It’s a Neocon Middle East, And We Still Live In It

Twelve years after the September 11 attacks, threats of American involvement in Syria’s civil war have refocused attention on the region at the heart of our foreign policy: the Greater Middle East. By “Greater Middle East” I mean not only the Arab-Muslim heartland of the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, and the Levant, but the broader region stretching from Morocco in the west to Pakistan in the east, from Turkey in the north to Yemen in the south (with the exception, of course, of Israel). Many of the countries in the region are not Arab – Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan – but all are predominantly Muslim, and all are infected to one extent or another with the ideology of Islamism, built around the view that Muslims constitute a pan-national political entity and not merely a religious confession.
For the past five years, U.S. foreign policy has been made by senior elected officials and political appointees who, in the words of the Boston Globe, “built careers on [an] anti-war posture.” And yet, our policy in the Greater Middle East remains impervious to new strategic initiatives that seek to fundamentally alter the “neoconservative” course set by the Bush Administration. And while that much-used term is often abused or misunderstood, the policy it describes has taken on a life of its own. It’s still the neocons’ world, and everyone else is living in it. And the jury is still out on how it will end.
But this much is already clear: the old status quo is gone and cannot be reconstructed. The biggest loser in the post-September 11 world has been established order of a region previously dominated by Muslim and Arab strongmen who (while they might be seen as religious zealots by Western standards) sought to ground their rule on secular concepts like nationalism, who ran stable, tightly controlled police states and engaged in traditional power politics, and who successfully projected the internal tensions of their repressed societies outwards. The forces of popular change have come to the region, and for good or ill, they will not be denied. The harder question is what replaces the old order.
Digging To The Roots
Writ small, the September 11 attacks were a conspiracy by Al Qaeda – a terrorist group based in Afghanistan, Germany, and to a lesser extent Egypt and Pakistan, and consisting largely of Saudi Wahabbist Muslim fanatics – to attack civilian targets in the United States. Some observers argued from the beginning that we should focus on the conspirators and their organization, and forego broader ambitions.
The Bush Administration never treated the attacks simply as a criminal conspiracy to be isolated and punished, instead preferring to treat Al Qaeda as a symptom of a wider problem, and to seek out a solution that required digging deeper into the region’s pathologies in the effort to root out the entire problem once and for all. That approach recognized the reality that the organization of jihadist extremist groups was fungible; Al Qaeda was simply one manifestation of a larger movement. Al Qaeda’s own recent behavior illustrates this reality: holding a coordinated conference call with other extremist and terrorist groups that one intelligence professional described as akin to the “Legion of Doom”; current Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri calling publicly for more locally organized terror attacks like the Boston Marathon Bombing; radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki giving Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan the ideological encouragement to conduct a lone jihadist attack on an American military base.
The nearly unanimous decision to go to war in Afghanistan was made without real discussion of what our broader goals were, but the war in Iraq nearly a year and a half later forced the question into the open. Even with the publication of memoirs by most of the major players, we have never really had a full, candid accounting of the grand-strategic thinking of President Bush and his team between September 2001 and March 2003. Bush, in his own memoir, summarized his principles in four points:

First, make no distinction between the terrorists and the nations that harbor them – and hold both to account. Second, take the fight to the enemy overseas before they can attack us here at home again. Third, confront threats before they fully materialize. And fourth, advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy’s ideology of repression and fear.

That fourth point was the source of the high-flying rhetoric about liberty and democracy and its connection to security in his Second Inaugural Address in 2005:

We have seen our vulnerability – and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny – prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder – violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
…So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.
This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen…

