Bernard Lewis: Singled out by Slate's Jacob Weisberg as the Big Thinker behind the Iraq War

... Wolfowitz and his protégé Scooter Libby, the other most influential neoconservative inside the administration, were driven by a particular notion about how to transform the sick political culture of the Middle East. The big thinker behind their theory was the Arab scholar Bernard Lewis, a professor emeritus at Princeton. The originator of the phrase "the clash of civilizations," Lewis believed Muslims had been engaged in a "cosmic struggle for world domination" since the time of Muhammad. Centuries of defeat, subjugation, and misrule, to which the United States contributed by supporting corrupt and incompetent dictators, prepared the way for Islamist terrorism. Cheney met Lewis when he was Secretary of Defense, and the two became friends. After September 11, he became interested in Lewis's argument about what had gone wrong in the Arab world.

Over a series of lunches at the vice president's residence in 2002, Lewis laid out his case for using American military power to change the regime in Iraq. Years of "anxious propitiation" had left the Muslim world convinced of our weakness. Force was what Arabs respected. A conclusive show of strength could catalyze a change in the opposite direction. The neoconservatives have a weakness for historical analogies—and for one analogy in particular. "Anxious propitiation" was a fancy name for appeasement, compromising with an enemy that needed confronting. In this analogy, Saddam was Hitler, who grew in strength as the West postponed challenging him. Or, if not Nazi Germany, Iraq was a Soviet-style totalitarian state, vulnerable to a combination of American moral and military pressure.

By mid-2002, Cheney had become a down-the-line ally of the neoconservatives. But that does not mean he had turned into some sort of democratic idealist. He never cited Bernard Lewis's theory in any of his public advocacy for the war. For the congenitally pessimistic vice president, transforming the political culture of the Middle East can't have been more than a castle in the sky, a long-shot best-case scenario. But the vice president surely recognized that the grandiosity of the neocon vision of a new Arab world would resonate with the president. For Bush, boldness had a constant allure. Remaking the Middle East via Iraq was just the kind of game-changing idea he went for....

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