The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) was established in 1997 by a number of leading neoconservative writers and pundits to advocate aggressive U.S. foreign policies and "rally support for American global leadership." One of the group's founding documents claimed, "a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity may not be fashionable today. But it is necessary if the United States is to build on the successes of this past century and to ensure our security and our greatness in the next."
PNAC, which phased out most operations by 2006, was perhaps best known for its ability to attract divergent political factions behind its foreign policy agenda, which the group repeatedly demonstrated with its numerous sign-on letters and public statements. PNAC forged an influential coalition of rightist political actors in support of its calls for an aggressive "war on terror" aimed largely at the Middle East, including the invasion of Iraq. Although some observers have exaggerated its impact—two scholars, for instance, argued in the Sociological Quarterly that PNAC almost single-handedly "developed, sold, enacted, and justified a war with Iraq"—the group was arguably the most effective proponent of neoconservative ideas during the period between the beginning of President Bill Clinton's second term and President George W. Bush's 2003 decision to invade Iraq.
PNAC's 1997 "Statement of Principles" set forth an ambitious agenda for foreign and military policy that William Kristol and Robert Kagan, PNAC's founders, described as "neo-Reaganite." Signatories of this charter document included many leading figures from the Christian Right and other conservative political factions. The statement argued, "We seem to have forgotten the essential elements of the Reagan administration's success: a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the U.S. global responsibilities."
PNAC staff and directors included Kristol (chairman), Kagan, Bruce Jackson, Mark Gerson, Randy Scheunemann, Ellen Bork (deputy director), Gary Schmitt (senior fellow), Thomas Donnelly (senior fellow), Reuel Gerecht (director of the Middle East Initiative), Timothy Lehmann, (assistant director), and Michael Goldfarb (research associate). In addition, a host of both rightist ideologues and liberal hawks supported PNAC's various sign-on letters and policy statements. (See "A Complete List of PNAC Signatories and Contributing Writers," Right Web.)
Origins and Agenda
Before establishing PNAC, neoconservatives and their hardline nationalist allies, including Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, began aggressively promoting ideas meant to replace the militant anticommunism that dominated U.S. policy during much of the Cold War. A key step in this process was the 1995 establishment of the Weekly Standard by two scions of the neoconservative movement—William Kristol (son of Irving) and John Podhoretz (son of Norman). Together with Fred Barnes, a former correspondent for The New Republic, they secured funding from media mogul Rupert Murdoch to support the magazine, which quickly replaced Commentary as the high-profile outlet of neoconservative ideas.
In 1996, Kristol and Kagan wrote an article for Foreign Affairs that become a sort of founding statement for the new neoconservative agenda. Entitled "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," the article established several pillars of a post-Cold War foreign policy agenda, including maintaining a benevolent hegemony based in part on a willingness to use force unilaterally and preemptively. Kristol and Kagan asked rhetorically: "What should the U.S. role be? Benevolent global hegemony. Having defeated the 'evil empire,' the United States enjoys strategic and ideological predominance. The first objective of U.S. foreign policy should be to preserve and enhance that predominance by strengthening America's security, supporting its friends, advancing its interests, and standing up for its principles around the world."
The main enemy was internal; in Kagan and Kristol's opinion, it was "time once again to challenge an indifferent America and a confused American conservatism." They added: "In a world in which peace and American security depend on American power and the will to use it, the main threat the United States faces now and in the future is its own weakness. American hegemony is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order. The appropriate goal of American foreign policy, therefore, is to preserve that hegemony as far into the future as possible. To achieve this goal, the United States needs a neo-Reaganite foreign policy of military supremacy and moral confidence."
PNAC served as an institutional vehicle for advocating the ideas laid out in this article. Housed in the same Washington, D.C. office building as the American Enterprise Institute, PNAC was staffed by a number of emerging neoconservatives who generated statements and open letters on various themes and marshaled the gathering of signatures of elite political actors. The founding of PNAC marked a "complete generational transition" in neoconservatism that occurred somewhere "between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Bosnian war," write conservative scholars Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke in their 2004 book America Alone. "By the later half of the 1990s, Kagan, William Kristol, [Joshua] Muravchik, [Richard] Perle, [and Paul] Wolfowitz ... had assumed the leadership roles that had long been held by Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Norman Podhoretz. The younger neoconservatives had filled a space left by the increasing inability of older neoconservative views to provide a sufficient interpretative framework for the changing realities of international events in the 1990s."
