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Neocons and the Iraq War: Their view then and now 10 years later

When the Iraq War started, the Bush administration’s foreign policy was in the thrall of a movement called “neoconservatism.”

President George W. Bush speaking before signing the congressional resolution authorizing U.S. use of force against Iraq during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Oct. 16, 2002.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Second of two articles.

Ten years ago, the Bush administration’s foreign policy was in the thrall of a movement called “neoconservatism” (which was, in fact, neither new nor conservative). Shortly before the commencement of the “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign that kicked off the Iraq War, I tried to capture the neocon theory in a front-page story in the Strib. From that story:

An influential group of foreign policy thinkers sees the possibly imminent overthrow of Saddam Hussein as just one early step in an ambitious blueprint to spread democracy throughout the world and eliminate threats to the United States.

Although they developed their thinking long before the Sept. 11 attacks, the strategists, often called neoconservatives or neocons, have increased their influence over the Bush administration since Sept. 11, many foreign policy analysts say.

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Critics argue that the neocon ideas, including “regime change,” are a recipe for perpetual war, because they would steer the United States into many confrontations.

There would be a long list of regimes to be changed.

But the neocons themselves and their supporters say that the United States has an unprecedented historical opportunity to reshape the world in ways that will make our country safer and the rest of the world freer. The neocons, who sometimes call themselves neo- Reaganites, say the key concept is not perpetual war but “moral clarity backed by military strength.”

Former Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber, now a Washington insider, has signed some of the neocons’ public declarations. He describes their goal as using U.S. power to do good.

“I think we have done some good in Afghanistan,” Weber said. “I believe we will do good in Iraq, and there are other opportunities to do good as well.”

Over the past decade, the neocons have argued that the United States should challenge evil regimes in the Mideast and Asia, spread freedom, democracy and capitalism, jettison Cold War thinking based on deterrence and containment, and de-emphasize old treaties and alliances that get in the way.

Instead of seeking to manage or contain problems and threats, the neocons want to seize this moment of U.S. predominance to eradicate them.”

The piece also quoted former Vice President Walter Mondale as a skeptic of the neocon vision. He called them “democratic imperialists,” and said, “their idea is that with American power you can do wonderful things to change the world. But I’m profoundly skeptical about whether they’ve calculated the costs of some of these projects.”

Turning Iraq into a democracy that would create a wave of reform across the Mideast, as the neocons envision, would be wonderful, Mondale said. But given the deep, explosive hatreds between the major Iraqi population groups and other potential complications, he doubts that the neocons have accurately estimated the duration of the U.S. occupation, the cost to the U.S. treasury and the ultimate chances for success.

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How it looks now to Weber

Last week I called my friend Vin Weber, who has often provided a civil, thoughtful Republican view to journalists in need of one. I asked him how those ideas and impulses look to him 10 years later, with the benefit of the Iraq War experience. His response began:

“Well, I certainly don’t wish that Saddam Hussein was still in power in Iraq.”

The war and the occupation of Iraq were “handled badly,” Weber conceded, and “we didn’t need to do it when we did it,” but the Mideast is better off with Saddam gone.

Vin Weber
Vin Weber

Saddam was a monster whose long brutal reign resulted in perhaps a million deaths, Weber said, and who knows how many more would have followed if he had remained in power. Saddam had not only possessed but had used weapons of mass destruction, specifically poison gas which Saddam’s force dropped on the rebellious Kurdish force in northern Iraq.

(Weber didn’t go into this, but the gassing was in 1988, to put down a Kurdish uprising at the end of the Iran-Iraq War. At the time, the United States was still tilting toward Saddam and the administration of the first President Bush opposed sanctions against Saddam for the poison gas incident. One internal State Department memo at the time stated: “Human rights and chemical weapons use aside, in many respects our political and economic interests run parallel with those of Iraq.” Of course, it would be unfair to hold the neocons or their “moral clarity” doctrine accountable for these actions, more than a decade earlier.)

