The Rise of the Neo-Conservative Movement and Its Influence in Modern American Foreign Policy

As the Cold War came to an end in 1989, with the falling of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union retreat from Afghanistan, one big question came to the forefront of U.S foreign policy—how would the U.S lead the world out of the Cold War era? George H.W Bush and his National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft knew that the U.S had a responsibility to promote stability and international diplomacy following this event, as they believed we no longer lived in a bipolar world, with the only two powers being the Soviet Union and the United States. This informed Scowcroft’s initial reaction of not “dancing on the Berlin Wall”, promoting partnership with the Soviet Union, rather than triumphalism, and and treating them as a defeated nation. The reunification of the world with U.S as the leader was necessary, but it had to be done with restraint. Bush and Scowcroft did not want to be subject to the Vietnam Syndrome, and be afraid of using American power abroad, but they also knew that the U.S had a responsibility as a power in this new world to promote order wherever chaos reigned. The first representation of this new policy was the Gulf War, where the Bush administration pushed the Iraqi army out of Kuwait using an incredible amount of force, but yet did not try to march into Baghdad and topple Saddam’s repressive regime. Of course, with this new policy, and its first demonstration, came pushback within Washington. This was in the form of the neoconservative movement, which saw the U.S as the sole superpower in the world, and had a responsibility to spread democracy and become a transformative nation worldwide. The neo-conservative attitude of triumphalism and exceptionalism following the end of Cold War fueled a critique of the Bush and Clinton foreign policy strategies of internationalism between 1989-2001. The 9/11 attacks and the beginning of the “war on terror” showed the already prevalent neo-conservative ideals in the White House, which in turn caused a shift in U.S foreign policy towards Iraq in 2001, based upon falsified evidence and a greater fear of domestic terrorism.  

The Gulf War in 1991 was the first event that stirred a major dissent from the neo-conservatives within the Bush administration. First stated by Jimmy Carter and his Carter Doctrine, the Persian Gulf remained a point of major interest for U.S foreign policy following the end of the Cold War. The October of 1989 National Security Directive 26 affirmed this, stating, “Access to the Persian Gulf oil and the security of key friendly states in the area are vital to U.S national security.” This document informed and outlined the regional defense strategy that Bush and Scowcroft would engage in, moving away from the bipolar framework of communism. They instead would focus on the threats of terrorism and “rogue” nations individually, and fend off nations and groups that had expansive, militaristic goals. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was the perfect event to demonstrate this policy. With this invasion, Iraq would be put on par with Saudi Arabia’s oil production, giving them unprecedented power over OPEC politics—this could not be tolerated. And in September following the invasion, President Bush stood in front of Congress and demonstrated the U.S commitment to security against oppression with his “New World Order” speech. He stated that there could not be appeasement of Saddam, and the U.S must resist oppression, protect its allies (Saudi Arabia), and uphold American principles in this post-Cold War era. “What is at stake is more than one small country; it is a big idea: a new world order, where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind — peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law.” These goals of peace and security were not about the spreading of democracy, nor about nation building for Bush and Scowcroft—they were about justice. A war with Iraq would have clear and defined goals, and would, if executed correctly, not last long. As Bush said in an August 8th speech, “America does not seek conflict. Nor do we seek to chart the destiny of other nations. But America will stand by her friends. The mission of our troops is wholly defensive.”

The first Gulf War began in February of 1991, with a military strategy outlined clearly in four parts by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell. Define the mission clearly (drive Iraq out of Kuwait), use the appropriate level of force to achieve that goal, have public support, and a clear exit strategy. In this case, the exit strategy was simply to drive out Iraqi forces and reestablish the Kuwaiti government. There could be no toppling of Saddam’s government, nor a drive into Baghdad, as this would be “mission creep” and sacrifice the mission of stability and U.S credibility in the region. This Operation Desert Shield was a resounding success in these terms, as the U.S accomplished their goal of driving Iraq out of Kuwait and reestablishing the local government. But in the eyes of the neoconservatives, in fact, this was an incredible defeat, and an appeasement of Saddam and his repressive regime.

