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Right-Wing Group Calling It Quits?

It looks like the Project for the New American Century, the neocon group that promoted the invasion of Iraq, is closing down.
 
 
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In the absence of an official announcement and the failure since late last year of a live person to answer its telephone number, a Washington Post obituary would seem to be definitive. And, sure enough, the Post quoted one unidentified source presumably linked to PNAC that the group was "heading toward closing" with the feeling of "goal accomplished."

In fact, the 9-year-old group, whose 27 founders included Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, among at least half a dozen of the most powerful hawks in the George W. Bush administration's first term, has been inactive since January 2005, when it issued the last of its "statements," an appeal to significantly increase the size of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps to cope with the growing demands of the kind of "Pax Americana" it had done so much to promote.

As a platform for the three-part coalition that was most enthusiastic about war in Iraq -- aggressive nationalists like Cheney, Christian Zionists of the religious Right, and Israel-centred neo-conservatives -- PNAC actually began breaking down shortly after the Iraq invasion.

It was then that the group's predominantly neo-conservative leadership -- Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, PNAC director Gary Schmitt, and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace analyst Robert Kagan -- began attacking Rumsfeld, in particular, for failing to deploy enough troops to pacify the country and launch a true nation-building exercise, as in post-World War II Germany and Japan.

It was the first of a number of policy splits that, along with the deepening quagmire in Iraq itself, have debilitated the hawks, forcing neo-conservatives in the group to reach out to liberal interventionists with whom they sponsored a series of joint statements extolling the virtues of nation-building and a larger army, or calling for a tougher U.S. stance toward Russia and China.

PNAC was launched by Kristol and Kagan in 1997, shortly after their publication of an article in Foreign Affairs magazine entitled "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," in which they called for Washington to exercise "benevolent global hegemony" to be sustained "as far into the future as possible."

While critical of then President Bill Clinton, the article was directed more against a Republican Congress which, in their view, had grown increasingly isolationist, particularly after the precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Somalia in 1994 and strong Republican opposition to intervention in the Balkans against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

It was in this spirit that the two co-founded PNAC, whose charter was signed by leading neo-conservatives, including Cheney's future chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby; Rumsfeld's future deputy, Paul Wolfowitz; Bush's future top Middle East aide, Elliott Abrams; his future ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad; Rumsfeld's future top international security official, Peter Rodman; American Enterprise Institute (AEI) fellow and neo-cons impresario Richard Perle, and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; as well as Cheney and Rumsfeld themselves.

The charter's few specifics, as well as follow-up reports published by PNAC -- "Rebuilding America's Defenses" and "Present Dangers," both published in 2000 to influence the foreign policy debate during the presidential campaign that year -- were based to a great extent on an infamous "Defense Planning Guidance" (DPG) draft produced under Cheney when he served as secretary of defence under President George H.W. Bush in 1992.

That paper, which was developed by then-Undersecretary of Defence Wolfowitz, Libby, Khalilzad, and the current deputy national security adviser, J.D. Crouch, with assistance from Perle and other like-minded defence specialists, called for the "benevolent domination by one power" (the U.S.) to replace "collective internationalism" and for Washington to ensure that domination, particularly in Eurasia, in order to prevent the emergence, by confrontation if necessary, of any possible regional or global rival.

It was PNAC's role to sustain and propagate these ideas through its reports, its periodic letters and statements signed by right-wing notables, and a steady flow of opinion-pieces and essays, that acted as part of a larger neo-conservative "echo chamber" that included Kristol's Weekly Standard, Fox News, the Washington Times, and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, to frame debates in official Washington and the mainstream media.

In this sense, PNAC was more of a "letter-head organization" that acted more as a mechanism for developing consensus on issues among different political forces -- in its case, Republican hawks -- and then pushing them in public, than as a think tank.

Indeed, the fact that several of its half-a-dozen staff members -- most recently, PNAC director Schmitt -- have taken posts at the much-larger AEI located just five floors above PNAC's offices helps illustrate the incestuous nature of the larger network. Nonetheless, PNAC was the first to call publicly (in 1998) for Washington to pursue "regime change" in Iraq by military means in conjunction with the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmad Chalabi, who would later play a key role in the propaganda campaign against Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the 2003 invasion.

But perhaps its most notable letter was sent to Bush Sep. 20, 2001, just nine days after the 9/11 attacks. In addition to calling for the ouster of the Taliban and war on al Qaeda, the letter called for waging a broader and more ambitious "war on terrorism" that would include cutting off the Palestinian Authority under Yassir Arafat, taking on Hezbollah, threatening Syria and Iran and, most importantly, ousting Hussein regardless of his relationship to the attacks or al Qaeda.

"It may be that the Iraqi government provided assistance in some form to the recent attack on the United States," it said. "But even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism."

The letter was signed by 38 members of the predominantly neo-conservative Washington echo chamber, many of whom -- especially Kristol, Kagan, Defence Policy Board members Perle, Woolsey, Eliot Cohen, Centre for Security Policy president Frank Gaffney, former Education Secretary William Bennett, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, and Foundation for the Defence of Democracies director Clifford May -- would emerge, along with Woolsey, as the most ubiquitous champions of war with Iraq outside the administration.

Seven months later, PNAC issued another letter signed by many of the same people urging Bush to step up preparations for war with Iraq, sever all ties to the Palestinian Authority under Arafat and give full backing to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's efforts to crush the Palestinian intifada.

"Israel's fight against terrorism is our fight. Israel's victory is an important part of our victory," the letter noted. "For reasons both moral and strategic, we need to stand with Israel in its fight against terrorism." Bush complied two months later.

That period -- Sep. 20, 2001, to the run-up to the Iraq war in early 2003 -- marked the high-water mark of PNAC's existence. Since then, things have generally gone downhill, as the hawks they represented, including the group's dominant neo-conservatives, have fallen prey to internal disagreements: over Rumsfeld's stewardship of Iraq and the Pentagon; over the wisdom of democratic "transformation" in the Arab Middle East; over Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan; over China; and even over the latest administration moves on Iran.

All of which has made it far more difficult to forge consensus -- and compose letters -- in these areas.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief for Inter Press Service .