by Jim Lobe
Thirty-six hours after the pre-dawn cruise-missile strike against Syria’s al-Shayrat airfield, neoconservative hawks, many of whom beat the drums for war in Iraq 14 years ago, are feeling the warm spring breezes of renewal and rejuvenation. Suddenly hopeful that Donald Trump may yet be coming around to their worldview, neoconservatives are full of praise for the action, which they (like many liberal interventionists) insist was long overdue. Not surprisingly, neocons are pressing for more.
The strike, which marked a dramatic reversal by a president who had strongly opposed any similar action by Barack Obama in 2013, coincided with a number of reports that Steve Bannon’s influence on Trump was on the wane amid intensified infighting between Bannon’s “nationalism” and Jared Kushner and Gary Cohn’s “globalism.” The potential eclipse of Bannon has only added to the giddiness of the neocons as they anticipate what might now be possible.
For now, at least, it’s the generals—in the form of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Pentagon chief James “Mad Dog” Mattis—who appear to be masters of the moment both with respect to the decision to strike and the specificity of the target. The principal justification for the strike—to uphold the international ban on chemical weapons as opposed to, say, the broader aim of “regime change”—was also narrowly drawn, reflecting the military’s determination to avoid being drawn into yet another Middle East civil war.
Nonetheless, the neocons, who have rarely met a slippery military slope they weren’t tempted to roll down, embraced wholeheartedly both the strike and its justification. They view it as a first—but absolutely necessary—step toward a new phase of U.S. interventionism of precisely the kind that Bannon and his “nationalist” and Islamophobic allies abhor. The perceived decline in Bannon’s influence gives them an opening that, until this week’s events, they thought was out of reach.
Thus, the dominant theme for neocons in the strike’s aftermath was applause for what they see as an abandonment of Obama’s post-Libya policy of military restraint and, quite possibly, the restoration of Washington’s credibility as the global hegemon newly resolved to impose its will anywhere it sees a threat to its vital interests very broadly defined.
Elliott Abrams, a top Mideast aide to Bush who Trump rejected as deputy secretary of state reportedly as a result of Bannon’s opposition, thus exulted in the Weekly Standard over Thursday’s strike with the kind of capitalized flattery that appeared as carefully targeted at Trump’s enormous ego as the most sophisticated cruise missile. No doubt, Abrams still entertains hopes of getting a top post in the administration if Bannon’s declining influence is true.
The president has been chief executive since January 20, but this week he acted also as Commander in Chief. And more: he finally accepted the role of Leader of the Free World.
…And the strike will have far wider effects [beyond Syria]. It was undertaken while Chinese president Xi was with Trump in Florida. Surely this new image of a president willing to act will affect their conversations about North Korea. Vladimir Putin will think again about his relations with the United States, and will realize that the Obama years of passivity are truly over. Allies and friends will be cheered, while enemies will realize times have changed. When next the Iranians consider swarming around an American ship in the Gulf, they may think again.
Bill Kristol—the Standard’s editor-at-large and co-founder and director of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which did so much to coordinate with the Bush administration in rallying elite support for the Iraq invasion— declared Abrams’s analysis a “must read” in a tweet issued Friday morning.
Indeed, prominent neocons clearly saw their opportunity after the lethal chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province Tuesday to press their agenda on the administration.
None other than Paul Wolfowitz, Bush’s deputy defense secretary and a chief architect of the Iraq invasion and disastrous aftermath, suggested in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that statements by Trump’s senior officials suggesting that Washington was reconciled to Assad’s continued rule over the country may have emboldened the Syrian leader to test the limits.
Let us hope Mr. Trump will reassess the impact of recent statements by members of his administration indicating that the U.S. is prepared to live with the Assad regime. The Syrians—and their Russian and Iranian backers—might well have interpreted this as a signal that they could continue terrorizing the population.
Encouraged by Trump’s initial verbal condemnation of the gas attack, Wolfowitz made clear that action was required:
President Trump may have initially believed that he could avoid the fork in the road presented by the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria by simply blaming the crime on Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his “red line” four years ago. Fortunately it seems he has reconsidered.
To drive the point home, the Journal editors headlined the op-ed “For Syria, Words Won’t Be Enough: Trump says attacking civilians crosses ‘many lines.’ Will he back it up?”
Meanwhile, the looniest among the neocons, former CIA director James Woolsey—who was one of the first to publicly claim a connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11—was urging trump to do much, much more than a simple retaliatory strike.
This at least gives us an opportunity to do something that is tied to the Syrian events, and that would be to use force against the Iranian nuclear program …If we want to change the nature of the threat to us in that part of the world, what we have to do is take out the Iranian nuclear program—if we can without hitting any Russian units—and some of the Syrian capability.
Pump Up the Volume
Although most other neocons were not quite so explicit about their fondest desires, they made perfectly clear that Thursday’s cruise-missile strike should only be a first step toward a larger regional strategy designed to roll back Iranian (and Russian) influence (much as PNAC warned after 9/11 that taking out the Taliban in Afghanistan should only be a first step in the war against terror). Writing in the New York Daily News, Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) argued that
President Trump’s decision to attack the airfield from which the most recent chemical attack was launched must be the start of a new strategy. It must begin a campaign to drive the Assad regime to compromise. It must be the start of an effort to regain the confidence of Sunni Arabs in Syria and around the world that the U.S. stands with them against all those who would attack them, ISIS and Al Qaeda as well as Iran and its proxies.
Katherine Zimmerman has also echoed this theme of backing the region’s Sunni states. Like both Wolfowitz and Kagan, Zimmerman is based at AEI, the neoconservative think tank that not only led the public campaign for invading Iraq but played a critical role in planning the post-invasion occupation.
The US cruise missile strikes are the first step to restoring America’s credibility within the very population—the Sunni Arabs—that it must win over to secure its strategic interests in the Middle East. The action against the Assad regime starts to chip away at al Qaeda’s narrative that it alone is the defender of the Syrian Sunni. But an isolated response will not achieve systemic effects. It is impossible to defeat al Qaeda and ISIS without the support of the Sunni, and re-establishing America’s credibility will certainly be difficult.
(The irony of AEI’s strong backing for Sunnis throughout the region is particularly rich given its historic role in enhancing the influence of Ahmad Chalabi in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Once re-installed in Iraq, Chalabi, a Shiite, was the principal driver of the “de-Baathification” that principally victimized Iraqi Sunnis.)
The same message was conveyed Friday by Christopher Griffin, the executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), PNAC’s lineal descendant, in a bulletin entitled “Syria Airstrike Necessary But Insufficient” in which he argued for reviving U.S. efforts to “empower a moderate opposition” to Assad with the larger ambition of diminishing Iran’s influence.
[I]t may now be possible for the U.S. to coordinate a meaningful coalition that brings together its Sunni Arab allies and potential partners within the Syrian opposition. Since 2014, a major constraint on that coordination has been Washington’s insistence on supporting only military operations against ISIS, and not the Assad regime. If American policy is revised, it will create new opportunities to protect the Syrian people from the Assad regime and to legitimize non-extremist alternatives to the ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates in Syria.
… If American pressure can limit Russian support while bringing together a more effective anti-Assad coalition, the United States may be able to isolate Iran and place one of its few allies in the Middle East at risk. The United States should not hesitate to seize such an opportunity.…
Neocon Overlap with Trump
Of course, this is precisely where the neocon agenda overlaps with that of Pentagon chief James Mattis who, of all the members of the Cabinet, seems to enjoy the greatest influence with Trump at the moment. Since serving as chief of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), he has said on numerous occasions that Tehran poses the greatest long-term threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East, although, unlike many neocons, he strongly supports complying with the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Late last month, the current CENTCOM commander, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, repeated that threat assessment and even suggested that he was eager to confront Iran militarily, presumably short of war. “We need to look at opportunities where we can disrupt [Iran] through military means or other means their activities,” he said.
CENTCOM, of course, has always been cozy with – and relied on — the region’s Sunni autocrats, whose seemingly insatiable appetite for sophisticated U.S. weaponry has the added benefit of profiting U.S. arms producers (on whose boards retired brass often serve). With Mattis at the Pentagon, Obama’s notion that Washington can help bring about some kind of equilibrium between the Sunni-led Gulf states to begin stabilizing the region is long gone. Washington’s clear alignment with the Emiratis and Saudis in their own catastrophic Yemen campaign since Trump took power makes that particularly clear. And, with Netanyahu publicly boasting about Israel’s growing security cooperation with the Gulfies, especially with the United Arab Emirates, out of their mutual hostility toward Iran, the convergence between the neocons and the Pentagon, at least insofar as the Middle East is concerned, is growing.
At the same time, however, the military has learned through painful experience, notably in Iraq, that indulging neocon notions such as “regime change” and “nation-building” is the road to perdition. If the neocons want to gain influence with the ascendant powers in the administration—Mattis, McMaster, and the brass—they have to proceed delicately, one step at a time. For example, Kristol’s tweet Saturday afternoon – “Punishing Assad for use of chemical weapons is good. Regime change in Iran is the prize” – is not going to help their cause. Similarly, if you’re looking for slippery slopes, look no further than the advice proffered by Kristol’s partner-in-hegemonism at PNAC and FPI, Bob Kagan, who argued for a slew of follow-up steps in a column entitled “What Must Come Next in Syria” in the Washington Post Sunday.
Griffin was one of about 150 mainly neocon national-security wonks who signed letters insisting that they would never serve in a Trump administration, an act that probably disqualifies him for consideration. Some prominent neocons— including Abrams, Fred Kagan, former Cheney national security adviser John Hannah, former Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, former assistant secretary of state Stephen Rademaker, and Abram’s Mideast aide on the National Security Council Michael Doran, to name a few—decided against signing. Given the scores of senior foreign-policy positions that remain unfilled under Trump, this may be their moment.
Indeed, if Bannon and the “nationalists” are truly in eclipse, even some of those who signed those letters may now be back in consideration.
Photo of Bill Kristol by Gage Skidmore via Flickr