Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Scooter Libby and neoconservatism

Since today is Scooter's sentencing day, I thought I would celebrate by posting a link to this article about him in the current (June 2007) American Prospect, The Apprentice by Anthony David 05/20/07. (As of this writing, the article is behind subscription but the Prospect makes all its articles available two or three weeks or so after the current issue is published.)

David looks specifically at how Scooter received the neoconservatism wisdom from one of its godfathers, Albert Wohlstetter. It's important in showing how the Bush Doctrine of preventive war grew directly out of the nuclear first-strike doctrine advocated by hardliners like Wohlstetter. Along the way, he touches on how Wohlsttetter influenced Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle (the "Prince of Darkness", as his admirers nicknamed him), Ahmad Chalabi, Zalmay Khalilzad, Douglas Feith, Francis Fukuyama and David Wurmser. David writes of Wohlstetter's justification for a first-strike nuclear doctrine:

Wohlstetter singled out the doctrine of "mutual assured destruction" (MAD) as proof of the national-security elite's dangerous anachronism. The "realists" believed that nuclear weapons had made war obsolete. Only an "insane adventurer" would launch an attack, and professional diplomats assumed that the totalitarian beast in Moscow would probably behave rationally. But, argued Wohlstetter, the Soviet Union was not necessarily a rational actor: The Russians had lost 20 million people during World War II; there was no reason to assume they wouldn't risk losing many more to become the premier global power.

Wohlstetter argued that scientific progress in the hands of such a tyrannical regime would pose an impossible threat to both American security and the cause of human liberty. In the thermonuclear age, the possibility, however remote, that a tyrant could risk a nuclear strike required that tyranny abroad be contained and eventually defeated. (my emphasis)
Since nuclear weapons are particularly fear-inducing, that "however remote" sets a very low bar for initiating nuclear war. The US never adopted such a policy of nuclear preventive war.

So the terms of this particular dispute remained relatively obscure in public discussion.

I need to digress at this point for a couple of definitional points. The US during the Cold War would never make a blanket promise that we would never make "first use" of nuclear weapons. That was largely because the NATO defensive strategy in Europe assumed that an initial Soviet conventional attack on western Europe would be countered by US use of "tactical" battlefield nuclear weapons. That's a very different matter than planning for a preventive strike.

Also, I wish people writing articles like David's would be more careful about the terms "preventive war" and "preemptive war"; David's use of "preemptive" in the sentence referring to the Peace of Westphalia is incorrect. The terms are separately defined in international law, the difference being that "preventive" war is equivalent to illegal aggressive war, while "preemptive" war specifically refers to an attack meant to avert an immiment threat. The Six Day War of which today is the 40th anniversary is a classic example of a "preemptive" war, in this case launched by Israel in the face of strong evidence that Arab armies were about to attack them.

David goes on to describe a further development in Wohlstetter's strategic thinking:

But the most compelling aspect of Wohlstetter's mixture of apocalyptic and utopian thinking, and the reason he won over a devoted band of talented followers, was his radical moral message of the need for a new band of leaders to battle tyranny using policies that would spread liberal democratic values. The logic behind MAD precluded any attempt to defeat evil. The true liberal, Wohlstetter taught, must not be resigned to the enslavement of half the planet; he must desire, and plan for, the triumph of freedom, if need be through the use of tactical nuclear bombs. And the leaders capable of such a daring expansion of American military power, he firmly believed, were not Establishment men trained in the old tradition of diplomacy and foreign policy, speaking the obsolete language of détente; they were a new breed of activist intellectuals who would give Western democracies "a new image of ourselves in a world of persistent danger." (my emphasis)
This is also an interesting factual tidbit about Paul Wolfowitz and his mentor, Wohlstetter:

After the Israeli-Arab War, in 1967, just as his young protégé was casting about for a dissertation topic, Wohlstetter added a new ingredient to his theoretical mix: the danger of nuclear proliferation in dangerously unstable corners of the globe, in particular the Middle East. One key cause for the heightened tension between Egypt and Israel leading up to the Six Day War was the Israeli nuclear facility at Dimona, in the Negev Desert. After the war, the Johnson administration -- assuming that the recurrent wars in the region were rational fights over water and land -- proposed building three nuclear plants, one each for Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, to desalinate water and bring agriculture to millions of acres of desert. The scheme was called "A Proposal for Our Time."

Wohlstetter saw in the proposal the same old delusions: The bureaucrats were blind to the dangers of nuclear technology and the irrationality of authoritarian regimes. He argued that there would be little to stop these nations from diverting some of the materials from their civilian reactors toward the development of nuclear weapons. Then he traveled to Israel, where he got his hands on a raft of top-secret documents showing how the Egyptians were planning to use the American peace initiative to construct a nuclear device. He returned to the University of Chicago and handed the documents over to Wolfowitz, who used them as the basis for his dissertation. (my emphasis)
David doesn't go into some of the other major influences on the body of thought that came to be known as "neoconservatism". From Trotskyism, they took the notion of the value of wars of liberation and the supposedly redeeming power of violence. From the philospher Leo Strauss they took the notion that deceit on a grand scale is a necessary part of sound statesmanship.

But the link of neocon and Cheney-Bush administration preventive-war doctrine to nuclear-first-strike thinking is a important link, and one that under-appreciated. And that's the focus of David's article on Scooter.


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