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Anatomy of a Neo-Conservative White House

USA Politics

In a special series available on its website, the Christian Science Monitor summarizes the new world view of the neoconservatives: “Neocons believe that the United States should not be ashamed to use its unrivaled power–forcefully if necessary–to promote its values around the world. Neoconservatives believe modern threats facing the U.S. can no longer be reliably contained and therefore must be prevented, sometimes through pre-emptive military action…. Neocons envision a world in which the United States is the unchallenged superpower, immune to threats. They believe that the U.S. has a responsibility to act as a ‘benevolent global hegemon.’”

The events we have witnessed in the last four years and what we will be–likely–seeing in the next term of the Bush Administration might seem incomprehensible. There is, however, method in the apparent madness, a method that was born out of the mind of a handful of philosophers in the second half of the twentieth century.

The Birth of the Straussian Philosophy

Leo Strauss is widely seen as the first neoconservative. Born in Kirchhain in 1899, he fled Nazi Germany for France and then England, where he spent some time before settling in New York. He found a niche in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago.

Drawing heavily upon Plato and his own experience on a continent where antisemitism and fascism were plaguing the public discourse, he came to the conclusion that fascism wasn’t the primary culprit of the world chaos of these days, but rather the inherent weakness of liberal democracies, like Germany’s Weimar Republic. Adbusters magazine summed up his solution: “Strauss believed that democracy, however flawed, was best defended by an ignorant public pumped on nationalism and religion. Only a militantly nationalist state could deter human aggression, and, since most people were naturally self-absorbed and hedonistic, Strauss believed that the only way to transform them was to make them love their nation enough to die for it. Such nationalism requires an external threat–and if one cannot be found, it must be manufactured.

“He also argued that Platonic truth is too hard for people to bear, and that the classical appeal to ‘virtue’ as the object of human endeavor is unattainable. Hence, it has been necessary to tell lies to people about the nature of political reality. An elite recognizes the truth, however, and keeps it to itself. This gives it insight, and implicitly power that others do not possess.”

Strauss shared his philosophy through his teachings and through the Committee on Social Thought, which he founded at the University of Chicago. Among his students was Allan Bloom, who went on to teach philosophy at the same institution. If Strauss was concerned about democracy, Bloom’s ideological fight was to defeat cultural relativism. He strongly believed that the spirit of the sixties were naturally leading to a disdain for the Western culture and that the American ideals of freedom and liberalism made it superior to non-European cultures rejecting these values.

Another key figure, Albert Wohlstetter, was also at the University of Chicago, and taught not philosophy but mathematics. Senior policy analyst with the RAND Corporation, he became a key figure in nuclear-warfare strategy and the redesign of American foreign policy.

Jude Wanniski, a former economic advisor under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, probably summarized best the importance of Wohlstetter in Cold War geopolitics: “In fact, of the two men, Wolhstetter and Kissinger, it is no exaggeration to say that Wohlstetter was the more influential. It is no exaggeration to say that Wohlstetter was the most influential unknown man in the world for the past half century, and easily in the top ten in importance of all men.”

Wohlstetter and Strauss are only connected indirectly. Wohlstetter took Richard Perle, a former student of Bloom, under his wing, and Perle became his son-in-law. He was also responsible for arranging for Perle and Paul Wolfowitz to meet. Wolfowitz, also a former student of Bloom, became very close to Perle. Both worked in the early seventies in the office of Harry “Scoop” Jackson, a Democratic senator who was certainly one of the most hawkish Congressmen in Washington of his day. Despite being a Democrat, Jackson didn’t want to contain the Soviet Union. He wanted to challenge it. Wolfowitz and Perle grew in that environment. Other students of Wohlstetter are household names in the current U.S. administration, like Ahmed Chalabi (the man the Bush Administration wanted as the successor of Saddam Hussein as leader of Iraq), Zalmay Khalilzad (who played a key role in the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions) and James Woolsey (whom Bill Clinton appointed as CIA Director in 1993, and who recently told CNN that invasions of Syria and Iran were inevitable, as we are now fighting the Fourth World War, the Third World War having been the Cold War).

