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July 22, 2006

Alive and Still Kicking Hard: Washington's Neocons


by Ehsan Ahrari

Until the second term of George W. Bush is over, the neoconservatives would do their best to kick up a storm of criticism and controversy every time the United States decides to give diplomacy a chance. However, as long as Vice President Dick Cheney is mentoring Bush on issues of foreign policy, the neocons have nothing to worry about. Even with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the helm of the State Department, Cheney is still largely making America’s foreign policy. The neocons know that, but they still prefer to make enough noise for the continuation of the "cowboy diplomacy."

Two items of the past weekend deserve attention regarding the capabilities of the neocons to push the Bush administration in a particular direction. The issue of debate was Israel’s "war" with Hezbollah. The advocates of what they call "proactive diplomacy" (which might be a euphemism for "cowboy diplomacy") were former Speaker Newt Gingrich and the editor of the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol.

Gingrich, appearing on the Sunday program, Meet the Press, said,

"We’re in the early stages of what I would describe as the third World War and, frankly, our bureaucracy’s not responding fast enough and we don’t have the right attitude. And this is the 58th year of the war to destroy Israel and, frankly, the Israelis have every right to insist that every single missile leave south Lebanon, and the United States ought to be helping the Lebanese government have the strength to eliminate Hezbollah as a military force – not as a political force in the parliament – but as a military force in south Lebanon."

In the resolutely phrase-making environment of Washington, D.C., it seems that the neocons are running out of scary phraseology. The use of the phrase "Third World War" sounds like a desperate attempt to add a few decibels to a rhetoric that lacks substance. Alternately, they might be running out of ideas to imminently revive the ostensibly natural instinct of the Bush administration to be unilateralist.

Bill Kristol is also on a similar crusade. While Gingrich is busy phrasemaking and insisting that Israel has every right to cleanse Southern Lebanon from the presence of Hezbollah, Kristol has simplistically defined the "problem" related to Iran and his version of a "solution" to it. He writes:

"No Islamic Republic of Iran, no Hezbollah. No Islamic Republic of Iran, no one to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. No Iranian support for Syria (a secular government that has its own reasons for needing Iranian help and for supporting Hezbollah and Hamas), little state sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah. And no Shi'ite Iranian revolution, far less of an impetus for the Saudis to finance the export of the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam as a competitor to Khomeini's claim for leadership of militant Islam – and thus no Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and perhaps no Hamas either."

While it is hard to find a clear evidence of Iran’s "ordering" or "instructing" Hezbollah to start the crisis with Israel, it is reasonable to expect that such a linkage exists. It is also possible that Hezbollah did not anticipate the severity of Israeli response to its kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldiers. On these issues whatever intelligence Hezbollah had at its disposal failed it miserably.

Israel got tired of hearing that its decision of May 2000 to pull out of southern Lebanon was a "victory" of Hezbollah’s guerrilla war. A general suggestion has been that the Palestinian militant groups also adopted guerrilla war tactics to extract political concessions from the Jewish state. So, it is possible that Israel was looking for opportunity to reassert its instinct of disproportionate reaction to put Hezbollah in its proper place.

It is also possible that Hezbollah’s timing of actions against Israel might have some connections with the fact that the United States is seriously bogged down in Iraq, and the Taliban is making a comeback in Afghanistan.

No matter what motivated Hezbollah, the imminent necessity for the United States is to intervene in the crisis diplomatically, instead of telling the Israelis to go ahead and punish Lebanon, but make sure that the civilian losses ("collateral damage" in the heartless language used by the military all over the world) are minimal.

Needless to say, by taking that explicit position, the Bush administration has established a vindictive precedent. The "crime" of the Lebanese government is that it is weak and cannot control Hezbollah. The "offense" of the Lebanese is that they are the citizens of a weak state. However, new rules are being established in crisis control, as Lebanon is being bombed into backwardness.

Still the neocons are not satisfied. Not that they are cheering over the destruction of Lebanon; however, they are so focused in their cold-blooded advocacy of military action against Iran that they are not supporting with the same zealotry that the bombing of Lebanese infrastructure should be stopped as urgently as the firing of Hezbollah’s rockets on the innocent civilian Israeli population.

Regarding Iran and Syria, Kristol writes, "For while Syria and Iran are enemies of Israel, they are also enemies of the United States. We have done a poor job of standing up to them and weakening them." That is a fictitious proposition in terms of its linkage. Iran and Syria might be enemies of Israel; however, no categorical fact-based observation can be made that they are enemies of the United States. Indeed, it can be argued that both those countries seek a rapprochement with the lone superpower for different reasons.

Since "radical Islamism" is at "war" with the United States, in Kristol’s judgment, the "right response is renewed strength – in supporting the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, in standing with Israel, and in pursuing regime change in Syria and Iran." He adds, "For that matter, we might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait?"

There is little doubt that President Bush has opted to give diplomacy a chance in the case of North Korea and Iran. However, there is little reason to expect that such a course of action would be pursued for a long time, especially involving Iran. In the case of North Korea, Kim Jong Il seems to have reestablished the import of nuclear deterrence, even though there have been suggestions that it lost its primacy under the new untamed vagaries of the post-9/11 era.

The alleged presence of nuclear weapons in North Korea creates sufficient ambiguities in Washington about the rationality of using military strikes against that country. The presence of certainty that Iran does not have nuclear weapons emboldens the neocons to advocate a military strike against it. The neocons are saying what a whole lot of US government officials might be thinking.

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Ehsan Ahrari is CEO of Strategic Paradigms in Alexandria, Va. He specializes in U.S. strategic issues affecting the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southern Asia.

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