It’s all but official. Despite strong opposition from Arab allies, not to mention our NATO partners in Europe, it seems we’re headed for Round 2 of the 1991 Gulf war against Iraq. Not only are U.S. officials once again stepping up their rhetoric against Baghdad, but President George W. Bush himself last Monday issued an ominous three-word answer to the question of what happens if Saddam Hussein does not permit UN inspectors back into his country. “He’ll find out” was the terse reply.

For weeks since the September 11 terrorist attacks, internal warfare raged between the Pentagon and the State Department over widening the war on terrorism to Iraq, even if there was no firm evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the attacks. With the apparent success of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, the balance now appears to be tilting strongly toward the wider-war faction, as Bush’s words, not to mention those of other top administration officials, suggest.

From the outset, the chief architects of the push to get Saddam Hussein have been Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, who, as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, is not technically a member of the Bush administration. As prize students of arch-hawk, Albert Wohlstetter in the 1960s, the two men have been comrades-in-arms in a series of crusades against détente, arms control, and any multilateral effort that might constrain Washington’s freedom of action to do what it wants, where and when it pleases, dating back to the early 1970s.

Within the administration, they generally can count on some heavy-weight actors for support, beginning with Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, as well as Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, Pentagon policy chief Douglas Feith, and several members of the National Security Council staff, including its top aide for global issues and Iran-contra veteran, Elliott Abrams.

This circle of hawks is backed outside the administration by a network of veteran Washington hands whose political savvy, talent for polemics, media contacts, and lust for ideological combat have made them a formidable force on foreign policy since the Vietnam War. With roots in the Scoop Jackson faction of the Democratic Party, these “neo-conservatives” are decidedly aggressive when it comes to supporting Israel, particularly Likud; mostly hostile toward the United Nations; often contemptuous of European “elites;” and absolutely convinced of the fundamental moral superiority and redemptive mission of the United States abroad.

Outside the administration, members of this group include such personalities as former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, “End of History” guru Francis Fukuyama, former CIA chief James Woolsey, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, and Weekly Standard editor, William Kristol, to name a few.

Allied with more traditional Republican unilateralists, like Rumsfeld, many of these same neo-cons–initially organized as the Committee for the Present Danger–played critical roles in the mid-1970s in killing détente with the Soviet Union. During the 1980s, when most of them held senior posts in the Reagan administration and others created the Committee for the Free World, they were the staunchest supporters of violent anticommunist crusades in Afghanistan, Angola, and Central America. Orphaned by Bush Sr., who found their propensity for moral outrage and their affinity for the Likud threatening to his brand of Realpolitik, they stewed and chafed and moaned about a “New World Order” that wasn’t as “unipolar” as it should be. Some even campaigned for Clinton.

Since 1997, their extra-governmental guise has been the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). Like the Committee on the Present Danger 25 years ago, this group–whose two dozen founding members included Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Libby, and Abrams–sees its main enemies as the same pin-striped set at the State Department; overly cautious and conservative military brass; and intelligence analysts who believe that facts should not be tailored to suit policy preferences or paranoia.

Their special enemy at the moment is Secretary Powell, whose successful efforts to gain the release from China of the U.S. spy plane crew detained last Spring on Hainan Island drew cries of humiliation and surrender from PNAC founders, Kristol and his sidekick at the Weekly Standard, Bob Kagan.

Since September 11, however, PNAC’s gun sights have shifted from China to Iraq. In a letter to Bush released just a week after the attacks, 38 PNAC associates, including Perle, called for a sweeping antiterrorist program designed to “remove Saddam Hussein from power even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attacks.” PNAC associates have been particularly contemptuous of Powell’s efforts at forging and sustaining an international coalition behind Washington’s war in Afghanistan.

At the same time, Perle, acting in his quasi-governmental role as chair of the Defense Policy Board, and Woolsey have gone to extraordinary lengths to gather evidence of possible ties between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. In maneuvers reminiscent of the some of the more notorious bureaucratic machinations of anti-détente forces in the mid-1970s, the two men and their Pentagon allies even tried to keep the State Department and the CIA in the dark about their apparently unsuccessful efforts.

While ardent supporters of U.S. military intervention, very few neo-cons actually served in the armed forces, and an even smaller number have ever been elected to public office. Many, like its current director, Gary Schmitt, are veterans of congressional committees or the national security Bureaucracy. When not in government, they generally have perched at high-priced law firms or right-wing think tanks, notably the American Enterprise Institute–where Perle has long been especially active.

PNAC’s vision, as articulated by its founders and associates, anti-apologetically favors a Pax Americana backed by superior military power and a will to confront–unilaterally, if necessary–any emerging or potential regional or global power before it can threaten Washington’s interests or position. Its core ideas appear to be based in large part on a 1992 Pentagon strategy document drafted by Wolfowitz and Libby that was drastically toned down at the insistence of Bush Sr.’s top foreign policy aides, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, before its final publication. It is a vision that is clearly at variance with the more modest and multilateralist sentiments of the vast majority of the American public, according to polls taken over the past decade.

As Bush Jr.’s war on terrorism completes its work in Afghanistan, the debate over Iraq will almost certainly intensify both within and outside the administration. The outcome’s implications, however, go far beyond Iraq or the larger Arab world, because the vision that lies behind the drive for Baghdad is essentially imperial and unabashedly hegemonic. The stakes for the future U.S. role in the world could not be higher.

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