Israel and the US War on Iraq

It’s remarkable how rarely Israel is mentioned in regard to the American plans to attack Iraq — with the exception of occasional notices of how strongly the Israeli government supports those plans. A proper assessment of its part in this war depends upon an understanding of Israel’s position in the United States’ overall policy for the Middle East, and how that policy is being implemented with specific regard to Iraq.

Patrick Buchanan was thoroughly rebuked when he remarked on the eve of the US attack on Iraq in 1991, “There are only two groups that are beating the drums for war in the Middle East — the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States.” But he was saying aloud what few others were. What his national chauvinism prevented him from noticing was that, in its avidity for war, the Israeli government was acting — as it had for more than a generation — as the principal US client, our “local cop on the beat,” as the Nixon Administration had put it. It’s this ongoing role that explains what part Israel has in the current slaughter of Iraqis.


Since the Second World War — from which the United States emerged as the world’s only undamaged major country and proceeded to organize the economy of the world — a cornerstone of American policy has been control of Middle East energy resources, the greatest geopolitical prize in the modern world. Control, not just access, was what was demanded by all US administrations, Republican and Democrat, because control of those resources gave the US control of its principal economic competitors — which turned out to be, by the late 20th century, a German-led Europe and a Japan-led East Asia.

The US has never in fact required Mideast oil for its own society — all the energy requirements of the US could be filled from national sources (especially when we include in “national sources,” our “backyard” — Latin America) But Germany imports 80% of its energy resources, and Japan, 100%. Who controls world oil, controls the life-line of the modern world.

And the principal threat to U.S. control has always come from what the US called “domestic radicalism” — the dangerous idea amongst the peoples of the oil-producing regions that their natural wealth should be used for their benefit, rather than for that of the corporations and the economic elites to whom the US might assign it. And the chief form of “domestic radicalism” was Arab nationalism. To guard against it, the US constructed (and took over from Britain) a series of repressive Arab governments, the family dictatorships around the Persian Gulf, with Saudi Arabia at their head.


Since it launched a war and destroyed the center of Arab nationalism in 1967, Israel’s job in America’s “overall framework of order,” in Henry Kissinger’s phrase, was to guarantee that those conservative Arab governments were protected from their most dangerous enemy — their own populations. Israel was to be the final bulwark against the dangers that would be posed to US control if “domestic radicals” came to power in one of the oil-producing states — as happened in Iran in 1979.

For that reason (and not because of some imagined invincibility of the pro-Israel lobby), the US is willing to provide Israel with vastly more money and support than it gives to any other country in the world. (In second place is Egypt, Israel’s principal antagonist in 1967, whom the Carter administration bought off at Camp David in 1978, securing Israel’s southern border; in third, Turkey, Israel’s principal military ally in the present-day Middle East.) Today as a result Israel has perhaps the third strongest military in the world, with hundreds of advanced nuclear weapons (Israel did not sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty), missiles and submarines with which to deliver them, and an air force of US-supplied F-16s and attack helicopters.

For that reason too the US is willing to support Israel’s brutal and racist occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (condemned by the United Nations thirty-five years ago in Security Council Resolution 242) and its settlement of its citizens in the occupied territories (recognized as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention — a war crime — around the world). Not only have these been the consistent policies of all Israeli governments, Labor and Likud, they also serve the US purpose of discouraging domestic radicalism, a democratic and secular Palestine being seen as a “threat of a good example” even by some Arab states. To discourage the threat of progressive Arab nationalism, the US and Israel have on occasion been willing to fund even Islamicist movements (Hamas and the Mujahideen) that they saw as counters to it. Consistent US/Israeli policy has been largely successful in destroying secular Arab nationalism as it existed two generations ago — and replacing it with religious fundamentalism.

In 1982, in order to consolidate the Israeli control over the occupied territories, the US armed and supported the most extreme terrorist act in the Middle East in a generation, the invasion of Lebanon, which killed about 20,000 people (many more than Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait). It was conducted by the current Prime Minister of Israel and launched because of the danger that peace might break out in the Middle East. That motive grows to the extent that the state is militarized. In the principal American client as perhaps nowhere else in the world is it true that war is the health of the state. And that war is principally a war against Palestinians.

That war is not simply killing. To take one example from far too many, Israeli forces closed the Islamic University and the Polytechnic Institute in Hebron last month, actions to which even the US State Department took mild exception. Elsewhere, the Israeli army looked for similarly creative forms of collective punishment and ethnic cleansing: in east Jerusalem, they sealed the apartments of three imprisoned Hamas militants (one of whom had been sentenced to thirty-five consecutive life terms) by filling the rooms with concrete. The Guardian (UK) reports that now more than a thousand Palestinians are held by the Israeli army under detention without charge (the sort of thing we used to think only totalitarian governments did — it is of course now US practice, too).

This oppressive and anti-intellectual policy is practiced by other American clients as well. US financial and military aid to Turkey was used brutally to suppress the Kurds in the southeast in the 1990s, creating millions of refugees, destroying some 3500 villages, and killing tens of thousands of people — an ethnic cleansing supported by the Clinton administration. Since the military coup in 1980, Turkish universities have been rife with police spies, and evidence of Kurdish culture, to say nothing of Kurdish nationalism, has been suppressed. America and its clients in the Middle East have as their enemies whole peoples of the region.

Any understanding of Israel’s role in the coming US attack on Iraq has to begin with the Jewish state’s continuing position in US policy. Those on the American Right (and elsewhere) who think that the Israeli tail is wagging the US dog have got it quite wrong: the dog is firmly in control. Israeli governments, whether Labor or Likud, do nothing without the approval of their American paymasters. Noam Chomsky offers three recent examples, beginning with the first Bush administration:

“–The Bush #1 case involved $10 million in loan guarantees, which Israel was using (illegally, but with US connivance) for settlement in the territories. The Shamir government was doing it in a brazen way that annoyed Baker-Bush. Bush suspended the guarantees, … Israel returned to the preferred Labor-style hypocrisy (‘thickening settlements,’ ‘natural growth,’ etc.) and all was well. “–In 2000, Israel’s highly militarized high-tech economy was counting heavily on a huge sale of Phalcon air war technology to China. The US didn’t like it. Barak said Israel would never back down. Clinton told them quietly, ‘Sorry, no.’ End of story. “–Sharon’s siege of Arafat in Ramallah was interfering with Bush administration efforts to garner support for the war on Iraq. The orders came quietly from Washington. Same [result].”

Chomsky points out that there are many such cases, “some major ones (like Eisenhower ordering Israel out of Egyptian territory on the eve of a presidential election), others minor ones like Ramallah, many in between.” Were it not for the part that Israel plays in the US government’s decades-long plan for control of Middle East energy resources, it would be of no more concern to us than any other state with a questionable racial policy and a population less than that of New York City — Zimbabwe, say, or Uganda (even if the latter had become a Jewish state, as was once proposed).

Israel’s military usefulness to the US is not limited to the Middle East. In two of the worst examples — near-genocidal campaigns in which the US government was hampered by political pressure at home — Israel carried out the bidding of its patron. In the 1970s, at the request of the Carter administration, Israel transferred war-planes to Indonesia to aid in the suppression of the East Timorese, a massacre comparable to those in Cambodia. In the 1980s, Israeli military advisors aided the Reagan administration in genocidal campaigns in Guatemala (for which Clinton later apologized, with monstrous inadequacy).

Chomsky refers to Israel as “virtually an offshore US military establishment.” An Israeli journalist recently described the country as “an army with a state, not state with an army,” and that army is “almost an offshoot of the Pentagon,” Chomsky adds. He points out, “Unfortunately for Israel, it’s coming to resemble the US in other ways. It approximates the US in having the highest inequality in the industrial world, and its social welfare system, once impressive, is visibly declining. It may end up being almost a caricature of the worst features of American society. These are consequences of the choice of confrontation and dependency rather than peaceful integration into the region, fateful choices decades ago.” It also makes the Israeli polity dependent on war: Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to the US, is quoted as saying recently to Israel’s Military Radio (GALATZ), “The postponement of the war against Iraq is against the Israeli interests.”


In 1934 Fascist Italy invaded the impoverished kingdom of Ethiopia to build its new Empire, and in the event the principal contemporary organ of international law, the League of Nations, was destroyed. The US war on Iraq resembles Italy’s, not least in that it shreds international law and subverts the UN. The comparison perhaps reverses a famous observation about everything in history happening twice: the first time it may have been a farce, but the second may be a great tragedy indeed.

The Bush administration has at least three important goals in launching this criminal enterprise:

First, consistent with the fundamental principle of US foreign policy, this is a war for oil, for control of (not just access to) Iraqi oil reserves, the second largest in the world. That control rather than access is the issue, is shown by the hesitation of the large oil companies about this war: they have access now and fear its disruption.

Second, it is a demonstration war, as all US wars since World War II (including Vietnam) have been: a state which refuses to obey Washington’s orders — or has the dangerous idea that it wants to use its resources for the purposes of its population, rather than integrate them into the world economy on terms set by the US — must be punished severely.

Third, the war distracts from our wretched economy at home; the administration mobilizes for war and encourages the fear of terrorism to cover over their understandably unpopular economic policy — nothing less than the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich — and nevertheless to assure their reelection (if you agree that they were elected in the first place).

The war is meant to secure and defend the long-term foreign policy of the US, in the Middle East and in the world at large. To understand why that policy requires the reduction of Iraq — and indeed the destruction of any regional power with “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs) — we need to grasp what might be called “asymmetrical deterrence,” the way in which a weak state may have just enough weapons to deter the threats of a strong one.

The US enjoys nuclear dominance in the world and Israel, with a stronger military than any European NATO country, nuclear dominance in the region. (General Lee Butler, head of the Strategic Command under Clinton: “It is dangerous in the extreme that in the cauldron of animosities that we call the Middle East, one nation has armed itself, ostensibly, with stockpiles of nuclear weapons, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, and that inspires other nations to do so.”) These weapons are used primarily as a threat against weaker, non-nuclear countries. Thus every US president since Truman has threatened to use nuclear weapons against a Third World country. But the US ability to threaten another country is limited if, even though the US reduced that country to nuclear waste, it could itself be hit with even one nuclear weapon.

Similarly, Israel has an overwhelming dominance of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, biological, and chemical) in the region, but the possession of only a few — or even one — by a rival to the US cop can neutralize the cop’s offensive dominance. Of course it would be insanity for Iraq or any other state to attack Israel — it would be immediately obliterated by Israel and the US — but Israel has to hesitate to use its weapons of mass destruction, or even threaten to do so, if there is any chance that the cost would be Tel Aviv…

The American “framework of order” is endangered if its regional enforcer can be constrained. It is in this way that the possession of a few WMDs (by Iraq, Iran, or any other state in the region) is a defensive posture, not an offensive one — and surely the policy that would have to be adopted even if the government in Baghdad were democratic (highly unlikely, because the US doesn’t want it). Similarly, on an international scale, China developed nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them a generation ago and produced about twenty, which they still have — not an offensive threat, but a defensive caution to the US and Russia.

The new US attack on Iraq, then, is based first of all on maintaining the persistent US position in the Middle East and eliminating a check on America’s regional enforcer. But it is a good deal more than that. It is also part of a plan for a new colonialism, a plan quite publicly announced by the most extreme elements in the US government, in league with the most right-wing elements in Israel (much to the right of the current prime minister, war criminal as he may be).

As Kurt Nimmo explained in CounterPunch, “…the idea of killing Saddam Hussein and inflicting depredation on the Iraqi people is not a Bush idea (it can be argued Bush has no original ideas of his own) — the current scheme was a roughcast devised by Likudite Richard Perle. In 1996, Perle (and Douglas Feith) wrote ‘A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,’ which he presented to then Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu. The plan called for not only eliminating Hussein and installing a Hashemite monarchy in Baghdad, but also for trashing the Oslo Accords, Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and overthrowing or destabilizing the governments of Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Perle’s master plan for Likud regional dominance … was crafted for the Jerusalem and Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (IASPS)…”

The plan had been announced in the Clinton administration (which was more extreme on Israel than the first Bush administration), but the planners came to power in the Pentagon and the State Department in the second Bush administration. They saw 9/11 as a heaven-sent opportunity to put the plan into operation. As the Washington Post recently reported, Bush signed a document directing the Pentagon to begin planning for an invasion of Iraq less than a week after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington — although the administration has never had any evidence of Iraqi complicity in those attacks. And, quite consistently with the views of the Washington hawks (“chicken-hawks” who avoided the military themselves), Israeli Prime Minister Sharon told The Times (UK) that Iran — one of the “axis of evil” powers identified by Bush — should be targeted “the day after” action against Iraq ends because of its role as a “centre of world terror”. The plan is clearly underway.

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IN SUMMARY, ISRAEL’S PART in the US attack on Iraq depends on its central role in the on-going American policy of controlling Middle East energy resources, which gives the US a strangle-hold on the world economy; the US attack removes the defensive constraint that even one weapon of mass destruction might have on Israel’s ability to threaten its neighbors with its overwhelming nuclear advantage, while the US issues a lethal warning to the world of what happens to American clients who stop obeying orders.

The conservative columnist Robert Novak said on Meet the Press in December that the extremists in the Bush administration never wanted inspections in Iraq: “This is really about change of regime in Iraq and change of the political outlines in the Middle East more to Israel’s benefit. That’s what this has all been about, and since it’s very hard to sell that to the American people, they have done it on a weapons of mass destruction basis.” With the proviso that “Israel’s benefit” here means the enhancement of the role that US foreign policy provides for a militarized Israel — hardly to the benefit of the people of Israel — the comment seems about right.

CARL ESTABROOK is a Visiting Scholar University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a CounterPunch columnist. He can be reached at: