The neo-conservatives in and around the administration of US President George W Bush may be on the defensive, but Washington’s reaction to the Israeli attack on Syria on Sunday shows that they remain in the driver’s seat at the White House.
The fact that Bush has himself refused to in any way criticize the Israeli attack - the first on Syria since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war - shows how far the neo-cons have succeeded in aligning US policy with the right-wing government in Israel, a key goal going back to the first Likud government of the late Menachem Begin and, more recently, since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won elections in early 2001. It was the neo-cons who in 1982 defended Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and the bloody siege of Beirut that followed. While then-president Ronald Reagan went along with the original invasion, his administration never publicly endorsed it and eventually distanced itself from the Israelis as the siege wore on.
Bush’s explicit embrace of Israel’s attack on an alleged Palestinian training camp in Syria, on the other hand, is a striking departure from decades of US Middle Eastern diplomacy. Washington even denounced Israel’s 1981 attack on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq and, unlike the present, joined with other members of the UN Security Council in condemning it.
Indeed, Bush’s statement on Monday that he had told Sharon that “Israel must not feel constrained defending the homeland” was almost breathtaking in its implied license, particularly considering that it was Sharon who not only led the invasion of Lebanon but is also widely believed to have rolled all the way to Beirut without Begin’s approval. Many experts and historians believe that Begin was intending a more limited military action and that Sharon took the initiative to take it much further. The neo-cons, one of whose core beliefs is that the US and Israel confront the same enemies and share the same values, have had Syria in their sights for quite a long time. Israel, particularly Likud, has seen Damascus as the most steadfast and potentially the most dangerous of its Arab antagonists.
Many of the same people both in and out of the administration who have favored making Syria a primary target in the US “war on terrorism” signed a report released four years ago that called explicitly for using military force to disarm Syria of supposed weapons of mass destruction and end its military presence in Lebanon.
Among the signers of the report, which was released by a pro-Likud research group called Middle East Forum (MEF) and the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon (USCFL), were Bush’s chief deputy on the Middle East on the National Security Council, Elliott Abrams; Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith; Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, Paula Dobriansky; and two special consultants associated with the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) who have been working on Middle East policy in the Pentagon and State Department, respectively, Michael Rubin and David Wurmser.
The signers also included Richard Perle, the powerful former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board; his colleague at AEI, former UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick; Michael Ledeen, another AEI fellow; Frank Gaffney, a former Perle aide in the Reagan administration who now heads the Center for Defense Policy; and David Steinmann, chairman of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. With the exception of Kirkpatrick, all of these figures outside the administration played key roles in urging Bush to go to war in Iraq.
The study, “Ending Syria’s Occupation of Lebanon: The US Role?”, was co-authored by MEF president Daniel Pipes, who was just named by Bush to a post at the US Institute of Peace, despite widespread charges that he has promoted Islam-phobia, and Ziad Abdelnour, who heads the USCFL. The study stressed that “Syrian rule in Lebanon stands in direct opposition to American ideals”, and it rued Washington’s habit since its disastrous withdrawal from Beirut in 1983 of engaging rather than confronting the regime, the only government on the State Department’s “terrorism list” with which Washington has full diplomatic relations. The group urged a policy of confrontation, beginning with tough economic and diplomatic sanctions that could not be waived by the president, and, if necessary, military force.
Not surprisingly, the same general provisions have been incorporated into a new bill that is presently being debated in Congress [passed into law on the day this article was published - ed.], and Sharon’s actions, according to many observers, may have been intended in part to promote the bill’s chances of becoming law soon.
Syria was also cited as a target in a public letter to Bush on September 20, 2001 - just nine days after the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon - by associates of the Project for the New American Century, a think tank closely related to AEI whose director, William Kristol, also edits the neo-conservative Weekly Standard.
Among other measures, it called for Bush to take military action in Afghanistan to remove the Taliban and destroy al-Qaeda, to remove Saddam Hussein in Iraq “even if the evidence does not link Iraq directly to the [September 11] attacks; and cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority unless it puts a stop to all terrorist acts emanating from territory under its control”.
But it also called for the US to target Hezbollah in Lebanon, and added, “We believe the administration should demand that Iran and Syria immediately cease all military, financial and political support for Hezbollah and its operations. Should Iran and Syria refuse to comply, the administration should consider appropriate measures of retaliation against these known state sponsors of terrorism.”
The letter was signed by 39 prominent right-wingers, almost all of them neo-conservatives, such as Kristol himself, Perle, Kirkpatrick and Gaffney. “Israel has been and remains America’s staunchest ally against international terrorism, especially in the Middle East,” they wrote. “The United States should fully support our fellow democracy in its fight against terrorism.”
Throughout the Iraq war, many of these same people, as well as their close associates in the administration, such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Feith, argued that Syria represented a serious threat to the US and its troops in Iraq, at one point asserting that Damascus was sheltering senior Iraqi leaders and its WMD.
“There’s got to be a change in Syria,” Wolfowitz said in April, adding that the government was a “strange regime, one of extreme ruthlessness”. At the same time, another prominent conservative closely associated with Wolfowitz and Perle, in particular, former Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey, was widely quoted on television as saying that the “war on terrorism” should be seen as “World War IV” that should include as targets “fascists of Iraq and Syria”.
Within this context, Sharon’s decision to attack Syria appears designed to shine the spotlight once again on Syria as a key target in the “war on terrorism”. Coming at a time when the neo-cons in Washington are on the defensive over their pre-war claims about the dangers posed by Saddam in Iraq and the welcome which US troops were supposed to have been accorded by the Iraqi population, the renewed focus on Syria conveniently changes the subject. The fact that Bush appears to have endorsed the attack and justified it publicly as self-defense also confirms that Bush sees the strategic relationship with Israel in much the same way as the neo-cons have long wanted the US president to do.
Jim Lobe works in Rome, and writes for the Inter Press Service
Coutesy of the Hong Kong based newspaper, Asia Times