Robert Dreyfuss’ article “Vice Squad,” about the Office of the Vice President in the American Prospect) is the best piece I’ve seen in awhile on the neoconservatives and their persistent influence in the Bush Administration. But it also places the neocons’ Middle East preoccupation in wider perspective.
Dreyfuss notes that the OVP is “very difficult for journalists to penetrate” because of its extraordinary, unprecedented degree of secrecy. Even so, “a Prospect investigation shows that the key to Cheney’s influence lies with the corps of hard-line acolytes he assembled in 2001. They serve not only as his eyes and ears, monitoring a federal bureaucracy that resists many of Cheney’s pet initiatives, but sometimes serve as his fists, too, when the man from Wyoming feels that the passive-aggressive bureaucrats need bullying.”
Among key staff members, Dreyfuss lists the disgraced Lewis “Scooter” Libby, formerly Cheney’s chief of staff and top national security adviser; current top security adviser John Hannah; current chief of staff David Addington; national security advisers Eric Edelman and Victoria Nuland (wife of neocon heavy Robert Kagan); Middle East specialists William J. Luti, and David Wurmser; and Asia hands Stephen Yates and Samantha Ravich. He also lists an array of technocrats, lobbyists, domestic policy gurus and communications directors. (For an official enjoying about 18% approval, Cheney has a large PR staff.)
Dreyfuss describes how on numerous occasions one of Cheney’s “acolytes” has intervened to overturn decisions made by the State Department, CIA or other government bodies to produce the result Cheney desires. For example, in February 2005 King Abdullah of Jordan on a Washington visit urged the U.S. to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader, to counter the power of the new popularly elected Hamas administration. The State Department was inclined to agree, but Hannah stepped in, arguing Cheney’s view that the entire Palestinian Authority was now irrelevant. (Washington has since cut nearly all ties to the Palestinian Authority.)
Cheney consistently gets his way, controlling what information reaches President Bush, who has little interest in details. An “insider deeply involved in U.S. policy toward North Korea” described the decision-making process. “The president is given only the most basic notions about the Korea issue. They tell him, ‘Above South Korea is a country called North Korea. It is an evil regime.’ … So that translates into a presidential decision: Why enter into any agreement with an evil regime?”
Lawrence Wilkerson has referred to the Vice President’s office as the center of a “cabal” that pressed for war on Iraq and built the case by cherry-picked dubious intelligence. That it’s a powerful nest of neoconservatives intent on “regime change” in Syria and Iran is no news. That the simple-minded, bellicose president leans on Cheney for advice and thereby empowers an alliance of aggressive nationalists and neoconservatives to set foreign policy is no news either. But Dreyfuss sheds new light on Cheney’s perception of the world, and the role that China plays within it.
Cheney’s leading China specialist, Stephen Yates, and several other staffers (including Libby) worked for California Congressman Christopher Cox in the 1990s during the investigation into Chinese political influence in the U.S. that followed allegations of Beijing contributions to the Clinton-Gore presidential campaign. The long report they produced maintains that China is a looming threat and rival, with its rapacious need for Middle East oil and designs on Taiwan. Charles W. Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to China who has known him many years says that Yates, as well as neocons Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, formerly top officials in Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department, “all [see] China as the solution to ‘enemy deprivation syndrome.’” (You need some unifying enemy after the collapse of the Soviet Union.)
I’ve hesitated about whether to apply the word “neoconservative” to persons like Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. I tend to follow the Christian Science Monitor list. Paul Wolfowitz, Libby, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Richard Bolton, and Elliott Abrams are intellectuals absorbed in the project of using U.S. military power to remake the Middle East to improve Israel’s long-term security interests. (Hannah, David Wurmser, Eric Edelman, and other White House staffers not on the Monitor’s dated list also fall into this category.) Ultimate decision-makers Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld on the other hand are sometimes referred to as “aggressive nationalists.” They are no doubt Christian Zionists, but are probably most interested in transforming the “Greater Middle East” in the interests of corporate America in an increasingly competitive world. They’re probably more concerned about the geopolitics of oil and the placement of “enduring” military bases to “protect U.S. interests” than the fate of Israel.
Dreyfuss’ article suggests that Cheney (and thus, the administration) sees China as the biggest long-term threat to those interests. If conflict with China is inevitable, it makes sense to have U.S. bases in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Iraq and maybe Iran and Syria. If China is dependent on Middle East oil, it makes sense for the U.S. to be able to control how and where it flows from the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf oil fields. It makes sense to cultivate an alliance with India, risking the accusation of nuclear hypocrisy in doing so. It makes sense to ratchet up tensions on the Korean Peninsula, by linking North Korea to Iran and Iraq, calling it “evil,” dismissing South Korea’s “sunshine diplomacy” efforts and encouraging Japan to take a hard line towards Pyongyang. It makes sense to get Tokyo to declare, for the first time, that the security of the Taiwan Straights is of common concern to it and Washington. It makes sense to regain a strategic toehold in the Philippines, in the name of the War on Terror, and to vilify the growing Filipino Maoist movement. It makes sense for a man like Cheney, who decided on Bush’s staff in late 2000, to seed the cabinet with strategically-placed neocons who have a vision of a new Middle East. Because (1) that vision fits in perfectly with the broader New World Order and U.S. plans to contain China, and (2) the neocons as a coordinated “persuasion” if not movement, with their fingers in a dozen right-wing think tanks, and the Israel Lobby including its Christian Right component, and the academic community, are well-placed to serve as what Dreyfuss calls “acolytes.”
They are equipped with a philosophical outlook that justifies the use of hyped, imagined threats to unite the masses behind rulers’ objectives and ambitions, to suppress dissent and control through fear. They’re inclined to identify each new target as “a new Hitler,” and to justify their actions as “an answer to the Holocaust.”
They have served Cheney well, and he them so far. They’re all being exposed, maybe weakened. But as Dreyfuss states at the end of his article, “The true measure of how powerful the vice president’s office remains today is whether the United States chooses to confront Iran and Syria or to seek diplomatic solutions. For the moment, at least, the war party led by Dick Cheney remains in ascendancy.”
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org