What was missing from all this was an explanation of how we planned to get to that end – precisely who the enemy was and is, and what our strategic philosophy would be in deciding when to use force, when to declare the mission accomplished, when to coexist with dictators who cooperated against the jihadists, and when to support insurrections that were aligned with them. Both Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, in their memoirs, stressed the importance of stepping back and doing strategic thinking even in the bustle of war, but despite their respect for Bush, both memoirs have a little edge of regret that more such thinking wasn’t done from the top in a public way that would have given clearer direction to the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But just because the strategy wasn’t explicitly stated as such doesn’t mean a course wasn’t set. When the Bush Administration’s actions are considered in light of the thinking of conservative commentators and the justifications offered then and now, it seems clear that the Administration came, rather early, to the conclusion that the problem was the fundamental structure of the Greater Middle East (at a minimum its political structure). Because the solution to such a problem is not merely to launch missiles or drop bombs, but to change the governments of the region – a much more ambitious goal – it inherently required kick-starting the process by choosing a country to make an example. The obvious choice, for a variety of reasons, was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with which we already had continuous hostilities dating back a decade; the U.S. Congress had already, in 1998, declared a change in Iraq’s regime to be official U.S. policy. Regardless of the specific arguments made for the invasion of Iraq at the time, the ultimate historic judgment of the Iraq War must be bound up with the eventual success or failure of the grand strategy it represented, just as the ultimate worth of the sacrifices made in Korea and Vietnam are now subsumed in the larger context of the success of the Cold War.
The Nail Beckons The Hammer
President Bush’s “freedom agenda” came to be identified with the neoconservatives, an anti-communist movement dating back to the 1960s, in large part because when the planes hit the towers, the prominent ‘neocon’ thinkers in and out of government were the ones most ready with an off-the-shelf explanation for how you deal with such a problem, and their template resembled what ended up being put in practice in Iraq and Afghanistan. An accurate history of neoconservatism is too broad a subject for this essay, but it was merely one of several strands of thought on the Right that came to similar conclusions about the Cold War by the time of the Reagan era: that the struggle with Soviet Communism was an ideological one, an important component of which was demonstrating to its captive peoples and those on the fence that our system was superior in delivering a good way of life; that they should be encouraged to undermine and ultimately reject their home governments; and that we would not abandon them no matter how long that struggle took. This broad-based view that the Cold War could be won by rooting out the origins of the conflict had won out over the narrower model of containment that focused on dealing with specific provocations as they arose.
The virtue of the neoconservative model was that it had been proven as part of a long-term ideological struggle that succeeded beyond our wildest dreams by the early 1990s; we had won the Cold War without fighting a full-scale war with the Soviets, ushering in a massive global expansion of democracy and trade. Even Putin’s Russia, troublesome as it is, looks more or less like a success story compared to the Brezhnev era – and it looked better in 2002 than it does today. But the parallels were not perfect or entirely encouraging: the Cold War had taken 45 years to win, it had involved a huge, costly military and economic strategy that could not easily be adapted to an adversary that consisted of a loose confederation of non-state-actors and states allied only by convenience, and – perhaps most alarmingly of all – a key ally in the Cold War was the religious faith of Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim subjects oppressed by the atheistic Soviet empire, whereas the battle against Islamism would require convincing millions of Muslims to re-evaluate political doctrines that many of them believed were taught by their faith.
Moreover, the history of the neoconservative model in and before the Cold War offers its own cautions. Ideological competition presupposes populations that have sufficient freedom of action to do something about their governments, or (in the case of Japan between 1850 and 1900) a government that itself sees the benefits of change. Churchill dedicated extensive resources to fomenting rebellion against the Nazis during World War II – he famously directed the Special Operations Executive to “set Europe ablaze” – but the resistance movements in places like Poland and Greece were brutally suppressed; as historian John Keegan concluded from a review of the SOE’s operations, most had little impact on the stability of the Nazi occupation. Only external Allied military force was able to crush Hitler. Only the Union Army, rather than slave rebellions, defeated the Confederacy. The French Revolutionaries were rarely able to subvert their monarchical adversaries and had to meet them on a conventional field of battle. Since the dawn of the West, the history of civilizational clashes is long on the use of military force to defend and expand Western Civilization and short on the peaceable conversion of its enemies. Even in the Cold War, the U.S. was compelled to take to the battlefield to protect the populations of South Korea and South Vietnam from conquest.
The neoconservative approach to post-9/11 strategy was not the only one on offer on the Right. On the one hand was the “realist” approach, redolent of containment, that counseled working with the existing regimes in the region to ally against the non-state-actors and bring the bad-actor states in line. The realist school on the Right, preaching power politics, is in this sense often allied with the school on the Left that preaches the maintenance of order by international institutions (an approach that has regained its footing with the passage of time, but which was plainly inadequate to the task of organizing a response in the aftermath of an event like September 11). On the other was the “Jacksonian” approach. Put bluntly, the Jacksonian impulse is to avoid meddling in the world until provoked, and then respond with as much brute force as necessary to convince everyone, innocent or guilty of the attacks, not to get us that angry again. Jacksonians were thus in favor of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but not in favor of sticking around long-term to clean up the mess.
Bush’s foreign policy team was by no means ideologically monolithic (just as Reagan’s was not); Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice all hailed more or less from the realpolitik school of thought that prevailed under George H.W. Bush (although many of Cheney’s old aides, back in government, were identified with neoconservatism), and if you ever described Don Rumsfeld as a “neo” anything, you deserve to have your pundit card revoked. But then, in many ways the decision to seek a more structural, long-term solution was as much a product of Bush’s personality and temperament as any ideology. Bush had come into office believing in decisiveness and the use of political capital for large goals and distasteful of half-measures and short-term “kick the can down the road” solutions, and when possible, he naturally gravitated towards bold strokes. Setting the United States the ambitious task of igniting a regional revolution in the Greater Middle East would put all of these impulses into action.
Two Blog Perspectives
To understand the logic of the neoconservative project, it is worth looking back at two essays written at the time from opposite ends of the political spectrum, one on a right-leaning blog, the other for a left-leaning magazine.
Probably the most influential blog essay of the War on Terror was the “Strategic Overview” written in July 2003 by Steven Den Beste. It is interesting and telling, looking back, how much of Den Beste’s analysis and that of others on the Right at the time rested more on Arab culture than Islam, although its logic extends to the wider region. Den Beste’s essential argument was that we were dealing with a body of people that was (1) stuck in a constellation of failed states and a failed culture, (2) deeply ashamed by that fact, and (3) lacking either the will to face that fact or a political outlet in which to do something about it, and therefore were (4) encouraged to vent their rage and frustrations at those outside the Muslim and Arab worlds. Den Beste’s prescription was to break down the political order of the Arab/Muslim world and replace it with something more responsive to popular needs, demands and aspirations. An ambitious project, but one in line with the longstanding conservative view that men can change governments more easily than governments can change men. As Den Beste explained:

