Grounds for Optimism?

“I don’t think they existed. What everyone was talking about is stockpiles produced after the end of the [1991] Gulf War and I don’t think there was a large-scale production program in the ’90s.”

Chief American arms inspector David Kay, resigning his post and referring to the missing Iraqi WMDs, January 23

Some are predicting the imminent twilight of the neocons, and their campaign to control the world. They have suffered some setbacks. However optimistically they portray the situation in occupied Iraq, things have in fact gone very badly. The predicted “cakewalk” has become a bloody guerrilla war, claiming a U.S. soldier every day (specifically, 1.13 since March 20) from combat alone. (Add “accidents,” and you get 1.64 per day; 512 total as I write.) The troops have not met with the warm welcome foretold, but with sullenness, fear, resentment, attacks, massive protests demanding “democracy, not occupation.” The putative casus belli turns out to be a crock (as some us predicted it would all along); there are no significant al-Qaeda links; the credibility of the Bush administration, already abysmal in the wider world, is increasingly questioned by the hitherto miserably gullible and timid U.S. political and journalistic establishments. Plans for the “handover of sovereignty” to Iraqis were moved up to July 1 to assuage the mass demonstrations organized by Shiites but involving Sunni, communist and other forces as well. Plans to determine the composition of the new Iraqi regime by caucuses (which, as the Boston Globe editorialized January 24, would allow occupation forces “to arrange things so that two-thirds of the delegates selected would be U.S. appointees”) have met with indignant resistance from the occupied.

Iraqis now want to call the invaders’ bluff and demand the democracy which, following the ignominious collapse of the other rationales for war, has been touted as the key, ultimately redeeming objective of invasion. Iraqis from Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani, probably the most powerful man in the country, to the Defense Department’s own boy, convicted swindler and Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi, are making this demand. Uncertain how to proceed, wishing to spread out responsibility for what transpires next, and hoping to gain international legitimacy for whatever government is installed, the U.S. politely re-engages the spurned U.N. to help determine whether a direct vote is indeed feasible by July 1. This was not at all the neocon scenario.

Meanwhile, so far this month, CIA arms inspector David Kay, who once promised “some surprises” in the quest for Iraqi WMDs, told Reuters January 24, “I don’t think they existed I don’t think there was a large-scale production program in the ’90s,” making Colin Powell’s UN presentation last February, and Vice President Cheney’s repeated, emphatic pronouncements on the question look like either the result of strangely mistaken intelligence (that will be the official explanation; blame Tenet), or bald-faced lies designed to hoodwink the masses into supporting a disastrous war. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace seems to favor the latter interpretation. It recently issued a report charging that “administration officials systematically misrepresented the threat from Iraq’s WMD and ballistic missile program,” and “misrepresenting inspectors’ findings in ways that turned threats from minor to dire [emph. added].” The Washington Post ran a long front-page article January 7 concluding that “Iraq’s Arsenal was Only on Paper.” Former treasury secretary Paul O’Neill implicitly pooh-poohed the WMD rationale by revealing that Bush in cabinet meetings as early as January 2001 asked his advisors to find a pretext for war: “It was all about finding a way to do it,” the former Alcoa CEO told CBS News, “That was the tone of it. The president saying, ‘Find me a way to do this.” And then the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute publishes a report by a visiting professor, a national security specialist, condemning the conflation of al-Qaeda and Iraq and describing the Iraq invasion as a “detour” in the “War on Terrorism” centered in Afghanistan, where the Taliban enjoys a resurgence that few talk about.

You’d think all of this, along with last year’s exposure of the Niger uranium lie, and the vindictive response to that exposure by some very sleazy person in the administration, and the remark by Paul Wolfowitz that the WMD issue was chosen by the administration as the reason for war “for bureaucratic reasons,” and the remark by Richard Perle that “international law … would have required us to leave Saddam Hussein alone” (and so we broke it) would cause an informed public to damn the whole world-transformation project the neocons have openly outlined. You’d think their twilight might in fact be in sight.

But I am not too optimistic. If each day brings another apparent neocon setback, it brings more evidence, too, that the balls they’ve set rolling continue to roll. Yes, the Powell faction seems to have set back the chronology for regime change in Iran and North Korea. Yes, the media seems to get a little bit more critical. But then I switch on NPR or watch MSNBC’s Chris Matthews’ Hardball, and there are Richard Perle (former Defense Policy Board chief) and David Frum (“axis of evil” speechwriter), peddling their warmongering manual, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror, and receiving a deferential hearing as they flout logic and urge the flouting of international law, arguing for ongoing war into what they like to call “The New American Century.” The next step in their project is apparently a long-planned attack on Syria.

Last May I listed in a CounterPunch piece “the issues the neocons have and will continue to raise as they muster support for the Syria invasion:”

1. Syria’s possession of chemical and biological weapons, including those represented as relocated Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

2. Syria’s supposed “sponsorship” of Lebanon’s Hezbollah (viewed by most in Lebanon as a large, mainstream political party), and several Palestinian groups.

