Neo-conservatives promoted war with Iraq, now look toward Iran

What motivates the neoconservative desire for war in the Middle East


WASHINGTON, April 1, 2015 – Neo-conservatives who successfully pushed the nation to war with Iraq, a country that never attacked us and never possessed the Bush Administration’s “weapons of mass destruction,” are now promoting war with Iran, a country more than three times the size of Iraq.

The war in Iraq did not go well, defying the neo-conservatives’ prediction that U.S. troops would be welcomed with open arms. That war had a series of unintended consequences, as wars always do. It left a regional power vacuum that helped promote the growth of ISIS, helped increase the chaos in Syria and increased the regional importance of Iran.

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Writing in the New York Times, John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has this advice: “To stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran … Force is the only option.”

Writing in the Washington Post, Joshua Muravchik, a longtime neo-conservative who is now at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, asks the question, “Is our only option war?”  and responds, “Yes.”

William Kristol, whose Weekly Standard is a voice for neo-conservatives, shares these views.

Evidently, Bolton, Muravchik, Kristol and the others have learned nothing from the Iraq war, which they successfully promoted. For Americans to follow their advice again would be folly.

Neo-conservatives have been obsessed with Iran for years. Norman Podhoretz, long-time editor of Commentary, wrote an essay in 2009 depicting Iran’s president as a revolutionary “like Hitler … whose objective is to overturn the going international system and replace it … with a new world order dominated by Iran … The plain and brutal truth is that if Iran is to be prevented from developing a nuclear arsenal, there is no alternative to the actual use of military force.”

The panic about Iran seems in retrospect to have been mostly emotional hyperbole. In 2006, Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, an adviser to President Bush and Vice President Cheney, predicted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that Iran’s then-President Ahmadinejad was going to end the world.

The date, he explained, “is the night when many Muslims commemorate the night flight of the Prophet Muhammad on the winged horse Buraq, first to the farthest mosque, usually identified with Jerusalem, and then to heaven and back. This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary the world.”

Lewis’s fanciful analysis, which was welcome in the Bush White House, did not come to pass. And President Ahmadinejad is long gone.

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The fact is that there is nothing conservative about neo-conservatives. This movement emerged from traditional liberalism.

Bruce Bartlett, a traditional conservative who served in the Reagan White House, says of neo-conservatives that they’re “conventional liberals who came to be horrified by the excesses of liberalism. The New Left shocked many with its anti-Americanism, anti-intellectualism and embrace of violence to achieve its goals. At the same time, the rise of crime and welfare dependency and the deterioration of the cities forced many liberals to reassess their thinking. It was often said that a neo-conservative was a liberal who was mugged by reality.”

Neo-conservatives openly proclaim that they have little interest in small government, balanced budgets, traditional values and other staples of conservative thought.

Kristol explains that he and his movement are trying “to convert the Republican Party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.”

Another Weekly Standard editor, Fred Barnes, explained that neo-conservatism is essentially “big government conservatism.”

Washington Times editor David Keene, a former chairman of the American Conservative Union, wrote, “today’s big-government neocons … seem far more interested in the pursuit, acquisition, and exercise of government power than in the freedom these impulses threaten. But traditional conservatives have always understood the true nature of government and the will to power that beats at its core. True conservatives always have viewed government with a profound skepticism and sought to limit its reach, whereas the neocon impulse seems to be the same as that which animates liberalism.”

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What motivates the neo-conservative desire for war in the Middle East is less than clear. Many have pointed to the close ties of many neo-conservatives with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s right-wing. Prominent neo-conservatives Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, James Colbert and David and Meyrav Wurmser wrote a memo to Netanyahu in 1996 entitled “Clean Break,” which recommended the reordering of the entire Middle East to the benefit of Israel.

Writing in American Conservative, Philip Giraldi, a former long-time CIA official, asks, “Why is it that a gaggle of self-proclaimed ‘experts’ has been able to capture the foreign policy narrative so completely, in spite of the fact that they have been wrong about nearly everything? Neoconservatives have two core beliefs. First is their insistence that the U.S. has the right or even the responsibility to use its military and economic power to reshape the world in terms of its own interests and values. Constant war becomes the new normal. … The second basic … principle, inextricably tied to the first, is that Washington must uncritically support Israel no matter what its government does.”

Potential Republican presidential candidates have embraced Netanyahu, his policies and his opposition to a nuclear agreement with Iran. Conservative commentator Daniel Larison writes:

“It may be obvious, but it is worth emphasizing how deranged all if this is. It is already quite strange when anyone in this country has such a strong ideological attachment to another state, but to demand that all of a party’s candidates must share that attachment and share it to the same degree is madness. If the relationship with that other country were extremely useful to the U.S. it would still be absurd, but it might be a little easier to understand. When the relationship does virtually nothing for the U.S. and imposes significant costs on the U.S., as is the case with Israel, requiring all candidates to give reflexive support to the other state is bizarre and indefensible.”

In Israel itself there are many who oppose any march to war with Iran. Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, says, “Even if the Iranians did obtain a nuclear weapon, they are deferrable, because for mullahs, survival and perpetuation of the regime is a holy obligation. We must be much more sophisticated and nuanced in our policies toward Iran.”

Martin van Creveld, a professor of military history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is critical of those who urge a pre-emptive attack against Iran. In his view, the overestimate its potential danger. “Though rich in oil, Iran is a Third World country with a population of 80 million and a per capita income of $2,440 … Its defense budget stands at a little more than half of Israel’s and less than 2 per cent of America’s. Iran, in fact, spends a smaller percentage of its resources on defense than any of  its neighbors except the United Arab Emirates.”

Professor Michael Desh of the University of Notre Dame points out:

“Less fevered minds understand that, even if Iran developed a rudimentary nuclear capability, the U.S. and Israel would have a huge missile advantage. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the U.S. has over 5,000 warheads deployed and a large number in reserve, while estimates of the Israeli stockpile range from 80 to 200 nuclear devices. At present, Iran has none and, even under the worst-case scenario, is unlikely to have more than a handful in the years to come … Iran is a nuclear pigmy; it has no long-range missiles that can reach the U.S. Its medium-range missile capability,which can theoretically reach Israel, is unreliable. In contrast, Israel has between 100 and 150 Jericho missiles, plus more than 200 F-4E Phantom and F-16 Falcon Aircraft, capable of delivering weapons. The U.S. has almost 1,500 nuclear delivery platforms.”

Attacking Iran would have and effect opposite what neo-conservatives and Netanyahu seek. Professor Stephen Crowley, chairman of peace and conflict studies at Oberlin College, points out, “Since nuclear weapons provide the ultimate deterrent, nothing could better persuade Iranian hard-liners to abandon negotiations and to develop such weapons full speed than calls to bomb Iran. Mr. Bolton speculates that bombing could set back Iran’s nuclear program ‘by three to five years.’ What, then, Mr. Bolton? Where does it end?”

The U.S. permitted the neo-conservatives to take us to war with Iraq on false premises and with disastrous results. To permit them to lead us down this path once again, this time with Iran, would be a repetition of folly. Hopefully, sanity and an enlightened concern with America’s long-term best interests will prevail.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.
  • Thomas Aquinas

    Wasn’t Joe Biden supposed to be some sort of expert of Middle East foreign policy?

  • The Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld fiasco in Iraq is a prime example of the American exceptionalism of neo-Con mentality, vision and policy viewpoints.