"We're Taking Down Seven Countries in Five Years":
A Regime Change Checklist

by Gary Leupp

www.dissidentvoice.org, January 17, 2007


Last October in a speech at the University of Alabama Gen. Wesley Clark again recounted his conversation with a general at the Pentagon in November 2001.

I said, "Are we still going to invade Iraq?" "Yes, Sir," he said, "but it's worse than that." I said, "How do you mean?" He held up this piece of paper. He said, "I just got this memo today or yesterday from the office of the Secretary of Defense upstairs. It's a, it's a five-year plan. We're going to take down seven countries in five years. We're going to start with Iraq, then Syria, Lebanon, then Libya, Somalia, Sudan, we're going to come back and get Iran in five years. I said, "Is that classified, that paper?" He said, "Yes Sir." I said, "Well, don't show it to me, because I want to be able to talk about it."

This was of course just two months after 9-11, when Americans' attention was focused on al-Qaeda and preparations for an invasion of Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden lived as a guest of the Taliban.

Five years and two months have passed. The plan to "take down" all those countries is behind schedule, and has even been modified somewhat. Libya has left the target list due to Muammar Qaddafi's agreement to dismantle his WMD programs in 2003. (Bush has tried to take credit for that, although patient British diplomacy deserves more credit. During Anglo-American negotiations with Libya the British were so disgusted with John Bolton's behavior they asked that Bush's envoy be removed from the talks.) But the U.S. did indeed take down Iraq, and all the other countries listed remain in the crosshairs.

Syria, despite its cooperation with the U.S. against al-Qaeda, has been systematically vilified by a U.S. administration that now refuses to even talk to its government. Soon after Bush's infamous "axis of evil" speech in January 2002, John Bolton added a second tier of Syria, Libya and Cuba to the "evil" list. The anti-Syrian propaganda campaign has been relentless ever since. When no WMD were found in Iraq, some (following an assertion by Ariel Sharon as early as December 2002) suggested that they'd been removed to Syria. Immediately after the assassination of Rafik Hariri in February 2005, Washington -- with no evidence whatsoever -- pointed the finger at Syria. It demanded the withdrawal of Syrian troops in Lebanon, depicting them as an unwelcome oppressive force although they had been deployed there at the request of the Christian-led Lebanese government to help end a civil war.

When the Syrian forces expeditiously withdrew, the U.S. expressed its continued dissatisfaction, accusing Syria of continuing to maintain an intelligence network in the country (as though the U.S. doesn't). The U.S. has consistently accused Syria of harboring former Iraqi Baathist officials (as though there would be anything wrong with providing refuge to officials fleeing an illegally invaded country) and of allowing Arab fighters to cross its border into Iraq. The Syrians reply that they've strained their resources to better police their border, but that the Americans, who cannot adequately guard their own border with Mexico, are asking the impossible.

For many years Washington has designated Syria a terror-sponsoring nation because of its support for Palestinian resistance groups and Hizbollah, Lebanon's most popular political party. Although Syria has repeatedly offered to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel, it has been targeted by the neocons for regime change. A key step towards that end was obtained by the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed into law by the president. This makes it official U.S. policy that "Syria should bear responsibility for attacks committed by Hizbollah and other terrorist groups with offices or other facilities in Syria, or bases in areas of Lebanon occupied by Syria" and gives the president broad discretion to take punitive actions.

In late 2005 Richard Perle -- one of the most important neocon architects of Washington's regime change policy -- hosted Farid Ghadry, the head of something called the "Syrian Reform Party," in his suburban Washington home. Last June Ghadry met the neocons' chief sponsor, Vice President Dick Cheney, to strategize about regime change in Syria. This gentleman has told the Wall Street Journal that Perle's buddy Ahmad Chalabi "paved the way in Iraq for what we want to do in Syria." Robert Dreyfuss writing in the American Prospect calls Ghadry "a pro-Israeli Syrian who's maintained ties to neoconservatives in Washington and who is close to [David] Wurmser and his wife, Meyrav Wurmser, the director of Middle East affairs for the Hudson Institute."

In his most recent speech to the nation, President Bush virtually announced his intention to "take down" Syria: "Succeeding in Iraq," he declared, "also requires defending its territorial integrity . . . and stabilizing the region in the face of the extremist challenge. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."

Asked last week by Delaware Senator Joseph Biden whether she thinks Bush has constitutional authority to cross the border into Syria or Iran, Secretary of State Condi Rice replied that the president's powers are "broad" and that he "will do what is necessary to protect our forces." Yes, notwithstanding the administration's setbacks, the plan to attack Syria remains on track.

