At the end of the First Gulf War, on March 1, 1991, I published an op-ed piece in The Hartford Courant entitled “Harsh Lessons of the Persian Gulf War.” Towards the end of that piece, I wrote:
…the United States must promote among the Middle Eastern regimes the simple values of liberty, regional cooperation and democracy. The Gulf states have emerged from their petroleum-induced hibernation; they must now be encouraged to become members of the enlightened political community. Having seen socialism, militant nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism fail to heal the regimes of their sickness, the only option left to the Arabs is the stability that comes with freedom.
I concluded that piece with the following punch line:
Palestine is not the driving issue lurking behind every Middle Eastern ailment. The sickness is Arab despotism and freedom is the cure.
And now I sit, nearly 15 years later, and have begun to ask myself: am I a neo-con? Before the term ever existed, there I was in 1991 spouting the exact prescription that now is the hallmark of the Bush administration Vulcans. In those strained days of 2002 when a regime-change war was being contemplated in American politics, I know where I stood – an outcast within my profession – in favor of “taking out Saddam.” I also remember telling my students that the same men who had so horribly botched the 1991 war were the soon-to-be masters of this next Middle Eastern adventure. “Anyone who thinks they can fix the Middle East,” I said back in 2002, “will get fixed by the Middle East.” Anyone who knows a smattering of modern Middle Eastern history would know that foreign occupiers often have great plans for the Oriental natives, and yet the natives have a remarkable ability to reassert their will and confound the colonial masters. Just ask Britain. The audaciousness of occupying Baghdad, the great historic city of the once far-flung Abbasid caliphate, was in my mind even then an act of over-reaching. So while voting for Kerry (and let us not forget – Kerry campaigned on a Iraq platform that called for sending at least 100,000 more US troops to Iraq), I was a liberal hawk throughout 2002-2005. I cannot deny that among the reasons I supported removing Saddam was the salutary effect such a regime change would have on the military balance in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But the main reason I was in favor of taking out Saddam was an instinctive conviction – also trumpeted by the Darth Vader of the Bush regime, Vice President Dick Cheney – that there was some kind of connection between Saddam and the 9/11 attack, a view that once was held by over 60% of all Americans. To this day, I still reject the James Bondian theory that one rich Saudi businessman boogeyman (Usama Bin Laden) would be able to run a series of terror sleeper cells in the United States for over 18 months under the radar screen. If we were still in the Cold War, we would attribute such an organized effort to nothing less than the KGB. Even given all the documented failures of the US intelligence community between 1999-2001, it still seems to me that a state-sponsored intelligence entity must have been involved in the funding, security, and forged documentation of the sleeper cells.
I even developed an elaborate narrative to explain Saddam’s motivation for providing spycraft assistance to al-Qa’ida: on February 13, 1991, two US stealth fighters dropped 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs on the al-Firdos bunker in the Amariyah section of Baghdad – which turned out not to be a military facility, but a shelter for senior Ba’ath party family members, killing hundreds (read Rick Atkinson’s account of the attack in chapter 10 his definitive history Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War ). The alleged assassination attempt against ex-President George H.W. Bush in Kuwait in April, 1993 (a plot since called into some question by Seymour Hersh) was in my mind the first effort by Saddam to extract revenge for this slaughter of senior Ba’ath family members – there is a vicious personal aspect (on the part of both sides) to the entire confrontation. I then drew a convoluted link between al-Qa’ida and Iraqi intelligence – even as I was aware that ideologically these two groups of operatives shared very little in common. As I put it in 2002 in explaining the 9/11 attack, “al-Qa’ida was the manpower division, but Iraq provided the spycraft.” Naturally, I tended to believe the now-discredited reports – propagated we know by Cheney’s office – of a meeting between Muhammad Atta and Iraqi intelligence in the Czech Republic in April, 2000, a meeting deemed by the 9/11 Commission to be of dubious character. But back then, I had my theory for Saddam’s motivation to be part of the 9/11 adventure. And even today, despite all the reporting to the contrary, I still stubbornly believe that Saddam was involved.
I never really believed in the WMD argument, which I always thought was a diplomatic pretext for public consumption. But I did subscribe to a position first enunciated by Tom Friedman in June, 2003, to wit that the US needed to take out Saddam simply “because we could.” In other words, it would not be enough to convince the Arab world that America would go to great lengths to defend itself against future 9/11’s by simply removing the Taliban from Afghanistan – we needed to demonstrate greater resolve and force projection. Removing Saddam through a war would send the appropriate message. Or so I thought…and the truth of Tom’s pronouncement still lingers with me today.
And then there is the issue of Leo Strauss. From the moment 25 years ago when I read Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing, one of the most brilliant studies of medieval Jewish theology I have ever encountered, Strauss has been on my intellectual radar screen. Only in the last 12 months have I come to know Strauss as the godfather of intellectual neo-conservatism. To this day, I do not understand the dotted line which connects this essay on medieval Judeo-Arabic philosophy to the neo-con enterprise. I suspect that there simply is no connection. But this is a second plane in which I ask myself: am I a neo-con if I have been exposed to some of Leo Strauss’s writings and found them admirable, intelligent, and eminently constructive?
I’ve now come to a new realization – with the much-ballyhooed Iraqi legislative elections now complete – that I have more misgivings about how this American occupation in Iraq is going than I have hope. Let me put it as crudely as possible: I can “forgive” George Bush those first 138 dead American soldiers (that is where the number stood on May 1, 2003, when President Bush stood on the deck of the USS Lincoln and announced that major operations in Iraq were completed). I’ll even grant him the further casualties in the subsequent months. But now the situation is beyond lost, and more than 2,000 young men on the US side have died since “mission accomplished” – and I am now asking myself “why?”
Maybe the idea from its inception was flawed, as so many of my leftist colleagues have said; but I now think that it was the foolish hubris of the Vulcans in their preposterous post-war planning that have placed us in such a dire situation. By imposing upon Iraq such a god-awful democracy in such a clumsy way, the Bush neo-cons have created a potentially disastrous situation in which even the very idea of liberty will be discredited within the Arab world for a long time to come.
In the end, maybe it is simply that neo-cons are awesome idea men, but positively awful as managers. Mostly men better suited to Beltway think-tanks, put them in charge of a military system and they are lost.
I take ideas seriously – they take ideas seriously. I am an American Jew – and many of them are American Jews. I believe I have learned important things from the writings of Leo Strauss, Kanan Makkiya, Bernard Lewis, and Fouad Ajami – and so have they.
Am I a neo-con?