PNAC's June 1997 statement of principles repeated many of the same goals laid out in Kristol and Kagan's Foreign Affairs article, including the use of preemptive force. The statement argued that "the history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire." Responding to what they saw as the confusion of the Clinton administration, the statement called for a "Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity" that would be based on several key pillars. "We need to increase defense spending significantly if we are to carry out our global responsibilities today and modernize our armed forces for the future; we need to strengthen our ties to democratic allies and to challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values; we need to promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad; we need to accept responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles."
Establishing the format that would be used in later PNAC publications, the statement of principles was published letter-style and signed by an impressive list of supporters. Although many of the signatories to the statement of principles (and other PNAC documents) were neoconservatives, young and old—such as Elliott Abrams, Norman Podhoretz, George Wiegel, Midge Decter, Frank Gaffney, and I. Lewis Libby—there were also representatives from other political and social sectors, including Religious Right leaders like Gary Bauer; mainstream Republicans like Steve Forbes, social conservatives like William Bennett; hawkish nationalists like Peter Rodman, Rumsfeld, and Cheney; and prominent academic proponents of some neoconservative ideas like Francis Fukuyama and Eliot Cohen. This range of support demonstrated PNAC's success as an instrument for building a broader coalition of influential militarists around the neoconservative ideas and objectives of its founders. Nearly a dozen of the original signatories would, some four years later, obtain posts in the George W. Bush administration, including Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney, Paula Dobriansky, Zalmay Khalilzad, Abrams, and Libby.
In the wake of 9/11, the agenda items outlined in PNAC's founding statement reemerged in the form of Bush's 2002 National Security Strategy, the definitive statement of the so-called Bush Doctrine. As described by leading international relations scholar Robert Jervis, the Bush Doctrine is composed of "a strong belief in the importance of a state's domestic regime in determining its foreign policy and the related judgment that this is an opportune time to transform international politics; the perception of great threats that can be defeated only by new and vigorous policies, most notably preventive war; a willingness to act unilaterally when necessary; and, as both a cause and a summary of these beliefs, an overriding sense that peace and stability require the United States to assert its primacy in world politics."
Open Letters and Other Publications
PNAC published more than a dozen open letters—usually sent to the president or other public officials—on issues ranging from the defense of Taiwan to the need to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic. Demonstrating PNAC's ability to pull together different elements of the political landscape, some letters were supported by traditionally liberal groups and individuals like the International Crisis Group, Morton Abramowitz, and Morton Halperin, as well as by evangelical Christians, social conservatives, liberal hawks in the Democratic Party, and elite proponents of "realism."
PNAC's first order of business was Iraq, which as George Packer wrote in his 2005 book The Assassins' Gate, would serve "as the test case for [neoconservative] ideas about American power and world leadership." Upset over the failure of the first President Bush to oust Saddam Hussein, neoconservatives had long been agitating for more aggressive U.S. action, penning numerous articles on the subject, creating pressure groups like the revived Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf (whose members included Abrams, Khalilzad, Perle, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, John Bolton, and David Wurmser), and attracting other factions of the Republican establishment to the cause. In Iraq, PNAC and its allies apparently saw an opportunity to accomplish two separate but related goals: to show the world that the United States was the dominant global power by undertaking, in the words of Charles Krauthammer, "unapologetic demonstrations of will"; and to begin a dramatic restructuring of the Middle East political landscape along lines consistent with the neoconservatives' vision for Israeli security, which they had outlined in numerous documents since the mid-1990s.
