Stephen J. Sniegoski. The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel. Enigma, 2008. See here to purchase the book.
Stephen J. Sniegoski has a doctorate from the University of Maryland and studied American diplomatic history. My review here will refer to him as “S,” for short.
This book is about the American neoconservative movement. S goes from its founding through its influential role in getting the U.S. into the Iraq War, then he discusses the War’s aftermath. S’s argument is that the neoconservative agenda regarding the Middle East is designed to serve the interests of the state of Israel, as those interests are articulated by the right-wing Likud party there. This agenda supports weakening Arab nations surrounding Israel so that they cannot pose a threat to her. According to S, the neoconservatives supported such an agenda since their beginning as a movement, but 9/11 created an opportunity for this agenda to become the foreign policy of the United States during much of the Presidency of George W. Bush.
Here are some thoughts:
A. Looking broadly at the book itself, it is a standard narration of the events surrounding and including the Iraq War. Like a lot of people, I lived through that, so the sweeping narrative of the book was not particularly new to me. The story is essentially that the U.S. went into Iraq expecting to find weapons of mass destruction after 9/11, bombed the country and found that were no WMDs, and traveled the difficult road of trying to rebuild the country, amidst ethnic division, turmoil, and opposition from Iraqis.
B. That said, there were some things that I learned from this book. First, while neoconservatism is said to believe in spreading democracy in the Middle East, it is not necessarily committed to democracy, per se. Initially, it supported a new government of Iraq that would be led by the traditional, pre-Saddam tribal authorities, who were not democratic. Second, S seems to imply that even the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan was unnecessary, since the Taliban initially appeared cooperative in offering to help the U.S. to bring al-Qaeda to justice. Third, there are neoconservatives who have supported undermining even America’s allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia. The different groups in Saudi Arabia was also interesting, for, as S notes, Shiites hold a significant amount of control over Saudi oil, even though the political establishment is Sunni. Fourth, S argues rigorously against the idea that the U.S. launched the Iraq War to get more oil. Saddam was offering U.S. oil companies opportunities to drill in Iraq, plus oil companies did not want the oil infrastructure of the country to be disrupted or shattered by war.
C. There were also things in the book that I was interested to learn more about, even though I had a rudimentary understanding of them before. For one, S chronicles George W. Bush’s changing views on foreign policy, as he went from rejecting nation-building, while retaining a tough stance, to embracing nation building. In the early days of the Bush II Administration, long before the Iraq War, Condi Rice even explained on news shows why regime change in Iraq would be a mistake at that point. Second, S discusses the coalition that emerged to support the war in Iraq. The neocons wanted to protect Israel, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld embraced the Iraq War as a way to showcase the effectiveness of a lean military. Meanwhile, many Americans, frightened after 9/11, supported the Iraq War as a way to keep the U.S. safe. And Christian conservatives embraced the good vs. evil, pro-Israel stance of neoconservative policy. Third, S strategically evaluates moves that the U.S. made; for S, for example, the surge did not actually work, but more stability emerged in Iraq as different ethnic factions became separated from each other.
D. According to S, the Iraq War was a disaster. It stretched America’s military, taking away resources that could have been used to find Osama bin-Laden. Yet, Israel got something that it wanted as a result: disarray among her Arab neighbors. An argument that S did not really engage, as far as I can recall, is that the Iraq War placed Israel even more in peril, since it increased the power of Iran by allowing Iraq to serve as a proxy for Iranian interests.
E. For S, neoconservatism is concerned about the security of Israel. Even its staunch Cold War policy is rooted in that concern, since the U.S.S.R. tended to support Arabs over the Israelis. S acknowledges, though, that there is more to neoconservatism that that. Neoconservatives supported a strong U.S. military intervention in the former Yugoslavia during the Clinton Administration, and neoconservatism also maintains stances on domestic issues, such as welfare.
F. S is sensitive to any charges of anti-Semitism that may be launched against his book. He emphatically denies that he is saying there was a Jewish conspiracy to get the U.S. into Iraq, for he observes that many Jews opposed the Iraq War. Moreover, S does not exactly present the U.S. government as a Zionist Occupied Government (ZOG), for the neoconservatives were long on the margins prior to the Presidency of George W. Bush. Even under Bush II, the traditional national security and intelligence apparatus was critical of the Iraq War, preferring more multilateralism and a focus on stability in the Middle East. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), long a bogeyman of right-wing conspiracy theorists, also had reservations about the Iraq War.
G. S largely depicts the Likud party in Israel, and neoconservatives, as supporting Israel’s security as a nation, her protection, if you will. At the same time, S argues that Israel in 2006 was acting aggressively rather than defensively in its invasion of Lebanon, for Lebanon had coveted water-supplies.
H. Near the end of the Iraq War, S demonstrates, neoconservatives were calling on the U.S. to take an aggressive stance against Iran, going so far as to bomb the country. That, of course, is an issue that remains relevant today. S probably regards such a move as a mistake. At the same time, he can understand why Israel would be apprehensive about a nuclear-armed Iran. He thinks that Ahmadinejad has been incorrectly understood to say that Israel should be wiped off the map, but S still acknowledges that a powerful Iran could provide more support to the Palestinians, which would trouble Israel. Although S understands this, he seems to scorn the idea that Israel should get everything she wants and have hegemony.
I. S is open to the possibility that neoconservatives believe that their support for Israel is perfectly consistent with America’s well-being. As S observes, the U.S. government since its founding has had people who believe that partisanship towards a certain nation—-Britain or France—-is not only good for its own sake but serves the interests of the United States. S disputes, however, that neoconservative policy is the only way to help the U.S. Could not one argue, after all, that the U.S. would want to be on the Arabs’ good side, with all the oil the Arabs have? This analysis may be a little dated, since the U.S. now has some alternative sources of energy (fracking), but S makes this point in evaluating the historical stance of neoconservatism.