Saddam was a horrible butcher, I conceded to Weber. But at any given moment, there is a worst-dictator-in-the-world who is butchering his opponents. Does neoconservative moral clarity require the United States to keep overthrowing them until the day, if such a day ever comes, when there are none left?

Case for removing Saddam

No, he replied. The case for removing Saddam from power had several elements. He was strategically located in a region of U.S. vital interests. He had possessed WMD in the past and was determined to acquire them again. In the aftermath of 9/11, the possibility that anti-American terror groups could acquire WMD, even nukes, could not be ignored.

I mentioned, of course, that the WMD had not existed. Weber agreed, but noted that not only the United States but other intelligence agencies, including those of Britain and Israel, believed that Saddam had an ongoing program. I mentioned (as I did in Thursday’s installment) that before the United States started the war, the U.N. inspectors had been allowed back in and could find no weapons and no ongoing program to develop them.

Weber didn’t dispute it. He brought up the “Duelfer Report” (technically the final report of the Iraq Survey Group, which made the final, post-war search for weapons in Iraq). True, they found no weapons, but they also concluded that, until he was deposed, Saddam had retained both the capacity and the intent to restart his production of WMDs once the U.N. sanctions regime had finally crumbled and that, as Weber summarized it, “acquiring nuclear weapons was his primary goal.”

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The ultimate retrospective justification for the war is this: Yes, sanctions, plus inspections, plus containment had succeeded in preventing Saddam from stockpiling WMD or acquiring nuclear capability, but that triple regime could not be maintained forever and Saddam had not lost his interest in acquiring the weapons.

“The question is, could we have maintained that regime for 10 more years?” Weber asked and then answered: “I’m not sure we could have. And would that have done the job? I don’t believe it would have.”

The only way to remove the threat of Saddam with WMD was to remove Saddam, Weber said.

Roy Grow and Hegel (not Hagel)

All those years ago, the international relations scholar who turned me on to the arrival of the neoconservatives was Carleton College’s Prof. Roy Grow, whose name you may know from many appearances on MPR’s “Midday,” explaining the world to Gary Eichten.

Back then, his assessment went like this (again from the 2003 Strib piece):

Grow called the neocon vision “brilliant, fascinating, sincere, almost evangelical, and really very radical. But to the bottom of my soul, I can’t see the cost-benefit analysis working out in favor of this policy.” He predicted that their blueprint would lead to “two decades of almost perpetual war.”

I called Grow this week to ask him how he thought the Iraq War had turned out as a testing ground for the vision of its architects.

“My bottom line is that I’ve not seen anything to redeem the sacrifice that so many of our young people made for the war,” Grow said. “I honor their effort. I honor their spirit. All I can say is: What a waste. So many broken bodies. The wounds will go on for decades. It just was and still is a disaster. I can’t think of anything good that’s come to America from this. Yes, Saddam is gone, but he never was much of a threat to us.”

Then Grow went really deep on me. He said the neocon impulse might be based on an over-simplistic assessment the impulse deep inside of the average person. The neocons were banking on the belief that , as Grow described it, “deeply embedded in most of the people of the world is what [the German philosopher] Hegel would call ‘democratic man.’”

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But when you liberate the oppressed, you may find the inner man that comes to the surface first is not one who wants to vote and debate and build a nation of laws. Grow said that what comes to the surface often seems to be what he called “religious man,” and, I would add, such variations as “tribal man” or “nationalist man” or “xenophobic” man, any or all of which might seriously interfere with the liberators vision of democracy and peace.

But Peter Van Buren, the former State Department official who worked on Iraq post-war reconstruction, who now writes a blog titled “We Meant Well” and who did, after all, have an sustained look at how the Iraqis reacted to the American campaign to civilize them, offered another take on the essence of the interaction between the conqueror/liberators and the conquered/liberatees. He wrote:

A great many people in the world don’t see us the way we think they should see us. Many of the things we do — both in the belief that they do see us that way (we will be welcomed in Iraq with candy and flowers) and in the belief that it will convince them to see us that way — seem to backfire almost 100 percent of the time. And perhaps for the same set of reasons every time. We are foreigners. We are invaders. We kill and maim locals and blow up property.