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August 11, 2003
I've attached an article from The New Republic that requires access about the conservative love-affair with counter-revolutionaries (interventionist conservatives that is).
ARE FOREIGN REBEL LEADERS DUPING THE AMERICAN RIGHT, AGAIN?
n April 6, a C-17 transport plane unloaded Ahmed Chalabi in Nasiriya, the Iraqi heartland. For years, Washington conservatives had fantasized about this moment. They hadn't just touted the exiled leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) as a potential player in postwar Iraq but as a world historic figure. In meetings, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense William Luti described him as the "George Washington of Iraq." Others suggested he could become a George Washington for the entire Muslim world. Writing in National Review about "the president-in-waiting," David Pryce-Jones argued, "[I]f anything like the expectations of Chalabi's program are fulfilled, Arab absolutism can be broken." In The Wall Street Journal, Seth Lipsky pronounced him "a democratic visionary."
His American boosters assumed the Nasiriya stop would be the first event in a chain culminating in a Chalabi presidency. This assumption even permeated Pentagon planning. According to a Knight Ridder report last July, top planners such as Luti and his boss, Doug Feith, believed "Chalabi, who boasted of having a secret network inside and outside the regime, and his supporters would replace Saddam and impose order."
For the most part, these supporters didn't materialize. In fact, they have been so hard to come by that Chalabi has largely stopped trying to get them. Reporters in Baghdad told me that Chalabi no longer bothers holding rallies or advertising for the INC. "He has no chance of obtaining" the people's affection, one says. Empirical evidence backs this up. According to The Daily Telegraph, in Kurdistan--a supposed bastion of INC support--only 9 percent of respondents told pollsters they wanted a Chalabi presidency. Even Chalabi's American patrons doubt his public support. They have scaled back his public operations and dismantled his Free Iraqi Forces. As The Washington Post reported in June, Iraq's top civil administrator, L. Paul Bremer, privately told Chalabi and his cadre that they "don't represent the country."
Conservatives should have seen this coming. Chalabi represents the latest incarnation of an archetype: the foreign opposition leader romanticized beyond reason. Everybody knows this romantic strain has afflicted liberals--from admirers of Joseph Stalin, such as Henry Wallace and Edmund Wilson, to glorifiers of Fidel Castro, such as Tom Hayden and Oliver Stone. And everybody knows this because conservatives have long, and justly, chastised the left for what Tom Wolfe famously called "radical chic." During the 1960s, when the right first made this critique, the hardheaded realism that dominated conservative foreign policy prevented it from embracing such hero-worship. But, starting in the 1980s, conservatives, too, began celebrating revolution and insurgency, albeit of the anti-communist variety--a celebration that was enshrined in the Reagan Doctrine. Suddenly, a generation of scruffy Third World guerrilla fighters became right-wing icons.
When the Soviet Union disappeared, this doctrine seemed to fade with it. But the post-September 11 focus on radical Islam has created the conditions for its revival. In fact, some in the Pentagon argue the Bush administration has already reactivated the Reagan Doctrine by supporting the INC and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. As one official told me, "The mold is set. It's very much a return to Reaganite principles of adopting opposition movements." That means Chalabi isn't so much a throwback as the harbinger of a new wave of conservative iconography.
Indeed, there are already examples of what this new wave might look like. Last summer, conservatives began to promote exiled Palestinian banker Omar Karsou as a successor to Yasir Arafat. An op-ed by Robert Pollock in The Wall Street Journal trumpeted Karsou beneath the headline, "'we need a palestinian mandela.'" The Cheneys, both Dick and Lynne, granted him audiences, where he made his case for assuming Palestinian leadership. But the campaign crumbled, because it was premised on comically wishful thinking. Nelson Mandela, after all, had a mass following. When I asked a neocon supporter of Karsou about his following among Palestinians, she admitted that Karsou was virtually unknown in Palestine and had temporarily quit politics in frustration.
And not all the new freedom fighters entering the conservative pantheon are as innocuous as Karsou. Now that attention is turning from Iraq to Iran, a small but growing legion of conservatives has begun touting the virtues of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or the People's Mujahedin. In The Washington Times, the Hoover Institution's Arnold Beichman has urged the administration to recognize the mujahedin "as a legitimate force for democracy and regime change in the Middle East." Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has argued, "This group loves the United States; they're assisting us in the war on terrorism." Last year, she convinced 150 House colleagues to sign a letter in support of the mujahedin. The administration itself has been strangely deferential toward the group. It has permitted the mujahedin to keep a camp in Iraq, and, as Elizabeth Rubin reported in The New York Times Magazine, "a number of Pentagon hawks and policy makers are advocating that the Mujahideen be removed from the terrorist list and recycled for future use against Iran."
