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     Nov 1, 2005
The unraveling of the Cheney cabal
By Ehsan Ahrari

The "Cheney cabal" that Lawrence Wilkerson, aide to (former secretary of state) Colin Powell, has recently accused of "highjacking" US foreign policy, might eventually be brought to light, now that one of its chief architects, I Lewis "Scooter" Libby, is facing a public trial and the prospect of a stiff sentence. He has been indicted on three counts of perjury and lying under oath about the disclosure of the name of an undercover Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent to the media.

Those who read James Mann's highly underpublicized, but excellent book, The Rise and Fall of the Vulcans, have known about the power that the neo-conservatives (aka Vulcans) wielded in President George W Bush's White House. The indictment of Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, only confirms

the essence of that cabal. What is still to come out are its details.

The real plan to invade Iraq was originally hatched in 1991, when then-president, George H W Bush, was at the helm. Libby was only one of its planners. The "big enchiladas" were Cheney, who then served as secretary of defense, and Paul Wolfowitz, who served as under secretary of defense. Current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld became an active participant as someone who was then outside the government. Their plan to oust Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait was reportedly far riskier than the one promoted by then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell. Bush Senior apparently vetoed the Cheney et al's plan and gave a nod to Powell's.

The neo-conservative architects of the invasion of Iraq were "deeply disappointed" when Bush Senior decided against the hot pursuit of the retreating Iraqi forces from Kuwait. They knew they had lost only one battle. They shelved their original plan, but only to use it in the future.

With the election of George W Bush and Cheney, the neo-cons were provided a golden opportunity to resurrect the plan to oust Saddam. The terrorist attack of September 11 turned out to be the icing on the cake, from their viewpoint. Bush had no experience in foreign policy and as such he heavily relied on his vice president, who aggressively staked out a major role in US national security policy. He was to become the most influential vice president in American history.

Cheney had an elaborate strategy in the realm of foreign policy. According to Mann's book and other reports, instead of hiring foreign-policy specialists, the vice president "turned to noted neo-conservatives and hawks, including Libby, who had been at the heart of the conservative movement during their eight years in the political wilderness [during the two terms of Bill Clinton]".

As Mann points out, even though the initial military target of the US in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks was Afghanistan, Wolfowitz (then deputy defense secretary) and Libby "laid out the case for the invasion of Iraq just one week after the Twin Towers fell".

Libby was also reportedly responsible for the first draft of Powell's now infamous presentation to the United Nations a month before the US invasion of Iraq. Powell discarded that draft and developed his own, carefully checking and reworking the questionable intelligence data. As it turned out, even that intelligence data was way off the mark. Only recently, Powell admitted during a TV interview that he would be long remembered for that erroneous speech.

The chief reason underlying the current unmaking of the "Iraqi cabal" is the overriding nature of secrecy under which it operated. Only a small group of "true believers" participated in it. More to the point, they were driven by the notion that Bush so unequivocally stated to the world, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." The domestic application of that assertion meant that anyone who opposed the then-impending US invasion of Iraq was envisaged as an "enemy". That frame of reference also applied assiduously as a litmus test of anyone's patriotism, especially those who worked for the US government at any level. Allies were derided as "Old Europe" versus "New Europe", based on the fact that they opposed or supported the invasion.

The neo-cons, at least temporarily, got away with the invasion of Iraq for a number of reasons. First, it was carried out by spuriously linking it with transnational terrorism. Even though there was no connection between Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda and Saddam, the US citizenry believed its president when he made claims to that effect.

Second, the American media, internationally known for its hard-nosed commitment to truth and investigative reporting, rolled over and played patsy to the Bush administration's persistent exaggerations and unproved claims about Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction-related activities.

Third, Saddam was such a nefarious character that not many anywhere in the world felt comfortable arguing that his regime should not be overthrown. And finally, there existed - as it does even to this day - an absence of Muslim or Arab leadership that had the moral standing or courage to stand up to the US's blatant move to violate international law by using the then highly questionable "evidence" that Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction.

Even within the domestic environment of the US, those who opposed the impending invasion of Iraq could only use constitution-based arguments to make a case against the ouster of a sovereign leader in the presence of flimsy or non-existent evidence. In that duration, top national-security aides were crisscrossing the country and parroting Bush's highly contentious statement, "Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof - the smoking gun - that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."

Aside from their inordinate commitment to secrecy, the undoing of the neo-con cabal is caused by their resolve to destroy the reputation of those who questioned the very basis of going to war with Iraq. Libby's downfall came as a result of his alleged persistent involvement in disclosing the name of an undercover CIA agent (Valerie Plame) because her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, publicly questioned the underlying reason of going to war against Iraq. For a supposed smart lawyer, Libby is accused of consistently lying about it under oath.

What are the larger implications of the Cheney cabal? To start with, the US has gotten itself in a huge mess by invading Iraq, by brandishing highly questionable "evidence" and by telling the world to take a hike if it did not like its actions. Now, as US casualties surpass 2,000 in Iraq, the international community seems to be sending the exact same message to the Bush administration.

A war that was carried out with no regard for world opinion or international law has created such a quagmire for the US that it simply has to extricate itself by eradicating the Iraqi insurgency. However, that eradication will come with a human cost that no US administration will be able to pay. How long can the Bush administration prolong its staying power in Iraq at the same rate of American casualties? The answer, simply, is not very long. That very fact may be good news to those who wish America ill, but certainly not to those who worry about its long-term implications for Iraq, the Middle East and the US.

By rhetorically tying the fate of democracy in Iraq to its emergence in the entire Muslim Middle East, the Bush administration has painted itself in a corner. Just looking at the US involvement in Iraq, it must win. It has no other choices. However, the current ground realities in Iraq appear quite the contrary.

One has to consider the dangers of implementing a highly ideologically charged foreign policy that has been the forte of this administration. September 11 was, indeed, a tragedy of epic proportions. However, an angry response for a short period of time was both understandable and imaginable. What the Bush administration created was an ostensibly ceaseless highly charged response that painted the picture of America as a frenzied actor bent on taking revenge. Anyone who got in the way was to become the victim of its rage. Such a frame of mind also created the prison abuses of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

The continuing tragedy is that the very same ideologically driven frame of reference is still being used. That frame of reference drove the policy of not engaging North Korea until some cooler heads in the Department of State prevailed. Then after much delay began the six-nation dialogue with Pyongyang. More than five years have been wasted because of the intransigence of the neo-cons to engage North Korea.

By refusing to engage Iran in a dialogue regarding its nuclear program, the Bush administration is using the very same approach. Elliott Abrams, one of the remaining neo-cons in the administration - and the man who was convicted in the Iran-Contra affair of two charges of misdemeanor, but was pardoned by Bush Senior - is heading the policy of "non-engagement" toward Iran in the National Security Council. As the current administration enters the sixth year of the Bush presidency, the turbulence related to Iraq dominates its agenda. What the US needs is some international endeavor to disentangle it from Iraq. While no such breakthroughs appear to be emerging any time soon, the unraveling of the Cheney cabal is likely to cause more embarrassment for Bush.

There are already calls from a number of senior legislators for an inquiry into the role of the vice president in the Cheney cabal. What is even more interesting to see is what Cheney will have to say when he is subpoenaed as a witness in the Libby trial. Further public disclosures on this controversy are likely to be very interesting, to say the least.

Ehsan Ahrari is an independent strategic analyst based in Alexandria, VA, US. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. He is also a regular contributor to the Global Beat Syndicate. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.

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