US Neocon Hawks Take Flight Over Syria
Architects and key backers of 2003 invasion of Iraq have some advice for the president as he presses for US attack on new Middle East country
- In an echo of the tactics they used to promote U.S. intervention in the Balkans, Iraq and Libya, a familiar clutch of neo-conservatives published a letter Tuesday urging President Barack Obama to go far beyond limited military strikes against Syria in retaliation for its government’s alleged use last week of chemical weapons that reportedly killed hundreds of people.
Signed by 66 former government officials and “foreign policy experts” – almost all of them strongly pro-Israel neo-conservatives – the letter, which was released by the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), called for Washington “and other willing nations [to] consider direct military strikes against the pillars of the Assad regime” as part of more ambitious strategy to support “moderate” Syrian rebels and dissuade Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Any military action should aim to ensure that the government of President Bashar al-Assad will be unable to use chemical weapons and should deter or destroy its “airpower and other conventional military means of committing atrocities against civilian non-combatants,” according to the letter.
The letter’s most prominent signatories included several senior officials of the George W. Bush administration, such as his top Middle East aide, Elliott Abrams, former Undersecretary of Defence Eric Edelman and former Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security adviser, John Hannah, and was given a bipartisan gloss with the inclusion of former Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman and several liberal interventionist commentators identified with the Democratic party who signed previous statements by the FPI and its predecessor, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC).
The letter also called on Obama to “accelerate efforts to vet, train, and arm moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition” to help them prevail against both Assad and growing Al Qaeda-affiliated or extremist factions. It was released amidst growing indications that the Obama administration, which Monday called the alleged attack a “moral obscenity”, is determined to take limited military action – most likely through cruise-missile strikes launched from naval vessels based in the eastern Mediterranean – against selected targets in Syria for up to three days, possibly as early as this weekend.
It is expected that Britain and France and possibly Turkey will also take part in operations under a NATO mandate and with the support of the Arab League which, meeting in Cairo Tuesday, blamed Syria for the attack and called for its perpetrators to be brought to justice.
Despite the fact that U.N. inspectors, who on Monday visited the site of the alleged attack outside Damascus and took blood and tissue samples from some victims, have not yet submitted their findings, administration officials said they had concluded that the attack did take place and that government forces were responsible.
At the White House Tuesday, spokesman Jay Carney said the administration will release a report detailing the basis for its conclusions later this week and that Obama was currently considering various options prepared by the Pentagon, although he also insisted that any action taken by the United States will not be intended to achieve “regime change” in Damascus.
That assurance will no doubt frustrate neo-conservatives, many of whom have long held the Assad dynasty in their sights and who had hoped that the 2003 invasion of Iraq – which they promoted through organisations like PNAC, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and the Foundation for Defence of Democracy (FDD) – would lay the foundations for Assad’s ouster, too.
Indeed, a number of neo-conservatives, including signatories of the FPI letter, are insisting that U.S. action aim to end Assad’s regime.
One, Eliot Cohen, argued in a Washington Post op-ed Monday that “a bout of therapeutic bombing is an even more feckless course of action than a principled refusal to act altogether,” a point echoed on the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page – a favourite neo-conservative forum – Tuesday.
Another signatory, Reuel Marc Gerecht, who promoted the Iraq war at AEI and is now based at FDD, called for a “devastating” attack targeting “elite military units, aircraft, armour and artillery; all weapons-depots; the myriad organisations of the secret police; the ruling elite’s residences; and other critical Alawite infrastructure” in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday.
Founded by two prominent neo-conservatives in 1997, Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, PNAC published a series of letters and manifestos that helped shape the foreign policy trajectory, especially regarding the Middle East, of Bush’s first term. Among its charter members are eight men who held key posts under Bush, including Cheney; his chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby; Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz; Abrams and the Pentagon’s foreign policy chief, Peter Rodman.
In 1998, PNAC published letters favouring legislation adopting “regime change” as official U.S. policy toward Iraq that was eventually signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. Nine days after 9/11, it published another letter to Bush signed by 41 policy analysts – virtually all neo-conservatives – that laid out an ambitious agenda for his “global war on terror”.
It insisted that failure to remove Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from power “will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.” It also urged that Bush “should consider appropriate measures of retaliation” against Iran and Syria if they refused to comply with demands that they cease support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
PNAC faded into oblivion by the beginning of Bush’s second term as the situation in Iraq deteriorated and neo-conservatives lost influence. In early 2009, however, Kagan and Kristol founded FPI and were joined as directors there by Edelman and Dan Senor, a former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq.
In January 2011, FPI published a letter signed by 40 policy analysts, including more than a dozen former Bush administration officials, calling on Obama to press NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Libya and the country’s naval vessels.
By the following summer, it joined with FDD in calling for tough economic sanctions against Syria and the creation of no-fly or no-go zones in Syrian territory to protect civilians, and in December 2011, it released a letter signed by 58 individuals – most of whom also signed Tuesday’s letter – calling for military aid to opposition forces “whose political goals accord with U.S. national security interests”.
Among the more notable signatories of the most recent letter are French writer Bernard-Henri Levy, who played a key role in mobilising international support for the NATO intervention in Libya; Christian Right activist Gary Bauer, who, with Kristol, was a founding board member of the Emergency Committee for Israel; Bush political adviser Karl Rove; the former head of the Committee to Liberate Iraq, Randy Scheunemann; and former CPA chief, L. Paul Bremer, as well as Kagan and Kristol.
Surprisingly absent from the list were some of the most visible and controversial architects and supporters of the Iraq war and those who had previously associated themselves with PNAC or FPI, such as Cheney, Wolfowitz, Libby, former CIA director James Woolsey, and AEI’s Richard Perle, who chaired the Defence Policy Board under Rumsfeld.