Despite mounting criticism of the administration’s Iraq policy, Vice President Dick Cheney appears to be ratcheting up his commitment to the circle of neoconservative intellectuals who helped spearhead President Bush’s war policy, adding one of its most controversial proponents to his national security staff in a little-noticed move last month.
David Wurmser, a neoconservative scholar known for his close ties to the Israeli right, was appointed in mid-September to join the team led by Cheney’s national security adviser, Lewis “Scooter” Libby. In recent years Wurmser, who boasts a complex network of relationships to a variety of pro-Likud think tanks and activist groups, has frequently written articles arguing for a joint American-Israeli effort to undermine the Syrian regime.
Wurmser’s appointment sheds light on the prominent role played by Cheney and his national security staff in shaping foreign policy and coincides with the deterioration in the relations between Washington and Damascus. In recent months, Washington has accused Syria of sheltering Iraqi leaders, weapons and money and of allowing terrorists into Iraq. The administration backed Israel’s recent bombing of a suspected terrorist training camp in Syria and dropped its objections to a congressional bill that grants the president the right to impose sanctions on Damascus.
“The vice president undoubtedly chooses staff whose views are compatible with the policies of the administration,” wrote Judith Kipper, a Middle East scholar with the Council on Foreign Relations, in an e-mail to the Forward. “The question is, how does the vice president’s [national security staff] function in relation to the president’s national security staff and how important policy decisions are made in the White House. While the vice president has a critical role to play, the secrecy surrounding his unusually large foreign-policy staff raises many questions which the American public needs answered.”
Cathy Martin, a spokeswoman for Cheney, confirmed that Wurmser had recently been hired, adding that he is serving as one of many foreign-policy advisers to the vice president. She declined to comment on questions about Cheney’s or Wurmser’s ideological leanings.
Before his appointment, Wurmser had served as a senior adviser to John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security and one of the sharpest critics of Syria within the administration. In speeches and testimonies over the past year, Bolton has sounded increasingly alarmist — far more so than the intelligence community — about Syria’s weapons programs.
Wurmser’s appointment was first reported by Inter-Press Service and elicited criticism from the Arab American Institute, an advocacy organization.
Wurmser is the main author of a 1996 policy paper drafted for then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu by a task force composed of neo-conservative scholars. The white paper, titled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” advocated a remodeling of the Middle East that some critics see as a rough blueprint for the policy adopted by the Bush administration after the September 11 attacks. The paper advocated a strategy of preemptive action to remove Saddam Hussein from power, a “rollback” of Syria and the search for alternatives to Yasser Arafat.
“Whoever inherits Iraq dominates the entire Levant strategically,” said the paper, which was commissioned by the Jerusalem-based Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, where Wurmser was working at the time.
The task force was headed by Richard Perle, now a key Pentagon adviser who sits on the Defense Policy Board. Its members included Douglas Feith, currently the undersecretary of defense for policy and one of the main proponents of the war in Iraq.
Another member of the task force was Wurmser’s Israeli-born wife, Meyrav Wurmser, who heads the Middle East studies department at the conservative Hudson Institute. She is a founder of the Middle East Media Research Institute, or Memri, which translates Arabic press reports and which critics say highlights negative views of the West.
The policy paper suggested that in order to transform the “balance of power” in the Middle East in favor of an axis consisting of Israel, Turkey and Jordan, Saddam should be removed and replaced by a Hashemite ruler.
The next step would be a “rollback” of Syria by sponsoring proxy attacks in Lebanon and even striking at selected targets in Syria. In the late 1990s, Wurmser wrote frequently, arguing for a joint U.S.-Israeli effort to undermine the Syrian regime.
On Tuesday, retired Air Force General James Clapper, director of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, told reporters he was not surprised that U.S. forces had not discovered any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Iraq, citing a big increase in the number of vehicles heading to Syria before the war. The administration also has renewed long-standing accusations that Damascus is developing chemical and biological weapons and is supporting terrorist groups operating against Israel, despite pledges to crack down on them.