Neoconservatives at the Gates … of the White House

The neoconservatives saw their first window of opportunity in the aftermath of Watergate.

On November 1, 1975, mere weeks after Gerald Ford was sworn in as 38th president, his cabinet was significantly shuffled: gone were James Schlesinger as secretary of defense and William Colby as CIA director, and in were Donald Rumsfeld, who not only took the defense portfolio, but was also given the hat of national security advisor, while Colby was replaced by … George H.W. Bush. Both joined Henry Kissinger (secretary of state) and Dick Cheney (chief of staff) as the most important figures of the White House.

The replacement of William Colby by George H.W. Bush as head of the CIA was most revealing of the new power exercised by the White House neoconservatives.

Following World War II, American foreign policy shifted from neutrality to containment in the face of the threat represented by that other rising superpower, the Soviet Union. President Harry S. Truman defined the concept of containment when he declared: “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

As a result of the Truman Doctrine, American foreign policy was to control Soviet expansionist tendencies. This was done throughout the ensuing Cold War, as well as in most of the wars engaged through interposed countries, like the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the various struggles witnessed in developing countries, including the Middle East.

The policy of containment was applied for the next 35 years (1945-80), culminating in the politics of “détente,” which could be defined as the search for a balance of power while minimizing confrontation. This was done through seeking allies and through diplomatic work. For all their faults, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger believed in “détente.” The neocons did not.

The first real challenge to the containment policy within the United States was expressed in the early seventies by individuals within the Nixon and the Ford administrations who opposed the détente. They argued that the CIA’s assessment of the Soviet threat was inaccurate, minimizing the real dangers represented by Soviet expansion and that the American interest lay in more aggressive containment.

In 1974, accusations towards the State Department and the CIA started flowing, accusing the agency of systematically underestimating the Soviet nuclear threat. These attacks were made by members of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), a board created by President Eisenhower in the 1950s and restored by President Kennedy after the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs. Its function was to provide the president with advice on foreign relations in light of the intelligence gathered by the country’s agencies.

Albert Wohlstetter was the mastermind behind these attacks.

The Rise of Team B

In 1975, PFIAB members asked of William Colby, then director of the CIA, that he approve the initiative of producing comparative assessments of the Soviet threat. Colby refused, stating it was hard “to envisage how an ad hoc independent group of analysts could prepare a more thorough, comprehensive assessment of Soviet strategic capabilities than could the intelligence community.” After Colby was replaced by George H.W. Bush, a new request was made by the PFIAB. This time, it was approved by Bush with these words: “Let her fly! O.K.” Donald Rumsfeld played an instrumental role in bringing official recognition to the group, as did Dick Cheney.

The group, called Team B, was headed by Richard Pipes, a Harvard historian and father of Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, a controversial pro-Israeli speaker. Its members included Paul Wolfowitz, Wohlstetter’s former student at the University of Chicago, and current U.S. deputy defense secretary, as well as I. Lewis Libby, currently Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.

Paul Nitze, a co-founder of Team B, also helped at about the same time to create the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), the objectives of which were to raise awareness about the Soviets’ alleged nuclear dominance and to pressure the American leadership to close the gap. Some members were even considering promoting a “first strike policy” against the U.S.S.R.

Both groups’ influence grew in the 1980s with the election of Ronald Reagan, who lent an ear to Team B’s more extreme evaluations and to the CPD’s analysis and lobbying. Reagan’s administration from the start included Perle and Wolfowitz. Among Reagan’s most memorable quotes, his characterization of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” was a direct reflection of this shift in policy.

The “Star Wars” project, the U.S.’s Strategic Defense Initiative, was heavily promoted and, even though it never saw the light of day, considerable resources were invested in its creation.

The End of the Cold War

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the imminence of the end of the Cold War set in motion the redefinition of U.S. foreign policy. While the world was treated to speeches about the impending “peace dividend” (the diversion of money from military to social uses), a different strategy was to be developed.

