President Barack Obama’s escalation of the Afghan War has upset many rank-and-file Democrats who had hoped for a more peaceful strategy, but Obama’s order to dispatch 30,000 more US troops is being welcomed by neoconservatives, a group that has long favored US military interventions in Muslim lands.
After Obama’s West Point speech on Tuesday, the neocons gloated over their success in turning the Obama administration’s deliberations on Afghanistan toward an Iraq-like “surge” and away from negotiations aimed at winding down the eight-year-old war.
The Washington Post’s editorial pages, which have become the flagship for neocon opinion, sounded almost giddy.
On Thursday, the lead editorial cheered Obama for falling in line behind the hawkish recommendations of Gen. Stanley McChrystal; mocked Vice President Joe Biden for claiming he had reined in McChrystal’s ambitious schemes; and praised the President for accelerating McChrystal’s timetable for deployment.
“This will make the escalation a true ‘surge’ and raise its chances for success,” the Post editors declared.
On the adjoining op-ed page, leading neocon Robert Kagan dismissed anyone who opposed this military escalation as an effete defeatist.
“People talk about American decline, but these days it is not in the basic measurements of national power that American decline is to be found; it is in the willingness of the intellectual and foreign policy establishments to accept both decline and defeat,” wrote Kagan, who curiously is attached to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
On Wednesday, the Post gave space to another prominent neocon, William Kristol, to sniff at the sop that Obama had extended to the Left, his promise to begin withdrawal of US forces by July 2011. Kristol noted “thankfully” that Obama’s target date represented only a “pseudo-deadline” that could be readily pushed aside.
Kristol also expressed pleasure that Obama had bowed to pressure from the Pentagon and from neoconservative opinion leaders to expand the Afghan War and to accept George W. Bush’s mantle as “war president.” Kristol wrote:
“By mid-2010, Obama will have more than doubled the number of American troops in Afghanistan since taking office; he will have empowered his general, Stanley McChrystal, to fight the war pretty much as he thinks necessary to in order to win; and he will have retroactively, as it were, acknowledged that he [Obama] and his party were wrong about the Iraq surge in 2007.
“He also will have embraced the use of military force as a key instrument of national power.”
Framing the Debate
To read the neocons celebrating how they had turned Obama into a more articulate version of Bush in less than a year in office makes one marvel at both their remarkable arrogance and their genuine influence in framing the debates of Washington’s opinion circles.
After all, these are the same people who have been bungling US foreign policy for the past three decades. Neocons played key roles in the worst screw-ups of the 1980s, including the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal and the intelligence failure of first exaggerating the Soviet Union’s strength and then missing its collapse.
But those blunders were only a warm-up for what the neocons would do in the post-Cold War period as they trumpeted American triumphalism and demanded that US policymakers not hesitate to throw American military weight around.
With the arrival of George W. Bush’s administration, the neocons found themselves in possession of the keys to the war machine – and they locked their sights on unfriendly regimes in the Middle East, especially Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
After the 9/11 attacks, the neocons' moment had arrived. So, on Sept. 20, 2001, with the remains of New York City’s Twin Towers still smoldering, the neocon Project for a New American Century (PNAC) urged Bush to wipe the Middle East’s slate clean of any regime or movement hostile to Israel or the United States.
The invasion of Iraq was to be simply the first chess move in this strategy. The next would be the elimination of regimes in Iran and Syria if they continued to support Israel’s enemies in Lebanon’s Hezbollah and inside Palestine.
Beyond removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, Bush should “demand that Iran and Syria immediately cease all military, financial and political support for Hezbollah and its operations,” said the letter signed by The Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and 40 other neocons and allies.
The signers then added: “Should Iran and Syria refuse to comply, the administration should consider appropriate measures of retaliation against these known state sponsors of terrorism.”
And, the Bush administration was told to spare no expense in this endeavor.
“A serious and victorious war on terrorism will require a large increase in defense spending,” said the letter. “We urge that there be no hesitation in requesting whatever funds for defense are needed to allow us to win this war.”
However, first, the Bush administration had to at least make a show of going after Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders judged responsible for killing nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11 – and those targets were in Afghanistan living under the protection of the Taliban.
So, in October 2003, Bush ordered an attack against Afghanistan, though committing few regular US troops and relying mostly on air power along with CIA officers and US Special Forces on the ground who coordinated with Afghan warlords opposed to the Taliban.
The initial phase of the Afghan War went smoothly. Taliban forces crumbled under the massive US aerial bombardments and abandoned the capital of Kabul. Soon, bin Laden and his top lieutenants were fleeing to their old base camps in the mountains of Tora Bora, near the Pakistani border.
The small team of American pursuers believed they had bin Laden trapped and called for reinforcements to seal off possible escape routes to Pakistan and to mount assaults on al-Qaeda’s mountain strongholds, according to a newly released analysis of the Tora Bora battle by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But the Senate report found that by then Bush had turned his attention to Iraq, as the neocons wanted. Instead of staying focused on capturing bin Laden and destroying al-Qaeda, Central Command Gen. Tommy Franks was instructed to begin planning for an invasion of Iraq. The Senate report said:
“On November 21, 2001, President Bush put his arm on Defense Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld as they were leaving a National Security Council meeting at the White House. ‘I need to see you,’ the president said. It was 72 days after the 9/11 attacks and just a week after the fall of Kabul. But Bush already had new plans.”
