Debating a Neocon

When I was first invited by Dr. Stephen Smith to speak at Winthrop University in South Carolina, I was preparing a trip to Haiti and I didn’t give much thought to how I would handle the engagement. I’d just finished being pole-axed by a bout of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and it was everything I could do to just pull the Haiti trip together. So I didn’t pay much attention to the person who would appear with me ­ one Patrick Clawson ­ to represent “the other side” in a forum/debate billed as “What Next in Iraq? A Post-Election Perspective.”

While I was in Haiti, a full blown intifada had broken out against the de facto US puppet government of Gerard Latortue, so I had extended my trip for a week. The problem was, I was scheduled to speak to a group at Binghamton NY on November 4th, and had only just arrived from Haiti the night of the 3rd (missing my opportunity to go to the polls and refuse to vote for either Bush or Kerry), and I had a weekend planned with my family and my 23-month-old grandson from Friday night (the 5th) through Sunday night (the 7th) and the debate with Dr. Clawson was on the 8th. So I didn’t really check out who this guy was until Sunday afternoon when I was exhausted (a condition exacerbated by the acquisition of an amoeba while I was in Haiti).

It was with less than a day to prepare, as well as drive from Raleigh to Rock Hill, South Carolina, that I web-searched “patrick clawson” and discovered that he is a serious neocon heavyweight. Here is his bio from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he is deputy director:

“Patrick Clawson is deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the author of more than thirty scholarly articles on the Middle East, which have appeared in, among other scholarly media, Foreign Affairs, International Economy, Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics and Middle East Journal. Dr. Clawson has also published op-ed articles in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, among other newspapers. Dr. Clawson is currently senior editor of Middle East Quarterly. He has testified before congressional committees more than a dozen times and was co-convenor of the Presidential Study Group organized by The Washington Institute, which published its recommendations to the new Bush administration in the form a monograph, Navigating Through Turbulence: America and the Middle East in a New Century (The Washington Institute, 2001).

“From 1993 to 1997, Dr. Clawson was a senior research professor at the Institute for National Strategic Studies of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., where he was the editor of the Institute’s flagship annual publication, Strategic Assessment. From 1981 to 1992, he was a research economist for four years each at the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and Foreign Policy Research Institute, where he was also editor of Orbis, a quarterly review of foreign affairs.
“His most recent authored and edited works include:

How to Build a New Iraq after Saddam, editor (The Washington Institute, 2003)
The Last Arab-Israeli Battlefield? Implications of an Israeli Withdrawal from Lebanon, co-editor (The Washington Institute, 2000)
Dollars and Diplomacy: The Impact of U.S. Economic Initiatives on Arab-Israeli Negotiations, co-author (The Washington Institute, 1999)
Iran Under Khatami: A Political, Economic, and Military Assessment, co-author (The Washington Institute, 1998)
Iraq Strategy Review: Options for U.S. Policy, editor (The Washington Institute, 1998)
U.S. Sanctions on Iran (Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, 1997)
Energy Security in the Twenty-First Century (NDU Press, 1995, edited)
Iran’s Strategic Intentions and Capabilities (NDU Press, 1994, edited)
How Has Saddam Hussein Survived? Economic Sanctions 1990-93 (NDU Press, 1993)
Iran’s Challenge to the West: How, When, and Why (The Washington Institute, 1993)

“Dr. Clawson graduated with a doctoral degree from the New School for Social Research and a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College. He speaks Persian (Farsi), French, Spanish, German, and Hebrew.”


My silent reaction to viewing this information was, “Holy Shit! I’ve got maybe four hours to prepare to debate in front of God-knows-how-many people with this six-language-speaking, ultra-curriculum-vitaed, foreign-policy-PhD’ed Near East scholar who had, according to the ads for the debate, just driven 2,000 miles around Iraq. The guy’s got Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz on his advisory board, and turns out to personally know the vice-prez. How in the hell do I prepare for the subtly-crafted, super-erudite, arcanely-justified arguments that I am about to face Me, with a degree I got by correspondence in the Army, whose never been to Iraq, and who frequently reads his remarks in public presentations to counteract a tendency to wander completely off into things like what is the best way to season collards? Holy shit!”

So I dredged up every bit of research I had used to write about the region, printed the stuff out, and started reading. During a break in the reading at around midnight the day of the debate, I battered my keyboard to produce 15 minutes of opening remarks. At midnight, I am about as sharp as a bowling ball, so I went with combative simplicity and the stuff I’ve repeated until it has become a mantra.

