Stephen J. Sniegoski, The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel, Foreword by Paul Findley, Introduction by Paul Gottfried, Norfolk, Virginia: Enigma Editions, 2008, xvi + 447 pages
By David W. Lutz, The Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Nairobi, Kenya
The thesis of Stephen J. Sniegoski’s carefully-researched and persuasively-argued book is that the primary aim of the calamitous invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not to avenge an assassination plot against the President’s father, to liberate the Iraqi people, to combat terrorist threats to US security, to enhance US global power, to spread democracy, nor to control oil reserves, but rather to improve the strategic position of Israel: “The origins of the American war on Iraq revolve around the United States’ adoption of a war agenda whose basic format was conceived in Israel to advance Israeli interests and was ardently pushed by the influential pro-Israeli American neoconservatives, both inside and outside the Bush administration” (p. 351). Sniegoski’s assertion is not that the “neocons” deliberately promoted Israel’s interest at the expense of the United States, but rather that they “viewed American foreign policy in the Middle East through the lens of Israeli interest, as Israeli interest was perceived by the Likudniks” (p. 5).
Sniegoski explains: “The aim of the neoconservative/Likudnik foreign policy strategy was to weaken and fragment Israel’s Middle East adversaries and concomitantly increase Israel’s relative strength, both externally and internally. A key objective was to eliminate the demographic threat posed by the Palestinians to the Jewish state, which the destabilization of Israel’s external enemies would achieve, since the Palestinian resistance depended upon external support, both moral and material” (p. 5). Although the neocons saw an identity of interests between the United States and Israel, the countries’ respective interests did not in fact coincide. The United States stood to benefit from stability in the Middle East, so that the flow of oil would not be interrupted; Israel would gain relative strength from instability.
The neoconservatives are a group of Americans (some with strong ties to Israel) who became dissatisfied with socialism and moved to the “right”. One of the founding fathers of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, who was a self-described “Trotskyist” during his student days at the City College of New York, explains: “Karl Marx once wrote that the human race would eventually face the choice between socialism and barbarism. Well, we have seen enough of socialism in our time to realize that, in actuality as distinct from ideality, it can offer neither stability nor justice, and that in many of its versions it seems perfectly compatible with barbarism. So most neoconservatives believe that the last, best hope of humanity at this time is an intellectually and morally reinvigorated liberal capitalism” (Reflections of a Neoconservative, p. 77). In other words, neocons are “conservative” in the sense that they are conserving liberalism.
Among the more important neocons are Irving Kristol and his wife Gertrude Himmelfarb and their son William Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and his wife Midge Decter and their son John Podhoretz, Elliott Abrams, Kenneth Adelman, John Bolton, Max Boot, David Brooks, Stephen Bryen, Stephen Cambone, Mona Charen, Eliot Cohen, Eric Edelman, Douglas Feith, David Frum, Frank Gaffney, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Jonah Goldberg, John Hannah, Robert and Frederick Kagan, Max Kampelman, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Ledeen, Lewis Libby, William Luti, Edward Luttwak, Joshua Muravchik, Laurie Mylroie, Richard Perle, Richard and Daniel Pipes, Danielle Pletka, Michael Rubin, Randy Scheunemann, Gary Schmitt, Stephen Schwartz, Abram Shulsky, Max Singer, Kenneth Timmerman, Paul Wolfowitz, James Woolsey, David and Meyrav Wurmser, and Dov Zakheim. They have worked within an interlocking network of think tanks (including the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Security Policy, the Hudson Institute, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the Middle East Forum, the Middle East Media Research Institute, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy), as writers for neocon publications such as Commentary and The Weekly Standard, as syndicated columnists, in academe and/or in government.
Sniegoski examines the origins of the strategy of destabilizing Israel’s neighbors within the history of Zionism, including the Revisionist Zionism of Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky. In 1982, Oded Yinon wrote in “A Strategy for Israel in the 1980s”, which was published in Kivunim, the journal of the World Zionist Organisation: “Lebanon’s total dissolution into five provinces serves as a precedent for the entire Arab world including Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula and is already following that track.” But one of the lessons learned from Menachem Begin’s disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon was that future campaigns to strengthen Israel’s strategic position would have to be viewed by Americans as in US national interest. Therefore, one of the challenges of the Israeli right and their neoconservative allies was to persuade Americans that Israeli and American interests coincide.
