If Secretary of State Colin Powell, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the U.S. public, and other moderates ever had any doubts about the extent to which the most hard-line hawks have captured U.S. foreign policy, President George W. Bush’s Wednesday night address on democratizing Iraq and the Arab Middle East should have dispelled them.

While Bush’s words did not go much beyond what lesser officials have been saying for several months, where he said them–the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)–spoke volumes about the trajectory of his views. More than any other think tank in Washington, AEI and its associates, led by Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle, have acted as the public vanguard of the most unilateralist and hawkish views adopted by the Bush administration since its inception, and particularly since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

With long-standing and unusually close ties to the hawks clustered around Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, Perle and other AEI neoconservatives have led the charge in the media and Washington policy circles toward war with Iraq and toward aligning the administration’s overall Mideast policy with that of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Working with William Kristol, the chairman of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which is also housed in AEI’s building in downtown Washington, DC, Perle and fellow AEI “scholars” Michael Ledeen, Tom Donnelly, Marc Reuel Gerecht, and Joshua Muravchik, among others, have also repeatedly assailed administration “realists” led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, and CIA and State Department experts who have argued that the administration’s plans for “transforming” the Middle East without pressing Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians risks destabilizing the entire region and strengthening the appeal of Osama bin Laden and other radical Islamists.

“The fact that Bush would choose AEI, of all audiences, to talk to 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. Similarly, friendly Arab governments, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are likely to be taken aback by Bush’s choice of venue. “All the Arab leaders see Perle and his friends in the Pentagon as responsible for U.S. policy in the Middle East,” according to one Egyptian journalist here. “They all see Perle as an agent of Likud.”

Indeed, Rumsfeld and Bush were forced to distance themselves from Perle for a short period last summer after media leaks about his role, as chairman of Rumsfeld’s hawk-dominated Defense Policy Board (DPB), in inviting a French analyst to brief the DPB on the Saudi royal family’s alleged support for Islamist terrorists and the necessity of ousting it from power.

More recently, Perle and some of his AEI associates reportedly briefed senior military officers in the Pentagon, during which they depicted Israel as permanently in control of the West Bank, Jordan as Palestine, and Iraq as the seat of the Hashemite Kingdom that now controls Jordan–precisely the Middle East transformation Sharon’s Likud Party has long favored.

That solution, of course, was not the one featured in Bush’s remarks Wednesday night, although they were sure to cause great satisfaction to his audience. Instead he dwelled on the neo-Wilsonian themes that AEI and its neocon network have used over the past seven months in particular to persuade public opinion that an invasion of Iraq will constitute the first step in democratizing and bringing peace to Middle East. Bush pledged to “ensure that one brutal dictator is not replaced by another” in post-invasion Iraq and argued that a U.S. victory there “could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace.”

“The passing of Saddam Hussein’s regime” he said, “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.” That passage closely tracked recommendations made by Perle and 39 other neoconservative and right-wing personalities associated with AEI and PNAC who signed a public letter on September 20, 2001, calling for Bush to extend any war against Al Qaeda to Iraq “even if evidence does not link him to the (Sep 11) attack;” cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA); strike at Hezbollah in Lebanon; and retaliate against Iran and Syria if they do not stop supplying Hezbollah.

Echoing more of the neocon rhetoric that has come to the fore in recent months as a major justification for war against Iraq, Bush insisted there was no reason that Iraqis and other Arabs should not enjoy the blessings of freedom and democracy like everyone else. “There was a time when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong,” he said. “Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken The nation of Iraq is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom.”

“A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region,” he went on, echoing the democratic domino theory that Anthony Cordesman of the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies–a prominent realist analyst close to the State Department and the CIA–has stated “crosses the line between neoconservative and neo-crazy.”

As to Israel-Palestinian peace, he said, “Success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace, and set in motion progress towards a truly democratic Palestinian state. …Without this outside 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.” As for Israel, “(its) new government–as the terror threat is removed and security improves–will be expected to support the creation of a viable Palestinian state and to work as quickly as possible toward a final status agreement,” Bush said, surprisingly omitting any mention of the three-year time line, which he set for Palestinian independence last June.

“As progress is made toward peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end,” he noted, departing explicitly from 35 years of U.S. policy that demanded an immediate and unconditional halt to all settlement activity as either a violation of international law or, since the Reagan administration, “an obstacle to peace.” Bush also reiterated his support for the “road map” that is being worked out by the so-called Quartet–the U.S., the UN, the European Union, and Russia–to expedite Palestinian independence and ensure Israeli security.

The administration has resisted pressure from the other members of the Quartet to make the road map–which Sharon has rejected as meaningless–public as a way of offering hope to the Palestinian population that a viable, independent state is within their grasp, and indeed, even the New York Times wrote Thursday that Bush’s rhetorical support for the initiative appeared to amount to little more than “lip service.”

That seemed to be the reaction of the AEI audience, too. The applause was enthusiastic.

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