Such support is truly incredible. After all, there's a reason the mujahedin hold down a spot on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations: During the 1970s, it assassinated Americans working in Iran. Starting in the '80s, Saddam Hussein became the group's patron and collaborator, harboring the mujahedin in Iraqi bases. A realist might suggest overlooking this record and embracing the mujahedin for their mischief-making skills. But classifying the group as democratic requires enormous self-deception. By any standard, the organization is a proto-Marxist cult. The husband-and-wife team who runs it manipulates its helots with creepy mind control. They demand celibacy and require attendance at weekly "ideological cleansing" sessions. And there's no quitting this madness. According to Human Rights Watch, when members mused about bolting, the mujahedin threatened to hand them off to Saddam's goons for torture.
The support for the mujahedin reveals the problem with the right's revolutionary romanticism. It is not necessarily that conservatives ally themselves with the wrong foreign proxies. Often those proxies represent the lesser of two evils, or at least the more pro-American of two evils. The trouble is that conservatives come to see any thug, charlatan, or hopeless dreamer who happens to align with U.S. interests as a budding Thomas Jefferson. Squeezing various rebel groups into this ideal type requires a willful ignorance of the facts on the ground. And that ignorance can lead to a deluded foreign policy.
he right-wing revolutionary impulse begins with the Reagan Doctrine, and the Reagan Doctrine begins, by some accounts, with an adventurer named Jack Wheeler. In 1965, fresh from ucla, Wheeler launched his political career as youth chair of Ronald Reagan's maiden gubernatorial bid. Instead of parlaying his campaign connections into a job with the burgeoning New Right, he followed a mantra of the decade and dropped out. As a child, he had dreamed of exploring exotic locales in the nineteenth-century mode of Henry Morton Stanley. Now, he would indulge this fantasy by leading wealthy Americans on jaunts through Tibet and the African jungle.
When I recently visited him at his Virginia home, just off the banks of the Potomac, Wheeler took me to his basement office. Along one wall was a picture of him dressed as a mujahedin, with a turban wrapped around his sunburned, unshaven face. Along another, he displayed a colorful collection of Asian tribal hats, a shrunken head he acquired in Ecuador, and an old map he bought in 1965. In the middle of our conversation, he led me across the room to take a closer look at the map. "About 1983, I just saw it differently," he explained. By that time, his buddies from the Reagan campaign had gone off to sweet jobs in the White House. And, looking at his treasured map, he had an epiphany about how he could join the Reagan revolution himself. "All these guerrilla wars were taking place inside Soviet colonies. Nobody was calling them colonies, but that's what they were." He pointed to Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Angola. "I realized that these [conflicts] were not isolated. This was a worldwide rejection of Soviet imperialism. The tables had turned." Wheeler booked a ticket to Washington, where he visited his friend, presidential speechwriter Dana Rohrabacher. "Dana told me that I had to go out there to study these people fighting the Soviets." So, funded by a grant from the libertarian Reason Foundation, Wheeler set off to visit anti-communist insurrections.
After six months among the Nicaraguan Contras, Afghan mujahedin, and African rebels, he landed at Washington's National Airport, where Rohrabacher greeted him. "He drove me straight to the [Old Executive Office Building]. I had been sending him back photos, which I hadn't seen myself at this point. He took me to a room, where there was a slide carousel," as well as speechwriters, officials from the CIA, and Constantine Menges and Paula Dobriansky of the National Security Council. Wheeler began to tell stories of the global phenomenon he had just witnessed. As one White House official told Sidney Blumenthal, then a reporter with The Washington Post, "[Wheeler] took random struggles and crystallized the concept that they were part of the same historical movement." Soon after, Reagan's speeches were filled with references to "freedom fighters." And Wheeler became a regular on the conservative speaking circuit, evangelizing on behalf of the counterrevolution. "In the 1960s, there were Marxist guerrilla heroes--Mao, Fidel, Che Guevara," he told me. "Now there were anti-Marxist guerrilla leaders. The anti-imperialist liberation struggle shifted one hundred percent." He threw his arms in the air: "That's the gestalt."
