Despite his campaign promises, over a year into his presidency, Obama has been unable to deliver the change that Americans and the world alike had hoped for. Part of the problem is that neocon ideology is alive and well, reaching into the corridors of the White House, and dominating the airwaves.
Indeed, back in January 2009, after Obama had just announced his appointments, prominent neoconservative icons, intellectuals and ideologues were virtually jumping for joy. Military historian (and McCain campaign staffer) Max Boot, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and regular contributor to the Washington Post and New York Times, declared: "I am gobsmacked by these appointments, most of which could just as easily have come from a President McCain." David Horowitz, editor of FrontPageMag.com and a regular columnist for Salon.com, rebuked sceptical conservative activists: "Now, as president-elect he has just formed the most conservative foreign policy team since John F. Kennedy, one well to the right of Bill Clinton. Where is your gratitude for that?"
And even earlier during the campaign period, Robert Kagan, co-founder of the notorious Bush-affiliated Project for a New American Century (PNAC) and columnist for the Washington Post and New York Times Syndicate, hailed "Obama, the interventionist"; while staunch Bush supporter Christopher Hitchens, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, demanded that readers "Vote for Obama" due to McCain and Palin being a collective "disgrace."
Why did so many leading neoconservative commentators, who previously supported the Bush administration's doctrine of unilateral pre-emptive global warfare, come running to Obama's doorstep?
Over the last few decades particularly after 9/11 neocons have increasingly come to prominence in the American policymaking establishment. Despite Bush's massive unpopularity by 2008, his administration on the one hand allowed neocons to consolidate their penetration of the foreign policy and media circuit; and on the other, was buttressed by right-wing pundits who exploited their media access to support even its most absurd claims.
Neocon commentators were instrumental, for instance, in promulgating the widely debunkedallegation that 9/11 chief bomber Mohamed Atta was linked to Saddam Hussein, seized upon by the Bush administration to justify the war on Iraq as part of the war on al-Qaeda terrorism. As late as November 2008, 52 per cent of Americans still believed that "Saddam Hussein had strong links to Al Qaeda" down from 64 per cent in 2006.
Despite such neocon myths being totally discredited, their promulgators even now continue to get air time and print space. In November 2008, Weekly Standard columnist Stephen F. Hayes who wrote an entire book trying to prove the non-existent Saddam al-Qaeda link and whose official biography of Dick Cheney was described by American Prospect as "fawning", "turgid, soul-killing" and "meaningless" was hired by CNN as a political contributor. Frank Gaffney a founding member of PNAC and regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Times among other publications, who also advocated this myth during the war was able to come on MSNBC's respected Hardball show in March 2009 and tell host Chris Matthews that the perpetrators of 9/11 "had, in fact, collaborative relationships with Iraqi intelligence."
"They are effectively insulated from failure," observed Harvard political scientist and neocon antagonist Stephen Walt on this curious phenomenon. "Even if you've totally screwed up in office and things you've advocated in print have failed, there are no real consequences, either professionally or politically. You... continue to agitate or appear on talk shows as if nothing has gone wrong at all." One explanation for this persistence is that despite serious differences, left and right of the American political spectrum have increasingly converged on their diagnosis of the central goal of US foreign policy: maintaining US pre-eminence. They therefore also agree that the central challenge for American foreign policy is how to do this in the face of trends of potential decline due to geopolitical, financial, ecological and energy crises. This convergence is illustrated in the "common cause" many top Obama advisers had made with neocon "war-minded think-tank hawks."
A new study by left-wing and right-wing academics at Manchester University, Birkbeck College and University College London's Institute for the Study of the Americas, New Directions in US Foreign Policy, finds that "American foreign policy has not changed course after the Bush years." On issues like Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo, actual policies have been markedly similar. UCL Professor Rob Singh, a neoconservative, points out that "when you look at substance over style and rhetoric, you can legitimately question the extent of change. We all agree that militarism is a crucial part of US strategy, along with a commitment to robust free trade." No wonder Robert Kagan could write so approvingly in the Wall Street Journal citing the ongoing troop presence in Iraq, escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, military actions in Yemen and Somalia, and worldwide expansion of military bases that "the US under Barack Obama remains a martial nation."
It is no surprise then that neocon pundits continue to retain undeserved influence and even credibility. As the longevity of the Saddam al-Qaeda "meme' shows, their influence on public perceptions can be indelible, and disastrous.
In one of the latest episodes, Christopher Hitchens lashed out at American essayist, dissident and one-time JFK adviser, Gore Vidal, describing him as a crackpot for, among other things, noting that bin Laden is "still not the proven mastermind" of 9/11. Right-wing bloggers everywhere rejoiced. "Vidal is another old writer who won't last much longer. After he croaks, Christopher Hitchens will need a new whipping boy," said one. "Thank you Mr. Hitchens for skewering that crackpot," said another. Yet as I pointed out in my rejoinder to Hitchens in the latest Independent on Sunday, "it would seem the FBI agree with Gore, not Hitchens: according to Sonoma State University's Project Censored, one of the top 25 censored news stories of 2008 was that "He [bin Laden] has not been formally indicted and charged in connection with 9/11 because the FBI has no hard evidence connecting bin Laden to 9/11.' Clearly, this doesn't prove bin Laden wasn't the mastermind, but should give us pause for thought about why the evidence isn't so forthcoming."
Indeed, Hitchens himself is not averse to "conspiracy-mongering" when it suits. He was among the group of discredited pundits trumpeting the neocon conspiracy theory that 9/11 chief bomber Mohamed Atta was linked to Saddam Hussein.
Hitchens and his ilk have now set their sights on Iran. In a recent column for Slate, Hitchens demands that the US government "Abolish the CIA' due to successive National Intelligence Estimates failing to find evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme in true conspiratorial fashion, "no evidence' constitutes proof that Iran is "lying", and that the CIA is "worse than useless - it's a positive menace. We need to shut the whole thing down and start again.'
Similarly, neocon icon Daniel Pipes early last week urged Obama to order the US military "to destroy Iran's nuclear-weapon capacity" as a "dramatic gesture" that would "change public perception of him as a light-weight" Just as 9/11 caused voters to forget George W. Bush's meandering early months, a strike on Iranian facilities would dispatch Obama's feckless first year down the memory hole and transform the domestic political scene."
Does such alarmism play a political function? In early 2008, a US Presidential Finding uncontested by Democrat members of the House affirmed that the CIA was financing covert operations against Iran to the tune of $300 million. Robert Gates, the architect of Bush's Iran strategy, remains Obama's defence secretary. US national security journalist Gareth Porter has recently confirmed from senior US and German intelligence officials that purported evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme including the IAEA's "alleged studies' as well as an alleged Iranian "neutron initiator' document unearthed by the Times was forged. Former CIA counterterrorism official Philip Giraldi told Porter that the media had frequently published "false intelligence" on Iraq and Iran from pro-Israeli sources.
The lesson is obvious. The continued public prevalence of neocon discourse on foreign policy not only throws fuel on the fire; it imagines smoke when there is no fire. But as we have learnt from the Iraq-WMD farce, now unravelling in Iraq's Chilcot Inquiry, such alarmism is part of the problem, not the solution.