How They Might Influence the Election

Former CIA Analyst

(A Primer for a Talk in Santa Fe, New Mexico.)

You’ve all surely heard widely varying stories about how much power, or how little power, the so-called neoconservatives — or neocons — have inside the Bush administration. I’ve been asked to explain, briefly, some of the mysteries about these neocons and what role, if any, they might play in this year’s election.

To start with, let’s spend a minute or two on definitions — who’s a neocon and who is not? Specifically, President George W. Bush and his very highest-level foreign policy advisers are not neocons. Bush himself, as well as Vice-President Richard Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, are all just plain conservatives and always have been, with nothing “neo” about them. (Secretary of State Colin Powell is not a neocon either, but in the eyes of many Washington insiders he is also not really a part of this inner sanctum that dominates the actual making of U.S. foreign policy these days.)

The real neocons are those who started out as liberals or at least Democrats and who later proudly became Republicans. They are all one or more rungs below Bush’s top foreign policy advisers in the hierarchies of our nation’s capital. Others, generally younger officials, are happy to call themselves neocons, even though technically they cannot claim to be neo-anythings, because they never were liberals and never switched parties. In their careers to date, they’ve always been conservatives. But they too claim the neocon label.

A few of the neocons (Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, “Scooter” Libby, John Bolton, and Elliott Abrams) wield real power in Washington. Most, however, do not. In general, the neocons and their supporters who are not in top jobs are advocates, spokesmen, think tank idea-men, writer-flacks, and rationalizers of policies that would never be implemented unless they were converted into official policy by Bush himself and his top advisers, and by those who have paid the most money for his elevation to the presidency, the leaders of the corporate and military power structure that dominates the country’s politics. This structure, of course, is far greater than just a small group of leaders. It includes thousands of defense and high-tech workers, contractors, government employees, military personnel, members of Congress, investment firms, many lawyers and judges, and lobbyists, foreign and domestic, who see their future livelihood as dependent on the continuation of this system.

Within this entire conglomerate, the neocons definitely wield real power and influence, even though none of them at present occupies a cabinet-level position. But one thing and only one thing makes them important — the fact that with minor exceptions, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice have enthusiastically accepted all the early phases of the policy agenda that has, since the early 1990s, been the very trademark of the neocons. This agenda includes a general, or global, aspect and another aspect that gives greater emphasis to the Middle East than to any other area. The global agenda includes constantly expanding U.S. military expenditures, a unilateral U.S. drive for global domination, and increased control over the world’s fossil fuel supplies. The Middle East agenda includes the strengthening of Israeli/U.S. partnership and hegemony throughout the region and, in furtherance thereof, advocacy of war, first against Iraq and then if necessary against Syria, Iran, and possibly other Middle Eastern states.

In effect, Bush has made at least the early stages of these policies his own. Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice support them. Early on, Colin Powell may have had qualms about these policies, but, good soldier that he is, his loyalty to the Bush family quickly overcame his qualms.

The neocons are lying low at the moment, for a couple of reasons. Since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, they have gone through an early phase of riding high and wanting to capitalize on their success, and then a “downer” phase — still continuing — of nagging constant casualties and instability in Iraq. This is one reason for downplaying their own role in policymaking. Another is their ties to Israel. Some of the most important neocons support and encourage practically every policy of Ariel Sharon’s right-wing Likud government, although they choose not to advertise these close ties. Too much talk by the neocons poses some danger for Bush in this election year. His political handlers surely want to avoid the embarrassment that might result if it became more widely accepted that one of the real U.S. motives in invading Iraq was to strengthen Israel’s military position and political dominance throughout the Middle East. It has been important ever since Bush took office in January 2001 for the administration to downplay any connection between Israel and the war against Iraq. Obfuscating the “Israeli motive” of the war was almost certainly one of the reasons the administration so transparently exaggerated first Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and, more recently, Washington’s desire for democracy in Iraq.

