Posts Tagged Iraq war
In the past, I’ve demolished Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s claim that Israel and its friends drove the United States to war with Iraq. I did it when they published their article, and did it again when they published their book, The Israel Lobby. It’s a conspiracy theory, pure and simple. And because Walt is a conspiracy theorist, he does what they all do: he rips evidence out of context. Here’s his latest grasp at a straw: his claim that Tony Blair has “revealed” that “Israel officials were involved in those discussions” on Iraq held between Blair and George Bush in Crawford, Texas in April 2002. Walt brings as evidence this quote from Blair’s testimony to the U.K. (Chilcot) inquiry investigating the Iraq war:
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.
Walt’s conclusion: “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.” Walt goes on to declare that “more evidence of their influence [of Israel and the Israel lobby] on the decision for war will leak out,” and that “Blair’s testimony is evidence of that process at work.”
When people who don’t know much about the Middle East, like Stephen Walt, pose as experts, they make basic mistakes of chronology. So let me remind him of exactly what coincided with the Crawford meeting of April 6-7, 2002.
Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank on March 29. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon ordered the operation in response to a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings. Its objective was the reoccupation of West Bank cities, dismantling the infrastructure of terror, and laying siege to Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah HQ. On April 2, Israeli forces battled their way into Bethlehem and secured Jenin city, and on April 3, they began to clear out the Jenin refugee camp. When Bush and Blair sat down in Crawford, Israel was laying siege to terrorists holed up in the Church of the Nativity, and the Battle of Jenin was in full swing. The Arab propaganda mills exploited the fog of war to make the operation seem like Sabra and Shatila redux, replete with massacres and mass graves. Arab leaders bombarded Bush and Blair with demands for action to stop Israel.
Bush succumbed to the mounting pressure, and on April 4 told Sharon to pull Israeli forces out of West Bank cities. On April 6, the first day of the Crawford meeting, Bush sharpened that message in a press conference with Blair, calling on Israel to withdraw “without delay.” He said the same in a 20-minute phone call to Sharon that very day. It was the lowest point in Israeli-American relations during the Bush years, and a crisis of massive proportions. Here is the chronology.
So Blair was right to recall that at Crawford, “the Israel issue was a big, big issue,” and that there were conversations with the Israelis. But these weren’t “active consulting” over plans for the Iraq war (and nothing in Blair’s testimony suggests they were). They were urgent negotiations about an ongoing war in the West Bank, and consisted of full-court pressure on Israel to end it. That Walt doesn’t say so—that “April 2002” doesn’t immediately trigger a mention of the historical context—is evidence either of ignorance or deception. Take your pick. (Illustration: New York Times front pages from April 6-8, 2002, the Crawford weekend.)
And while we’re on straws, Walt grasped at another one which left me smiling. Walt:
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.
[Clinton] segued into a discussion of Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman’s position in favor of going to war, noting how it squared with the view of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others that Saddam Hussein was such a menace he should be removed regardless of whether he had WMD. Then, out of the blue, came this: “That was also the position of every Israeli politician I knew, by the way.”
So Clinton attributed the idea that Saddam should be removed regardless of WMD to Cheney, Rumsfeld, Lieberman, and “others”—all of the usual suspects—and only then to Israeli leaders, “by the way.” As far as Walt’s thesis, this proves… well, what does it prove, Professor Walt? The amusing sequel comes when Bennet notes that even “I knew some Israeli politicians with doubts about the war,” and then relays this explanation:
One longtime and acute observer of Clinton, whom I won’t name here, suggested to me that, as is his tendency, Clinton was looking to please people he spotted in the crowd before him—in this case, seated in the front rows, several representatives of Arab nations, including Queen Noor of Jordan.
So Clinton wasn’t just speaking to “an audience” in Aspen. He had Queen Noor in the front row! Could Bill Clinton have been pandering? Naw, couldn’t be.
John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt appear at Princeton University tonight, to promote their book The Israel Lobby. I’ve held back while other critics have had their say, and many of them have done a splendid job. But I don’t think anyone has understood the neat sleight of hand the authors performed in moving from article to book. The innovation in The Israel Lobby is their “cold feet” thesis about the Israeli genesis of the Iraq war.
But first, remember why pinning the Iraq war on the “Israel lobby” is so important to Mearsheimer and Walt. Their main argument isn’t that the Palestinians are paying a terrible price for that support. In most quarters, that draws a simple shrug. Instead, the duo claim that Americans are paying the price for U.S. support for Israel. They paid it on 9/11, and they’re paying it now in Iraq. The killers of 9/11 set out on their mission because of their rage against unconditional U.S. backing for Israel; and the pro-Israel lobby got America into the Iraq war because it served Israel’s interests, not America’s. America is bleeding so that Israel can avoid doing what it should have done years ago: give the Palestinians their state. And it’s because Americans are dying that Israel shouldn’t be indulged anymore.
Of the two arguments made by Walt and Mearsheimer, the 9/11 argument is the less effective. That’s because very early on, Americans decided that Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, and the 15 of the 19 hijackers who were Saudis, weren’t out to kill Americans over Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Al-Qaeda hates us for everything we do and represent they’re 200-proof hatred of America. Americans understood that instinctively, and it was confirmed by the 9/11 Commission Report. The report’s narrative showed how the 9/11 plot developed precisely during the years when Bill Clinton fussed over Yasser Arafat. The report became a bestseller, and its impact has been profound.
So the Iraq argument is far more crucial to the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis, and it’s also dearer to them. It’s generally believed that their anger over the Iraq war drove them to write the book in the first place. They both opposed the war before it started, and they signed a prominent letter against it. Much to their chagrin, no one took much notice of their ironclad, realist arguments against going into Iraq. To the two professors, the United States had become an anomaly, a place where the national interest (as they saw it) wasn’t driving foreign policy. They explained that anomaly by the distorting influence of the “powerful Israel lobby.”
In their original article, Walt and Mearsheimer had a straightforward chain of causation for the Iraq war: Israel pushed the “Israel Lobby” (with a capital L), which pushed the neocons, which pushed the Bush administration into war. I immediately came back with a large body of evidence, proving that Israel wasn’t much worried about Saddam, and instead wanted the United States to take care of Iran. Israeli cabinet ministers and officials went to Washington to stress Iran over Iraq, and these efforts even surfaced in prominent stories in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times articles that Mearsheimer and Walt had missed entirely.
In the book, Mearsheimer and Walt admit that Israel was pushing for Iran over Iraq. And yes, they say, Israel only joined the Iraq bandwagon when the Bush administration seemed set on Iraq. But they haven’t dismantled their thesis—far from it. Instead they’ve come up with the new and improved Mearsheimer-Walt thesis, and it goes like this: the Iraq war must still be blamed on Israel, because in the lead-up to the war, Israel and its lobby worked overtime to ensure that Bush didn’t get “cold feet.”
Believe it or not, this is the new Mearsheimer-Walt twist: the “cold feet” thesis of Israel’s responsibility for the Iraq war. For example, page 234: “Israeli leaders worried constantly in the months before the war that President Bush might decide not to go to war after all, and they did what they could to ensure Bush did not get cold feet.” And this, page 261: “Top Israeli officials were doing everything in their power to make sure that the United States went after Saddam and did not get cold feet at the last moment.”
Mearsheimer and Walt bring not a single footnote, in their copiously footnoted book, to substantiate this new and bizarre claim. You have to be pretty credulous to imagine that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld would waver “at the last moment” when they had Saddam squarely in their sights. You can read Bob Woodward forward and backward and find no evidence of wobble. Nor is there any evidence of Israeli worries that the Bush administration would waver on Iraq. Mearsheimer and Walt just made it up.
In doing so, they miss (or conceal) the real story. Israel did worry in the lead-up to the war—not about “cold feet,” but about the “long pause.” A year before the Iraq war, Natan Sharansky, then an Israeli cabinet minister, went on the record with this quote (missed by Mearsheimer and Walt): “We and the Americans have different priorities. For us, Iran comes first and then Iraq. The Americans see Iraq, then a long pause, and only then Iran.” It never occurred to Israelis that Bush would get “cold feet” on Iraq, but they fretted endlessly over just how long the “long pause” would last, and they had good reason.
For example, four months before the war, Ariel Sharon told the London Times (November 5, 2002) that Iran should be put under pressure “the day after” action against Iraq. Mearsheimer and Walt bring the quote. But they incredibly omit what followed on the very same day: British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw shot back at Sharon on the BBC. “I profoundly disagree with him,” Straw said, “and I think it would be the gravest possible error to think in that way.” The London Times reported the spat the next day (“Straw and Sharon ‘Deeply Disagree'”), adding that both British and U.S. senior diplomats were “dismissive of Sharon’s call.” The paper went on to quote “a senior American” who spoke these words: “The President understands the nuances. You can’t paint Iran as totally black in the same way as you do Iraq.… I would have a hard time buying the idea that after victory in Iraq, the U.S. is going to turn its sights on Iran.”
So the Israelis had good cause to worry. Walt and Mearsheimer write (p. 261) that the Israelis “were convinced that Bush would deal with Iran after he finished with Iraq.” No they weren’t, because they knew Britain would oppose it, along with plenty of “senior Americans.” Precisely because they weren’t convinced, they kept coming back to it. And they were right to worry, because in the end, the United States accommodated the Brits. There would be no Iran follow-up. Why? Because Tony Blair did Bush an immense favor in Europe, and the British sent thousands of troops to Iraq. Bush’s feet were snug and warm—nailing Saddam had 80 percent public support in America—but Blair felt the chill at home. To keep him on board, Bush gave him to understand that there wouldn’t be an Iran sequel, at least not on Blair’s watch.
Not only wasn’t the Iraq war Israel’s first choice; the war’s aftermath was a defeat for Israel’s own openly declared priorities. Israel is now living with the consequences of that defeat. Here we are in the last days of 2007, and the United States is still in the midst of the “long pause.” Maybe it should be renamed: the latest U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has put a lame-duck administration into menopause. So much for the manipulative power of the “Israel lobby.” The Iraq war and its aftermath prove exactly the opposite of what Mearsheimer and Walt claim they prove. They’re evidence not of Israel’s influence, but of the limits of Israel’s leverage when it comes up against other major U.S. interests and alliances.
In sum, the Iraq war thesis of Mearsheimer and Walt is make-believe, and it doesn’t get better from the article to the book—in fact, it’s worse. Almost every reviewer has questioned it on some grounds, although not one has identified the “cold feet” thesis. But that’s what I propose to call it, and it deserves to be known for what it is: a conspiracy theory, pure and simple.
Frankly I’m astonished when even skeptical reviewers of the book preface their criticisms by saying that the authors have done us some sort of service by opening the discussion. Can you imagine them saying the same thing about a book on intelligent design? That the details are preposterous, but the basic proposition deserves to be discussed seriously by serious people? Yet here we have a thesis, insisting that U.S. foreign policy is run by Zionist intelligent design, and Mearsheimer and Walt have made it a perfectly legitimate subject for academic discussion and tony dinner party conversation. If you say otherwise, you’re accused of “stifling debate.”
In the real world, Mearsheimer and Walt, far from being stifled, have become media staples, and tonight they’ll have yet another podium, at Princeton. The respondent will be Princeton professor Robert O. Keohane, another much-ballyhooed theory-maker who’s already hailed the bravery of the duo. “It is bad for political science if some important forces and pressures are systematically concealed,” he’s said. I think it’s a lot worse for political science if some big-name theorists systematically ignore evidence and make it up. If I were a Princeton student thinking of entering a field led by this crowd, it might give me… well, cold feet.
Update, December 12: The Daily Princetonian gives an account of the evening’s proceedings. Robert Keohane, counted among the allies of Mearsheimer and Walt by the Chronicle of Higher Education, turned out to be something less than that. He called The Israel Lobby “a flawed work of political science,” marred by numerous “inconsistencies with realities,” and he particularly went after the book’s claims about the Iraq war. The Daily Prince:
A major point of contention during the discussion was the role of neoconservative policymakers in the Bush administration and their links with pro-Israel lobbyists. Mearsheimer and Walt said that neocons played a significant role in the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, a move the two argued was also seen at the time as being in Israel’s best interest.
“There’s no question that the neoconservatives were the main driving forces behind the war, supported by key organizations in the lobby like AIPAC,” Mearsheimer said.
Keohane disputed the link between AIPAC and the decision to go to war in Iraq. He cited nine other reasons for the invasion, including concerns over weapons of mass destruction and a desire to promote democracy.
The mention of AIPAC’s role in the lead up to the Iraq war set off a spirited exchange.
“It’s hard to find other organizations or institutions that were pushing the war,” Mearsheimer said. “If it wasn’t the neoconservatives, and it wasn’t the leaders of the lobby, and it wasn’t Israel, then who was it?”
“Two people: One is the president, and the other is the vice president,” Keohane said to applause.
Walt jumped in. “The problem,” he said, “is that neither the president nor the vice president was pushing for the war in the first eight months of the term.” More people applauded.
Keohane added that Sept. 11, 2001, changed the situation amid supportive shouts from the audience.
Mearsheimer responded that “Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.”
“The American deployment of terror against the Iraqi population has, of course, dwarfed anything the French accomplished in Egypt by orders of magnitude.” Juan Cole
Juan Cole is busy promoting his new book Napoleon’s Egypt, the hook being a comparison between Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt and George W. Bush in Iraq. This could make for an interesting exercise in the hands of a thoughtful and dispassionate historian. In Cole’s hands, it just deteriorates into Bush-bashing, from which the American president emerges as a bigger deployer of terror than Napoleon.
One of Cole’s angles is to emphasize the brutality of all occupations, which he highlights by telling this story of a French atrocity:
At one point, the French are said to have brought 900 heads of slain insurgents to Cairo in bags and ostentatiously dumped them out before a crowd in one of that city’s major squares to instill Cairenes with terror. (Two centuries later, the American public would come to associate decapitations by Muslim terrorists in Iraq with the ultimate in barbarism, but even then hundreds of such beheadings were not carried out at once.)
Right away, there’s something unhinged about the part in the parentheses, which seems to plead on behalf of the video decapitators in Iraq. (“Your honor, we only did them one at a time.”) But Cole went even further in prepared remarks he delivered at the Washington-based New America Foundation on August 24. Again he told the story of the French dumping heads in a Cairo square, with this addition: “We now associate beheadings with Islamic terrorism. But Bonaparte and the French Republic of course were the great beheaders initially. It was a very modern technique.”
It was a very modern technique. If he’d said it in Q&A, I’d let it pass. But he said it in prepared remarks. I won’t even begin the litany of historical precedents, stretching back to antiquity. But I will link here to an article by Timothy Furnish, “Beheading in the Name of Islam,” which looks at decapitation in Islamic theology and history, and shows that it’s been a sanctioned punishment from the very beginning, for criminals, dissidents, rebels, and defeated enemies. Most famously, the Prophet Muhammad ordered 600 to 900 men of the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza executed by decapitation. Muhammad and his followers would seem to have had a millennium’s head start over Napoleon in the race for the title of initial “great beheaders.”
Cole’s description of beheading as “very modern” isn’t just a mistake. It tells you just how driven he is to blame the West for everything he deplores and relativize even the most revolting acts of Muslim terrorism. Terrorists are cutting off heads in Iraq? The West started the beheading with Napoleon, so we’re just reaping what we’ve sown. They use terror? It’s because Bush, like Napoleon, has followed “the strategy of ruling by terror and swift, draconian punishment for acts of resistance.” We are guilty not only of our sins. We are guilty of theirs, by our example and our actions. You see, until we came along, everyone got to keep his head.
Real reading: The Iraq hook for Cole’s book is just a stunt an attempt to replicate the success of Sir Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, a thirty-year-old account of the Algerian war that’s been revived by the Iraq war. As Gary Kamiya wrote in Salon.com, Horne is “untainted by the partisan rancor of American politics,” which may be why he got an invite to meet with Bush. If you’re looking for a French precedent with much closer Iraq parallels, read Horne’s book, just reissued in paperback with a new preface relating to Iraq. Hear Horne talk about the parallels here.
Graphic: Detail from Henri Regnault’s painting, “Execution Without Trial Moorish Kings of Granada,” Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt includes a section entitled “Israel and the Iraq War” (pp. 30-31). There they seek to establish that Israel’s leaders, intelligence agencies, and public opinion enthusiastically supported a war to remove Saddam. Israel exerted “pressure” on the United States, fed Washington “alarming reports” on Iraq’s WMD capabilities, and beat the war drums in the media. 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.” Israel thus became “a critical element” in pushing the United States to war.
Is this a full and accurate representation of what actually transpired? Let’s consider the full range of evidence—including that hidden away in such obscure sources as the Washington Post, the New York Times and page one of the Los Angeles Times.
In October 2002, analyst Barry Rubin wrote this in the Jerusalem Post: “If you told Israeli leaders and analysts two years ago that the U.S. would be on the verge of attacking Iraq today, they would have been astonished and confused. The dominant perception across the political spectrum was that Iraq was not a serious threat.” In fact, right through the 1990s, Israel showed little interest in the dossier some Americans busily compiled against Saddam. Laurie Mylroie, who argued that Saddam sponsored every act of terror everywhere, and possessed every kind of WMD, got little traction in Israel, and it frustrated her to no end:
Many Israelis [wrote Mylroie in 1998] refuse to accept and incorporate, even now, the information that suggests the US did not win the [1991 Kuwait] war and Saddam remains very dangerous. A few do—like Ehud Ya’ari/Ze’ev Schiff/Gerald Steinberg, Bar Ilan University/the editors of the Jerusalem Post. But most do not and their work is so systematically distorted that it is fit for little more than wrapping fish.
Mylroie thought Israel far too fixated on Iran, and called its unwillingness to prioritize Iraq “a strategic intelligence failure…not less than the strategic intelligence failure that preceded the Yom Kippur War.”
In November 2001, Seymour Hersh (in an article entitled “The Iran Game”) reported Israel’s concern that the post-9/11 “war on terror” had diverted U.S. attention from Iran, even as Iran accelerated its nuclear program. Hersh wrote that “even Israel’s most skeptical critics in the American intelligence community—and there are many—now acknowledge that there is a serious problem.” But the Bush administration put Israel off with assurances that it would get to Iran later. Hersh:
The Bush Administration continues to concentrate on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “It’s more important to deal with Iraq than with Iran, because there’s nothing going on in Iraq that’s going to get better,” a senior Administration strategist told me. “In Iran, the people are openly defying the government. There’s some hope that Iran will get better. But there’s nothing in Iraq that gives you any hope, because Saddam rules so ruthlessly. What will we do if he provides anthrax to four guys in Al Qaeda?” He said, “If Iraq is out of the picture, we will concentrate on Iran in an entirely different way.”
In February 2002, ahead of a visit by Ariel Sharon to Washington, the Washington Post carried a story by Alan Sipress under the headline: “Israel Emphasizes Iranian Threat.”
As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrives today for a White House visit, Israeli officials are redoubling efforts to warn the Bush administration that Iran poses a greater threat than the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.
A series of Israeli leaders have carried that message to Washington recently in the hope of influencing a debate that has centered not on Iran but on whether to pursue the overthrow of the Iraqi government.
The article went on to quote Israeli defense minister Fouad Ben-Eliezer: “Today, everybody is busy with Iraq. Iraq is a problem…. But you should understand, if you ask me, today Iran is more dangerous than Iraq.” The article added: “Though Israeli officials have few kind words for Saddam Hussein, they see him posing less of a threat than Iran after more than a decade of U.N. sanctions and international isolation.”
But the wheels of war in Washington continued to grind through spring and summer, and as they did, allies of the United States jumped on board. Even so, Israel still wasn’t entirely on the same page as the Bush administration. On October 6, 2002, James Bennet filed a story from Jerusalem that ran the next day under this headline: “Sharon Tells Cabinet to Keep Quiet on U.S. Plans” for Iraq. Bennet reported that Sharon had instructed his ministers to stop talking about Iraq, and then summarized the opinions of the military echelon:
Even as Mr. Bush has sought in recent days to play up the imminence and potency of the Iraqi threat, some of Israel’s top security officials have played both down.
Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s chief of staff, was quoted in the newspaper Maariv today as telling a trade group in a speech over the weekend, “I’m not losing any sleep over the Iraqi threat.” The reason, he said, was that the military strength of Israel and Iraq had diverged so sharply in the last decade.
Israel’s chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Farkash, disputed contentions that Iraq was 18 months away from nuclear capability. In an interview on Saturday with Israeli television, he said army intelligence had concluded that Iraq’s time frame was more like four years, and he said Iran’s nuclear threat was as great as Iraq’s.
General Farkash also said Iraq had grown militarily weaker since the Persian Gulf war in 1991 and had not deployed any missiles that could strike Israel.
On October 16, 2002, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story by its Israel correspondent, Barbara Demick, under this headline: “Not All Israelis Welcome Prospect of War With Iraq.”
A muted debate is underway here over whether a U.S.-led war against Israel’s archenemy Saddam Hussein is, in fact, a good idea.
While it is widely assumed that Israelis are gloating over the prospect of Hussein getting his comeuppance after the Persian Gulf War, when 39 Iraqi Scud missiles rained down on Israel, the reality is far more complex and the reactions more ambivalent.
No doubt Israelis more than almost anyone would prefer a Middle East without Hussein, but some question whether the status quo of a weakened and contained Iraq isn’t better than a war that could further inflame anti-Israel sentiments in the Arab world.
Demick also quoted Generals Yaalon and Farkash, adding that “Israeli military specialists have been debating for several years whether Iraq or Iran poses more of a threat. Most specialists believe it is Iran, because it is richer and has been more directly implicated in international terrorism.” And she also had an explanation for the muted tone of the debate: “Those most enthusiastic about Washington’s campaign dread any suggestion that Israel is egging on the U.S. And those with misgivings are loath to say anything that might embarrass Israel’s most steadfast ally.”
Incredibly, Mearsheimer and Walt, in their section on “Israel and the Iraq War,” don’t cite Mylroie, or the articles in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. (The Washington Post piece is cited later, but in the wrong context. Mearsheimer and Walt chronologically misplace Ben-Eliezer’s remark, about Iran being more dangerous than Iraq. They date it to “one month before the Iraq war”—in other words, in the context of the debate over what should be done after Iraq. In fact, Ben-Eliezer made the statement one year and one month before the Iraq war, in the context of the debate about whether to do Iraq at all.)
In their analysis of Israeli public opinion, Mearsheimer and Walt also skip over evidence. They quote a September 2002 Wall Street Journal op-ed by Benjamin Netanyahu (then on the political sidelines) in which he made this assertion: “I believe I speak for the overwhelming majority of Israelis in supporting a pre-emptive strike against Saddam’s regime.” Mearsheimer and Walt:
As 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.
They then support this claim in a footnote, citing a February 2003 poll done by the Steinmatz Center at Tel Aviv University. It showed that 77.5 percent of Israeli Jews favored a U.S. campaign against Iraq.
