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Beyond Osama: The Pentagon’s Battle With Powell Heats Up

'Perle and Wolfowitz are absolutists, and they're stupid' - 9/11

Rotating Compass & Square

The Village Voice

Week of November 21 - 27, 2001

Beyond Osama: The Pentagon’s Battle With Powell Heats Up

Saddam in the Crosshairs

by Jason Vest

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The simmering conflict within the Bush administration over how to prosecute the next phase of the "war on terrorism" suddenly flared up last week as the Taliban fled Kabul. "Where to go next and how big it should be is what's being argued right now—and Baghdad is what's being debated at the moment," said a senior Pentagon official. "This is both an internal discussion at the Pentagon, and one between departments. Our policy guys are thinking Iraq. Our question is, do we make a move earlier than anyone expects?"

To some, this goes well beyond madness: With Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda still at large and no obvious ties between Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein or Palestinian groups like Hamas or Hezbollah, taking the fight to Baghdad, Syria, or Lebanon makes little military or diplomatic sense. In the wake of the policy and intelligence failures that contributed to September 11, many here take it for granted that the U.S. government needs all the help it can get from its allies, in addition to taking a long, nuanced view as it navigates the shoals of diplomacy in the Arab and Islamic worlds, lest perceived American arrogance-in-action exacerbate already tense ties. At this pole of grand strategy sits Colin Powell's State Department, considered by its detractors to be obsessed with maintaining a tenuous international coalition against Al Qaeda and the Taliban at the expense of swift, decisive, and much more expansive military action.

At the other pole is Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, increasingly seen by some as an asylum where a coterie of vengeful Cold War unilateralist relics plot a return to a forceful, Reaganesque Pax Americana, broadening the war to encompass military action against Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—essentially fusing Israel's national security agenda with that of the United States. No fans of multilateralism or diplomatic initiatives, this crew—despite its majority's lack of uniform service or time spent in combat zones—is particularly bellicose, and contemptuous of Powell and his belief in conflict limitation. "Powell's such a product of Vietnam—he tries to prevent conflict, rather than realizing it's inevitable," sneers a Pentagon official who, despite never having heard a shot fired in anger, is spoiling for a larger war. "When conflict is inevitable, we should be the ones who decide the outcome. It's not about schmoozing and sucking up."

Taking point for this policy option has been deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, backed by a so-called "cabal" that includes undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith, assistant secretaries Peter Rodman and J.D. Crouch, longtime Wolfowitz comrade-in-arms Richard Perle, members of the advisory Defense Policy Board Perle chairs and, less visibly, some hawkish brethren at the State Department who were forced on Powell early in the administration, including undersecretary of state John Bolton.

For this group, the events of the past two months present an almost rapturous opportunity to realize an item on the far right's national security agenda. In their view, September 11 is nothing short of a mandate to do what they feel the U.S. should have done over a decade ago—take the fight to Baghdad and destroy Saddam, coalition partners and world opinion be damned. And updating to the Wolfowitz Cabal the Reagan-era view of then CIA director William Casey that all terrorist groups were interconnected via the Soviet, the links between Saddam, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and just about every other Middle East Islamist group are clear—thus necessitating the speedy deployment of bombs, and possibly even troops, to Iraq as well as Syria and Lebanon.

At a meeting in the White House Situation Room last month, Feith was so impassioned on this point that he took to banging his fist on the table, saying it was essential that the historically Hezbollah-controlled Sheikh Abdullah barracks north of Beirut be bombed. Others interviewed by the Voice report that there have been "epic shouting matches" in White House meetings over the issue of war expansion, and personnel at both Foggy Bottom and Langley have found their patience increasingly tried by the Wolfowitz Cabal. Indeed, despite the CIA's cowboy image, the Agency's old Afghan and Middle East hands marvel at what they consider lunacy. "The Agency as an institution would never offer up a view of these people, but if you ask individuals, they think these guys are more than a little nuts," says a veteran of the CIA's Directorate of Operations.

Adds another longtime case officer: "I think there's a common view in the intelligence community that if we're really serious about dismantling Osama bin Laden's network, intelligence is key, and for that, we necessarily have to work with our allies to get the best intelligence we possibly can, which is going to take time and cooperation. Powell's done a good job of putting a coalition together and keeping it together—he recognizes the reality that any coalition will break apart in a nanosecond if there's a call to go after Iraq. And going after Hamas or Hezbollah would be a terrible mistake—neither has broad-based support in Palestine, neither is an exclusively terrorist organization, neither is attacking Americans, and if we do go after them, they'll start targeting Americans. Attack those places and there will be consequences that we simply will not be able to deal with. But Perle and Wolfowitz are absolutists, and they're stupid."

