Who’s Afraid of Iraq?

“Those who favor this attack now will tell you candidly, and privately, that it is probably true that Saddam Hussein is no threat to the United States. But they are afraid at some point he might decide if he had a nuclear weapon to use it against Israel.”

Gen. Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, CNN military consultant, in a Guardian interview (Aug. 20)

Now there’s a quotation to ponder. President Bush has said on a number of occasions that Saddam Hussein “must not be allowed to threaten the U.S. and its friends and allies” (plural) with weapons of mass destruction. This is the official, public justification for war on Iraq.

But what does the statement mean, exactly? In February the CIA declared that it had no evidence for any Iraqi terrorist attacks on Americans since the Bush I assassination attempt in Kuwait in 1993, and never any on U.S. soil. Saddam’s missiles can’t come close to the U.S. They can reach Moscow, but the Russians aren’t concerned; they’re signing a $ 40 billion economic and trade cooperation package with Iraq. Iraq’s missiles can reach Sicily, but the Europeans aren’t concerned; they firmly oppose U.S. war plans. Iraq’s neighbors, including U.S. friends Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, even Kuwait, say they don’t feel threatened by Iraq and also oppose a war. Emphatically. Only Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon is egging Washington on. So, taking our cue from plain-talking soldier Clark (who has taken the trouble to write an editorial for the London Times urging a cautious approach to war with Iraq), we can fairly restate Bush’s declaration cited above as follows: “The U.S. must not allow Saddam Hussein to ever, ever threaten our friend Israel with weapons of mass destruction.” Israel, that is to say, constitutes a unique category in Bushite geopolitical thinking, as the nation that must never, ever have to factor into its defense strategy the existence of WMDs held by any hostile nation. The 22 Arab nations, meanwhile, constitute another distinct set: these are nations that must never, ever acquire WMDs, especially nukes, because Arabs might use them against Israel. (Whether or not such thinking is reasonable and valid, it’s best to just state it honestly, lest we abominate our lips with Bush-like incoherence or Rumsfeld-like doublespeak. See Proverbs 8:7).

Israel is obviously concerned about Iraq’s weapons programs. In June 1981 it bombed and destroyed the Osiraq nuclear reactor in Iraq, which the French had taken a lot of trouble to build, saying Iraq was five to ten years away from acquiring nuclear weapons. The action was illegal, of course, condemned by the UN and even (mildly) by the U.S. The concern of the settler state was not entirely unrealistic; ten years later, during the Gulf War, Iraq lobbed Scuds at it. But as everyone knows, Israel is itself an (undeclared) nuclear power, and its nukes similarly cause concern throughout the region. (It’s interesting to note, though, that while the U.S. cut off aid to both Pakistan and India after they joined the nuclear club, Israel didn’t even get a slap on the wrist when it went nuclear, ca. 1973). In any case, Israel, as it showed by the Osiraq attack, can probably take care of itself, just like Pakistan can take care of itself vis-?-vis India, India vis-?-vis China, China vis-?-vis Russia, etc. The chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces himself, Moshe Ya’alon, recently told Ha’aretz that “In the long term, the threat of Iraq or Hezbollah doesn’t make me lose sleep.”

For obvious reasons, there is a great deal of hostility towards the Jewish state in the Arab world. Egypt and Jordan have recognized Israel, and have trade and diplomatic relations, but then, they are U.S. client states (Egypt receiving $ 2 billion a year in U.S. aid), and even in them, in what Colin Powell calls “the Arab street,” there is outrage towards the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories. As the largest, most populous, most “modernized” Arab nation in Southwest Asia that is not a U.S. ally or client state, Iraq could, especially in the absence of a solution to the Israel-Palestine problem, pose a challenge to Israel even under a leader far kinder and gentler than Saddam Hussein.

