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Iraq War II, Part 2: A Clean Break
To mark the 20th anniversary of the "wholly unjustified and brutal invasion" of Iraq, as George W. Bush himself now characterizes it, we are serializing that chapter from my 2021 book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism over the next few weeks exclusively here at Substack.
A Clean Break
Neoconservative thinker and apparatchik David Wurmser was the primary author of two important studies in 1996. He, along with Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and a few other neoconservatives, signed on to the first essay, which was done for the Israeli Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies’ “Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000.” It was titled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” Wurmser also wrote a companion piece called “Coping with Crumbling States: A Western and Israeli Balance-of-Power Strategy for the Levant.” These were followed by his 1999 book, Tyranny’s Ally: America’s Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein. Wurmser argued that Israel’s primary foreign adversary was the Lebanese Shi’ite militia and political party, Hezbollah. The group, “The Party of God,” was founded in 1982 by Lebanese Shi’ites in reaction to Israel’s invasion and occupation of Lebanon, where they sought to expel the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Since Iran armed Hezbollah by way of Syria, the goal was to weaken Syria and Iran’s position in the region to limit the power and the threat of Hezbollah to Israel. Unbelievably, Wurmser said the way to accomplish this was to “focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq — an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right — as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.”
The idea was that if they deposed Saddam, the then-king of Jordan, King Hussein bin Talal, could take over Iraq. The Jordanian King Hussein was a Sunni and would be attempting to rule over the Iraqi super-majority Shi’ite Arabs. But Wurmser was convinced that King Hussein, from the Hashemite clan, who claimed to be descended from the prophet Mohammed, would command the allegiance of the Iraqi Shi’ite clergy in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf. Based on the smoke the Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi had been blowing, Wurmser started hallucinating. From “A Clean Break”:
Were the Hashemites to control Iraq, they could use their influence over [Shi’ite religious leadership in the city of] Najf [Najaf] to help Israel wean the south Lebanese Shia away from Hezbollah, Iran and Syria. Shia retain strong ties to the Hashemites: the Shia venerate foremost the Prophet’s family, the direct descendants of which — and in whose veins the blood of the Prophet flows — is King Hussein.
So once Iraq gets its Jordanian king, the Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs, the latter in the thrall of their religious leaders in Najaf, would fall in line with the king’s, and therefore Israel’s, will. Iraq would join the American-Jordanian-Turkish-Israeli alliance system in the Middle East. These clerics could then be used to claim Lebanese Hezbollah’s loyalty away from Iran, thus weakening their threat to Israel. This thinking was hilariously and tragically stupid. The Shi’ite religious leadership in Najaf had no allegiance to the Hashemites whatsoever. If they had revered that line of supposed descendants of the prophet — which they did not — that would in no way have bound their loyalty and deference to a new king. The Najaf clergy even had a fatwa banning religious Shi’ites from supporting the Hashemites from 1922–1937. The idea that they would just obey the Jordanian king, sever their kinship with Iran and somehow command Hezbollah to bow down to Israel was simply ridiculous. As it turned out, after the invasion of 2003, Jordan proved to have little influence there. Wurmser further elaborated on this fantasy in “Coping with Crumbling States”:
A Hashemite presence in Iraq, especially within the Shia centers in Najaf, could break Iran’s and Syria’s grip on the Shi’ite community of Lebanon. Were Jordan to prevail in Iraq, then Najaf’s elite, with its veneration of the prophet’s family, would be tied to King Hussein, and pro-Jordan Iraq Shi’ites [such] as Ahmed Chalabi … would define the Iraqi Shi’ite community after Saddam’s removal. Close cooperation between Israel and Jordan could undermine Syria’s pressure on Israel’s northern border as the local Shia are weaned from Hezballah’s domination. In short, developments in Iraq could potentially unravel Syria’s structure in Lebanon by severing the Shia-Syrian-Iranian axis.
