The Men Who Stole the Show
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
When he first saw the excerpts leaked to The New York Times in spring 1992, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) was horrified and denounced the document as a prescription for "literally a Pax Americana." The leak, a draft Defense Policy Guidance (DPG) on U.S. grand strategy through the 1990s, was stunning in the clarity and ambition of its vision for a new U.S. foreign and military policy. Written in the aftermath of the Gulf War by two relatively obscure political appointees in the Pentagon's policy department of the Bush Sr. administration, the draft DPG called for U.S. military preeminence over Eurasia by preventing the rise of any potentially hostile power and a policy of preemption against states suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction. It foretold a world in which U.S. military intervention overseas would become "a constant feature" and failed to even mention the United Nations.
Although softened in its final form at the insistence of then National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker, the draft DPG occupied a central place in the hearts and minds of its two authors, Paul Wolfowitz and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and their boss, then Pentagon chief Dick Cheney. A decade later, theory was transformed into practice following the devastating terrorist attack on Sept. 11. By then, Dick Cheney had already become the most powerful vice president in U.S. history, and the draft DPG's two authors, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Cheney's chief of staff and national security adviser, Lewis Libby, had moved to the center of foreign policy-making in the Bush administration. They, along with Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, have led a coalition of forces that has successfully engineered what former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke recently described as a "radical break with 55 years of bipartisan tradition" in U.S. foreign policy.
That break came as a great shock to most analysts. Candidate George W. Bush's talk of pursuing a "humble" foreign policy, as well as the narrowness of his electoral victory, suggested that Bush would likely take his cue from his father's administration. Although the younger Bush's stress on U.S. "national interests" and his skepticism about nation-building and peacekeeping suggested a likely pullback from the Clinton-Gore team's more globalist and multilateral aspirations, most pundits saw a likely return to the cautious, balance-of-power realism that characterized his father's tenure. That assessment seemed even more assured after Bush selected retired General Colin Powell as his secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser. Both were protégés of Brent Scowcroft, in many ways the dean of the realist establishment going back all the way to Gerald Ford for whom he also served as national security adviser. Those assumptions proved dead wrong, however, particularly in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
In engineering the radical break in U.S. foreign policy, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Cheney relied on a handful of think tanks and front groups that have closely interlocking directorates and shared origins in the right-wing and neo-conservative organizations of the 1970s. Organizations such as the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), the Center for Security Policy (CSP) and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) have supplied the administration with a steady stream of policy advice and also with the men-and they are virtually all men-to steer the ship of state on its radical new course. These men are by no means new recruits to the foreign policy elite. They cut their teeth on some of the most fateful foreign policy debates of the last thirty years. Their motto was "peace through strength," and they took great pride in their credentials as militant anti-communists and champions of U.S. military power. Until now, their greatest moments came during Reagan's first term in which most of them held high office. But now, in a world without the Soviet Union, their ambitions are much greater.
As reflected in the draft DPG, these forces first saw their opportunity in the "unipolar moment" that followed the Gulf War. But they were stymied by the "conservative crack-up" after the Soviet collapse, not to mention the cautious realism of the Bush Sr. administration itself. As a result, much of the 1990s marked a period of great frustration for these men who had nothing but contempt for Clinton's fashionable talk of transnational issues such as climate change, HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, humanitarian intervention, peacekeeping, conflict prevention, social and environmental standards for the global economy and the creation of new multilateral mechanisms like the International Criminal Court (ICC). They regarded these transnational challenges and multilateral responses as nothing less than new constraints on Washington's freedom of action and diversions from the real task of identifying and confronting potential military rivals for its primacy. To them, American foreign policy under Clinton, which they sometimes called "globaloney," was dangerously unfocused.
At the same time, these forces grew alarmed at the strong isolationist streak in many of the Republicans who took control of Congress after the mid-term elections in 1994. While they applauded the freshmen's contempt for the United Nations and other multilateral agencies, they also fretted about the growing Republican opposition to any form of military engagement abroad, especially in places like the Balkans that they deemed vital to the U.S. national interest. They loved the new Republicans' unilateralism, but deplored their disengagement.
Focusing on the "New American Century"
In 1997, an influential group of neo-conservatives, social conservatives and representatives of what Eisenhower referred to as the military-industrial complex came together to form Project for a New American Century (PNAC). Conservatives had failed to "confidently advance a strategic vision for America's role in the world," the group lamented in its statement of principles. It continued, "We aim to change this. We aim to make the case and rally support for American global leadership." Noting what they called "the essential elements of the Reagan administration's success," namely "a strong military" ready to meet "present and future challenges," they proudly declared: "A Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity may not be fashionable today. But it is necessary if the U.S. is to build on the success of this past century and ensure our security and greatness in the next." Among the twenty-five signers were Wolfowitz, Libby, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Elliott Abrams, Zalmay Khalilzad and other right-wing luminaries who five years later would use the Sept. 11 outrage to realize their long-held dreams of a new American empire.
Not a think tank like the Heritage Foundation or AEI with the capacity to develop detailed policy recommendations, PNAC has acted as a front group that issues timely statements, often in the form of open letters to the president. Its influence signals the degree to which neoconservatives have charted the main outlines and trajectory of the Bush foreign policy. Founded by Weekly Standard pundits William Kristol and Robert Kagan, PNAC is the latest incarnation of a series of predominantly neoconservative groups such as the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM) and the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD). In the 1970s, these groups played key roles in helping to marshal diverse right-wing constituencies around a common foreign and defense policy and organize highly sophisticated public and media campaigns in pursuit of their goals. Their main targets of the time were Jimmy Carter, détente and arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, but they also used their zest for ideological combat, their political savvy and propaganda skills to prepare the ground for and later oversee the more radical policies pursued by the incoming Reagan administration, including Star Wars, the anti-communist crusades in Central America, southern Africa and Afghanistan, and the creation of a "strategic alliance" with Israel. Largely sidelined under the elder Bush and Clinton, these same forces-in many cases, the same individuals-who served under Reagan and then again under the younger Bush spent much of the 1990s trying to reconstitute a new coalition of the kind that dominated Reagan's first term.
In a 1996 essay in Foreign Affairs, "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," PNAC directors Robert Kagan and William Kristol signaled that the right was preparing a new foreign policy agenda that would seize control of the "unipolar moment" and extend it indefinitely into the next century. During the presidential campaign in 2000, Kagan and Kristol edited Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunities in American Foreign and Defense Policy, a PNAC book that included chapters written by many of the leading neoconservative strategists and academics, including Richard Perle, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Peter Rodman, Elliott Abrams, Fredrick Kagan, William Bennett and Paul Wolfowitz. This book, with its call for a policy of "regime change" in Iraq, China, North Korea and Iran, its prescriptions for maintaining "American preeminence," its recommendations to build global missile defense systems and to distance Washington from arms control treaties and its pro-Likud position, were presented as a blueprint for a new Republican administration. The extent that the Bush administration has adopted this agenda and integrated its authors into its foreign policy brain trust illustrates the success of PNAC-a group that received no attention during the campaign and despite its continuing influence still remains in the shadows of the public debate about the direction of U.S. foreign policy.
Much as its forebears did twenty-five years ago, PNAC in the late 1990s successfully rallied key right-wing personalities-including men from the Christian Right like Gary Bauer and other social conservatives like William Bennett-behind their imperial vision of U.S. supremacy. This was no small achievement, for the Christian Right was far more interested in moral and cultural issues than in foreign policy during the 1980s and early 1990s. Moreover, much of that constituency had been attracted to right-wing gadfly Patrick Buchanan who shared its "traditional values," but who also strongly opposed the Gulf War and has long deplored the more imperial, neoconservative influence in the Republican Party. Two other groups, the Center for Security Policy and Empower America played a similar role with respect to forging a new coalition behind the goal of U.S. military and cultural supremacy.
Whatever the validity of U.S. military supremacy theory as a legitimate or effective defense posture, the ideology has immediate rewards for U.S. weapons manufacturers. This nexus of military strategists and thee military industry is epitomized by the right-wing Center for Security Policy with its close connections to both military contractors and the Pentagon. The Center's director Frank Gaffney, one of the original signatories of the PNAC statement in 1997, rejoiced that his group's "peace through strength" principles have once again found a place in U.S. government. Like the Reagan years, when many of the center's current associates directed U.S. military policy, the present administration includes a large number of members of the Center's National Security Advisory Council. An early member of the Center's board, Dick Cheney, is now vice president, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was a recipient of the Center's Keeper of the Flame award.
Since the 1970s, neoconservatives had been exploring the global-local links of the "culture war." In the view of the Christian Right, core American values were under attack by a liberal cultural elite that espoused secular humanism and ethical relativism. For neoconservatives, however, the culture war was an international one that threatened the entire Judeo-Christian culture. One of earliest groups taking this position was the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which was established in 1976 "to clarify and reinforce the bond between Judeo-Christian moral tradition and the public policy debate over domestic and foreign policy issues." The Ethics and Public Policy Center, where Elliott Abrams was an associate in the 1990s before he joined the Bush administration, explored the common moral ground (and common concerns) that Jewish and Catholic conservatives shared with the Christian Right. Long a theme in American politics, the idea of America's cultural supremacy and the need to defend it against mounting international attack had by the late 1990s become a powerful theme in the U.S. political debate. Neo-conservative historian Samuel Huntington provided theoretical cover for this paranoid sense of cultural supremacy in his influential The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.
Former "drug czar" and Education Secretary William J. Bennett, another signatory of the PNAC 1997 statement, has had the most success in making the local-global links in the culture war. Together with Jack Kemp, Bennett in 1999 founded Empower America, a right-wing policy group that argues for domestic and foreign policies informed by conservative moral values. Since Sept. 11, Bennett's Empower America, together with subsidiary groups, has propagated the Bush administration's own message of a moral and military crusade against evil. As part of its campaign to highlight the moral character of Bush's foreign policy, Empower America formed a new group called Americans for Victory Over Terrorism (AVOT). In a full-page ad in The New York Times, AVOT chairman Bennett warned: "The threats we face are both external and internal." Within the United States are "those who are attempting to use this opportunity [9/11] to promulgate their agenda of 'blame America first'." In its pronouncement, AVOT identified U.S. public opinion as the key battleground in the war against America's external and internal threats. "Our goal," declared AVOT, "is to address the present threats so as to eradicate future terrorism and defeat ideologies that support it." Also in the forefront of focusing attention on internal threats has been Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice president and an associate at the American Enterprise Institute, who played a lead role in founding the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) that singled out professors deemed not sufficiently patriotic.
Under the tutelage of neo-conservatives like Elliott Abrams and under the guiding hand of William Bennett, social conservatives, particularly those associated with the Christian Right, have become new internationalists. Looking beyond the culture wars at home, they found new reasons for a rightist internationalism abroad. Building on the Biblical foundations for an apocalyptic showdown in the Middle East, the Christian Right has fully supported the neo-conservative agenda on U.S.-Israel relations. In their literature and Internet presence, socially conservative groups like Empower America and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy place special emphasis on the righteousness of the campaign against the Palestinians by the Likud Party of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Other galvanizing issues for social conservatives are the persecution of Christians abroad, especially in Islamic countries and China, sex trafficking and "yellow peril" threat of communist China.
Bringing It All Together
As during the Reagan administration, the right-wing think tanks have played a key role in shaping the new policy framework. Especially important has been the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute whose most prominent member of the Bush administration is Richard Perle, the chair of Rumsfeld's Defense Planning Board. Perle, a supporter of PNAC, helped establish The Center for Security Policy and the increasingly influential Jewish Institute for National Security (JINSA). Over the years, AEI has been in the forefront of calling for preemptive military attacks against rogue states and has denounced as "appeasement" all efforts by Washington and its European allies to "engage" North Korea, Iran, or Iraq. The Bush administration has embraced virtually all of the policy positions that the AEI has promoted on the Middle East. Coursing through AEI policy analysis -- and now through the Bush administration -- is a profound belief in the inherent goodness and redemptive mission of the United States, criticism of the moral cowardice of "liberals" and "European elites," an imperative to support Israel against the "implacable hatred" of Muslims, and a conviction in the primacy of military power in an essentially Hobbesian world. Although not yet part of the official rhetoric, AEI's belief that a conflict with China is inevitable is also one held by the hawks in the administration.
On the editorial pages of the Weekly Standard (published by PNAC cofounder William Kristol), The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine and The Washington Times, as well as in the nationally syndicated columns by William Safire, Michael Kelly and Charles Krauthammer, the State Department (particularly its Near East bureau) came under steady attack. But even within the State Department, the new foreign policy radicals had set up camp. Over Powell's objections, Bush appointed John Bolton, an ultra-unilateralist ideologue and former vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
For the most part, the political right led by the neoconservatives has focused on the need for America to assert its military and diplomatic power -- a focus underscored by the war on terrorism. In marked contrast to the Clinton years, the neoconservative strategists together with the hawks have sidelined the public debate about globalization. Instead of fretting over social and environmental standards in the global economy, the economic focus is on securing U.S. national interests, particularly energy resources, and thereby ensuring continued U.S. economic supremacy. A continued weakening of the U.S. economy and a rising concern of U.S. military over-reach is contributing to some fracturing of the right.
This small group of right-wing strategists, ideologues, and operatives in right-wing think tanks, advocacy groups and the news media has captured U.S. foreign and military policy. At issue is not so much that this shift in foreign policy has been engineered by a narrow elite -- given that foreign policy has traditionally been the province of conservative and liberal elites -- but rather the implications of this sharp turn to the right. Clearly, a new foreign policy vision was needed to match the new global realities. But is this show of American supremacy the grand strategy that best serves U.S. national interests and security? In the end, the U.S. electorate will need to decide if they want this show of supremacy and power to go on. As Americans we will need to decide if we now feel more secure, if our economic and moral interests are better represented now, and if a foreign policy based on extending U.S. supremacy makes us proud to be Americans.