Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel It Can't Happen Hereenvisaged a right-wing populist president, advised by a cunning political strategist and backed by a cynical alliance of religious fundamentalists and corporations, who uses security threats to consolidate dictatorial powers, destroy civil liberties and establish folksy fascism. This is a virtual blueprint for the current Bush administration, a "corrupt and authoritarian ruling clique" that accords the president "the prerogatives of a king," argues political columnist Conason (Big Lies) in this lively, if overwrought, j'accuse. He surveys a long list of what he sees as Bush administration affronts to freedom and democracy: military tribunals, torture, warrantless wiretapping, politically motivated terrorism alerts, a war based on fraudulent pretexts, the Abramoff scandals, the handover of policy making to business interests and Christian zealots, tight secrecy coupled with a dissemination of propaganda through the right-wing media and a lawless contempt for constitutional constraints on the presidency. His indictment often hits home, but it's broad and indiscriminate, treating biased journalism, religion-tinged politics and lobbying scandals as signs of creeping fascism rather than age-old commonplaces of democracy. Conason delivers his usual cogent, hard-hitting critique of Republican misdeeds, but his insinuations of authoritarianism, coming just as the Republicans have been voted out of power in Congress, seem badly timed. (Mar. 1)Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bushby Joe Conason
For the first time since the Nixon era, Americans have reason to doubt the future of democracy. Today, to an unprecedented degree, big government conspires with big business and big evangelism, while civil liberties are diminished and war is promoted by taxpayer-funded ideologues, raving pundits, and religious zealots. Could we be headed toward an age of… See more details below
For the first time since the Nixon era, Americans have reason to doubt the future of democracy. Today, to an unprecedented degree, big government conspires with big business and big evangelism, while civil liberties are diminished and war is promoted by taxpayer-funded ideologues, raving pundits, and religious zealots. Could we be headed toward an age of authoritarianism?
Available for the first time in paperback, this compelling, impassioned, yet rational and fact-based look at the state of the nation by bestselling political journalist Joe Conason shows how and why the Bush administration and the neoconservative right have wrenched America away from its founding principles---and pushed us toward a never-ending series of foreign wars.
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It Can Happen Here
THE "POST-9/11 WORLDVIEW" OF KARL ROVE
No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
MADISON'S WARNING, DELIVERED during the early years of the American Republic in a congressional debate over presidential powers, has been vindicated many times since then. For reasons that the fourth president could not possibly have foreseen, his observation may be even more urgent now. And when he further observed that war empowers the nation's chief executive with "all the means of seducing the minds ... of the people," he seemed to anticipate how a modern president might be tempted to exploit a state of "continual warfare"--such as an indefinitely extended "war on terror," also known as "the long war"--to secure political domination.
In American history, authoritarian excess has often accompanied war (or the fear of war), from the Alien and Sedition Acts passed by Madison's political opponents to Abraham Lincoln's Civil War suspension of habeas corpus; from the Red Scare of World War I to the internment of Japanese in World War II; from Joseph McCarthy's depredations at the beginning of the cold war to Richard Nixon's abuses during the war in Vietnam.
Those wartime encroachments eventually receded, owing to the end of hostilities or the vitality of democratic resistance. But what would happen in a nation beset by continual warfare? How will liberty and democracy survive what the Pentagon and the president predict will be decades of a long war against terror?
In literature, too, war has been depicted as the precondition for dictatorship. Two of the twentieth century's most celebrated authors imagined totalitarian societies in which permanentwarfare could become the most effective instrument of control. In their very different novels about societies without freedom, Sinclair Lewis and George Orwell portrayed politicians who misled their countries into aggressive military conflict for ulterior motives. The central fact of life in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is a perpetual and perplexing battle among three superstates, which may or may not be waged largely for the sake of brainwashing and subduing their own peoples. The action takes place in London, and Orwell's masterpiece is not only a denunciation of Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism, but a warning about what all modern societies were in danger of becoming.
More than a decade earlier, Lewis satirically depicted the exploitation of the same bloody means to achieve a nefarious end in It Can't Happen Here--a story set in the United States. He imagined an elected dictatorship fabricating bogus provocations that would allow America to wage a preemptive war against Mexico. The author of this plan is a presidential adviser who bears a startling resemblance to a certain contemporary figure in attitude, influence, and proximity to the president. It is this crafty, ruthless adviser, Lee Sarason, the creator of President Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, who first articulates how and why war will prove indispensable to the new regime.
Holding forth in a cabinet meeting, Sarason "demanded that, in order to bring and hold all elements in the country together by that useful Patriotism which always appears upon threat of an outside attack, the government immediately arrange to be insulted and menaced in a well-planned series of deplorable 'incidents' on the Mexican border, and declare war on Mexico as soon as America showed that it was getting hot and patriotic enough."
Sarason's scheme elicits an enthusiastic response from Hector Macgoblin, the secretary of education and public relations, a burly boxing fan and nationalistic bully with multiple doctoraldegrees (a character who could have been based on radio blowhard William Bennett, the former drug czar and education secretary). He points out that in the past "governments had merely let themselves slide into war," but that "in this age of deliberate, planned propaganda, a really modern government ... must figure out what brand of war they had to sell and plan the selling campaign consciously."
That scenario will seem startlingly contemporary to anyone who remembers the campaign to sell the invasion of Iraq--including the role of Karl Rove and the White House Iraq Group. That infamous selling campaign was announced in September 2002 by White House chief of staff Andrew Card, who breezily explained the administration's timing to the press. "From a marketing point of view," quipped Card, a former auto industry lobbyist, "you don't introduce new products in August."
Now, more than four years later, most of that product's regretful buyers have been left wondering what the sellers were actually selling. By now everyone knows that the purposes proclaimed by the Bush administration at the time of the invasion--to rid Iraq of actual and potential weapons of mass destruction--were fraudulent. Moreover, everyone also knows that during the months leading up to the invasion, the president and his closest advisers were aware that the alleged facts justifying war "had been fixed," as the British intelligence chief noted in the famous "Downing Street memo" of July 2002. Some analysts believed that the objective of the war was to gain control of Iraqi oil, although Saddam Hussein had always been willing to sell petroleum to the West at the world price. Others suggested that Iraq was an easy target for the assertion of U.S. military force at a critical moment. And still others insisted that invading Iraq was merely the first stage of a broader plan to remake the Middle East by force that had long been mulled by neoconservative ideologues.
The decision to go to war probably reflects all those elements,but the question of its timing remains. Why introduce this controversial "new product" in September 2002, only weeks before the midterm elections? Why call for a congressional vote authorizing the use of military force against Iraq that autumn? With that demand, Bush reversed the path his father had taken in preparation for the Gulf War in 1990, asking Congress for authorization only after the U.N. Security Council acted first.
Several months earlier, Karl Rove had hinted at the real reason for the rush to war. For this architect of conservative power, with his ambition to inaugurate a generation or more of Republican political domination, the second year of George W. Bush's first term was a critical and dangerous time. He needed to win the midterm elections, against the historical odds--and nothing would unify the country behind the presidential party like the force of war.