Wurmser believed that once the new Hashemite-ruled Iraq became allied with Israel and Turkey, they would isolate Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah from Iran, cut off all financial support for Hamas and other Palestinian groups and thus relieve the Israelis of the necessity of giving any of the Golan Heights back to Syria or the West Bank back to the Palestinians. Instead of “land for peace,” they could achieve “peace through strength.” Why, the new Iraq would even rebuild the old British oil and water pipeline to the Israeli city of Haifa, the Iraqi exile Chalabi had promised.
In “Coping with Crumbling States,” Wurmser suggests after toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq that Israel and the U.S. should also “expedite the chaotic collapse” to Syria so that they could remake that society in a way closer to our liking as well:
The issue here is whether the West and Israel can construct a strategy for limiting and expediting the chaotic collapse that will ensue in order to move on to the task of creating a better circumstance. …
If … Jordan wins, then Syria would be isolated and surrounded by a new pro-western Jordanian-Israeli-Iraqi-Turkish bloc, the first of which can help contain and manage (through its more solid and traditional regime) the scope of the coming chaos in Iraq and most probably in Syria.
Wurmser admits that these policies could lead to an increase of Islamist terrorism. However, since he denied that secular Ba’athism in Iraq or Syria could do anything to contain it, the only other choice had to be regime change.
Secular-Arab nationalism, particularly Ba’athism, undermines regional stability and damages the West’s interests not only in its active role as a threat, but also in its more passive role as an obstacle to introducing more formidable, and beneficial, intellectual defenses among Arabs with which to stem fundamentalism. … The West and its local friends must engage fundamentalism with better associates than Ba’athists.
It is clear that this bill of goods was sold to the neoconservatives in the 1990s by Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile and convicted embezzler whose CIA- and later Pentagon-funded Iraqi National Congress (INC) had been trying to depose Hussein for years. The INC later supplied many of the defectors who falsely claimed Iraq still possessed weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the invasion of 2003. Chalabi is referred to numerous times in the three Wurmser papers.
These were the same neoconservatives — David Wurmser, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith prominent among them — in George W. Bush’s first term, who led the push to launch Iraq War II to accomplish these goals. Wurmser himself went from the Defense Department to the State Department, and later became Dick Cheney’s foreign policy adviser. Perle was made chairman of the Defense Policy Board, and Feith got the job as deputy secretary of defense for policy. Perle and Feith’s close associate Paul Wolfowitz was made deputy secretary of defense.
Perle, the self-proclaimed “Prince of Darkness,” was one of the most important neoconservative ringleaders of that era. A former student of the influential philosophy professor Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago, Perle entered politics working for Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington State — a Cold Warrior popularly nicknamed “the senator from Boeing” — along with Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Elliot Abrams. Perle helped lead the neoconservative move from the Trotskyite and Democratic left to the Republican right in the 1970s and into the Ronald Reagan administration’s Defense Department in the 1980s. He had been investigated multiple times by the FBI for passing classified information to Israel but was never prosecuted. His seat on the Defense Policy Board did not give him direct access to the levers of power, but it did give him the ability to put all of his best friends and fellow travelers in the right positions to carry out his agenda regardless.
The certain-to-be-roaring success of the regime-change operation, the neoconservatives claimed, would inspire the envious Iranian population to rise up and overthrow their government so they could have an America-friendly democracy too. Wurmser assumed that Iran abandoned the 1991 Iraqi Shi’ite uprising because of their fear of Iraqi Shi’ite authority and influence, rather than the obvious fact of the uprising’s doomed fate after being backstabbed by the United States. He insisted in Tyranny’s Ally that, “A free Iraqi Shi’ite community would be a nightmare to the theocratic Islamic Republic of Iran.” None of this was right. It is Iranian power in Iraq that has been enhanced above all, permanently altering the regional balance of power in their favor and leading to even worse American policies in response to that failure.