3. Syria’s alleged involvement in the flow of personal and equipment into Iraq to fight the invaders.

4. Syria’s alleged harboring of fleeing Iraqi officials.

5. Child custody disputes between Syrian fathers and their American spouses. (This added just as a means of vilifying Syrians in general.)

I felt last May that the most important of these was the first, since it was used effectively to prepare U.S. public opinion for the Iraq attack, and because if WMD weren’t found in Iraq then the easiest way out of the inevitable embarrassment would be to assert that they’re all over the border in Syria. (The thesis of WMD relocation was, to the best of my knowledge, first made by Ariel Sharon in December 2002, when the Israel prime minister declared, “We are certain that Iraq has recently moved chemical or biological weapons into Syria.” So far U.S. officials haven’t been so “certain,” but they’ve occasionally raised the possibility.

Sure enough. Last September, leading neocon and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton laid out the case to Congress for a bill placing sanctions on Syria. Largely symbolic, since there is little trade between the U.S. and Syria, the bill accuses Syria of possessing WMD (which it admits it does, as a deterrent to nuclear Israel, which has attacked it in the past), occupying Lebanon, and supporting terrorism by sponsoring the Lebanese Hezbollah group and several Palestinian organizations. The bill passed overwhelmingly. Soon thereafter, in October, Israel bombed Syria, for the first time in thirty years, supposedly in retaliation for a Hezbollah attack in Israel. European and Arab officials uniformly condemned the attack, but U.S. UN Ambassador John Negroponte endorsed it, declaring, “Syria is on the wrong side in the war on terrorism,” and President Bush called Ariel Sharon to make “it very clear to the prime minister that… Israel’s got a right to defend herself, [and] Israel must not feel constrained in terms of defending the homeland.” It’s what you call carte blanche.

Richard Perle praised the attack, telling a Jerusalem audience he was “happy to see the message [that] was delivered to Syria by the Israeli air force, and I hope it is the first of many such messages.” He also told the Jerusalem Post, on whose board of directors he sits, that he was “happy to see” that Israel was behaving like the U.S. “in responding to acts of terror,” and when asked whether the U.S. might attack Syria, responded: “Everything’s possible. Syria is militarily very weak.” Meanwhile Perle protégé David Wurmser, who had been working under Bolton in the State Department, was transferred to the Vice President’s office as a Middle East advisor. Wurmser, like Perle a co-author of the 1996 “Clean Break” memo to the Likud government in Israel, has long advocated that Washington “roll back” Syria’s Baathist regime. So it’s not so surprising that Janes’ Intelligence Digest reported last week that “US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is considering plans to expand the global war on terrorism with multi-pronged attacks against suspected militant bases in countries such as Lebanon and Somalia” and that “sending US special forces into Lebanon–and in particular an area like the Bekaa Valey (which is virtually Syrian territory) and where the bulk of Damascus’ military forces in Lebanon are deployed ­ wouldalmost certainly involve a confrontation with Syrian troops.” (Question for discussion: Would such a confrontation improve U.S. national security one iota? Why would it happen, and whom would it serve?)

Now back to David Kay, the arms inspector who quit. Just as I was feeling a sense of optimism that his frank admission that the WMD were probably indeed destroyed by the mid-1990s, and that no program was likely undertaken thereafter, and that such statements may weaken the neocons’ efforts, I see this headline in the London Telegraph: “Saddam’s WMD hidden in Syria, says Iraq survey chief.” “We are not talking about a large stockpile of weapons,” says Kay. “But we know from some of the interrogations of former Iraqi officials that a lot of material went to Syria before the war, including some components of Saddam’s WMD programme. Precisely what went to Syria, and what has happened to it, is a major issue that needs to be resolved.” This strikes me as a very significant story, from the same newspaper that last month reported the capture of a memo from Saddam’s intelligence chief confirming links between Saddam, al-Qaeda, the late Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal, and a Niger uranium shipment received via Libya and Syria. (An obvious hoax, it has been quietly buried.)

Whether Kay is deliberately spreading disinformation, or whether there is indeed some reason to believe that “some components” of a WMD program went to Syria, I of course don’t know. I do know that the U.S. sold such components to Iraq in the 1980s, and that being the case, it would presumably be legal for Iraq to give some to its neighbor. But the bigger point is that the neocons are looking for reasons to attack Syria, and if they could alleviate their discomfiture over the absence of WMD in Iraq by producing a reason to mount that attack (no doubt with Israeli assistance), they’d be killing two birds with one stone.

Last April, Lawrence Eagleburger, Secretary of State in the first Bush administration, opined that, “This is still a democracy and public opinion rules. If George Bush decided he was going to turn troops on Syria now and then Iran he’d be in office about 15 minutes. If President Bush were to try it now, even I would feel he should be impeached. You can’t get away with that sort off thing in a democracy.” I do so want to optimistically believe Mr. Eagleburger. I want to believe the neocon nightmare will be over soon. But with them seeking to rule in part through the creation of public opinion, through their simplistic “end to evil” argument appealing to fear, fundamentalism, anti-Arab racism, and nationalist arrogance, I am not sure I can.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.

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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: