The coming war - in Washington

Published at on February 27, 2003.

by Mark Perry

SO MUCH of Washington runs on paper - or rather, on papers: there are "Defense Planning Guidances," "National Security Strategy Studies," and an entire host of memos that seem dependent on colors - white papers, for instance, that result from the findings of "Blue Ribbon Panels" or, oddly, "flimsy, buff and green" - the papers of the military decision-making process.

Mostly, like the Mitchell Plan, the papers are passed around for a time and then ignored. This is particularly true for Democratic administrations. There might well be a natural law governing this that is the inverse of Sir Isaac Newton's: the more papers a Democratic administration writes the less weight they have. This was certainly true for the Clinton White House, which produced more useless studies than any previous administration.
That's not true for the Republicans; the Republicans don't write many papers, but the ones they do write actually count. As a corollary to Newton's law of gravity Republican papers not only have weight, they will scare the daylights out of you.

This is certainly true for a paper now circulating through policy circles in Washington. This "5/21 Brief" (as it is called) was the result of a briefing given by current Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz on May 21, 1990 - ten years ago - when he was a lowly assistant, but kindred spirit to then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney. The reason that the paper has gained such new attention is that it provides a guide to the current administration's strategic thinking, including its current plans to invade Iraq. The paper is old news, but unlike the papers of the Clinton years (which represented a "hiccup in American history," in the phrase of one administration official), this paper counts. Written by Wolfowitz and a team of defense policy experts, many of whom now serve in senior positions at the Pentagon, the paper recommends that the
US take steps to ensure its strategic dominance, including the use of unilateral military action to project power. The paper says that instead of shrinking the US military (the policy that was followed during the Clinton years) the nation should expand its reach and funding - from 3.0 percent to 3.8 percent of US Gross National Product. The increase in funding would be necessary to underwrite the new bases for American troops, which would be dispatched to particularly unstable regions to keep the peace and to "expand" and "shape" the "zone of democracy."

Richard Haass, the State Department's head of policy and planning, and an early critic of the Wolfowitz paper, provides a succinct view of Wolfowitz's core beliefs: "Sovereignty entails obligations. One is not to massacre your own people. Another is not to support terrorism in any way.
If a government fails to meet these obligations, then it forfeits some of the normal advantages of sovereignty, including the right to be left alone in your own territory. Other governments, including the United States, gain the right to intervene. In the case of terrorism, this can even lead to a right of preventive, or preemptory, self-defense. You essentially can act in anticipation if you have grounds to think it's a question of when, and not if, you're going to be attacked."

This was a revolutionary doctrine, and one supported during the first Bush administration by a coterie of conservative policymakers. But the paper produced by Wolfowitz and his team was buried just after it was presented because it causedsuch a stir in the public press. The overwhelming public response was, in fact, quite negative - Wolfowitz and his team were recommending unilateral American military action to a public that then believed strongly (and still does) that the US should only act when its interests are directly threatened, and then only in cooperation with its allies. Additionally, while Wolfowitz and then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney promoted the ideas contained in the paper to then-President Bush, the ideas the paper espoused were lost in the hubbub over
Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Indeed, the first Bush to serve as president was to give a talk on rethinking American strategy on the very day that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

But while the paper was sidelined, it was not forgotten. In the first days of the new Bush administration, Wolfowitz and his allies at the Pentagon revived their ideas and began to spread them to key officials in the State Department and White House. They had a number of natural allies, including Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who serves as Vice President Dick Cheney's national security advisor. Libby helped draft the Wolfowitz paper and has remained one of its most outspoken and, as Cheney's deputy, most powerful advocates.

The group around Wolfowitz was slow to regain the kind of influence in the new Bush administration that it had in the previous Bush administration, but the events of September 11 gave them their opening. Just after the attacks in New York and Washington, the Wolfowitz group lobbied heavily for an adoption of their position as the official US national security strategy. The battle was short-lived: just weeks after the New York and Washington attacks the Bush administration adopted a paper called, simply enough, "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America." The paper revived all of the principles of the "5/21 Brief" including its core principle - that while the US would attempt to recruit "coalitions of the willing" in its global battle against terrorism it would, where necessary, act alone.

"The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security," the paper notes. "The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction – and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemies' attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively." The Wolfowitz team won other victories - it convinced Bush's national security team that it needed to work for "regime change" in Iraq and needed to increase the defense budget, which has now been increased to exactly 3.8 percent of the US gross national product.

This rewriting of national security policy did not go unnoticed. Two years after the Bush administration published its new national security strategy paper, John Ikenberry (a noted policy strategist at Georgetown University) published an article in Foreign Affairs noting that the new "apocalyptic" doctrine was being promoted by a core group of "neo-imperialists" who viewed American power as "unconstrained by the rules and norms of the international community" or international bodies, like the United Nations.
"At the extreme," Ikenberry wrote, "these notions form a neo-imperial vision in which the United States arrogates to itself the global role of setting standards, determining threats, using force, and meting out justice." The label, "neo-imperialist" has stuck and, as Ikenberry predicted, a strong counter to the neo-imperialist argument has
emerged, in a group that is now been labeled "the realists." While the response of these "realists" has been long in coming, the opposition to the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz doctrine has come not from the ranks of the Democratic Party, but from the ranks of the moderate center of the Republican Party - from those who served the current president's father.