The neoconservatives saw not marching into Baghdad as a huge mistake, and a representation of the Vietnam Syndrome. Formally “Cold War liberals”, neoconservatives were traditionally defense intellectuals and small in number. Throughout the Cold War, they held the views of the correctness of containment policy and the bipolar worldview, seeing the Vietnam War as a proper and correct war supporting a moral cause—the only issue being the U.S failed to use power correctly. By the end of the Cold War, the neoconservatives were triumphalist in their rhetoric, citing the exceptionalism of western values and capitalism. The primary neoconservative opposition to Bush and the end of the Gulf War was Paul Wolfowitz, the Senior Aid to the Assistant Secretary of Defense. Wolfowitz argued against the pulling out of troops in the Gulf, insisting throughout the end of the war that we should have given Iraq a chance to at least free themselves. Says Packer, “[Wolfowitz] acknowledged, in the title of one essay, that ‘Victory Came too Easily,’ that the United States had squandered the chance to help Iraqis free themselves of the dictator.” These neoconservative ideas materialized in the Draft Defense Planning Guidance of 1992, overseen by Wolfowitz, which outlined America’s mission in a post-Cold War world. This mission was threefold: the U.S was the only superpower and it must prevent emergence of another, the U.S had to aim to promote respect for international law and democratic systems, and the U.S must be ready to act without other nations (preemptive war). Wolfowitz saw the Gulf War as in opposition to these goals, and continued to question White House policy into the Clinton years. 

Following the end of the Gulf War, the Bush and Clinton policy of containment of Iraq through no fly zones in the north and south, strategic airstrikes, and economic sanctions fueled further neoconservative backlash. And in 1997, while it was not an outright opinion before, Wolfowitz and the neoconservative movement had turned completely to the opinion of regime change in Iraq rather than containment. Says Packer, “Regime change in favor of a democratic Iraq had become Wolfowitz official position, and the following month, in the PNAC letter, it was embraced by the leading foreign-policy neoconservatives.” And it is this PNAC (Project for the New American Century) letter and its criticism of containment and Clinton era policy, which gives the final pre-9/11 context for the U.S invasion of Iraq.

The Project for the New American Century became the most organized and powerful neoconservative opposition to the containment of Iraq, and some of its members such as Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney, became cabinet members of the George W. Bush administration. Led by Robert Kagan and William Kristol, PNAC was a conservative non profit educational organization in Washington whose goal was to “promote American global leadership”. And on January 26th, 1998, they authored a joint letter to President Clinton concerning foreign policy in Iraq, titled “Remove Saddam From Power”. In this letter, PNAC outlines the greatest threat to U.S security in Iraq—the production of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and its uses against our allies—and the only option moving forward, removing Saddam from power. “The policy of ‘containment’ of Saddam Hussein has been steadily eroding over the past several months…our ability to ensure that Saddam Hussein is not producing weapons of mass destruction, therefore, has substantially diminished.” The PNAC saw Iraq’s possible production of WMD’s as an incredible threat to American troops, friendly allies in the region like Israel, and a large part of the world’s oil supply. Containment was clearly not working, in their eyes, as Saddam was refusing UN inspections, and it was now impossible to monitor weapons production. Thus regime change was the only option, as the risk of inaction was far greater than that of action. 

The logic for invading Iraq following the 9/11 attacks was a direct result of neoconservative thought from the previous decades and even the Vietnam War, representing a final shift in U.S foreign policy away from the internationalist policies championed by Bush and Scowcroft a decade earlier. Only a few months after the attacks, Bush began making his case for an Iraqi invasion, with his “Axis of Evil” State of the Union address, “Fight for Just Peace” West Point Address in June, and this speech in front of the United Nations general Assembly in September. “With every step the Iraqi regime takes toward gaining and deploying the most terrible weapons…And if an emboldened regime were to supply these weapons to terrorist allies, then the attacks of September the 11th would be a prelude to far greater horrors.” Thus, Bush’s three points of logic for invading Iraq were that Saddam had WMD’s, supported terrorism, and is a brutal dictator. But, there was, of course dissent over an Iraqi invasion—headed by Brent Scowcroft. In August of 2002, Scowcroft published an op ed in the Wall Street Journal dissenting to a U.S invasion. He stated that there was no evidence that Iraq supported terrorism, 9/11, or had WMD’s, and that if they went to war, it would be unpopular, unstable, and they would end up in a long term occupation. The neoconservative response came, unsurprisingly, from former PNAC member, Vice President Richard Cheney. He defended their position, writing that there was no doubt Iraq had WMD’s, and that he would share them with terrorists if we continue using a containment strategy.

While we now know this information on Iraq having WMD’s was completely fabricated, this final debate between Brent Scowcroft and Richard Cheney represented the clash of the two ideals throughout the decade. This was the culmination and height of neoconservative thought in the White House, and the final ending of internationalist policy last defended by the same man who created it—Brent Scowcroft.

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