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Focusing on the Neo-cons

Origins of regime change in Iraq

Joseph Cirincione

Long before September 11, before the first inspections in Iraq had started, a small group of influential officials and experts in Washington were calling for regime change in Iraq. Some never wanted to end the 1991 war. Many are now administration officials. Their organisation, dedication and brilliance offer much to admire, even for those who disagree with the policies they advocate.

We have assembled on our web site, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, links to the key documents produced since 1992 by this group, usually known as neo-conservatives, and analysis of their efforts. They offer a textbook case of how a small, organised group can determine policy in a large nation, even when the majority of officials and experts originally scorned their views.

In the beginning

In 1992, Paul Wolfowitz, then-under secretary of defense for policy, supervised the drafting of the Defense Policy Guidance document. Wolfowitz had objected to what he considered the premature ending of the 1991 Iraq War. In the new document, he outlined plans for military intervention in Iraq as an action necessary to assure "access to vital raw material, primarily Persian Gulf oil" and to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and threats from terrorism.

The guidance called for pre-emptive attacks and ad hoc coalitions but said that the US should be ready to act alone when "collective action cannot be orchestrated." The primary goal of US policy should be to prevent the rise of any nation that could challenge the United States. When the document leaked to the New York Times, it proved so extreme that it had to be rewritten. These concepts are now part of the new US National Security Strategy.

Links to Likud

In 1996, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser, now administration officials, joined in a report to the newly elected Likud government in Israel calling for "a clean break" with the policies of negotiating with the Palestinians and trading land for peace. They said "Israel can shape its strategic environment ... by weakening, containing and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq ... Iraq's future could affect the strategic balance in the Middle East profoundly." They called for "re-establishing the principle of pre-emption."

In 1998, 18 prominent conservatives wrote a letter to President Clinton urging him to "aim at the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime from power." Most of these experts are now officials in the administration, including Elliot Abrams, Richard Armitage, John Bolton, Paula Dobriansky, Zalmay Khalilzad, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz.

The power of planning

In 2000, the Project for the New American Century, which is chaired by William Kristol and includes Robert Kagan as a director, issued a report, "Rebuilding America's Defenses". The Project had organised the 1998 letter to Clinton and the 2000 report seems to have become a blueprint for the administration's foreign and defence policies. The report noted, "The US has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in the Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein."

While not explicitly calling for permanent bases in Iraq after regime change, the report notes the difficulty of basing forces in Saudi Arabia, given "Saudi domestic sensibilities," and calls for a permanent Gulf military presence even "should Saddam pass from the scene" as "Iran may well prove as large a threat."

The official National Security Strategy of the United States, issued September 2002, holds that our defence "will require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia."

A rising chorus

Immediately after September 11, Paul Wolfowitz and other officials urged President Bush to attack Iraq. New Yorker writer Mark Danner notes as part of a PBS Frontline special that they saw this as a "new opportunity presented by the war on terror - that is, an opportunity to argue to the public that Iraq presented a vital danger to the United States." Colin Powell and the joint chiefs opposed them. "Powell's view was that Wolfowitz was fixated on Iraq, that they were looking for any excuse to bring Iraq into this," Washington Post reporter Dan Balz told Frontline. Powell won, but briefly.

Neo-conservative writers began to urge regime change as part of a larger strategy for remaking the Middle East. In June 2002, Michael Kelly wrote that a democratic Iraq and Palestine "will revolutionize the power dynamic in the Middle East ... A majority of Arabs will come to see America as the essential ally."

"Change toward democratic regimes in Tehran and Baghdad would unleash a tsunami across the Islamic world," claimed Joshua Muravchik in August of that year. Michael Ledeen on September 4, 2002, called for the US to launch "a vast democratic revolution to liberate all the peoples of the Middle East ... It is impossible to imagine that the Iranian people would tolerate tyranny in their own country once freedom had come to Iraq. Syria would follow in short order."

Democracy experts, including Carnegie's Tom Carothers, call this vision "a dangerous fantasy." But on September 12, President Bush embraced the strategy when he told the United Nations, "The people of Iraq can shake off their captivity. They can one day join a democratic Afghanistan and a democratic Palestine, inspiring reforms throughout the Muslim world." The president seems to have absorbed the entire expansive strategy. Now, for him, regime change in Iraq is not the end, it is just the beginning.


Joseph Cirincione is a Senior Associate and Director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the author of Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction (Carnegie Endowment, 2002). This article was originally published as Proliferation Brief, Volume 6, Number 5, of 19 March 2003 and has been reproduced with kind permission of the author. For all the Carnegie Endowment documents and more insight into the people and strategy behind the occupation of Iraq, go to Regime Change.


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