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By William Fisher
One of the principal engines of neoconservative influence on the Bush Administration is a little known collection of unpaid outside experts formed “to provide the Secretary of Defense with independent, informed advice and opinion concerning major matters of defense policy.” Its name is the Defense Policy Advisory Board, usually referred to as the Defense Policy Board (DPB). While the Board has some centrist Republican members, like Henry Kissinger, and at least one hawkish Democrat, it has an undeniable tilt to the right: Seven of its 31 members have ties to the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Many others have business relationships with companies that are prominent defense contractors. The scope of the board's focus has broadened since its founding in 1985. Under Rumsfeld, it has become more involved with issues relating to the overall objectives of US foreign policy. For example, the Washington Post reported that, in July 2002, a guest speaker gave a presentation recommending that “US officials give [Saudi Arabia] an ultimatum to stop backing terrorism or face seizure of its oil fields and its financial assets invested in the United States."
Since the beginning of the Bush presidency, the chairman of the DPB was Richard Perle, a leading neoconservative who was known as the ‘prince of darkness’ for his hawkish views during his tenure as an Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan Administration. In March 2003, Perle was forced to relinquish the chair amid allegations of conflicts of interest for his representation of companies with business before the Defense Department. Perle was replaced in the chair by board member Tillie K. Fowler, a former Republican Congresswoman from Florida who is little known, even inside the Beltway. Perle remains an active board member. Most observers believe that Ms. Fowler was chosen because she is least known and relatively uncontroversial, and doubt that her new role will have any material effect on the work or composition of the board.
It is difficult to draw a pristine line between the views of the Board and those of its members. One reason is that the Board publishes nothing in its own name that is available save to a few within the Pentagon and the White House. Nonetheless, the DPB is arguably the most influential of the US Government’s hundreds of advisory boards. For example, it was reputedly the driving force behind the Bush Doctrine of Preemption, the President’s rejection of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, his Wilsonian vision for democratizing the Middle East, and the general conviction that the US has an obligation to assert its power, buttressed by its military if necessary, to project American democracy and American values to the world.
There is only one reason that explains why this Board, virtually silent since its founding, has moved to center-stage in the Bush universe: September 11, 2001. The destruction of the Twin Towers provided neoconservatives with a new and powerful platform. From this platform, they could credibly argue that diplomacy was a fool’s game, the United Nations was impotent, and that the failure of Bush, the father, to finish off Saddam Hussein then was tantamount to a failure of traditional foreign policy itself. As reported by Newsweek, the neocon rational was: “…after 9-11 conservatives considered the decision to restore the Arab status quo their biggest mistake, the chief sin of Bush the father. Over the next decade it generated hatemongers like Osama bin Laden, left WMD in the hands of defiant tyrants like Saddam and ‘peace’ in the hands of corrupt autocrats like Yasir Arafat. September 11 was an indictment of every policymaker over the decade who'd seen the Arab world merely as a gas station to the globe. The Arabs had to change, too, fundamentally.”
Against that background, there are three reasons for the Board’s inordinate influence in the White House. The first is its unprecedented access to kindred spirits within the government, whose recommendations frequently lead to major changes in US defense and foreign policy. Perle is considered a protégé of US Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld’s Undersecretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, is arguably today’s leading neoconservative thinker, assuming the heritage of elders like Irving Kristol. And Deputy Defense Secretary for Policy, Douglas Feith, to whom the DBP reports, is similarly well known for his neoconservative views. The second reason is its cast of characters. Many of the current members of the Board served in the Reagan and first Bush administrations and were highly visible. During the Clinton years, they inhabited a media desert. Today, the views of neocons and the policies of the Bush Administration are mutually reinforcing. One result is that the presence of neocon spokesmen like Perle, Adelman and Gingrich has become ubiquitous on television news programs, conservative websites, and conservative radio talk shows. The third reason is that the publicity generated by these neoconservative spokesmen is sometimes viewed as equivalent to ‘trial balloons’ for the White House and the Pentagon. Public and Congressional reaction to their comments provides the Administration with a handy barometer of prevailing sentiment.
The fortunes of the Board have ebbed and flowed during 2003. They reached a high point with the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and a low point with the continued attacks on Coalition forces in Iraq after President Bush had declared an end to formal hostilities. The capture of Saddam Hussein, however, appeared to breath new life into the movement. Yet, as Newsweek pointed out, “even as the neocons savor these victories, some critics suggest their moment may already have passed. Few in the Bush administration invoke the toppling of Saddam's statue in Baghdad any longer, as they did so euphorically in early May. The future does look messier and more ambiguous than some neocons had hoped, and the hawks now have to figure out how to build things up, rather than knock them down...Most deflating of all, a new Pew Research poll shows rampant anti-Americanism has overtaken even formerly pro-American Muslim countries like Indonesia and Nigeria, both chaotic places where terrorists can congregate.”
Nonetheless, at this juncture the movement is very much alive and well. Neoconservates continue to believe that American preeminence -- asserted militarily when necessary and free of the restraints imposed by international organizations and treaties -- is key to the post-Cold War world order. Members of the DPB, and their masters at the Pentagon, will continue to espouse this view to influence decision-makers in the White House. While the volume may be turned down somewhat in the run-up to the 2004 election, that influence shows no signs of diminishing any time soon.