o turn the Reagan Doctrine from theory to practice, Wheeler set about creating the antithesis of the Communist International, a broad coalition of anti-Marxist insurgents to be known as the Democratic International. And, in 1985, Wheeler helped convince the conservative drugstore mogul--and defeated New York gubernatorial candidate--Lew Lehrman to finance the venture. Working with Grover Norquist and Jack Abramoff, now arguably the two most powerful Republican lobbyists in Washington, Wheeler invited anti-communist rebel leaders from Nicaragua, Laos, and Afghanistan to Jamba, Angola, the headquarters of Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (unita). There, Lehrman gathered his guests and had them sign a communiqué declaring "our solidarity with all freedom movements in the world and ... our commitment to cooperate to liberate our nations from the Soviet imperialists." At a rally in Jamba's stadium, Lehrman handed them framed copies of the American Declaration of Independence and replica Mount Vernon bowls.
There was a reason the meeting took place in Jamba: Savimbi had become the poster child for this new breed of freedom fighter. Like Chalabi, he had a superb understanding of the conservative movement and made frequent trips to Washington to cultivate its activists. Take the itinerary for a 1986 visit: In one week, he attended a seminar at the American Enterprise Institute, hosted by Jeanne Kirkpatrick; a reception thrown by the Heritage Foundation; and another confab at Freedom House. This strategy wasn't just the product of Savimbi's savvy. He had lots of help. Unita paid a $600,000-per-year retainer to the Republican lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly. Savimbi's allies in South Africa's apartheid government donated consulting work by Reagan's 1980 campaign manager, Stuart Spencer, and a cast of ideologues happily volunteered their services. Norquist became economic adviser. According to Nina J. Easton's book Gang of Five: Leaders at the Center of the Conservative Crusade, this entailed ghostwriting pro-capitalist manifestos for The Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Savimbi's byline hovered over text proclaiming, "I believe that in Angola the farmer must be exempt from all taxes. The state cannot claim the produce of a farmer's hard work. This would be theft."
It's hard to say who was using whom. But, by mouthing the right words, Savimbi cemented the movement's undying loyalty. The relationship culminated at a 1986 black-tie dinner for the Conservative Political Action Committee. Kirkpatrick delivered a passionate introduction for Savimbi: a "linguist, philosopher, poet, politician, warrior, ... one of the few authentic heroes of our time." As she worked herself toward the climactic moment when she would call Savimbi forward to receive an award for his dedicated anticommunism, she intoned, "Real assistance means real weapons! ... Real helicopters, ... real ground-to-air missiles." It was then that Savimbi, a burly man who conformed perfectly to Hollywood's image of the guerrilla leader, ambled to the lectern. The room broke into a chant, "U-NI-TA, U-NI-TA." At this euphoric moment, Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, told a reporter, "If Jonas Savimbi were an American citizen, he would be the presidential candidate of the conservative movement in 1988."
This was an incredible fantasy. Savimbi arguably made a useful pawn in the struggle against Soviet expansionism, but he wasn't any of the things conservatives claimed. Primarily, he wasn't much of an anti-communist. He had trained in China's revolutionary academies, and, less than two years before his paeans to capitalism appeared in the Journal, he told a Portuguese magazine of his plans to "socialize production." Savimbi had little trouble with this ideological ambidexterity because, more than Maoism or free-market liberalism, unita represented tribalism: The Ovimbundu's struggle against what Savimbi called Angola's "Europeanized elites." After the fall of the Berlin Wall, when foreign money dried up, he dropped all pretenses of ideology and focused his rhetoric entirely on the Ovimbundu's victimhood. In 1989, the Polish journalist Radek Sikorski concluded, "[I]deology is something Savimbi can choose like the fashion of his soldiers' uniforms--patterned to please whoever provides the cloth."
Unfortunately, Savimbi's sins were far greater than hypocrisy. To the credit of National Review, it published Sikorski's damning indictment of unita, including allegations that it had burned 13 people alive. Such behavior was frighteningly typical. A string of Human Rights Watch reports documented that unita violated just about every section of the Geneva Conventions. It indiscriminately used land mines, forcibly conscripted soldiers, and shot down World Food Program flights to starve towns controlled by the government. These complaints were confirmed by unita defectors, who also testified to Savimbi's execution of their high-ranking colleagues.
Savimbi himself admitted to many of these allegations, but that didn't shake the faith of his hard-core believers or lead them to scale back their praise. "These are the kind of things which happen in a civil war," the Heritage Foundation's Jeffrey Gayner nonchalantly told the London Independent in 1989. Even after Savimbi's murder last year, the accolades continued. His admirers gathered for a dinner at the Army and Navy Club, two blocks from the White House, where Kirkpatrick eulogized Savimbi as "extraordinarily educated, intelligent, and cosmopolitan--a guerrilla leader on our side."
or all his murderous faults, Savimbi did enjoy genuine popular support, with tens of thousands of Angolans voluntarily enlisted in his army. His opponents could never claim he was simply a U.S. concoction. The leaders of the Nicaraguan Contras, on the other hand, were vulnerable to precisely this charge. This isn't to deny the widespread desire to resist the brutal Sandinista government. But the Reagan administration, by all accounts, engineered the political leadership of the Contras, falling in love with a series of counterrevolutionaries who broke down under the weight of their own deficiencies.
One such leader was Adolfo Calero, who became Washington's Contra of choice in the mid-'80s. After graduating from Notre Dame, Calero had gone on to run Managua's Coca-Cola bottling plant. Despite ruling-class ties, Calero lambasted the Somoza dictatorship for its shabby economic management. He convinced his fellow businessmen to go on strike against the regime and helped launch the Authentic Conservative Party. All this right-wing activism meant that, when the Sadinisitas seized power, he ultimately had little choice but to take up a life of exile in Miami. It also made him an easy sell to American conservatives, a pitch enhanced by Calero's alliance with Republican consultant Roger Stone, from unita's lobbying firm. In direct-mail solicitations, Stone compared Calero to Washington at Valley Forge. Calero also expertly saddled up to the conservative bar. He became a fixture at Heritage and hit the campaign trail for favorite candidates. At the 1987 North Carolina Republican convention, he joined Jesse Helms on the dais. "Nicaragua is way below the Mason-Dixon line," he bellowed. "That makes me a rebel like you." He subsequently stumped with 1988 presidential contenders Pete du Pont and Bob Dole.
Conservatives endowed Calero with an aura of dissidence, but, in truth, he resembled a classic caudillo. The Contra supporter Robert Leiken, now with the Nixon Center, accused him of practicing politics in the "style of Somoza," mimicking the dictator's lack of devotion to the democratic spirit. And the similarity to the dictatorship went beyond style. Calero's forces included remnants of the ancien régime's thuggish National Guard and other revanchists with less-than-liberal proclivities. While Calero's army may not have committed as many atrocities as the socialist regime, it wasn't contending for any humanitarian awards, either. When groups like Americas Watch condemned the Contras for their "deliberate use of terror," they may have exaggerated specifics, but they got the essence right. As Robert Kagan put it in his political history of the war, A Twilight Struggle, the Contras "treated ... civilians as enemies, and on this basis justified their rape, torture, and murder. Some of the Contras simply enjoyed killing the 'piricuacos' or rabid dogs, as they called the Sandinistas and their official supporters."
By the mid-'80s, these abuses had given the struggle a bad rap. To put a better face on the war, in 1986 the Reagan administration began pushing "Contra reform." It wanted human rights monitors to keep an eye on the rebel army and a leadership shakeup that would elevate politicians with a more progressive bent than Calero. In part, Calero had created his own headache by blithely dismissing the human rights problem. "There have been isolated cases of human rights violations, as there are in every war," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. And, even though the maintenance of congressional support for the Contras depended on enacting reforms, Calero vociferously objected to the changes. He was willing to sacrifice the cause to preserve his own power, and in the end this selfishness alienated even supporters, such as Oliver North. (One of North's deputies, Rob Owen, deemed Calero a "strongman" with followers motivated by "greed and power.") In 1985, President Reagan had declared that Calero and the Contra leadership represented the "moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers." By 1987, the Reagan administration had grown so disillusioned that it forced Calero to resign from the leadership of the United Nicaraguan Opposition.
