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William Rivers Pitt: Everything Old Is New

Everything Old Is New

By t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Tuesday 15 August 2006

Everything old becomes new again, or so the saying goes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the highest reaches of neo-conservative power in Washington, DC. The term itself - "neo-conservative" - is little more than a shortened version of the old maxim.

Over the last several weeks, an old White Paper found new life in the shattered ruins of Lebanon's infrastructure. Titled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," the paper was masterminded by three neo-con hawks who, in the fullness of time, became powerful members of the Bush administration: Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser. The three were working for a pro-Israel think tank called the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies when the paper was first drafted.

"A Clean Break" was originally written for the benefit of Benjamin Netanyahu after he rose to the position of Prime Minister of Israel in 1996. This, in and of itself, was unique; it is rare indeed to have a trio of American foreign policy specialists crafting national security policy for a foreign power. Those who have seen the hand of the Israeli Likud Party guiding American foreign policy over the last several years base their premise, to no small degree, upon the involvement of these three men in Israeli affairs before their ascendancy in American government. The arguments contained in this document eventually became the basis for the now-infamous White Paper by the Project for the New American Century titled "Rebuilding America's Defenses," which was authored in 2000.

Perle, Feith and Wurmser's vision for a new Israel centered around the re-invigoration of the discredited policy of pre-emption, i.e., attacking a perceived foe based on whatever premise can be found in order to show strength in the region and intimidate local governments into compliance. "Israel's new agenda," read the paper, "can signal a clean break by abandoning a policy which assumed exhaustion and allowed strategic retreat by reestablishing the principle of preemption, rather than retaliation alone, and by ceasing to absorb blows to the nation without response."

Beyond reviving pre-emption, the paper argued that Israel's wisest course of action involved a military invasion of Lebanon, followed by attacks upon Syria and Iran. "Syria challenges Israel on Lebanese soil," read the paper. "An effective approach, and one with which American[s] can sympathize, would be if Israel seized the strategic initiative along its northern borders by engaging Hizballah, Syria, and Iran, as the principal agents of aggression in Lebanon."

In order for pre-emption to be successful, according to the paper, a premise for attack must be established. It did not matter if the premise was based upon actual facts or genuine threat. It only needed to be plausible enough to rally the support of the American people. "A Clean Break" advocated attacking Lebanon and Syria based upon the premise that Syria is involved with laundering drug money and counterfeiting. The paper likewise instructed Netanyahu to draw the world's attention to Syria's WMD stockpiles.

Prime Minister Netanyahu chose to ignore the advice offered in "A Clean Break," and the paper was shelved. After George W. Bush occupied the Oval Office, however, the paper was given new life. Richard Perle became chairman of the powerful Defense Policy Board; Douglas Feith became Undersecretary of Defense for Policy; and David Wurmser became a senior State Department official before becoming Middle East Adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.

It became clear during the first national security meeting of the Bush administration, in late January 2001, that the removal of Saddam Hussein was of primary importance. The policy initiatives espoused in "A Clean Break" were dusted off and re-introduced. Pre-emption became the watchword for a new American foreign policy, and the establishment of a premise for the invasion of Iraq became a priority.

"A Clean Break" required little redacting to become central to American foreign policy regarding Iraq. "Israel can shape its strategic environment," read the original paper, "in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can 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 premise for invading Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein came eight months later with the attacks of September 11. Despite the fact that Saddam Hussein loathed Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda - feelings that were entirely mutual - and had no hand in those attacks, 9/11 became the established premise for attack. Dire warnings of Iraqi chemical, biological and nuclear weapons stockpiles were spread far and wide, thanks to a concerted administration propaganda campaign and the help of a few well-placed members of the mainstream news media.

Iraq and Lebanon have come to serve as reflections of the failed policy initiatives espoused by "A Clean Break." The "muscular" policy of pre-emption focused on Iraq has led to a quagmire that both drains American resources and denudes American standing in the world. Israel's recent attacks in Lebanon appear to have come straight out of the "Clean Break" game plan, and have delivered similar results.

The vaunted Israeli military proved singularly effective at destroying bridges and buildings from the air, but was unable to mortally damage the fighting ability of Hezbollah guerrillas. Reporting on Wednesday from Lebanon, the Washington Post noted, "In an undecided war, perception becomes paramount, and the gaggles of [Hezbollah] fighters Monday, some with drawn faces, others with a look of contentment, walked like victors through a town that was gouged, cratered and pockmarked but, they said, still theirs."

As fighters in Iraq have won significant victories against America simply by surviving the attacks, killing soldiers, and thwarting regional desires, so has Hezbollah won a similar victory against Israel. They absorbed incredible losses, and their ability to telegraph violence against Israel has been badly damaged, but in the minds of Hezbollah and its supporters, victory is defined by the simple fact that they continue to exist.

The American quagmire in Iraq, and the Israeli failure in Lebanon, would appear to most observers to be a signal warning against the effectiveness of relying on air power as the sole means of achieving victory on the battlefield. This naturally augers toward a warning against an American attack on Iran, something that has been on the table for years and has become all the more pressing given Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions. Any attack on Iran will involve air strikes, but as was proven in Lebanon recently, such strikes do not work without a follow-on incursion of ground troops. Therein lies the danger; once the troops are inserted, they must fight entrenched forces on their own ground. It was the insertion of Israeli ground forces that bogged down this most recent conflict, just as it was the insertion of American ground forces into Iraq that activated the current bloody quagmire.

Seymour Hersh, writing for the New Yorker, analyzed this facet in a recent article. "The surprising strength of Hezbollah's resistance," wrote Hersh, "and its continuing ability to fire rockets into northern Israel in the face of the constant Israeli bombing, the Middle East expert told me, 'is a massive setback for those in the White House who want to use force in Iran. And those who argue that the bombing will create internal dissent and revolt in Iran are also set back.' Nonetheless, some officers serving with the Joint Chiefs of Staff remain deeply concerned that the Administration will have a far more positive assessment of the air campaign than they should, the former senior intelligence official said. 'There is no way that Rumsfeld and Cheney will draw the right conclusion about this,' he said. 'When the smoke clears, they'll say it was a success, and they'll draw reinforcement for their plan to attack Iran.'"

Everything old becomes new again. "A Clean Break" was written ten years ago to advocate for an Israeli attack on Lebanon, and by proxy Syria and Iran. It was cast aside then, but appears to have been revived for this current disaster. The lessons Israel is learning in Lebanon have been vividly available in Iraq these last years, as the basis for that invasion was essentially premised upon a slightly edited version of the same paper.

Those lessons have not achieved purchase with the neo-conservatives, and "A Clean Break" may come again to serve as the basis for an attack on Iran. There is little hope that such an attack will meet with any more success than the last two conflicts inspired by this dangerous document and the men who wrote it.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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