It Didn’t Start with the Neo-Cons

“Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”

Michael Ledeen, rightist, neocon, and promoter of war with Iran, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in the early 1990s, as quoted in National Review Online

It’s generally known that the regime of war and torture that the Bush administration has visited upon the Middle East was planned and supported by a group of American intellectuals called collectively neoconservatives. The name is merely a label, not a description: there is nothing remotely conservative about this gang of statist reactionaries. But it is important to realize that their views are not different in kind from those entertained by the shapers of American foreign policy for generations. The neocon position was simply at an extreme end of the (rather narrow) spectrum of American policy options, all of which were animated by the same basic principles — such as the necessity for the US to control Middle East energy resources.

It is often pointed out that the war policy followed by the current administration had been set out in detail by the neocons in the 1990s, well before the disputed election of 2000 and the attacks of 11 September 2001. “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” a notorious neocon report prepared for the Israeli right wing in 1996, recommended the inculcation of “Western values” [sic] in the Middle East — in fact an aggressive new policy of advancing right-wing Zionism. Summing up a decade’s agitation, the neocon Project for a New American Century published a report just before the 2000 election that conceded that their wished-for “process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event — like a new Pearl Harbor.” When it arrived on 9-11, they capitalized on it. If their advice was treasonous, they took Patrick Henry’s advice and made the most of it.

In part owing to the guidance of the neocons, the Bush administration is probably the most dangerous in American history — not just because they are particularly stupid and vicious, although they probably are — but because circumstances have given them, at least momentarily, a relatively free hand in international affairs:

* the fall of the Soviet Union, although undoubtedly an advance for true socialism, reduced the hindrances to the use of American military power after 1991; and

* the criminal attacks of 9-11-2001 provided an unparalleled excuse for the exercise of American state terror, even though US actions in ostensible response to those attacks, notably the invasion of Iraq, bore little or no relation to them. (One leading neocon in the Pentagon actually proposed just after 9-11 that the US should bomb South America or Southeast Asia as “a surprise to the terrorists.”)

Add to those respectively negative and positive encouragements for an aggressive American foreign policy what seems to be an increased American willingness to use nuclear weapons, as well as policies that have the predictable effect of encouraging the spread of nuclear weapons. The world could hardly fail to notice that the Bush administration refrained from attacking one member (North Korea) of the “axis of evil,” its official hate-objects, which had developed a nuclear weapon, while savaging another (Iraq), which had not, despite hysterical American charges; meanwhile they contemplated attacking the third (Iran) before it could develop such a weapon. The conclusion was obvious: the possession of nuclear weapons is a necessary defense against American aggression.


The Useful Threat: the Soviets and After

The fall of the Soviet Union, occurring at the end of the first Bush administration, was not however an unmixed blessing for the US government. It made undeniable what had been merely obvious before ­- the ascendancy of American military power. Despite generations of hysterical US government fear-mongering about Soviet threats — in 1947, when the Truman administration was considering how to sell to the American public a policy of a permanent wartime economy coupled with aggressive interventions abroad, Senator Arthur Vandenberg told the president to “scare hell out of the American people” — the Soviet Union never presented an authentic military threat to the US, or even to western Europe, with the single if substantial exception of the nuclear stand-off. From the Churchill-Stalin agreements in the fall of 1944, each side generally observed the demarcation of its sphere of influence — until the US violated its promise at the time of the unification of Germany and extended NATO to the Russian border. With an economy no more than a third the size of that of the US, the USSR produced an equivalent military as a defense against the world-dominating role that the US took on after World War II.

The situation was quite plain to American policy-makers in those days. State Department analyst George Kennan wrote in a top-secret document in 1948, “We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population … In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity … To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives … We should cease to talk about vague and … unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.” Of course, the idealistic slogans could be saved for selling the policy to the US populace, but policy-makers shouldn’t be distracted by them.

The Cold War was in fact quite functional for both the US and the USSR. Each could use the threat of the other to keep its own clients in line. When the Carter and Reagan administrations killed tens of thousands of people in Central America, it was to stop communism; when the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, it was to prevent the CIA from restoring capitalism. But the disappearance of the USSR made such excuses, always vacuous, now impossible. The naïve and pliable Colin Powell reported that, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev said to him, “General, I am sorry … you will have to find a new enemy”; Powell “jokingly” responded that he didn’t want to find a new enemy — and give up all his troops, funding of $300 billion a year, and an anti-communist crusade that had been trumpeted for thirty years.

Providentially, the jihadists arrived on 9-11 to fill the gap. But they didn’t come out of nowhere: they were in fact conjured by American policy running back to the immediate post-WWII administrations, Democratic and Republican alike. Noam Chomsky points out that “after World War II, the US was by far the dominant world power, and control of Middle East energy reserves became a leading foreign policy goal, as it had been for its predecessors. In the 1940s, US planners recognized that (in their words) Gulf energy resources are ‘a stupendous source of strategic power’ and ‘one of the greatest material prizes in world history.’ Naturally, they intended to control it — though for many years they did not make much use of it themselves, and in the future, according to US intelligence, the US itself will rely on more stable Atlantic Basin resources (West Africa and the Western hemisphere). Nevertheless, it remains a very high priority to control the Gulf resources, which are expected to provide 2/3 of world energy needs for some time to come. Quite apart from yielding ‘profits beyond the dreams of avarice,’ as one leading history of the oil industry puts the matter, the region still remains ‘a stupendous source of strategic power,’ a lever of world control. Control over Gulf energy reserves provides ‘veto power’ over the actions of rivals, as the leading planner George Kennan pointed out half a century ago. Europe and Asia understand very well, and have long been seeking independent access to energy resources. Much of the jockeying for power in the Middle East and Central Asia has to do with these issues. The populations of the region are regarded as incidental, as long as they are passive and obedient…”

Of course these populations can become a severe problem for US control. “Domestic radicalism,” whether of the left or right, if it threatens to wrest control of a country’s energy resources from the West and employ them for the purposes of that country’s populace, must be countered.