ut it was in Afghanistan that the conservative imagination diverged most disturbingly from reality. In 1989, Dan Quayle told the Conservative Political Action Committee, "The degree of courage, tenacity, and skill exhibited by Afghan freedom fighters is really almost beyond belief and almost beyond praise." But, well before the horrors of successive Afghan regimes made clear that these "freedom fighters" merely wanted to replace the totalitarianism of godless communism with the totalitarianism of Sharia, the mujahedin's thuggish tendencies were clear to those willing to look. Take the warlord Gulbulddin Hekmatyar, the mujahedin leader to receive the most American aid. As an Islamic student leader at Kabul University, he encouraged his followers to splash acid on the faces of unveiled women and fire guns at their uncovered legs. During the anti-Soviet jihad, he betrayed a similar tendency toward indiscriminate cruelty, assassinating Afghan intellectuals and Western journalists. And, as recently as last month, he ordered his followers to "cut off the hands of the foreign meddlers."
How could conservatives have been so badly mistaken? For starters, they paid only the slightest attention to the ideology of the mujahedin. And, when they did consider political Islam, they didn't treat it as a serious doctrine but, rather, the expression of noble savages and epic warriors. In 1982, the Heritage Foundation's James Phillips wrote, "The Afghans' courage is fortified by traditional Islamic beliefs: if he kills an enemy in the jihad (holy war) and he is revered as a ghazi (Islamic warrior) and if he falls in battle he becomes a shaheed (martyr) who reaps great rewards in paradise." After the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, it became clear where this eschatology could lead. But conservatives didn't want to ask the kind of questions that might tarnish their heroes.
In lieu of an honest evaluation, they remade the Afghans into foreign versions of themselves, religious victims of secular zealotry. William McGurn, now The Wall Street Journal's chief editorial writer, described the mujahedin as "simply ornery mountain folk who have not cottoned to a foreign power" that "attacked their faith." A Heritage backgrounder used the phrase "nongovernmental organization" to describe the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jamiat-e-Islami Party, and other Islamists who funded the Afghan war--language that might have made them eligible for the Faith-Based Initiative. And, to bolster this image, some repeated a tale about a visit Robert Bork's son Charles made to the mujahedin leader Abdul Haq. When Bork first asked for an appointment, word came back that Haq had no interest seeing the son of "that hashish-smoking judge." It was immediately apparent that Haq had confused Bork with Douglas Ginsburg, the Reagan Supreme Court nominee who withdrew from contention after admitting to sharing marijuana with students. When Haq learned of the distinction between Bork and Ginsburg, he warmly welcomed his guest. The implicit lesson of the story was clear: that the mujahedin are God-fearing men with high moral standards. And it was made without any recognition that the Afghans practiced a form of puritanism far more extreme than any Southern Baptist.
hen I visited Jack Wheeler, he showed me the books on his desk. They included Sleeping With the Devil, Robert Baer's polemic against Saudi Arabia, and David Pryce-Jones's The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs. He picked up one and told me, "It's amazing how similar Islam is to Marxism. I mean, it's the same thing all over again." This has become a standard interpretation on the right and has logically led to talk of reapplying the Reagan Doctrine. But the map looks a lot different now than when Wheeler first considered the possibilities of global antiSoviet revolution. Not so many counter-Islamist insurgencies burn across the globe. So reviving the Reagan Doctrine could require digging deeper into the bag of opposition groups for rebels that have even less popular support or even worse track records than their '80s analogs.
And such stretching will exact a toll. Extolling the virtues of cults like the Iranian mujahedin doesn't simply cheapen rhetoric about liberal democracy, it cheapens conservatism itself. Ever since Edmund Burke, conservatives have made skepticism about revolutions and revolutionaries a central tenet of their politics. As Irving Kristol rephrased the classic complaint in a 1972 essay, "to think we have it in our power to change people so as to make the human estate wonderfully better than it is, remarkably different from what it is, and in very short order, is to assume that this generation of Americans can do what no other generation in all of human history could accomplish." This rigid traditionalism has been sometimes deployed to justify turning away from injustice. But it was also a source of humaneness, a bulwark against rash plans for social upheaval, a vital warning about the violent excesses of ideological fervor, a reminder that revolutions often end in tears. In this new era, with grand plans for remaking the map and new heroes being born, we could stand to be reminded of these old dictates, which add a touch of realism to right-wing idealism and offer a salutary dose of conservatism for conservatives.