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February 6, 2007

One CEO's Dissent From the War on Terror

by Jim Lobe

Meet Richard Wade Vague. Tall, friendly, dressed in a dark, finely tailored suit, with a firm, confident handshake and a ready, if surprisingly modest, smile, he looks like the quintessential successful 51-year-old self-described "conservative" corporate executive that he is.

Co-founder and CEO of First USA Bank, which, until he sold it, was the single largest credit card firm in the United States, he not only voted for President George W. Bush in 2000, he raised a lot of cash for Bush's campaign coffers.

Now, six years later, Vague, who currently heads the fastest-growing credit card company in the U.S., Delaware-based Juniper Financial Corporation, is spending much of his time and resources on another enterprise – trying to persuade other "conservative" businessmen around the country that Bush's "global war on terror" has been a disaster and rally them in favor of an entirely different approach.

"Simply put, U.S. policies and actions in Iraq and throughout the world have increased world terrorism," he wrote in a report released last week by American Respect, a Web site he founded already in 2003, and by the New America Foundation (NAF), an increasingly influential think tank of what it sometimes calls "the radical center."

"War will not rid the world of terrorism," he argued in his 41-page report, "Terrorism: A Brief for Americans," some 50,000 copies of which have already been ordered for distribution to local business groups, such as chambers of commerce and Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions clubs around the nation, as well as to his colleagues in big business.

"Force does not subdue, it enrages," he asserts in what is one of the report's central themes. "We have the opportunity to lead the world out of this danger by building up, not tearing down."

"Vague, in my view, is an extraordinary guy, too extraordinary as I wish there were many more CEOs like him," says Steven Clemons, director of NAF's American Strategy Program.

"He has invested a lot of his time and funds in trying to get fellow Americans to understand that the Iraq war and America's current trajectory in foreign affairs is not only boneheaded, but actually undermining the economic fundamentals of the country," according to Clemons, whose blog helped lead the successful fight to prevent Senate confirmation of former UN Ambassador John Bolton.

Vague's views, and commitment, are hardly typical of his fellow CEOs, although there have been a handful of exceptions on the liberal side of the political spectrum, most notably billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros, who have themselves devoted considerable time and resources to expounding their own criticisms of Bush's foreign policy.

"These folks are busy, they've got plenty to worry about, and they want to believe their leaders," Vague told IPS of other CEOs whom he often meets on the golf course or on other social occasions.

At the same time, his views reflect the growing popular disenchantment, even among self-described conservatives, that has made Bush's war on terror, particularly the Iraq war, a major political albatross for the administration and it supporters.

That is a special concern for Republican politicians who rely heavily on contributors like Vague for political contributions. Indeed, recent public opinion polls show that Bush's approval ratings, particularly with respect to his performance on Iraq and the war on terror, have fallen most sharply recently among self-described independents and Republicans.

Vague insists that, throughout his adult life, he took little interest in politics except as it affected his business and the economy. He considers himself a "pragmatic" conservative, although one who strongly believes, like one of his major intellectual influences, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, that the decentralization of both political and economic power is essential for a healthy society.

Vague says his views about the war on terror and its failures were shaped by a great deal of reading – for which many of his fellow CEOs lack the time – and a lifelong love of history from which he has drawn a number of lessons cited in his report.

The most important causes of extremism that leads to terrorism, according to Vague, are foreign occupation and oppression, both of which result in the inability of the powers-that-be to provide the mechanisms – a voice in government, property rights, personal freedom, and, in some circumstances, even security – necessary for economic and social progress.

"When government leaves a vacuum, that is the opportunity for terrorist organizations to gain traction," he says.

It is in that context that the vast amounts of money – from half a trillion to more than trillion dollars, depending on the estimates – committed by the U.S. on the military prosecution of the war on terror and in Iraq as opposed to reconstruction and building state and other institutions that can lay the groundwork for economic, social, and political development have been particularly misguided, according to Vague in an echo of recent arguments by conservative theorist Francis Fukuyama.

Instead of rushing off to war in Iraq, Washington made a major strategic error in not focusing on the reform of Afghanistan's political and economic systems, according to Vague.

"After 9/11, you could see that just going after Osama bin Laden and the Taliban was an inadequate and unbalanced response," he says. "Instinctively, you knew it had to be about buildup [of the country] up to succeed."

"And in Iraq, you just knew it was going to be a quagmire, like Napoleon in Spain," he adds.

"It has not been a mistake to push for democracy in the Middle East. The mistake was pushing for it militarily in Iraq," which, he adds, was particularly susceptible to civil war given the sectarian and ethnic divisions that were inherent in its creation by the colonial powers after 1919.

In any case, Washington's efforts should focus much more on responding to the economic, political and social needs of the population from which the terrorists recruit than on crushing the terrorists militarily.

"I'm not worried about the terrorists' reaction [to U.S. efforts]," Vague says. "I'm worried about the broad population's reaction."

At the same time, Vague, echoing the Iraq Study Group and other critics of U.S. policy, calls for a much greater emphasis on diplomacy throughout the Islamic world, including an enhanced effort to reach a mutually acceptable settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he calls "one of the under-recognized keys to reducing global terrorism."

"Like other conservatives who worry about America's deteriorating fiscal condition and long-term debt dependencies, Richard just doesn't see America doing any of the stewardship of global economic development that was a hallmark of our successful post-World War II diplomacy," according to Clemons, who added that a major value of Vague's brief is "that it isn't so completely wonkish that it can't connect with people beyond the Beltway."

Indeed, Vague says he was provoked to write in part by a comment from a "golfing buddy" who expressed confidence that Washington's 2003 "shock-and-awe" military campaign in Iraq "had put them in their place."

"He wasn't thinking about this," Vague says. "He was just repeating soundbites from Washington, D.C."

(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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