The Neocon in the Oval Office
Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
— Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna 1:45
If Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes US President, she will be the first neoconservative to actually occupy that office. The neoconservatives have been an ascendant force in policymaking since the Reagan administration, and remained (through Vice President Dick Cheney) an unsteady heartbeat from the presidency in the G.W. Bush administration. Now possession of the highest office in the land is within their grasp.
This is important because the neoconservatives are wedded to war, death and destruction. It is the foundation of their policy and it dominates the culture that they have created. They see war and conquest as the means to maintain unchallenged US military, political, and economic supremacy in the world – and even (according to H.R. Clinton) as a “business opportunity”.
The origins of neoconservatism
The neoconservative movement dates from the 1970s. The term originally referred to “newcomers” to conservative politics from leftist and liberal origins. They gravitated to the politics of Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick. Among their adherents were Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and later Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
What they held in common was advocacy for aggressively challenging the Soviet Union, coercion of smaller countries through authoritarian puppet regimes and pre-emptive war. At home, they preached “free market” economic liberalism, while their domestic social agenda was moderately liberal and even progressive on some issues (e.g. civil rights). They became staunchly Republican during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, but gained a foothold in Bill Clinton’s Democratic administration and crossed party lines to an even greater extent during the Obama presidency. Their supporters include the military-industrial complex, the major financial institutions (“Wall Street”) and, importantly, the Israel lobby.
Israel and the neoconservatives
Israel and its supporters were inseparable from the neoconservative movement from the beginning. Many neocons were already Zionist or pro-Zionist, and their support for aggressive militarism was largely indistinguishable from Israel’s own strategic plans. To the extent that the neocon movement could sell Israel’s views as solidly American, it could bend the resources of the most powerful military on earth for Israel’s own ends.
Israel’s lobby invested heavily in strategic think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the Brookings Institution, and later the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Project for a New American Century. By placing neoconservatives in these institutions, Israel helped to advance their influence and their careers in government while promoting Israel’s point of view in government circles.
Together, the Israel lobby and its neoconservative allies projected an image of Israel as a Middle East superpower, defending America against Arab nations allied with the USSR. In reality, Israel’s aggression against its neighbors and against Israel’s own captive Palestinian population only drove the Arab nations farther into the Soviet orbit and made the US more hated in the region. Ironically, Israel’s US allies used this to strengthen Israel’s image as a strategic and needed US asset. Even Israel’s attack on US forces in 1967, killing 34 servicemen and wounding 174 aboard the USS Liberty, did little to weaken this image.
Post-USSR: The New American Century and the baptism of Hillary Clinton
With the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the neoconservatives accomplished one of their main goals and went on to argue that the US should take advantage of its status as the only remaining superpower to consolidate and extend its domination of the world. The first articulation of this was in the February, 1992 Defense Planning Guidance prepared for Defense Secretary Dick Cheney by Paul Wolfowitz and his subordinate, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. The document and its subsequent revisions advocated a policy to “prevent the re-emergence of a new rival” and “maintain the mechanism for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” It also advocated pre-emptive US intervention regardless of international law and the UN, and assurance of Israeli dominance in the Middle East.
The “Wolfowitz Doctrine” did not immediately win favor in the waning days of the G.H.W. Bush administration, but Hillary Clinton was one of its relatively few supporters when Bill Clinton came to office. (Her main early success was to instate Madeleine Albright as UN ambassador and then Secretary of State.) Then, in 1996, neocons Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser and others prepared A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm for Israeli politician Benjamin Netanyahu during his successful campaign for prime minister of Israel. It argued for a “New Middle East” to be molded by “preemptive” war in order to “contain, destabilize, and roll-back” perceived threats.
The next year, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), an explicitly neoconservative think tank, was formed. It globalized the regional principles and policies described in Clean Break, for application to US policy, but one direct carryover was a recommendation for regime change in Iraq. This became the subject of an open letter to President Bill Clinton in February, 1998, and it spurred the Iraq Liberation Act, strongly supported by Hillary Clinton and passed in October of that year.
In 2000, PNAC issued a 90-page report, Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century, shortly before the presidential election of 2000. It recommended regime change and military force as cornerstones of US foreign policy.
