israel, maintaining that American and Israeli interests coincided, which is highly unlikely. The neocons do, however, view American Middle East policy through the lens of Israel’s interests, as seen by the Israeli Right.
The neocons were, in a broad sense, copying a geostrategy adhered to by the Israeli Right, which was best articulated by Likudnik Oded Yinon in a 1982 article that described Israel’s enemies as fragile and only held together by harsh dictatorial regimes, which if disturbed by war would splinter into ethnic and sectarian groupings, warring among themselves. Such internecine conflict would, ipso facto, enhance Israel’s security.
In 1996, neocons Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, and David Wurmser would be part of a small group that presented a variant of this aforementioned strategy—which was entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm”—to incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In both this plan and the earlier one developed by Yinon, Israel would initiate the war.
The aim of the neocon/Likudnik foreign policy strategy was not only to weaken Israel’s external enemies but, by so doing, to eliminate the internal threat posed by the Palestinians, who depended upon external support in their resistance to Israeli domination.
This destabilization strategy was contrary to America’s traditional policy in the Middle East, which sought to maintain stability in order to facilitate the flow of oil. In the Gulf War of 1991, President George H. W. Bush had refrained from removing Saddam’s regime, fearing that this would destabilize the region.
By 2001 the neocons had developed a powerful, interlocking network of think tanks, organizations, and media outlets for the purpose of shaping US foreign policy. Vice President Cheney, who had significant connections to the neocons, played the major role in bringing them into the new George W. Bush administration. The neocons, however, did not gain the upper hand in formulating foreign policy until after the 9/11 terror attacks. When the administration looked for a plan to deal with terrorism, the neocons had an existing one to offer.
George W. Bush was essentially a convert to the neoconservative policy. Prior to 9/11, he had never exhibited any strong understanding or interest in Middle East policy and was therefore in need of guidance, which the neocons could easily provide in a simple paradigm that Bush could find attractive.
The neocon militaristic agenda resonated with the American public and Congress, which had been traumatized by the 9/11 terror and was desperately seeking a way to retaliate. Moreover, the neocon network, inside and outside the government, was in place to push bogus propaganda—most critically the Iraqi WMD threat and the claim that Saddam was involved in 9/11—to successfully mobilize congressional and public support for the war on Iraq.
To achieve their war, the neocons had to overcome opposition from important national security segments of the federal government—the military, the State Department, the CIA—and from members of the traditional foreign policy establishment outside the government.
After the US invasion of Iraq, the neocons tried hard to achieve war with Syria, and even more so with Iran, during the remainder of Bush’s time in office. In part they relied on the allegation that those two countries were aiding the anti-American insurgency in Iraq, but were unsuccessful in their effort due to a number of factors: stiffer opposition within the Bush administration, especially from the military because Iran would be a much tougher enemy than Saddam’s Iraq; fear of the global economic consequences of such a war that could greatly reduce the oil supply from the Gulf; and the diminished effect of 9/11 combined with the quagmire in Iraq that made the American people less inclined to support another war.
During the Obama years the neocons have persisted in pushing for war on Iran and Syria without success. Nonetheless, the United States has treated these two countries as enemies. Moreover, the removal of Saddam and his regime has led to the fragmentation of Iraq and the spread of a Sunni-Shiite war throughout the entire Middle East, which has provided havens for radical Islamic terrorists who engage in terrorism throughout the world.
While the Iraq war was harmful to US interests, Israel benefited for the very reason that the United States had become bellicose toward Israel’s enemies. Moreover, the internecine warfare among Israel’s enemies is taking the heat off Israel both in military and diplomatic terms. In the ongoing conflicts, the fate of the Palestinians has been pushed to the background.
Although US interests have suffered from the effects of the war on Iraq, the continued violent chaos has made it politically impossible for the US to extricate itself militarily from the region. Thus the tragic effects of the neocons’ achievement of regime change in Iraq live on.
Stephen J. Sniegoski earned his doctorate in American history at the University of Maryland. His focus on the neoconservative involvement in American foreign policy antedates September 11, 2001. He is the author of the book: The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel.