I don’t mean to say I told you so, but…

By Stephen M. Walt | February 8, 2010

Probably the most controversial claim in my work with John Mearsheimer on the Israel lobby is
our argument that it played a key role in the decision to invade Iraq
in 2003. Even some readers who were generally sympathetic to our
overall position found that claim hard to accept, and some left-wing critics
accused us of letting Bush and Cheney off the hook or of ignoring the
importance of other interests, especially oil. Of course, Israel’s
defenders in the lobby took issue even more strenuously, usually by
mischaracterizing our arguments and ignoring most (if not all) of the
evidence we presented.

So I hope readers will forgive me if I indulge today in a bit of
self-promotion, or more precisely, self-defense. This week, yet another
piece of evidence surfaced that suggests we were right all along (HT to
Mehdi Hasan at the New Statesman and J. Glatzer at Mondoweiss). In
his testimony to the Iraq war commission in the U.K., former Prime
Minister Tony Blair offered the following account of his discussions
with Bush in Crawford, Texas in April 2002. Blair reveals that concerns
about Israel were part of the equation and that Israel officials were
involved in those discussions.

Take it away, Tony:

As I recall that discussion, it was less to do with
specifics about what we were going to do on Iraq or, indeed, the Middle
East, because the Israel issue was a big, big issue at the time. I
think, in fact, I remember, actually, there may have been conversations
that we had even with Israelis, the two of us, whilst we were there. So
that was a major part of all this.”

Notice that Blair is not saying that Israel dreamed
up the idea of attacking Iraq or that Bush was bent on war solely to
benefit Israel or even to appease the Israel lobby here at home.  But
Blair is acknowledging that concerns about Israel were part of the
equation, and that the Israeli government was being actively consulted
in the planning for the war.

Blair’s comments fit neatly with the argument we make about the
lobby and Iraq. Specifically, Professor Mearsheimer and I made it clear
in our article and especially in our book that the idea of invading
Iraq originated in the United States with the neoconservatives, and not
with the Israeli government. But as the neoconservative pundit Max Boot
once put it, steadfast support for Israel is “a key tenet of neoconservatism.”
Prominent neo-conservatives occupied important positions in the Bush
administration, and in the aftermath of 9/11, they played a major role
in persuading Bush and Cheney to back a war against Iraq, which they
had been advocating since the late 1990s. We also pointed out that
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other Israeli officials were initially
skeptical of this scheme, because they wanted the U.S. to focus on
Iran, not Iraq. However, they became enthusiastic supporters of the
idea of invading Iraq once the Bush administration made it clear to
them that Iraq was just the first step in a broader campaign of
“regional transformation” that would eventually include Iran.

At that point top Israeli leaders from across the political spectrum
became cheerleaders for the invasion, and they played a prominent role
in helping to sell the war here in the United States. Benjamin
Netanyahu visited Washington, DC in April 2002 and spoke in the U.S.
Senate, telling his audience “the urgent need to topple Saddam is paramount,”
and that the campaign “deserves the unconditional support of all sane
governments.” (It sure sounds like he was well aware of the discussions
in Crawford, doesn’t it?) In May, foreign minister Shimon Peres said on
CNN that “Saddam Hussein is as dangerous as bin Laden,” and that the
United States “cannot sit and wait.” A month later, former Prime
Minister Ehud Barak wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post recommending that the Bush administration “should, first of all, focus on Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein.”

This chorus continued through the summer and fall, with Barak and Netanyahu writing additional op-eds in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, each calling
for military action to topple Saddam. Netanyahu’s piece was titled “The
Case for Toppling Saddam” and said that “nothing less than dismantling
his regime will do.” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s official spokesman,
Ra’anan Gissen, offered similar statements during this period as well,
and Sharon himself told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence
Committee in August 2002 that Iraq was “the greatest danger facing
Israel.” According to an Aug. 16 article by Aluf Benn in Ha’aretz, Sharon
reportedly told the Bush administration that putting off an attack
would “only give [Saddam] more of an opportunity to accelerate his
program of WMD.” Foreign Minister Peres reiterated his own warnings as
well, and told reporters in September 2002 that “the campaign against
Saddam Hussein is a must.” (For sources, see pp. 233-38).

