The Axis of Evil cabal and the case of Iran


Exactly what is behind the
phrase “Axis of Evil” that seemingly has surprised observers world round? Was it
a faux pas or the weathervane for a new Middle East policy? With the arrival of
new actors and the new militant political culture at the Pentagon is the
Department of Defense preempting the State Department in selective foreign
policy matters, such as the negotiation of key international treaties and the
U.S. Middle East policy?

In the periphery
and in the Gulf region, there may have been a naïve understanding that,
historically, a Republican administration with its oil company constituents can
consistently provide a more pragmatic and conducive climate to resolve Middle
East issues. Yet, the issue is considerably more complex. In reality, since the
“Reagan Revolution,” Republican administrations have also been full of a
cohesive, yet relatively little known, phenomenon called neo-con
(neo-conservatism)—a political movement legible to the Washington elite insider,
yet invisible to the general public. This political movement is a dense web of
affiliates that is present in numerous spheres and active in different social

As a whole, the
radical right has been striving to appropriate the September 11 atrocities and
to push forward several extremist agendas on the domestic front and in foreign
policy. While initially the stated U.S. government (State Department) objective
after September 11 was the pursuit of those responsible for the terrorist attack
and to locate and destroy the Al-Qaida terrorist network, there were right wing
policy advisors with certain agendas who intended to widen the scope of the U.S.
initiative. There is the impression that the policy advisors brought in by the
Bush/Cheney team, anchored around the Department of Defense (DoD) and the
National Security Council (NSC), struggled to add an Israeli right-wing wish
list to the agenda. A study of these policy advisors illustrates a Neo-con
ideological affiliation and demeanor. This clique is not the result of an
accidental club of “experts.” Historically, and principally, ever since its
inception in the late 1960s it has focused on the issues of foreign policy,
Pax-Zionica through Pax-Americana (more later).

A neo-con
activist, Michael Ledeen holds the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise
Institute. In the Reagan administration he served as an adviser to Oliver North
on the National Security Council. In his column last year (“Time for a Good,
Old-Fashioned Purge” National Review Online, March 8, 2001), Ledeen asked
the Bush team to purge the “environmental whack-os,” “the radical feminazis,”
the “foreign policy types on the National Security Council Staff and throughout
State, CIA, and Defense, who are still trying to create Bill Clinton’s legacy in
the Middle East…”

For several
months after the September 11 tragedy, a dispute ensued between the State
Department and the neo-con policy assets in other agencies such as DoD and NSC.
The recent civilian leadership of the DoD includes such right-wing hawks as Paul
Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense; Doug- las Feith, the Pentagon’s
third-highest official, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy; and Richard Perle,
Chief of the Defense Policy Board. Their agenda echoes neo-con political views
and program. On the other side, Secretary of State Colin Powell and his aides,
Richard Armitage (Deputy Secretary of State) and Richard Haas (Chief of Policy
Planning), and the Near East Bureau of the State Department seem to have a
strategically more global and regional perspective on the issues. They had been
engaged with Iran in the war with the Taliban in the context of the 6+2 Group in
Bonn, leading up to the possibility of a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations and a

A number of
experts such as Gary Sick, the Acting Director of the Middle East Institute who
served in NSC under Ford, Reagan, and Carter, view the deliberate utterance of
the phrase Axis of Evil in the president’s State of the Union address as the
triumph of DoD over the Department of State. Not surprisingly, David Frum, the
author of the address, had been associated with the neo-con movement and the
journal the Weekly Standard. What the recent thrust entailed was an
agenda that went beyond Al-Qaida and those responsible for the September 11
attack. It intended to shift the paradigm and create a linkage with other
international issues, most of which concern Israel, such as the proliferation of
Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in three named “rogue states,” and in the case
of Iran, support for Hamas and the Hizbollah of Lebanon.

This nexus of the
WTC tragedy, and the issue of WMD in Iran and other “rogue nations,” as the new
expanded objective of the war on terrorism, does not seem like a smooth and
reasonable transition to some policymakers and Middle East observers. In the
case of Iran, it was noted that the government had claimed that they have always
been open to inspections by the international nonproliferation bodies. Moreover,
Gary Sick differs with Zalmay Khalilzad, the current director of Near
East/Southwest Asia in the NSC, that Iran had been destabilizing the current
Afghan government.

The phrase Axis
of Evil puzzled those observers who clearly could see its implications in the
internal political situation of Iran, as complex as it is; that is, weakening
the hand of reformist President Khatami and the reform movement at large. But
survival of Khatami’s democratic movement may not be a priority to some. Patrick
Clawson, Director of Research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,
claims Bush was not trying to influence Iranian domestic politics so much as
putting the world on notice that Iran’s leaders have to change course. In the
final analysis, the WMD hardware does not seem to matter as much as the
political positioning of the regime.

The neo-con
elements associated with the right wing think-tank institutes saw “momentous
possibilities” in the Axis of Evil phraseology and were quick to celebrate the
State of the Union address in their writings and to chastise Secretary Powell.
In numerous editorials, William Kristol of the right-wing Weekly Standard
openly criticized Powell’s position before and after the State of the Union
address and his position on war (”Bush v. Powell,” 9/24/2001; “Bush Doctrine
Unfolds,” 3/04/2002). Again, Michael Ledeen in a more recent column (“Iran and
the Axis of Evil,” National Review Online, March 4, 2002) reprimanded
Powell because his position on Iran was not adequately belligerent. Reuel Marc
Gerecht, also of the American Enterprise Institute, in a Weekly Standard
article, dismisses Secretary Powell’s “pragmatist” approach and states, “…this
détentist view of commerce and politics still has currency in establishment
circles.” Gerecht goes further and berates Le Monde Diplomatic and the
Near East bureau of the State Department as having the same reaction to the
State of the Union address as the speaker of Iran’s Majlis, Ayatollah Karroubi.
As the logical extension of this sentiment, Gerecht maintains that unless Iran’s
regime falls, its penchant for unconventional weaponry “will not evanesce.” This
myopic analysis makes the presumption with certainty that a secular democratic
government in Iran—as opposed to an Islamic democratic one—would not have the
inclination to seek strategic parity with the client states in the region.

The Economist
reports on Pentagon’s number two man, Paul Wolfowitz, and his “enthusiasm for
changing governments.” The piece detects Wolfo- witz’s “fingerprints” all over
the State of the Union speech (“Paul Wolfowitz velociraptor,” the Economist,
February 9, 2002). Since the State of the Union address and the perceived threat
of “rogue nations,” the Axis of Evil parlance creates a hype and a psychological
state of belligerence that would accommodate and support dramatic increases in
defense spending. Accordingly, this year’s Pentagon budget was substantially
expanded. Moreover, the Missile Defense Program, which was looming in the
background, seems to be back on the table.


Neo-cons Deconstructed

According to Hadar the
major figures of the movement were initially people like Irving Kristol, later
contributor to the Wall Street Journal; Norman Podhoretz, the present
editor of Commentary—a bastion of neoconservatism—Democratic Party
activist, Ben Wattenberg; Midge Dector, wife of Podhoretz, who, with Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, served as officers of Committee for the Free World.
This neo-con core was later joined by other Cold Warriors and pro-Israeli
advocates, such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Walt and Eugene
Rostow, Richard Perle, Elliot Abrams (Podhoretz’s son-in-law), Kenneth Adelman,
Max Kampelman (aide to Senator Hubert Humphrey), and, of course, Michael Ledeen.
(A good number of them in the Bush/Cheney team are reincarnates of the Reagan

Israel became a
central cause for these neo-cons; and, as Hadar observed, the pivotal axiom was
that “only a militarily strong and perpetually interventionist America can
guarantee the security of Israel.” The civil rights and social justice ambiance
of the 1960’s movements had influenced the philosophy of the Democratic Party,
hence making the rhetoric and platform potentially susceptible to recognition of
self-determination for all peoples which may have included Palestinian rights.
After all, at this stage, the Vietnam War was being criticized on moral grounds.
By virtue of George McGovern representing the antiwar liberal forces within the
Democratic Party in 1972, the neo-cons mobilized support for Henry (Scoop)
Jackson who possessed Cold War, pro-Israel credentials in the party. As a
counterforce to the McGovern victory in 1972, the neo-cons formed the Coalition
for a Democratic Majority (CDM) in 1973. Later on, Richard Perle and Elliot
Abrams were to become top aids to Senator Jackson. President Jimmy Carter did
not include many of the CDM members in his Administration. Certain elements of
his foreign policy agenda—improving the U.S.-Soviet relationship and addressing
the Palestinian matter—gave the neo-cons serious pause. At this juncture, with a
sense of grievance, the neo-cons considered crossing the floor and moving to the
Republican Party, which would undoubtedly welcome the neo-con intellectual
prowess and media connections, and, in fact, did.

