Two recent offhand comments, both widely publicized, have seriously undermined whatever progress might have been made in exposing the fact that the Iraq war was initiated at least in large part to guarantee Israel’s safety and regional dominance in the Middle East.
In late August, Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Colin Powell’s chief of staff when he was secretary of state, told Gareth Porter of Inter Press Service that, when Israel first got wind of U.S. planning for a war against Iraq, a wide range of Israelis, including political and intelligence officials, began warning against such a war. “Israelis were telling us Iraq is not the enemy — Iran is the enemy,” Wilkerson said. Israeli warnings against an attack on Iraq were “pervasive” in Israeli communications with the administration during early 2002, according to Wilkerson.
This story garnered a fair amount of publicity and in at least one instance was used by a radio talk show host to shut off discussion of the John Mearsheimer-Stephen Walt book on the influence of the Israel lobby, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Just a few days after the Wilkerson story came out and also only days after release of the Mearsheimer-Walt book, a caller to the Thom Hartmann radio program commended the book, urged Hartmann and his guest at the time, Senator Bernie Sanders, to read it, and asked Sanders to address the issue of Israel’s and the lobby’s support for the Iraq war. Hartmann shut the caller off with a comment that “we don’t hype books on this program” (after having just allowed another caller to hype another book). Sanders then proceeded to denounce “conspiracy theories” such as the notion that Israel had anything to do with the war, and Hartmann finished off with a remark that, “besides,” a report just came out –obviously meaning the Wilkerson story — that demonstrates there was no Israeli link to the war.
In fact, the Wilkerson report does not refute the notion of an Israeli link; he addresses only Israeli-U.S. contacts in early 2002, whereas by later in 2002 and 2003 the evidence is overwhelming that Israel and particularly the Israel lobby were pushing hard for the war. But this is the way myths are born: Hartmann and Sanders were able to use perhaps 90 seconds on a nationally broadcast radio program to tout an incomplete report reinforcing their own misconceptions and to dismiss a thoroughly researched book disproving those misconceptions. Never again, mostly likely, will they or any of the choir they were broadcasting to, who do not want to have to deal with Israel anyway, even think about the issue.
The Wilkerson assertions were followed in mid-September by the highly publicized single-sentence statement by former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan in his just-released memoir, The Age of Turbulence, that “it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” When the media pounced on this statement, which stands virtually alone and unelaborated in a 500-page book, Greenspan gave several interviews supposedly intended to clarify his statement. To AP he said — in an obvious sop to the administration and the right, which clearly do not want to own up to such a crass motivation for the war as oil — that he had not intended to imply that oil was “the administration’s motive. I’m just saying that if somebody asked me, ‘Are we fortunate in taking out Saddam?’ I would say it was essential” for economic reasons. He had come to fear, he explained, that “Saddam, looking over his 30-year history, very clearly was giving evidence of moving towards controlling the Straits [sic] of Hormuz, where there are 17, 18, 19 million barrels a day” passing through. The war was not an oil grab, Greenspan said, but “taking Saddam out was essential” because it assured the continued smooth operation of the oil market.
A week later, on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!,” Greenspan, repeating that he had been watching Saddam Hussein for 30 years, said that he had feared that Saddam would acquire a nuclear weapon, that this would give him control over the Strait of Hormuz, and that he therefore had to be removed. Greenspan said he believed the “size of the threat” that Saddam posed “was scary” because “he could have essentially also shut down a significant part of economic activity throughout the world.”
The logic here is really quite strange and indicates at least that whatever economic genius Greenspan possesses does not extend to military strategizing or political analysis. One wonders, for instance, how exactly Saddam could have controlled the Strait of Hormuz with a nuclear or any other type of weapon when Iraq does not border this key waterway at the opening of the Persian Gulf and has no navy of any significance. One also wonders why Saddam’s future possession of a nuclear weapon was more worrisome than the likelihood that Iran, which does have a navy and does geographically control the strait, might close it. Greenspan’s statements further raise the question of why, given his claimed knowledge of Saddam’s “30-year history” and given the interest of earlier administrations in Iraq’s nuclear ambitions, he began to feel Saddam’s removal was “essential” only when the Bush administration began planning for war. And none of what Greenspan said explained why Iraq would have shut down its economy by blocking its own oil exports.
Greenspan’s fumbling explanations seem at a minimum to be in the nature of meandering remarks by a man concentrated on economics with little political acumen, who went along with the war because of its presumed benefits in safeguarding oil markets but with no concern about the broader consequences of the war and little or no interest in its political motivations or its geostrategic implications beyond what he saw as its global economic goal.
It remains open to question whether Greenspan in addition intended to divert attention from the clear evidence that Israel and its U.S. supporters, both among Jewish American organizations and among neocon policymakers inside the administration, pushed hard for the war, among other reasons to guarantee Israel’s security in the Middle East and its regional domination. But whatever his intent, this has been the effect of his concentration on oil. It reinforces the assumptions of those, primarily on the left, who have always contended that the war was “all about oil,” and only about oil. The left’s refusal to acknowledge that a desire to secure Israel in the region had anything to do with the Bush neocons’ war planning is difficult to fathom, since many on the left are notable critics of Israeli policy. But, again, whatever their intent in quashing discussion of the Israeli link, the effect has been to contribute to silencing domestic debate on a critical U.S. policy issue.
Neither is it clear in Wilkerson’s case whether he intended, by discussing Israeli representations against going after Iraq, to divert attention from Israel’s actual interest in Iraq. But once again, diverting and silencing discussion has been the effect of his brief remarks.
Without closer examination, both Greenspan’s and Wilkerson’s statements seem to let Israel and its U.S. lobbyists off the hook, something that in differing ways serves the interests of Israel and the lobby, of the right in the U.S., and of the left. Israel’s U.S. supporters — fearful that Jews will be blamed for leading the U.S. into the debacle that Iraq has become and fearful of reviving old anti-Semitic canards about Jews exerting undue power — roundly deny any Israeli connection to the war. Israel itself, although not as fearful as its American acolytes of anti-Semitism, has remained silent, obviously not affirming a role in instigating the war and letting its supporters do the denying. The U.S. political right does not, of course, want to acknowledge that the relationship with Israel has grown so close that the U.S. would actually go to war at the behest of or for the benefit of Israel. Nor does it want to own up to any of the other actual motivations for the war — neither, as previously noted, to a motivation like oil nor to a baldly imperial motivation promising (and already providing) great profits for the joint U.S.-Israeli military-industrial complex.
The left, on the other hand, very much wants to believe that oil, and perhaps secondarily the imperial drive, constituted the only motivations, and that Israel played no role at all. The left is as skittish as anyone, and perhaps more so than anyone else, about being seen to criticize Israel except occasionally regarding the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. It is much more comfortable for the left to believe that the U.S. is evil and Israel is at worst a hapless tool of Washington. The thought that the tail might wag the dog is rarely taken seriously.
So the weight of public discourse since before the Iraq war was launched has been that any Israeli role in inspiring or pushing for it is at best a silly invention and at worst a vile anti-Jewish lie, and both the Wilkerson and the Greenspan statements play into this impression. Until these statements, the knowledge of an Israeli connection had begun to gain some greater currency thanks to a few valiant souls who have dared raise the subject, including people like Chris Hedges, Scott Ritter and, most recently, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. In July, Hedges wrote a hard-hitting article for Truthdig, subsequently widely circulated, saying that the war “was strongly shaped by the notion that what is good for Israel is good for the United States,” and Israel and its neocon supporters wanted Iraq neutralized. Hedges also acknowledged a “desire for American control of oil” as a major driver of the war, along with “the belief that Washington could build puppet states in the region.”
Scott Ritter, who served as a weapons inspector in Iraq during the 1990s, paints a somewhat more complex picture in his 2006 book Targeting Iran. He makes it clear, supporting Wilkerson’s statement, that over the years of weapons inspections, Israel had come to regard Iraq as a diminishing threat (unlike Greenspan, apparently), whereas Iran was increasingly viewed as a new looming danger. By August 2002, according to Ritter, when the Israelis passed intelligence about the threat from Iran to the Bush administration, “there was barely a reaction in Washington” because “all eyes were on Baghdad, not Tehran.” But Israel’s Ariel Sharon was, in Ritter’s words, “quick to catch on,” and in those last several months of 2002 — the critical months of war planning, coming well after the early 2002 period that Wilkerson was discussing — Israel jumped on the Iraq war bandwagon, publicly and privately, and began to press for and justify a U.S. invasion. Sharon assigned a senior Israeli military intelligence official to give the U.S. Israeli intelligence assessments on Iraqi WMD activity, according to Ritter, and at the same time, with an eye to later broadening the conflict to Iran and beyond, Israeli intelligence “pressed home to [the U.S.] the notion that the upcoming U.S. invasion of Iraq must serve as a springboard for a larger transformation within the Middle East, one that swept away not only Saddam Hussein, but also anti-Israeli elements in Syria, Palestine, and, of course, Iran.”