But that wasn’t the only poll taken at the time. Mearsheimer and Walt could have consulted a more Iraq-specific poll cited by Gideon Levy, the far-left Haaretz columnist who opposed the war, and whom they quote as an authority on the hawkish mood of Israel’s leaders. In fact, Levy held that while Israel’s leaders favored a war, Israel’s public didn’t. Levy cited an opinion poll done by the Dialogue Institute for Haaretz and published in the paper on February 13, 2003:
It turns out that nearly half of Israelis are against an immediate war—20.4 percent think the U.S. should refrain completely from attacking, and another 23.4 percent are in favor of an attack only if all the inspection and mediation efforts fail. Figures in America are amazingly similar.
This hardly conforms to Mearsheimer and Walt’s assertion that “the [Israeli] public enthusiastically favored war.” Yet they fail to mention this major public opinion poll on the subject of their research, conducted for Haaretz—a newspaper cited almost ninety times in their footnotes. Instead they trot out a more convenient poll, and allow the argument to be clinched by Netanyahu. “I believe I speak for the overwhelming majority of Israelis,” he is quoted as claiming. Now when did he last do that?
What does the full evidence suggest? That the Israeli posture on the Iraq war was far more complex than Mearsheimer and Walt allow or even imagine. Did two former Israeli prime ministers, Barak and Netanyahu, write tough-guy op-eds in favor of striking Iraq? They did. Did ex-Mossad head Efraim Halevy give a starry-eyed speech on the new Middle East that would emerge after Saddam fell? He did. Did Israeli intelligence generate some overwrought assessments of Iraq? It did. But Israel also had a debate, one that’s gone missing in the Mearsheimer-Walt version.
Daniel Levy, an Israeli promoter of the so-called “Geneva Initiative,” grabbed some attention by welcoming the Mearsheimer-Walt paper. He can hardly be described as hostile to their enterprise. But in a radio interview, he said this:
I’ll give you an Israeli angle on this which may surprise some people and be interesting…. Many Israelis felt that engaging in a war with Iraq was the right thing to do and was good for Israeli security. However, there was a debate, it didn’t surface greatly but it was very much taking place within the Israeli security establishment and it said the following: the strategic threat is Iran, not Iraq. We may limit and actually undermine what we can do in Iran if we go for what some people have called the wrong war. Now those voices may not have been heard very publicly but they were heard inside the security establishment.
As we’ve seen, the Israelis also engaged the Americans in some measure of debate, and evidence for it even surfaced in the mainstream media. In a post-war analysis, Israeli analyst (and former general) Shlomo Brom described the disagreement—and what ended it (emphasis mine):
The ongoing dialogues between various levels of the Israeli and American governments over the last decade revealed disagreements between the two countries concerning the relative weight of the various threats in the Middle East. The United States was wont to emphasize the Iraqi threat, while Israel tended to express its understanding that the Iraqi threat was contained and under control, and it was the Iranian threat that loomed as far more serious. Once the Bush administration decided to take action against Iraq, it was more difficult for Israel to maintain its position that dealing with Iraq was not the highest priority, especially when it was obvious that the war would serve Israel’s interests. Considering the circumstances, it would therefore be difficult to expect the Israeli government to express its doubts—if any—about Iraq’s capabilities.
In fact, some doubts continued to leak into statements by Israel’s top generals. But once Israel’s leaders realized that the Bush administration was dead serious about ousting Saddam, they clambered onto the bandwagon. Israeli politicans joined the chorus, and the Israeli security establishment fell in line.
Mearsheimer and Walt thus would seem to have it exactly wrong. It wasn’t Israel that persuaded the Bush administration of the war’s necessity, but vice versa: the administration persuaded and then enlisted Israel. It did so, in considerable measure, by implying that the United States would be better positioned to deal with Iran once it had disposed of Saddam.
In the end, Israel acquiesced in the U.S. threat perception, which didn’t align with its own. Influential Israelis also publicly helped to bolster the arguments made by the Bush administration. As in 1990-91, Israel again prepared to do something totally foreign to it: to absorb an Iraqi strike, perhaps with non-conventional weapons, while forgoing retaliation. And during the war, Israel showed exceptional restraint toward the Palestinians. Not for a moment did it contemplate mass expulsion of Palestinians under the cover of war in Iraq—something Mearsheimer, in a display of true ignorance, thought quite possible at the time.
