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The Two-Line Struggle at the Top Phase Two: Syria and Iran
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by GARY LEUPP

During the 1920s and 30s, there was division within the Japanese elite. On the one hand there were the diplomats in the Foreign Ministry, typically Western-educated, cultured men; and the leaders of the zaibatsu (financial cliques like Mitsui and Sumitomo) who feared boycotts of Japanese products in China. They tended to oppose imperialist war. On the other hand, there were hotheads in the Japanese Army, influenced by fascist ideology, hell-bent on establishing Japanese domination over China and Southeast Asia (creating what they came to call the "Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere"). The latter won out decisively with the Manchurian Incident in 1931.

For some time now, here in the USA, it’s been apparent that there’s a power struggle, perhaps what you can call a "two-line struggle" between Colin Powell’s State Department and Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department. (Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has referred to this as the "split personality" of the Bush Administration.) The former seems dominated by professional diplomats who find it in U.S. interest to maintain friendly ties with the world in general. The latter is dominated by the neocons, whose project for a New American Century includes (among other ambitious goals) plans for regime change in Iraq, Syria and Iran, change plans that the world tends to oppose and fear since they mean U.S. hegemony throughout Southwest Asia. The former receives some neocon input (notably in the form of John Bolton, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, whose appointment Powell is said to have opposed), but like the Japanese Foreign Ministry before the Manchurian Incident, it generally takes a cautious approach to war. Powell, whose career includes some unpleasant incidents and so does not attract my own admiration, is nevertheless a professional committed to the fundamental task he has been assigned (pursue diplomacy), and he is probably committed to opposing aspects of the neocons’ program which seem to require for popular support exploitation of anti-Arab racism.

(I refer specifically to the cynical expectation of the neocons that the U.S. public’s response to 9/11 and widespread, irrational assignment of blame for that event on a vague "raghead" category, would allow them to conflate bin Laden with Saddam Hussein on meager evidence, and insure popular support for the war on Iraq. And also, their supposition that they can take the war into Syria and Iran with popular support, knowing that a certain component of the population will just be happy to see further humiliation of Arabs and other Muslims without really thinking about the reasons or repercussions. The neocons know they can’t justify their project to the public on the basis of conventional logic; or rather, should they do so, it would have to be on the basis of Machiavelli’s logic—or what some political scientists call "realism"—which would require admission that disinformation [lying] is a useful tool in the project’s execution. Instead they rely on the public’s fear of Arabs, all Arabs anywhere, as potential terrorists planning further Sept. 11s.)

In recent days the split between the factions has been evidenced by quarreling over the leadership of occupied Iraq, with Powell favoring L. Paul Bremmer III as paramount civilian administrator (in deference to the apparent Iraqi hostility to a military governor) and Rumsfeld and the Pentagon wanting Gen. Jay M. Garner (ret.) to head the new regime. It has also been conspicuous with regard to policy towards Syria and Iran (as well as North Korea). Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker, Rumsfeld intimate, and member of the Defense Policy Board until recently chaired by chief neocon ideologue Richard Perle, in a speech to the neocon-dominated American Enterprise Institute, denounced Powell’s diplomacy (among other things, oddly blaming Powell for the fact that 95% of the Turkish population opposed the U.S. attack on Iraq) and calling the Secretary of State’s decision to visit Syria and talk with its president, Bashar Assad, "ludicrous." This suggests (to me, anyway) that the neocons really want to attack, rather than talk with, Syria. It’s in their script, and Powell at least to some extent disagrees with that script.

But the reporting on the "tough and at times blunt" encounter between Powell and Assad (Washington Post, May 4) suggests the issues the neocons have and will continue to raise as they muster support for the Syria invasion. In no particular order:

1. Syria’s possession of chemical and biological weapons. (Note: quite a number of nations, including the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, Egypt, possess such weapons. To make this grounds of war with Syria would strike many in the world as ludicrous. However, if an invasion of Syria resulted in the occupying army’s discovery of such weapons, they could be represented as transported Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (whether they are or not). And some among the neocon’s domestic support base would be happy and satisfied with that discovery, and feel safer in consequence.)