Citing Bob Woodward’s book, Plan of Attack, the Senate report quoted Bush as asking Rumsfeld, “What kind of war plan do you have for Iraq?”
In an interview with Woodward, Bush recalled instructing Rumsfeld to “get Tommy Franks looking at what it would take to protect America by removing Saddam Hussein if we have to.” Rumsfeld then had the Joint Chiefs of Staff draft a message asking Franks for a new assessment on fighting a war with Iraq, the Senate report said.
In his memoir, American General, Franks said he got a phone call from Rumsfeld on Nov. 21, after the Defense Secretary had met with the President, and was told about Bush’s interest in an updated Iraq war plan.
At the time, Franks said he was in his office at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida working with one of his aides on arranging air support for the Afghan militia who were under the guidance of the US Special Forces in charge of the assault on bin Laden’s Tora Bora stronghold.
Franks told Rumsfeld that the Iraq war plan was out of date, prompting the Defense Secretary to instruct Franks to “dust it off and get back to me in a week.”
“For critics of the Bush administration’s commitment to Afghanistan,” the Senate report noted, “the shift in focus just as Franks and his senior aides were literally working on plans for the attacks on Tora Bora represents a dramatic turning point that allowed a sustained victory in Afghanistan to slip through our fingers. Almost immediately, intelligence and military planning resources were transferred to begin planning the next war in Iraq.”
Losing Bin Laden
The CIA and Special Forces teams, calling for reinforcements to finish off bin Laden and al-Qaeda, “did not know what was happening back at CentCom, the drain in resources and shift in attention would affect them and the future course of the US campaign in Afghanistan,” the Senate report said.
Henry Crumpton, who was in charge of the CIA’s Afghan strategy, made direct appeals to Franks to move more than 1,000 Marines to Tora Bora to block escape routes to Pakistan. But the CentCom commander rebuffed the request, citing logistical and time problems, the report said.
“At the end of November, Crumpton went to the White House to brief President Bush and Vice President [Dick] Cheney and repeated the message that he had delivered to Franks,” the report said. “Crumpton warned the president that the Afghan campaign’s primary goal of capturing bin Laden was in jeopardy because of the military’s reliance on Afghan militias at Tora Bora. …
“Crumpton questioned whether the Pakistani forces would be able to seal off the escape routes and pointed out that the promised Pakistani troops had not arrived yet.”
Crumpton also told Bush that the Afghan militia were not up to the job of assaulting al-Qaeda’s bases at Tora Bora and warned the President, “we’re going to lose our prey if we’re not careful,” the report said, citing journalist Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine.
But the Iraq-obsessed Bush still didn’t act. Finally, in mid-December, the small US Special Forces team convinced the Afghan militia fighters to undertake a sweep of the mountainous terrain, but they found it largely deserted.
The Senate report said bin Laden and his bodyguards apparently departed Tora Bora on Dec. 16, 2001, adding: “With help from Afghans and Pakistanis who had been paid in advance, the group made its way on foot and horseback across the mountain passes and into Pakistan without encountering any resistance.
“The Special Operations Command history (of the Afghan invasion) noted that there were not enough US troops to prevent the escape, acknowledging that the failure to capture or kill … bin Laden made Tora Bora a controversial battle.”
Bush, however, was following the advice of Washington’s influential neocons who considered Afghanistan essentially a sideshow with the main event awaiting in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
So, US forces in Afghanistan had to make do with the limited attention of Washington while the Bush administration whipped up public support for attacking Iraq. Even as bin Laden apparently found safety in Pakistan and al-Qaeda and the Taliban began to regroup along the Afghan border, the neocons focused on the PR campaign to sell an invasion of Iraq.
Turning on Iraq
The neocons, especially at the Pentagon and inside Vice President Cheney’s office, fabricated the case against Iraq based on bogus claims about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's alleged ties to al-Qaeda.
Then, with many Americans believing that Saddam Hussein possessed stockpiles of WMD and was sharing them with al-Qaeda, Bush and the neocons found it easy to stampede the Congress into passing a use-of-force resolution. The few people who did speak up against the rush to war were either ignored or ridiculed in venues like the Washington Post.
Bush launched the Iraq invasion on March 19, 2003, and the neocons were thrilled when the US military was able to defeat the Iraqi army in only three weeks. Cable pundit Chris Matthews spoke for many Washington insiders when he declared in awestruck tones, “we’re all neocons now.”
With their confidence unbridled, the neocons chose to make the ancient land of Iraq a test tube for free-market nation-building. The neocons rejected plans for a quick election, favoring instead a US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and a long US military stay.
Through their chosen viceroy, Paul Bremer, the neocons also cashiered the Iraqi army and fired government bureaucrats who had belonged to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Young American neocons arrived to lecture Iraqis on how to form a new government.