As early as 1990, Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush Administration, asked his close advisors to bring their blueprints for an American foreign policy in a post- Soviet world. Among the collaborators in this brainstorming exercise were Wolfowitz, Libby and Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The latter presented a much more moderate view, and his report was almost entirely ignored.

This exercise led in 1992 to the drafting by Wolfowitz and Libby of the “Defense Policy Guidance,” which stated, among other things: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival … that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union…. Our strategy must now refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor.”

This document was repudiated by George H.W. Bush and his administration. This in part explains why George H. Bush lost much-needed support and went on to lose the 1992 presidential elections that gave power to Bill Clinton’s Democrats. This pushed most of the neoconservatives into an eight-year hiatus in their plan to redefine American foreign policy.

The Clinton Era

Bill Clinton’s two terms as president were marked by a return for the U.S. to a more traditional multilateralism in all areas of foreign policy, starting with the Middle East question. The Clinton-led U.S. also worked in concert with the United Nations in missions to bring peace to Kosovo and Somalia.

Most of the Republicans in office had been set aside. But the partisans of a more hard-line foreign policy had a strong ally in James Woolsey, CIA director between 1993 and 1995.

Besides, the ousted hardliners didn’t stay idle. Most of them moved on to the private sector to think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and the Center for Security Policy (CSP), or to hardcore neoconservative publications like National Review, The Weekly Standard and The National Interest.

In 1997, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) was created. Billing itself as a foreign-policy think tank, its mandate was to restore a Reaganite vision of foreign policy by promoting increases in military spending and challenges to regimes hostile to American interests.

Among the founding members of PNAC are the usual suspects: Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perle and Wolfowitz. Bruce Jackson, a PNAC director, served as a Pentagon official for Ronald Reagan before leaving government service to take a leading position for the weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

PNAC was staffed by men who previously served with groups like Friends of the Democratic Center in Central America, which supported America’s bloody gamesmanship in Nicaragua and El Salvador, or the Committee on the Present Danger, which spent years advocating that a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was “winnable.”

On February 19, 1998, a group of 40 PNAC members published an open letter to President Clinton urging him to make Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein the primary objective of U.S. foreign policy. Ten of these signatories are now part of the Bush Administration, including current U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick and others who are influential in various ways, including William Kristol, editor-in-chief of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard.

The Bush Doctrine

The defining moment of George W. Bush’s Administration is, of course, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack that destroyed the World Trade Center. It gave Bush’s administration the opportunity to put the objectives of the 1992 Defense Policy Guidance into practice under the guise of the “War on Terrorism.”

The Bush Administration’s inspiration came from a report produced two years earlier by the Project for a New American Century entitled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century.” This 90-page report questions whether “the United States have the resolve to shape a century favorable to America’s principles and interests?”, calls for a “foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad” and for “a national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities.” It warns that “if we shirk our responsibilities, we invite challenges to our fundamental interests,” and says that “constabulary missions [the new phrase coined to denote traditional peacekeeping missions] demand American political leadership rather than that of the United Nations. Nor can the United States assume a UN-like stance of neutrality.”

George W. Bush put forward the new American foreign policy in his 2002 National Security Strategy. In this document, President Bush asserts that the U.S. “possesses unprecedented and unequalled strength and influence in the world” and “will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively.” Once a threat has been identified, “America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed.” The following day, the world media consecrated this new direction in foreign affairs as the “Bush Doctrine.”

Consequences for Canada

Where does Canada fit into this grand scheme? Since the Canada- U.S. Free Trade Agreement and, subsequently, the North American Free Trade Agreement were ratified, the U.S. has been showing more and more interest in some of our most precious resources, like water and timber. Having gone as far as they could by employing trade agreements to advance this goal, the U.S. has started to talk in terms of integration.

Richard Haass, director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, said in an April, 2002 speech: “In the twenty-first century, the principal aim of American foreign policy is to integrate other countries and organizations into arrangements that will sustain a world consistent with U.S. interests and values, and thereby promote peace, prosperity, and justice as widely as possible.”

Some Canadians, like members of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) and the policy analysts at the C.D. Howe Institute, are happy to oblige. The CCCE has been using the tragic events of September 11 to actively promote Canada’s full participation in all U.S. endeavours regarding matters of military and homeland security. Since April, 2002, the C.D. Howe Institute has published no less than 14 studies praising the supposed benefits of deeper economic integration with the U.S.

Canadian government officials are also playing this game, and, since the Liberals first came into power in 1993, clear indications have been given that Canada’s foreign policy has been subjected to trade requirements.

First, in the early days of the 1993 government, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Foreign Affairs were merged to create the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Then Canada started to play the role of proxy for the United States in certain international-trade and foreign-affairs gatherings, most notably the 2001 World Trade Organization meeting in Doha, Qatar, and the 2001 World Forum Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.

Pierre Pettigrew, then minister of international trade, clearly showed that trade trumps independent foreign policy when he declared in 2002: “I think the Bush Administration has taken good notice of Canada’s loyalty to the cause of fighting terrorism and I think it will have dividends [in terms of solving the softwood-lumber dispute]” (Globe & Mail, February 1, 2002).

And the Future?

Even though the picture portrayed above seems gloomy, and even though George W. Bush has been elected to a new four-year term, there is still reason for hope: Canadians are not buying the agenda of the neoconservatives and the integrationists.

One of the 14 C.D. Howe Institute studies investigated Canadian attitudes toward deep integration and concluded that “politicians will have to educate the public on the content of economic integration, if they choose to even use such labeling, because of the lack of understanding related to that expression…. In short, if Ottawa decides to initiate a negotiation leading to closer economic integration with the United States, there is fertile ground to be ploughed among Canadians, though public opinion would have to be carefully cultivated in advance to mobilize the necessary support.”

The C.D. Howe Institute’s authors are implicitly saying that closer economic integration with the United States doesn’t represent a consensus among Canadians, and that a public-relations campaign is required to convince them of its necessity.

To read the testimony to Canadians’ resistance against the agenda of deeper economic integration, as well as to Canadians’ great opposition to the neoconservative agenda of the Bush Administration, from a strong proponent of this agenda is, without a doubt, the most significant message of hope for today’s partisans for Canada’s sovereignty and for those opposed to neoconservatism.

Guy Caron serves as campaigner on Canada-U.S. Relations for the Council of Canadians. The Council has undertaken a Citizens’ Inquiry on Canada-U.S. Relations, a series a ten public hearings across the country to gauge Canadians’ real attitudes towards the various issues related to Canada-U.S. relations.

Essential Links to Understand Neoconservatism

  • Christian Science Monitor, Neocon 101 (no longer online)

  • Christian Science Monitor, Spheres of Influence (no longer online)

  • Christian Science Monitor, Key Figures of Neoconservatism (no longer online)

  • Clark, Kitty, The Philosophy of Leo Strauss, Adbusters, No 49, September-October 2003 (no longer online)

  • Devan, Janades, The rise of the neo-conservatives, The Straits Times, March 30, 2003 (no longer online)

  • Drew, Elizabeth, The Neocons in Power, The Freedom of Information Centre, Vol. 50, No. 10, June 12, 2003 (no longer online)

  • Frachon, Alain and Vernet, Daniel, The Strategist and the_Philosopher, Le Monde, April 15, 2003

  • Hessing Cahn, Anne, Team B: The Trillion Dollar Experiment, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1993 (no longer online)

  • Lemann, Nicholas, The Next World Order, The New Yorker,_April 1, 2002

  • Mackay, Neil, Carving Up the New Iraq, The Sunday Herald, April 15, 2003 (no longer online)

  • Pfaff, William, The Long Reach of Leo Strauss, International Herald Tribune, May 15, 2003 (no longer online)

  • Wanniski, Jude, Albert Wohlstetter, R.I.P., January 16, 1997 (no longer online)

This article appeared in the May/June 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension .


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