A world safe for democracy, or perpetual war?
Eric Black, Star Tribune
Published March 16, 2003

An influential group of foreign policy thinkers sees the possibly imminent overthrow of Saddam Hussein as just one early step in an ambitious blueprint to spread democracy throughout the world and eliminate threats to the United States.

Although they developed their thinking long before the Sept. 11 attacks, the strategists, often called neoconservatives or neocons, have increased their influence over the Bush administration since Sept. 11, many foreign policy analysts say.

Critics argue that the neocon ideas, including "regime change," are a recipe for perpetual war, because they would steer the United States into many confrontations.

There would be a long list of regimes to be changed.

But the neocons themselves and their supporters say that the United States has an unprecedented historical opportunity to reshape the world in ways that will make our country safer and the rest of the world freer. The neocons, who sometimes call themselves neo-Reaganites, say the key concept is not perpetual war but "moral clarity backed by military strength."

Former Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber, now a Washington insider, has signed some of the neocons' public declarations. He describes their goal as using U.S. power to do good.

"I think we have done some good in Afghanistan," Weber said. "I believe we will do good in Iraq, and there are other opportunities to do good as well."

Over the past decade, the neocons have argued that the United States should challenge evil regimes in the Mideast and Asia, spread freedom, democracy and capitalism, jettison Cold War thinking based on deterrence and containment, and de-emphasize old treaties and alliances that get in the way.

Instead of seeking to manage or contain problems and threats, the neocons want to seize this moment of U.S. predominance to eradicate them.

"They're dominating the thinking of this administration, no question about it," foreign policy analyst John C. Hulsman of the Heritage Foundation said of the neocons.

Those who follow the big questions and developments about the U.S. role in the world are abuzz about the group and its influence. The neocon agenda helps explain major Bush administration foreign policies across a variety of issues, the experts say.

Weber agrees that the group has strongly influenced Bush's foreign and national security policies, especially since 9/11. For example, the National Security Strategy of the United States, published in September, which made the case for preemptive action and argued that Cold War strategies won't work in the 21st century, showed that the administration was adopting many of the neocons' ideas, Weber said.

Other analysts point to many similarities between policies the neocons have advocated for years and recent statements and actions by Bush, as evidence that the group now dominates U.S. foreign policy.

Bush's adoption of the "axis of evil" language, they said, was a moment of neoReaganite "moral clarity." The three nations he listed -- Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- have been named by the neocons as candidates for "regime change."

According to Roy Grow, an Asia specialist at Carleton College, the North Koreans have certainly interpreted the "axis" language, the U.S. refusal to negotiate with them and other U.S. moves as evidence that Washington is contemplating an attack.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale called the group "democratic imperialists," and said, "their idea is that with American power you can do wonderful things to change the world. But I'm profoundly skeptical about whether they've calculated the costs of some of these projects."

Turning Iraq into a democracy that would create a wave of reform across the Mideast, as the neocons envision, would be wonderful, Mondale said. But given the deep, explosive hatreds between the major Iraqi population groups and other potential complications, he doubts that the neocons have accurately estimated the duration of the U.S. occupation, the cost to the U.S. treasury and the ultimate chances for success.

Grow called the neocon vision "brilliant, fascinating, sincere, almost evangelical, and really very radical. But to the bottom of my soul, I can't see the cost-benefit analysis working out in favor of this policy." He predicted that their blueprint would lead to "two decades of almost perpetual war."

But Mort Abramowitz, a veteran former State Department official and ambassador, said the neocon agenda doesn't necessarily mean more wars after Iraq. Abramowitz, a Democrat, is not a neoconservative. Like Mondale, he fears that the neocons may underestimate the difficulties they will face, just as they have underestimated the international resistance to their approach on Iraq.

Who are these guys?

A coterie of Republican foreign policy heavyweights, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have signed on to some of the neocon views.

Weber said the key players have been William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard; Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, and Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense. Weber said Kristol is the group's political strategist, Perle is the chief geostrategic thinker and Wolfowitz is the group's key member within the administration. Wolfowitz is widely credited with putting the overthrow of Saddam Hussein onto the front burner of administration goals.