But the occupation didn’t go as smoothly as the neocons had expected. Before long, Iraq was torn by a bloody insurgency and was split along bitter sectarian lines.
The ultimate cost of the neocon folly has been more than 4,300 US soldiers dead, along with estimates of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, and $1 trillion or so of taxpayer money squandered.
Because of the Iraq calamity, other elements of the neocon vision of remaking the Middle East were put on hold, though the neocons enthusiastically supported Israel’s military assaults on Hezbollah inside Lebanon in 2006 and on Hamas-ruled Gaza in late 2008. The neocons also haven’t yet given up on the idea of a military strike against Iran.
Yet, looking back at the failures of the Bush administration’s Middle East policies, two troubling characteristics about the neocons stand out – a lack of empathy for people not like them (i.e. the Iraqis, Afghanis, etc.) and a stunning lack of realism.
Like classic armchair warriors, they act as if their theoretical constructs don’t have to be measured against empirical evidence, nor tempered by practicality, nor moderated by concerns about the loss of human life.
This also was a characteristic of the neocons who first emerged as important players during the Reagan administration’s brush-fire wars in Central America. In those conflicts, tens of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans and others perished at the hands of US-backed military forces.
Some of those same neocons, like Elliott Abrams and Robert Kagan, reemerged two decades later to guide or advise Bush’s Middle East policies.
The neocon detachment from reality continues to pervade their wishful thinking about a successful counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, the nation they persuaded Bush to put on the back burner so they could advance their grandiose vision of Middle East victories.
But what is perhaps most remarkable about this story is how the neocons have used their prominence in the Washington news media and the think-tank community to rehabilitate themselves as “experts” on the Middle East.
Most importantly, the neocons exploited the superficial impression in 2007-2008 that Bush’s “surge” of about 20,000 additional US troops in Iraq was what brought about a decline in violence there.
Though the neocons sold the “surge” myth to Washington insiders, many military analysts considered the troop increase as only one element – and possibly only a minor one – compared to the buying off of Sunni insurgents in 2006, the de facto ethnic cleansing of many Iraqi neighborhoods, and the unilateral decision by anti-American Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr to demobilize his militia. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Rising Cost of the Iraq Surge.”]
Nevertheless, the “surge” myth allowed the neocons to insist that they had been right after all, even if there may have been some bumps along the way.
By fall 2009, key neocons felt confident enough to bash President Obama for taking time to re-think the eight-year-old US-led military occupation of Afghanistan.
Washington Post neocon columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote an Oct. 9, 2009, column entitled “Young Hamlet’s Agony” accusing Obama of cynical dithering.
“So what does [the Democrats’] commander in chief do now with the war he once declared had to be won but had been almost criminally under-resourced by Bush? Perhaps provide the resources to win it?
“You would think so. And that's exactly what Obama's handpicked commander requested on Aug. 30 – a surge of 30,000 to 40,000 troops to stabilize a downward spiral and save Afghanistan the way a similar surge saved Iraq.
“That was more than five weeks ago. Still no response. Obama agonizes publicly as the world watches.”
Krauthammer also made clear that the neocons hadn’t given up on their grandiose vision of a permanent American military dominance astride the globe, whatever the cost.
In an Oct. 19 article for The Weekly Standard, entitled “Decline Is a Choice: The New Liberalism and the End of American Ascendancy,” Krauthammer demanded that the United States resist the temptation to withdraw from its status of global hegemon.
“Heavy are the burdens of the hegemon,” Krauthammer wrote. “After the blood and treasure expended in the post-9/11 wars, America is quite ready to ease its burden with a gentle descent into abdication and decline.
“Decline is a choice. More than a choice, a temptation. How to resist it? First, accept our role as hegemon. And reject those who deny its essential benignity.”
But there remains a glaring impracticality in the neocons and their hegemonic rhetoric. Krauthammer combines his call for the American people to accept their inner “hegemon” with a tirade against those who say it’s time for the United States to reduce its military budget and begin addressing its economic and social problems.
To the neocons, all that is important is the American ability to project military power around the world – and especially in the Middle East. The reality of the disappearing US industrial base and America’s decaying infrastructure do not fit into the soaring rhetoric about US global power.
Yet, wielding the “successful surge” myth as a club, the neocons shaped the Washington debate about the Afghan escalation and now believe they have managed to influence another President to do as they wished, even while operating from more distant positions, like the Washington Post’s editorial pages, TV talk shows and think tanks.
With their ideological certitude and intellectual firepower, the neocons seem to believe they can will the results in the field much the way they dominate dinner-party conversations in Washington, with tough-talk, bluster and a readiness to question the patriotism and courage of anyone who doesn’t agree.
However, the real world isn’t defined by clever arguments over a chilled Chardonnay. It is a hard place where soldiers and civilians bleed and die – and where imperial overreach can corrode the foundations of a Republic.
It also is one of the bitter ironies that the same geopolitical thinkers who persuaded Bush to prematurely turn his attention away from Afghanistan – and thus enable Osama bin Laden to escape and al-Qaeda and the Taliban to rebuild – now are celebrating their victory in getting Obama to send 30,000 more US troops to that same country.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush , can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com