In January 1998, PNAC published an open letter to President Bill Clinton arguing that "containment" of Iraq "has been steadily eroding," jeopardizing the region and potentially beyond. "Given the magnitude of the threat, the current policy, which depends for its success upon the steadfastness of our coalition partners and upon the cooperation of Saddam Hussein, is dangerously inadequate." PNAC followed up a few months later with an open letter to Senate leader Trent Lott (R-MS) and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA), arguing that the "only way to protect the United States and its allies from the threat of weapons of mass destruction [is] to put in place policies that would lead to the removal of Saddam and his regime from power."
Those who signed these letters included many signatories to PNAC's statement of principles, as well as future realist-inclined Bush administration officials Richard Armitage and Robert Zoellick. PNAC set up a meeting in 1998 between Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Perle, and Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security advisor, to argue the case for intervention. In February 1998, Wolfowitz had testified before the House International Relations Committee that regime change in Iraq was the "only way to rescue the region and the world from the threat" posed by Hussein. Revealing another aspect of neoconservative alliance-building in the years leading up to George W. Bush's presidency, Wolfowitz added that the United States should recognize "a provisional government of free Iraq," and that the best place to look for such a government was "with the current organization and principles of [Ahmed Chalabi's] Iraqi National Congress." Thus, write Halper and Clarke, "in only a few years since the Soviet collapse, neoconservatism had refocused itself as an interventionist lobby intent above all else on waging a second Gulf war."
During Clinton's second term, PNAC organized two open letters to the president (the first on Iraq; the second on Milosevic); one letter to congressional leaders (on Iraq); and one general statement (on the "Defense of Taiwan"). (See "A Complete List of PNAC Signatories and Contributing Writers," Right Web.) In 2000, PNAC published a book and a report, both of which were designed as blueprints for a new U.S. foreign and military policy. The book, Present Dangers, included work from many PNAC associates and other neoconservatives; the report, "Rebuilding America's Defenses," written largely by PNAC's Donnelly, offered an agenda for military transformation that echoed many ideas that first gained prominence in the 1992 Draft Defense Policy Guidance.
In 2001, several individuals associated with PNAC letter-writing campaigns entered the administration of George W. Bush (in particular in the Pentagon and the Office of the Vice President). It was not, however, until after 9/11 that the PNAC agenda began to take hold.
Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, on September 20, 2001, PNAC issued an open letter to Bush that commended his newly declared "war on terrorism" and urged him not only to target Osama bin Laden but also other supposed "perpetrators," including Saddam Hussein and Hezbollah. The most notorious of PNAC's many publications, this letter made one of the first arguments for regime change in Iraq as part of the war on terror, arguing that this was necessary even if the Hussein regime was unconnected to the attacks. "It may be that the Iraqi government provided assistance in some form to the recent attack on the United States. But even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism."
The letter also pointed out that to undertake this new war, it would be necessary to inject more money into the U.S. defense budget: "A serious and victorious war on terrorism will require a large increase in defense spending. Fighting this war may well require the United States to engage a well-armed foe, and will also require that we remain capable of defending our interests elsewhere in the world. We urge that there be no hesitation in requesting whatever funds for defense are needed to allow us to win this war."
In April 2002, PNAC followed up its push toward war with a letter to Bush on "Israel, Arafat, and the War on Terrorism." Calling for more assertive action in helping Israel fight terrorism, the letter stated, "Israel's fight against terrorism is our fight.… For reasons both moral and strategic, we need to stand with Israel in its fight against terrorism." It argued that "one spoke of the terrorist network consists of Yasser Arafat and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority.… Mr. Arafat has demonstrated time and again that he cannot be part of the peaceful solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." The letter also reiterated the call for removing Saddam Hussein from power: "If we do not move against Saddam Hussein and his regime, the damage our Israeli friends and we have suffered until now may someday appear but a prelude to much greater horrors. Moreover, we believe that the surest path to peace in the Middle East lies not through appeasement of Saddam and other local tyrants, but through a renewed commitment on our part, as you suggested in your State of the Union address, to the birth of freedom and democratic government in the Islamic world."