So supporters of Bush have launched a two-pronged counterattack, arguing first that the influence of the neocons over U.S. foreign policy is a myth and, second, that if you are dumb enough to believe the myth, it is almost a sure thing that you are also an anti-Semite. A great example of this approach was written by David Brooks, one of the New York Times’ more conservative columnists, who also appears frequently on PBS’s News Hour with Jim Lehrer. In his January 6, 2004 Times column, Brooks wrote:

“Theories about the tightly knit neocon cabal came in waves. One day you read that neocons were pushing plans to finish off Iraq and move into Syria. Web sites appeared detailing neocon conspiracies . . . The full-mooners fixated on a think tank called the Project for the New American Century [or PNAC] . . . To hear these people describe it, PNAC is sort of a Yiddish Trilateral Commission, the nexus of the sprawling neocon tentacles . . . In truth, the people labeled neocons (con is short for ‘conservative’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish’) travel in widely different circles and don’t actually have much contact with one another . . . There have been hundreds of references, for example, to Richard Perle’s insidious power over administration policy, but I’ve been told by senior administration officials that he has had no significant meetings with Bush or Cheney since they assumed office . . . It’s true that both Bush and the people labeled neocons agree that Saddam Hussein represented a unique threat to world peace. But . . . all evidence suggests that Bush formed his conclusions independently . . . Still, there are apparently millions of people who cling to the notion that the world is controlled by well-organized and malevolent forces. And for a subset of these people, Jews are a handy explanation for everything . . . Anti-Semitism is resurgent.”

This piece by David Brooks is an effort, first, to divert attention from the extraordinarily well documented influence of the neocons and, second, to squelch criticism of what many Americans believe are dangerous U.S. policies toward Israel, Iraq, and the entire Middle East. The views of the neocons have in no sense been a conspiracy. Information about them is wide open and readily available. Raising the charge of anti-Semitism against those who criticize U.S. — and Israeli — policies is, to put it bluntly, appalling but not surprising. The British journalist Robert Fisk has commented, with respect to the Brooks column, that:

“Brooks even tries to erase the word ‘neo-conservative’ from the narrative of the Iraq war . . . And so here we go again. No weapons of mass destruction. No links between Saddam and 11 September. No democracy. Blame the press. Blame the BBC. Blame the spooks. But don’t blame Messers Bush and Blair. And don’t blame the American neo-conservatives who helped to push the US into this disaster. They don’t even exist. And if you say they did, you know what you’re going to be called.”

Most people who are knowledgeable on Middle Eastern affairs believe, as Robert Fisk does, that the neocons are in no way a myth. And in the area of intelligence, it is quite clear that the neocons are right now trying to expand their influence. They are trying to switch the entire blame for the fiasco over weapons of mass destruction and the continuing killings in Iraq to the CIA. There is no question that the CIA deserves some of the criticism directed against it, but most of the blame in my view belongs to the administration’s own distortions and exaggerations of intelligence. The neocons want to reorganize the intelligence apparatus of the United States to make it even easier for the administration to introduce more distortions and exaggerations into intelligence analysis in the future. The proper answer here is to make the CIA less susceptible to any administration’s attempts to slant and twist intelligence analysis to its own liking. (For proposals on precisely how the CIA should be reorganized, see

One of the problems we face in trying to evaluate the true influence of the neocons in supporting aggressive U.S. foreign policies that strengthen Israel’s position throughout the Middle East is the need to determine the relative weight of the neocons versus other factors that are also at work in influencing U.S. policy toward Israel. One of these other factors is AIPAC — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the principal pro-Israel lobby organization — and its numerous subsidiary lobbies that are able to generate majority support in both houses of Congress for almost any measure that the government of Israel wants. Without the activities of these organizations, the influence of the neocons in Washington would be diminished, although by how much we cannot say.

It suffices to know, however, that the neocons and the lobby together form a very powerful mutual support society, and their relationship is symbiotic in the extreme. The neocons, as noted, have long pressed for ever larger military expenditures by the U.S., thus throwing their full support to the very groups that finance most heavily the election of today’s presidents. The influence of the lobby, for its part, is far more than a matter of the money it has to spend. The extremely close ties that many elements of the U.S. military-industrial complex have developed in recent decades with the smaller but also powerful Israeli military-industrial complex magnify the strength of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington in ways that most people simply do not comprehend. The Israeli activist, Jeff Halper, who is the founder and head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and has had considerable experience dealing with members of Congress in recent years, describes it this way:

“Israel has located itself very strategically right in the center of the global arms industry. Israel’s sophisticated military hardware and military software are very important to weapons development in the United States. Israel has also become the main subcontractor of American arms. Just last year, Israel signed a contract to train and equip the Chinese army. It signed another multi-billion dollar contract to train and equip the Indian army. What is it equipping them with? It is equipping them with American weapons.

“Israel is very important, because on the one hand it is a very sophisticated, high-tech arms developer and dealer. But on the other hand, there are no ethical or moral constraints: there is no Congress, there are no human rights concerns, there are no laws against taking bribes — the Israeli government can do anything it wants to. So you have a very sophisticated rogue state — not a Libyan rogue state, but a high tech, military-expert rogue state. Now that is tremendously useful, both for Europe and for the United States.”

Halper points out that there are still some American Congressional constraints on selling arms to China because of China’s human rights problems. So Israel modifies American arms just enough that “they can be considered Israeli arms, and in that way bypasses Congress.” He adds that “for the most part, Israel is the subcontractor for American arms to the Third World. There is no terrible regime . . . that does not have a major military connection to Israel. Israeli arms dealers are . . . like fish in water in the rough and tumble countries that eat Americans alive: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, China, Indonesia, these countries where Americans just cannot operate, partly because of business practices, and partly because they have [Congressional] constraints and laws.”

Thus, when AIPAC sells Israel to Congress, it does not go to congressmen and ask them to support Israel because it is Judeo-Christian, or because it is the “only democracy in the Middle East.” AIPAC sells Israel by telling a congressman that he or she should support Israel because this is how many industries in your state have business links to Israel, this is how many military research people are sitting in universities in your district, this is how many jobs in your district are dependent on the military and the defense industry. Therefore, if you are voting against Israel, you are voting against your own best interests. Halper adds that in most congressional districts, “members of Congress have a great dependence on the military. More than half of industrial employment in California is in one way or another connected to defense. Israel is right there, right in the middle of it all. And that is part of its strength.”

When activists on the other side go to a member of Congress and talk about human rights, about occupation, about Palestinians, the congressman usually, in Halper’s experience, says, “Look I know, I read the papers, I’m not dumb, but that is not the basis on which I vote. The basis on which I vote is what is good for my constituents.”

Although Israel is a tiny country, its U.S. supporters present it as more than an ally of the United States. The AIPAC website says, for example, that the job of Israel is to protect American economic interests in the Middle East. It even says that Israel is developing laser weapons from outer space to protect American interests. Israel clearly sees itself as, and is proud of being, a part of the American Empire. We need to expose Israel as the regional superpower and necessary component in the U.S. Empire that it really is.

So both the neocons and these other factors that strengthen the neocons should be kept in mind when we try to answer questions about the neocons and the 2004 presidential election. Let’s look at two questions.

First, what role if any will the neocons and their views on foreign policy play in this year’s presidential election?

Perhaps the neocons will not play any role, but that may be wishful thinking. If Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Karl Rove come to believe, around September or October, that they are likely to lose the election, it is not by any means beyond belief that they would, in desperation, undertake some new aggressive and “preemptive” military action against Syria, Iran, North Korea, or someplace else we cannot now even anticipate. In other words, a new “October surprise.” They have used lies to instill fear and advance their ill-considered doctrine of preemption once, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they might do so again. The neocons, of course, would be among the strongest advocates of such moves, and that would be one way in which they might influence the election. Peace movements in this country and around the world should, in my view, be ready to undertake massive demonstrations in the hope of preventing such an eventuality.

Second, how might the outcome of the election affect the neocons themselves?

The answer here is simple, but it is a limited answer. If the Democrats win back the presidency this year, the neocons — or most of them — will at least temporarily be out of work, and that will be excellent news. Any conceivable Democratic administration would implement somewhat less aggressive and less unilateral foreign policies. But most likely, a Democratic administration would be almost as beholden to the nation’s military-national security-corporate complex for campaign funding as the present Republican administration. There would be changes of tone in U.S. foreign policies, but very likely only limited changes in the policies themselves. The close ties between the U.S. and Israeli military-industrial complexes that I described would continue, and changes in U.S. policies toward the Middle East would be minimal.

BILL CHRISTISON joined the CIA in 1950 and worked on the analysis side of the Agency for over 28 years. In the 1970s he served as a National Intelligence Officer (principal adviser of the Director of Central Intelligence) for Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Africa. Before his retirement in 1979, he was Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis, a 250-person unit. He can be reached at: