Back to the future
This is a post from a man trying to wheedle out of past mistakes. This is the work of a man who has not made enough mistakes and is determined to trash what little reputation he has. Neither help us make sense of the world in which we find ourselves, but both give us some insight to different forms of a delusional mindset that so recently governed us.
First to Perle, because his the the better-written and more substantial article:
FOR EIGHT years George W. Bush pulled the levers of government—sometimes frantically—never realizing that they were disconnected from the machinery and the exertion was largely futile. As a result, the foreign and security policies declared by the president in speeches, in public and private meetings, in backgrounders and memoranda often had little or no effect on the activities of the sprawling bureaucracies charged with carrying out the president’s policies. They didn’t need his directives: they had their own.
Again and again the president declared “unacceptable” activities that his administration went on to accept: North Korean nuclear weapons; North Korean missile tests; Iran’s nuclear-weapons program; the Russian invasion of Georgia; genocide in Sudan; Syrian and Iranian support for jihadists in Iraq and elsewhere — the list is long. Throughout his presidency, Bush demanded that these states change their ways. When they declined to do so, policy shifted to an unanchored, foundering diplomacy engineered by a diplomatic establishment ...
The fact that they "declined" to do so, Richard, is the whole point. Neocons (I'll get to Perle's taxonomy problems later) assured Bush that there would be no such decline.
... the Bush presidency — its credibility gravely diminished — became indistinguishable from the institutional worldview of the State Department. There it remains today.
Of course it does, because the neocon assurances came to nothing and their worldview bore no relation to what was actually happening. Attempts to replace the State Department as the most effective organ of US foreign policy failed. The US State Department offered those who made that country's foreign policy shelter against the storm of criticism that the old ways didn't work, and new ways aren't yet available: no think-tank or drugged-up disc-jockey offers that.
You'd expect Greg Sheridan to be stumbling out of the wreckage that Bush wrought, coughing and wiping the bulldust from his eyes. Not so:
Obama ... is the President of the US and as such an enormous force for good in the world. He represents the continuity of overwhelmingly beneficial American policy.
Obama is clearly a transitional president, moving America slowly away from shibboleths that no longer support it toward more sustainable structures. His work on Cuba and his shirtfronting the irrelevant Poms shows that he has started his country on a journey - not preserving the status quo in aspic, but not trashing it like Bush did to his predecessors' foreign policy. Not only does Greg miss the transition, he takes comfort that Obama hasn't left him exposed.
... it is impossible not to be annoyed by the double standards that the Bush-hating media applies to [Obama]. Can you imagine the noise and fuss that would be made if George W. Bush had tried to appoint to his cabinet a gaggle of charmed plutocrats who apparently felt the payment of tax was entirely optional?
What do you mean "if"? The "Bush-hating media", Greg, are no better or worse than the Bush-loving media.
On all the main issues — Iraq, Iran, Russia, China, Islamist terrorism, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, relations with allies — Obama’s first term is likely to look like Bush’s second.
This is the point where you (because you can't rely on someone like Greg Sheridan to help do it for you) call bullshit on Perle, because:
- Iraq: Obama has all but set a timetable for withdrawal rather than a 'surge' that undercut the Iraqi government's standing and ability to provide for its own defence;
- Iran: actively trying to open dialogue with the Iranian government and people, none of your "axis of evil" crap;
- Russia, China: too early to tell;
- Islamist terrorism: Obama's overtures to the Muslim world have produced the sort of mutual respect that neocons had promised Bush on entry to Baghdad in 2003, and dampened the appeal of inflammatory rhetoric;
- Syria: even Greg Sheridan would not pretend that an opportunity like this was available to Bush (see also Iran, above);
- the Israeli-Palestinian dispute: events, dear boy, events will ensure that this dispute is a whoe new kettle of fish from what it had been in 2005-09. The Netanyahu-Barak-Liberman government will keep things interesting, as will the degree to which moderate Palestinian leaders like Abbas can outflank the Israelis in appealing for the 1948 resolution to be completed (see also Iran, above; the US will hold the Israelis back from destroying Iran's nuclear facilities);
- relations with allies: try telling Gordon Brown that it's business-as-usual in Washington; Sarkozy's traditional French sneering at American oafishness has been comprehensively blunted; about the only allies that can expect a "normal" relationship with the Obama Administration are Ireland, Canada and Australia - and even they/we are in for some surprises there.
