Tuesday, October 17, 2006


The Israel Lobby and the US War Against Iraq

The excerpts below are taken from pages 30-35 of an 83-page working paper entitled "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" and published by Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in March 2006. Its authors are Professor John J. Mearsheimer, Department of Political Science, University of Chicago and Dean Stephen M. Walt, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. The full text, including numerous endnotes omitted here, is available here. An edited and reworked version of the paper was published in the London Review of Books Vol. 28, No. 6 (March 23, 2006), and is available here
Israel and the Iraq War
Pressure from Israel and the [Israel—VFPD] Lobby was not the only factor behind the U.S. decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was a critical element. Some Americans believe that this was a "war for oil," but there is hardly any direct evidence to support this claim. Instead, the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure. According to Philip Zelikow, a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (2001-2003), executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and now Counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the "real threat" from Iraq was not a threat to the United States. The "unstated threat" was the "threat against Israel," Zelikow told a University of Virginia audience in September 2002, noting further that "the American government doesn't want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it is not a popular sell."

On August 16, 2002, eleven days before Vice President Cheney kicked off the campaign for war with a hardline speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Washington Post reported that "Israel is urging U.S. officials not to delay a military strike against Iraq's Saddam Hussein." By this point, according to Sharon, strategic coordination between Israel and the U.S. had reached "unprecedented dimensions," and Israeli intelligence officials had given Washington a variety of alarming reports about Iraq's WMD programs. As one retired Israeli general later put it, "Israeli intelligence was a full partner to the picture presented by American and British intelligence regarding Iraq’s non-conventional capabilities."

Israeli leaders were deeply distressed when President Bush decided to seek U.N. Security Council authorization for war in September, and even more worried when Saddam agreed to let U.N. inspectors back into Iraq, because these developments seemed to reduce the likelihood of war. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told reporters in September 2002 that "the campaign against Saddam Hussein is a must. Inspections and inspectors are good for decent people, but dishonest people can overcome easily inspections and inspectors."

... Or as Ha’aretz reported in February 2003: "The [Israeli] military and political leadership yearns for war in Iraq." But as [former Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu suggests, the desire for war was not confined to Israel's leaders. Apart from Kuwait, which Saddam conquered in 1990, Israel was the only country in the world where both the politicians and the public enthusiastically favored war. As journalist Gideon Levy observed at the time, "Israel is the only country in the West whose leaders support the war unreservedly and where no alternative opinion is voiced." In fact, Israelis were so gung-ho for war that their allies in America told them to damp down their hawkish rhetoric, lest it look like the war was for Israel.

The Lobby and the Iraq War
Within the United States, the main driving force behind the Iraq war was a small band of neoconservatives, many with close ties to Israel's Likud Party. In addition, key leaders of the Lobby's major organizations lent their voices to the campaign for war. According to the Forward, "As President Bush attempted to sell the ... war in Iraq, America's most important Jewish organizations rallied as one to his defense. In statement after statement community leaders stressed the need to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction." The editorial goes on to say that "concern for Israel's safety rightfully factored into the deliberations of the main Jewish groups."

Although neoconservatives and other Lobby leaders were eager to invade Iraq, the broader American Jewish community was not. In fact, Samuel Freedman reported just after the war started that "a compilation of nationwide opinion polls by the Pew Research Center shows that Jews are less supportive of the Iraq war than the population at large, 52% to 62%." [The possibility that many respondents simply lied and that Jewish support for the war was much higher than the polls indicated should not be discounted. Above, the authors note, "Israelis were so gung-ho for war that their allies in America told them to damp down their hawkish rhetoric, lest it look like the war was for Israel." It is more than conceivable that American Jewish supporters of Israel consciously manipulated perception of their support, too.—VFPD] Thus, it would be wrong to blame the war in Iraq on "Jewish influence." Rather, the war was due in large part to the Lobby’s influence, especially the neoconservatives within it.

The neoconservatives were already determined to topple Saddam before Bush became President. They caused a stir in early 1998 by publishing two open letters to President Clinton calling for Saddam's removal from power. The signatories, many of whom had close ties to pro-Israel groups like JINSA or WINEP, and whose ranks included Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, William Kristol, Bernard Lewis, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, had little trouble convincing the Clinton Administration to adopt the general goal of ousting Saddam. ... As important as the neoconservatives were for making the Iraq war happen, they needed help to achieve their aim.

