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Neo-Con Ideology, Not Big Oil, Pushed for War
by Jim Lobe
August 17, 2004

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Why did the administration of President George W Bush push to invade Iraq? Most left-wing critics - epitomized perhaps by Michael Moore's blockbuster documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11 - have rather reflexively argued that the economic factor, particularly the interests of Big Oil or “the ruling class,” must have been decisive.

But many right-wing critics, who know the ruling class from the inside, lean to a different explanation, in part by pointing out that Big Oil, to the extent it took any position at all on the war, opposed it. As evidence, they cite the unusually public opposition to a unilateral invasion voiced quite publicly by such eminent oil and ruling class-related influentials as former president George H W Bush's national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and secretary of state James Baker.

While they do not deny that some economic interests -- construction giants, such as Halliburton and Bechtel, and high-tech arms companies -- may have given the push to war some momentum, the decisive factor in their view was ideological, and the ideology, “neo-conservative”.

Powered by both Jewish and non-Jewish neo-conservatives centered in the offices of Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney and by White House deference to the solidly pro Zionist Christian Right, the neo-conservative world view - dedicated to the security of Israel and the primacy of military power in a world of good and evil - emerged after September 11, 2001, as the driving force in President Bush's foreign policy, as well as the dominant narrative in a cowed and complacent mass media.

Neo-conservatives - their world view, history, networks, strategic alliances, and their role in moving the United States to war in Iraq as well as the dangerous consequences of their policy prescriptions - are the subject of America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order (Cambridge University Press), by far the best study of the neo-conservative movement and its relevance to Bush's “war on terror” in the flood of critical books that have poured forth in the aftermath of the Iraq war.

The two authors, Stefan Halper, a teacher at Cambridge and US policymaker under past Republican administrations, and Clarke, a retired British diplomat currently based at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank in Washington, describe their political perspective as “center-right”. The fortuitous combination of their nationalities and politics helps make their critique particularly compelling in light of the neo-conservatives' exaltation of the special "Anglo-American" alliance as the great redemptive force in the world, as it was under British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and president Franklin Delano Roosevelt in World War II.

“We set out to demystify the neo-conservatives,” the authors write at the outset of the book. And over the following 369 pages, including some 1,300 footnotes, they largely succeed. Their motivation is clear from the outset: while consistently measured and reasoned in their tone, Halper and Clarke are clearly outraged that the neo-conservative foreign policy pursued by the Bush administration has put Washington's greatest strategic asset – its “moral authority” - at risk.

The book includes well-told, if somewhat familiar, accounts of how the neo-conservatives used their many institutional bases, such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board; their formidable political savvy in Congress; their bureaucratic skills within the administration; their ties to the mainstream media, particularly those outlets - such as Rupert Murdoch's media empire led by Fox News and the Weekly Standard, right-wing radio talk shows and the Wall Street Journal editorial page - that eagerly recycled their ideas; and their longstanding alliance with the Christian Right to create an “echo chamber” that succeeded in moving public debate after the September 11 attacks toward the threats allegedly posed by Iraq and the necessity of war against it.

Where the book breaks new ground, however, is in its efforts to describe the origins of the neo-conservative movement, its ups and downs over the course of the past 40 years, its core beliefs, and why it poses serious threats to both US interests as traditionally defined by conservatives and to the health of US democracy itself.

To Halper and Clarke, the neo-conservative world view revolves around three basic themes: that “the human condition is defined as a choice between good and evil”; that military power and the willingness to use it are the fundamental determinants in relations between states; and that the Middle East and “global Islam” should be the primary focus in US foreign policy.

These core beliefs create certain predispositions: analyzing foreign policy in terms of “black-and-white, absolute moral categories”; espousing the “unipolar” power of the United States and disdaining conventional diplomacy, multilateral institutions or international law; seeing international criticism as evidence of “American virtue”; regarding the use of military power as the first, rather than last, resort in dealing with the enemy, particularly when anything less might be considered “appeasement”; and harking back to the Ronald Reagan administration (1981-89) as the exemplar of “moral clarity” in foreign policy.

