The war in Iraq was
conceived by 25 neoconservative intellectuals, most of them Jewish, who
are pushing President Bush to change the course of history. Two of
them, journalists William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, say it's
possible. But another journalist, Thomas Friedman (not part of the
group), is skeptical
Apr 03, 2003 12:00 AM
1. The doctrine
WASHINGTON - At the conclusion of its second week, the war to liberate
Iraq wasn't looking good. Not even in Washington. The assumption of a
swift collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime had itself collapsed. The
presupposition that the Iraqi dictatorship would crumble as soon as
mighty America entered the country proved unfounded. The Shi'ites
didn't rise up, the Sunnis fought fiercely. Iraqi guerrilla warfare
found the American generals unprepared and endangered their
overextended supply lines. Nevertheless, 70 percent of the American
people continued to support the war; 60 percent thought victory was
certain; 74 percent expressed confidence in President George W. Bush.
Washington is a small city. It's a place of human dimensions. A kind of
small town that happens to run an empire. A small town of government
officials and members of Congress and personnel of research institutes
and journalists who pretty well all know one another. Everyone is busy
intriguing against everyone else; and everyone gossips about everyone
In the course of the past year, a new belief has emerged in the town:
the belief in war against Iraq. That ardent faith was disseminated by a
small group of 25 or 30 neoconservatives, almost all of them Jewish,
almost all of them intellectuals (a partial list: Richard Perle, Paul
Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, William Kristol, Eliot Abrams, Charles
Krauthammer), people who are mutual friends and cultivate one another
and are convinced that political ideas are a major driving force of
history. They believe that the right political idea entails a fusion of
morality and force, human rights and grit. The philosophical
underpinnings of the Washington neoconservatives are the writings of
Machiavelli, Hobbes and Edmund Burke. They also admire Winston
Churchill and the policy pursued by Ronald Reagan. They tend to read
reality in terms of the failure of the 1930s (Munich) versus the
success of the 1980s (the fall of the Berlin Wall).
Are they wrong? Have they committed an act of folly in leading
Washington to Baghdad? They don't think so. They continue to cling to
their belief. They are still pretending that everything is more or less
fine. That things will work out. Occasionally, though, they seem to
break out in a cold sweat. This is no longer an academic exercise, one
of them says, we are responsible for what is happening. The ideas we
put forward are now affecting the lives of millions of people. So there
are moments when you're scared. You say, Hell, we came to help, but
maybe we made a mistake.
2. William Kristol
Has America bitten off more than it can chew? Bill Kristol says no.
True, the press is very negative, but when you examine the facts in the
field you see that there is no terrorism, no mass destruction, no
attacks on Israel. The oil fields in the south have been saved, air
control has been achieved, American forces are deployed 50 miles from
Baghdad. So, even if mistakes were made here and there, they are not
serious. America is big enough to handle that. Kristol hasn't the
slightest doubt that in the end, General Tommy Franks will achieve his
goals. The 4th Cavalry Division will soon enter the fray, and another
division is on its way from Texas. So it's possible that instead of an
elegant war with 60 killed in two weeks it will be a less elegant
affair with a thousand killed in two months, but nevertheless Bill
Kristol has no doubt at all that the Iraq Liberation War is a just war,
an obligatory war.
Kristol is pleasant-looking, of average height, in his late forties. In
the past 18 months he has used his position as editor of the right-wing
Weekly Standard and his status as one of the leaders of the
neoconservative circle in Washington to induce the White House to do
battle against Saddam Hussein. Because Kristol is believed to exercise
considerable influence on the president, Vice President Richard Cheney
and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he is also perceived as having
been instrumental in getting Washington to launch this all-out campaign
against Baghdad. Sitting behind the stacks of books that cover his desk
at the offices of the Weekly Standard in Northwest Washington, he tries
to convince me that he is not worried. It is simply inconceivable to
him that America will not win. In that event, the consequences would be
catastrophic. No one wants to think seriously about that possibility.
What is the war about? I ask. Kristol replies that at one level it is
the war that George Bush is talking about: a war against a brutal
regime that has in its possession weapons of mass destruction. But at a
deeper level it is a greater war, for the shaping of a new Middle East.
It is a war that is intended to change the political culture of the
entire region. Because what happened on September 11, 2001, Kristol
says, is that the Americans looked around and saw that the world is not
what they thought it was. The world is a dangerous place. Therefore the
Americans looked for a doctrine that would enable them to cope with
this dangerous world. And the only doctrine they found was the
That doctrine maintains that the problem with the Middle East is the
absence of democracy and of freedom. It follows that the only way to
block people like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden is to disseminate
democracy and freedom. To change radically the cultural and political
dynamics that creates such people. And the way to fight the chaos is to
create a new world order that will be based on freedom and human rights
- and to be ready to use force in order to consolidate this new world.
So that, really, is what the war is about. It is being fought to
consolidate a new world order, to create a new Middle East.
Does that mean that the war in Iraq is effectively a neoconservative
war? That's what people are saying, Kristol replies, laughing. But the
truth is that it's an American war. The neoconservatives succeeded
because they touched the bedrock of America. The thing is that America
has a profound sense of mission. America has a need to offer something
that transcends a life of comfort, that goes beyond material success.
Therefore, because of their ideals, the Americans accepted what the
neoconservatives proposed. They didn't want to fight a war over
interests, but over values. They wanted a war driven by a moral vision.
They wanted to hitch their wagon to something bigger than themselves.
Does this moral vision mean that after Iraq will come the turns of
Saudi Arabia and Egypt?
Kristol says that he is at odds with the administration on the question
of Saudi Arabia. But his opinion is that it is impossible to let Saudi
Arabia just continue what it is doing. It is impossible to accept the
anti-Americanism it is disseminating. The fanatic Wahhabism that Saudi
Arabia engenders is undermining the stability of the entire region.
It's the same with Egypt, he says: we mustn't accept the status quo
there. For Egypt, too, the horizon has to be liberal democracy.
It has to be understood that in the final analysis, the stability that
the corrupt Arab despots are offering is illusory. Just as the
stability that Yitzhak Rabin received from Yasser Arafat was illusory.
In the end, none of these decadent dictatorships will endure. The
choice is between extremist Islam, secular fascism or democracy. And
because of September 11, American understands that. America is in a
position where it has no choice. It is obliged to be far more
aggressive in promoting democracy. Hence this war. It's based on the
new American understanding that if the United States does not shape the
world in its image, the world will shape the United States in its own
Is this going to turn into a second Vietnam? Charles Krauthammer says
no. There is no similarity to Vietnam. Unlike in the 1960s, there is no
anti-establishment subculture in the United States now. Unlike in the
1960s, there is now an abiding love of the army in the United States.
Unlike in the 1960s, there is a determined president, one with
character, in the White House. And unlike in the 1960s, Americans are
not deterred from making sacrifices. That is the sea-change that took
place here on September 11, 2001. Since that morning, Americans have
understood that if they don't act now and if weapons of mass
destruction reach extremist terrorist organizations, millions of
Americans will die. Therefore, because they understand that those
others want to kill them by the millions, the Americans prefer to take
to the field of battle and fight, rather than sit idly by and die at
Charles Krauthammer is handsome, swarthy and articulate. In his
spacious office on 19th Street in Northwest Washington, he sits upright
in a black wheelchair. Although his writing tends to be gloomy, his
mood now is elevated. The well-known columnist (Washington Post, Time,
Weekly Standard) has no real doubts about the outcome of the war that
he promoted for 18 months. No, he does not accept the view that he
helped lead America into the new killing fields between the Tigris and
the Euphrates. But it is true that he is part of a conceptual stream
that had something to offer in the aftermath of September 11. Within a
few weeks after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, he had
singled out Baghdad in his columns as an essential target. And now,
too, he is convinced that America has the strength to pull it off. The
thought that America will not win has never even crossed his mind.
What is the war about? It's about three different issues. First of all,
this is a war for disarming Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.
That's the basis, the self-evident cause, and it is also sufficient
cause in itself. But beyond that, the war in Iraq is being fought to
replace the demonic deal America cut with the Arab world decades ago.
That deal said: you will send us oil and we will not intervene in your
internal affairs. Send us oil and we will not demand from you what we
are demanding of Chile, the Philippines, Korea and South Africa.
That deal effectively expired on September 11, 2001, Krauthammer says.
Since that day, the Americans have understood that if they allow the
Arab world to proceed in its evil ways - suppression, economic ruin,
sowing despair - it will continue to produce more and more bin Ladens.
America thus reached the conclusion that it has no choice: it has to
take on itself the project of rebuilding the Arab world. Therefore, the
Iraq war is really the beginning of a gigantic historical experiment
whose purpose is to do in the Arab world what was done in Germany and
Japan after World War II.
It's an ambitious experiment, Krauthammer admits, maybe even utopian,
but not unrealistic. After all, it is inconceivable to accept the
racist assumption that the Arabs are different from all other human
beings, that the Arabs are incapable of conducting a democratic way of
However, according to the Jewish-American columnist, the present war
has a further importance. If Iraq does become pro-Western and if it
becomes the focus of American influence, that will be of immense
geopolitical importance. An American presence in Iraq will project
power across the region. It will suffuse the rebels in Iran with
courage and strength, and it will deter and restrain Syria. It will
accelerate the processes of change that the Middle East must undergo.
Isn't the idea of preemptive war a dangerous one that rattles the world
There is no choice, Krauthammer replies. In the 21st century we face a
new and singular challenge: the democratization of mass destruction.
There are three possible strategies in the face of that challenge:
appeasement, deterrence and preemption. Because appeasement and
deterrence will not work, preemption is the only strategy left. The
United States must implement an aggressive policy of preemption. Which
is exactly what it is now doing in Iraq. That is what Tommy Franks'
soldiers are doing as we speak.
And what if the experiment fails? What if America is defeated?
