Tracking the genealogy of the cabal of neo-conservatives who have so disastrously dominated foreign policy under George W. Bush, journalists have followed a political bloodline back to the 1960s, to cold war pamphleteers like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, and more respectably if also more tenuously to the postwar University of Chicago political theorist Leo Strauss.
As so often with the neo-cons, however, there is less there than meets the eye, especially in finding any serious intellectual content in the rise of men like the former Deputy Defense Secretary and now World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz or UN Ambassador-designate John Bolton.
Whatever their other derivation, the genus also traces to more banal, seedier origins, curling back through closed-door politics where so much of U.S. history happens. The neo-con coup d’tat after 9/11, the war on Iraq, the fear and loathing as foreign policy all that and more started as well nearly seventy years ago in the wooded curving inlets and gentle fog of the far Northwest.
Nineteen thirty-eight was the year Henry Martin Jackson, an ambitious 26-year-old Democrat fresh out of the University of Washington Law School, was elected prosecuting attorney for Snohomish County along the shore of Puget Sound north of Seattle. As usual, few outside Washington state noticed the obscure local vote. But it launched a fateful political career, and ultimately led to the U.S. invasion and bloody occupation of Iraq.
Jackson rose rapidly from the courthouse in his hometown Everett. Making a name for himself chasing San Juan Island-skirting bootleggers and lumberjack camp gamblers, he shot on to Congress in 1940. He served five terms in the House, broken by a stint as a World War II GI, and by 1952, had gained the Senate, where "Scoop," as he was called from his days as a paperboy and cub reporter, became a national force.
A middle-of-the-road, pro-labor Democrat on domestic issues and an early champion of environmental causes, Jackson was chairman for nearly two decades of the Interior Committee (later Energy and Natural Resources) and sat on the Government Operations Committee and Joint Committee on Atomic Energy all major fiefdoms in dispensing federal money and wielding influence in politics and policy. One of Capitol Hill’s more vigorous legislators, he was a main author and driving force of the legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency, major wilderness preservation and other landmark acts. With another local prosecutor raised to Senate power, Seattle’s Warren Magnuson, Jackson also saw to it that generous appropriations and contracts were sluiced to his home state. "Scoop" especially would be known scathingly in congressional corridors as the "Senator from Boeing" for being on-call to the increasingly powerful, increasingly corrupt corporate giant.
But it was in national security that Jackson’s impact was deepest. The hawks’ hawk, he was to the right of many in both parties. Not even the massive retaliation strategy and roving CIA interventions of the Eisenhower ’50s were tough enough for him. Perched on the mighty Armed Services Committee as well as his other bases of power, he went on over the next decade to goad the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, urging the Vietnam War, fatter military budgets, stronger support of Israel in the Middle East and a more aggressive foreign policy in general.
It was then, 40 years ago, that Jackson began to be linked directly, if furtively, to some of the uglier and little-known origins of the war on Iraq. Overseeing the CIA’s "black budget" for covert operations and interventions from a subcommittee of Armed Services, he was one of a handful of senators who gave a nod to two U.S.-backed coups in Iraq, one in 1963 and again in 1968. Those plots brought Saddam Hussein to power amid bloodbaths in which the CIA, exacting the price for its support, handed Saddam and his Baath Party cohorts lists of supposed anti-U.S. Iraqis to be killed.
The result was the systematic murder of several hundred and as many as several thousand people, in which Saddam himself participated. Whatever the toll, accounts agree that CIA killing lists comprised much of Iraq’s young educated elite doctors, teachers, technicians, lawyers and other professionals as well as military officers and political figures Iraqis who would not be there to oppose Saddam’s growing tyranny over ensuing years or to help rebuild or govern Iraq, as the United States now hopes to do, after the current war.
By 1969, Jackson was so prominent in military and national security affairs, and so at odds on those issues with many in his own party, that newly elected Republican Richard Nixon thought to name the Washington Democrat his secretary of defense, though the senator declined the job.
But Snohomish County’s favorite son coveted the White House himself and was soon a sharp critic of Nixon’s arms control and détente. Added to his cold warring was even greater zeal for Israel, a certainty that the United States should endorse the Israelis’ own hard line absorbing the West Bank after its conquest in the 1967 Middle East War, the long-term subjugation of Palestine and an abiding hostility to Iraq and other Arab states.
As Jackson grew nationally prominent, he attracted the inevitable ambitious staffers and partisans boarding his coattails to advance both their own hawkish views and themselves. Among them was a recent graduate of the University of Southern California who was fanatic about amassing and projecting U.S. power, especially on behalf of Israel, and not least about his own strategic genius. The young New Yorker named Richard Perle became Jackson’s chief assistant from 1969 to 1980.
I saw these origins firsthand working in the Senate in the early ’70s after resigning from Henry Kissinger’s National Security Council staff over the invasion of Cambodia. Seen from the inside, Jackson’s Senate heft was considerable. Though a relatively small, unprepossessing figure as politicians go, he usually did his homework, could be incisive about important details his colleagues let slip and struck a shrewd balance between conviction and expedience. Much of his Capitol Hill power derived from his unique role, which he played well, as a northern Democrat with solid labor backing and other party credentials yet whose hard-line international view drew the support of many Republicans and the most conservative Southerners on either side of the aisle.
His belligerence also exerted as it still does, of course an extortionist pull on Democrats deathly afraid of appearing "weak" on national defense or in standing up to the Russians or anyone else. There was no question that "Scoop," albeit very much a half-educated provincial from the mountains and straits of the far northwest corner of the continental United States, shrewdly caught the unease and reflexive combativeness of much of America in dealing with a planet we knew, and know, so little despite our power. Still, in the ’70s, a more worldly post-Vietnam moderation and sensibility in the leadership of both parties appeared to have passed Jackson by, leaving his chauvinism and foreign policy animus marginal, sometimes looking a bit crazed.
As for Perle, he was a pear-shaped, slightly fish-eyed man of self-consciously affected locution, the too-hungry, too-sly and too-toadying aide familiar in bureaucracies public and private. His views were patently uninformed, and he wore his conference-room warrior’s zealotry no more gracefully than his expensive blue pinstriped suits. It seemed obvious that the bellicose policies he and Jackson embodied were not only wrong for America, but would also usher Israel into the ruinous isolation I and other admirers of its brave people most feared. "Scoop" & Co. would remain, I assumed, an extremist fringe.
How wrong I was.
Jackson, of course, never got the White House. With big pro-Israeli money though stolid style, he lost the presidential nomination in 1976 to Jimmy Carter, who offered a fresh face in the national weariness in the wake of the Watergate scandal. But when Jackson died seven years later back in Everett, ending more than four decades on the national scene, he had spawned a cult following. With the lavishly financed and much-propagandized neo-conservatives first taking power under President Reagan, and then at the senior levels under a new and ignorant George W. Bush, their throwback foreign policy was, and is, "Scoop" Jackson warmed over the red, white and blue, bombs-away dawn of an old era.
For his part, Perle missed a long-coveted chance to make presidential policy when Jackson stumbled in 1976. But the aide promptly moved on to the next coattails in classic, if banal, Washington, D.C., style. Relentlessly levering the system he learned under Jackson, he cultivated the media, courted politicians in both parties and used old allies in the ever more politically potent pro-Israeli and military-industrial lobbies. By the Reagan ’80s, he was an assistant secretary of defense, veteran of the now-venerated Jackson tradition of military expansion and a self-promoted strategist for a Republican president as comfortably as for a Democratic senator.
Whatever "Scoop" Jackson’s mix of political principle and opportunism, Perle’s politics were largely himself. And in time-honored Washington tradition, on the way up Perle gathered his own disciples among similarly grasping men Wolfowitz, Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith and others who would go on themselves in the same fashion to become key officials in the current administration, and who gathered their own coterie from assorted Reagan regime and Capitol Hill right-wing hacks such as Bolton. Like Perle, who was appointed in 2001 to chair the Bush Administration’s influential Defense Policy Board, they were all longtime advocates, years before the Sept. 11 attacks, of pre-emptive American military invasions in Iraq and elsewhere and of implicit, if not open, support for the expansionist and repressive policies of their right-wing counterparts in Israel. Their concerted influence was decisive in going to war in Iraq.
Grown wealthy in the revolving door between government and corporate plunder, Perle drew notoriety briefly in 2003 not only for his intimate ties to Israel but also for his connections to companies standing to profit obscenely from the war he’d mongered. When Michigan Congressman John Conyers Jr. and Senator Carl Levin began to prod Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the disreputable dealings, Perle angrily resigned from the chairmanship of the board, though he continued to sit as a full-fledged member of the pivotal body. It was a fleeting glimpse of the cronyism, conflict-of-interest, loyalty-for-sale and general political-intellectual corruption of the neo-cons in Perle’s lineage.
It was also history’s nice irony just the kind of disgrace young "Scoop" Jackson might once have prosecuted up in Snohomish County.
September 1, 2005
This article originally appeared on the Green Institute GP360 web site.