They are no secret cabal. Through an organization called the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), and through the pages of the Weekly Standard, they publish their views, sometimes in the form of open letters to the president.

Their lodestar is former President Ronald Reagan. In their view, a succession of post-World War II presidents conducted the Cold War too timidly, acting as if their goal was international stability, even if that meant that the conflict lasted indefinitely.

Reagan set out to win the Cold War, and the neocons believe that, with a combination of moral clarity -- such as labeling the Soviet Union an "evil empire" -- and military strength, Reagan brought about the Soviet demise.

Weber noted that Reagan never invaded the Soviet Union, and the neocons believe that a Reaganlike strategy can bring about big changes without necessarily having to use military might.

Most of the neocons served under Reagan and the first President Bush.

In 1992, Wolfowitz wrote a draft of a U.S. defense policy statement that said the U.S. goal in the post-Cold War world should be to perpetuate U.S. global predominance, to preclude the rise of any power that could challenge it and to prevent untrustworthy states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction -- by preemptive military action if necessary. The draft was never adopted.

The neocons spent the Clinton years out of government. Kristol, who had been Vice President Dan Quayle's chief of staff, started the Weekly Standard. Wolfowitz became dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. In 1997 they and many like-minded neocons formed PNAC. The group's founding principles called President Bill Clinton's foreign policy "incoherent" and "adrift" and unlikely to "advance American interests in the new century."

Among their top priorities: "increase defense spending significantly," "challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values," "promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad" and "accept responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity and our principles."

The 25 signers included Wolfowitz, Weber, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Quayle, Lewis Libby, who is now Cheney's chief of staff, Zalmay Khalilzad, who is now Bush's special envoy to the Iraqi opposition, and Jeb Bush, now governor of Florida.

In 1998, PNAC publicly urged Clinton to finish off Saddam. That letter concluded that "American policy cannot continue to be crippled by a misguided insistence on unanimity in the U.N. Security Council."

In "Present Dangers," a 2000 anthology of essays by PNAC members, "regime change" was identified as an appropriate goal for Iraq, Iran, North Korea and China.

Wolfowitz was among the group that advised George W. Bush on foreign policy during the 2000 campaign. But Bush didn't advocate PNAC's agenda as a candidate. On the contrary, he called for a "humble" foreign policy of limited goals closely tied to concrete national interests. By choosing Colin Powell as secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser, Bush signaled a conventional, cautious intention.

But Sept. 11 changed that, many analysts say.

Within days of the 9/11 attack, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld advocated overthrowing Saddam as part of the U.S. response, despite a lack of evidence connecting the dictator to the hijackings. Powell argued against the idea, and Bush deferred the question.

By his January 2002 State of the Union address, when he identified the "axis of evil," Bush seemed to be moving toward a neocon world view, some experts said.

The decision to attack Iraq, to do so even without U.N. backing, and the argument that Saddam's demise could start a wave of regional democratization were consistent with the neocons' thinking.

When the 9/11 attacks occurred, the neocons "moved into the breach and exploited it brilliantly for their purposes," according to Ronald Steel of the University of South California.

Steel believes that Bush, whose foreign policy ideas were largely unformed before 9/11, was drawn to a formula that combined action to make Americans safer with the long-standing U.S. impulse to spread democracy. "Americans like to feel that their foreign policy is moral," Steel said.

While Bush has presented the looming Iraq war as a response to 9/11, Grow said that to Wolfowitz, it isn't fundamentally about terrorism or weapons of mass destruction or U.N. resolutions. To Wolfowitz and the neocons, Iraq represents the weak spot in the chain of nations to which they plan to bring American notions of democracy and capitalism, Grow said.

In their vision, war with Iraq is followed by democratization of Iraq, then democratization -- by military means or otherwise -- of other Arab states, then a rolling of the momentum into Asia, with special emphasis on North Korea and China, Grow said.

Hulsman of the Heritage Foundation likened the group to a "drunken gambler, who keeps doubling down, betting his entire bankroll on every roll of the dice. The trouble is, they have to win every bet or they are wiped out."

-- Eric Black is at eblack@startribune.com.

© Copyright 2003 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.