If that’s not enough evidence of where Israel’s leaders were in the
run-up to the war, consider that former President Bill Clinton told an
audience at an Aspen Institute meeting in
2006 that “every Israeli politician I knew” (and he knows a lot of
them) believed that Saddam Hussein was so great a threat that he should
be removed even if he did not have WMD.  Nor is this testimony at all surprising, given that we are talking about the leader who had fired Scud
missiles into Israel during the first Gulf War in 1991 and had been
giving money to the families of suicide bombers. If the Bush
administration was bent on taking him out and then turning its
gun-sights on Syria and Iran, one can easily understand why Israelis
would welcome it.

Now, what about key groups in the lobby itself? If the
neoconservatives deserve the blame for dreaming up the idea of invading
Iraq, key groups and individuals in the lobby played an important role
in selling it on Capitol Hill and to the public at large. AIPAC head
Howard Kohr told the New York Sun in January 2003 that one of
the organization’s “success stories” over the previous year was
“quietly lobbying Congress” to approve the resolution authorizing the
use of force, a fact confirmed by journalists such as Nathan Guttman of
the Forward, Michelle Goldberg of Salon.com, John B. Judis of the New Republic, and even Jeffrey Goldberg in The New Yorker (see p. 242).
Pundits at pro-Israel think tanks like the Brookings Institutions’s
Saban Center were openly backing war by the fall of 2002, with Martin
Indyk, the head of the center, and Kenneth Pollack, its director of
research, playing especially prominent roles.

Moreover, in this same period both the Jewish Council on Public
Affairs and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish
Organizations voted to endorse the use of force “as a last resort.”
Mortimer Zuckerman, a well-connected businessman and publisher who was
then the chairman of the Conference of Presidents, was especially
convinced about the futility of U.N. inspections and the need to topple
Saddam, and wrote several editorials making that case in his magazine (U.S. News and World Report).

Still skeptical? Consider the following passage from an article by Matthew Berger of the Jewish Telegraph Agency,
published just after President Bush’s September 2002 appearance at the
United Nations, where he threatened military action if Iraq did not
comply with U.N. resolutions:

Despite their caution and without specifying a formal
policy, Jewish leaders predominantly expressed support for Bush’s words
at the United Nations.

They said he detailed a strong case that Saddam has consistently
ignored U.N. resolutions, that he was seeking to obtain weapons of mass
destruction and that Saddam has shown a propensity towards using them.

“Iraq is the single most important threat right now to world peace
and to our safety,” said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president
of the Orthodox Religious Zionists of America.  He described Saddam as
a “maniac” who “has proven that he will gas his own people.”

“The fanaticism that exists throughout the Middle East is best
addressed by first dealing with Iraq,” agreed Rabbi Eric Yoffie,
president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew
Congregations.

Many American Jewish leaders expressed the fear that Saddam has not
been quiet for the past decade because of a loss of will, but because
he has been using the time to garner weapons for an eventual attack on
U.S. interests and allies.

“Do we have to wait until a target is hit, and the world says, ‘Ah,
yes, he did have weapons of mass destruction,’” asked David Harris,
executive director of the American Jewish Committee.”

Not to be outdone, the editor of Jewish Week, Gary
Rosenblatt, wrote an editorial in mid-December 2002 saying that
“Washington’s imminent war on Saddam Hussein is . . . an opportunity to
rid the world of a dangerous tyrant who present a particularly horrific
threat Israel.” He went on to say “the Torah instructs that when your
enemy seeks to kill you kill him first. Self-defense is not permitted;
it is commanded.” Even the relatively liberal Rabbi David Saperstein of
the Union of Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center told journalist
Michelle Goldberg that “the Jewish community would want to see a
forceful resolution to the threat that Saddam Hussein poses.” “Forceful
resolution” means war, and Saperstein also offered comparisons to the Bosnian conflict and the Nazi era to reinforce his call for military action.