This dovetails precisely with the neocon agenda, which was ultimately the operative ingredient in determining whether there would be war or not. This agenda was laid out publicly in the mid-1990s in the now infamous “Clean Break” paper, written in Israel for then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by a group of Israelis and Americans, three of whom later entered the Bush administration and began planning for the attack on Iraq. The principal elements of the paper involved overturning the Palestinian-Israeli peace process to save Israel from having to make any territorial concessions and then sparking massive changes, through force if necessary, in Iraq, Syria, and Iran, leading to an era of peace in which Israel and the U.S. jointly dominated a transformed and intimidated Middle East.
In their book on the lobby, Mearsheimer and Walt provide overwhelming evidence for an Israeli link to the war that completely undermines the public myths revived by Wilkerson’s and Greenspan’s statements, and they build a convincing case against the notion that the war was “all about oil.” They are the first who have done the extensive research necessary to bring the mountain of evidence together.
The two authors devote more than 30 pages and a remarkable 175 footnotes to constructing an irrefutable case for an Israeli role in helping plan, and a large lobby role in pressing for, the war. Although they do not claim that the effort to guarantee Israeli security was the sole reason for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, they demonstrate clearly — citing public and privates statements by Israeli military and political officials, informed commentary in both Israel and the U.S., and analysis by foreign policy experts — that “Israeli leaders, neoconservatives, and the Bush administration all saw war with Iraq as the first step in an ambitious campaign to remake the Middle East” in order to “make it a more friendly environment for America and Israel.” Israel and the lobby “played crucial roles in making that war happen.” Without the lobby and particularly the core of neocon policymakers inside government and neocon commentators and think-tank analysts on the sidelines, Mearsheimer and Walt conclude bluntly, “the war would almost certainly not have occurred” and “America would probably not be in Iraq today.”
On the question of oil as a principal driver in the war, the authors demonstrate that in fact, although the oil industry was clearly happy to obtain lucrative concessions in post-Saddam Iraq, the argument that the industry pushed for the war in order to enhance profits is counter-intuitive. The disadvantages to the industry of turmoil in the region are evident. Energy companies, they make clear, do not like wars in oil-rich areas. Nor do they like such other recent “staples of U.S. Middle East policy” as sanctions and regime change, because each of these actions “threatens access to oil and gas reserves and thus [the oil companies’] ability to make money.” Mearsheimer and Walt point out that Vice President Cheney opposed sanctions on Iran while he was president of Halliburton in the mid-1990s and complained about the “sanctions happy” policies of the U.S. Instability is rarely in the interests of the oil companies. In the end, the authors conclude, the “wealthy Arab governments and the oil lobby exert much less influence on U.S. foreign policy than the Israel lobby does, because oil interests have less need to skew foreign policy in the directions they favor and they do not have the same leverage.”
It is fair to ask why it matters whether the U.S. went to war solely for oil, or solely for Israel, or out of an imperial drive — or, as is much more likely the case, for some combination of these motivations. It matters, most fundamentally, because, if there is ever to be a course correction and a return to some kind of policy sanity that will prevent similar future disasters, it is necessary to understand how this disaster arose in the first place. All of these motivations, together and separately, are unacceptable reasons for launching an unprovoked aggression against another sovereign nation, for killing up to a million of its innocent citizens, and for fostering chaos throughout the region. Global sanity and global security demand that the U.S. not invade other countries to obtain control over their natural resources or gain huge corporate profits through oil concessions. Global sanity and security also demand that the U.S. cease trying to expand its imperial reach. And, perhaps most important, it is absolutely vital that the U.S. not so subordinate what should be its true interests to those of another nation that it can be led into wars anywhere, but particularly in the most sensitive area of the world, at the behest or for the benefit of Israel. If going to war to secure huge profits for oil companies is obscene, how much more obscene is going to war for the benefit of a foreign power because we are no longer able to distinguish our interests from theirs?
It has become almost trite to quote George Washington’s farewell speech urging moderation in foreign attachments, but his injunctions 200 years ago have an eerie applicability to the U.S. relationship with Israel today. Warning against “a passionate attachment of one nation for another,” Washington observed that this creates “a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.”
The U.S. alliance with Israel has unquestionably led to a gross distortion of U.S. policy in exactly the way in which Washington predicted, creating the illusion of a common interest where none exists and injecting Israel’s enmities into the U.S. with little or no justification. If the U.S. cannot distinguish its own interests from those of Israel and Israel’s lobby, then it simply cannot act, as it should, purely in its own interest. Those who minimize the role of the Israel lobby in influencing U.S. policy choices, and who refuse or fail to recognize the part Israel and the lobby have played in leading the U.S. into disastrous foreign adventures, pose an incalculable danger to the U.S., for a failure to recognize the reason for a misguided policy will inevitably doom us to repeat it.
Kathleen Christison is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 30 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bill Christison was a senior official of the CIA. He served as a National Intelligence officer and as director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis.
They can be reached at email@example.com.