They are a prominent group of Washington conservative intellectuals who helped incubate the ideas behind the Bush administrationâ€™s war in Iraq. Now, they are pressing for regime change in neighboring Syria and Iran. At the center of their passions is Lebanon, a country once riven by sectarian violence, where pro-Western, Christian, and free-market forces hope to rise again. In his January 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush declared, â€œThe gravest danger facing America and the world is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.â€ Building to his point, he offered a grim reckoning to the people of Iraq: â€œYour enemy is not surrounding your country â€“ your enemy is ruling your country. And the day he and his regime are removed from power will be the day of your liberation.â€
It is no secret that many of the ideas that launched the war in Iraq â€“ intertwining weapons of mass destruction and terrorism as evil twins, scorn for the sovereignty of disgraced governments, and belief in the transforming force of American power â€“ have been nurtured and refined at the American Enterprise Institute, a 60-year old Washington think tank. Shortly after the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces, AEI Vice President Danielle Pletka gave a blunt summation of the instituteâ€™s neo-conservative philosophy: â€œThe question of whether we have the right to go in and remove a dictator ought to be a part of our thinking.â€
Now, nearly a month into the American occupation of Iraq, many neoconservatives have set their sights on Syria and Iran. The government of Syriaâ€™s President Bashar al-Assad, in particular, has felt the ire of the Bush administration in the wake of allegations that it provided Saddam Hussein with night-vision equipment and allowed volunteer anti-American fighters cross its border to join the war in Iraq. American officials and neoconservative intellectuals have also charged that Syria is pursuing a chemical and biological weapons program.
In recent days, the administration has tempered its hostility, allowing Secretary of State Colin Powell to pursue diplomacy in Damascus. But Syria remains noncommittal on one key U.S. demand: ending support for Hezbollah, an Islamic militia in southern Lebanon that Washington regards as a terrorist group.
One of the most enthusiastic proponents of Syrian regime change is Michael Ledeen, an AEI scholar. In 1985, as a consultant to the National Security Council, he set up meetings between Israelis and a group of international arms dealers to help broker the arms-for-hostage deal with Iran. In an article posted to AEIâ€™s Web site on April 30, Ledeen warned that Syria and Iran will try to implement a â€œsecond Lebanon strategyâ€ in Iraq by sponsoring thousands of suicide bombers ready to carry out attacks against U.S. and British soldiers. In an op/ed article in Canadaâ€™s National Post in early April, Ledeen wrote, â€œItâ€™s time to bring down the other terror masters. Faster, please.â€
â€œHezbollah is the worldâ€™s leading terrorist group,â€ charges Ledeen. â€œTheyâ€™re an Iranian-created group housed in Syrian-occupied Lebanon.â€
Animosity towards Hezbollah â€“ thought to be responsible for the deaths of 241 American marines killed in a 1983 suicide bombing operation â€“ runs deep in the current administration. â€œThey have a blood debt to us,â€ Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage is reported to have said last year. â€œWeâ€™re not going to forget it.â€
Lebanon, it turns out, is something of a pivot point for the neoconservativesâ€™ hopes and fears for the Middle East. Near the end of the Clinton presidency, a group of intellectuals, business people, and retired military officials who called themselved the Lebanon Study group signed their names to a 48-page document called â€œEnding Syriaâ€™s Occupation of Lebanon: The U.S. Role.â€
Among them were AEI Resident Fellow Richard Perle, an unpaid advisor to the Pentagon; and AEI scholar Douglas Feith and Iran-Contra figure Elliot Abrams, both of whom now hold posts in the Bush administration: Feith, as undersecretary for policy at the Pentagon, and Abrams, as the National Security Councilâ€™s point man for the Middle East. Other signers include Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel of New York, AEI Senior Fellow Jeane Kirkpatrick, and New York oil financier Philip Epstein.
â€œEnding Syriaâ€™s Occupation of Lebanonâ€ synthesizes ideas of American triumphalism, Christian exceptionalism, and fear of weapons of mass destruction. In its sequencing, it suggests the path to war with Iraq by urging sanctions against Syria, backed by military force. Beginning with the premise that â€œLebanon occupies a strategically vital corner of the world,â€ the study goes on to warn of dangers to the Christians of the country. “Preserving Lebanonâ€™s Christian communities,” the studyâ€™s authors wrote, â€œbecomes the cornerstone for safeguarding the countryâ€™s special freedoms that uplift all its communities.â€
The tract ends with a bracing call for renewed American assertiveness: “The Vietnam legacy and the sour memories of the dead American marines in Beirut notwithstanding, the U.S. has entered a new era of undisputed military supremacy, coupled with an appreciable drop in human losses on the battlefield. But this opportunity will not wait, for as WMD capabilities spread, the risks of such action will rapidly grow. If there is to be decisive action, it will have to be sooner rather than later.”
The document was co-authored by Ziad Abdelnour and Daniel Pipes. Abdelnour is a New York financier with dual Lebanese-American citizenship, and president of the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon. Pipes, as president of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, is a prolific editorialist known for his staunch support of Israel.
Today, Pipes deflects questions about whether he would support American ground forces marching on Damascus. â€œThatâ€™s a red herring,â€ he says. â€œNobody in the administration has been talking about military action against Syria.â€
Abdelnour comes from a prominent Lebanese family: his father, an industrialist, and his uncle are former members of the Lebanese parliament. Abdelnour founded the USCFL in 1997 for the purpose of â€œeducating the public as to Lebanonâ€™s strategic and moral significance as an ally of the United States and an outpost of Western values in the Middle East,â€ according to the groupâ€™s Web site. His resume cites his â€œextensive experience in conceptualizing and incorporating worldwide geopolitical and intelligence data into effective strategic business initiatives.â€
While several members of the Lebanon Study Group have embedded themselves in the Bush administration, the latest policy developments have come from Capitol Hill. Last month, Rep. Engel, as the lone member of the legislative branch in the group, introduced the â€œSyria Accountability & Lebanese Sovereignty Actâ€ in the House. In threatening Syria with sanctions unless it withdraws from Lebanon and ends its support of Hezbollah, the language of the bill bears the stamp of â€œEnding Syriaâ€™s Occupation of Lebanon.â€ On May 2, Senators Rick Santorum and Barbara Boxer the bill in the Senate, and an earlier version has been endorsed by the Christian Coalition.
â€œNow that Saddam Husseinâ€™s regime is defeated, itâ€™s time to get serious about Syria,â€ said Engel in a prepared statement. â€œThe United States must not tolerate Syriaâ€™s continued support for the most deadly terrorist organizations in the world, its development of weapons of mass destruction, and its occupation of Lebanon.â€
The charge of Syrian occupation of Lebanon is a fault line of historical grievance in the Middle East, just as it is in the West Bank and Gaza for Palestinians and Israelis. Syria has 20,000 troops stationed in Lebanon and is the only foreign military that remains there since the U.S. Marines and UN international peacekeepers withdrew in the 1980s, and the Israeli military was driven out by Hezbollah in May 2000. The claim by activists such as Abdelnour that Lebanon is an occupied nation undermines the legitimacy of its government, a precarious religious power-sharing arrangement headed by Christian President Emile Lahoud.
The issue of Hezbollah is also a cause of deep controversy in regional political contentions. The Islamist militia, once backed by Iran, carried out a successful war of guerilla attacks and suicide bombings against the Israeli military. Hezbollah serves as a model for Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza. Asked by Secretary Powell to crack down on Hezbollah, Lahoud recently responded, â€œHezbollah is a respected and legitimate part of the Lebanese people and government, and is not a terrorist group.â€
Outside the corridors of power in Washington, some geopolitical analysts echo that sentiment. â€œThe Bush group ignores all the medical, educational and humanitarian work Hezbollah does,â€ wrote media activist Sam Hamod in a recent article in CounterPunch magazine, â€œin spite of the fact that the constitutionally elected and representative Lebanese government recognizes them as an important part of the government and recognizes them as the guardians of the south of Lebanon against Israel.â€
But that view is not widely held in the United States. Admiral Stansfield Turner, who served as director of the CIA under President Carter, and is considered a foreign policy moderate, says of Hezbollah and its Palestinian counterpart Hamas: â€œThose groups are impediments to democracy in the sense that if they see progress made theyâ€™re going to retaliate and inflame tensions. Getting Syria to throttle down its support for these groups is important.â€
Flynt Leverett, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution who recently served in the National Security Council, shares the neoconservativesâ€™ contention that Syria is a threat to U.S. interests as a supporter of terrorism that has developed weapons of mass destruction. But he cautions against their aggressive rhetoric of â€œregime change.â€ â€œGiven Mr. Assadâ€™s political constraints, sticks alone will not produce more than short-term tactical adjustments in Syrian behavior,” he wrote recently in the New York Times op/ed pages.
While the Bush administrationâ€™s approach to Syria is being negotiated between the State Department and the Pentagon, the American Enterprise Institute is also keeping its attention on Iran. On May 6, the think tank convened a star-studded cast of neocon intellectuals and policymakers for a “black coffee briefing” entitled “The Future of Iran: Mullahcracy, Democracy and the War on Terror.”
The panel included scholar Bernard Lewis, whose books on Arab and Islamic history are said to be on Vice President Dick Cheneyâ€™s reading list; Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, who serves as the ranking member of the Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Subcommittee; Uri Lubrani, a senior advisor to the Israeli Defense Ministry and former Israeli government coordinator for South Lebanon; Morris Amitai of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs; and the AEIâ€™s Ledeen.
For all the risks of resentment toward American power and sectarian strife in the region, the neoconservatives maintain an idealistic faith that the attraction of the democracy will smooth over the bitter realities of war. â€œArabs want the same thing as you and I,â€ said the AEIâ€™s Pletka. â€œThey want a better life for their children, and they want to be able to address their grievances without getting shot.â€