Arguably, Barack Obama’s most promising promise of the presidential campaign was his vow to not just end the war in Iraq but “to end the mindset that got us into war.”
Like much campaign rhetoric, this pledge was open to interpretation. Did he just mean that he would avoid the belligerent arrogance of George W. Bush, or was he suggesting a more fundamental challenge to Washington’s stale foreign policy elite?
Would Obama pick up on the prescient warning of Dwight Eisenhower about the deforming power of the “military-industrial complex” or on John F. Kennedy’s vision of peace that was “not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war”?
In the three weeks since his Nov. 4 election victory, the answer seems to be that Barack Obama is viewing his pledge in the most minimal sense. The emerging shape of his incoming administration suggests that Americans who opposed the Iraq War early will continue to be treated as misfits and outsiders, even though Obama was one of them.
In the mainstream press, too, there survives the same old pro-war frame of debate. On Sunday, the New York Times published seven opinion articles about the open-ended conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, all by writers with histories of favoring Bush’s arguments for the wars, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
There were no articles from prominent opponents of the Iraq invasion, like Sen. Russ Feingold or Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni or arms inspector Scott Ritter. It seems that having the foresight and the courage to oppose Bush’s reckless invasion still disqualifies you from the respectable debate of the New York-Washington power centers.
Yet, while there is no room at the dinner table for the anti-war “ideologues” – as they’re often called – there appear to be plenty of seats for the neocon-lites of the Democratic Party (from their institutional base at the formerly liberal Brookings Institution) and even some spots for key holdovers from the Bush administration.
According to press reports, hawkish Democrat Hillary Clinton is in line to be named Secretary of State and longtime Bush Family loyalist Robert Gates is likely to be retained as Secretary of Defense.
Clinton was a leading Democratic backer of the Iraq War until she launched her bid for the Democratic nomination. Gates was a key figure in “politicizing” intelligence at the CIA in the 1980s and returned to government in 2006 to salvage Bush’s foundering Iraq War by escalating U.S. troop levels and opposing a timetable for withdrawal.
In other words, Obama might have had trouble finding two political figures more representative of “the mindset that got us into war” – a Democrat who supported war to look tough and a Republican who put career advancement and ideology over everything.
Hillary Clinton at State and Gates at Defense also mean that their entourages of generally hawkish advisers will have homes, too, in an Obama administration. Meanwhile, war critics – or those who would like to roll back the “military-industrial complex” – might find it a lot tougher to land a job.
There’s even been shabby treatment for establishment figures who took political risks for Obama and supported his plans for an Iraq War withdrawal timetable.
Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic standard-bearer in 2004 and a key backer of Obama’s foreign policy agenda, appears to have been passed over for Secretary of State, while getting mocked in the major news media. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd ridiculed the idea of Kerry at State, writing “You know he just wants to swan around in those striped pants.”
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson favored an even-quicker withdrawal from Iraq than Obama and is a skilled international negotiator, but he finds himself getting a relatively low-level Cabinet post as Commerce Secretary (after hotel heiress Penny Pritzker turned down the job rather than explain her role in a sub-prime mortgage scandal).
Ironically, the one bright spot for anti-war Democrats may be the reported selection of retired four-star Marine Gen. James Jones to be Obama’s national security adviser. Inside the Pentagon, Jones resisted the rush to war with Iraq out of a “Lions for Lambs” concern that ambitious politicians were sending young Marines to die in an ill-considered war.
Though no liberal – Jones was spotted at a John McCain campaign event – he is known as a visionary military commander who has a strong interest in energy independence, also out of a concern that young Marines shouldn’t die fighting for oil resources.
In another positive sign, Obama reportedly is considering giving Jones a broader set of responsibilities than normally go to the national security adviser, more like the expansive powers that Henry Kissinger wielded in Richard Nixon’s presidency.
By and large, however, Washington’s Republican neocons appear to have bounced off the mat quite nicely after getting pounded in the Nov. 4 election.
In just three weeks, they have seen one of their favorites, Sen. Joe Lieberman, keep a powerful chairmanship despite campaigning against Obama – and many of their neocon-lite allies on the Democratic side are positioning themselves for key jobs under Obama.
Republicans even are feeling bold enough to instruct Obama about keeping Gates at the Pentagon. Several GOP leaders told the New York Times that it’s up to Obama – not them – to make the first moves toward bipartisanship and that retaining Gates would represent such a signal.
“From the point of view of most members of the Senate, that would be a welcome appointment,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee. “It would show that the President-elect is thinking more broadly and bipartisan than just a narrow base of anti-war activists.”
Despite the outcome of the Nov. 4 election – a national repudiation of George W. Bush and his Republican/neocon policies – the Official Washington disdain for the “anti-war activists” appears undiluted, as reflected Sunday in the New York Times’ choices of opinion pieces about the Iraq and Afghan wars.
Amazingly, the most anti-war article of the seven in the package was the one written by Ahmad Chalabi, the former head of the Iraqi National Congress who collaborated with Bush’s neocons in 2002-2003 to flood U.S. intelligence agencies and the news media with pro-war propaganda. [For details, see our book Neck Deep.]
Though Chalabi still defends his support for the U.S. invasion, he is clearly disillusioned with both Bush and his old neocon allies.
Complaining that Americans have crudely manipulated Iraqi politics, Chalabi also denounced “the indiscriminate arrest, torture and killing of Iraqi civilians without recourse to law, and an utterly corrupt reconstruction program that oversaw one of the biggest financial crimes in history, which has left average Iraqis with little water, power, health care, education or even food.”
Then, in an apparent slap at some of the unreconstructed neocons around Bush, Chalabi added: “Yet there are still those in Washington’s corridors of power who want to reduce Iraq to being an American puppet state, like Jordan or Egypt, nations governed through a corrosive mix of covert intelligence and military support spoon-fed to a permanent oligarchy. Iraq will not accept this.”
It may be one of the ultimate ironies of this tragic period that Ahmad Chalabi, who helped generate the lies that led the United States into the Iraq War, has seen enough of the reality on the ground in Iraq to repudiate the Bush/neocon imperialistic vision still popular in some corners of Washington power.
More so than many of the hawkish Democrats now circling around top foreign policy jobs of the Obama administration, Chalabi sounds like someone who understands the need to “end the mindset” that brought about the catastrophic Iraq War.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on November 25, 2008.