He might red bait me, so I’d just claim my politics up front and take that away from him. Don’t get tangled up in arcane minutiae; stick to arguing what the real reason are likely to be for the war ­ I couldn’t argue about specific developments anyway, because I’d been out of touch for a month. Denounce Kerry early and often so he can’t turn it into a post-election debate about Bush’s “mandate.” Don’t claim the war is about “stealing” oil (a favored bit of nonsense among liberals that can be easily demolished). Talk about it as a crisis of capitalism, because they never want to discuss this. Hit him in his Zionism because it’s basically indefensible any time a couple of actual facts are deployed and if he gives me any shit, bring up the USS Liberty (A low blow I know, but I didn’t have to go there, as it turned out). Imply that the re-election of Bush might actually be a better situation than the election of Kerry on account of the Bush administration’s propensity to be the bull in the China-shop (Fallujah is proving this yet again), and bait him into defending the list of failures so far in Iraq. Finally, mention Haiti and see if he bites.
My opening remarks were:

I’m sure some of you have heard the story of the frog and the scorpion, but for those who haven’t, I’ll tell it again.

There was a frog about to swim across a river, when suddenly he was confronted with a scorpion in his path. The frog fell back in fright, but the scorpion was quick to reassure him, “I’m not going to sting you. I just have a favor to ask.”

The frog, still startled but hoping the scorpion meant him no harm, said, “But you are a scorpion. What favor could you ask of me?”

The scorpion replied, “I just need a ride across the river. I can’t swim, but you can. If I sting you and you die, how would I get across? Can’t you please give me a ride?”

The frog thought for a moment, and in his relief that the scorpion had not stung him, he consented. The scorpion climbed on the frog’s back, and off they went across the river. As the frog reached the riverbank and pulled himself out of the water, the scorpion stung him and stepped onto land.

The dying frog cried out to the scorpion, “You told me you wouldn’t sting me.”

The scorpion replied, “I can’t help it. It’s my nature,” and walked away.

In most of the debates we have heard about the war in Iraq during the election campaign, debates that are now thankfully past, we heard the usual point/counterpoint about weapons of mass destruction, about who could more competently carry out the military occupation of Iraq, about who could convince what allies to help carry this burden, about what has or hasn’t been done about Osama bin Laden, or about who was more competent to carry out the War on Terrorism.

I will depart from these formulae. I think these arguments are red herrings, that is, the fallacious method of introducing irrelevant topics to divert attention away from the real one.

I don’t believe the war is the exclusive product of the delusional thinking of the islamophobic clique that surrounds our current presidential mediocrity, as many liberals suggest. I don’t believe the war ever had anything at all to do with weapons of mass destruction. I don’t believe the very people who call this a War on Terrorism believe it for one minute, and moreover I believe they know perfectly well that the term “war on terrorism” is oxymoronic inasmuch as one cannot prosecute a war against a tactic. I don’t believe it is a war to steal anyone’s oil, though it has everything to do with oil and more. The fact that half the people in the United States believed at some point that a shattered nation like Iraq constituted a threat to the United States does not compel me for a moment to refrain from pointing out that this is a proposition that was and is idiotic on its face and it is not at all unusual for half of a national population to believe something that is patently idiotic. I am not a conservative, and I am not a liberal, and I am not a politician, and I am not a pacifist, and I am not religious, so I am not in the least compelled or constrained to prop up the polemical foundations of any of the agendas that might be associated with these kinds of affiliations.

I believe that the war in Iraq is symptomatic of a much deeper global crisis, and that it foreshadows a period in which that crisis ­ a crisis of global capitalism ­ will manifest itself not only in war but in rapidly widening social destabilization, the further militarization of the world system, and simultaneous economic and environmental collapse.

Just in case there is a temptation to resort to red-baiting to avoid responding to the content of my arguments, let me save you the trouble. I am on record as a severe critic of capitalism as an inherently destructive system built on genocide and slavery, sustained by misogyny, racism, poverty, and war, and bound to undermine its own material basis through ecocide. I do not, however, believe as some leftists seem to, that a more sensible system will inevitably replace it. If progressives continue to whine and wring their hands instead of fighting back, we could very well end up with a century or so of anarchy and warlords in the context of a mass human die-off on a ruined and toxified planet.

Present-day imperialism is a real system, and it is currently directed by the American state. The war in Iraq was probably the inevitable action of this state in response to an impending and inexorable erosion of the very basis of American global power. The war in Iraq, while deeply morally repugnant, is not a failure of morality, but the action of a system that can’t help it, because like the scorpion, it is that system’s nature.