It will not be easy to assess objectively the foreign and security policy of the Bush administration anytime soon.
Possibly because anyone who has a go at Bush, even in the most even-handed manner, will attract a shitstorm from lost-boy conservatives like Greg Sheridan. As Nixon was the only one who could go to China without being Red-baited by Richard Nixon, so too the only criticism of Bush acceptable to Sheridan will come from Sheridan.
Its central feature, the war in Iraq, has generated emotions that all but preclude rational discourse. And it will be nearly impossible to persuade those whose minds are made up — often on the basis of tendentious reporting and reckless blogs — to reconsider what they firmly believe they know.
That doesn't stop tendentious Sheridan nor my reckless self, though. It's hard to put a stop to that, as Perle seeks to do, by seeking to change history and nitpick a politically-scientific term out of its meaning.
"Neoconservative" is a term with a definite meaning, elucidated in detail by powerslut Leo Strauss with some assumptions about fundamental liberties and rule of law that haven't quite worked in practice. Irving Kristol gave an eloquent explanation here, before this elegant theory died in the arid desert of practice in Washington, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.
First, Perle starts with a barrage of outrage and some potent denial":
the false claim that the decision to remove Saddam, and Bush policies generally, were made or significantly influenced by a few neoconservative “ideologues” who are most often described as having hidden their agenda of imperial ambition or the imposition of democracy by force or the promotion of Israeli interests at the expense of American ones or the reshaping of the Middle East for oil—or all of the above. Despite its seemingly endless repetition by politicians, academics, journalists and bloggers, that is not a serious argument.
I may have missed something, but I know of no statement, public or private, by any neoconservative in or near government, advocating the invasion of Iraq primarily for the purpose of promoting democracy or advancing some grand neoconservative vision.
Leaving aside the equivocation at the start of the latter paragraph, this is an attempt by a man to send a clarion forth from the equivocations of Washington politics to make a point, and to call out challengers. This is quite the statement, really: that the war in Iraq was not the neoconservatives' big chance to prove themselves.
Note also the other equivocation built in there:
Yairs. Hours of fun weaselling out of that one.
... laughable, as when Vice President Dick Cheney is first misrepresented and then described as a “neoconservative”
In thought, word and deed, Cheney belongs in the club described by Irving Kristol above.
... or when two subcabinet Defense Department officials, the vice president’s national-security adviser, one or two members of the NSC staff and a handful of commentators are said to have bamboozled the president, the vice president, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, Condoleezza Rice and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
It's (now) clear that Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld and Tenet wanted to be fooled, and that Powell didn't do enough to head off this disaster. Wait till Perle's neo-umbrage confronts all that neo-Freudian stuff about Bush Jr. having succeeded where Bush Sr. failed.
So if it was not a neocon master plan, how did we end up invading Iraq? What were the considerations that led Bush to bring down Saddam Hussein’s regime by force? ... I BELIEVE that Bush went to war for the reasons — and only the reasons — he gave at the time: because he believed Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States that was far greater than the likely cost of removing him from power.
Trouble is, those reasons don't hold up. Perle continues to invoke 9/11, which is to harness a real casus belli to a fake one:
Destroying the sanctuary that al-Qaeda enjoyed in Afghanistan was essential and so became the first order of business. With it, al-Qaeda could plan, recruit, train, communicate, and manage the intelligence, logistics, and organization that 9/11 and its possible successors required. Without a sanctuary, al-Qaeda’s capacity to carry out another 9/11 would be greatly diminished. Moreover, the destruction of the Taliban regime would send a signal to other governments that allowed terrorists to operate from their territory: we would no longer regard terrorist acts of mass murder as crimes to be dealt with by the institutions of law enforcement alone.
All good stuff, but it doesn't explain Iraq.
Al-Qaeda was driven into hiding and the people of Afghanistan, especially Afghan women, were liberated from a brutal, repressive Taliban regime. I also believe the subsequent decision to remove Saddam Hussein was right.
Subsequent but not concominant, Richard. The work in Afghanistan is still undone as of 2009, because of Iraq.
And as for Israeli interests, well, the Israelis, who believed that Iran posed the greater threat, were strongly and often vociferously against the United States going into Iraq.
Do you not think they might have a point? One person at least shows signs of having learnt from experience:
Obama said: "The US is not, and will never be, at war with Islam. In fact our partnership with the Muslim world is critical not just in rolling back the violent ideologies that people of all faiths reject but also to strengthen opportunity for all its people. I want to make it clear that America's relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world, including my own country."
These were all sweet and sensible words by Obama, delivered with charm and grace. They were almost exactly the same as words Bush had uttered countless times. Yet the reaction in the Arab world was overwhelmingly positive.
One can only conclude that "the Arab world" is in thrall to the western Bush-hating, shoe throwing media, Greg. Obama deserves the benefit of the doubt, Bush does not. Bush's actions despoiled these fine sentiments and made sure that America's relationship with the Muslim world - including its own Muslim citizens - went rancid.
This is fascinating and it is very difficult to judge its precise significance.
Only if you're blinkered and chained to the ideas out of which Perle is trying to wriggle. Sheridan breaks out, not with a welter of quibbles, but with a lunge at racism:
There is also undoubtedly a racial aspect to all this. Much of the paranoia in Arab culture has a racial element. In the vast, informal alliance between Islamist extremism and the political Left in the West, a common enemy, a common villain, is Western colonialism. Obama, as an African-American, appeals, at least subconsciously, as a fellow victim of white colonialism rather than a representative of a new wave of white colonialism. Much of these dynamics are operating subconsciously, which is why their logical contradictions don't matter too much.
Let's overlook the interactions between Arabs and Africans over millenia, about which Sheridan clearly knows nothing. Having revealed to us the poverty of his thinking, he is poorly placed to act as a guide to the subconscious of an entire people.
Much as I love Indonesia, it probably is true that this had a greater resonance in the Arab world by being delivered in Turkey (not that Turks are Arabs) than it would have had if it had been delivered in Jakarta.
Nor is he well placed to patronise a nation of millions. Leave that to Dicky Perle:
In any case, the salient issue was not whether Saddam had stockpiles of WMD but whether he could produce them and place them in the hands of terrorists. The administration’s appalling inability to explain that this is what it was thinking and doing allowed the unearthing of stockpiles to become the test of whether it had correctly assessed the risk that Saddam might provide WMD to terrorists.
Unlike many people, I'm ready to admit the perception that Iraq had WMDs was real, and not some bogus spectre cooked-up by belligerent wackos. What I'm still not clear on is the link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.
The administration’s view, which I shared, was that few Iraqis would fight for Saddam while most would consider themselves liberated from the long nightmare of his reign of terror. I expected a quick victory and thought the cost was justified compared to the risk of another terrorist attack, this time with chemical or biological weapons.
A regime fighting for its own survival would have used those weapons on the troops set against it. The real proof that Saddam had no WMDs was the fact that US troops made it to Baghdad, and later to Saddam's hidey-hole, without being subject to these weapons. For all Perle's risk-management, he should have considered that along with the reality that, as with Iran in the late '70s, radical Islam really was the only internal opposition Saddam had left. The idea of Saddam colluding with al-Qaeda against the US was a furphy.
I wish we had journalists who would call bullshit on public figures regarding issues of substance. I'd forgive them their occasional focus on gaffes and other minor matters if only they stood up on the big issues. Perle got away with murder, preserving discredited neoconservatism for another day. Watchdogs like Greg Sheridan are revealed as blinkered oafs who insist on their own relevance while the facts of our world show they have no clue. Greg Sheridan actually inhibits your understanding of the world in which you live. No quibbles, no old-times-sake: stick a fork in him, he's done.