Harold Meyerson’s column in today’s Washington Post, “For Neocons, the Irony of Iraq,” provides an excellent example of the kind of thinking that leads critics of the war in Iraq down a blind alley. He chastises neocons for two key failures. First, they betrayed their own “law and order” tradition.
Irving Kristol initiated neoconservatism at least partly in revulsion at the disorder of John Lindsay’s New York. Now his son William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and the single leading proponent (going back to the mid-1990s) of invading Iraq, has helped convert neoconservatism into a source of a disorder infinitely more violent than anything that once disquieted his dad.
Just to be clear: is this supposed to be a “progressive” critique of the neocons? The effect, so far as I can tell, is to feed a notion that US failures in Iraq are, in part, a failure to really kick butt in Iraq. More war, please. Hence the re-hash of the old Shinseki critique.
The sharpest irony was their stunning indifference to the need for civic order. When the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, said that the occupation would require many hundreds of thousands of troops to establish and maintain the peace, he was publicly rebuked by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the administration’s foremost neocon, and quickly put out to pasture.
There is a real danger here. The “Left” calls for more troops…Hmmm. Careful what you ask for. Just a hunch, but if the US had put 500,000 troops on the ground at the start of the war and still faced an insurgency, much of the “Left” would have been just as happy to suggest (rightly so) that US brutality–fed by an obsessive concern for law and order at the expense of popular demands for freedom–was to blame for that insurgency. You can’t win friends at the point of a gun, we would say.
Meyerson’s second charge is that neocons–let’s call them Right Zionists–failed to understand the basic contours of Iraqi society.
[Kristol] and his fellow war proponents ignored all credible information on the actual Iraq and promised an Eden more improbable than anything that ’60s liberals ever imagined. “There’s been a certain amount of pop sociology in America,” he told National Public Radio listeners in the war’s opening weeks, “that the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There’s been almost no evidence of that at all,” he continued. “Iraq’s always been very secular.”
This point is crucial. There is no denying that Kristol was floating this line. And there is no way to know whether or not he believed his own rhetoric. However, as I suggested in my ZNet article, “Beyond Incompetence: Washington’s War in Iraq,” not all neo-conservatives were ignorant of Shiite/Sunni relations. Indeed, many neo-cons/Right Zionists were quite keen to exploit the domestic rivalry between Shiite and Sunni forces in Iraq as a key basis for changing the balance of power in the region.
William Kristol and Lawrence F. Kaplan, two prominent neo-conservatives, insist that their book, The War Over Iraq: Saddam’s Tyranny and America’s Mission, “wears its heart on its sleeve” (p.ix). They present a relentless critique of “a narrow realpolitik that defined America’s vital interests in terms of oil wells, strategic chokepoints and regional stability” (p.viii). Even as they celebrate “creating democracy in a land that for decades has known only dictatorship” (p.ix), they make no mention of — and seem utterly oblivious to — the prospect of Iraqi democracy emboldening Shiites in Iraq, Iran, or Saudi Arabia.
Kristol and Kaplan may be “Boy Scouts”…or maybe they simply find it convenient to appear good-hearted and bumbling, as Chomsky warned. Either way, not all neo-conservatives wear their merit badges or their heart on their sleeve. The neo-conservative movement is hardly monolithic; there have been many fissures and splits along the way. The crucial point, however, is that some key neo-conservatives are as committed to cold-hearted Machiavellian Realpolitik as any so-called “realist.” The battle dividing the Bush administration in Iraq is between two factions of Realpolitik strategists.
Indeed, as Achcar has recently noted, “in some neo-con circles” there is actually support for the same scenario feared most by Chomsky’s realists: “some kind of Shia state controlling the bulk of Iraq’s oil” that would align itself with Iranian Shiites and “unleash” Shiite power in the whole area, “including the Saudi Kingdom where the main oil producing area is inhabited by a Shia majority.” To assume that evidence of neo-conservative support for de-Baathification in Iraq represents a simple blunder by naïve and incompetent Wilsonian idealists is, at best, a misunderstanding — at worst, a serious underestimation — of neo-conservative visions for US foreign policy.
To suppose that Right Zionists didn’t understand the Sunni/Shiite politics of Iraq is foolishness and is not supported by the record.
Consider, for example, David Wurmser’s book, Tyranny’s Ally: America’s Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein (hereafter, TA). Wurmser published Tyranny’s Ally while serving as a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a think tank long identified with neo-conservative foreign policy analysis. After his time at AEI, Wurmser moved on to service within the Bush administration, most recently serving as Middle East expert in the office of Vice President Richard Cheney. Published in 1999, the book is a Machiavellian tour de force — and a blueprint for US policy in the Middle East. There are striking parallels between the policies endorsed in Wurmser’s book and those enacted by the Bush administration at the start of the US war in Iraq.
Wurmser directly confronts so-called “realist” fears regarding Shiite power in Iraq.
“The ensuing chaos of any policy that generates upheaval in Iraq would offer the oppressed, majority Shi’ites of that country an opportunity to enhance their power and prestige. Fear that this would in turn enable Iran to extend its influence through its coreligionists has led Britain and the United States, along with our Middle Eastern allies, to regard a continued Sunni control of Iraq as the cornerstone for stability in the Levant. Saudi Arabia in particular fears that any Shi’ite autonomy or control in Iraq will undermine its own precarious stability, because an emboldened Shi’ite populace in Iraq could spread its fervor into Saudi Arabia’s predominantly Shi’ite northeastern provinces. The Saudi government also fears that this upheaval could spread to predominantly Shi’ite Bahrain, or to other gulf states with large Shi’ite minorities.” (TA, p.73)
It is simply not plausible that Meyerson could know about Wurmser and still think of Bill Kristol as the best measure of Right Zionist “preparedness” to play a very high-stakes game with Iraqi domestic politics.