What of Lebanon, next on the general's list? Since 2001 the U.S. has succeeded in working with France to produce UN Security Council resolutions forcing Syria's withdrawal and demanding that Hizbollah disarm. It has pressured the European Union placing Hizbollah on its list of "terrorist" organizations. It has orchestrated the "Cedar Revolution" (so dubbed by U.S. Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula J. Dobriansky), prompting the resignation of pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami and producing an anti-Syrian majority in the Lebanese Parliament in June 2005. The U.S. media has spun these political changes as reflecting popular sentiment in Lebanon, ignoring the massive Hizbollah-led pro-Syrian demonstrations which have generally dwarfed those hostile to Damascus.

During Israel's vicious assault on Lebanon last July, condemned by virtually every government but Washington as a wild overreaction to the capture of an Israeli soldier by Hizbollah forces on the border, the U.S. stood by Israel. Over 1000 Lebanese civilians died in the July War, a quarter of the country's population was displaced, much of the rebuilt infrastructure was destroyed, and massive environmental damage (including a four million gallon oil slick off the Lebanese coast after the Israeli Air Force bombed the Jiyeh Power Station) resulted. Throughout the U.S. media, taking its cue from the administration, depicted Israel's actions as self-defense.

Yes, Washington wants to "take down" Hizbollah, but the movement's popularity soared as it mounted an impressive counter-attack last summer, not only consolidating its Shiite base but winning the support of many Sunnis, Christians and other Lebanese. If the plan was to destroy Hizbollah preparatory to an attack on its ally Iran, it failed miserably. Hizbollah continues to rally hundreds of thousands in opposition to the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora. So the neocons can't yet proclaim "Mission Accomplished" in Lebanon.

What of Somalia? For the first time since the "Black Hawk Down" humiliation in 1993, which prompted the withdrawal of a "humanitarian mission" that had taken sides in Somalia's civil conflict, the U.S. has taken military action against a target in that country. This follows a serious of actions designed to build a case for regime change there. As R.T. Naylor has enumerated them in a CounterPunch column, these include blocking the transfer of funds from Somalis in the U.S. to relatives back home, sending a warship to patrol the Somali coast, and making preparations for direct intervention -- supposedly to prevent al-Qaeda from gaining control over the country. In October 2002, the U.S. dispatched 1,500 troops to its newly established military base at Camp Le Monier, a former French Foreign Legion outpost in neighboring Djibouti. This has become the U.S. base of operations on the Horn of Africa, transferred from the Marine Corps to the Navy last July, when Djibouti's government announced a lease agreement to expand the camp from 88 acres to nearly 500 acres.

In January 2006 the Fifth Fleet's guided missile destroyer USS Winston S Churchill in a symbolic show of force seized a pirate ship off the coast. Meanwhile Washington cultivated the "transitional government" of Somalia formed in exile and approved a fifty million dollar contract between it and a private U.S. marine security company to patrol the coast.

In recent days Washington has worked with an invading (mostly Christian) Ethiopian army to topple the government headed by the Islamic Courts Union. Last year the ICU took over most of Somalia, bringing order and the restoration of commerce to Mogadishu, Kismayo and other cities. While it implemented harsh Sharia law, it received considerable support (including from Mogadishu's business community) as an alternative to the rule of feuding warlords. It includes some elements that express support for al-Qaeda, but also "moderate" elements, including its chairman Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. In any case, the U.S. has been quietly supporting the ICU's warlord opponents for months and on December 14 U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Fraser made a speech declaring that the ICU "is now controlled by al-Qaeda cell individuals." (South African journalist Michael Schmidt writes, "Fraser, now Bush's senior advisor on Africa, had no diplomatic experience. Instead, she once served as a politico-military planner with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Department of Defence and as senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council.") This speech, according to John Prendergast, Africa director for the International Crisis Group, "was the green light the Ethiopians needed" to invade.

It is not at all clear that the U.S. and Ethiopia-backed transitional government commands greater respect from the Somali people than the ICU, which although driven from the cities vows guerrilla resistance. Indeed there have been ongoing protest demonstrations and the new regime is so insecure that it has imposed a state of emergency and shut down Al Jazeera and other media outlets. Newly installed President Abdullahi Yusuf himself notes that Mogadishu "is in chaos. It's not safe." In this context a U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship flying from a base in the French protectorate of Djibouti launched an airstrike last week against alleged al-Qaeda leader Fazul Mohammed and two other top terrorists. First it announced a hit, then retracted the story, declaring however that ten "Islamist allies of al-Qaeda" had been killed.

But Somalis like Member of Parliament Abdelgadir Haji tell a different tale. He claims that the strike killed over 150. The transitional government announced that about 50 "Islamist leaders" fleeing Mogadishu had been killed, while the Islamists' health director told the New York Times that the groups' "donkeys, their camels, their cows, they've all been destroyed. And many children were killed." Oxfam reports that at least 70 nomads were killed in the attack.

The new UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon expressed concern about the attack and the "new dimension this kind of action could introduce to the conflict, and the possible escalation of hostilities that may result." The EU pronounced the U.S. action "not helpful in the long run." The Italian foreign minister declared that Rome opposed "unilateral initiatives that could set off new tensions in an area already marked by high instability." The Arab League condemned the action, declaring it had killed "many innocent victims." Amnesty International suggested it violated international law.

The U.S. followed up by sending a team of military personnel to the attack site to investigate. Meanwhile the Pentagon acknowledged that U.S. special operations forces are now in Somalia tracking down al-Qaeda leaders, and a small team serves as advisors to Ethiopian and Somali forces. The USS Ramage guided missile destroyer has arrived off the Somali coast, joining the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier, the USS Bunker Hill and USS Anzio guided missile cruisers, and the USS Ashland amphibious landing ship.

This as the population of Mogadishu rises up in angry protests against the transitional government and its plans to disarm the people. Having conflated the ICU and al-Qaeda, and taking advantage of the savage image of Somalis conveyed by the 2001 movie hit Black Hawk Down, Washington may assume that further intervention will meet with domestic support. In any case, it looks like Somalia's been "taken down" as predicted by Gen. Clark's Pentagon buddy.

How about Sudan? Here's where a humanitarian argument comes in . . . rather like it did in 1992, when the first President Bush sent in troops to help the starving Somalis but wound up generating widespread outrage. Here the neocons build bridges to the naive liberals prone to sport placards pleading, "Out of Iraq, Into Darfur!" at antiwar demonstrations. If you want to take down Sudan's government, it's helpful to vilify it as much as possible. If you can depict a conflict between Sudanese herders and agriculturalists as one between government-backed Arab terrorists (the Janjaweed militia) and black African targets of genocide (as Colin Powell did publicly in September 2004), conjuring up images of the Holocaust, so much the better. The fact of the matter is that the Sudanese government has signed ceasefire and power-sharing agreements with rebel forces in January, July, and October 2002, May 2004, January and June 2005, and May 2006. From August 2004 it has accepted an African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur, now numbering about 7000 troops. In December 2006 it agreed to accept the deployment of UN troops in Darfur as part of an expanded peacekeeping force.

John Bolton had crusaded at the United Nations for that UN force. But Khartoum has little reason to suppose Bolton is an honest broker when it comes to its internal affairs. In October 2005, he actually blocked a special UN envoy from briefing the UN Security Council about the situation in Darfur, declaring that the council already knew enough to take action.

Bolton proposed the UN force be augmented by NATO troops -- a suggestion naturally rejected by a regime on the American hit list. Nevertheless, after much arm-twisting by Bolton, the UNSC unanimously passed Resolution 1679 in May 2006 calling for the African Union force to be replaced by a UN force in Sudan, and Bolton interprets the resolution as validating NATO involvement. The resolution calls upon the AU and all parties involved to "agree with" and "work with" not just the UN but "international and regional organizations."

In a May 16, 2006 news conference Bolton made himself clear: "Regional organization means NATO. There's not the slightest doubt in anybody's mind what it means."

It sounds as though Cheney and his neocons are eager to get NATO's foot in the door. (Bolton's on record, by the way, as advocating Israel's admission into that expanding body.)

Exploitation of the Darfur situation and other conflicts could conceivably lead to regime change in Africa's largest country. But China, heavily invested in Sudan's oil industry and cozy with the regime, has generally opposed outside intervention. And nasty though Khartoum and the Janjaweed militia might be, Sudan hasn't been high on the U.S.'s regime change list.

That leaves Iran. If Colin Powell's State Department was for a time inclined to seek a rapprochement with Tehran, the neocons were able to sabotage his efforts before the attack on Iraq. Dick Cheney intervened to reject an Iranian offer of talks with the U.S. soon after the invasion, and has been working tirelessly to build a case for an attack, ably assisted by John Bolton. Bolton, after all, was able to strong-arm a resolution from the UN Security Council finding Iran "in non-compliance" with the Non-Proliferation Treaty even though IAEA head and Nobel peace prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei has stated repeatedly he's found no evidence for an Iranian nuclear weapons program. As in the case of Iraq, the plan is to connect a posited, unproven intention of Iran to acquire nuclear weapons with its potential to hand one over to a terrorist group. Given that Iran does support some organizations (including Hamas and Hizbollah) that Washington considers terrorist, and that Iran is hostile to Israel, the neocon propaganda apparatus (concentrated in the Iranian Directorate under Abram Shulsky in the Pentagon and the Office of Iranian Affairs in the State Department) has a lot to work with.

