But the speech was notable as much for its venue as its content.
AEI’s foreign policy “scholars” are closely identified with the most unilateralist and pro-Likud elements in the Bush administration. The institute serves as the hub of a tightly knit network of neo-conservative activists and groups, including the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the Center for Security Policy (CSP), the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). Since even before the 9/11 attacks, the AEI and its associates have pushed a series of radical foreign policy proposals to: align U.S. policy in the Middle East with the Likud; cut ties with traditional U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan; oppose negotiations with North Korea; provide direct security guarantees to Taiwan; and treat China as a strategic threat.
In op-eds in the mainstream press and sympathetic rightwing publications and almost constant television appearances,they have aggressively attacked anyone who disagrees with their hard-line positions, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is a favorite target. Bush’s decision to deliver his speech on the Middle East to the AEI, echoing the think tank’s vision for the region, made clear the extent to which the most radical hawks in the administration have prevailed in the internal policy debate.”The fact that Bush would choose AEI, of all audiences, to talk about his vision for a democratic Iraq and peaceful Middle East, has to be profoundly demoralizing to Powell,” noted one Congressional aide whose boss has supported Powell’s efforts to keep the hawks in check.
Right after persuading Bush to realign U.S. policy decisively toward Likud and against Arafat last June, AEI associates led by Richard Perle began their drive against Iraq in earnest. Cloaking their language in Wilsonian rhetoric, they argued that the military ouster of Saddam Hussein would be a first step in “reshaping,” “transforming” and “democratizing” the entire Middle East – which was, not surprisingly, the main subject of Bush’s address. Earlier in 2002, another AEI associate, Joshua Muravchik, called for aggressive pro-democracy policy in the region after the Taliban’s ouster. Citing a survey conducted by Freedom House, a New York-based neo-conservative think tank (which found Arab states to be the least “free”), he argued that “far from pointing toward a relaxation of military efforts [in the war against terror, the survey] suggests that the more terror-loving tyrannies the United States can topple, the better.”
Bush’s speech on Wednesday touched repeatedly on this neo-Wilsonian theme of bringing democracy to the Middle East. “A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region,” he declared. “It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world – or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim – is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life.”
In making his case for war, Bush also reiterated a much-favored claim of the neoconservatives – the alleged connection between Iraq and terrorism. The claim was first made by Richard Perle, who presides over AEI’s foreign policy program, and his cohorts within 48 hours of the 9/11 attack. Perle helped mobilize support for an open letter to Bush by PNAC, whose offices are located on the fifth floor of the AEI building in downtown Washington. Published nine days after the attacks and signed by 40 prominent right-wingers and neo-conservatives, the letter argued that the war on terror must include ousting Saddam Hussein, “even if evidence does not link him to the [Sep 11] attack.”
While the White House has repeatedly linked Hussein to Al Qaeda without evidence, in Wednesday’s speech Bush contented himself with connecting Hussein to Palestinian suicide bombers, to whom he has given small amounts of money. Bush declared, “The passing of Saddam Hussein’s regime will deprive terrorist networks of a wealthy patron that pays for terrorist training, and offers rewards to families of suicide bombers. And other regimes will be given a clear warning that support for terror will not be tolerated.” The “warning” is, in fact, aimed at Syria and Iran – the next on the neoconservative list of targets because of their support of the Hezbollah.
Bush also made clear that his post-war ambitions for the Middle East are just as firmly aligned with AEI’s pro-Likudnik line. In his speech, Bush took clear aim at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, linking the overthrow of Saddam Hussein with the prospects for new leadership in Palestine. He said, “Without this (Iraqi) support for terrorism, Palestinians who are working for reform and long for democracy will be in a better position to choose new leaders: true leaders who strive for peace; true leaders who faithfully serve the people.”
Bush’s speech and choice of venue – delivered amid an intense diplomatic battle over the fate of Iraq and rising tensions throughout the Arab world – was an ominous sign of his administration’s intentions. It was a clear message to Americans and allies alike about just who is framing the nation’s foreign policy today.