Modes of Control: Israel and Religion

For a generation after WWII, the US saw secular Arab nationalism as the most dangerous form of domestic radicalism in the Middle East, and it countered with two instrumentalities: Israel and religion. In 1967 Israel defeated Egypt’s Nasser, the leader of international Arabism, and was adopted by the US as its chief client and Middle East watchdog. To mop up secular Arab nationalism, the US and Israel encouraged the growth of Islamist movements, up to and including the Palestinian party Hamas, whose origins were funded by Israel to counter the secular Palestine Liberation Organization. The present struggle between Fatah and Hamas in the Occupied Territories is a direct result of the US adoption of the imperialist’s oldest maxim, “divide et impera” — but with the division being accomplished by religion.

In pursuit of this policy, the Carter administration (1977-81), in the most expensive CIA operation in history, recruited fanatic Islamist fighters (eventually including Osama bin Laden) and sent them into Afghanistan to worry the Soviet Union — before the Russian invasion of that country, according to Carter National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war,” he said. To the objection that the policy was worse than a crime, it was a blunder, Brzezinski replied, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?” The US was to discover that “some stirred-up Muslims” could trouble Americans as well.

When the Reagan administration (1981-89) came to power, they announced that they would replace President Carter’s feckless “human rights” foreign policy with a new slogan: “war on terror.” Of course the terror that they had in mind — recent popular uprisings in Latin America — was still ascribed to the fell influence of international communism, but the new slogan was a recognition that the excuse was wearing thin, once Gorbachev became the Soviet leader.

The sudden departure of the USSR in 1991 was entirely unexpected by American policy makers. In fact, one of the first appearances of the neocons in battle dress had been as “Team B” in the 1970s, an outside group (approved by Director of Central Intelligence George H. W. Bush) who countered estimates by CIA intelligence officials known as Team A. They argued that the CIA was ignoring the aggressiveness of the Soviet Union and vastly underestimating its military power. Of course they were wrong on both points, but that didn’t matter: their views became the basis for the massive arms buildup that began under Carter and accelerated under Reagan.

The Bush-1 administration (1989-93) tried to fill the gap caused by the loss of the communist menace with narcoterrorism: they killed a lot of Panamanians to put a former CIA asset (and incidentally a head of state) into a Miami jail. The Clinton administration (1993-2001), shown the way by Bush-1 in Somalia, where the killing of another thousand people by the US went unremarked (except for the propaganda movie Black Hawk Down), seized on “humanitarian intervention” to bring a recalcitrant Serbia, on the border between Europe and the Middle East, to heel in 1999. Democrats now try to contrast the Clinton administration with that of Bush Jr., but in fact the former showed the way for the latter. And even if the estimates of almost three quarters of a million people dead in Iraq as a result of Bush’s war are accurate, as they seem to be, it may still be the case that Clinton is responsible for more dead Iraqis. The sanctions against Iraq imposed by the UN after the Gulf War of 1991 — in fact administered by the US and the UK — killed at least a half million children alone, according to the two UN administrators who resigned in protest of the “genocidal” US policies.


How We Live Now: Hegemony or Survival

Paradoxically, it took the first major engagement of the US military after the disappearance of the USSR — the attack on the prostrate country of Iraq — to reveal its severe limitations. The defeat of the US occupation of Iraq — the American writ now barely runs even in Baghdad, despite the “surge” — was almost immediately replicated in the humiliation of US client Israel by the irregulars of the Lebanese Shi’ite Party of God.

But the present situation is extremely hazardous: a predator becomes more dangerous when wounded, as Chomsky has recently said. The US government’s trumped-up charges against Iran resemble a losing gambler’s doubling of the stakes. The US has shown that it is willing to go to great lengths to prevent losing control of Middle East energy. As Iran flirts with Russia and China and hints that it will become part of an Asian energy grid, the US sees the fundamental principle of its long-term policy at risk.

As President Chavez pointed out at the United Nations, quoting Noam Chomsky, the US rulers show themselves willing to risk even the survival of the species in pursuit of global hegemony. It’s primarily the responsibility of the American people to stop them.

C. G. Estabrook is a retired visiting professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a co-host of “News from Neptune“; he can be reached at: A shorter version of this piece was submitted to a local “progressive” paper, The Public I, which refused to publish it in a dispute stemming from their objection to the paragraph about the Clinton administration. He can be reached at: galliher@uiuc.ed


C. G. Estabrook conducts “News from Neptune” on Urbana (IL) Public Television.  He can be reached at