Rove, the powerful "Mayberry Machiavelli" who merged policy with politics in the Bush White House, had closely monitored the effect of war on the domestic political fortunes of his patrons. In 1991, he had observed the first President Bush's popularity rocket upward during the first Gulf War. A decade later he had watched as the approval ratings of his boss, the second President Bush, reached even more impressive heights as he commanded the overthrow of the Taliban. Yet he could also recall how the popularity of the first President Bush plunged after the Gulf War troops came home--and he had measured the ratings of the second President Bush as they dwindled almost thirty points between September 2001 and August 2002.
That is why Bush and Rove departed so radically from the conduct of past wartime presidencies, which struggled to bring the entire nation together against the enemy. Using war to cement Republican political domination means dividing, not uniting.
KARL ROVE RARELY indulges any urge to speak publicly. He knows his own limitations and tends to remain in cloistered offices and back rooms, quite distant from the dangerous limelight. Yet although he is neither an inspiring nor a charismatic speaker, he understands the power of a simple message that is repeated again and again. On the few occasions over the past several years when he has spoken out, Rove has struck a single chord with growing intensity. His message could be summarized in this way:
America is at war. It is a war that will continue indefinitely. Republicans and conservatives possess the moral strength to fight and win, while Democrats and liberals do not. Therefore, the survival of the nation requires that the Republican Party maintain a monopoly of power.
To Rove this simple equation represents "the post-9/11 worldview." In his world, it is the only valid worldview. He may not fully believe every word of it; in fact, he knows from his own experience that its characterization of Democrats and liberals is false, but that scarcely matters. For him the equation is true in a much deeper sense, because it served Rove's self-appointed mission of establishing Republican hegemony.
The first indication that Rove planned to turn the war on terror into an assault on the loyal opposition came during January 2002, in a speech to the winter conference of the Republican National Committee in Austin, Texas. With President George W. Bush riding a powerful wave of public support and bipartisan unity, his chief political strategist had returned to Texas to discuss the upcoming midterm congressional elections with party leaders.
Only months earlier, on the steps of the Capitol, the nation's elected representatives, from the most liberal Democrats to the most conservative Republicans, had promised to stand with the president against the terrorists who had destroyed the WorldTrade Center and attacked the Pentagon. "We want America to speak with one voice tonight and we want enemies and the whole world and all of our citizens to know that America speaks tonight with one voice," said Richard Gephardt, then the House Democratic leader. Tom Daschle, then the Senate Democratic leader, stood with his Republican counterpart, Trent Lott, in a display of unqualified support for the president. "We want President Bush to know--we want the world to know--that he can depend on us," declared Daschle.
Those faithful pledges--fulfilled in unquestioning cooperation with every legislative and budgetary request from the White House, including the rapid passage of the USA Patriot Act--meant nothing to Rove. He was looking ahead to November 2002, when he hoped to score a historic victory that would prove the nation's ideological realignment to the right and mark a milestone for Rove and the generation of right-wing zealots who acknowledge him as their leader. Back then, Grover Norquist, the preeminent conservative strategist, lobbyist, and antitax activist who has known and worked with Rove since they were leaders of the College Republicans, articulated their ultimate objective. "It isn't our job to seek peaceful coexistence with the left. Our job is to remove them from power permanently."
More than taxes, race, abortion, or any of the perennial grievances of the right, permanent war seemed to provide the most compelling means to achieve that lifelong goal.
In Austin, Rove told his fellow Republicans, "We can go to the country on this issue, because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America." Those bland phrases hardly reflected his real feelings and intentions. The ensuing campaign against Democratic incumbents included some of the most vicious advertising deployed in manyyears, with Daschle portrayed as a stooge of the al Qaeda terrorists and Senator Max Cleland, a triple amputee Vietnam war hero and winner of the Bronze Star and the Silver Star, derided as unpatriotic. Both lost their reelection bids.
Damaging as the midterm campaign was to national morale, at a time when unity should have been paramount, Rove's strategy was nevertheless brilliantly successful. The Republicans carried the same precepts forward into the 2004 presidential campaign, which featured the gross exploitation of the 9/11 attacks in advertising and at the GOP convention in New York; an outrageous smear of the patriotism and navy service of Democratic nominee John Kerry; a series of conveniently timed terror alerts leading up to Election Day; and repeated warnings by Vice President Dick Cheney and other party spokesmen that a Democratic victory would signal weakness to the terrorists who are waiting to strike again.
The following summer, as the reelected president's ratings plunged along with popular support for the war in Iraq, Rove returned to the same theme with still greater ferocity. On June 22, 2005, he addressed the annual dinner of the New York State Conservative Party--a third party founded by members of the Buckley family and run by hard-line ideologues who consider the state's Republican Party much too moderate.
Rove had traveled north to accept the Conservative Party's Charles Edison Award. This special honor is named for a deceased New Jersey governor and industrialist who also happened to have been among the first prominent endorsers of the ultraright extremist John Birch Society, which smeared President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a Communist traitor.
That old Birch mind-set seemed to have inspired Rove's remarks.
He opened with a few bland paragraphs of congratulation, hailing the great strides in recent decades by Republicans andconservatives, and noting their traditional disagreements with liberals over tax cuts and the role of government. But he had come to dinner to serve red meat, not pablum. First he declared that "the most important difference between conservatives and liberals can be found in the area of national security." Then he launched a savagely sarcastic attack on the character of every liberal American and most Democrats:
"Conservatives saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and prepared for war, liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers. In the wake of 9/11, conservatives believed it was time to unleash the might and power of the United States military against the Taliban; in the wake of 9/11, liberals believed it was time to ... submit a petition. I am not joking. Submitting a petition is precisely what [the progressive grassroots organization] Moveon.org did. It was a petition imploring the 'powers that be' to 'use moderation and restraint in responding to the ... terrorist attacks against the United States.'
"I don't know about you," Rove continued, "but moderation and restraint is not what I felt as I watched the Twin Towers crumble to the earth; a side of the Pentagon destroyed; and almost 3,000 of our fellow citizens perish in flames and rubble.
"Moderation and restraint is not what I felt--and moderation and restraint is not what was called for. It was a moment to summon our national will--and to brandish steel."
The only steel Rove had ever brandished was a fork, but that didn't slow him down.
"MoveOn.org, Michael Moore, and Howard Dean may not have agreed with this, but the American people did. Conservatives saw what happened to us on 9/11 and said: we will defeat our enemies. Liberals saw what happened to us and said: we must understand our enemies. Conservatives see the United States as a great nation engaged in a noble cause; liberals seethe United States and they see ... Nazi concentration camps, Soviet gulags, and the killing fields of Cambodia."
This was the legendary dirty fighter of American politics, deliberately distorting the views of liberals and Democrats, freely fabricating "facts" to slander his opponents. He knew that no liberals had urged therapy or understanding for the hijackers. He knew that Moveon.org, with millions of progressive citizens organized via the Internet, had never circulated any petition demanding restraint against the Taliban. He knew there was no evidence that Howard Dean, the Democratic Party chairman, had opposed the war in Afghanistan or urged "understanding" for al Qaeda. He knew that liberals didn't regard America as the equivalent of Nazi or Communist totalitarians. (That crack referred to a floor speech by Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip, lamenting the mistreatment of detainees in the military camps at Guantánamo Bay, as revealed in a declassified FBI report.) As Rove well knew, the truth was that the vast majority of American liberals and progressives, including Dean and Durbin and the members of Moveon.org, had concurred with the president in his decision to invade Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban.
Rove knew, in fact, that the liberals and Democrats in Congress had stood squarely behind Bush in the decision to extirpate the Taliban and destroy al Qaeda. Their only disappointment was that he had done the job so hesitantly and ineptly, allowing Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar to escape.
Rove's Conservative Party speech exemplified the classic rhetorical tactics of authoritarianism, employing innuendo and lies to transform political opponents into soft-minded dupes and potential traitors. After spewing his slanders, he was just clever enough to provide himself with a rhetorical safety net. "At the core, we are dealing with two parties that have fundamentally different views on national security," he said. "Republicans havea post-9/11 worldview and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview. That doesn't make them unpatriotic--not at all. But it does make them wrong--deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong."
It was an audacious lie from beginning to end. But if you believed him, then you would also agree that the Democrats should be disqualified from power for as long as the nation was in danger--and if you believed Bush, that would be a long, long time.
Since Rove delivered that speech, the White House has rebranded its "global war on terror" twice. For a brief period that summer, the war was officially renamed the "global struggle against violent extremism," apparently in belated acknowledgment that political and ideological strategies are just as salient as military power. Slate military analyst Fred Kaplan observed in despair that "the driving force behind the new slogan [was] a desire for a happier acronym." What had been GWOT, pronounced "gee-wot," became GSAVE, or "gee-save." That didn't help much.
President Bush more recently said that he thinks of it as World War III, but Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative literary light and amateur strategic thinker, has suggested that it is really World War IV, because we already fought World War III in the cold war.
In January 2006, a new official name appeared in the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, the strategic planning document issued by the defense secretary every four years. The latest version refers to the struggle against Islamist terrorism as "the long war"--a portentous description that is clearly intended to evoke the cold war's decades of global confrontation. "The struggle ... may well be fought in dozens of other countries simultaneously and for many years to come," warned the report. By implicitly comparing al Qaeda and its ragtag allies with the massive armedforces of Soviet Communism, Donald Rumsfeld and the neoconservative ideologues who worked for him evidently sought to initiate still another vast enlargement of the defense budget and a greatly expanded American presence overseas. The outcome of this permanent state of war is meant to be American hegemony abroad and conservative domination at home.
HOW AND WHEN Karl Rove came to understand that permanent war could be exploited to advance his political aims is not clear. When the Republican consultant entered the White House in January 2001 with George W. Bush, the candidate he had trained and tutored, the new government's national security policies were vague, to put it politely. The presidential campaign of 2000 had not turned on issues of defense and foreign policy, which was just as well for Bush, who could scarcely articulate an opinion on those topics beyond a few earnest platitudes he had picked up from his advisers.
Bush promised to keep America strong. He would never commit American troops to any conflict abroad without a plan for victory and an exit strategy. At the same time, he voiced support for most recent American military interventions abroad, which he deemed to have served the national interest. (He would always pursue the national interest, of course.) He would approach other countries with humility and shun foolhardy, excessively ambitious nation-building projects.
"I'm worried about overcommitting our military around the world. I want to be judicious in its use," said Bush during his second debate with Vice President Al Gore on October 12, 2000. "I'm not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say this is the way it's got to be." His cautious endorsements of traditional Republican pragmatism and multilateralism offered no notion of what was to come.
Exactly three months and eight days after that innocuous debate, in which Bush could scarcely be distinguished from Gore, the newly inaugurated president and the members of his National Security Council sat down for their first official meeting. Among those present was Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, whose firing less than two years later would eventually provoke him to reveal what he had witnessed in the Bush White House. According to O'Neill, the first topic on the agenda of that initial meeting was the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Briefing materials for that meeting included a "Plan for Post-Saddam Iraq," which included a period of peacekeeping by U.S. soldiers, a war crimes tribunal for Saddam and other Baath Party officials, and a scheme (with maps) for exploiting Iraq's oil resources. Support for regime change in Iraq dated back to 1998, when Saddam forced the U.N. weapons inspection team to leave the country. But President Bill Clinton had not sought an excuse to mount an invasion. Bush told his aides that he wanted an excuse to attack.
"It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The president saying 'Go find me a way to do this,'" O'Neill recalled. The tone of the discussion, which continued two days later, was that the United States would sooner or later act unilaterally against the regime of Saddam Hussein. The emerging contours of Bush foreign policy bore no resemblance to the humble, practical approach promised during the campaign.
The motivations behind the real policy were mixed.
Many of the key advisers to Cheney and Rumsfeld were neoconservatives who had advocated forcible regime change in Iraq long before Bush became president. They had been associated with the Project for the New American Century, the think tank set up by neoconservative editor William Kristol to promote an aggressive, militaristic American foreign policy, with emphasis on action in the Middle East against regimes hostileto the United States and Israel. In keeping with that outlook, former Halliburton president Cheney and his allies in the energy industry seemed to look forward to new opportunities in the Iraqi oil fields.
For the president and his chief adviser Rove, the political motives to go to war may well have been the most compelling. Houston Chronicle columnist Mickey Herskowitz, a Bush family confidant, revealed in 2004 that George W. Bush and his aides were enthralled with the "political capital" and public glory accruing to leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and the first President Bush, who overpowered smaller adversaries by military force.
Perhaps Rove was familiar with Irving Kristol's 1989 essay on the Grenada invasion, used by Reagan to draw attention away from the disastrous terrorist bombing of a marine barracks in Lebanon. "The reason we gave for the intervention--the risk to American medical students there--was phony but the reaction of the American people was absolutely and overwhelmingly favorable," Kristol gloated in retrospect. "They had no idea what was going on, but they backed the president. They always will."
(That MISSION ACCOMPLISHED moment on May 1, 2003, was in the making long before George W. Bush became president.)
"Start a small war," summed up the Bush attitude, as described by Herskowitz. "Pick a country where there is justification you can jump on, go ahead and invade." Herskowitz had conducted nearly twenty interviews with the younger Bush while working on his campaign autobiography in 1999, and the journalist remembered specifically what the Texas governor had said on the subject of war with Iraq.
"One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief," said Bush, according to Herskowitz. "My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it ... . If I have a chance toinvade, if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it. I'm going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I'm going to have a successful presidency."
The moderate tenor of Bush's campaign speeches on defense and foreign policy during his first presidential campaign had been a ruse, much like his claim to be a new kind of compassionate conservative. Long before September 11, Bush had seen war as an arena to advance his political agenda. The attack by al Qaeda and the alleged threat from Saddam Hussein provided the opportunity he wanted.