Those who signed this letter included social conservatives and Religious Right figures like Gary Bauer as well as liberal hawks like Marshall Wittmann. Richard Perle, Jim Woolsey, Ken Adelman, and Eliot Cohen—neoconservative members of the Defense Policy Board—signed on, as did others from the neoconservative network including Robert and Donald Kagan, Daniel Pipes, Norman Podhoretz, Gary Schmitt, Joshua Muravchik, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Bruce Jackson, William Kristol, Frank Gaffney, and several others.
Two months later, Bush made a dramatic about-face in U.S. policy on Israel and Palestine. After months of tit-for-tat violence between the Israelis and Palestinian militants, which included several large-scale suicide bombings and the decision by the government of Arial Sharon to place Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah under siege, Bush announced at a Rose Garden press conference on June 24, 2003, that he would no longer negotiate with Arafat and urged Palestinians to elect new leaders who were "not compromised by terror." Once a democratically elected government was in place, Bush said, the United States would support the creation of a Palestinian state. The announcement, which directly contradicted a proposal by Colin Powell to set up an international conference as part of an effort to revive negotiations toward Palestinian-Israeli peace, was "a milestone," as writer James Mann put it. "For the first time the United States had explicitly abandoned Arafat, declaring that America would support a Palestinian state only if it was not under his leadership."
In March 2003, on the first day of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and again nine days later, PNAC issued statements on "post-war Iraq." Notably, these statements included many liberal hawks as signatories and, in the second statement, the grudging acceptance that the United States must look to the international community for help with reconstruction and pacifying the country. One concern of the neoconservatives at the time was the mounting calls for an early exit from Iraq. Said the first statement, "Everyone—those who have joined the coalition, those who have stood aside, those who opposed military action, and, most of all, the Iraqi people and their neighbors—must understand that we are committed to the rebuilding of Iraq and will provide the necessary resources and will remain for as long as it takes."
Tom Barry of the International Relations Center wrote, "Two PNAC letters in March 2003 played to those Democrats who believed that the invasion was justified at least as much by humanitarian concerns as it was by the purported presence of weapons of mass destruction." Signatories to the statements included several Democrats.
On January 28, 2005, PNAC issued its final open letter. Addressed to congressional leaders, it requested that they "take the steps necessary to increase substantially the size of the active duty Army and Marine Corps." At least 25,000 troops a year would be needed to meet what Condoleezza Rice called the country's "generational commitment" to fighting terrorism in the greater Middle East. Turning on some of its erstwhile allies in the Bush administration, like Rumsfeld, the letter stated: "The administration has been reluctant to adapt to this new reality.… We understand the dangers of continued federal deficits and the fiscal difficulty of increasing the number of troops. But the defense of the United States is the first priority of the government." This letter was notable for the many liberal hawks and liberal internationalists—including Peter Beinart, Paul Kennedy, Will Marshall, Michael O'Hanlon, Michele Flournoy, and James Steinberg—who joined the neoconservatives in signing.
A few months later, PNAC issued the report, "Iraq: Setting the Record Straight," published in April 2005. An apologia for the invasion and war, the report concluded that Bush's decision to act "derived from a perception of Saddam's intentions and capabilities, both existing and potential, and was grounded in the reality of Saddam's prior behavior." The authors blamed the reporting of the UN inspection teams and U.S. government statements, which they said "left wide gaps in the public understanding of what the president faced on March 18, 2003, and what we have learned since." The report also charged that administration critics "selectively used material in the historical record to reinforce their case against the president's policy."
PNAC's activities dwindled after 2005, with its activity limited to publishing a few articles by staffers Ellen Bork and Gary Schmitt in the Weekly Standard. In May 2008, news that PNAC's website closed down spread quickly in the blogosphere. Commenting on the group's apparent final demise, Jim Lobe of the Inter Press Service wrote, "Visitors to the former web site are diverted to another one that says, 'This Account Has Been Suspended. Please contact the billing/support department as soon as possible.' A metaphor, perhaps, for the bankruptcy of the ideas that inspired the project and the strategic disaster that they produced for U.S. interests in Iraq, the greater Middle East, and the wider world?" (A few months later, the website was back up, and as of early 2013 it remains in place, serving as an online repository for the group's various letters and publications.)
