by Lawrence Wilkerson
To those who are strongly opposed to Donald Trump, his present troubles no doubt resonate positively. The looming prospect of his successful removal from office through impeachment proceedings—or his just leaving as pressure for such proceedings builds—might even be such opponents’ fondest wish. But as Colin Powell used to say to me, “Be careful what you wish for…”
In this instance, such a warning has nothing to do with the line of succession and what Jane Mayer in The New Yorker called “The Danger of President Pence.” It has to do instead with the return of the Neoconservatives (Neocons) and only by extension, then, with a Pence or other caretaker presidency.
Because what is happening today, as Trump is preoccupied increasingly with the considerable, ever-growing challenges to him personally and to his presidency institutionally, is the reentry into critical positions in the government of these people, the people who gave America the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Even those many of them who declared “Never Trump”—as arch-Neocon Eliot Cohen summed it up—are salivating at the prospect of carrying out their foreign and security policy while Trump essentially boils in his own corrupt juices.
Opening the Door
A vanguard, of course, is already in our government to beckon, comfort, and re-establish others of their type. John Bolton as national security advisor to the president leads this pack though he’s not, strictly speaking, a card-carrying Neocon. Bolton is, like Dick Cheney, an ultra-nationalist who finds the Neocon camp both a convenient hiding place from time to time and possessed of a set of views in which he dare not deny believing since they dovetail with his own purposes more often than not, and the Neocons muster a significant following. Moreover, the Neocons enjoy unfettered access to Israel’s right-wing government as a matter of course.
Nikki Haley at the United Nations, a true-blue Neocon, is almost as important as Bolton as she gives off the air of 2020 and replacing Trump as the new, duly-elected Republican president. To this point, Trump’s having exiled her to New York—as Barack Obama did finally with the war-loving Samantha Power—has not quelled her strident support of Israel (while women and children die in Gaza) or of Saudi Arabia (while thousands upon thousands die in Yemen) one iota.
Recently, one of the leaders of the pack of Neocons outside government, aptly enough a convicted felon (therefore fitting right in with the Trump team), Elliott Abrams, has written about this latent possibility in a very public manner. His screed might as well have been entitled, “Come back, come back. There is unparalleled mischief to be done.”
The very idea of such people being given another go at the ruination of the Republic ought to curdle our blood, rattle our bones, and give us immediate and effective pause. “Never again” is an appropriate battle cry because these people are certifiable. They have had as much to do with the almost 18 years of war in which the U.S. finds itself inextricably enmeshed, with the brutal and bloody turmoil in the Middle East, and with the destruction of American credibility in the world, as any president, legislature, or special interest group.
Presently, their first and most identifiable target is the unfinished business—which they largely commenced—with Syria and Iran, Israel’s two most serious potential threats. If the Neocons got their way—and they are remarkably astute at getting their way—it would mean a reignited war in Syria and a new war with Iran, as well as increased support for the greatest state sponsor of terrorism on earth, Saudi Arabia. We would see all our efforts to halt U.S. support for that country in the bloody and brutal war in Yemen prove fruitless, as well as a deeper fracturing in the Gulf Cooperation Council as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates press their vendetta against Qatar. As Turkey continues its efforts to shore up tiny Qatar, no doubt Neocon ire, already aimed directly at Ankara, will increase.
Overcoming the Blacklist
Who exactly are these should-be rejects who might be, or even now are, returning to key government positions?
Let’s start with Samantha Ravitch whom Trump has recently appointed to be deputy chairman of the Intelligence Advisory Board.
It should be sufficient for any rational person to point out merely that Samantha worked for Dick Cheney when he was president, er, sorry, vice president. She handled Asian and Middle East Affairs, among other things, at a time when U.S. Northeast Asia policy got so fouled up—largely at Cheney’s behest—that we let North Korea acquire nuclear weapons. (Did I point out that North Korea might be another country on the Neocon bucket list for war?)