The true neoconservatives have probably never counted more than 100 men and women among their ranks. But during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, they divided themselves almost perfectly into newspaper, magazine, think tank, and undersecretary positions across the national security bureaucracy. In the Bill Clinton years, they had congregated at the major conservative foundations and think tanks in preparation for the coming Republican era. Perle, Wurmser and “Clean Break” co-signer Robert J. Lowenberg wrote a series of articles promoting regime change for the Wall Street Journal and Washington Times in 1996. Neoconservative policy advisers Zalmay Khalilzad and Paul Wolfowitz, who had worked together in the Defense Department during the first Iraq war, wrote a piece called “Overthrow Him” for The Weekly Standard in December 1997. They founded the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) in 1998, immediately writing an open letter to President Clinton demanding regime change in Iraq. It was signed by neoconservatives Khalilzad, Perle, Elliot Abrams, William Kristol, James Woolsey, Robert Kagan and Francis Fukuyama, among others. They succeeded in getting Congress to pass the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which made it official American policy to seek regime change against Saddam Hussein.
As the group stated in their influential paper, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” dominance of the Middle East was the heart of their strategy:
Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, this [American security] perimeter has expanded slowly but inexorably. … In the Persian Gulf region, the presence of American forces, along with British and French units, has become a semipermanent fact of life. Though the immediate mission of those forces is to enforce the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq, they represent the long-term commitment of the United States and its major allies to a region of vital importance. Indeed, the United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Israel’s interests had always been the purpose of the neoconservatives’ advocacy of American militarism. As one of the movement’s most important founders, Norman Podhoretz, explained in 1979:
There was, to be sure, one thing that many of even the most passionately committed American Zionists were reluctant to do, and that was to face up to the fact that continued American support for Israel depended upon continued American involvement in international affairs — from which it followed that an American withdrawal into the kind of isolationist mood that prevailed most recently between the two world wars, and that now looked as though it might soon prevail again, represented a direct threat to the security of Israel.
This same thinking was at the heart of the neocons’ strategy to lie the American people into war with Iraq. As the journalist Jim Lobe wrote two months before the war began,
Indeed, the strongest advocates for attacking Iraq both inside and outside the administration — Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Perle and other [Defense Policy Board] members, respectively — have been the neoconservatives.
In their view, the interests of Israel and the United States are virtually identical, or as one of them, former Education Secretary William Bennett, noted last year, “America’s fate and Israel’s fate are one and the same.”
In George W. Bush’s first term, a dozen or so neoconservatives spread throughout the government while reporting directly back to the vice president, Dick Cheney. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell later described the neoconservative network as “a separate government” inside the government. I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was the chief of staff to the vice president and special adviser to the president. John Hannah was Cheney’s assistant national security adviser and the Iraqi National Congress’s point of contact for passing along their WMD propaganda straight to the highest levels. Eric Edelman, Cheney’s deputy national security adviser, had been part of the group that wrote the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance. On the National Security Council was neoconservative policy adviser Zalmay Khalilzad, who had also helped write that document in 1992, along with Elliot Abrams, Robert Joseph and Stephen Hadley. According to journalist Barton Gellman, Hadley was known as “Cheney’s mole” at the NSC.
Along with Wurmser at the State Department was the foreign policy hawk John Bolton. Bolton, a lifelong Barry Goldwater conservative, is not an actual neocon, but his brand of right-wing nationalism has always fit well with their agenda. He and Wurmser’s job was to act as the vice president’s leash on Secretary of State Powell and his deputy Dick Armitage, ramming through Cheney’s policy and attempting to limit Powell’s comparatively restraining influence on President Bush. Mark Groombridge, an aide to Bolton at the State Department, later told the media, “Everyone knew that Bolton was Cheney’s spy.” Another official explained, “John almost regards Israel as part of the United States. He thinks our interests and their interest are identical.”
