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January 19, 2007

Democracy Languishes, but Neocon Strategy Lives

by Jim Lobe

The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) may have effectively closed up shop two years ago and its key neoconservative allies in the administration, such as Scooter Libby and Douglas Feith, may be long gone, but the group's five-year-old Middle East strategy remains very much alive.

This is not the "Wilsonian" strategy of transforming Iraq into a model of democracy and pluralism that will then spread domino-like across the entire benighted region of autocrats, monarchs and theocrats whose oppression and backwardness have, in the neocon narrative, been the main cause of anti-US Islamic extremism.

On the contrary, that "idealist" vision has largely disappeared from the administration's discourse, particularly over the past year as Iraq slipped steadily into sectarian civil war, despite having been enthusiastically embraced by George W. Bush and his neoconservative supporters after their early justifications for war in Iraq – Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ties to al-Qaeda – proved unfounded.

It is, rather, the hard-edged strategy first enunciated in PNAC's letter to Bush published just nine days after the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. That document called for the administration to focus its "war on terrorism" on what it considered the main regional threats to the security of Israel, "America's staunchest ally against international terrorism."

Indeed, the Sep 20, 2001, letter, signed by some three dozen prominent, mostly neoconservative, hawks, suggested that Afghanistan and al-Qaeda should be treated as mere hors d'oeuvres in a six-course meal in which Saddam Hussein's Iraq was to be only the main course.

The Palestinian Authority (PA), Lebanon's Hezbollah, Iran and Syria were also featured as part of the feast, a series of dishes which, with the notable replacement of the PA by Hamas as a result of last year's democratic elections, now appears to be, more than at any time since Washington's conquest of Iraq in 2003, back on the menu.

Thus, in its Sep. 20 letter, PNAC gave only passing mention to its support for military action in Afghanistan to "capture or kill" Osama bin Laden and "to destroy his network of associates," before warning that the failure to remove Saddam Hussein "will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism" and declaring that "any war against terrorism must target Hezbollah."

In words that sound remarkably familiar today, the letter went on: "We believe the administration should demand that Iran and Syria immediately cease all military, financial, and political support for Hezbollah and its operations. Should Iran and Syria refuse to comply, the administration should consider appropriate measures of retaliation against these known state sponsors of terrorism."

Finally, the letter called on Bush to cut aid to the PA unless it puts a stop to all terrorism against Israel, a recommendation that was followed up six months later with a second letter demanding that Washington break all ties with Arafat. "No one should doubt that the United States and Israel share a common enemy," the Apr. 3, 2002 letter asserted, adding that both countries were targets of the "Axis of Evil" and that "Israel's fight against terrorism is our fight."

In the intervening years, much of the PNAC agenda has been accomplished, albeit with results that it almost entirely failed to anticipate.

After chasing the Taliban and al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan, Washington did indeed break off ties with the PA in June 2002, then began restoring them after Arafat's death and his replacement by Mahmoud Abbas, only to effectively break them off once again after Hamas defeated Fatah in US-supported elections one year ago.

The US invaded Iraq in March 2003 and, nearly four years later, finds itself waging an extremely costly counterinsurgency campaign which neither the administration nor its neocon cheerleaders anticipated.

While most regional and military experts believe that Washington is fighting a losing battle, political observers are virtually unanimous that public disaffection with the war was the single most important cause of the Democrats' sweep of the mid-term Congressional elections last November, not to mention the growing Republican revolt against his latest plans to send some 21,500 more US troops to add to the 132,000 who are already in Iraq.

Finally, Hezbollah and Israel fought a month-long war last summer that was widely seen as a major political, if not military, victory not just for the Lebanese Shi'ite movement, but also for its two main backers, Iran and Syria, whom Washington now accuses of trying to destabilize Iraq, as well.

The Hezbollah-Israel conflict, combined with Iran's nuclear program and the fact that Tehran has emerged as the biggest winner of Washington's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, appears responsible for the White House's renewed embrace of PNAC's original targets – what is now being referred to by some neocons as "HISH" – Hezbollah, Iran, Syria and Hamas.

Thus, just as ousting the Taliban and capturing or killing bin Laden and his associates were depicted by the neocons five years ago as a mere prelude to the main business of decisively defeating Israel's regional foes, so the administration appears to have once again relegated both Afghanistan and al-Qaeda to the margins in its war on terrorism, despite the Taliban's unexpected resurgence of the past year.

Thus, even as National Intelligence Director John Negroponte was warning that al-Qaeda still poses the gravest threat to US security, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice omitted any mention of the group in Congressional testimony last week when she explained that Washington now faces what she called "a new alignment of forces" in the region.

"On one side are reformers and responsible leaders" in which she included "Saudi Arabia and the other countries of the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan, the young democracies of Lebanon, of the Palestinian territory led by Mahmoud Abbas, and in Iraq."

"...But on the other side of that divide are Iran, Syria and Hezbollah and Hamas" who "...use violence to spread chaos, to undermine democratic governments, and to impose agendas of hatred and intolerance," she declared.

Of course, this is anything but "a new alignment of forces." However, it does recall not only PNAC's exhortations five years ago, but also the strategy that prevailed in the early 1980s as the Ronald Reagan administration – and its neoconservative allies – plied "moderate" Sunni Arab states, including Saddam Hussein's Iraq, with weapons, training and other support to ward off the threat posed by a revolutionary Shi'ite Iran and its allies in Lebanon and Syria. In so doing, of course, Washington helped lay the groundwork for the emergence of a radical Sunni Islamist movement that eventually blossomed into al-Qaeda.

A quarter century later and faced with an Iran emboldened by Bush's and the neocons colossal mistakes of the past five years, Washington now finds itself desperately trying to rope the same Sunni authoritarian – re-dubbed "responsible" and "mainstream" – states whose dictatorial ways it and its neocon allies so recently depicted as the main source of al-Qaeda's recruitment, into a new, anti-HISH alliance.

(Inter Press Service)


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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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