As the true time line of the Iraq war is gradually revealed, the political logic of invading as soon as possible becomes clearer. During the summer of 2002, Bush's "successful" presidency was suddenly endangered by the corporate scandals that had first ruined Enron and his friend Kenneth "Kenny Boy" Lay and then engulfed Arthur Andersen, WorldCom, Adelphia, Global Crossing, Tyco, Qwest, Dynegy, and other major firms. By July, the scandal wave was rolling toward the White House, with fresh questions boiling up in the usually placid media about Bush's alleged insider trading at Harken Energy Corporation in 1990, about government sweetheart contracts awarded to Cheney's former employers at Halliburton, and about all those former Enron officials and advisers associated with the White House, including Rove. The stock market index lost nearly a thousand points.
In a column urging the president to invade Iraq immediately--a notion that betrayed profound ignorance of the logistical requirements of modern war--New York Post pundit John Podhoretz bluntly touted the political profit. The excitable son of neoconservative eminence Norman often babbles forth the unspoken (and unspeakable) inner thoughts of his clique.
"There's a luscious double trap in starting the war as soon as possible, Mr. President," he wrote, as if starting a war felt likeeating an ice-cream sundae. "Your enemies are delirious with excitement about the corporate-greed scandals and the effect they might have on your popularity and the GOP's standing in November.
"If you get troops on the ground quickly, they will go berserk. Incautious Democrats and liberal pundits will shriek that you've gone to war solely to protect yourself from the corporate-greed scandal. They will forget the lesson they so quickly learned after Sept. 11, which is that at a time of war the American people want their political leaders to stand together.
"Your enemies will hurl ugly accusations at you, Mr. President. And at least one of them will be true--the accusation that you began the war when you did for political reasons.
"But that won't matter. It won't matter to the American people, and it won't matter as far as history is concerned. History will record that you and the U.S. military brought an end to a barbaric regime on its way to threatening the world."
Now, Podhoretz obviously had no clue what his proposal would demand in military terms. Mounting a successful land invasion of a country the size of Iraq takes months, not weeks, especially if the commanders give a damn about the care, feeding, and security of their troops. Stupid as his column was, however, it nevertheless revealed the right-wing appetite for the "luscious" prospect of war. If the president couldn't actually start bombing, he could start beating the war drums. That would distract the public from corporate scandals, too.
Writing in the New York Times on July 20, Frank Rich detected the same imperative: "Wagging the dog no longer cuts it. If the Bush administration wants to distract Americans from watching their 401(k)'s go down the toilet, it will have to unleash the whole kennel," he predicted.
So it may not have been pure coincidence that around that same time, Bush accelerated his drive to invade Iraq, accordingto the "Downing Street memo" setting down the minutes of a British cabinet meeting on July 23, 2002. That memo included the summary of a report by Sir Richard Dearlove, the British intelligence chief, on his recent meetings with Bush administration officials in Washington:
"There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." The Brits failed to give sufficient weight to the fact that 2002 was an election year in the United States. The policy was being fixed around the politics.
IF THE SEPTEMBER 11 attacks offered the rallying cry for permanent war, then the neoconservatives provided an intellectual underpinning. Led by such veterans of previous Republican administrations as William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Elliot Abrams, their Washington infrastructure comprised a very well funded array of major think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Security Policy, the Project for a New American Century, and the Hudson Institute; magazines including the Weekly Standard, the American Spectator, and the National Review; and an extensive network of writers, scholars, lawyers, government officials, and former officials specializing in national security and foreign affairs. A long list of publicly identified neocons followed Bush and Rove into the power suites of the White House and the Pentagon, where they held strategic positions of authority under Cheney and Rumsfeld.
The neoconservatives advocated an aggressively unipolar defense posture, one that would make the United States an uncontested hegemon with the military capacity to enforce aworldwide Pax Americana. Their strategic thinking--summarized in studies prepared by the Project for the New American Century--imagined a world in which American power could reshape entire regions, especially the Middle East, into arrangements more congenial to the United States and Israel. Urging substantially increased spending on defense production and research, and the militarization of space, they didn't shrink from the likelihood that seeking such unrivaled power would provoke ongoing conflict. Indeed, the more outspoken figures among the neoconservatives welcomed that prospect.
Superficially, at least, the neoconservative ideal of a planetary Pax Americana also included a commitment to the spread of democratic and liberal values. Like any other empire, the American global version needed a civilizing mission, as more than one neocon commentator frankly admitted. The noise about democratizing other regions, especially the Middle East, grew much louder following the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But the truth about the neoconservatives was that their commitment to democracy abroad had never been firmly principled--as anyone who could remember their record during the Reagan era would find difficult to deny.
Those were the years of the neoconservative ascendancy, when the founding generation, including former Trotskyists (or worse, former Democrats) entered the Republican Party and began to displace the traditional Goldwater conservatives. While many in the next generation--including Wolfowitz, Kristol, Perle, and Abrams--were rewarded with important positions in the Reagan and Bush administrations, the most prominent and vocal spokeswoman for neoconservative foreign policy was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Jeane J. Kirkpatrick. Her only lasting contribution to political philosophy was to distinguish between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, an argument that permitted the United States to provide financial and militarysupport to some of the most vicious dictatorships around the world because their leaders supported the West against communism.
During those final years of the Soviet empire, the neoconservatives denounced Western proponents of human rights and democracy as naïve at best and Communist fellow travelers at worst. Foreshadowing dark events to come two decades hence, Kirkpatrick openly endorsed the military dictators who were later found to have run Argentina's "dirty war" of murder and torture against leftists and liberals.
As others have observed, the former Communists of the American neoconservative movement had changed their ideology but not their character. Torture, disappearances, and massacres were acceptable then; deception, illegal war, and torture are acceptable now. The end justified the means, and still does.
AT A DEEPER philosophical level, the neoconservatives appear to believe that, as the American writer Randolph Bourne once observed wryly, "War is the health of the state." That very few of them or their children would ever be called upon to actually fight and die may have accounted for their aggressive attitude.
The calamitous events of September 11 quickly amplified the usual drone of belligerent rhetoric from the far right into a deafening roar. The neoconservatives showed relatively little enthusiasm for the war in Afghanistan, where an internationally isolated Islamist government had afforded sanctuary to al Qaeda. Overthrowing the Taliban was certainly necessary--and enjoyed the support of NATO, the United Nations, and the entire civilized world--but didn't advance their agenda. Their real target was Iraq, and they began to prepare the way for invasion, both publicly and furtively behind closed doors.
Inside and outside government, the neoconservatives promoted a series of falsehoods to justify a policy of preemptive war that could later be extended to other enemy states. It has since become obvious that much so-called intelligence cited by the administration had no credibility, from the tales of mobile biowarfare labs peddled by an informant code-named Curveball to the forged documents claiming that Iraq had sought to obtain enriched uranium ore from Niger. It is indisputable that administration officials at the highest levels ignored credible evidence that contradicted their alarmist statements.