The large solution is to reform the Arab/Muslim world. This is the path we have chosen.
The true root cause of the war is their failure and their resentment and frustration and shame caused by that failure.
They fail because they are crippled by political, cultural and religious chains which their extremists refuse to give up. The real causes of their failure is well described by Ralph Peters. Most of the Arab nations suffer from all seven of his critical handicaps, and the goal of reform is to correct all seven, as far as possible.
If their governments can be reformed, and their people freed of the chains which bind them and cripple them, they will begin to achieve, and to become proud of their accomplishments. This will reduce and eventually eliminate their resentment.
Their governments would then cease needing scapegoats.
Their extremists would no longer have fertile ground for recruitment.
This is a huge undertaking; it will require decades because it won’t really be complete until there’s a generational turnover. But ultimately it is the only way to really eliminate the danger to us without using the “foot-and-mouth” solution (which is to say, nuclear genocide).
The primary purpose of reform is to liberate individual Arabs. This is a humanist reform, but it isn’t a Christian reform. There will be no attempt to eradicate Islam as a religion. Rather, Islamism as a political movement, and as a body of law, and as a form of government must be eliminated, leaving Islam as a religion largely untouched except to the extent that it will be forced to be tolerant. The conceptual model for this is what we did in Japan after WWII, where only those cultural elements which were dangerous to us were eliminated, leaving behind a nation which was less aggressive, but still Japanese. No attempt was made to make Japan a clone of the US, and no such attempt will be made with the Arabs.

In Den Beste’s view, it was essential that “we had to conquer one of the big antagonistic Arab nations and take control of it” for the following purposes:

To place us in a physical and logistical position to be able to apply substantial pressure on the rest of the major governments of the region.
To force them to stop protecting and supporting terrorist groups
To force them to begin implementing political and social reforms
To convince the governments and other leaders of the region that it was no longer fashionable to blame us for their failure, so that they would stop using us as scapegoats.
To make clear to everyone in the world that reform is coming, whether they like it or not, and that the old policy of stability-for-the-sake-of-stability is dead. To make clear to local leaders that they may only choose between reforming voluntarily or having reform forced on them.
To make a significant long term change in the psychology of the “Arab Street”
To prove to the “Arab Street” that we were willing to fight, and that our reputation for cowardice was undeserved.
To prove that we are extraordinarily dangerous when we do fight, and that it is extremely unwise to provoke us.
To defeat the spirit of the “Arab Street”. To force them to face their own failure, so that they would become willing to consider the idea that reform could lead them to success. No one can solve a problem until they acknowledge that they have a problem, and until now the “Arab Street” has been hiding from theirs, in part aided by government propaganda eager to blame others elsewhere (especially the Jews).
To “nation build”. After making the “Arab Street” truly face its own failure, to show the “Arab Street” a better way by creating a secularized, liberated, cosmopolitan society in a core Arab nation. To create a place where Arabs were free, safe, unafraid, happy and successful. To show that this could be done without dictators or monarchs. (I’ve been referring to this as being the pilot project for “Arab Civilization 2.0”.)
…Neither Afghanistan nor Iran would serve the political goals. The conquered nation had to be one generally thought of as being Arab.
The human and cultural material we needed for reform did not exist in Afghanistan.
The “Arab Street” would not have been impressed by successful reform in Afghanistan or in Persian Iran.

In addition to Iraq’s strategic location and the various casi belli already in existence (also beyond the scope of this essay, but worth revisiting at another time with the distance of a decade), he also noted the important symbolic reasons why Iraq was well-suited to this project:

Saddam had become a hero to the “Arab Street”. He was thought of as a strong Arab leader who was standing up to the West. Though Iraq’s military had been decisively defeated in 1991, Saddam survived politically and this actually enhanced his reputation. He hadn’t won against us, but at least he’d tried, which was better than anyone else seemed to be doing. The “Arab Street” was proud of him for making the attempt. (This involved a lot of revisionism, such as ignoring Saddam’s earlier invasion of Kuwait, or the participation of large Arab military forces in the coalition army which fought against Iraq.)
Iraq’s military had the reputation of being the largest, best armed and most dangerous of any in the region. If it could be decisively crushed it would be psychologically devastating.
Baghdad historically was one of the great capitals of classic Arab civilization. Having it fall to outsiders would be symbolically important.

I would add that Iraq’s religious and ethnic diversity (the very thing that caused Joe Biden to argue for it being partitioned into three separate states) also presented both a challenge and an opportunity. A challenge, because of the sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia that would break into something resembling a full-blown civil war in 2006, but also an opportunity, because Iraq could not be unified along monosectarian lines; it needed, and continues to need, some tolerance of pluralism within Islam to function as a single state, some mechanism for enabling tolerance and co-existence.
From the opposite end of the political spectrum, Josh Marshall, writing in April 2003, concluded essentially the same thing about the Bush Administration’s strategy, a strategy he found deeply troubling. He described his nightmare for the aftermath of toppling Saddam:

The United Nations and NATO are in disarray, so America is pretty much on its own. Hemmed in by budget deficits at home and limited financial assistance from allies, the Bush administration is talking again about tapping Iraq’s oil reserves to offset some of the costs of the American presence–talk that is further inflaming the region. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence has discovered fresh evidence that, prior to the war, Saddam moved quantities of biological and chemical weapons to Syria. When Syria denies having such weapons, the administration starts massing troops on the Syrian border. But as they begin to move, there is an explosion: Hezbollah terrorists from southern Lebanon blow themselves up in a Baghdad restaurant, killing dozens of Western aid workers and journalists. Knowing that Hezbollah has cells in America, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge puts the nation back on Orange Alert. FBI agents start sweeping through mosques, with a new round of arrests of Saudis, Pakistanis, Palestinians, and Yemenis.
To most Americans, this would sound like a frightening state of affairs, the kind that would lead them to wonder how and why we had got ourselves into this mess in the first place. But to the Bush administration hawks who are guiding American foreign policy, this isn’t the nightmare scenario. It’s everything going as anticipated.

Marshall concluded that, in the view of hawks within the Administration,

[I]nvasion of Iraq was not merely, or even primarily, about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Nor was it really about weapons of mass destruction, though their elimination was an important benefit. Rather, the administration sees the invasion as only the first move in a wider effort to reorder the power structure of the entire Middle East….
[T]he administration is trying to roll the table–to use U.S. military force, or the threat of it, to reform or topple virtually every regime in the region, from foes like Syria to friends like Egypt, on the theory that it is the undemocratic nature of these regimes that ultimately breeds terrorism. So events that may seem negative–Hezbollah for the first time targeting American civilians; U.S. soldiers preparing for war with Syria–while unfortunate in themselves, are actually part of the hawks’ broader agenda.

Eight years later, events have long since taken on a life of their own, and while they have followed neither the precise outline of Den Beste’s positive or Marshall’s negative view, the essential trajectory has been the one projected: disruption of the long-ossified status quo and the ushering in of a revolutionary era that has replaced one longstanding tryanny after another with something different and (in the short run) more responsive to popular movements.