The Iraq war “cabal” was “transparent”, because the neocons’ strategy was laid out in publicly-available documents. In 1996, a study group headed by Perle and including other neoconservatives produced a paper entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm”, which was published by the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, an Israeli think tank. Sniegoski comments: “The ‘realm’ that the study group sought to secure was that of Israel. The purpose of the policy paper was to provide a political blueprint for the incoming Israeli Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu. The paper stated that Netanyahu should ‘make a clean break’ with the Oslo peace process and reassert Israel’s claim to the West Bank and Gaza. It presented a plan by which Israel would ‘shape its strategic environment,’ beginning with the removal of Saddam Hussein and the installation of a Hashemite monarchy in Baghdad…. It should be emphasized that the same people – Feith, Wurmser, Perle – who advised the Israeli government on issues of national security would later advise the George W. Bush administration to pursue virtually the same policy regarding the Middle East” (p. 90).
The neocons came to power with the election of President George W. Bush. Although Bush himself was remarkably weak in the area of foreign policy, the neocons’ agenda agreed with his Evangelical Protestant and Christian Zionist beliefs. Vice President Cheney, although not himself a neoconservative, had strong connections with the neocons and brought many of them into the new administration. The attacks of September 2001 offered the neocons an opportunity to implement their war agenda: “Traumatized as they were by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the American people were ready to believe stories of the most extreme nature” (p. 172). The neocons then shifted the aim from Afghanistan to Iraq, because the former was not and the latter was part of their pre-9/11 agenda. The “war on terrorism” focused on the “axis of evil” – Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and especially the first two – not on those responsible for the 2001 attacks. One of the tactics used by the neocons to persuade the American government and people to focus on Iraq was blurring the distinction between intelligence and propaganda.
Sniegoski does not make the obviously false claim that a small group of neocons launched a war against the will of the American people: “The neocons were the driving force for war, but they could not have achieved success if their agenda did not in some way or other resonate with a significant number of Americans” (p. 331). President Bush was receptive to the neocons’ propaganda, because it gave him a personal mission: to stand firm against an evil enemy. Among other supporters of the invasion of Iraq were Christian Zionists, war profiteers, former Cold Warriors, Republican partisans, some members of the liberal elite, and many ordinary Americans who wanted action to be taken in response to the 11 September 2001 attacks (and who, in many cases, could not distinguish between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein).
Writing this book was an act of courage, because observing that “the entire neocon Middle East agenda originated in Israel as a means of advancing Israel’s geostrategic interests” (p. 331) leads inevitably to accusations of anti-Semitic conspiracy-mongering. Sniegoski anticipates and meets the accusation: “The ‘anti-Semitic’ charge is often an effort, and usually a very effective effort, to silence public discourse on issues displeasing to some influential Jews. But it is necessary to move away from the question as to whether the argument (in fact, any argument) is ‘anti-Semitic,’ to the question of whether it is true” (p. 372). This book has, in fact, nothing to do with anti-Semitism. Although most neocons are Jews, most Jews are not neocons. Many Zionists are not Jews and many Jews are not Zionists. To equate anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is irrational. Sniegoski cites polls indicating that the percentage of American Jews that supported the war was less than the percentage of the entire American population that supported it. It would be appropriate for those who disagree with Sniegoski not to hurl the charge of anti-Semitism against him, but instead to engage his argument and examine the evidence.
A theme recurring throughout the book is that the neocons maintained the identity of American and Israeli interests, when those interests were in fact far from identical. Sniegoski writes, near the conclusion of the book: “Individuals with close ties to foreign states should not be shaping American policy in areas dealing with those foreign states’ interests. This is a clear conflict of interest. None of this is intended to mean that the United States should not be concerned about international morality – with identical standards applied to all countries – but the United States cannot be expected to pursue policies which might increase the security of particular foreign states at the expense of the interests of the United States” (p. 373). One noteworthy characteristic of the debate about the war against Iraq is the almost total absence of considerations of international morality. Although Plato and Aristotle understood politics as ethics writ large, American foreign policy has more to do with Machiavelli and Bismarck than with the philosophia perennis.