This last tendency is particularly galling to the authors, not only because it ignores the fact that neo-conservatives expressed bitter and well-documented disenchantment with the Great Communicator over his distancing the United States from Israel after the Lebanon invasion in the early 1980s and his eager grasp after 1985 of the outstretched hand of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, but also because they see Reagan as a fundamentally optimistic leader who, in the words of his secretary of state, George Shultz, “appealed to people's best hopes, not their fears.”

By contrast, according to Halper and Clarke, “the neo-conservative vision is one of fear centered around [Thomas] Hobbes' doomsday vision of man in his primitive state” and “extreme pessimism” reflected in the political philosophy of Leo Strauss, whose thought exercised a strong influence on the movement through its godfather, Irving Kristol, and assorted disciples, some of whom have risen to prominence within and around the Bush administration, particularly in the national security arena.

Indeed, the authors join a number of other critics, particularly on the right, in rejecting the notion that neo-conservatives can really be considered “conservative” at all. Not only are they reckless in favoring the use of military power, but their advocacy of “nation-building” or “transforming the Middle East” belies an arrogance that is entirely foreign to the core conservative conviction that free or democratic societies are the product of centuries of organic development, the basis for which can neither be imposed from outside nor built overnight.

Similarly, and consistent with their view of the world as a moral battleground, neo-conservatives pay little attention to such notions as “stability” and “normalcy”, or even, the “economic implications of their policies.” This should be of particular concern to US corporations, a traditional conservative political constituency, the authors argue, because the “US business world - multipolar, multilateral, cooperative, interdependent, consumer-driven, and rule-based ... is as different from the neo-conservative world as night from day.”

As for neo-conservative claims to be “idealists” and driven by the desire to spread democracy and freedom to the countries - claims far too readily accepted as genuine in mainstream foreign-policy circles - the authors dismiss them as “little more than window-dressing” designed to rally public support behind them and put their foes on the defensive.

Their early history - as arch foes of the anti-Vietnam War faction of the Democratic Party and later of president Jimmy Carter's human-rights policies, as well as their selective indignation with regard to the human-rights performance of allies and enemies in the “war on terrorism” - makes a mockery of their democratic pretensions.

So why did neo-conservatives want to take the United States to war in Iraq?

On this question, the authors tend to be frustratingly elusive (despite an early promise “not ... to pull any punches”), at one point suggesting an “unspoken agenda” focused on “the Middle East and military power, most of all military power in the Middle East,” related to both Israel's security and access to the region's energy resources.

While it is difficult to argue with these two answers, one wishes that the authors had been more direct about which factor they believed was more important in the neo-conservative world view and the drive to war, particularly in light of the abundant evidence they adduce throughout their narrative - especially in relation to neo-conservative ties to the Christian Zionists and the focus of their own networks of think tanks and foundations - that Israel's fate has been the central passion of all those who identify themselves as “neo-conservative”.

In that respect, the authors did indeed pull their punches in order no doubt to avoid being labeled “anti-Semitic”, a common neo-conservative tactic against their critics, and to avoid fueling stereotypes that are both incorrect and dangerously anti-Semitic, such as the notion that “Jews” control the media, if not the world. While predominantly Jewish, the neo-conservative movement is by no means exclusively so, and most American Jews, it is important to point out, are not neo-conservatives. As the authors themselves write, “Today, it should not be considered legitimate to imply that any criticism of neo-conservatism is necessarily tainted by anti-Semitism.”

That said, the horrific experience of European Jewry in the 20th century, culminating as it did with the Nazi Holocaust, is critical to understanding the neo-conservative mindset. It is that experience - and the failure of the “international community” to do anything about it -- that helps explain the good-and-evil moral categories, the obsession with military force, the disdain for multilateral institutions and international law and, ultimately, the necessity for the United States to be permanently engaged against foreign enemies lest it withdraw into isolationism that, like appeasement, helped pave the way for Hitler and the Holocaust that make up the neo-conservative world view.

Jim Lobe is a political analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus (online at and a correspondent with Inter Press Service, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at:

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