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The "Neocons": From the Cold War to the "Global Intifada"

By Leon T. Hadar

April 1991, Page 27

As the first scenes from the Gulf war were broadcast on American television, more than a few victory signs were probably raised in the editorial offices of magazines like Commentary or the New Republic and in the study rooms of think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute or the Hudson Institute.

Indeed, as in the headquarters of the Likud party in Tel Aviv, there was a sense of triumph and celebration at these centers of the neoconservative movement on the East Coast. For the members of this intellectual group, who during the Reagan era produced and implemented the militant pro-Israel and anti-Soviet agenda of the administration, the Persian Gulf war signaled the success of the coordinated effort they launched at the end of the Cold War. Its goal was to replace the decaying Soviet threat with a new enemy, the Arab world, and to set in motion a collision course between the West and Islam, whose only beneficiary would be the uncompromising and annexationist Israeli government.

It was not difficult to trace in the first days of the war the sense of satisfaction reflected in the columns of such neo-conservative writers as William Safire, "Abe" Rosenthal, Charles Krauthammer or Daniel Pipes. All welcomed the possibility of an American-Arab war which would turn the Palestinian intifada into a sideshow. At the same time, any television viewer could observe the glee with which Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud government's chief propagandist and darling of the neoconservatives, reacted to the Iraqi missile attacks on Israel. According to him, these vindicated Israel's refusal to recognize Palestinian national aspirations.

The neoconservatives hoped that the end result of the war would be to revive the concept of Israel as America's "strategic asset," which had seemed doomed by the changing relationship between the two superpowers. These hopes were dashed, however, by the obvious desire of President George Bush that Israel stay on the sidelines, and the effectiveness with which such Arab countries as Egypt and Saudi Arabia cooperated with the US, both militarily and economically.

Who are these neoconservatives, or the neocons," as both admirers and enemies refer to them? The neoconservative movement was founded in the 1960s by a group of New York-based intellectuals, mostly academics and journalists, many of whom were concerned about the "anti-Israel" drift they detected among the ranks of the New Left and Black leaders who were gaining increasing power in the Democratic Party.

Among the major figures in the movement were former Trotskyites who studied in the '30s and '40s at the then "poor man's Harvard," the City College of New York, a center for socialist activism. They included Irving Kristol, who in the 1950s launched an anti-Soviet CIA front, the International Congress for Cultural Freedom; Norman Podhoretz, the editor of the American Jewish Committee's monthly magazine Commentary, which he turned into a major neoconservative outlet; Podhoretz's wife, Midge Decter, the chairperson of the now-defunct Committee on the Free World; sociologists Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell; and Democratic Party pamphleteer Ben Wattenberg.

That neoconservative "nuclear family" was later joined by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Walt and Eugene Rostow, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams (Podhoretz' son-in-law), Kenneth Adelman, and other Cold Warriors and advocates of hawkish Israeli policies. Individually and, later, as a group, they have had a major impact on the foreign policy of several administrations, beginning with that of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Born-Again Zionists

Israel became a central cause for these neocons after its victory in the 1967 war turned most of them into born-again Zionists. Neocons like the Rostow brothers and Ben Wattenberg, who served in the Johnson administration, helped LBJ drum up support for the Vietnam War among Jewish liberal Democrats who had been opposed to that military adventure. This was done by convincing such liberals that only a militarily strong and perpetually interventionist America can guarantee the security of Israel.

The corollary was that a strong Israel is a strategic asset" as far as American interests in the Middle East are concerned, helping Washington to contain Soviet expansionism in the area. This was reduced to the neoconservative dogma that what is good for Israel is good for America, and vice versa. Neocons have treated questioning of this dogma as the equivalent of a declaration of war and immediately have sought, by innuendo, to brand such questioners as "anti-Semitic."

Ironically, many of the Jewish neocons were and are assimilated Jews with little interest in Jewish civilization or religion. Israel, as a political cause, has become a substitute for religion for them, and by extension for many other American Jews.

All welcomed the possibility of an American-Arab war which would turn the Palestinian intifada into a sideshow.

Interestingly enough, the American Jewish community as a whole has ignored the neoconservative agenda, continuing to vote for liberal Democratic candidates for local and national offices. Some also recognize that the effort to turn the Jewish state into a "strategic asset" and the granting of enormous amounts of American aid to Israel endangered both American and Israeli longterm interests. It strengthened those forces in Israel opposed to a land-for-peace settlement with the Palestinians, and as a result produced exponential growth of anti-American antagonism in the Arab world.

In any case, Israel became one of the most important elements on the agenda of the neoconservative coalition that emerged as a counterforce after the 1972 victory of the McGovern forces in the Democratic Party. In 1968 the neocons backed the late Senator Hubert Humphrey from Minnesota for president. In 1972, they mobilized their support behind the late Senator Henry Jackson from Washington. Both Humphrey and Jackson represented staunch anti-Soviet and pro-Israeli positions in the party.

Senator Jackson's aides, Richard Perle and Elliott Abrams, who later became major figures in the Reagan foreign policy team, attempted to torpedo any effort by the Nixon and Carter administrations to improve relations with the Soviet Union or to launch peace efforts in the Middle East. From Jackson's office, the two led the campaign to use the issue of Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union to sabotage detente between Washington and Moscow.The result was Jackson-sponsored legislation denying the Soviet Union a "most favored nation" status unless it permitted increased Jewish emigration. Ironically, that move not only froze the Nixon-era detente, it also froze the emigration of Soviet Jews.

McGovern and his supporters were identified with a more skeptical approach toward Israel.Their 1972 victory within the Democratic Party was a major setback to the neoconservative forces. The neoconservatives formed the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM) in 1973, aimed at rallying anti-Soviet and pro-Israeli Democrats in opposition to the McGovern liberals. That year also saw the beginning of the neoconservative drift toward the Republican Party, whose leaders saw in recruitment of the neocons an opportunity to improve Republican status in the media and in academic circles.

Unilateral American intervention in places like Grenada and Libya began to resemble Israel's own iron Fist approach to Middle East issues.

One of the recruits was Moynihan who, while serving as the Nixon administration's UN ambassador, used the position as a major pro-Israel platform. He did it to build a political base among Jewish voters in New York, which he then used to launch his successful campaign in that state for the Senate.

It was the Carter administration's foreign policy agenda, including its efforts to improve the relationship with the Soviets and to accommodate the national interests of the Palestinians, that accelerated the political transition of the neocons from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Carter did not bring any members of the CDM into his administration.

The CDM, with the help of neoconservative columnists like Krautharnmer and Safire and of the New Republic, was the driving force behind a coordinated effort to weaken public support for Carter. For example, Michael Ledeen, a neocon conman and one of the founders of an Israeli front organization, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), and whose name would surface later as one of the instigators of the IranContra affair, wrote an article in the New Republic which revealed ties between the late Billy Carter, the president's alcoholic brother, and Libyan government officials.

At the same time, members of the CDM and other neoconservatives played a leading role in shaping the agenda of the Reagan administration. For neoconservatives, like Kirkpatrick and Podhoretz, and for more traditional anti-Soviet officials such as Marine Colonels Robert McFarlane and Oliver North, Israel was a country that could combat Soviet mischief by no-nonsense foreign-policy realism, unbound by domestic legal contraints.

The neoconservative propagandists proposed Israel as a model for recovering from 11 post-Vietnam syndrome" and for renewing American energy and drive. Unilateral American intervention in places like Grenada and Libya began to resemble Israel's own iron fist approach to Middle East issues.

Increasing Isolation

The two countries found themselves increasingly alone in international organizations like the United Nations. A visitor from Mars to the UN headquarters in 1985 would have found it difficult to decide, after listening to Ambassadors Jeane Kirkpatrick and Benjamin Netanyahu, which of the two represented the United States and which Israel.

In addition to Kirkpatrick, who got her job as US representative to the UN after an article she published in Commentary caught Reagan's interest, other neocons occupied top positions in the Reagan foreign policy team. One was Max Kampelman, a former aide to Humphrey who was appointed to the position of director of arms control, and who was later replaced by another neocon, Kenneth Adelman. Richard Perle became the assistant secretary of defense. Richard Pipes, a regular Commentary contributor, joined the National Security Council. Elliot Abrams served as assistant secretary of state for human rights and later as assistant secretary for hemispheric affairs, where he played an active role in the Iran-Contra affair.

To the Likud Party, the policies of the Reagan administration seemed to offer Israel time to consolidate its hold on the West Bank and Gaza. The neoconservatives occupying top positions on Reagan's foreign policy team encouraged Washington to view the Arab-Israeli conflict through Cold War lenses, and to identify Palestinian nationalism as an extension of Soviet-induced international terrorism. In that context, Washington could view Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands with benign neglect.

All this was accomplished at serious cost for both Israel and the United States. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the IranContra affair were among the harmful products, while the intifada highlighted the destructive consequences of the neoconservative "strategic asset" formula and its operational implication of placing the Palestinian issue on the back burner.

However, it was the end of the Cold War that spelled disaster to the neocons, now at risk of being deprived of their favorite enemy and the justification for the strategic alliance between Washington and Jerusalem.

Enter the Middle Eastern bogeyman. For the past year, neoconservative intellectuals have focused on the need for the US to confront the new transnational enemy from the East, radical Arab nationalism and Islamic "fundamentalism," or what Krauthammer termed the "global intifada." The operational implication of this type of reasoning is that the original intifada can be forgotten.

The new, makeshift neoconservative line is that the removal of the Soviet threat in any Middle East calculation actually increases the value of the special relationship between the US and Israel, since the military strength of the Jewish state could serve as a deterrent to radical Arab regimes and help shore up shaky ones. By this vision, Israel becomes the contemporary crusader state, a bastion of the West. It was not a coincidence that writers like Krauthammer also supplied the ideological "Saddam-is-Hitler" formula that helped to press for the attack against Iraq.

"Paleoconservatives"

The neocons' main antagonists in the successful effort to get the United States to start shooting in the campaign to contain Saddam were the so-called "paleoconservatives," such as Pat Buchanan and Joseph Sobran, who since the end of the Cold War had been advocating a less activist American foreign policy. Indeed, neoconservative columnists like Rosenthal have accused the two of "anti-Semitism" for questioning whether there is a compatibility between the American interests and that of the Likud government.

Contrary to assertions such as Rosenthal's, Buchanan's reference to the Israeli Defense Ministry's "amen corner" in the United States that, according to him, was pushing the US to go to war immediately against Iraq, was not directed against the American Jewish community. (Actually, the Jewish senators and congressmembers were almost evenly split over the resolution authorizing Bush to go to war.) Buchanan was referring to the neoconservative writers who had been advocating the war option as opposed to the use of sanctions against Saddam.

Most US proponents of sanctions, whether liberal or conservative, feared that a war in which thousands of Arabs died at American hands would, in the long run, increasingly isolate Washington in the region. Ironically, the only way to prevent such negative results of the neocon agenda would be decisive efforts by the Bush administration to follow up the rollback of Saddam with an Israeli-Palestinian settlement based upon land for peace. It is just such efforts, however, that the neocons can be counted upon to oppose.

Leon T. Hadar, a former UN bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post, is an adjunct professor at the American University and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, where he is writing a book on American policy in the Middle East.