Over and over again the president, the vice president, the secretaries of defense and state, and the national security adviser grossly exaggerated the dangers posed by Iraq, invoking frightening images of a mushroom cloud and implying that the secular Iraqi regime was somehow connected with the Islamic extremist al Qaeda. Assisted by a credulous press corps and a battalion of columnists, editorial writers, war bloggers, and broadcast loudmouths--the "windbags of war"--they succeeded in convincing the American public that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent danger. When the Pentagon's "shock and awe" assault commenced on March 19, 2003, most Americans believed that Iraq already possessed nuclear weapons and was responsible for September 11. The catalogue of prevarications, fantasies, myths, misinterpreted reports, and ignored or discarded facts could fill volumes.
Early on, William Kristol, perhaps the most visible advocate for war in his roles as editor of the Weekly Standard, Fox News commentator, and chairman of the Project for the New American Century, had subtly hinted that truth alone might not always suffice. Making ready for war, he wrote in an October 2002 column for the Washington Post, would "require the president, at times, to mislead rather than to clarify, to deceive rather than to explain." The main target of these deceptions was Saddamhimself, according to Kristol, but that would necessitate deceiving everyone else, too.
Kristol's prediction turned out to be correct, although not in a way that vindicates him--or Bush. Aside from the Bush administration's countless attempts to deceive and mislead Congress, the U.N. Security Council, the public, and the press, the president proposed a scheme designed to fool Saddam.
The notes of a secret meeting between the president and British prime minister Tony Blair on January 31, 2003, show that Bush wanted to lure the Iraqi dictator into a fatal error with a simple trick. Concerned that the U.N. weapons inspectors who had returned to Iraq were failing to find any hidden weapons that would justify the invasion scheduled for March, he told Blair that the United States might send "U-2 reconnaissance planes with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colors ... If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach [of U.N. resolutions]." And despite the absence of any forbidden weapons, the Anglo-American coalition would seize the excuse to invade.
Risky and almost farcical, the plan to fly fake U.N. reconnaissance aircraft over Iraq must have been devised in the same spirit as that "well-planned series of deplorable 'incidents' on the Mexican border" mulled by the White House junta in It Can't Happen Here. Three years later, Bush's scheme to lure Iraq into an armed provocation was revealed on the front page of the New York Times. Neither the British nor the American government denied the story.
The Bush scheme, like all of the invented reasons for this "elective war," evoked another, much nastier parallel. It was too inflammatory to be mentioned by anyone except, oddly enough, a conservative columnist and former Reagan administration official writing in the Washington Times. Paul Craig Roberts warned that the "use of forged evidence opens Mr. Bush to unflattering comparisons that his enemies will not hesitate to make.They will point out that it was Adolf Hitler's strategy to fabricate evidence in order to justify his invasion of a helpless country. He used S.S. troops dressed in Polish uniforms to fake an attack on the German radio station at Gleiwitz on Aug. 31, 1939. Following the faked attack, Hitler announced: 'This night for the first time Polish regular soldiers fired on our own territory.' As German troops poured into Poland, Hitler declared: 'The Polish state has refused the peaceful settlement of relations which I desired, and has appealed to arms.' The German High Command called the German invasion of Poland a counterattack."
TO IMPOSE PERMANENT war on a democratic society, deception is essential. Policy makers and their propagandists must always pretend to prefer peace, and must promise to wage war only as a last resort, as President Bush claimed to be doing in the months after he decided to invade Iraq. Not only was Iraq not invaded as a last resort, but the neoconservative authors of that war regarded the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as the opening chapter of a far wider and longer military campaign. While few of them actually enlist, especially in the present generation, they nevertheless seem to regard armed conflict as beneficial and necessary.
Not many politicians or pundits in Washington would be willing to articulate such belligerence with complete candor, however, for fear of sounding dangerous and possibly deranged. Still, there are a few who speak more frankly than they should. Among these is Michael Ledeen, a writer, scholar, and part-time intelligence operative, who blurts out what his comrades hesitate to say.
Unlike most of the academics, bureaucrats, officials, and journalists of his stripe, Ledeen is an adventurous troublemaker, which may explain his more confrontational style. Over theyears his name has frequently surfaced in twilight intrigues and questionable circumstances, occasionally drawing the attention of prosecutors both here and in Italy, although he has never been charged with any wrongdoing. He has worked as a consultant at various times to the Pentagon, the State Department, and the National Security Council. Yet on more than one occasion, he has set up back-channel communications with foreign intelligence agencies, provoking the anger of U.S. officials.
While studying and working in Rome, he allegedly befriended some of the most disreputable characters on the Italian far right, including rogue intelligence agents and members of the notorious, secretive P-2 Masonic lodge that conspired against Italy's democratic government. At the same time, in the late 1970s, he is known to have advised SISMI, the Italian military intelligence service, on the subject of combating terrorism. His work for SISMI coincided with the period when fascist provocateurs tied to the intelligence agency and the P-2 lodge were perpetrating false-flag atrocities, including the bombing of the Bologna train station, that were attributed to the left. Ledeen has denied any involvement with P-2, and no evidence has ever emerged to link him to those conspiracies.
Two decades ago, after returning to Washington, Ledeen played a central role in the Iran-Contra affair that almost brought down the Reagan administration. Working with Lt. Col. Oliver North, he helped to arrange one of the first secret arms-for-hostages deals with Tehran through an Iranian arms dealer named Manucher Ghorbanifar. CIA officials later cut off Ghorbanifar after multiple polygraph tests showed him to be untrustworthy.
More recently, Ledeen has been suspected of involvement with the perpetrators of the Niger uranium forgeries, which reached the National Security Council via Italian intelligence agents and a reporter for Panorama, a Rome-based magazinethat has employed Ledeen. (That publication also happens to be owned by his friend, the former prime minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, whose electoral coalition included Italy's neofascist party.)
Ledeen vehemently denies any role in promoting the Niger forgeries. At the same time, he speaks proudly of his friendship with Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress politician who foisted so much fraudulent intelligence concerning Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction on the Pentagon, the CIA, and major American news organizations. Ledeen has worked closely with the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, the intelligence operation used by neoconservative officials in the Bush administration to circumvent the CIA and promote Chalabi's WMD tall tales, all of which have since been disproved.
Since September 11, 2001, the busy Ledeen has also renewed his connections with Ghorbanifar, in collaboration with the Office for Special Plans. Their aim has been to destabilize the regime in Tehran and seize control of Iran policy from the State Department, which they regard as too conciliatory. In addition to his own freqent consultations in Europe with Ghorbanifar, Ledeen set up a series of controversial meetings in Rome for the Iranian with American and Italian defense officials. Among the Pentagon employees attending at least one of those Rome meetings with Ghorbanifar in 2003 was Larry Franklin, an Iran expert who has since pleaded guilty to federal charges of unlawfully giving classified information to lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Precisely what Ledeen was trying to accomplish in his covert activities remains mysterious, but his broader aims are clear enough. Only days before American troops began their march to Baghdad, he predicted with evident relish that the coming conflict would quickly spread. "As soon as we land in Iraq, we're going to face the whole terrorist network, Iran, Iraq, Syria, andSaudi Arabia are the big four, and then there's Libya." In an interview with journalist Robert Dreyfuss, he went further: "I think we're going to be obliged to fight a regional war, whether we want to or not. It may turn out to be a war to remake the world." He has called for total war, a term with terrible connotations of civilian carnage and merciless domination.