Several organizations and advocacy groups that shared PNAC's views about U.S. global dominance—and also had overlapping memberships—emerged in response to the Bush administration's war on terror. Many of these entities—such as the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, the U.S. Committee on NATO, the Committee on the Present Danger, and the Coalition for Democracy in Iran—were formed as ad hoc pressure groups that were closely associated with PNAC and have now folded or become dormant. Other groups, notably Clifford May's Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), have evolved as major institutions with large budgets and staffs. And many of the same figures behind PNAC have attempted on numerous occasions, particularly after the election of President Barack Obama, to replicate the success of PNAC by founding similarly oriented groups, among which include the Foreign Policy Initiative, Keep Israel Safe, Keep America Safe, and the Emergency Committee for Israel. A key aim of these groups has been to promote war with Iran.
Despite PNAC's efforts to forge a consensus around neoconservative ideas, many differences surfaced among the circle of hawks and social conservatives that PNAC brought together in 1997. Some, like Francis Fukuyama, have backed away from the imperialism of PNAC and the neoconservative camp. While generally supportive of the Bush administration's stance on the war on terror, many rightists became critical of the neoconservatives' foreign, military, and domestic policies, creating divisions between PNAC associates in and outside government.
In a widely noted January 2004 National Interest article titled "The Neoconservative Moment," Fukuyama argued that the neoconservatives had failed to acknowledge "new facts" about the situation in Iraq and elsewhere. These new facts, he said, included "the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the virulent and steadily mounting anti-Americanism throughout the Middle East, the growing insurgency in Iraq, the fact that no strong democratic leadership had emerged there, the enormous financial and growing human cost of the war, the failure to leverage the war to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and the fact that America's fellow democratic allies had by and large failed to fall in line and legitimate American actions ex post."
Although the neoconservative camp and its allies, including Cheney's foreign policy team, continued to push for military action against Iran during Bush's last year in office, public differences began to emerge over issues such as which groups should receive U.S. assistance, whether there are non-violent means to effect change in Iran, and whether Tehran poses as grave a threat as once thought.
Ultimately, however, as a mechanism through which the neoconservatives built a cohesive—if often turbulent—coalition of political elites in support of their agenda, PNAC demonstrated that through a propitious combination of astute political organizing and dramatic outside events (e.g., 9/11), even a small group of ideologues like the neoconservatives can help shape the preferences of key sectors of the political landscape. Repeating a pattern established by similar letterhead groups from the past, most notably the various incarnations of the Committee on the Present Danger in the 1950s and 1970s, PNAC demonstrated the vulnerability of national security to campaigns that use fear of impending doom at the hands of a mortal enemy to mobilize public and elite action.
PNAC successfully harnessed another tactic used by it predecessors: the evocation of deeply engrained ideas in the United States about the country's exceptionalism, moral superiority, and national greatness. An earlier example of this came soon after World War II, when George Kennan's 1947 article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," outlined what would become U.S. deterrence policy. In an observation about the ability of Kennan's formulation to win adherents, scholar Bruce Kuklick wrote: "It brought together strands of thought floating around Washington, blending a no-nonsense program for political action with moralistic denunciation of a dangerous but beatable enemy. Kennan took his place in a long tradition of American calls to arms, from John Winthrop to Manifest Destiny." To that "long tradition" one might also add PNAC—with that caveat that while Kennan's deterrence theory served as the dominant paradigm of U.S. foreign policy for more than four decades, PNAC's call for a post-Cold War recipe of aggressive interventionism and unilateralism appeared to fall out of favor within the span of a single presidency.
From 2000 to 2005, PNAC received $241,735 in grants from several conservative foundations, including the Earhart, Olin, and William H. Donner foundations. From 1994 to 2005, the New Citizenship Project, which sponsored PNAC and whose chairman was Kristol, received $3.5 million in grants, mostly from the largest right-wing foundations: Bradley, Olin, and Scaife. The Bradley Foundation was PNAC's largest source of foundation support, granting PNAC $800,000 from 1997 to 2005. In its first year of operations, PNAC received grants from Bradley, Sarah Scaife, and Olin foundations.