Thus the CDM
neo-con members helped shape Ronald Reagan’s agenda and, in return, because
their primary concerns and interests revolved around external issues and
hegemony, they were rewarded with top foreign policy positions in his
Administration. The top brass included Jeane Kirkpartick (contributor to
), Kenneth Adleman, Director of Arms Control; Richard Perle became
the Assistant Secretary of Defense; Richard Pipes (of Harvard) was assigned to
NSC; and Elliot Abrams, the rising star, was placed as Assistant Secretary of

>From their top
positions, they encouraged the Reagan administration to view indigenous issues,
such as the Palestinian statehood/nationalism, the Nicaraguan revolution, and
the South African and the Middle East conflicts from the prism of a Cold War
context—i.e., international communism and Soviet expansionism—were behind most
Third World struggles. Initially, for reasons of ideology, most of the old-guard
conservatives of the Barry Goldwater- Richard Nixon types were weary of these
newcomers, but later came on board, accepted them and continued to work with
them. For some time now, neo-con writers have appeared in William F. Buckley’s
National Review. Segments of the more traditional right, however,
committed to conservative social values had viewed the neo-cons as closet
liberals and considered their presence in the conservative movement as a hostile
takeover. The Old Right accused the neo-cons of over-preoccupation with
interventionist foreign policy and indifference to the size of government and
the “Welfare State.” They object to the appropriation of the mantle of the
conservative movement by the neo-cons. In the foreword to the second edition of
Justin Raimondo’s 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy
of the Conservative Movement
, Patrick J. Buchanan wrote: “With Reagan’s
triumph, the neocons came into their own, into his government and his movement.”
Raimondo considers the neo-cons the “the War Party” or the cowbirds of

There have been
diverse reactions to the Neo-con phenomenon from the liberal and New Left corner
as well. In an historic essay titled, “The Empire Lovers Strike Back,” (The
, March 22, 1986) Gore Vidal took aim at the elders of the neo-con
wave; they in return landed him labels of anti-Semitism. Vidal called the deans
of the movement “publicists for Israel” or “fifth columnists”; he declared that
pro-Israel lobbyists “make common cause with the lunatic fringe” in order to
scare Americans into spending enormous sums of money for defense against the
Soviet Union and for support of Israel. In a way, the neo-con establishment is
an axis of political-lobby/academic-cultural/media/defense- policy network in
pursuit of a clearly defined agenda.


Neo-con Orientalism

In the post-September
tragedy, there appeared a curiosity, a spontaneous public discourse in an effort
to demystify the political, theological, cultural aspects of Islam and Islamic
movements. In contrast, meanwhile, a literature began to resurface centered on a
(dis)-Orientalism that has been associated with the exoticization of Islamic
societies and Islamic history. There are cultural orientalists who possess clear
policy/political preferences; they tend to also polemicize their scholarship to
push for overt political agendas. The neo-con wave is more than political
appointees and lobbies; it is also a matter of culture and attitude. One of the
most referred to in the neo-con ideological pursuits and literature is Bernard
Lewis, the semi-retired Princeton scholar. As pointed out above, during the
Reagan term and based on the Cold War Zeitgeist of the time, the neo-con
propagandists encouraged the Israel-Palestinian conflict to be seen in that
light. After the end of the Cold War, an Huntingtonian clash of civilization
theory struggled to dominate the discourse on East/West relations and
understandings; the sort of ethos that defamiliarizes and demonizes “the other.”
Likewise, it carried over that dualistic Manichean worldview. In this
Gemeinschaft, the Muslim and Arab world would replace the Soviet threat. In this
polarized view of the world, Israel is presented as the bastion of the West. On
the occasion of reviewing Judith Miller’s book for the Nation (“A
Devil Theory of Islam,”
August 12, 1996), Edward Said wrote, “To demonize
and dehumanize a whole culture on the ground that it is (in Lewis’s sneering
phrase) enraged at modernity is to turn Muslims into the objects of a
therapeutic, punitive attention.”

Reuel Marc
Gerecht, an admirer of Lewis, is another Princeton “Orientalist” and a neo-con
scholar at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. In an interview with
the Ha’aretz Magazine, he reveals, “I was a passionate believer in the
Cold War…. One of my professors had ties with the agency and he put me in touch
with them….” (Ronen Bergman, “Their Man in Iran,” August 20, 1999). As a CIA
operations officer for seven years from 1987 to 1994, Gerecht coordinated the
network of agents in and outside Iran. Although in his book Know Thine Enemy
he finds the Agency inept, it is possible that his agenda load was too heavy for
the Agency. Earlier in December, Gerecht stated in an interview with the
(“Unbound,” December 28, 2001), “the only way to douse the fires of
Islamic radicalism is through stunning, overwhelming, military force….” Ann
Coulter, one of the right-wing celebrities wrote, “We should invade their
countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” (“This Is War,”
National Review Online, September 13, 2001).

The Axis of Evil
terminology may have taken many by surprise, but a review of culturally-charged
articles from September 2001 to January 2002 in various journals such as the
New Yorker
, the Atlantic Monthly and, of course, the New Republic
would illustrate that a “Clash of Civilization” and estrangement of “the other
culture” was in the making. Alexander Cockburn once remarked metaphorically that
the offices of the New Republic in Washington are attached to the back of
the Israeli embassy. Although neo-con writers such as Richard Pipes, Daniel
Pipes, and Michael Ledeen are regular contributors to such “mainstream” media as
the Wall Street Journal, the citadel of their journalism is publications
like the New Republic, Commentary, the Weekly Standard
(edited by William Kristol, son of Irving Kristol) and the Washington Times.
William Safire in the New York Times and Charles Krauthammer in the
Washington Post
carry the neo-con torch, deliberating issues. While
conservative hawks have wide access to the media hegemony created by moguls
Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black (Hollinger International, Inc.), issues around
the Middle East and the proliferation of WMD seldom get an objective hearing.

In the fall of
2001, there were initiatives on the part of some right-wing forces that caused
worry for the academia. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) in
which Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Cheney is involved, produced a
document titled “Defense of Civilization” in which it published the names,
colleges, and statements of about 100 academics who seemingly had been critical.
Similarly, Martin Kramer of the pro-Israel institute Washington Institute for
Near East Policy published the monograph “Ivory Towers on Sand” where he blames
Middle East studies in American academia for “incorrect analysis” in not being
able to “predict or explain” Middle East politics, and questions continued
Federal funding.

Even though the
neo-cons’ institutional incarnation was in the liberal Democratic Party, their
reincarnation nonetheless has been in right-wing WASP think-tank institutes such
as the Committee on Present Danger, the Committee for the Free World, the
Project for the New American Century, Heritage Foundation, and the American
Enterprise Institute. A casual study of the advisory boards and officers reveals
the usual neo-con listings—William Kristol, editor of the Weekly
; Carl Gershman, special councilor to Jeane Kirkpatrick while at the
UN, and president of the National Endowment for Democracy which supports
selective causes in the Third World; Donald Rumsfeld; Vice President Cheney’s
Chief of Staff, I. Lewis Libby; Newt Gingrich; William F. Buckley Jr.; Paul
Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.

There exist in
Washington many organizations that are active on behalf of the American Jewish
community and Israel; but none have nearly the influence the neo-cons have in
terms of lobbying impact on behalf of right-wing Israeli hawks. In 1998,
Magazine recognized the America Israel Public Affairs
Committee (AIPAC) as one of the most influential lobbies in the country. In a
recent piece in the Los Angeles Times, Michael Massing describes in
detail this lobbying powerhouse located near Capital Hill, and asserts that the
leadership personalities “…have developed ready access to the U.S. State
Department, Defense Department and National Security Council” (“Conservative
Jewish Groups Have Clout,” March 10, 2002). While serving as Senator,
Hubert Humphrey’s Communist Control Act was drafted by his aide, Max Kampelman,
one of the neo-con elders. Similarly, there was word around that AIPAC drafted
Senator DAmato’s Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. Graham E. Fuller, a former vice-chair
of the National Intelligence Council for long-range forecasting at the CIA,
writes, “And efforts to portray Iran with some analytical balance have grown
more difficult, crowded out by inflamed rhetoric and intense pro-Israeli
lobbying against Tehran in Congress…. Improved U.S. ties with Iran should bring
about a more balanced reckoning of just what Iran is and is not” (Middle East
, October 1998).


