"We meet here during a crucial period in the history of [the United States], and of the civilized world. Part of that history was written by others; the rest will be written by us." This rather remarkable statement, made on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, was not from some hawkish policy wonk or an overzealous administration appointee. It was from President George W. Bush, who was addressing a crowd of neoconservative thinkers and ideologues at the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute, arguably the most influential think tank in the country right now.
(Earlier in the speech, the president commended the institute for having "some of the finest minds in our nation." "You do such good work," he added, "that my administration has borrowed 20 such minds.")
That the president would choose to make such a bold–some might say overweening–contention in front of that particular audience is not surprising. It was, after all, a very receptive group.
For years, neoconservatives have been arguing that the U.S. should abandon the balance-of-power realism of the first President Bush and the liberal globalism of the Clinton administration and use its might to unilaterally overthrow anti-American regimes anywhere in the globe.
In a much-quoted 1997 article in Foreign Affairs, William Kristol and Robert Kagan, two key neocon writers, summarized the thinking when they argued that the country should establish a "benevolent hegemony."
For these foreign-policy elites, Iraq is only step one in a much larger effort to restructure the Middle East and radically alter the U.S. agenda.
As Kristol and co-author Lawrence Kaplan wrote in "The War Over Iraq," which was published this year: "The wisdom of regime change, the merits of promoting democracy, the desirability of American power and influence–these issues extend well beyond Iraq. So we dare to hope that this work will prove useful even after Baghdad is finally free."
An early example of this thinking came in 1992, when two neoconservative officials working under then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney drafted a far-reaching policy paper known as the "Defense Planning Guidance."
Upset by the first President Bush’s decision to leave Saddam Hussein’s regime in place after the 1991 Gulf War, the authors–Paul Wolfowitz, now the deputy secretary of defense, and I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff–argued that the U.S. should actively deter nations from "aspiring to a larger regional or global role," use pre-emptive force to prevent countries from developing weapons of mass destruction and act alone if necessary.
Although the Wolfowitz-Libby guidance was quashed soon after it was leaked to The New York Times, many of its ideas–in particular, the doctrine of pre-emption–later found their way into President George W. Bush’s national security strategy.
The document also served as a sort of template for the founding statement of principles of the Project for a New American Century, an organization formed in 1997 by Kristol and several other bright lights of the neocon movement with the aim of promoting American global leadership.
The list of statement signers includes a number of foreign policy hawks and neocons who are in the current administration: Cheney, Libby, Wolfowitz, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Council member Elliott Abrams, Assistant Defense Secretary Peter Rodman and Zalmay Khalilzad, the president’s liaison to the Iraqi opposition.
At the same time that the project was formulating its principles, other soon-to-be-Bush administration officials were advising Israel to work with the U.S. and a select group of countries in an effort to reshape the Middle East.
In 1996 David Wurmser and Douglas Feith, both Bush administration officials, and Richard Perle, former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, contributed to a working paper for an Israeli think tank that urged Israel to scrap the peace process.
The paper, titled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," advised then–Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "to work closely with Turkey and Jordan to contain, destabilize, and roll back" regional threats, help overthrow Hussein, and strike "Syrian military targets in Lebanon" and possibly in Syria proper.
Although the neocons and their ideas were largely ignored by the administration of President Clinton, they found new life after the election of Bush and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Just four days after the attacks, Wolfowitz urged the president to expand the targets of the war on terrorism to include Iraq.
Nine days after the attacks, the Project for a New American Century released a statement arguing that "even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism."
That Iraq is only stage one in a much larger global strategy has repeatedly been made clear by neocons and foreign policy hawks inside and outside the administration. In February, Undersecretary of State John Bolton told Israeli officials that the administration would "deal with" Iran, Syria, and North Korea just as soon as Iraq was defeated.
Richard Perle, who recently stepped down from the chairmanship of the Defense Policy Board after questions were raised about a potential conflict of interest regarding his private business dealings, told journalist Richard Dreyfuss in an interview: "We could deliver a short message, a two-worded message [to other hostile regimes in the Middle East]: ‘You’re next’."
Despite these and other statements to the contrary, the U.S. public remains largely convinced that the overthrow of Hussein is a clear and carefully circumscribed goal. As Joshua Marshall recently wrote in the Washington Monthly, "Today … the great majority of the American people have no concept of what kind of conflict the president is leading them into. The White House has presented this as a war to depose Saddam Hussein in order to keep him from acquiring weapons of mass destruction–a goal that the majority of Americans support."
Would the American public have supported the Iraq war if it had been sold as just one in a series of regional–and perhaps global–confrontations?
Michael Flynn is a writer in Washington and former associate editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.