Ground Zero
by Scott McConnell

September 25, 2000

The Struggle Over War Aims
Bush Versus the Neo-Cons

Nearly unanimous congressional votes and President Bush's soaring poll numbers convey an image of complete American unity in response to the September 11 terror, and backing for an effective military response is overwhelming. After the murder of 6000 innocents, reflexive "Vietnam syndrome" worries about American military casualties have nearly vanished. My church – which lost four members in the attack – has evolved during the past two weeks from being, on balance, a peace church – noteworthy for its sponsorship of forums to examine all aspects of America's policies in the Middle East – into one in which the congregation prays for God to take vengeance on the terrorists. Such prayers translate into backing for worldly forms of retribution.

But a common placard, in this city now awash with the posting of heartwrenching photographs of the missing and presumed dead, reads "Kill the bastards but – " (in smaller text) "don't kill innocent people." Desire for a focused and measured military response seems to be the prevailing New York sentiment.

But there is no unity among the political intellectuals and opinion journalists – and in their disagreements one can already see the outlines of the coming grand struggle over American policy. The terms "left" and "right" don't adequately describe the various sides – influential neoconservatives are opposed to the policies of mainstream Republicans, who still set the tone within the Bush administration, and most Democrats and "America First" Buchananites are lining up with Bush.

An early tremor in this storm was Norman Podhoretz's shockingly strident attack on Robert Novak. Its tone was astonishing because the two were among the most prominent intellectual/journalist supporters of Ronald Reagan's presidency – Novak as arguably the nation's premier syndicated columnist and Beltway pundit; Podhoretz as the esteemed editor of Commentary Magazine, which shepherded thousands of disillusioned liberals into the conservative, or neoconservative, camp during the 1970s and '80s. Both men are now about seventy – but they still represent a leading edge of broader factions gearing up for battle within the Bush White House and beyond.

The day after the World Trade Center attack, Novak penned a column analyzing the US intelligence failure, and quoted at the end a conclusion that Israel would emerge as "the big winner" from the debacle, drawing American sympathy as a fellow victim of terror. Added Novak "whatever distance Bush wanted between US and Israeli policy, it was eliminated by terror," noting that the tightening of ties between the United States and Israel "cannot improve" U.S. long-term objectives.

The two sentences seemed unremarkable, perhaps even banal – for months American newspapers have carried the lamentations of moderate Arabs about the decline of American standing in the Middle East as prospects for a fair peace between Israel and the Palestinians diminished. But for Podhoretz, Novak's words were a red flag demanding all out assault. In a letter to the editor of the New York Post he proclaimed his "disgust" with the column, which he called "shamefully perverse" and accused the columnist of wishing for Israel's disappearance.

The intensity Podhoretz brought to bear on an offhand remark in a single column makes sense only as a symptom of the neo-cons' deep insecurity on this topic. They have, in the past years, scorned the Oslo peace process (taking a cue from the Israeli right) and pressed continuously for the cut off of American government assistance to the Palestinians. While American diplomats now scour the Arab world to secure air bases, overflight rights and intelligence help, (and hearing, from the Arabs, comments which back up Novak's assertions) the neoconservatives feel compelled to try to suppress any airing of the notion that Israel's strategic interests and America's are not perfectly matched.

Within days, the broader divergences took shape. The Bush administration's primary tactical concern is how to effectively attack Osama bin Laden's hideouts in Afghanistan as the first blow in a general war against his multinational terror organization. For the neoconservatives, however, bin Laden is but a sideshow, even if they accept the evidence that his organization killed 6000 American civilians. They hope to use September 11 as pretext for opening a wider war in the Middle East. Their prime, but not only, target is Saddam Hussein's Iraq, even if Iraq has nothing to do with the World Trade Center assault. (In one sense, Iraq already has a lot to do with it, because growing Arab disgust with the results of the American enforced embargo on the country has elevated the profile and popularity of the anti-American zealots in the region.)

In Monday's New York Times, William Safire called for Bush to launch an attack on Saddam's regime; last week, the Wall Street Journal, in an editorial which must have made readers wonder if they were hallucinating, argued that Washington should strike at "Syria, Sudan, Libya, and Algeria" and perhaps "parts of Egypt." Leading neoconservatives last week circulated a letter calling for US military to attack bin Laden, Iraq, and Hezbollah (based in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran), and to freeze Hezbollah's relations with the Palestinian Authority. Iraq is but their first target.

The neo-con wish list is a recipe for igniting a huge conflagration between the United States and countries throughout the Arab world, with consequences no one could reasonably pretend to calculate. Support for such a war – which could turn quite easily into a global war – is a minority position within the Bush administration (assistant secretary of state Paul Wolfowitz is its main advocate) and the country. But it presently dominates the main organs of conservative journalistic opinion, the Wall Street Journal, National Review, the Weekly Standard, and the Washington Times, as well as Marty Peretz's neoliberal New Republic. In a volatile situation, such organs of opinion could matter.

Eerily, the neo-con quest for a wider target list seems to match perfectly the aims of bin Laden and the most vociferously anti-American Arabs: both are working to bring about as big a battle as can be imagined between the United States and the Muslim world. The two sides do not, of course, imagine the same outcome from such a war.

Thus far, President Bush has resisted neo-con pressures to set out expanded war aims. In his speech to the nation last week, Bush kept his attention steadily focused against those who attacked America, not on Arabs fighting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. His promise to punish regimes which "continue" to sponsor terror gives virtually every state in the Arab world a chance to turn over a new leaf and join a new, American led, anti-terror coalition.

Few neo-conservatives have acknowledged directly their disappointment with the speech; Michael Ledeens's remark that he was "looking forward" to Bush's delivery of nonnegotiable demands to Syria, Iraq, and Iran in addition to those he gave the Taliban was the nearest to a rebuke I've seen. But an American response to 9/11 that takes out bin Laden, shatters the Afghan regime that sheltered him, and initiates a long and tightly focused assault on anti-American terror groups while forging working alliances with Arab and Muslim regimes that are themselves threatened by violent fundamentalists is precisely what American neoconservatives don't want.

Even if Bush manages to chart such a course, Israel could thwart him by igniting the wider war the neoconservatives pine for. Sharon has again rejected the insistent American requests that he open peace talks with the Palestinians, and right wing Israeli spokesman Benjamin Netanyahu is circulating in Congress and on the airwaves, denouncing the Palestinians and calling for American military action against the widest possible array of targets. After 9/11, Sharon began describing Arafat as "our bin Laden" in an effort to drum up American sympathy for Israeli military action that would quell the Palestinian national movement once and for all. Were Israel to move against the Palestinian Authority while the United States is mounting attacks in Afghanistan, bin Laden's dream of full scale war between Islam and America would be just around the corner.

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