In the Defense Department were Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, and Douglas Feith, the deputy secretary of defense for policy, who set up a group called the Office of Special Plans (OSP). This “expanded Iraq desk” was run by neoconservative academic and former Perle aide Abram Shulsky and retired Navy officer and former Cheney aide William Luti. Staff included Michael Rubin from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), David Schenker from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a spin-off of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), retired Colonel William Bruner, a former aide to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Michael Makovsky from the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). Iran-Contra scandal figure and neoconservative radical, Michael Ledeen, was brought on as a paid consultant. Their job was essentially to pick through the CIA’s trash and collect the INC exiles’ tall tales of illicit weapons production. They would then funnel the lies that led to war up the “stovepipe,” straight to the White House and mainstream media in ready-made talking point format. We know so much of that story due to the efforts of the heroic Pentagon whistleblower, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski. After the war began, it was revealed that by the summer of 2002, an INC official boasted in an internal memo that they had already succeeded in placing 808 stories in the American and British press pushing their lies and arguments for war. They also noted that they passed their propaganda straight to William Luti at the Pentagon and John Hannah in the vice president’s office, confirming Kwiatkowski’s account.
Also in the Pentagon, under the auspices of Douglas Feith’s policy department, David Wurmser set up the Policy Counter-Terrorism Evaluation Group (PCTEG) with Michael Maloof, another former aide of Richard Perle’s. They pushed the Salman Pak training center hoax, which claimed that Iraq was training terrorist hijackers, as well as the lies about Iraqi government support for the group Ansar al Islam hiding safe up in American-protected Iraqi Kurdistan. They also promoted the fake story about an Iraqi official meeting with September 11th hijacker Mohammed Atta in Prague, Czech Republic, shortly before the attack. (More on these below.) When asked by a reporter about the CIA’s complaints regarding his sloppy work, Maloof shot back, “This is the same crowd that worked with the mujahideen in Bosnia, that couldn’t give us any heads up on the worst intelligence failure in U.S. history?” Good point. They were still right about him though.
At the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, Harold Rhode helped the neocons to purge actual Middle East experts from their positions and replace them with loyal hawks from the think tanks.
The influential neoconservatives Richard Perle, Kenneth Adelman, James Woolsey and Jeane Kirkpatrick, along with their allies former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former secretary of state and national security adviser Henry Kissinger, led the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. They all recommended attacking Iraq as early as September 19, 2001. Kirkpatrick had given up on her idea that America could be a normal country in a normal time now that everything had changed.
Like Cheney and Libby, Gingrich made repeated visits to CIA headquarters to pressure analysts for more dirt on Iraq. He also waged a personal campaign to try to discredit the idea of weapons inspections even being possible under the Hussein regime. For example, Gingrich wrote in the Washington Times that inspections were a “clever arrangement” meant to “slowly undermine the Bush administration’s policy on Iraq while having the appearance of cooperation. The danger is that the State Department will fall for the proposal, and in the process make replacing Saddam Hussein more difficult, if not impossible.” Inspections could undermine the case for war over weapons they would not be able to find, because they would be so well hidden of course.
Outside of government, the neoconservative movement dominated the Washington, D.C. think tanks such as PNAC, JINSA, AEI, WINEP, the Center for Security Policy (CSP), Heritage Foundation and the Hudson Institute. Their liberal-hawk allies controlled the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The neocons also monopolized the major magazines, newspapers and cable TV networks where they pushed ceaselessly for invading Iraq. These included William Kristol, William Safire, Norman and John Podhoretz, Gary Schmitt, William J. Bennett, Danielle Pletka, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Kagan, Daniel Pipes, Francis Fukuyama, David Brooks, Jonah Goldberg, Michael Ledeen, David Frum, William Bennett, Fred Hiatt, Bret Stephens, Michael Novak, Eli Lake, Reuel Marc Gerecht, David Horowitz, Frank Gaffney, Marvin Olasky, Stephen Schwartz, Joshua Muravchik, Eliot Cohen, Laurie Mylroie, Michael Weiner (a.k.a. “Savage”) and Max Boot, in alliance with conservative writers and TV and radio hawks like Andrew McCarthy, Rich Lowry, Stephen Hayes, Francis Brooke, Ann Coulter, Glenn Harlan Reynolds, Victor Davis Hanson, George F. Will, Cliff May, Michelle Malkin, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Neal Boortz and Mark Levin, and major Protestant ministers such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and John Hagee. The political right was joined in urging an attack by their counterpart liberal hawks, journalists and “humanitarian interventionists” like Jeffrey Goldberg, Christopher Hitchens, Thomas L. Friedman, Will Marshall, Matthew Yglesias, David Rose, Chris Hedges, Ivo Daalder, Michael McFaul, Andrew Sullivan, Robert Kerrey, George Packer, Peter Beinart, Michael Kelly, Lawrence F. Kaplan, Marty Peretz, Juan Cole, Jonathan Chait, Ken Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon, the anchors of the PBS Newshour and National Public Radio — and of course the big three: Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw, legendary anchors of the major networks’ nightly newscasts. Rather later complained that CBS had “regulatory needs” in Washington, D.C. that he needed to consider before telling the American people the truth about the war. (Peter Beinart and Andrew Sullivan later sincerely apologized.)