2. Syria’s "sponsorship" of Lebanon’s Hezbollah (viewed by most in Lebanon as a large, mainstream political party), the Palestinian group Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, all officially regarded by the State Department as "terrorist." Assad told Powell that these groups’ offices in Damascus are media outlets, whereas the State Department believes they are command headquarters for operations against Israel. (Maybe they’re both.) Assad reportedly agreed to a Powell proposal "to curtail the ability of the organizations’ leaders to appear on television" (which does not seem to me to enhance freedom of speech or of the press in Syria, not that I want to get picky).

3. Syria allegedly allowed personnel and equipment to flow into Iraq during the invasion.. While there surely was nothing illegal in this, from the standpoint of international law, especially given that the Anglo-American attack itself lacked international support, it "deeply angered" US officials according to the Post. Just as that lack of international support, and the opposition of France, Germany, Belgium, Turkey etc. deeply disappointed and angered them. (Note: Syria and Iraq have not been close friends. They have longbeen ruled by rival factions of the secular Baath Party. Syria supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. If Syria afforded Iraq some support during the invasion, it may reflect pan-Arab sentiments emanating from the Syrian street as much as Assad’s own calculations.)

4. Some fleeing Iraqi officials may have made their way into Iraq "to escape capture," which is understandable. (What would you do?) Rumsfeld has said there’s "no question" that senior Iraqi officials are now in Syria. Syria is being pressured to turn over such officials, and may be wondering by what right the US is exerting such pressure, having illegally invading neighboring Iraq in the first place.

5. Child custody disputes between Syrians and their American spouses. Probably not a casus belli. But a grounds for depicting these Arabs as violators of Americans’ human rights.

I assume that the neocons’ real intention is to invade Syria, in large part to eliminate the threat to Israel of the above-listed organizations. But any shred of evidence that they might threaten Americans will also be amplified as they prepare the case. And the weapons of mass destruction issue will be highlighted, although it does raise the question of why Egypt (on the U.S. payroll, $ 2 billion per annum specifically) can have them but not Syria. (Syria’s been calling for the elimination of all WMD in the region, which include most notably Israel’s undeclared nukes that Washington never wants to talk about.) And I assume the State Department will continue to advocate diplomacy, and that until someone resigns the line struggle will continue. Following Bush’s awkwardly interesting statement "First things first. We’re here in Iraq now and the thing about Syria is that we expect cooperation," Lawrence Eagleburger, Secretary of State under the president’s father, said he felt that should Bush invade Syria, he ought to be impeached. "You can’t get away with that sort of thing in a democracy," he said. I’d hope not. Anyway it’s clear the power structure is deeply divided on this issue.

Meanwhile, tempers flare about how to deal with Iran. (The neocons steering the Pentagon seem apt to represent all Shiite resistance as Iran-induced; the old "outside agitators" device.) The Pentagon arranged a ceasefire agreement with the (quite secular) Iranian organization Mujahadeen Khalq, based in Iraq, on April 15. But according to the Boston Globe (May 4) unnamed "State Department officials said the truce is another example of the Pentagon making decisions that undermine State policy." The Mujahadeen Khalq is an interesting organization. Its ideology is sometimes called "Islamic Marxism" and it was one of the groups that brought down the Shah of Iran in 1979. Later, it fell afoul of the mullahs and hundreds of its cadre were killed. Saddam Hussein allowed them a presence in Iraq and made use of them in his war against Iran in the eighties. They occupy the curious status of being on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations but also enjoying a good measure of support from the U.S. Congress. Many legislators have petitioned the State Department to remove them from the list.

It looks as though the neocons want to use, however counterintuitive this might seem, this putatively terrorist organization to abet their aim of expanding the Terror War into Iran, and that the State Department (whose functions have been so rudely superceded of late by Defense) finds this irritating. Said the above-quoted State Department official, "We believe in dialogue with Iran. But there are others in the administration who believe that fighting Iran by proxy is better." A very telling statement. There is division at the top, and so far, as in Japan in the 1930s, the most bellicose have won the most battles, which is scary.

GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program.

He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu