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Who is Michael Ledeen?

From "creative destruction" to "total war," the guiding beliefs of the most aggressive foreign policymakers in the Bush administration may originate in the works of an influential yet rarely seen neoconservative.
 
 
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Editor's Note: This is a revised and corrected version of this story. The earlier version contained a quote that was erroneously attributed to Michael Ledeen.

Most Americans have never heard of Michael Ledeen, but if the United States ends up in an extended shooting war throughout the Middle East, it will be largely due to his inspiration.

A fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Ledeen holds a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin. He is a former employee of the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council. As a consultant working with NSC head Robert McFarlane, he was involved in the transfer of arms to Iran during the Iran-Contra affair -- an adventure that he documented in the book "Perilous Statecraft: An Insider's Account of the Iran-Contra Affair." His most influential book is last year's "The War Against the Terror Masters: Why It Happened. Where We Are Now. How We'll Win."

Ledeen's ideas are repeated daily by such figures as Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. His views virtually define the stark departure from American foreign policy philosophy that existed before the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. He basically believes that violence in the service of the spread of democracy is America's manifest destiny. Consequently, he has become the philosophical legitimator of the American occupation of Iraq.

Now Michael Ledeen is calling for regime change beyond Iraq. In an address entitled "Time to Focus on Iran -- The Mother of Modern Terrorism," for the policy forum of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) on April 30, he declared, "the time for diplomacy is at an end; it is time for a free Iran, free Syria and free Lebanon."

With a group of other conservatives, Ledeen recently set up the Center for Democracy in Iran (CDI), an action group focusing on producing regime change in Iran.

Quotes from Ledeen's works reveal a peculiar set of beliefs about American attitudes toward violence. "Change -- above all violent change -- is the essence of human history," he proclaims in his book, "Machiavelli on Modern Leadership: Why Machiavelli's Iron Rules Are as Timely and Important Today as Five Centuries Ago." In an influential essay in the National Review Online he asserts, "Creative destruction is our middle name. We do it automatically ... it is time once again to export the democratic revolution."

Ledeen has become the driving philosophical force behind the neoconservative movement and the military actions it has spawned. His 1996 book, "Freedom Betrayed; How the United States Led a Global Democratic Revolution, Won the Cold War, and Walked Away," reveals the basic neoconservative obsession: the United States never "won" the Cold War; the Soviet Union collapsed of its own weight without a shot being fired. Had the United States truly won, democratic institutions would be sprouting everywhere the threat of Communism had been rife.

Iraq, Iran and Syria are the first and foremost nations where this should happen, according to Ledeen. The process by which this should be achieved is a violent one, termed "total war," a concept pioneered by the 19th century Prussian general, Karl von Clausewitz in his classic book "On War."

Ledeen's take on this idea is wedded to ideology. In summarizing his book "The War Against the Terror Masters" on the American Enterprise Institute Web site, he writes: "We wage total war because we fight in the name of an idea, and ideas either triumph or fail ... totally." In his reckoning, force is the only reliable strategy to enforce our ideology on our enemies. In the same summary he claims, drawing inspiration from Machiavelli: "We can lead by the force of high moral example ... [but] fear is much more reliable, and lasts longer. Once we show that we are capable of dealing out terrible punishment to our enemies, our power will be far greater."

Consequently, Ledeen has excoriated both the State Department and the United Nations for their preference for diplomatic solutions to conflict; and the CIA for equivocating on evidence that would condemn "America's enemies" and justify militant action.

"No one I know wants to wage war on Iran and Syria, but I believe there is now a clear recognition that we must defend ourselves against them," Ledeen wrote on May 6 in the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Though he appears on conservative outlets like the Fox television network, Ledeen has not been singled out for much media attention by the Bush administration, despite his extensive influence in Washington. His views may be perceived as too extreme for most Americans, who prefer to think of the United States as pursuing violence only when attacked and manifesting primarily altruistic goals toward other nations.

Clearly a final decision has not been made on whether the United States will continue military action in Iran, Syria and Lebanon. But Ledeen has a notable track record. He was calling for attacks against Iraq throughout the 1990s, and the U.S. invasion on March 19 was a total fulfillment of his proposals. His attacks against the CIA and the State Department have contributed to the exclusion of these intelligence bodies from any effective decision making on Iraq. His attacks on Iran, even when Iran was assisting the United States, helped keep the Bush administration from seeking any rapprochement with Tehran. Were it in Ledeen's hands, we would invade Iran today.

Given both his fervor and his influence over the men with the guns, Americans should not be surprised if Ledeen's pronouncements come true.

PNS contributor William O. Beeman teaches anthropology and directs Middle East Studies at Brown University. He is author of "Language, Status and Power in Iran," and two forthcoming books: "Double Demons: Cultural Impediments to U.S.-Iranian Understanding," and "Iraq: State in Search of a Nation."