Present Dangers

Apparently comfortable with the moral cesspool into which he wandered during the Abu Ghraib hearings, Senator Joe Lieberman announced in a July 20 Washington Post op-ed that he planned to join with the least reputable figures in national-security circles to relaunch the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), an organization not heard from since the last days of disco. A good rule of thumb for telling whether a foreign-policy group intends to offer a serious contribution to the public debate or is more interested in pulling the wool over people's eyes is whether or not its membership includes Laurie Mylroie. Naturally enough, she's a member, along with fellow travelers from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) like James Woolsey and Danielle Pletka.

Mylroie's shtick is pushing the entirely discredited theory that Saddam Hussein not only had "links" to al-Qaeda but was, in fact, a major sponsor of the group. As such, Hussein is held to be responsible for the September 11 attacks, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and, indeed, every major foreign terrorist attack against the United States in the past decade. It's the kind of theory that, though lamentably lacking in evidentiary support, would obviously be helpful to an administration determined to, say, invade Iraq. As such, Mylroie followed up her first book on Hussein's alleged terrorism sponsorship with a second work, Bush Versus The Beltway, explaining that the president wisely understood the truth of her paranoid fantasies but was being held back by lazy bureaucrats at the CIA and FBI more interested in covering up Hussein's crimes than defending America.

This "I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for you meddling intelligence analysts" account has suffered lately as the administration has (repeatedly) explained that it believes no such thing -- and independent inquiry after independent inquiry backs up the intelligence community's position on the matter. Nowadays, right-wingers hoping to be taken seriously point not to the discredited Mylroie but to Stephen Hayes' The Connection, which puts forward a much more modest version of the al-Qaeda-Hussein story.

Like all good hawks these days, those at the CPD are long on talk about their interest in spreading democracy around the world. Their seriousness of purpose here, however, is subject to question. The group's founding executive director has already been dismissed after Prospect contributor Laura Rozen revealed that he was a lobbyist for Jorg Haider's neofascist Austrian Freedom Party, which apparently didn't sit well with the group's largely Jewish membership. Less objectionable to the CPD, though perhaps even more at odds with its ostensible aims, is Hannaford's history of work for such democratic stalwarts as the People's Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria.

Justin Raimondo, meanwhile, has reported that another of the group's founding members, Hedieh Mirahmadi, is general secretary of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, "a small Sufi cult devoted to the teachings of one Shaykh Hisham Kabbani."

As Raimondo notes, the supreme council's thoughts on foreign policy consist largely of apologetics for Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who's ruled the country since the communist era and whose contributions to governance including widespread torture, scalding dissidents, and jailing men whose beards are too long.

The group's very name smacks of dishonesty and a preference for propaganda over serious policy analysis. The original Committee on the Present Danger was formed in the 1950s to raise awareness of the Soviet threat, but the current outfit hearkens back more to the second CPD, formed in the late 1970s around Senator Scoop Jackson of Washington. In an eerie echo of contemporary events, the CPD 2 busied itself arguing that U.S. intelligence was underestimating Soviet strength when it was, in fact, overestimating it. Politically, the CPD 2 served as a bridge for hawkish Democrats to exit the party and join the Ronald Reagan-led GOP, but they misjudged Reagan almost as badly as they misjudged the Soviet Union. In the chief accomplishment of his presidency, Reagan ultimately rejected the CPD's counsel, recognized the underlying feebleness of the Soviet system, and agreed to work with Mikhail Gorbachev to bring the Cold War to a successful conclusion.

The ostensibly new group may not be so new after all. Its membership contains significant overlap with that of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), which co-sponsored the CPD launch event, and the two groups share office space in Washington. The FDD, in turn, began life as a pro-Israel public-relations outfit tied to the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

But what does the CPD want? Its public statements are maddeningly vague, describing its primary purpose as "educat[ing] the American people about the threat posed by a global Islamist terror movement," though the existence of such a threat is hardly a well-kept secret. There are indications, though, that the group's agenda is to push the United States into conflict with Iran. The Post op-ed announcing the groups' creation, co-authored by Lieberman and Senator Jon Kyl, described "the present danger our generation faces" as not only "international terrorism from Islamic extremists" but also "the outlaw states that either harbor or support them." Coming 18 months ago, one would take that as a reference to Iraq, but in the present context it either means Iran or it's nonsense.

So is another war around the corner? Probably not. The CPD's formation is more a sign of weakness than strength. The troubled occupation of Iraq has decreased the credibility and influence of the neoconservative faction in the Pentagon, and Robert Blackwill, who was brought in to pull the president's chestnuts out of the fire and take over Iraq policy from his desk at the National Security Council (NSC), is known to favor engagement with Iran.

What's more, the CPD wasn't even able to round up all the usual suspects to join its group. Key figures like Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol and Project for a New American Century Executive Director Gary Schmitt pointedly failed to sign on. This is just the latest in a growing list of indications of a split within the movement between the Kristol's circle and another centered at the AEI. When the administration broke with neocon favorite Ahmad Chalabi, the latter group broke with the administration, sided with Chalabi, and began bitterly griping about Paul Bremer and the growing influence of the State Department and the NSC staff. The Standard, meanwhile, stayed silent on the Chalabi question and has published a series of fawning Bremer profiles by Executive Editor Fred Barnes.

Still, it's fair to say that we're not out of the woods yet. The president was notably not eager to side with the Iraq hawks in his administration when he first took office. Steps long favored by Paul Wolfowitz, like arming the Iraqi opposition and supporting it with air power, were put on hold in favor of an effort to improve the sanctions regime. Only after the shock of 9-11 did the hawks have the chance to implement their agenda. For now, they seem to be down, but as the launch of their new group reminds us, they're still here, waiting for their moment.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer. His column on politics and the media appears every Tuesday.