The Newconservative Vision of the Middle East

  January 13, 2024   Read time 4 min
The Newconservative Vision of the Middle East
The policy of containing Iraq came to end with the election of President George W. Bush in 2000. In a speech in 1997, President Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, had made clear that regime change was the goal of containment, saying that the US would support sanctions ‘as long as it takes’ to usher in ‘a successor regime’.

However, the sanctions, rather than weakening Saddam Hussein, were simply entrenching his rule. Removing Saddam by other means was a priority for everyone in the Bush Administration but became the particular obsession of a group of ultra-hawkish advisers known as the neoconservatives, or ‘neocons’ for short. While many of them, though far from all, are American Jews, the group was most obviously distinguished by its ideological sympathy for the Israeli right. Many neocons had forged their political careers heading various rightwing think-tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the Project for the New American Century, and the Center for Security Policy. They also enjoyed close, verging on incestuous, relations with Washington’s muscular pro-Israel lobby groups, particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

A brief survey of the backgrounds of some of the key neocons gives a fl avour of their ‘special relationship’ to Israel. According to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in his account of the Nixon presidency, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger discovered that Richard Perle, one of the fi gureheads of the neocon movement, had been passing classifi ed material from the National Security Council to the Israeli embassy. A Bush neocon, Douglas Feith, who became Under-Secretary of Defense, had, according to the Washington Post, ‘written prolifi cally on Israeli–Arab issues for years, arguing that Israel has as legitimate a claim to the West Bank territories seized after the Six Day War as it has to the land that was part of the U.N.-mandated Israel created in 1948’.

Elliott Abrams, Bush’s neocon director of Mideast affairs for the National Security Council, had made an impressive political comeback after his conviction on two counts of lying as a State Department offi cial in the Reagan Administration over the IranContra scandal, when the White House sold arms to Iran to pay the Contra rebels who were trying to overthrow the democratically elected Nicaraguan government. Abrams had written in October 2000: ‘The Palestinian leadership does not want peace with Israel, and there will be no peace.’ On the question of Jewish identity in the Diaspora, he observed that Jews outside Israel should ‘stand apart from the nation in which they live’.

Meyrav Wurmser, an ally in the neocon think-tank the Hudson Institute, noted: ‘Elliott’s appointment is a signal that the hardliners in the administration are playing a more central role in shaping policy.’77 Years later John Wolfensohn, a former head of the World Bank and the Quartet’s Middle East envoy in the period immediately before and after the Gaza disengagement, would claim that Abrams had almost singlehandedly ‘undermined’ him as well as an agreement on Gaza’s border terminals that, in his view, destroyed the Palestinian economy.

The wider neocon philosophy of power was neatly encapsulated in a comment made by an anonymous senior Bush adviser: ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’79 Or as one Washington observer, Anatol Lieven, summed up neoconservative thinking: ‘The basic and generally agreed plan is unilateral world domination through absolute military superiority, and this has been consistently advocated and worked on by the group of intellectuals close to Dick Cheney and Richard Perle since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.’

Lieven also noted that at the heart of neoconservatism was the idea of pre-emptive war to defeat any state that might be considered a potential threat to US global dominance in the future. The neocons had been impressed by President Ronald Reagan’s uncompromisingly hostile stance towards the Soviet Union in the 1980s, which they credited with bringing about its demise. The neocons had a strong presence in Washington well before the election of President Bush in 2000. Perle had served as an Assistant Defense Secretary in Reagan’s administration, and afterwards spent many years on the Defense Policy Board. Bush’s fi rst Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, had brought young neocons on to their staffs when they held senior positions in previous Republican administrations. But under Clinton’s presidency, the neocons remained mostly on the margins of power, using those fallow years cooped up in their think-tanks to begin reimagining an imperial role for the US in the post-Soviet era.

The Middle East, with its huge oil wealth, was at the heart of their designs, and Israel – as Washington’s closest ally in the region – was, in their view, the key to American success. The neocons positioned Israel at the centre of a remade Middle East. In the new reality, American global dominance (and its control of oil) would be inseparable from Israel’s regional dominance (and the security they believed would follow for Israel from its annexation of Palestinian land). Israel’s unassailable strength in the Middle East would derive from its sole possession of nuclear weapons, which it had developed half a century earlier in cooperation with Europe and the US and which were entirely unmonitored because Israel had never admitted to their existence and had therefore not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As far as the neocons were concerned, whatever Israel wanted, it should get.

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