Republicans and Democrats can’t tell you this. Pacifists and most true religious believers won’t tell you this. Politicians, who will tell you only what you want to hear, won’t tell you this. But I believe that it is irresponsible to delay telling the patient who will die of gangrene the unpleasant fact that the leg must be amputated.

Global capitalism runs on fossil energy, but the United States does not have to take oil from anyone. Every oil producing nation, including Iraq, has been perfectly willing to sell oil to the United States. It is cheaper to buy oil that it is to steal it with military action. The issue of oil is an issue not of production but of increasing demand between competitors in a period when we have nearly reached the peak of production output.

Global demand now is at 79.5 million barrels of oil a day. The International Energy Agency and the Department of Energy predict global demand of 115 mbd by 2020, but that is based on demand rising at 1-1.25% per year. In fact, demand is rising at twice that rate. Yet industry experts who are not spinning figures to reassure stockholders tell us that with massive improvements in infrastructure and perfect political stability, the highest output achievable is around 85 mbd. This year, China passed Japan as the world’s second largest importer of crude oil.

If anyone believes that Dick Cheney’s energy task force, on which Dr. Clawson served, did not review these figures as part of their long-term strategic energy assessment and how it related to the continued possibilities for the accumulation of capital, I have a mountaintop retreat to sell you in Miami.

So the question of oil is not a question of taking it. It’s the question of the mathematics of it when global capitalist competition continues to trend toward 100 mbd by the end of the decade, when there’s not adequate flow pressure to meet that demand. Someone gets cut. And someone decides who gets cut. Establishing permanent military bases in the very region where over half the remaining easily accessible reserves exist goes a long way toward putting the power that controls those bases in the driver’s seat. As a friend of mine once said, “Oil is not a normal commodity. No other commodity has five US Navy battle groups patrolling the sea lanes to secure it.”

Iraq’s pre-invasion production was around 2.5 mbd, but even with heroic effort to restore it, production has not risen above 1.8 mbd today ­ a net loss of 700,000 barrels a day ­ and the US military effort alone is calculated to have an energetic cost of 350,000 barrels a day.

This is not business math. This is geopolitical and military math. What is being sought is a new foundation, a military one, upon which to base US global supremacy as the current one is beginning to crumble. And reliance on direct military violence to achieve one’s national aims is not a sign of strength, but a sign of weakness ­ a sign that there is a fundamental failure of hegemony. Hegemony is not direct control, but internalization of control by those who are dominated.

In 1968, Richard Nixon inherited the hair-raising collapse of the US Treasury’s gold pool and the un-winnable occupation of Vietnam that had caused it. Within the next four years, Nixon would abandon fixed currency exchange rates and the gold standard, then allow a 20% devaluation of the dollar that wiped out billions of dollars in US debts to Western Europe and Japan. Since oil payments were denominated in dollars, the consequent jump in the price of oil was a harsh blow for Europe, Japan, Africa, and Latin America.

The US, on the other hand, owned the dollar printing press, and it was able to recycle the crisis, via petrodollars, through these regions. US puppet governments in Iran and Saudi Arabia helped underwrite this system with their ability to swing oil production.

This game of economic chicken by Nixon set the stage for a new method to assure US supremacy, since the post World War II industrial boom had run aground on the rocks of the Marshall Plan nations’ export capacity and on Vietnam.

The currency speculation that this abandonment of the gold standard and fixed exchange rates stimulated led inevitably to currency crises in weaker nations, whereupon the Reagan administration in response to the Mexican currency crisis of 1982 gave the US its first crack at loan-sharking through the International Monetary Fund, in which it held controlling plurality and exclusive veto power. This loan-sharking is called “structural adjustment,” and it not only bleeds 70 different nations white with an un-payable external debt, paid in dollars by the way, these loans are contingent on allowing US investors to penetrate national economies to take over key economic sectors. This system is now referred to as neoliberalism but I just call it debt-leverage imperialism. [I later found out that Dr. Clawson once worked for the IMF.]

It is augmented by a Treasury Bill standard by which the US is able to force its key capitalist competitors ­ who have the lion’s share of their central bank reserve currencies in dollar-denominated T-Bills, loans to the United States that they know and the US knows it can never pay back ­ to continue to accept the dollar at its over-printed, overvalued current levels out of fear that they will wipe out the value of their own central banks.

This continually growing glut of fiat dollars created the conditions for the precarious Asian meltdown of 1998, for the dotcom bust of 2000, and for the real estate bubble that will burst next. US private and public debts are at record levels, and if ­ or should I say when ­ there is a deflationary crisis around a falling dollar, the US middle class will sink to the bottom like the Titanic.

At the same time, the external debts of underdeveloped countries imposed upon them by IMF loan-sharking are creating increasing anger and unrest around the world that is already translating into political upheavals.

Just as the post World War II US-dominated global architecture began to crumble toward the end of the Vietnam invasion, the neoliberalism that underwrote the bacchanalia of the 90’s is reaching its endgame. This is the deeper reason that something has to be done, and what we are witnessing right now is the particular neocon version of how that global architecture will be rebuilt ­ by dint of arms actually ­ and it’s faltering badly in Southwest Asia, where its ignorant and racist Orientalism, its overwhelming hubris, and its devotion to and trust of the Apartheid state of Israel, have led it into a deep and increasingly hostile labyrinth.

The region is now a hot cauldron of competing and contradictory interests: the aspirations of Kurdistan opposed to the interests of Iran, Syria, Turkey, and the thug Allawi; the continuing expansionary aims of the settler state of Israel tied irrevocably to the aims of the US who desperately needs some street cred in a region where US prestige is the lowest in living history; the connections being forged between Iran, Russia, and China; the internal destabilization of Pakistan by its alliance with the United States; the refusal of the Iraqi resistance to conform to the US script; and the potential destabilization of the Saudi regime ­ the ultimate goal of bin Laden all along ­ where living standards have gone into steep decline, aquifers are being depleted to squeeze out more oil, and where the masses become more restive each day.

None of us can predict exactly how and when this pot will boil over, only that it will.

So in closing, I have good news and I have bad news.

The good news is that the results of this election may not have been as terrible as thought by those who allowed their revulsion to George W. Bush and his coterie to cloud their view of the larger global conjuncture. But the reality is that this crew is proving much more likely to run the locomotive of imperialism off the tracks than their Hamiltonian realist counterparts.

The specific crisis in Iraq is not the crisis of military defeat ­ which is not, at any rate, ultimately determined by tactical outcomes, but by political outcomes.

The US crisis in Iraq is that one goal of that occupation was to demonstrate a fictional US military invincibility ­ to shock and awe the world. The crisis is not simply the very real tactical crisis that we can smell emanating from the podium of every Pollyanna briefing from Rumsfeld’s War Department. The deeper crisis is that the shock-and-awe bluff is being successfully called, and the rest of the world is now alive to the fact that the great power bleeds.

So we see now, for example, the continental drift of Latin America, from the Chavista popular democracy in Venezuela, to the current Haitian intifada, to the popular rebellions in Bolivia and Ecuador, to the recent election of a leftist government in Uruguay a development that is accelerated by the fact that the US state has gotten itself bogged down in a swamp of military and political contradictions in Southwest Asia. The collapse of imperialism was going to be difficult in any case, but I have to say that it is a good thing in the larger scheme of things, and we should welcome it. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that we have not reconstituted a vital, militant left that is clear on its responsibility to seek political power in this country yet. And I’m not talking about Howard Dean, folks. Anyone who considers the Democratic Party as a left party needs to pull their face away from that bottle of spot remover. We need to refound the left in this country that has a fighting spirit and that does not limit its activities to the fetish of elections ­ and one that can forge a program that does not shy away from the difficult but necessary work of incorporating not just class, but gender, oppressed nationality, and environmental justice into that program.

That’s the bad news, but that can be corrected, starting now, and starting with the sisters and brothers right here in this room. We cannot afford the luxury of crying about an election. We are in a struggle for the soul of our own society, a struggle against black-shirted reaction on every front, and there can be no rest, no retreat, no compromise, and no surrender. We cannot back down in the face of either their patriot-baiting or their Patriot Act. As Irish revolutionary James Connolly said, “The great only appear great because we are on our knees. Stand up.”

Now is our time to stand up.

In fact, I was second to present my opening remarks. While I was pretty nervous before he started to talk, by the time he’d taken his 15 minutes to open, I grew more and more relaxed. We were not being treated to either subtlety or erudition. His pitch was barely above the level of a carnival barker ­ a rehash of what you might hear at any Centcom briefing. The gist of it was and this was telling well, we made some mistakes, at least the ‘intelligence community’ did, but now we are there, and it would be a disservice to the Iraqi people for us to leave the place and allow the ‘terrorists’ to take over.

That was it!?!?

This guy had boarded a plane from DC to the Land of Strom to debate a burned-out commie vet emaciated with an amoeba, and the best he could come up with in front of around 300 people was “stay the course?”

That’s when it occurred to me, there’s no there there. These people have no arguments they can state. His opening remarks were a rehash of why John F. Kerry was less fit to run Iraq than George W. Bush. Once anyone refuses to engage in this speciousness, the neoconservatives flounder like beached mullets.

We don’t need the heavy artillery of superbly crafted argument to face them down. The simplest facts that were excluded from the presidential debates out of political expediency (dare I call it opportunism) can shoot these guys down like sparrows lined up on a fence.

(During a mini-engagement in a class on Women and Global Politics, 21-year-old students were handing Dr. Clawson his head.)

As the debate went forward, Dr. Clawson:

(1) Claimed that ‘the market’ can create natural resources.
(2) Said that Democrats wanted to attack Iraq, too.
(3) Recommended Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” to the audience.
(4) Said that Democrats wanted to attack Iraq, too.
(5) Consistently refused to reply to any of the facts about Israeli Apartheid and Palestinian Bantustans, or about Israeli violations of UN resolutions (though we heard repeatedly that Saddam was in violation of UN resolutions), or about Israeli weapons of mass destruction.
(6) Said that Democrats wanted to attack Iraq, too.
(7) Referred four times to the ‘Pottery Barn rule,’ that ‘you break it, you buy it,’ as an argument for staying in Iraq.
(8) Said that Democrats wanted to attack Iraq, too.
(9) Claimed that the hydrogen-economy was on the horizon and that coal might replace gasoline (in coal-burning airplanes, I assume).
(10) Said that Democrats wanted to attack Iraq, too.
(11) Said that the US has the responsibility to help ‘weak and fragile nations,’ and that our disengagement with weak and fragile Haiti was an example of what happens when we don’t.

Whoa! He didn’t say that last one! Ah, but he did, and it was like a double-shot espresso. With this target of opportunity squarely in a cleared field of fire, the audience was treated to a detailed account of how the US State Department orchestrated the February 29 coup d’etat in Haiti, and about how badly THAT occupation is going, too.
He actually blushed after that one.

In every case, I agreed with him that Democrats wanted to attack Iraq, too, and that they had attacked it as often as possible throughout the eight-year administration of Bill Clinton ­ who by the way had killed more Iraqis than George W. Bush. I also pointed out that Democrats, not Republicans, were the most vocal in calling for a return of military conscription, and that Kerry not only said he wouldn’t withdraw from Iraq, but that he would expand the troop numbers ­ making him the Lyndon Baines Johnson of Southwest Asia. Not only that but any smart Democrat right now would be whooping for joy that they won’t get the next four years hung around their necks, because the forces in motion ­ including maybe stagflation and the deepening defeat in Iraq ­ are bigger than either party of the rich.

It is truly remarkable how easily KO’ed these neocons are once you step outside the tight little ring of the Republicrats. They’ve got maybe three combinations, and they are slow as a cow. Everything inside has been ritual combat, so they do very badly when someone actually intends to hit them.

One might think the audience was put off by all this; that the conservatives were offended when I called George W. Bush “Dick Cheney’s meat puppet,” or worse, that those who had desperately voted Kerry would be offended by my speaking the unspeakable about him being another bourgeois war-candidate.

Not so. People on both sides were anxious to talk after the debate, asking for references and links to some of the information, seeming suddenly stimulated to ask new questions in the face of information to which many had obviously never been exposed. They weren’t angry. They seemed almost relieved, like they’d been locked in and suddenly found a key.

Take whatever moral from this story you like. For this burned-out commie vet, it’s keep battering away because these people are weaker than they seem, even if they DO have state power. (I’m ready for my IRS audit, sir.) And quit accepting their premises, or you’ll never end up with anything except their conclusions.

STAN GOFF is the author of “Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti” (Soft Skull Press, 2000) and “Full Spectrum Disorder” (Soft Skull Press, 2003). He is a member of the BRING THEM HOME NOW! coordinating committee. His periodic essays on the military can be found at Email for BRING THEM HOME NOW! is

Goff can be reached at:


Stan Goff retired from the US Army in February 1996. He is a veteran of the US occupation of Vietnam, and seven other conflict areas. His books include Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti (Soft Skull Press), Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century (Soft Skull Books), Borderline: Reflections on War, Sex, and Church (Cascade Books), Mammon’s Ecology: Metaphysic of the Empty Sign (Cascade Books), Tough Gynes: Violent Women in Film as Honorary Men (Cascade Books), and Smitten Gate (a novel about Afghanistan, from Club Orlov Press).