Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Peter Wehner

    • Ethics and Public Policy Center: Senior Fellow
    • White House: Director of Strategic Initiatives (2002-2007)
    • Empower America: Former Executive Director
    • Foreign Policy Initiative: Letter Signatory

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Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), a neoconservative-led organization founded in the 1970s that promotes an increased role for Christianity in public policy. A former advisor in the George W. Bush White House, Wehner's track record also includes stints in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.[1] Wehner has worked with a number of other rightist groups, including the William Bennett-founded Empower America and the Hudson Institute, and he has been closely associated with leading neoconservative figures like William Kristol.[2]

Although his writings often focus on domestic policy and Christian morality, Wehner is a reliable hawk on foreign affairs, at times teaming up with like-minded activists to push militarist overseas policies. In September 2011, for example, Wehner joined a coterie of Iraq War promoters in signing an open letter to President Barack Obama that called for maintaining a large U.S. military presence in Iraq after the end of 2011. The letter, which was released by the William Kristol-founded Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI)—a successor group to the Project for the New American Century—argued that the 4,000-troop residual force the Obama administration was reportedly considering keeping in Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal was incapable of helping Iraq defend itself. The authors pointed to alleged threats from Iran, which the letter claimed "has increased its attempts to expand its influence in Iraq, including through the killing of American forces and support to Iraqi political parties."[3]

The letter was signed by 40 policy and defense analysts, including a number of former senior George W. Bush administration officials who played key roles in the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq; among them, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), Paul Bremer; his former spokesman, Dan Senor; former Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman; and Vice President Dick Cheney's Mideast aide, John Hannah; as well as Wehner's former colleagues in the Bush White House, Karl Rove and Marc Thiessen.

Earlier, in August 2011, Wehner argued in a Weekly Standard op-ed that Obama's first term in office was shaping up to be an abject failure, claiming that the president was guilty of—among other things—"economic malpractice" and "political fraudulence." On foreign affairs, Wehner insinuated the Obama is not interested in protecting the country. "It tells us something that every previous president was instinctively inclined to defend the United States, while Obama is far more inclined to apologize for her and place himself above her. He has undermined America's moral self-confidence."[4]

In the George W. Bush White House

Wehner served as an adviser and speechwriter in the George W. Bush from 2002 to 2007. He gained a reputation as a vocal proponent of the Bush administration's conservative domestic agenda and militarist "war on terror" policies, which he continued to defend after leaving the government. In May 2008, for example, Wehner characterized Bush's Iraq plan as "working in terms of security, in terms of politics, and in terms of economics. … I don't see any reason why you'd get away from it."[5]

Wehner's position as head of the Office of Strategic Initiatives, an in-house quasi-think tank created by Karl Rove, was characterized by the Washington Post as the "rarest of White House jobs."[6] According to the Post, Wehner was "paid to read, to think, to prod, to brainstorm—all without accountability. He recalls the words of White House senior adviser Karl Rove when he interviewed for the job: 'He said my job is to bug him.'"[7]

Bush called Wehner's frequent proposals on both domestic and foreign policy, which were widely circulated in and out of the administration, "Wehner-grams." Former White House colleagues highlighted the influential role Wehner played. Michael Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter, said that Wehner "developed a tremendous influence at the White House, not by being a policy implementer but by being an idea and argument generator."[8]

From his perch at the White House, Wehner's principal role often seemed to be the administration's attack dog. For example, in response to a 2006 column by conservative writer George Will that lambasted Bush's Middle East policy as the "triumph of unrealism," Wehner wrote a widely circulated rebuttal, arguing that Will's views on the Middle East would "lead to death and destruction on a scale that is almost unimaginable."[9] Ignoring the violence in Iraq associated with the U.S. occupation and blowback from the push to establish Western-style democracies in the Middle East,[10] Wehner contended that Bush's "Freedom Agenda" would "assist in the rise of liberty and civic habits in the Middle East. That will take longer to achieve than the historical blink of an eye. And one thing we know for sure: we were never going to get there under a policy that looked away from, or even promoted, tyrannical regimes in the Arab world."[11]

Wehner also attacked Will for insisting that Iraq should not be the focus of efforts to combat terrorism, writing, "Iraq is a central front in the war on terrorism because [terrorists] have made it so. Wishing it were not the case—even writing that it is not the case—won't change that reality."[12]

At the Ethics and Public Policy Center

When he left the Bush administration in 2007, Wehner took a post as senior fellow at EPPC,[13] one of several institutes established by neoconservatives to promote an increased role for religion in public policy. Others include the Institute on Religion and Democracy and the Institute on Religion and Public Life. EPPC hosts a number of high-profile rightist ideologues, including George Weigel.

Wehner has used his post at EPPC to promote the same ideological positions he championed in the Bush White House. In an online article for the neoconservative flagship magazine Commentary, Wehner criticized conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan for arguing, after the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, that the United States had "very little moral standing to protest an invasion of a sovereign country."[14] Sullivan's "moral equivalency" between Iraq and Georgia was "indefensible," wrote Wehner.[15]

Sullivan responded, "Just imagine if the press were to discover a major jail in Gori, occupied by the Russians, where hundreds of Georgians had been dragged in off the streets and tortured and abused? What if we discovered that the orders for this emanated from the Kremlin itself? And what if we had documentary evidence of the ghastliest forms of racist, dehumanizing, abusive practices against the vulnerable as the standard operating procedure of the Russian army—because the prisoners were suspected of resisting the occupying power? Pete Wehner belonged to the administration that did this. It seems to me that, in these circumstances, the question of moral equivalence becomes a live one. When an American president has violated two centuries of civilized norms, how could it not be, for any serious person with a conscience?"[16]

Wehner contributes to a number of right-wing and neoconservative media outlets, including Commentary's "Contentions" blog, National Review's "The Corner" blog, and the Weekly Standard. Topics of his articles have included his views of the presidential candidates, the benefits of Bush administration's Medicare policies, the supposed successes of the "Freedom Agenda," and fawning reviews of books penned by right-wing writers like Dinesh D'Souza.

Wehner's track record includes employment under three Republican presidents and serving as a director at the now-defunct Empower America, a rightist advocacy group founded by William Bennett in 1993. According to his EPPC bio, Wehner was a speechwriter for Bennett (the secretary of education for Ronald Reagan), and later an assistant to Bennett in the Office of National Drug Control Policy, before joining the Bush administration.[17]

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[1] EPPC, Peter Wehner, http://www.eppc.org/scholars/scholarID.93/scholar.asp.

[2] Dana Milbank, "'Bush's Blunder' May Be Kristol's Inside Influence," Washington Post, March 19, 2002.

[3] FPI, "Open Letter: Foreign Policy Experts Urge President Obama to Reconsider Troop Drawdown in Iraq," September 15, 2011, http://www.foreignpolicyi.org/content/foreign-policy-experts-urge-president-obama-reconsider-troop-drawdown-iraq-0.

[4] Peter Wehner, "Decline and Fall," Weekly Standard, August 29, 2011.

[5] Hannity & Colmes, "Panel Weighs in on McCain Goals," Fox News Network, May 15, 2008.

[6] Dan Balz, "Resident Thinker Given Free Rein in White House," Washington Post,December 13, 2004.

[7] Dan Balz, "Resident Thinker Given Free Rein in White House," Washington Post, December 13, 2004.

[8] Peter Baker, "Policy Aide's Departure Continues Transformation of Bush's Staff," Washington Post, March 30, 2007.

[9] Peter Wehner, "Responding to George Will's Realism," published by Real Clear Politics, August 16, 2006, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2006/08/george_wills_realism_doesnt_ex.html.

[10] For an assessment of the impact of the "Freedom Agenda" in the Middle East, see Leon Hadar, "Bush Visits His 'New' Middle East," Right Web, May 23, 2008, http://rightweb.irc-online.org/rw/4917.html.

[11] Peter Wehner, "Responding to George Will's Realism," published by Real Clear Politics, August 16, 2006, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2006/08/george_wills_realism_doesnt_ex.html.

[12] Wehner, "Responding to George Will's Realism," published by Real Clear Politics, August 16, 2006, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2006/08/george_wills_realism_doesnt_ex.html.

[13] State News Service, "Peter Wehner, White House's Director of Strategic Initiatives," July 9, 2007.

[14] Andrew Sullivan, "Georgia, Bushlashed," The Daily Dish, August 12, 2008, http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/08/georgia-bushlas.html.

[15] Peter Wehner, "Sullivan's Travels," Commentary, August 12, 2008, http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/sullivan-s-travels-12347?search=1.

[16] Andrew Sullivan, "Vladimir Cheney," The Daily Dish, August 12, 2008, http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/08/everyones-a-cri.html#more.

[17] Ethics and Public Policy Center, "Fellows and Scholars: Peter Wehner," http://www.eppc.org/scholars/scholarID.93/scholar.asp.

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Peter Wehner Résumé


    • Ethics and Public Policy Center: Senior Fellow
    • Commentary: Contributor
    • Weekly Standard: Contributor
    • National Review: Contributor
    • Harry Walker Agency: Speaker/Client
    • Hudson Institute:Former Research Fellow
    • Empower America: Former Executive Director for Policy (1993-2001)

    Government Service

    • White House: Deputy Assistant to the President/Director of Strategic Initiatives (2002-2007); Deputy Director of Speechwriting (2001); George H.W. Bush Administration; Assistant to the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (1989-1990)
    • Department of Education: Speechwriter for William Bennett (1987-1988)


    • University of Washington: B.A., Political Science


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