For Ledeen this ominous conflagration is to be anticipated, not avoided, because war will hasten the "creative destruction" of the traditional societies that are America's natural enemies. In his 2003 book, The War Against the Terror Masters, he portrayed a stark confrontation that can only be resolved with bloodshed. "They cannot feel secure so long as we are there, for our very existence--our existence, not our politics--threatens their legitimacy," he wrote. "They must attack us in order to survive, just as we must destroy them to advance our historic mission."
Shortly after the war began, he declared that Americans would not only be willing to sacrifice to pursue that mission, but that they would positively enjoy the bloodbath. "I think the level of casualties is secondary," he said at a briefing sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. "I mean, it may sound like an odd thing to say, but all the great scholars who have studied American character have come to the conclusion that we are a warlike people and that we love war ... . What we hate is not casualties, but losing."
His penchant for mass mayhem and the triumph of brute force can be traced to the very beginning of his strange career. As a young scholar of Italian fascism and a biographer of Gabriele d'Annunzio, the Fascist organizer and poet, Ledeen exhibited a peculiar admiration for the "creative destruction" embodied in that ideology (although he claimed to detest the actual regimes of Hitler and Mussolini). Among his early books was Fascism: An Informal Introduction to Its Theory and Practice(1976), a volume coauthored with the late Renzo de Felice, a sympathetic historian of the Fascist movement in Italy. The controversial de Felice, who also wrote a seven-volume biography of Mussolini, argued that Fascism should be regarded as the legitimate political ideology of a rising European middle class.
Not surprisingly, Ledeen's rhetoric takes on a menacing tone when he is agitated. In a 1999 essay, he demanded the impeachment and removal of Bill Clinton, whom he considered a weak, unworthy, and corrupt man lacking the martial character of a true national leader. "New leaders with an iron will are required to root out the corruption and either reestablish a virtuous state, or to institute a new one ... ," he warned. "If we bask in false security and drop our guard, the rot spreads, corrupting the entire society. Once that happens, only violent and extremely unpleasant methods can bring us back to virtue."
Those overheated passages may be found in a book he wrote to popularize the "iron rules" of leadership set down by Machiavelli, the Renaissance politician and essayist whose reputation Ledeen has tried to rehabilitate. Like his hero, who sought to advise the Medicis and Borgias, Ledeen valorizes war and scorns peace.
"Everlasting peace is a dream, not even a pleasant one; war is a necessary part of God's arrangement of the world," writes Ledeen, quoting a famous Prussian general with approval. "Without war the world would deteriorate into materialism." In this enthusiasm for blood and conquest, if nothing else, Ledeen resembles the Fascist leaders he studied, who worshipped war and aggression as the most important hallmarks of a great nation.
LEDEEN'S PECULIAR IDEAS and gamy background haven't prevented him from attaining a position of considerable influence in right-wing Washington. Perched in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, contributing regularlyto the National Review, and consulting frequently with officials at the Pentagon and the White House, he is certainly a very senior neoconservative spokesman. The most important connection he has established is his informal status as an adviser to Karl Rove.
Only days before the invasion of Iraq, the Washington Post published a long list of people consulted regularly by Rove on policy and politics. Ledeen was the only foreign affairs adviser named in the article, whose main source was clearly the presidential adviser himself. Why they might connect should be obvious to anyone who knows the careers of both men. The enigmatic intelligence operative would no doubt fascinate the cunning political operative, renowned since his days as a young Nixon trickster. In attitude and ideology, they were well matched.
According to Ledeen, Rove had urged: "Anytime you have a good idea, tell me." More than once, he boasted, the ideas he has faxed to Rove have appeared in a directive or a speech. The ugly speech Rove delivered to the Conservative Party certainly echoed themes in Ledeen's writing--especially the insinuation that liberals and Democrats are soft on terror and that only Republicans possess the martial virtues necessary to defend America. But their agreement was more fundamental than that.
While Ledeen's absolutism and extremism place him outside the mainstream of American political traditions, his views converge neatly with the outlook of the late Leo Strauss, the University of Chicago political philosopher who became the patron saint of neoconservatism. A Jewish refugee from Hitler's Germany, the charismatic professor taught many of the figures who loom large in the Bush regime today, including former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz and Abram Shulsky, the director of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, which was set up by Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld to find so-called intelligence supporting their war plan for Iraq. His influence extendsto many others, notably including William Kristol, through students who became teachers in turn, such as Harvard's Harvey Mansfield and the late Allan Bloom of Chicago. His cultish influence on his followers was so strong that they still refer to themselves and each other as Straussians.
If only to reveal the authoritarian and militaristic strains in neoconservatism, the thinking of Strauss deserves examination.
More than thirty years after his death in 1973, his name is far more widely known and more controversial than at any time during his life. His acolytes are sometimes accused of fomenting a neoconservative political conspiracy, occasionally in blatantly anti-Semitic language. He is suspected of concealing his true ideas behind an intentional literary opacity. That is precisely what Strauss claimed the most important philosophers of history had done, carefully hiding their "esoteric" message within "exoteric" prose to avoid the dire consequences of honesty. (With respect to Plato, Socrates, Maimonides, and others to whom Strauss attributes such behavior, it should be said, his theory is widely dismissed as crankery.)
Like Machiavelli, Strauss viewed deception as the norm in both politics and philosophy. Only the select few would ever be initiated into the hidden truths.
Shadia Drury, a Canadian political scientist who has studied Strauss and his followers, notes the congruence of his ideas and those of Machiavelli. The supremely cynical author of The Prince, writes Drury, was "a theorist who was much admired by Strauss for everything except his lack of subtlety. Strauss endorsed Machiavellian tactics in politics--not just lies and the manipulation of public opinion but every manner of unscrupulous conduct necessary to keep the masses in a state of heightened alert, afraid for their lives and their families and therefore willing to do whatever was deemed necessary for the security of the nation. For Strauss as for Machiavelli, only the constant threatof a common enemy could save a people from becoming soft, pampered, and depraved."
Alan Gilbert, a professor of political science and international studies at the University of Denver (and former graduate adviser to Condoleezza Rice), has studied Strauss's relationships with the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the lawyer and professor Carl Schmitt. Heidegger and Schmitt joined the Nazi Party after Strauss left Germany in 1932; their Nazism and anti-Semitism disturbed Strauss, who otherwise admired both men. "But Strauss remains mesmerized by Heidegger's and Schmitt's politics," according to Gilbert, "particularly their anti-cosmopolitanism, their hatred for international peace, their love of militarism and war. His core political beliefs seem to have frozen in the late 1920s in a way that no subsequent experience would markedly affect."