This war will enhance the place of America in the world for the coming
generation, Krauthammer says. Its outcome will shape the world for the
next 25 years. There are three possibilities. If the United States wins
quickly and without a bloodbath, it will be a colossus that will
dictate the world order. If the victory is slow and contaminated, it
will be impossible to go on to other Arab states after Iraq. It will
stop there. But if America is beaten, the consequences will be
catastrophic. Its deterrent capability will be weakened, its friends
will abandon it and it will become insular. Extreme instability will be
engendered in the Middle East.
You don't really want to think about what will happen, Krauthammer says
looking me straight in the eye. But just because that's so, I am
positive we will not lose. Because the administration understands the
implications. The president understands that everything is riding on
this. So he will throw everything we've got into this. He will do
everything that has to be done. George W. Bush will not let America
4. Thomas Friedman
Is this an American Lebanon War? Tom Friedman says he is afraid it is.
He was there, in the Commodore Hotel in Beirut, in the summer of 1982,
and he remembers it well. So he sees the lines of resemblance clearly.
General Ahmed Chalabi (the Shi'ite leader that the neoconservatives
want to install as the leader of a free Iraq) in the role of Bashir
Jemayel. The Iraqi opposition in the role of the Phalange. Richard
Perle and the conservative circle around him as Ariel Sharon. And a war
that is at bottom a war of choice. A war that wants to utilize massive
force in order to establish a new order.
Tom Friedman, The New York Times columnist, did not oppose the war. On
the contrary. He too was severely shaken by September 11, he too wants
to understand where these desperate fanatics are coming from who hate
America more than they love their own lives. And he too reached the
conclusion that the status quo in the Middle East is no longer
acceptable. The status quo is terminal. And therefore it is urgent to
foment a reform in the Arab world.
Some things are true even if George Bush believes them, Friedman says
with a smile. And after September 11, it's impossible to tell Bush to
drop it, ignore it. There was a certain basic justice in the overall
American feeling that told the Arab world: we left you alone for a long
time, you played with matches and in the end we were burned. So we're
not going to leave you alone any longer.
He is sitting in a large rectangular room in the offices of The New
York Times in northwest Washington, on the corner of 17th Street. One
wall of the room is a huge map of the world. Hunched over his computer,
he reads me witty lines from the article that will be going to press in
two hours. He polishes, sharpens, plays word games. He ponders what's
right to say now, what should be left for a later date. Turning to me,
he says that democracies look soft until they're threatened. When
threatened, they become very hard. Actually, the Iraq war is a kind of
Jenin on a huge scale. Because in Jenin, too, what happened was that
the Israelis told the Palestinians, We left you here alone and you
played with matches until suddenly you blew up a Passover seder in
Netanya. And therefore we are not going to leave you along any longer.
We will go from house to house in the Casbah. And from America's point
of view, Saddam's Iraq is Jenin. This war is a defensive shield. It
follows that the danger is the same: that like Israel, America will
make the mistake of using only force.
This is not an illegitimate war, Friedman says. But it is a very
presumptuous war. You need a great deal of presumption to believe that
you can rebuild a country half a world from home. But if such a
presumptuous war is to have a chance, it needs international support.
That international legitimacy is essential so you will have enough time
and space to execute your presumptuous project. But George Bush didn't
have the patience to glean international support. He gambled that the
war would justify itself, that we would go in fast and conquer fast and
that the Iraqis would greet us with rice and the war would thus be
self-justifying. That did not happen. Maybe it will happen next week,
but in the meantime it did not happen.
When I think about what is going to happen, I break into a sweat,
Friedman says. I see us being forced to impose a siege on Baghdad. And
I know what kind of insanity a siege on Baghdad can unleash. The
thought of house-to-house combat in Baghdad without international
legitimacy makes me lose my appetite. I see American embassies burning.
I see windows of American businesses shattered. I see how the Iraqi
resistance to America connects to the general Arab resistance to
America and the worldwide resistance to America. The thought of what
could happen is eating me up.
What George Bush did, Friedman says, is to show us a splendid mahogany
table: the new democratic Iraq. But when you turn the table over, you
see that it has only one leg. This war is resting on one leg. But on
the other hand, anyone who thinks he can defeat George Bush had better
think again. Bush will never give in. That's not what he's made of.
Believe me, you don't want to be next to this guy when he thinks he's
being backed into a corner. I don't suggest that anyone who holds his
life dear mess with Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush.
Is the Iraq war the great neoconservative war? It's the war the
neoconservatives wanted, Friedman says. It's the war the
neoconservatives marketed. Those people had an idea to sell when
September 11 came, and they sold it. Oh boy, did they sell it. So this
is not a war that the masses demanded. This is a war of an elite.
Friedman laughs: I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom
are at this moment within a five-block radius of this office) who, if
you had exiled them to a desert island a year and a half ago, the Iraq
war would not have happened.
Still, it's not all that simple, Friedman retracts. It's not some
fantasy the neoconservatives invented. It's not that 25 people hijacked
America. You don't take such a great nation into such a great adventure
with Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard and another five or six
influential columnists. In the final analysis, what fomented the war is
America's over-reaction to September 11. The genuine sense of anxiety
that spread in America after September 11. It is not only the
neoconservatives who led us to the outskirts of Baghdad. What led us to
the outskirts of Baghdad is a very American combination of anxiety and