One might make a decision about whether to invade another country in terms of the just war tradition, with its criteria of jus ad bellum (justice in going to war) and jus in bello (justice in fighting a war). Instead, the United States usually makes such decisions in terms of the criterion of Realpolitik: Is it in the national interest? The war against Iraq was an exception, however, because it was fought in the interest of a foreign country. Sniegoski explains how the neocons supplanted the traditional foreign policy and national security elite, including James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell. But it is unfortunate that the only viable alternative to the neocons’ agenda was “realism”.
Promoting the national interest would be consistent with moral foreign policy, if the national interest were not reduced to economic interest. Just as it is in no one’s true personal interest to kill an innocent person for financial gain, it is in no nation’s true interest to promote its economic growth by fighting an unjust war. The true national interest of the United States includes promoting justice in international relations, which involves opposing the false belief that nations are justified in starting wars whenever it is in their economic interest to do so. Sniegoski’s book shows how wrong the United States can be when international morality is disregarded.
Sniegoski points out that, in addition to the old foreign policy establishment: “Many American military leaders also opposed the U.S. attack on Iraq. Even members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff initially expressed their opposition to initiating war” (p. 346). These military professionals were right to oppose the war, because it violated the ethics of their profession. But why did not a single senior officer refuse the order to participate in this immoral war? Although there is no question but that the President is Commander-in-Chief of the nation’s armed forces, there is also no question that members of the armed forces are obligated not to obey unethical orders. If this was true in My Lai, Vietnam in 1968 when the unethical order was given by a lieutenant to sergeants and privates, then it was also true in Washington and Iraq in 2003 when the unethical order was given by a president to generals and admirals.
Because the officers were obedient, the United States and a few allies fought a war that was extremely costly to the United States. Thousands of American soldiers were killed and tens of thousands wounded. A colossal sum of money was spent by a government already suffering from huge, chronic budget deficits. And the threat of terrorism was increased, not decreased. The cost to the Iraqi people was far greater, with several hundred thousand casualties. But from the perspective of the Israeli right, the war was a success. The objective of weakening and fragmenting Iraq was accomplished – with the blood of American and British soldiers.
Although the neocons’ preferred candidate, John McCain, was not elected in 2008, with the consequence that the neocons no longer hold key government positions, they are still alive and quite active. As Sniegoski makes the point, “One thing that definitely can be said is that while there is a long history behind neocons’ Middle East policy, that policy – and the neocons themselves – are far from becoming history” (p. 382). In the May 2009 issue of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz criticized President Obama for being soft on Iran: “In making the ridiculous boast during his presidential campaign that he could talk Iran into giving up its quest for nuclear weapons (and the missiles to deliver them), Obama was careful to add that the military option remained available in case all else failed. But everyone, and especially the Iranians and the Israelis, had to know that this was pro forma, and that if elected Obama would pursue the same carrot-and-stick approach of the Europeans who had been negotiating with Iran for the past five years. He would do this in spite of the fact that the only accomplishment of the European diplomatic dance had been to buy the Iranians more time…. Admit it or not, then, the awesome choice of bombing Iran or letting Iran get the bomb is hard upon us.” We need to decide whether we should let the neocons talk us into another unjust war, or whether the time has come to fight terrorism by working for justice in the Middle East.
David W. Lutz, Ph.D., graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1978 and served in the U.S. Army until 1983. In 1994 he received his Ph.D. in moral philosophy from the University of Notre Dame. He has held post-doctoral research positions at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and the Hanover Institute of Philosophical Research in Germany. Dr. Lutz currently teaches philosophy and management at The Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. He is the author of the article “UnJust War Theory: Christian Zionism and the Road to Jerusalem,” in the book “Neo-Conned! Again.”