Gilbert cites a letter Strauss sent to Schmitt in 1932, not long before Schmitt rose to become the principal legal theorist of the Nazi regime. (Schmitt believed that Strauss had written the most penetrating review of his theoretical work, The Concept of the Political, which defined politics as the struggle of one group to subdue others.) "The ultimate foundation of the Right is the principle of the natural evil of man; because man is by nature evil, he therefore needs dominion," wrote Strauss.
The most startling expression of Strauss's moral confusion during that period came in a letter he sent to a Jewish friend in May 1933 about the problem posed by the rise of Hitler and Nazis. "Just because the Germany of the Right does not tolerate us [Jews], it simply does not follow that the principles of the right are therefore to be rejected," wrote Strauss. "On the contrary, only on the basis of the principles of the right--fascist, authoritarian, imperial--is it possible in a dignified manner, without the ridiculous and pitiful appeal to 'the inalienable rights of man,' to protest against the mean nonentity [Hitler]."
Obviously a letter written more than seventy years ago by aprofessor who is now deceased doesn't mean that today's neoconservatives are secret fascists. But given their cultish veneration of its author, that appalling letter does place their militarist enthusiasms and imperial ambitions in a context that contrasts sharply with their supposed crusade for democracy.
It seems quite possible that, like Machiavelli, the great icon Strauss--and after him, Ledeen and leading contemporary neoconservatives--believed that people are fundamentally evil, that they must be ruled firmly from above, and that perpetual war is the inevitable condition of humanity. Could that be the hidden teaching behind the public rhetoric about democracy and freedom?
ALTHOUGH THE NEOCONSERVATIVES have proved adept in developing magazines, journals, foundations, think tanks, and a wide variety of other institutions, not to mention ideas and ideologies, they have never demonstrated a great talent for democratic politics. Among their frustrated objectives, for instance, is to subvert the liberalism of American Jews and herd them into the Republican Party. Yet despite their control of important Jewish publications and the disproportionate visibility they enjoy in the mainstream media, that little project has been a dismal failure. Elections come and go, and Jewish voters continue to support liberal ideals and Democratic candidates with a consistency that is surpassed only by African Americans. The majority of the Jewish community was ahead of the rest of the nation in rejecting the Iraq war as early as 2003, according to public opinion polls--a blunt rejection of the neoconservative agenda.
More broadly, the neoconservatives have been unable to develop a significant national political base, and their plans for perpetual war, if presented candidly, would be very unlikely toattract such a following. What they have done instead over the past two decades is to cultivate an alliance with the religious right. At first glance this combination might seem unlikely and even bizarre. How could an elite of secular (and largely Jewish) Eastern urban intellectuals join forces with fundamentalist Christian ministers from the South? But over the past twenty years, as neoconservative ideologues ascended in the national security establishment, and the leaders of the religious right have risen in the Republican Party, they have indeed combined to create a powerful and aggressive coalition.
This convergence of neocons and "theocons" has been continuous, successful, and increasingly tight during the Bush administration. It is not unusual--to take just one small example--for Pat Robertson's television show, The 700 Club, to feature Michael Ledeen talking about the urgent necessity to expand the war from Iraq to Iran. In right-wing media and institutions as well as in government, evangelical Christians and secular neoconservatives collaborate regularly.
THE MOST FATEFUL collaborations between neoconservatives and evangelicals have occurred behind closed doors, under heavy classification, at the uppermost levels of the Pentagon. That is where Rumsfeld brought together his own most trusted deputy, Stephen Cambone, with Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin to create an elite defense intelligence operation. Rumsfeld named Cambone to the newly created position of under secretary of defense for intelligence, and appointed Boykin as his deputy.
Once described as Rumsfeld's hatchetman, Cambone is a perfect Straussian neoconservative, trained in one of the academic cult's favored redoubts at Claremont College in California. Boykin is a dedicated spiritual warrior of the religious right,whose flamboyant public statements created a severe embarrassment for the White House not long after his Pentagon appointment. Journalist William Arkin reported on speeches that Boykin had been delivering in churches around the country, recounting his battles against Muslim warlords in Somalia and explaining that the war on terror is truly a crusade against the Antichrist.
"Satan wants to destroy this nation, he wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army," the general informed a rapt congregation in Oregon. America's enemies, he continued, "will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus."
Speaking at a Baptist church in Oklahoma, Boykin displayed the photographs he had taken while serving in Somalia in 1993, not long after the ill-fated Blackhawk Down helicopter crash that resulted in the killing of a dozen American soldiers. One of those photos showed a "strange dark mark" that appeared to hover over the Somali capital of Mogadishu.
"Ladies and gentleman, this is your enemy," he told the congregation as he displayed the photo on a screen. "It is the principalities of darkness ... . It is a demonic presence in that city that God revealed to me as the enemy." Battling the Muslim warlord who ruled Mogadishu, said Boykin, he suffered a crisis of faith. Then he realized that his religious faith made him superior to his foe. "I knew that my god was bigger than his," recalled Boykin. "I knew that my god was a real God and his was an idol."
Those last remarks were taken as an inflammatory slur against Islam, sparking demands for Boykin's firing. He apologized instead, and Rumsfeld blithely ignored demands that he dismiss the erratic general. "We're a free people," said the defense secretary.
By the spring of 2006, Cambone and Boykin had been implicated, along with their boss, in the policies that contributed to the ever-widening scandal of detainee torture and abuse firstexposed at Abu Ghraib prison. They had been overseeing super-secret "special access projects" of military intelligence that allegedly employed brutal interrogation techniques. Cambone had allegedly authorized interrogation techniques in Iraq that violated the Geneva conventions. Nothing was done to discipline them. Neither Boykin, an admired friend of the most powerful figures on the religious right, including James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Southern Baptist Convention leader Bobby Welch, nor Cambone, the favorite of the once-invulnerable Rumsfeld, could be touched.
KEEPING SUCH CLOSE quarters with religious zealots can be challenging for secular intellectuals, as the Canadian Jewish speechwriter David Frum found out when he realized that "everyone" was expected to attend the daily Christian prayer meetings in the Bush White House. But culture clashes are the exception, not the rule. Over time, the neocons have willingly acceded to fundamentalist orthodoxy on issues ranging from abortion and stem-cell research to creationism.
As long ago as 1986, Irving Kristol shocked readers of the New York Times when he published an essay in that newspaper taking the side of Christian fundamentalists against the teaching of evolution. Known as the supremely influential godfather of neoconservatism, Kristol marked an intellectual (or anti-intellectual) watershed with repeated, intemperate denunciations of secular humanism. Over time, such pandering to the Christian fundamentalists became less and less surprising. Even recurrent anti-Semitism among leaders on the religious right could be excused--and often was--in order to sustain the strategic coalition.
What kept them together, consistently, was agreement on thequestion of Israel. Neoconservatives and fundamentalists alike support the Likud Party's maximalist conception of a Greater Israel, which meant the annexation of occupied Arab territory, including East Jerusalem, and the refusal to negotiate the establishment of a viable, independent Palestinian homeland. The Christian Zionists of the religious right are much more fervent and implacable in their Zionism than most American Jews, who prefer a negotiated land for peace settlement.
