Ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s new memoir offers the expected rationalizations for his joining in an illegal, aggressive war against Iraq, even to the point of quibbling about the death toll. But Blair does reveal how much more war was favored by Vice President Dick Cheney and the neocons.
In A Journey: My Political Life, Blair depicts Cheney as believing the United States was at war not only with Islamic terrorists but with “rogue states that supported them” and that “the only way of defeating [this threat] was head-on, with maximum American strength.”
Cheney wanted forcible “regime change” in all Middle Eastern countries that he considered hostile to U.S. interests, according to Blair.
“He would have worked through the whole lot, Iraq, Syria, Iran, dealing with all their surrogates in the course of it – Hezbollah, Hamas, etc.,” Blair wrote. “In other words, he [Cheney] thought the world had to be made anew, and that after 11 September, it had to be done by force and with urgency. So he was for hard, hard power. No ifs, no buts, no maybes.”
Over the years, there have been indications of this larger neoconservative strategy to attack America’s – and Israel’s – “enemies” starting with Iraq and then moving on to Syria and Iran, but rarely has this more expansive plan for regional war been shared explicitly with the American public.
Usually, the scheme could be found only in obscure neocon policy papers or as part of Washington scuttlebutt. After the Iraq invasion, a favorite neocon joke was whether to next head west toward Damascus or east to Tehran with the punch line, “real men go to Tehran.”
Under this neocon plan, once “regime change” was achieved in Syria and Iran, then Israel’s front-line adversaries, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, would be left impoverished and isolated. Israel could dictate settlement terms to the Palestinians and incorporate the Jewish settlements on prime West Bank land into a Greater Israel.
The early outlines of this aggressive concept for remaking the Middle East predated the 9/11 attacks by half a decade, when a group of American neocons, including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, went to work for Israeli Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu during his 1996 campaign for prime minister.
The neocon strategy paper, called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” advanced the idea that only regime change in hostile Muslim countries could achieve the necessary “clean break” from the diplomatic standoff that had followed inconclusive peace negotiations.
Under the “clean break,” Israel would no longer seek peace through mutual understanding and compromise, but rather through confrontation, including the violent removal of leaders such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
The plan called Hussein’s ouster “an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right,” but also one that would destabilize the Assad dynasty in Syria and thus topple the power dominoes into Lebanon, where Hezbollah might soon find itself without its key Syrian ally. Iran also could find itself in the cross-hairs of “regime change.”
But what the “clean break” needed was the military might of the United States, since some of the targets like Iraq were too far away and too powerful to be defeated even by Israel’s highly efficient military. The cost in Israeli lives and to Israel’s economy from such overreach would have been staggering.
In 1998, the U.S. neocon brain trust pushed the “clean break” plan another step forward with the creation of the Project for the New American Century, which urged President Bill Clinton to seek the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
However, Clinton would only go so far, maintaining a harsh embargo on Iraq and enforcing a “no-fly zone” which involved U.S. aircraft conducting periodic bombing raids. Still, with Clinton or his heir apparent, Al Gore, in the White House, a full-scale invasion appeared out of the question.
The first key political obstacle was removed when the neocons helped engineer George W. Bush’s ascension to the presidency in Election 2000. However, the path was not fully cleared until al-Qaeda terrorists attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, leaving behind a political climate across America for war and revenge.
Though Hussein had no hand in 9/11 and rejected al-Qaeda’s religious extremism, Bush and Blair clambered onboard for an invasion of Iraq. Their differences were mostly tactical, such as whether to present the WMD case to the United Nations or to simply act unilaterally with the so-called “coalition of the willing.”
According to Blair’s memoir, hardliner Cheney opposed going to the UN at all, but Blair argued that the move was politically necessary and won over Bush during a visit to Camp David on Sept. 7, 2002.
“Once George declared he was in favour of going the UN route, the visit relaxed,” Blair wrote. “Dick Cheney had been there for part of the time, and made it clear he was not for going down the UN route. He was unremittingly hard line.”
But Blair explained that Cheney’s aggressive attitude differed from the Bush-Blair approach only by degree, not fundamentally. In that regard, Blair said he considered Cheney as unfairly maligned by progressives and many centrists.
“To those on the left, he is, of course, an uncomplicated figure of loathing,” Blair wrote. “Even for the middle ground, they tend to reach for the garlic and crucifixes. You have to go pretty far right to find Dick’s natural constituency.
“My take on him was different from that of most people. I thought he had one central insight which was at least worth taking seriously. He believed, in essence, that the U.S. was genuinely at war. ... [And his response was] we’re coming after you, so change or be changed.”
Though acknowledging that Cheney’s “attitude terrified and repelled people,” Blair expressed a degree of solidarity with the former vice president, saying:
“I did not think [Cheney’s position] was as fantastical as conventional wisdom opined. It is one struggle. Our enemy has an ideology. It does threaten us. The ultimate answer is in the spread of democracy and freedom. It is even possible to conceive of this, in different language, as being a progressive position, certainly where removing someone like Saddam was concerned.
“My problem with the way he put it and wanted to do it was that the manner of doing it was incomplete. Precisely because the war was based loosely around an ideology, the fight had to be waged and won at the level of ideas and in a way that would appeal not to us, but to those who had fallen or might fall prey to that ideology.
“In other words, it couldn’t be a hard-power strategy alone. It had to encompass more than military might. It had to engage the people out in the Middle East, in the Muslim world, and had to build alliances within that world.
“This wasn’t some namby-pamby peacenikery; it was a critical part of winning.”
In other words, Blair saw Cheney’s determination to overthrow U.S.-disliked leaders in the Middle East as more a problem of PR tactics than core strategy.
Despite the widespread impression that Cheney’s grandiose neocon scheme for remaking the Middle East through warfare represented an extreme vision, Blair indicated that he and other supposed moderates shared Cheney’s broader determination to replace anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli governments across the Middle East with more compliant regimes under the banner of “democracy.”
That, in turn, suggests the danger of a wider regional war has not fully abated.
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 September 7, 2010.