That was also the time, folks will recall, that Iran moved from having a few centrifuges in its nuclear program to having more than 9,000. Cheney’s policy toward Iran was simply: “We do not speak to evil.” If we are to believe Peter Baker’s book (Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House), toward the end of the second Bush administration, when Cheney had been put in a closet, he—Cheney—was the only member of the National Security Council advocating for outright war with Iran. Thank God President Bush would have none of that war.
And coming from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, or FDD for short, Samantha’s credentials as a Neocon are impeccable. FDD, of course, is Israel’s frontispiece in Washington and, as an organization, never saw a war for Israel it did not like and for which it did not press. Its latest exploits have featured support for the UAE in its efforts to wrest control of al-Udeid Air Base (the largest USAF base in the region) away from Qatar, thus deepening the already quite-serious split in the Gulf Cooperation Council, the oldest U.S.-backed security organization in the Persian Gulf.
And, as Abrams pointed out, Trump—or at least Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (who, as a long-time Christian Zionist and stridently anti-Iran member of Congress, has deferred to hard-line Neocons on Middle East policy)—has now breached Eliot Cohen’s dam by appointing Ambassador James Jeffrey, a former deputy national security adviser to George W. Bush and a veteran of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) since 2012, to be the Special Envoy for Syria.
“Jeffrey’s appointment is important for another reason: he signed one of the anti-Trump letters in 2016 and is I believe the first person to have done so who got an administration post,” Abrams observed. “If this means that the blacklist is fraying, the president and the secretary of state will benefit greatly. They will have dozens more names to choose from in seeking top-notch advisers.”
Indeed, there is no doubt that more Neocons are waiting in the wings now that their intelligentsia component has sanctioned their return to government. Trump might indeed be forced to depart and thus his debilitating focus on his own peril would disappear with him. But the caretaker president who follows—Pence most likely—will have so many challenges to confront, so many lapses to fill, and so many disasters to try to repair, that focusing on preventing the re-entry into government of these people will not be a high priority even if the new President should want it to be.
Likewise, our largely gutless legislature, even if it were to find some courage and challenge some of the Neocon returnees through the confirmation process, could be circumvented, as there are ways around that process (Samantha Ravitch’s appointment makes this quite clear). We have to recall that almost no one wanted John Bolton to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in George W. Bush’s second term—even in Congress—so the President used a recess appointment to get him there. Indeed, Abrams insisted that Jeffrey’s appointment could point the way; Special Envoys don’t require Senate confirmation.
This whole business of a possible Neocon return in some ways reminds me painfully of the manner in which two key intelligence analysts, Robert Walpole and Larry Gershwin, were treated in late 2003. These two men were most responsible for the “intelligence” contained in Powell’s presentation on Iraq’s WMD to the United Nations in February 2003, along with the CIA Director, George Tenet, and the Deputy Director, John McLaughlin. Walpole and Gershwin were rewarded for their work, while McLaughlin is now a much-ballyhooed—and likely well-paid—TV consultant. Tenet is the only one who has had the good grace to stay mostly silent. Moreover, he probably did not get rich from his memoirs, At the Center of the Storm, and anyone watching his final address as Director in 2004 at Georgetown University, as I’ve done several times, has to muster a little sympathy for him and realize he got no real professional reward either.
The Neocons are never silent or far away or ashamed to speak out. Neither are they particularly desirous of nor do they even care about rewards. They are far more dangerous. They remind me of Leon Trotsky. In, of, and because of them, there is damage and destruction for the ages—damage and destruction at the end of which they are convinced the world will be alight with their ideology, a utopia, a heaven-on-earth, a world in which their second homeland, Israel, can be proud—and safe.
Gore Vidal once said we are “the United States of Amnesia”. Certainly in terms of the Neocons and colossal intelligence failures, we seem to be.
Lawrence Wilkerson is the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. He was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002-2005. He served 31 years in the US Army.