That help arrived with 9/11. Specifically, the events of that fateful day led Bush and Cheney to reverse course and become strong proponents of a preventive war to topple Saddam. Neoconservatives in the Lobby—most notably Scooter Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, and Princeton historian Bernard Lewis—played especially critical roles in persuading the President and Vice-President to favor war. ...

A key part of this campaign [to win support for invading Iraq—VFPD] was the manipulation of intelligence information, so as to make Saddam look like an imminent threat. For example, Libby visited the CIA several times to pressure analysts to find evidence that would make the case for war, and he helped prepare a detailed briefing on the Iraq threat in early 2003 that was pushed on Colin Powell, then preparing his infamous briefing to the U.N. Security Council on the Iraqi threat. According to Bob Woodward, Powell "was appalled at what he considered overreaching and hyperbole. Libby was drawing only the worst conclusions from fragments and silky threads." Although Powell discarded Libby’s most outrageous claims, his U.N. presentation was still riddled with errors, as Powell now acknowledges.

The campaign to manipulate intelligence also involved two organizations that were created after 9/11 and reported directly to Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. The Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group was tasked to find links between al Qaeda and Iraq that the intelligence community supposedly missed. Its two key members were Wurmser, a hard core neoconservative, and Michael Maloof, a Lebanese-American who had close ties with Perle. The Office of Special Plans was tasked with finding evidence that could be used to sell war with Iraq. It was headed by Abram Shulsky, a neoconservative with longstanding ties to Wolfowitz, and its ranks included recruits from pro-Israel think tanks.

Like virtually all the neoconservatives, Feith is deeply committed to Israel. He also has long-standing ties to the Likud Party. ... Wolfowitz is equally committed to Israel. The Forward once described him as "the most hawkishly pro-Israel voice in the Administration," and selected him in 2002 as the first among fifty notables who "have consciously pursued Jewish activism." ...

Finally, a brief word is in order about the neoconservatives' prewar support of Ahmed Chalabi, the unscrupulous Iraqi exile who headed the Iraqi National Congress (INC). They embraced Chalabi because he had worked to establish close ties with Jewish-American groups and had pledged to foster good relations with Israel once he gained power. This was precisely what pro-Israel proponents of regime change wanted to hear, so they backed Chalabi in return. Journalist Matthew Berger laid out the essence of the bargain in the Jewish Journal: "The INC saw improved relations as a way to tap Jewish influence in Washington and Jerusalem and to drum up increased support for its cause. For their part, the Jewish groups saw an opportunity to pave the way for better relations between Israel and Iraq, if and when the INC is involved in replacing Saddam Hussein’s regime."

Given the neoconservatives' devotion to Israel, their obsession with Iraq, and their influence in the Bush Administration, it is not surprising that many Americans suspected that the war was designed to further Israeli interests. For example, Barry Jacobs of the American Jewish Committee acknowledged in March 2005 that the belief that Israel and the neoconservatives conspired to get the United States into a war in Iraq was "pervasive" in the U.S. intelligence community. Yet few people would say so publicly, and most that did—including Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) and Representative James Moran (D-VA)—were condemned for raising the issue. Michael Kinsley put the point well in late 2002, when he wrote that "the lack of public discussion about the role of Israel ... is the proverbial elephant in the room: Everybody sees it, no one mentions it." The reason for this reluctance, he observed, was fear of being labeled an anti-Semite. Even so, there is little doubt that Israel and the Lobby were key factors in shaping the decision for war. Without the Lobby's efforts, the United States would have been far less likely to have gone to war in March 2003.

Dreams of Regional Transformation
The Iraq war was not supposed to be a costly quagmire. Rather, it was intended as the first step in a larger plan to reorder the Middle East. This ambitious strategy was a dramatic departure from previous U.S. policy, and the Lobby and Israel were critical driving forces behind this shift. This point was made clearly after the Iraq war began in a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal. The headline says it all: "President's Dream: Changing Not Just Regime but a Region: A Pro-U.S., Democratic Area is a Goal that Has Israeli and Neo Conservative Roots."
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