The war planners got a boost when the 9-11 Commission, having debunked the prewar reports about Saddam's WMD and al-Qaeda ties, reported that Tehran had facilitated the passage of al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan to Iraq. They also benefited from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory in the August 2005 Iranian presidential elections and early (now discredited) reports that he was among the students who took over the U.S. embassy after the fall of the Shah in 1979 and held U.S. personnel hostage. The more persistent report is of Iranian support for Iraqi militias; Iranian arms, we're supposed to believe, are going to both Sunni and Shiite forces killing American troops. But the Iraqi government -- placed in power by the occupiers but led by Shiites friendly towards Iran -- disputes the charges (just as it disputes allegations of Syrian complicity in the "insurgency"). In any case, the justifications for an attack on Iran have been clear for some time:

Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. (This involves insisting, as Cheney has repeatedly, that an oil-rich nation like Iran can't possibly have need for a nuclear program.)

Iran is threatening to "wipe Israel off the map" and would use nuclear weapons to do so. (Actual anti-Israel statements by Ahmadinejad seem to be augmented by false reports and misquotations.)

Iran is complicit in the killing Americans in Iraq.

Iran is harboring al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists and helping Palestinian terrorists and Hizbollah.

Iran has been complicit in international acts of terrorism.

The administration has received support from the House of Representatives, which in April 2006 passed the "Iran Freedom Support Act"which "found"among other things that "The United States and the international community face no greater threat to their security than the prospect of rogue regimes who support international terrorism obtaining weapons of mass destruction, and particularly nuclear weapons. "It further "found" that "Iran is the leading state sponsor of international terrorism and is close to achieving nuclear weapons."

Soon we may be told that Iran by ignoring a Security Council resolution demanding it suspend its nuclear enrichment program leaves the U.S., as the world's leader, no option but to use force. Both Rice and her deputy Stephen Hadley have refused to say whether or not they believe an attack would require congressional approval. Prospects for a strike would improve if there is a terrorist attack in the very near future on U.S. soil. As former CIA officer Philip Giraldi reported in the American Conservative in August 2005, Cheney has asked STRATCOM to draw up a plan for a large-scale air assault on Iran, employing both conventional and tactical nuclear weapons, to be immediately implemented in the wake of a terrorist attack on the U.S. -- whether or not it had any connection to Iran! He must suppose such an attack would help change the political atmosphere and reduce dissent.

Alternatively, Israel may conclude that this most pro-Israeli of all U.S. administrations lacks the will to undertake the attack it has been urging on the U.S. with mounting insistence over the past several years. In that case the U.S. will have a crucial supporting role. "We" will still be involved.

While ratcheting up tension around Iran's nuclear program, the administration has made apparent preparations for an attack, sending Patriot missile batteries and two aircraft carriers to the Gulf region. The president has just appointed a naval officer, Adm. William J. Fallon, to replace Army Gen. John Abizaid as head of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM). Many have observed that it makes little sense to place an admiral in charge of land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but would be reasonable to give one command responsibility for an air war.

Meanwhile U.S. forces in Iraq have now twice detained Iranian diplomatic personnel in Iraq, over the objections of Iraqi officials, accusing them of assisting anti-US militias. In the most recent episode, they invaded a building (viewed by the Iraqi government as a consulate) in Irbil, and apprehended five Iranians who claim to be diplomats. Irbil is in Iraqi Kurdistan, where local officials are more friendly to U.S. troops than in any other part of the country. But the action -- an apparent violation of the1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations -- sparked outrage among Kurds, including one who serves as Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari. "We don't want Iraq to be a battleground for settling scores with other countries, "he told CNN. Prime Minister Jalal Talabani, also a Kurd, had expressed dismay at the detention of Iranians (in Iraq at his invitation) last month. It may be that Washington seeks to provoke Iran by such behavior opposed by the Iraqi client regime itself, which cherishes warm relations with Tehran.

Iran was supposed to have been taken down by now. But five years have passed. Perhaps Gen. Clark these days, in his occasional forays to the Pentagon, is asking his active-duty pals: "Are we still going to invade Iran?"


Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion, at Tufts University and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu.

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