Not only the neoconservatives but the broader Israel Lobby, especially AIPAC, pushed for war as well. As their semi-official ombudsman Jeffrey Goldberg later wrote in the New Yorker, “AIPAC lobbied Congress in favor of the Iraq war.” Their then-executive director Howard Kohr also bragged that the group had lobbied Congress to vote for the war authorization. The Washington Post found that while AIPAC did not have an “official position” on the war, due to fears about stoking American anti-Semitism, unofficially there was no question that they supported and argued for the war. AIPAC promoted the war in print too. Their “briefing book” from 2002 included the statement that, “As long as Saddam Hussein is in power, any containment of Iraq will only be temporary until the next crisis or act of aggression,” and went on to accuse the Iraqi government of maintaining an alliance with Osama bin Laden.
In February 2002, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned Bush that war against Iraq would unleash chaos and empower Iran. However, Sharon’s primary rival in the Likud Party, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose faction the neoconservatives more closely represented, wanted to hit Iraq first and foremost. In September, Netanyahu testified before the U.S. Congress that Israeli intelligence knew for a fact that Hussein had a secret uranium enrichment program and that, “If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region.”
It was not long before Sharon was convinced. As Julian Borger and Robert Dreyfuss separately reported, he even created his own group inside the prime minister’s office to manufacture bogus intelligence in English to stovepipe up to the top of the Bush administration to help make the case for war. Sharon would push for the U.S. to attack Iran immediately afterward.
Senior IDF officers and those close to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, such as National Security Advisor Ephraim Halevy, paint a rosy picture of the wonderful future Israel can expect after the war. They envision a domino effect, with the fall of Saddam Hussein followed by that of Israel’s other enemies.
Six months before the war, National Security Advisor Rice’s assistant Philip Zelikow admitted what experts understood, but average Americans were never told. This war was to be fought primarily to protect the interests of Israel, not the United States.
Why would Iraq attack America or use nuclear weapons against us? I’ll tell you what I think the real threat [is] and actually has been since 1990 — it’s the threat against Israel. And this is the threat that dare not speak its name, because the Europeans don’t care deeply about that threat, I will tell you frankly. And the American government doesn’t want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it is not a popular sell. Don’t look at the links between Iraq and al Qaeda, but then ask yourself the question, “Gee, is Iraq tied to Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the people who are carrying out suicide bombings in Israel?” Easy question to answer; the evidence is abundant.
But nobody told the American people this. They said Iraq was going to attack us with weapons of mass destruction if we did not stop them first. It did not help much that the only antiwar guests allowed on cable TV news were the actor that played B.J. Honeycutt on M*A*S*H and the secretary from the Larry Sanders Show. Hosts Phil Donahue and the former Navy SEAL and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura were quickly fired from MSNBC before they could do too much to undermine the war party’s narrative.
Stay tuned to this space for the rest of Enough Already, Chapter 3 Iraq War II. They will be published every few days until the anniversary of the invasion in mid-March.
Looking to read ahead? Get a copy of my 2021 book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism on Amazon.
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