Finally, consider the following passage from an editorial in the Jewish newspaper Forward, published in 2004:

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. Some groups went even further, arguing that that the
removal of the Iraqi leaders would represent a significant step toward
bringing peace to the Middle East and winning America’s war on
terrorism”

The editorial also noted that “concern for Israel’s safety
rightfully factored into the deliberations of the main Jewish groups.”

The Forward, it is worth noting, is well-connected
and has a well-deserved reputation for probity in its reporting on the
American Jewish community.  It is hard to see how its editors could be
mistaken about such an important issue or why they would lie about it. 
And they never issued a retraction. We can therefore assume that the
writers of this editorial knew what they were talking about: key groups
in the lobby supported the war.  Reasonable people can disagree about
how important their influence was, of course, but at a minimum these
groups reinforced the Bush administration’s resolve and made it less
likely that other politicians or commentators would conduct a serious
debate about the wisdom of the invasion.

Finally, it bears reiterating that I am talking about key groups and
individuals in the Israel lobby, and not about the American Jewish
community in toto.  Indeed, my co-author and I have
repeatedly pointed to surveys showing that American Jews were less
supportive of the decision to invade Iraq than the American population
as a whole, and we have emphasized that it would be a cardinal error
(as well as dangerous) to try to “blame the Jews” for the war.  Rather,
blame should be reserved for Bush and Cheney (who made the ultimate
decision for war), for the neoconservatives who dreamed up this foolish
idea, and for the various groups and individuals — including those in
the lobby — who helped sell it.

Nor am I suggesting that these individuals advocated this course
because they thought it would be good for Israel but bad for the United
States. Rather, they unwisely believed it would be good for both
countries. And as we all know, they were tragically wrong.

That misconception helps us understand why the Israelis and their
American friends who promoted the Iraq war didn’t do a better job of
covering their tracks and obscuring their enthusiasm for the endeavor.
I suspect it is because they genuinely believed that the war would be
easy and would bring great benefits for both Israel and the United
States. If the war was a smashing success, then they would reap the
credit and no one would spend that much time probing the war’s origins.
And even if someone did, its proponents would be hailed as strategic
geniuses who had conceived and planned a stunning victory. Once the war
went south, however, and numerous people began to probe how this
disaster came about, an extensive dust-kicking operation to veil the
role of Israel and the lobby was set in motion.

This campaign won’t work, however, because too many people already
know that Israel and the lobby were cheerleaders for the war and with
the passage of time, more and more evidence of their influence on the
decision for war will leak out. The situation is analogous to what
happened with the events surrounding the infamous Gulf of Tonkin
Resolution in August 1964. The Johnson administration could dissemble
and cover its tracks for a few years, but eventually the real story got
out, as will happen with Iraq. Indeed, Blair’s testimony is evidence of
that process at work.

For sure, many Israelis and their friends in the United States will
continue to maintain that the Sharon government actually tried to stop
the march to war and that groups in the lobby – including AIPAC —
stayed on the sideline and did not push for war. But these post hoc fairy tales will
be increasingly hard to sell to the American people, not only because
there is a growing body of evidence which directly contradicts them (see pp. 261-262)
, but also because the internet and the blogosphere is allowing the
word to spread.  Thankfully, we no longer have to rely on the
mainstream media to get the story straight.

Finally, let’s not forget that while the Iraq war has been a
disaster for the United States, it has also been very bad for Israel,
not just because its principal patron has been stuck in a quagmire in
Iraq, but also because the biggest winner from the war was Iran, which
is the country that Israel fears most.  All of this shows that despite
the lobby’s openly-stated commitment to promoting policies that it
thinks will benefit Israel, it did not work out that way with the Iraq
war. Nor is it working out that way with its unyielding support of
Israel’s self-destructive drive to colonize the Occupied Territories, a
process that is turning Israel into an apartheid state. And the same
warning applies to its efforts to keep all options-including the use of
force — “on the table” vis-à-vis Iran.

Given all the problems that the lobby’s prescriptions have produced
in recent years, you’d think U.S. leaders would have learned to ignore
its advice. But there’s little sign of that so far, which means that
these past errors are likely to be repeated. Don’t say I didn’t warn
you.

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