Invisibles Take Center Stage

It is no secret that Dick
Cheney nominated his old mentor Rumsfeld to the post of Defense Secretary.
Rumsfeld in turn brought Wolfowitz (who had been Cheney’s right-hand person when
he ran the Pentagon) as his deputy. As hawkish veterans of the Cold War, some of
the Neo-con associates had understandably become proficient in the issues of
strategic nuclear arms and national security; they had been critics of
multilateral arms agreements (détente) and were involved with policy institutes
as vehicles and proponents of those politics. As strong proponents of Star Wars,
the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) during the Reagan administration, it is
believed that they were instrumental in the death of SALT II under the Carter

This leads to
what is known inside the Beltway as the “Wolfowitz cabal.” Deputy Defense
Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, the new chief of the 18-member
advisory panel of Defense Policy Board, were both mentored by arch-hawk nuclear
strategist Albert Wohlseteller of the RAND Corp. in the 1960s. While the Defense
Policy Board is an advisory panel, its new chief, Richard Perle, has an office
in the E-Ring of the Pentagon. Known as “the prince of darkness,” he previously
served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy in
the Reagan administration. In Seymour Hersh’s book on Henry Kissinger, The
Price of Power
, we learn that the FBI wiretaps had heard Richard Perle—then
foreign policy aide to Senator Jackson—passing NSC classified material to the
Israeli Embassy; this infuriated Kissinger. Other additions among the Wolfowitz
circle are Douglas J. Feith; I. Lewis Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff; and,
according to the Economist article, the latter is “Wolfowitz’s

Douglas J. Feith,
previously associated with the Center for Security Policy (CSP), has been
appointed to the position of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. In the Reagan
administration, Feith had served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and a
Middle East specialist on the National Security Council staff. Because he holds
strong pro-Israel views and is perceived as having a partisan position, Feith’s
appointment to that policy post has been a matter of great concern for
Arab-American spokespeople. In 1996, Feith and Richard Perle co-authored a paper
for the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies. In that piece
titled “A Clean Break: a New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” they advised
Israeli leader Netanyahu to halt the land for peace process.

If Elliot Abrams
could serve as NSC’s senior director for democracy and human rights, then it is
not so bizarre to have John Bolton as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control,
and non-proliferation. Apparently Bolton, a Vice President at the American
Enterprise Institute, was forced on the State Department. Earlier, the Institute
had openly opposed the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) treaty that was
signed by the U.S. in 1988. In November 1999, Bolton wrote a short piece for the
American Enterprise Institute titledKofi Annan’s UN Power Grab”—“United
Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has begun to assert that the UN Security
Council is ‘the sole source of legitimacy on the use of force.’ If the United
States allows that claim to go unchallenged, its discretion in using force to
advance its national interests is likely to be inhibited in the future.”

Neo-cons are not
political novices and seem to have little tolerance for dissenters. The NSC is
not immune to this political culture either. In a New Yorker article
Seymour Hersh reports that several regional experts left the NSC “after a series
of policy disputes with the civilian officials in the Pentagon” (“The Debate
Within,” March 11, 2002). Zalmay Khalilzad has replaced Bruce Reidel for the
Middle East portfolio.

The Axis of Evil
vocabulary may appear novel, but clearly the grammar is familiar and legible. It
translates to a $48 billion increase in this year’s Pentagon budget, up to $379
billion annually—the largest defense spending increase in more than two decades.
In terms of strategic policy, it is highly likely we may see the unilateral
abandonment of the 1972 ABM Treaty, the abandonment of the goal of the formal
implementation of Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty START II, and a strong push to
pursue the controversial National Defense Initiative. The recent Nuclear Posture
Review is alarming to many in the sense that it is changing deterrence to
feasibility of nuclear application, viewing unconventional arms almost in
conventional terms, and developing nuclear arsenals for possible use against
non-nuclear states. Whereas the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) does not
prohibit the U.S. from targeting non-nuclear states, it has historically pledged
not to do so, extending what is known as “a negative security assurance.” Under
the new regime, the U.S. is seriously considering not offering a negative
security assurance to non-nuclear states.

During the Reagan
administration, the ultra-hawkish attitude of the neo-con clique produced policy
that found pronouncements and support for “constructive engagement” with
apartheid, support for the Contras in Nicaragua, Duvalier (FRAP) of Haiti, the
Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982, and the proliferation of death squads in El
Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

Undue influence
of hawkish ideologues has alarmed experts and the policy community at large.
There are those who believe that this political culture has created an
atmosphere that obstructs any serious debate on the Middle East. To bulldoze and
elbow a one-sided policy over a long period may lead to a political/moral
tipping point.                           Z