Fundamentalist support for Israel is based on apocalyptic biblical prophecy, of course, rather than concern about the fate of the Jewish people. According to popular interpretations of the book of Revelation, the return of God's chosen to the Holy Land is a precondition for Armageddon, the final confrontation between Jesus Christ and the Antichrist. The Jews will either convert or be swallowed by a lake of fire--along with all the other bad people on Earth--while the remnant of faithful Christians will be saved to rule the world for a thousand years at the side of Jesus himself.
This entertaining eschatological narrative--featured daily on Christian television networks to help separate the rubes from their money--troubles the neoconservatives not at all. They are in no position to criticize militant superstition, having long since discarded liberal rationalism and enlightened pluralism to march with the religious right. Although they are atheists and agnostics--"nonobservant" as Irving Kristol once said of himself--they advocate the cultivation of fervent religious belief in society. The high-minded justification for this cynical approach can be found in the writings of Strauss and Machiavelli.
Robert Locke, a conservative and former editor of the right-wing Web site Frontpagemag.com who studied under Strauss at the University of Chicago, described the late professor as an atheist and elitist "who believed that religion was the great necessityfor ordinary men." For Strauss, only the strictest faith could inculcate the fear and obedience needed to prevent nations from descending into materialism, indulgence, sloth, and corruption.
Ledeen derives the same essential message from Machiavelli. In an orderly state, the people accept the law and the sovereign as divinely ordained. Interpreting Machiavelli (and Strauss indirectly as well), he discussed religion's central role in the Florentine's "iron rules of leadership" at the American Enterprise Institute. As "the first spin doctor," Machiavelli understood that "the people had to believe in the noble qualities of their leaders" if only to ensure their willingness to "die for the good of the state." Inspiring and motivating modern armies "can best be accomplished by the effective use of religion." (Aristotle reached a similar conclusion about eighteen hundred years earlier, when he observed, "A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion." So did Karl Marx, for that matter.)
In Ledeen's estimation, "American evangelical Christianity is the sort of 'good religion' Machiavelli calls for. The evangelicals do not quietly accept their destiny, believing instead they are called upon to fight corruption and reestablish virtue." Specifically, many conservative evangelicals fervently believe that fighting corruption and reestablishing virtue quite literally requires "taking dominion" over civil government in the United States--and eventually winning the entire planet for Christ. They reject the constitutional separation of church and state as a myth propagated by secular humanists. They uphold the United States as a Christian nation that must be ruled by godly men according to biblical principles--which sanction debt slavery and the death penalty for homosexuals, adulterers, and disobedient children.
As Ledeen suggested, many evangelicals believe that the Almighty ordained the Bush presidency. Such notions gained currency in the wake of September 11. General Boykin has lecturedon the topic, noting that the president actually entered the Oval Office despite the expressed will of the people in 2000. "George Bush was not elected by a majority of the voters in the U.S.," said Boykin. "He was appointed by God." Ralph Reed, the former director of the Christian Coalition (and disgraced associate of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff ), suggested that God selected the president because "He knew George Bush had the ability to lead in this compelling way." Nor was this revelation confined solely to Protestants. Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a devout but not excessively rigorous Catholic, announced his own opinion that "there was some divine guidance in the President being elected."
For his part, Bush continues to encourage this very flattering idea. He told journalist Bob Woodward that rather than seek the counsel of his own father, a former president, he consulted "a higher father" to prepare for war. In 2005, he confided to Palestinian leaders Nabil Shaath and Mahmoud Abbas that the Lord was in charge of Mideast policy. "I'm driven with a mission from God," he told the astonished pair. "God would tell me, 'George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.' And I did, and then God would tell me, 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq,' and I did."
WILL GOD INSTRUCT Bush to bomb Iran before his term in office ends?
As the war in Iraq festered with no end in sight, and the president's approval numbers sank into that desert sand, the neoconservatives and the religious rightists seemed to be turning again toward war. During the first months of 2006, four years after Rove beat the war drums to win more seats in the House and Senate, whispers began to circulate that the only way to preserve Republican power and the Bush presidency would be to take action against the Shiite Islamist regime in Teheran.
With each fresh warning from the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department about the danger posed by Iran's nuclear program, with every rumor of American or Israeli plans to attack the Iranian nuclear facilities, suspicion grew that Bush planned to exploit the traditional rally effect of an expanded war. The sense of déjà vu intensified as the same themes and exaggerations used to demonize Iraq were shifted to Iran. The radical president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaks loudly of his antipathy to Israel and Jews, and as with Saddam Hussein, he was compared to Hitler. The American intelligence community, deprived of any diplomatic access to Iran for the past quarter-century, was forced to rely on dubious information from émigré groups and potential fabricators, much the same as when it tried to assess Iraqi weapons and intentions.
Despite fears that Bush would take political advantage of the situation, he flinched from action against Iran before the midterm election. Instead he sought to warn voters, in language similar to Rove's most inflammatory speeches, that voting for Democrats was the same as voting for terrorism. At a campaign event in Georgia the week before Election Day, he said: "However they put it, the Democrat approach in Iraq comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses."
The impulse toward a wider war remains powerful on the right, despite the midterm electoral setback for Republicans. Both in Washington and in the American heartland, the same forces once eager to wage war on Iraq were agitating for action against Iran--including the neoconservatives, especially Michael Ledeen, and the evangelical Christians. For Ledeen, who has been propagandizing for regime change in Tehran for years, the latest conflict created an opportunity to renew his clandestine activities with Manucher Ghorbanifar and the old Iran-Contra network. For the religious right, a looming confrontation with the mullahs held even greater prophetic meaning than the ouster ofSaddam. At Wal-Mart stores across the country, the bestselling book during the first months of 2006 was Rev. John Hagee's Jerusalem Countdown, which urged the United States to wage preventive war on Iran or suffer the wrath of God for failing to protect Israel. On nationwide television broadcasts and from the pulpit of his San Antonio megachurch, Hagee predicts that a military strike is coming, leading inexorably to Armageddon and the final battle when Jesus returns to destroy the forces of the Antichrist.
The difference between Iraq and Iran is that the mullahs in Tehran truly could pose a threat to world peace if and when they can produce nuclear warheads, which their scientists may well be trying to accomplish. If they can be discouraged by a combination of warnings, sanctions, and diplomacy, perhaps the distant but disturbing prospect of a nuclear Iran can be prevented. The problem is that no matter how much bluster emanates from the White House and the Pentagon, Bush's war in Iraq has weakened the United States politically, militarily, diplomatically, and economically. Having spent so much blood and treasure on a false problem, our government is much less capable of dealing with a real one.
But opening another front in the long war may still mobilize the dispirited right-wing base for the next electoral confrontation. Should Bush and Cheney eventually decide to extend hostilities into Iran, Syria, or Lebanon, their determination is not likely to be diminished by dissent in Congress.
IT CAN HAPPEN HERE. Copyright © 2007 by Joe Conason. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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