Middle East

Neocons fall from favor after debacle in Iraq


WASHINGTON: 14 months after reaching the zenith of their influence on US foreign policy with the invasion of Iraq, neoconservatives appear to have fallen entirely out of favor, both within the Bush administration and in Baghdad.

Signs of their defeat at the hands of both reality and the so-called "realists," who are headed within the administration by Secretary of State Colin Powell, are virtually everywhere, but were probably best marked by Newsweek magazine's cover last week, depicting a framed photograph of the neocon-championed Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi that had been shattered during a joint police-US raid on his headquarters in Baghdad. "Bush's Mr. Wrong" was the title of the feature article.

The victory of the realists, which also include the uniformed military and the CIA, appeared complete Monday with the unveiling of the interim Iraqi government to which an as-yet undefined sovereignty is to be transferred from the occupation authorities June 30.

Not only was Chalabi's arch-rival-in-exile, Iyad Allawi, approved by the Iraqi Governing Council (GC) as prime minister, but neither Chalabi nor any of his closest GC associates, especially Finance Minister Kamel al-Gailani, who is accused of handing over much of Iraq's banking system to Chalabi during his tenure, made it into the final lineup.

"We need to restrain what are growing US messianic instincts - a sort of global social engineering where the United States feels it is both entitled and obligated to promote democracy - by force if necessary," said Senator Pat Roberts, a conservative Kansas Republican and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a speech last week that was understood here as a direct shot at the neocons.

The neoconservatives, a key part of the coalition of hawks that dominated Bush's post-Sept. 11, 2001, foreign policy, were the first to publicly call for Saddam Hussein's ouster, which they saw as a way to transform the Arab world to make it more hospitable to Western values, US interests, and Israel's territorial ambitions.

Since the latter part of the 1990s, when they led the charge in Congress for the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress (INC) was their chosen instrument to achieve that transformation.

While no neocons were appointed to Cabinet-level positions under former US President George H. W. Bush, they obtained top posts in the offices of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz as and Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith - and Vice-President Dick Cheney, whose chief of staff and national security adviser is I. Lewis Libby. On the White House national security council staff, they were able to place former Iran-contra figure Elliott Abrams and Robert Joseph in key positions dealing with the Middle East and arms proliferation, respectively.

Moreover, Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board (DPB) is dominated by neocons, including former chairman, Richard Perle, as well as former CIA chief James Woolsey, former arms-control negotiator Kenneth Adelman, and military historian Eliot Cohen.

It was the neocons, more than any other group, who pushed hardest for war in Iraq after Sept. 11 and predicted, backed up by Chalabi's assurances, that the war would be, among other things, a "cakewalk" and that US troops would be greeted with "flowers and sweets."

Within the administration, the neocons, again relying heavily on Chalabi's INC, developed their own intelligence analyses to bolster the notion of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda and exaggerated the ousted leader's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to provide a more credible pretext for war. Their friends on the DPB and in the media then stoked the public's fears about these threats through frequent appearances on television and a barrage of newspaper columns and magazine articles.

While analysts and regional experts at the CIA and the State Department, which had dropped Chalabi as a fraud and a con man in the mid-1990s, tried to resist the juggernaut, they were consistently outflanked by the neocons whose influence and ability to circumvent the professionals were greatly enhanced by their access to Rumsfeld and Cheney, who served as their champions in the White House and with Bush personally.

Their influence reached its peak in early April when Chalabi and 700 of his paid INC troops were airlifted by the Pentagon to the southern city of Nasariyyah on Cheney's authority against Bush's stated policy that the US would not favor one Iraqi faction over another. Bush's own national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, professed surprise when she was informed of it by reporters.

While they were still riding high as US troops consolidated their control of Iraq, their star began to wane already last August as it became clear that Chalabi's and the neocons' predictions about a grateful Iraqi populace were about as well-founded as their certainties about Saddam Hussein's ties to Al-Qaeda and his WMD stockpiles.

Sensing trouble ahead, Rice asked former ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, to return to the White House, where he had been her boss under the former President George H. W. Bush. By October, Rice and Blackwill had formed an inter-agency Iraq Stabilization Group that gradually wrested control of Iraq policy from the Pentagon.

It was a process in which Coalition Provisional Authority chief Paul Bremer, who had come to detest Chalabi and his neocon backers in Baghdad and Washington, was an enthusiastic participant and which was effectively completed with the announcement late last month that the State Department was taking over the $14 billion in reconstruction money that the Pentagon has not yet spent.

In the last month, the neocon retreat has turned into a rout, particularly as reports of Chalabi's coziness with Iran gained currency, and as important senior military officers indicated that a military victory over the Iraqi insurgency was not possible.

The public attention given to a blistering attack on the neocons by the former chief of the US Central Command, General Anthony Zinni, on the popular television program "60 Minutes," also demonstrated that the media, ever cautious about taking on powerful figures, now sees them as fair game.





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