The opening skirmish of this campaign took place on Friday, February 21, when former national security advisors Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both men, highly regarded in Washington policy circles (but up until this month loathe to take on the
neo-imperialists in public) have been expressing their reservations about the administration's post-September 11 policies for well over a year.
Neither believes in the unilateralist bent of the neo-imperialists, and both have been privately outspoken in what they see as the administration's mishandling of its friendships in Europe and its penchant for the use of unbridled military force. For both Scowcroft and Brzezinski, the decision to publish their article on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came after weeks of consultations with senior Republicans and Democrats no longer serving in the government - as well as after long discussions with the current president's father, who is said to strongly disagree with his son's policies but refuses to critique them privately or comment on them in public. The article was only written after both men decided that the administration's greatest vulnerability is its unreflective support for Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza, which both believe poses the greatest threat to gaining worldwide acceptance for the global war on terrorism.

The February 21 article, "A Road Map for Israeli-Palestinian Amity," is remarkable. Scowcroft and Brzezinski do not offer an open or outspoken critique of American policy, but their viewpoint is a stark departure from those held by Wolfowitz - and from his aid, Douglas Feith - who remain Israel's staunchest allies inside the administration. While endorsing Bush's vision for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, Scowcroft and Brzezinski make it clear that they believe his call for new Palestinian leadership is counterproductive. A resumption of the peace process, they say, should not be "conditioned" on "the replacement of a particular individual." To do so, they add, invites "resistance" to US goals "in the Palestinian population." Scowcroft and Brzezinski go on to endorse a settlement based on "boundaries approximating the pre-June 1967 borders," arrangements for Jerusalem that "accommodate two separate sovereignties," a resolution of the refugee problem that provides for "relief and justice" for them but without upsetting the demographic balance in Israel, and a
"protection regime" for the holy places. Privately, the two are more outspoken: Scowcroft has told associates that Bush's call for the replacement of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was "stupid," while Brzezinski has appeared on television programs promoting the view that the
US is in danger of promoting policies that "could be confused with those of another nation."

The Scowcroft-Brzezinski vision is breathtaking. It not only marks a complete break with the Bush administration's pro-Israel policies (and confirms their view that Bush's call for a replacement of Arafat is counterproductive), it marks a shift away from the Wolfowitz-Feith worldview. It is, in fact, a denunciation of Wolfowitz's (and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld's) view that Israel, like the United States, has the right to intervene to protect its security because (following US doctrine) the Palestinians support terrorism and, therefore, have ceded some of their sovereign rights.

There is only one problem with the Scowcroft-Brzezinski article. It never appeared. While Scowcroft and Brzezinski were told by Wall Street Journal editors that the op-ed would run on Friday (a fact confirmed by the appearance of the article on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations - where it still appears under the head "Wall Street Journal op-ed") the article did not appear in any of the newspaper's editions.
Editors of the Journal, it is rumored, told Scowcroft directly that they thought the article was too controversial. The decision left both men sputtering in anger, but confirmed to them what the rest of us have known for some time - that there is an unofficial news blackout on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the media, to the point where those advocates of even the most moderate two-state resolution of the conflict are considered "supporters of terrorism."

In spite of this distinct chill, however, Scowcroft and Brzezinski have been circulating their paper much as Wolfowitz first circulated his "5/21 Brief" - from hand-to-hand among good friends who agree with their position. So it is that Washington's fax machines have been busily reproducing the Scowcroft-Brzezinski conclusion: that finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along the lines of the Saudi proposal endorsing United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338 would do far more to "facilitate international cooperation with the US in its war on terrorism" than an attack on Iraq.

The impact of this opening skirmish in what promises to be a public war over the administration's policies cannot be exaggerated. Even inside the administration, battle lines are being formed over US post-Iraq policy. In spite of the power of the administration's pro-Israel heavyweights (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith) the outcome of the battle is not clear. The neo-imperialists are not only taking stock of public opinion, which is starting to show the first glimmerings of doubt over the Iraq adventure, but they fear a public backlash over their unstinting support of
Israel. In addition, the government of Ariel Sharon has most recently made a number of unpublicized but well-known foreign policy gaffes and, once again, embarrassed itself with senior administration officials. The most recent terrorism scare in the US - which saw hordes of people running to hardware stores to buy duct tape and plastic bags - resulted from a "foreign intelligence report" that said that the Al Qaeda network had targeted a well-known and popular Jewish-owned resort in what one intelligence official described as "a Bali-like bombing." US intelligence officials gave great weight to the report because it was so highly detailed. But questions about its veracity were inevitably raised and its source was brought to the US for interrogation. According to intelligence officials, the Israeli official who made the report failed a polygraph test. This, coupled with impatient public statements from Israeli officials (including Zalmon Shoval, the former Israeli ambassador to the US) over the timing of the US invasion of Iraq ("what are you waiting for?" Shoval was quoted as saying) have left American officials wondering whether the Israeli government has any sense of how delicate US public opinion can be.

In spite of all of this, however, the Bush administration is continuing its march - or sprint - to war. The strategy it is pursuing was put in place ten years ago by Israel's closest supporters. It is unlikely that now, with over 150,000 US troops in place, a war against Iraq can be averted. Nor, it seems, will the Bush administration be deterred by mass demonstrations or even a break in the Atlantic alliance.

There is always a chance, slim though it may now seem, that the US will do what it has never done before - that it will pressure the
Sharon government to accede to direct negotiations with the Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian state according to UN resolutions 242 and 338. Two weeks ago, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice interrupted Douglas Feith during a national security meeting at the White House with the words: "If we need to know what the Israelis think, we'll call in the Israeli ambassador for his views." Chastened, Feith returned to the Pentagon and removed the Likud party campaign posters from the walls of his office.-Published 26/2/03(c)Palestine Report

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Also in this week's issue: the Palestine Red Crescent Society provides Palestinians with pamphlets on chemical warfare, and a Nablus father watches Israeli soldiers kill his son in cold blood.

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[or is bush sr's alleged opposition just a good cop- bad cop tactic to protect the dynasty and the club?]