The World According to Neocons

The outcome of Hagel’s nomination is not in doubt so why does his neocon opposition still insist on fighting their feeble rearguard action? They probably recognize their efforts are a forlorn hope at this point but that’s no reason for them not to carry on and take this opportunity to corral some cash. Though they’ll fail in scotching his confirmation, their delusional crusade (which they only half-heartedly belive in) will succeed handsomely in scaring up funding for their various groups. Money may be their primary goal here but that’s not to say there isn’t a kernel of conviction in the neocons combating Hagel. Their plaint with Hagel has to do with how he’ll affect their particular vision of the American empire—one centered on the Middle East–which not coincidentally ensures their job security. The neocons fear for their political lives and are striving to avoid again becoming the “crazies in the basement” as they were under Reagan or booted out of Washington altogether.

That Hagel is secondary to neocon concerns of staying afloat was noticed by Joseph Nye, a former top Defense Department official. “This battle has not as much to do with Chuck Hagel or any comments he made on Israel. This is about re-litigating major changes in foreign policy.” So what is the foreign policy status quo so important to neocons that they must keep tilting their lances at windmills? In short, the U.S.’s military presence in the Middle East is the lynchpin of the American Empire and Israel is the lynchpin of our military presence there. That explains why neocons are so solicitous towards Israel that many believe that they put Israel’s interests above U.S. interests. This isn’t true but Israel is so essential to the U.S.’s regional position that the neocons are simply willing to give Israel carte blanche to keep it that way. At bottom the neocons don’t give a fig for Israel which explains why the Israelis themselves ignore neocon policy prescriptions.

My thesis that neocons and other assorted ‘Israel-Firsters’ are actually ‘American Empire Firsters’ has been echoed by Emily Hauser. Here is her take on the subject:

“The facts-optional anti-Hagel campaign was never about Israel—and no matter how often “Israel” is uttered, neocon fear-mongering never is, in fact, about Israel. Neocon attacks on Obama are about American power… The neocon movement is predicated on wanting to see American muscle used everywhere, at all times, for reasons that pretty much boil down to looking tough and profiting from same. And by “profiting,” I mean literal profiting, in the form of America’s corporate interests gaining hegemony over the world’s resources, which doesn’t always translate to defending our shores, no matter how the Right tries to spin it… neocons (just like every political subset everywhere) are also heavily invested in wanting to be in charge.”

Now that it has been well established that the empire is the neocon’s true priority, why do they view the Middle East as so crucial to it? Hauser has her finger on the pulse when she mentions the craving for “gaining hegemony over the world’s resources” and linked to an article entitled “The Costs of War for Oil”. Yes, oil plays a great role but not for the commonly accepted reason. Iraq was not invaded so the U.S. could guarantee access to that nation’s oil supply—we could have used the trillions we’ve spent occupying Iraq and Afghanistan to secure decades-worth of fuel—but to be in a position to deny access to others. This doesn’t mean that Washington wants to outright debar China, for example, from purchasing Middle Eastern oil but they do want to be able to shut off the faucet should China ever become a peer competitor. And, with that, we’ve come upon the heart of the neocon’s foreign policy—the Wolfowitz Doctrine.

Formulated in 1992 as part of the draft (authored by Paul Wolfowitz) of the Defense Policy Guidance 1992-94, this post-Cold War grand strategy that, as the New York Times phrased it, “makes the case for a world dominated by one superpower whose position can be perpetuated by constructive behavior and sufficient military might to deter any nation or group of nations from challenging American primacy.” The initial document—which advocated “convincing potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests”–was leaked to the press causing such a public ruckus that Bush administration officials stepped in to dilute its contents. Yet its recommendations lived on, forming the basis for the later neocon policy paper, Rebuilding America’s Defenses, and its notion of the U.S. as a paramount imperial power explains today’s new cold wars against Iran and China.

So even if the neocons are relegated to the basement they can revel in a victory of sorts, for the spirit of the Wolfowitz doctrine survives. Neocons and realists, insofar as they both uphold the empire, differ over means rather than ends but the empire rolls ever onward despite Washington having to take an alternative approach from specific neocon prescriptions. Of course, in accordance with our nation’s founding principles, there shouldn’t be an American empire at all but, since anti-imperialist and non-interventionist voices scarcely get a fair hearing, the debate over how best to manage the empire will continue—and might even flare up—during the upcoming Hagel confirmation.

The Hagel Confirmation Circus

Chuck Hagel has evaded a contentious battle for his confirmation by receiving the support of Senator Chuck Schumer and in exchange for this important endorsement he appeared to reverse the positions that many of his former colleagues have found unsettling. I say appeared to because, though it sure looks as if Hagel checked his principles at the door and is undergoing ‘confirmation conversion,’ both Hagel and Shumer were only going through the motions of political theater. It’s a stretch to say that Shumer had any nagging qualms about Hagel when Prime Minister Netanyahu and other members of the Israeli right aren’t in the least disquieted by him. Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin went so far as to say Israel should be “concerned, but not afraid of Hagel’s isolationist ideas.” Hagel’s no isolationist but it’s slightly surprising to hear that Israelis wouldn’t be overly bothered if he was. If the Israelis have no reservations about Hagel, Schumer certainly won’t so why the need for a confab where Hagel makes amends?

Schumer was going to ratify the president’s pick all along but had to pay lip-service to his constituents. “Schumer has to play a game,” a Democratic Hill aide told Ali Gharib, “He has to sound like he’s actually listening to those New Yorkers.” A Republican activist also confided this to Gharib: “I was told by people that this is all set up, and Schumer’s going to endorse him… He’s got the headlines he wants.” In line with this tightrope act, the two had to meet (with the outcome never in doubt), recite their scripted lines and have Hagel appropriately tweak his positions in such a way that satisfied Schumer and allow Hagel to convincingly claim later that he stuck to his guns. It was a clever bit of acting where Hagel really made no concessions and Schumer really asked for none.

To the naked eye Hagel shifted and some took it as a victory for the Israel Lobby but put his updated comments under a microscope and you’ll find Hagel hardly giving any ground. It all becomes clearer in a letter Hagel sent to Senator Barbara Boxer which subsequently garnered her support. “Regarding unilater sanctions, I have told the president I completely support his policy on Iran. I agree that with Iran’s continued rejection of diplomatic overtures, further effective sanctions both multilateral and unilateral may be necessary.” May be necessary—he didn’t say they are necessary and he implies that if Iran returns to the table unilateral sanctions would be scrapped as a tactic. Another thing missed by those who are convinced Hagel capitulated is that, yes, he completely supports the president’s policy on Iran but what he leaves unsaid is which policy—Obama’s preferred policy or the one thrust upon him by Iran hawks?

The White House has been consistently against unilateral sanctions but the threat that Israel might bomb Iran if they’re not passed has forced its hand everytime. Caving into these demands for punitive unilateral sanctions has given the impression that the administration is hawkish on Iran but its veriest sympathies lie with multilateralism and speedily reaching a deal so the U.S. can “re-balance” towards East Asia. We witness the administration’s ongoing dislike for these measures when they invariably work to water them down, turning them into ‘voodoo sanctions.’ It has been a longstanding position of Obama’s–he favored tough multilateral sanctions coupled with principled diplomacy during his first campaign—and it’s a position virtually identical to Hagel’s. The two similar outlooks are to be expected, for ever since his arrival in the Senate Obama was influenced by Hagel.

“Hagel and Lugar, both foreign-policy realists with an appreciation for international cooperation, became two of Obama’s closest colleagues and mentors in the Senate,” writes Daniel Klaidman. It would be interesting to find out the degree to which Obama was molded by the “wonkfests” he had with the two former senators but he was already ideologically quite close to Hagel at the outset of the Iraq war.  Klaidman reminds us that Obama at the time “was sounding many of the same notes as Hagel. Obama didn’t oppose all wars but he opposed dumb wars, he said in a speech in October 2002: “What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt … by weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives and in hardships borne.” Obama is essentially echoing Hagel’s warning about the reckless entry into Iraq, the latter telling Newsweek in 2002:

“It’s interesting to me that many of those who want to rush the country into war and think it would be so quick and easy don’t know anything about war. They come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off.”

Suffice it to say, the president and his secretary of defense-designate are on the same wavelength and have been since Hagel took Obama under his wing. Considering Obama was shaped by Hagel and that–despite public posturing–he has been dovish on Iran from the start, the nominee saying that he agrees with Obama’s approach means he’s agreeing with his own and therefore hasn’t knuckled under the pressure to obtain easy senate votes and ensure a smooth confirmation process. Hagel is merely playing his part in the political pantomime just as Obama has to every day by approving unilateral sanctions and maintaining that the military option is on the table. But both know that the tide has turned; both know that “we’ve got to understand great-power limitations” as Hagel has said; both know it’s time for a deal with Iran. Don’t be deceived–no matter what hawkish piffle you hear from either of them, Hagel and  Obama will follow their internationalist instincts and end up  accomplishing peace.

Hagel and Obama–Birds of a Feather

Newly nominated Chuck Hagel will encounter some choppy waters in his confirmation hearings but will safely sail into the position of Defense Secretary and the ruminating about what impact he’ll have on the Obama administration’s second term foreign policy has begun. The unexciting answer is: no, his appointment will not spark any meaningful change in Obama’s policies so much as solidify them. Hannah Allam quotes Toby C. Jones, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers, as saying “My sense is that, in spite of all the hand-wringing–especially surrounding Hagel–there’s less here than meets the eye” And it’s not that Hagel’s influence is inconsequential because he will have to defer to President Obama but because he and his boss already have approximate worldviews. As Ben Rhodes told Greg Miller, “all three nominees share Obama’s basic view of the world and the US’ place in it, a view that favors multilateral alliances and a reliance on intelligence and lethal technology, holding war as a last resort.” That last view implies that, in spite of all the ambiguity, Hagel and Obama are at one over Iran as well.

Though Hagel was accused by the Washington Post editoral board of having “stated positions” on Iran that “fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term,” I don’t think Hagel and Obama will lock horns over Iran sanctions because Obama doesn’t really subscribe to his own stated public posture. An ABC News item, trying to magnify the occasions where Hagel diverged from Obama, Biden, and Kerry on sanctions, nevertheless ends up emphasizing how similar their overall stances are—i.e. “that Hagel falls neatly in line with this Obama sanctions paradigm—multilateral good, unilateral less effective.” Obama’s preferred method has been a multilateral approach and the White House resisted when unilateral sanctions on Iran’s central bank were proposed in late 2011 as Gareth Porter recounts:

U.S. officials told Reuters Nov. 8 that sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank were “not on the table.” The Obama administration was warning that such sanctions would risk a steep rise in oil prices worldwide and a worsening global recession, while actually increasing Iranian oil revenues.

But Netanyahu used the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee over congressional action related to Israel to override Obama’s opposition. The Senate unanimously passed an amendment representing Netanyahu’s position on sanctions focused on Iran’s oil sector and the Central Bank, despite a letter from Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner opposing it.

The president again expressed his displeasure with another round of unilateral sanctions last month, arguing that they would not be conducive to keeping together the international effort to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. Again, the White House’s protestations were overruled by congress and, according to Jim Lobe, the unanimous vote “was immediately praised by the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee.”  Of course, the president has always had the option of vetoing these disagreeable bills so why has he refrained? The ongoing threat of Israel bombing Iran was enough to tie Obama’s hands, says Gareth Porter. The administration felt itself compelled to capitulate to those shouting for sanctions “as an alternative to an unprovoked attack by Israel.” Leveraging this risk of an incontinent Israel, AIPAC proved to be irresistible in ratcheting up the fabricated Iran crisis but it has met more than its match with the advent of Hagel.

Faced with opposing a cabinet nominee (AIPAC traditionally remains neutral towards such picks), the lobby promptly backed down. Their silence—and hence tacit acceptance of the president’s actual position on Iran by way of Hagel–will grant Obama the latitude to at last be rid of the sanctions rigmarole and pursue diplomacy in earnest. The administration is now free to rescind the unilateral sanctions and thereby bring the Iranians back to the negotiating table. That still leaves the preferred multilateral sanctions. But why does Obama support sanctions of any kind when he wants to wrap things up with Iran so he can concentrate on the Pacific Pivot as quick as possible? Could it be that he has to humor the hawks and a dovish Obama privately doesn’t approve of sanctions? Peter Feaver thinks there’s substance to that theory and has everything to do with Hagel.

Feaver dismisses the assumption that “a hawkish Obama is nominating a dovish Hagel because only a dove like Hagel could persuade reluctant doves in congress, in the pentagon, and in the broader public to support military action on Iran, should it ever come to it”. “A more likely possibility,” Feaver avers, “is that Obama is in fact dovish, despite what the official policy says.” Given how both Hagel and Obama have a predilection for multilateral sanctions and stress the necessity of the U.S. talking bilaterally with Iran, I concur with Feaver that Hagel was nominated not because Obama recognizes Hagel as a secret hawk but because Obama is actually a “dove-in-hawk’s feathers.”

When talking of Obama and Hagel being doves it must be clarified that this is only in the context of Iran. In general, Hagel is no dove and neither is the president. A Hagel as Defense Secretary won’t mean less interventions and wars–just lighter ones of the Libyan stripe. Greg Miller describes Obama’s modus operandi as “assembling a national security team designed for an era of downsized but enduring conflict—a team that will be asked to wield power through the targeted use of sanctions, Special Operations forces and drone strikes.” So as much as Washingon might like to put Iran in its place it has resigned itself to the fact that, in an era of imperial austerity, a shooting war, regime change, and occupation are not the way to go about it. Whatever their initial inclinations, reality has morphed Obama and Hagel into Iran doves and that’s why Hagel’s being brought aboard—he and the presidents are birds of a feather.

The War That Still Isn’t

Last year, when with every passing month there appeared spooky new articles counting down to Zero Hour, I was one of the very few commentators who predicted that there would be no war with Iran and that all the blithering about a U.S. or Israeli military option was, and still is, a masterly bluff. All the feigned trepidation over Iran has more to do with a schism within Washington over grand strategy than an Iranian nuke posing a threat to the whole world. So will these clamorous Cassandras be right this time in 2013? My Nostradamus-type prognostication is that, no, there still isn’t going to be war. Nothing has happened in the interim since I initially thought so to convince me otherwise. Instead, I argued that the West would eventually accept Iran’s civilian enrichment—a forecast which is already being borne out.

The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl recently addressed the Iran war in 2013 question and found that “there’s a good case to be made that next year will finally bring a break in the Iranian standoff—by means of a military confrontation, the appearance of an Iranian bomb or a diplomatic deal of some kind.” Well, which one will it be? In my estimation, the first two aren’t happening—no side wants a war and Iran prefers not having a nuclear arsenal—so that leaves a deal. As for Diehl, he discusses the matter with Dennis Ross, President Obama’s former adviser on Iran, who also foresees a deal in the offing where “Obama will likely first present Khamenei with a final offer, allowing Iran a civil nuclear power program under tight restrictions.” For Iran’s part “Ross… sees some signs that the Iranian leadership and state-controlled media are setting up a climate in which the supreme leader could make such a decision,” to approve a comprehensive bargain.

That sounds most encouraging and, while Ross cautions that “If by the end of 2013 diplomacy hasn’t worked, the prospects for use of force become quite high,” a resolution will be reached before then. The Obama administration is anxious to pivot to the Pacific and so the sooner things in the Middle East can be cleared up the better. Although Israel would surely object to an America that was less than obsessively fixed on the region, if it came to it Israel would simply adapt by allying with Iran. To cement this “Tehran-Tel Aviv Axis” Israel, in a move that would contradict decades of mania over an Iranian bomb, might even go so far as to allow Iran to build nukes. Indeed, an Iran that remained joined to Israel under the periphery doctrine could have gotten nukes whenever it pleased.

When Israel began waxing hysterical over a nuclear Iran in the early Nineties, Andrew Killgore at the time was convinced  these “‘Leaks’ in Israel’s press last fall about the inevitability of an Israeli action to “take out” Iranian nuclear capability were just part of Shamir’s campaign [for a new benefactor]. The message to Iran was do it with us or we won’t let you do it at all.” Israel is not opposed to a nuclear-armed Iran per se and likely wouldn’t care a thing about it provided the two were partners. The same goes for Washington, which was deeply involved in helping its ally, the Shah of Iran, build a nuclear program—a program that, by the way, did have a weapons dimension until it was scrapped under Ayatollah Khomeini. Remembering that, it’s no wonder that the U.S. is bent on restricting Iran’s nuclear capacity: if the Iranians develop a full nuclear cycle independently it means U.S. corporations can’t develop it for billions of dollars.

I’ve spent months maintaining that the hoopla about a nuclear Iran is little more than a gross fraud and have provided several reasons for why this campaign against a phantasm is being waged. Here is yet another: decrying Iran is a cheap, easy way to score domestic political points. Pondering the mindless nature of congressional sanctions against Iran, Paul Pillar suspects “it is a mistake to take [the sanctions’] stated objectives at face value and that for some members getting a negotiated agreement with Iran is less important than their own posturing, which is based on the belief that Iran-bashing and Iran-pressuring is always good politics.” It is indeed good for politicians, who are invariably eager to set up and bash a foreign bugaboo to distract from their manifest failures to solve problems at home.

Senator Tom Watson, referring to the Spanish-American War, captured the logic behind politicians promoting conflict abroad: “It takes the attention of the people off economic issues, and perpetuates the unjust system they have put upon us. Politicians profit by this war. It buries issues they dare not meet.” The U.S. and Israeli politicians, however, prefer a cold war with Iran, which brings them all the benefits of a belligerent atmosphere without any bombs dropped. This state of semi-war is very much a choice for these politicos. Israelis officials, for instance, wouldn’t have to agonize over a potential nuclear Iran if they joined with Turkey (and Iran) in advocating a Mideast Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. But Israel declined to attend the latest conference on that topic and in consequence cancelled it. It’s clear that to the Israeli government having Iran persist as a dreaded specter is advantageous. Why and to what end?

Previously, I’ve made mention of an Iranian political science professor who asserted that Tehran, Tel Aviv, and Washington “need each other” and have a symbiosis wherein each can point to an awful antagonist to better control their respective countries. Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar also sees this phenomenon at play in his piece “We Won’t Relinquish the Enemy” about Israel’s inability to accept the Saudi peace plan that would terminate the Arab-Israeli conflict. Eldar explains this bizarre refusal with Constantine Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”: “And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? / They were, those people, a kind of solution.” The impression of barbarians—be they Iranian or Arab—encamped outside Israel’s gates is perfect for politicians and their purposes so they aren’t about to start a war and risk dispelling the helpful horde. This scheme emphasizes all the more that there will be no military action against Iran. Now isn’t that great news for the New Year?