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Neo-cons's naive dream to liberate Iraq explodes into nightmare

Date

Jonathan Holmes

The current crisis in Iraq displays more starkly than ever the wilful blindness of the architects of America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

It’s easy to see clearly in hindsight. But sometimes it’s worth looking back at what people foresaw. The current crisis in Iraq displays more starkly than ever the wilful blindness of the architects of America’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

“When Saddam Hussein and his regime are nothing more than a horrible memory, the United States will remain committed to helping the Iraqi people establish a free, prosperous and peaceful Iraq that can serve as a beacon for the entire region.”

Since the end of the first Gulf War in 1992, the neo-cons had been calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In the aftermath of 9/11, they seized their chance. 

That’s what Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defence in the Bush Administration, told the Iraqi-American community in Detroit in February 2003.

Wolfowitz was one of the most influential of that group of intellectuals and political activists who had, for 30 years before 2003, urged that America must use its military might to oppose totalitarian dictatorships. They had attracted the label “neo-conservative”. But the title of the Four Corners program I made about them, which was aired just a week before the Iraq war began, was “American Dreamers”

Since the end of the first Gulf War in 1992, the neo-cons had been calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In the aftermath of 9/11, they seized their chance.

But it’s worth remembering that there were many within the US foreign policy elite who did not share the neo-cons’ passionate certainty – and whose doubts and warnings were ignored.

One of them was Dr Kurt Campbell, who would be Assistant Secretary of State during Obama’s first term and was one of Washington’s most experienced defence and foreign policy experts. Campbell was out of office in 2003, but he shared the views of the so-called “realists” within the Bush administration – among them, Secretary of State Colin Powell. 

But the neo-cons and their hard right conservative allies, such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, had “won the battle for the heart and mind of the President of the United States”, Campbell gloomily told me.

They had convinced George W. Bush, first, that Saddam Hussein was a secret ally and protector of the al-Qaeda terrorist network. That, combined with its possession of weapons of mass destruction, they warned, made Hussein’s Iraq, as well as Iran and North Korea, hideously dangerous – “an axis of evil”, as the president had famously put it in his state of the union address a year earlier.

It turned out, of course, that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. It was obvious to many, too, that he was no ally of al-Qaeda. To claim the two were linked was, Kurt Campbell told me at the time, “almost clearly false”.

“I think al-Qaeda is fundamentally opposed to Iraq and ironically may actually support on some level the invasion of the United States because then it puts Iraq into play as a potential battle ground for Islamic hearts and minds.” 

How prophetic. But neo-conservative Doug Feith, an Under Secretary of Defence with the might of the US intelligence community at his service, told me dismissively: “people who do not see the link are just not familiar with the evidence.” The “evidence” was illusory.

Many, if not most, of the millions who took to the streets in protest against the coming war believed that the talk of weapons of mass destruction was mere flannel, designed to conceal the United States’ true motive: to lay its hands on Iraqi oil.

There is no evidence now, and there was none then, that they were right. Both sides of the insiders’ debate in Washington poured scorn on the idea. What was really driving the neo-cons was something much more surprising: not cynical pragmatism, but an idealistic optimism that American power could be deployed for the benefit of the whole Arab world.

Paul Wolfowitz’s friend and academic ally, Lebanese-born Shi-ite Fouad Ajami, put it this way: “An idea is attached to this war, there is no doubt about it … it really is about the reform, not only of Iraq but … of the Arab world, an attempt to show the Egyptians and the Saudis and others that there is another way of organising political life.”

This was not mere rhetoric for the masses. The neo-cons believed it. And they had persuaded George W. to share the vision. In late February, he told the neo-cons’ own think tank, the American Enterprise Institute: “A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions.“

It was a beautiful dream. But to many, even then, it was extraordinarily naive.

The neo-cons, said Kurt Campbell, were not conservative at all: “one of the most powerful contributions that conservatives have made to our understanding of how to conduct foreign policy is not to overestimate consequences, don't be overly optimistic… if necessary be pessimistic… I think there is entirely too much optimism about what are the potential hopeful consequences of a major war in Iraq.”

When dreamers control armies, their dreams can be dangerous. But it tends not to be they who suffer, when the real-life nightmares arrive.

Jonathan Holmes is an Age columnist and a former presenter of the ABC’s Media Watch program.

73 comments so far

  • The problem is that the neocons won't give up. They want more war and I notice Bernardi thinks the remedy for a revenue shortfall is a tax cut. Strange.

    Commenter
    Maj
    Date and time
    June 18, 2014, 2:50AM
    • Even the Coalition ignores most of the nonsense that comes out of Bernardi's mouth.

      Commenter
      Spaniel
      Date and time
      June 18, 2014, 8:16AM
    • It is clear that the Neanderthal far right policies Abbott so vehemently supported under his predecessor Howard destabilise the political and social foundations of societies as currently being witnessed in Iraq – Terrorism has only increased since the Bush family and other neo cons waged war in the Middle East.

      Abbott is yesterday’s man!

      Commenter
      George
      Location
      East Melbourne
      Date and time
      June 18, 2014, 8:31AM
    • They're like the bloke bogged down in sand, pumping the accelerator again and again in the hopes that this time it will be different! The same approach will not bring a different outcome; it's lunacy to think it will.

      Commenter
      sangela
      Date and time
      June 18, 2014, 9:56AM
    • Don't forget Dick Cheney's Halliburton company made $US39.5 billion from the Iraq war. "There's plenty good money to be made, By supplying the army with the tools of the trade."

      Commenter
      Possum Dreaming
      Date and time
      June 18, 2014, 10:29AM
    • I agree that diggers shouldn't have chipped in WW1 and WW2- we should have just done the whitlam burying our heads in the sand thing like he did on East Timor.... hmm, now that I think about it, didn't the U.S. founding fathers warn them about getting involved in foreign wars?
      Yeah, their founding fathers were right- the yanks should have let the Jap's own the pacific and continue to bomb Darwin into submission. That way beazley snr could have got his way...

      Lefties like holmes are so brainy- we should all become appeasers and continue to allow producers at the abc to do the thinking for us.
      # Always trust mind control central because as media watch proves in its choice of media to report- the abc is never wrong.

      Commenter
      Alex
      Location
      Finley
      Date and time
      June 18, 2014, 10:38AM
    • If the neo-conservative clique in the US really believe in democracy, they are deluding themselves. This is not beyond possibility, since a lie can be sold more effectively if it is told by someone who believes it.

      The neo-conservative lie is based on three false concepts. The first one is that the US has the desire for democratic governments around the world. It does not. It wants pro-US governments and, in at least half the countries of the world, a democratic government would be anti-American. In West Asia, the idea that capitalist democracy equals pro-US policies is especially false, as no elected government would be able to take a pro-Israel position.

      The second falsity is that capitalist democracy is capable of being imposed from the outside by force of arms. The only supporting examples come from WWII and in most cases there had already been a capitalist democracy there before Hitler got to work. The only exception to this was Japan, where exceptional circumstances existed - namely a shared commitment by the occupying power and the defeated Japanese capitalists to preventing the Communist Party gaining support.

      The third falsity, and the most dangerous one of all, is the idea that the US has the power to impose its will anywhere on Earth. What has been proven is that, while the US military can easily despatch any army which confronts it, occupation is another matter entirely and the US no longer has the power (even if it ever did) to control the consequences of its actions. US power is declining and the neo-conservatives refuse to admit it. Instead, they attack politicians of other persuasions as being conciliators, moral cowards and all sorts of other things that discredit them in the eyes of patriotic Americans.

      Neo-conservatism is a dangerous lie.
      power

      Commenter
      Greg Platt
      Location
      Brunswick
      Date and time
      June 18, 2014, 11:00AM
    • @Alex, rubbish. Media Watch often has items that criticize not only reporting by the ABC, but also the Fairfax group.

      Also Jonathan Holmes (at least in this article) made no comments about whether the alliance with the US is good or bad, but the fact that the US went into Iraq on ideological grounds that many at the time (many before the invasion) were say were not true. Even the arms inspectors were seeing there were no WMDs and most experts were saying there was no link between al-Qaeda (who wanted to kick the US out of the middle east and create Islamic states, whereas Saddam Hussein was in it for his personal power and so would not support the creation of any Islamic state particularly in Iraq).

      Commenter
      Wooduck
      Date and time
      June 18, 2014, 12:44PM
    • @Alex; What's going on Alex, I think that was the most incoherent rant I've seen from you. Were you mashing the keys, enraged at the lefty nonsense you had just read? I'm not sure how anything you said relates to the Peter Holmes article.

      As for Media Watch, this weeks episode was quite critical of the ABC and Fairfax. Maybe you should watch.

      Commenter
      Nathan
      Date and time
      June 18, 2014, 1:31PM
  • And a couple of days ago Julie Bishop seriously claimed that "no-one could have foreseen" the sectarian chaos in Iraq. Where was she in 2002-03? Under a rock? Plenty of people foresaw it, but idiots like Bishop refused to listen. Just before the 2003 invasion some Iraqi opposition leaders had a meeting with George Bush. They referred to the sectarian divisions in Iraq and discovered to their amazement that not only did Bush not realise there were any such divisions, he didn't know Islam had differing sects. They spent the rest of the meeting trying to explain the difference between Shi'ites and Sunnis to the Buffoon-in-Chief. And clowns like Bishop and Abbott then followed this moron into war, with inevitable results. Andrew Wilkie is right - we need a Royal Commission into Howard's information before he sullied our military tradition and made us the aggressors in an illegal war.

    Commenter
    Diogenes
    Date and time
    June 18, 2014, 5:32AM

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