When George W. Bush became president the following January, his Vice President, Dick Cheney, a leading neoconservative, brought many of his colleagues from PNAC and elsewhere into policy-making roles, including Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and many more. With the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, they put their plans for permanent warfare into motion. The first two objects of regime change were Afghanistan and Iraq. It is estimated that more than a million people died as a result.
The Senate years
2001 was also the year Hillary Clinton first took office in the US Senate. There she supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and essentially the same foreign policy objectives as her neocon Republican colleagues, as her voting record attests. In 2007, she encouraged the founding of the first specifically Democratic neoconservative think tank, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). One of the co-founders of CNAS was Michelle Flournoy, a Defense Department political appointee in the Bill Clinton administration who is expected to be Secretary of Defense in a H.R. Clinton cabinet.
General Wesley Clark has also revealed that by September, 2001, Defense Department offices in the Pentagon had drafted plans to invade Iraq, and that by the following month seven countries in the Middle East had been targeted for “regime change” in a five-year period. Plans change, but we know that after Afghanistan, Iraq was, in fact, invaded and destroyed, as well as Libya, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, either by the US or by its allies with US support. It is estimated that at least 2 million people died as a result of these actions (not including the million or more who died in the first Gulf War and as a result of a decade of economic sanctions), and that more than 20 million became refugees.
With the encouragement of her friends in Israel and its US Lobby, Hillary Clinton became one of the leading Democratic cheerleaders for these neocon projects while in the Senate during the G.W. Bush administration. In 2006, partly as a result of Israel’s experience of stronger-than-expected resistance from the Shiite Hezbollah movement during its war with Lebanon, Israel decided to make Shiite Islam a strategic target.
The neoconservatives in the G.W. Bush administration, such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Elliot Abrams and Douglas Feith, quickly championed this policy, as did Hillary Clinton. US destruction of Iraq had strengthened the hand of Iran and its Syrian and Hezbollah allies, and so neocon logic dictated that these countries should be destroyed, to prevent a potential challenge to Israeli and US supremacy in the region. It was also decided that it would be advantageous to stoke Sunni-Shiite rivalry in order to split and weaken the countries in the region, to the power advantage of Israel and the US. This policy formation is described in Seymour Hersh’s “The Redirection”.
Secretary of State
When Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State in the Obama administration in 2009, she was in effect the top ranking neoconservative in government. During her four years in that post, she encouraged and supported the neoconservative priorities of overthrowing the elected Honduran, Libyan, Syrian and Ukrainian governments. She advocated intervention in Syria and the provision of funding, training and military equipment to groups fighting the Syrian government.
In Ukraine she created a $5 billion program to “democratize” Ukraine. This became a regime change operation, which her State Department chum Victoria Nuland actively engineered, and which resulted in the overthrow of the legally elected Ukrainian government. Nuland and her husband, Robert Kagan, are important figures in the neoconservative movement, co-founded the neoconservative PNAC and Foreign Policy Initiative think tanks, and have held posts in the Bill Clinton, G.W. Bush and Obama administrations.
The neoconservative movement is a hammer that views every problem as a nail. Its foreign policy consists of intimidating every potential rival and making an example of every nation or movement that does not follow US direction or accept without question the dictates of Israel. There is essentially no room for win-win outcomes, and even a lose-lose outcome is acceptable if the greater loss is on the other side. Total military domination and the profligate use of unlimited lethal force is their stock in trade. The fastest way to advance in the dominant neocon culture in Washington is to propose ever more spectacular destruction and bloodletting on a massive scale, and especially if it benefits Israel.
The US alliance with and use of terrorist organizations
This explains the neoconservative love/hate relationship with terrorist organizations. The artful covert support of such groups contributes greatly to their agenda. From the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the late 1970s to al-Qaeda, ISIS and other groups today, neocons have successfully encouraged US exploition and often subsidization of such groups for strategic mayhem. They were employed to create a quagmire for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Since then, US-subsidized mercenary terrorists have served to undermine real or potential adversaries of the US and Israel as quasi-allies and recipients of covert aid. As enemies, they serve as a pretext for US intervention wherever they may be.
From the neocon perspective, the al-Qaeda attacks against the USS Cole, the US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salam, the World Trade Center and other targets worldwide, as well as the ISIS targeting of western civilian populations, have helped to make the case for American military intervention and leadership without necessarily committing large numbers of American troops. The US has used these attacks to enlist countries like Britain, France, Canada and Australia in military actions against Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Britain and France also participated with the US in the destruction of Libya, for which Hillary Clinton in particular took credit. Terrorist organizations were allowed and even encouraged to take over, with the result that Libya went from having one of the highest standards of living in the region to a failed and destitute state. Clinton appears to have taken particular enjoyment in the US-sponsored terrorists’ grotesque murder of Libyan President Muammar Qaddhafi. She is also strongly implicated in the transfer of Libyan weapons to terrorist groups in Syria. These have possibly included Libyan sarin gas used in the false-flag chemical attacks blamed on the Syrian government. She has promised that she will escalate US intervention in Syria after becoming president.
Currently and for the past five years, the neoconservatives have successfully promoted the use of terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. They are considered expendable, and they are a means of creating destruction where that is the intended result. Their purpose in Syria is to overthrow the government and create a failed state, as in Iraq and Libya but also to threaten the security of Russia and Iran. This explains why the US is waging selective “war” against ISIS in some regions while protecting and supporting it in others.
The threat to Russia includes encouraging terrorist groups from Russia’s Chechnya province, who are an important part of the estimated 100,000 foreign terrorist mercenaries from nearly 100 countries that have participated in trying to overthrow the Syrian government. Until now, there is no sign that the US is encouraging them to take their war back to Russia, but this is clearly a possibility that neither government will ignore. Nevertheless, the neoconservative agenda includes supporting Russia’s enemies in Ukraine and placing NATO troops into former Warsaw Pact countries like Poland.
China is also not spared. Chinese Uighurs are among the terrorist mercenaries equipped largely with US arms in Syria, and the US is undermining China’s security in the South China Sea and through its bases in Korea, Japan and the Philippines.
The prospect of a 2017 H.R. Clinton administration
These neocon ambitions will be more dangerous and destructive when Hillary becomes US President. Unlike previous administrations, it will not be a matter of selling the president on neoconservative policy or even allowing high-level neocons in government to dominate policy. When Clinton takes office, she will be leading the neoconservatives, not following their recommendations.
In the election, she is likely to benefit from crossover votes from disaffected Republicans while assuming that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party will have little choice but to vote for her. She has a history of cooperation with Republican foreign policy neoconservatives, and may choose to move closer to their positions during the remainder of the campaign, in order to attract their support. “I would say all Republican foreign-policy professionals are anti-Trump,” leading neoconservative Robert Kagan said at a “foreign-policy professionals for Hillary” fundraiser. “I would say that a majority of people in my circle will vote for Hillary.”
Former GOP candidates Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Lindsay Graham and Jeb Bush have refused to back Trump, as have George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Brent Scowcroft, Tom Ridge and other Republican leaders. With their support, Clinton may be able to craft a stable bipartisan majority in Congress for her neoconservative agenda, even if substantial elements in both parties oppose it.
This would enable her and her fellow neocons to pursue the most dangerous and aggressive foreign policy in US history. If we extrapolate from the two previous administrations, we should expect at least a million people to die in US-sponsored foreign wars, and ten million to become refugees. And if plans go forward to further challenge the security of Russia and China, we could see a nuclear crisis rivaling or surpassing the Cuban missile crisis, with potentially more disastrous results.
There are many career professionals in the US State Department, intelligence community and the Pentagon who believe that the neocon agenda is foolish and destructive, and that perpetual warfare has too many unintended consequences to be an effective means of national policy. They believe that diplomacy is a better way, and point to examples like the de-escalation of the imminent US bombing of Syria in September, 2013 through a Russian-brokered agreement for Syria to give up its entire chemical weapons arsenal.
Unfortunately, this is not the plan of Hillary Clinton and her neoconservative partners. For one thing, diplomacy diminishes the value of Israel as a strategic asset, and so the Israel lobby will be opposed. In addition, however, the neoconservatives view diplomacy as the way of the weak and the timid. If they are allowed to prevail, perhaps only another catastrophic world war will cause a new generation to re-learn the lesson of those who survived WWII and vowed to find a better way. If we survive.
Paul Larudee is one of the founders of the Free Gaza and Free Palestine Movements and an organizer in the International Solidarity Movement.