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Steve Weissman: Neo-Cons Rethink Iraqi Fiasco

Neo-Cons Rethink Iraqi Fiasco

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Thursday 26 August 2004

One of America's friskiest neo-conservatives, young Michael Rubin leads a heady life. While still in his twenties, he did his Ph.D. on Iran, Iraq, and the Middle East, sat in on meetings of the Bush transition team, and worked in the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, which repackaged as "intelligence" the fables that Iraqi exiles like Ahmed Chalabi conjured up to draw America into war.

Dr. Rubin also served in Iraq as an adviser to Jerry Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority, and boasts that he was the only one of his colleagues to live outside the heavily fortified American security bubble. This allowed him to know ordinary Iraqis, for whom he frequently presumes to speak.

His latest blast on their behalf might seem a shocker, coming as it does from a certified neo-con and appearing online last week in William Buckley's National Review. In an increasingly segmented media world, where we too easily hear and see only those views that reinforce our own, I regularly surf the other side of the political spectrum, testing my own ideas and hoping to learn something new. I rarely expect to agree.

"Losing the Shia," Rubin's headline screamed. "Iraqi Shia see a U.S. betrayal, and frankly, they should."

"Any semblance of a ceasefire evaporated today as fierce fighting erupted around the Shrine of Imam Ali, Shii Islam's holiest site," he wrote. "Even if Iraqi forces lead the charge into the Shrine of Imam Ali, Iraqi Shia will blame the U.S. for any damage. Even if a peaceful solution is found, the U.S. will have lost out."

My favorite Middle East maven, the University of Michigan's Juan Cole, could not have hit Bush any harder. Having gone into Iraq claiming to liberate the majority Shia from the Sunni dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party, the U.S. has squandered any remaining good will, systematically turning the Shia against what they increasingly see as an occupying force siding with the Sunnis.

A fierce critic of those he calls the neo-con cabal, Professor Cole blames Bremer and Coalition officials for trying to arrest the populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, thereby turning him into a martyr. Rubin, one of those officials, blames Mr. Bush's National Security Council for not allowing Bremer to bust al-Sadr sooner, when the young rebel had less support.

Professor Cole sees al-Sadr as an Iraqi nationalist, supported by poor Shia, especially among the urban young. Dr. Rubin portrays the cleric as little more than a cat's paw for Iran.

But Rubin goes every bit as far as Cole in laying the ultimate blame at the White House door. Once National Security Adviser Condi Rice took control of Iraq policy away from the Pentagon, where neo-cons like Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith held sway, the Bush Administration overruled Bremer's attempt to purge Saddam's Sunni supporters, explains Rubin. The flip-flop led to a greater reliance on the old regime's bureaucrats and generals, especially after the first standoff in the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah. It also created enormous fear among the Shia, who increasingly see al-Sadr as a needed counter-force.

According to Rubin, the White House simultaneously orchestrated a systematic campaign to marginalize Ahmed Chalabi, the neo-con favorite and scion of a well-known Shia family that had long supported Iraq's third holiest site, the Kazimiya Shrine. U.S. forces raided Chalabi's compound, supposedly unearthing evidence that he had counterfeited old Iraqi money. Unnamed intelligence sources accused him of being a longtime Iranian agent, and willing journalists lapped it up, without ever asking for proof.

Score a major bureaucratic victory for the C.I.A. and State Department. But, says Rubin, the cost was high, as large numbers of Iraqi Shia saw the humiliation of Chalabi as a slap at their entire community. They also saw it as yet another warning of the perils of allying with the untrustworthy Uncle Sam, who - under the first President Bush - urged them to rise up against Saddam after the first Gulf War and then left them unprotected to face the tyrant's revenge.

What, then, of the new American favorite, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who is also a Shiite, but one with a past in Saddam's Baathist Party?

"His close association with the Central Intelligence Agency, Britain's MI6, and Jordanian intelligence have not helped him among a Shia population in which he has little if any constituency," warns Rubin. "The CIA may sing his praises to the president, but Langley's assets seldom make good leaders. They certainly don't make good democrats."

As Rubin sees it, the continuing siege of Najaf, the Shia's holiest city, only confirms their worst fears. "The U.S. pulled out of Fallujah because they worried about killing Sunnis," he quote one of his Iraqi informants. "But I guess they don't have that worry about Shia."

Is young Rubin simply an embittered voice from the losing side in Washington's hardball battles? Perhaps, but he hardly stands alone. Many neo-cons fault Bush for the way he pursued what they thought was their war. Fiascoes do that, creating an intense yearning to run from blame. Who me? I would have done it differently, and then we would have won. It makes a tricky defense to disprove.

Though far less strenuously than Rubin, Robert Kagan and others at the neo-con flagship The Weekly Standard have criticized Team Bush for not sending enough troops to make Iraq secure and not turning power over to Iraqis more quickly. Kagan and editor William Kristol strongly condemned the regional caucuses that Bremer tried to use to preclude real democratic elections, which the Shia were certain to win.

David Brooks, who graduated from the Rupert Murdoch funded Standard to a somewhat more pluralistic New York Times, spoke in anguished tones of how "depressing" it had become for those who support the war.

"The predictions people on my side made about the postwar world have not yet come true," he moaned in May. "The warnings others made about the fractious state of post-Saddam society have."

More than many of his soul mates, Brooks saw "an intellectual failure," which the ancient Athenians might have called the moral fault of hubris

"There was, above all, a failure to understand the consequences of our power," wrote the battered Brooks. "There was a failure to anticipate the response our power would have on the people we sought to liberate. They resent us for our power and at the same time expect us to be capable of everything."

But the biggest slam has come from one of the neo-cons' leading intellectuals, Francis Fukuyama, author of "The End of History." Confronting columnist Charles Krauthammer, who recently proposed that the United States pursue an interventionist policy of forcefully promoting global democracy, Fukuyama flat-out rejected the major neo-conservative arguments for going to war in Iraq. Saddam Hussein never posed an immediate threat to the United States, he declared. And the United States lacked the "nation-building" know-how to make Iraq democratic.

"If the United States cannot eliminate poverty or raise test scores in Washington, D.C.," he chided his neo-con colleagues, "how does it expect to bring democracy to a part of the world that has stubbornly resisted it and is virulently anti-American to boot?"

"The United States," he concluded, "needs to be more realistic about its nation-building abilities, and cautious in taking on large social-engineering projects in parts of the world it does not understand very well."

Fukuyama also faulted his close friend Krauthammer, and other neo-cons by implication, for failing to deal with reality. "There is not," he wrote, "the slightest nod towards the new empirical facts that have emerged in the last year or so: the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the virulent and steadily mounting anti-Americanism throughout the Middle East, the growing insurgency in Iraq, the fact that no strong democratic leadership had emerged there, the enormous financial and growing human cost of the war, the failure to leverage the war to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and the fact that America's fellow democratic allies had by and large failed to fall in line and legitimate American actions ex post."

Still claiming the neo-conservative mantle, Fukuyama continues to believe that the United States should play a deeply interventionist, even messianic role in world affairs. But, like the elder Bush, Brent Scowcroft, and other foreign policy realists whom the neo-cons deplore, Fukuyama urges some old-fashioned paleo-conservative virtues - prudence, restraint, and a greater respect for the "common opinions of mankind."

I wonder what Dr. Michael Rubin thinks about that.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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