Clear and Present Danger

The disembodied voice of Schultz pipes in from California, where it’s around 6 in the morning. “I welcome the reemergence of the CPD,” says Schultz, sounding half-asleep. “In the early days, what the people [on the Committee] thought and said made a big difference.” There is scattered applause.

It is a somewhat awkward beginning for “World War IV,” as organizers have dubbed the first public gathering of the re-reformed CPD. The first Committee on the Present Danger was formed in 1950 by Cold War liberals who favored a policy of containment vis–vis the Soviet Union; the second installment came after Vietnam, launched by hawkish Democrats who felt their party had gone soft on the Reds, and who during the Reagan years had become active in Republican foreign-policy circles. Today, the latter group are known as neoconservatives. And like a graying ’60s rock band reuniting for one last tour, they’ve decided that the old hits still have some life in them.

The committee relaunched (again) last summer, heralding its return with full-page advertisements in The New York Times and The Washington Post, a 30,000 word essay by Norman Podhoretz in the neocon flagship journal Commentary, and a public statement of purpose signed by more than 40 mostly right-leaning foreign-policy luminaries, among them some of the leading proponents of the Iraq war. Their mission? To “educate free people everywhere about the threat posed by global radical Islamist and fascist terrorist movements; to counsel against appeasement of terrorists; and build support for a strategy of victory against this menace to freedom.”

But even as the new present danger neatly replaces the old one, it’s obvious there have been some changes in the lineup. The committee’s latest incarnation includes both old-school Soviet hawks–think Podhoretz, Eliot Cohen, and Jeane Kirkpatrick–and younger activists and scholars who cut their teeth during the Iraq debates of the 1990s, including Danielle Pletka, head of the American Enterprise Institute’s defense studies program, and Laurie Mylroie, the AEI fellow and foreign-policy pundit who’s spent years arguing that Saddam Hussein was behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. But some of the usual suspects have yet to sign on, including William Kristol of the Weekly Standard; Gary Schmitt, head of the Project for the New American Century; and Richard Perle, who, though he hasn’t signed the committee’s statement of purpose, nevertheless shows up at the Mayflower halfway through the proceedings and is quickly surrounded by hovering well-wishers.

For that matter, it’s not clear why Schultz is involved–he’s a classic foreign-policy realist, against whom some of the original neoconservatives, such as Kirkpatrick, once battled for influence and prestige in the Reagan administration. But he does his best to fit in. “As you may remember, I was a hawk on terrorism,” Schultz explains unconvincingly over the speakerphone. “And I didn’t get much of a hearing.”

The former secretary of state is followed by a verbose and still-vigorous Podhoretz, who comes to the podium to wonder out loud why everyone is so riled up and surprised about the casualties and the cost of the “battle” of Iraq, of which most of the committee’s members have been inveterate supporters. It “drives me nuts,” he tells the audience, when he hears people complaining about the financial burden of the war or the steady drip of casualties.

Compared to previous wars, he argues, the costs are minimal. The doubters, he intones, “fail to understand what a war is like.” It’s an odd choice of words given that one of Podhoretz’s own CPD colleagues, Kenneth Adelman, famously predicted in a March 2002 Washington Post op-ed that “liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk.” But Podhoretz is undeterred. The Iraq war, he declares, has gone “triumphantly.” The crowd applauds vigorously at this.

Later in the day–perhaps for those wondering if the Iraqis themselves agree with Podhoretz’s assessment–the conference organizers screen a trailer for Voices in Iraq, a forthcoming feature-length documentary for which two movie producers had handed out digital video cameras to ordinary Iraqis and asked them to film their daily lives. Evidently, the Iraqis in question see things the way CPD does. Men on the streets of Baghdad discuss how nice it is to have Saddam gone and to be better paid now. One child asks his mother what she thinks of democracy. “Hassan,” she replies to her son, “democracy means having individual freedom.” A torture victim of Saddam says he wouldn’t mind being tortured at Abu Ghraib. “You have a nice American woman undress you and play with your penis,” he smirks. The audience laughs.

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