In short, Israel performed as an ideal ally and perfect client. Over the decades, this is precisely how Israel has built its credibility in Washington and across America—not through the machinations of the “Lobby.”
Professor Juan Cole, the blogging sensation, is at it again, claiming that he objected to the “terrible idea” of the Iraq war back in 2002 and 2003. Proof? “I can produce witnesses to my having said that if the UN Security Council did not authorize the war, I would protest it.” This new posting echoes one that Cole made last November, when he claimed to have “said repeatedly in 2002 and early 2003” that “it was a bad idea to invade Iraq.” Apparently it’s important to Cole, who’s an anti-war icon, to demonstrate that he opposed war from the get-go.
Tony Badran responded last autumn with a devastating posting, comprised of various quotes from Cole’s own weblog. Here are some of them. Cole, before the war (February 11, 2003): “I am an Arabist and happen to know something serious about Baathist Iraq, which paralyzes me from opposing a war for regime change in that country.” Cole, start of the war (March 19, 2003): “I remain convinced that, for all the concerns one might have about the aftermath, the removal of Saddam Hussein and the murderous Baath regime from power will be worth the sacrifices that are about to be made on all sides.” Cole, after the war (July 30, 2003): “I refused to come out against the war. I was against the way the war was pursued the innuendo, the exaggerations, the arrogant unilateralism. But I could not bring myself to be against the removal of that genocidal regime from power.” Some “terrible idea.”
But since Professor Cole still needs help with his memory, let me add this quote to the litany (April 1, 2003):
I hold on to the belief that the Baath regime in Iraq has been virtually genocidal (no one talks about the fate of the Marsh Arabs) and that having it removed cannot in the end be a bad thing. That’s what I tell anxious parents of our troops over there; it is a noble enterprise to remove the Baath, even if so many other justifications for the war are crumbling.
You’ve got the mise-en-scene? The much-titled expert reassures anxious parents of service personnel that their sons and daughters are risking their lives in a “noble enterprise.” Now read this passage, which Cole wrote over a year later (April 23, 2004):
I would not have been willing to risk my own life to dislodge Saddam Hussein from power. And, I would certainly not have been willing to see my son risk his.
So apparently the “noble enterprise” wasn’t that noble, at least in retrospect. For it’s only in retrospect that Cole came to see the “noble enterprise” as a “terrible idea.” Only in retrospect did a war to depose Saddam look to him like a “bad idea,” since at the time he thought it “cannot in the end be a bad thing.” When war began, he thought it would be “worth the sacrifices.” Only in retrospect did he decide it wasn’t even worth the risks.
Cole shows neither courage nor integrity in fudging his past position. While he flays others for selective memory and shifting their rationales, he commits precisely the same offenses. Would it damage his ego or his reputation for punditry to admit that the “noble enterprise” didn’t turn out quite like he expected? What’s he afraid of? After all, he wasn’t regarded as any great expert on Iraq going into the war. Even a true expert, Peter Sluglett, has admitted he overestimated U.S. chances of getting Iraq right: “Perhaps I was naive.” Why does Cole, an Iraq novice in comparison, insist on his own prescience?
Finally, there’s Cole’s claim that he was going to “protest” the war if it didn’t get a U.N. Security Council resolution. He says he’s got witnesses. Well, they’d better be good, because here is Cole on the record (February 4, 2003):
My own knowledge of the horrors Saddam has perpetrated makes it impossible for me to stand against the coming war, however worried I am about its aftermath. World order is not served by unilateral military action, to which I do object. But world order, human rights and international law are likewise not served by allowing a genocidal monster to remain in power.
That sounds like an overwhelming moral case for unilateral action, with apologies to the UN.
So that’s Juan Cole—the historian who can’t even get his own history straight. His “noble enterprise” belongs to the same category as President Bush’s “mission accomplished,” with this difference: President Bush may have been sincere. With Cole, you never know.