According to both Pentagon and intelligence sources, in mid September the Project for the New American Century—a hawkish private policy group whose membership overlaps with the official Defense Policy Board—sent President Bush a letter after a two-day conference, declaring that failure to promptly remove Saddam would constitute a "decisive surrender in the war against terrorism." Ominously, it also held that if Syria and Iran refused to drop all support for Hezbollah, "the administration should consider appropriate measures of retaliation against these known state sponsors of terrorism."

Perle's Defense Policy Board also sent Bush a letter recommending all measures be taken to install the heretofore dubious and ineffectual Iraqi National Congress of Ahmed Chalabi as new leadership in Baghdad, backed by the deployment of American troops to secure Iraqi oil fields. The board also implicitly slammed Powell, declaring that "coalition-building has run amok," and arguing that Powell was less interested in achieving anything of substance than simply get[ting] a lot of members."

The Project for the New American Century conclave and subsequent memos were news to Powell, who reportedly considered the whole scheme a highly improper end run. At the Pentagon, some hold that Powell did the administration a disservice when, after Wolfowitz made a passing reference to "ending states" that sponsor terrorism, Powell—in response to a reporter's question on the remark—edgily shot back that Wolfowitz was not speaking for the administration. "Powell essentially took a polite, behind-the-scenes policy debate public," says a Pentagon staffer, adding that "privately, Paul has said he misspoke," and implying that Powell knew as much, thus making his public rebuke bad form.

But according to intelligence and diplomatic sources, Powell—as well as George Tenet—was infuriated by a private intelligence endeavor arranged by Wolfowitz in September. Apparently obsessed with proving a convoluted theory put forth by American Enterprise Institute adjunct fellow Laurie Mylroie that ties Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Wolfowitz, according to a veteran intelligence officer, dispatched former director of central intelligence and cabalist James Woolsey to the United Kingdom, tasking him with gathering additional "evidence" to make the case. Woolsey was also asked to make contact with Iraqi exiles and others who might be able to beef up the case that hijacker Mohammed Atta was working with Iraqi intelligence to plan the September 11 attacks, as well as the subsequent anthrax mailings.

Perhaps the most conservative of early Bill Clinton appointees, Woolsey has only moved rightward since his tenure as DCI—which ended with his resignation in 1995, in part due to failures of attempted anti-Saddam covert operations. Apparently proving that directors of intelligence organizations do not themselves make ideal field operatives, Woolsey's pursuit of the World Trade Center connection led him to the small town of Swansea, Wales, where his sleuthing piqued the curiosity of the local constabulary, whose chief decided to ring the U.S. Embassy in London for clarification as to whether Woolsey was visiting in an official capacity. This was the first anyone at State or CIA had heard of Woolsey's British expedition, and upon being apprised of it, Powell and Tenet were not amused. "It was a stupid, stupid, and just plain wrong thing to do," an intelligence consultant familiar with the "operation" said.

According to a senior Pentagon official, the fact that Wolfowitz has been keeping a much lower profile since his earlier public statements and behind-the-scenes antics indicates that while Donald Rumsfeld may be with Wolfowitz in spirit, the secretary has found his actions irksome in a practical sense. "Wolfowitz either muzzled himself," the official said, "or someone did it for him."

Other fellow travelers who are not in government, however, have been picking up the slack and saying things that have caused the jaws of diplomats and intelligence officers to drop. At an October 29 American Enterprise Institute panel moderated by Perle, Iran-Contra luminary Michael Ledeen nicely summed up the hawks' worldview.

"No stages," he said. "This is total war. We are fighting a variety of enemies. There are lots of them out there. And all this talk about, well, first we are going to do Afghanistan, then we will do Iraq, then we will take a look around and see how things stand, that is entirely the wrong way to go about it. Because these guys are all talking to each other and are all working with one another. . . . If we just let our own vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely, and we don't try to be clever and piece together clever diplomatic solutions to this thing, but just wage a total war against these tyrants, I think we will do very well, and our children will sing great songs about us years from now."

Further Reading:

F.·.W.·. Magazine || 9/11: The Archive - The 'Lighter' Side of the New World Order?