One can easily imagine even a “democratically elected” leader in a secular government in Baghdad thinking, “Israel has nukes. Russia, to our north, has nukes. So do China, Pakistan, and India. Our unfriendly neighbor Iran has a nuclear program. Don’t I owe it to my people to acquire them for our defense-indeed, for the defense of the entire Arab nation?” “Democratically elected” leaders of India have for years felt that obtaining nukes was a reasonable enterprise. Turns out that successive Australian governments have been pursuing a nuclear weapons program, and that Argentina has sought one. Is it satanic for technically advanced nations to want to follow in the footsteps of the U.S., U.S.S.R., Britain, France and China—or merely normal?

It seems as though some very powerful people in Washington think the only way to prevent Iraq from eventually following the course of these other normal nations, and acquiring nukes that could some day be targeted at Israel (just as Israel has nukes targeted at Iraq), is for the U.S. to occupy Iraq and create a new government that will play ball like those in Egypt and Jordan. They’ve been urging an attack on Iraq for years, long before Sept. 11 gave them an opportunity to push their agenda (through crude attempts to link Iraq with al-Qaeda-which continue through reports citing unnamed government sources, citing classified reports that strain one’s credulity). But (as Madeleine Albright has recently stated) the issue is not really U.S. security. Nor is it the security of other Arab nations, and surely (from the U.S. government’s point of view) not that of the biggest victim of Iraqi aggression, Iran (lumped into the “Axis of Evil” along with Iraq, and also targeted for “regime change”). Rather, it’s the enhancement, to the nth degree, of the security of an Israel already armed to the teeth and capable of nuking Iraq or Syria or lots of other places, big-time. It’s what Scott Ritter has called the “ideological” motivation for an Iraq attack.

I’m not saying that the proponents of the forthcoming Iraq War aren’t also thinking about oil, and a range of other geopolitical issues. I’m simply observing that defense of “our friends” in official statements really means defense of Israel, through the establishment of a kind of “no-fly zone” from the Khyber Pass to the Jordan River, making Israel absolutely safe from Muslim neighbors who presently resent its (nuclear) existence. But is it rational and moral to send American troops to create that imagined sea of tranquility, establishing client-states which, Egypt-like, trade acceptance of the Zionist project for massive infusions of Marshall Plan-type U.S. aid? Is the project feasible, the goal just, the method even legal? Is it really likely even to enhance the security of Israeli Jews, Israeli Palestinians, and Palestinians in the occupied territories? Personally, I don’t think so. I think it’s a recipe for apocalyptic blowback. You want more terrorists? Follow the recipe.

“We’re all members of the Likud now,” a (Democratic) U.S. senator told a visiting Israeli politician in Washington. That’s very scary. It’s scary when a U.S. Congressional delegation visits Ariel Sharon at the height of his invasion of the West Bank, officially opposed by the Bush administration, to assure him that he has their full support; or when House Republican Leader Dick Armey cheerfully tells Chris Matthews on CNN’s Hardball, “I’m content to have Israel grab the entire West Bank” and that the Palestinians should just get out of there. When Defense Secretary Rumsfeld opines to a Pentagon audience that Israel’s “so-called territories” are really legitimate spoils of war, or when a RAND researcher at the Pentagon calls Saudi Arabia the “kernel of evil” and advocates the creation of a U.S.-sponsored oil state in Eastern Arabia, one has to feel scared. Scared about the rage, not just on the Arab street, but on the global street, that the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz plan for the world is likely to generate towards even decent, honest, peace-loving Americans (who are already, in their foreign travels, finding it convenient to impersonate Canadians). The craziness may be spinning out of control. Steering the hijacked ship of state, energized by an ideology as threatening to world peace as the doctrines of the Taliban, are a cabal of men and women who are prepared to provoke the Muslim world (no, the entire world) by actions that even senior Republicans like Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger and Brent Snowcroft seem to consider unwise. What to call the members of this warmongering cabal? If we’re talking about “Islamist extremists,” how should we label these folks? “Judeo-Christianist-Zionist fundamentalist imperialist extremists”? Nah, that’s too many “—ists.” So I propose just “crazies,” who unfortunately, by some random (just possibly reversible) fluke of our planetary history, have acquired the ability to threaten the whole human race, your friends and mine—Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and everybody else—-with weapons of mass destruction.

Gary Leupp is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program. He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu