Iraq, Israel, Iran

When John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's article on the Israel Lobby appeared in the London Review of Books, after having been commissioned and killed by the Atlantic Monthly, neoconservative publicists launched an all-out campaign to slander the authors as anti-Semites. Now that their book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy has appeared--a work of considerable scope, carefully documented, and not just an expanded version of the article--the imputation of anti-Semitism will doubtless be repeated more sparingly for readers lower down the educational ladder. Meanwhile, the literate establishment press will (a) ignore it, (b) pretend that it says nothing new or surprising, and (c) rule out the probable inferences from the data, on the ground that the very meaning of the word "lobby" is elusive.

The truth is that many new facts are in this book, and many surprising facts. By reconstructing a trail of meetings and public statements in 2001-2002, for example, the authors show that much of the leadership of Israel was puzzled at first by the boyish enthusiasm for a war on Iraq among their neoconservative allies. Why Iraq? they asked. Why now? They would appear to have obtained assurances, however, that once the "regime change" in Iraq was accomplished, the next war would be against Iran.

A notable pilgrimage followed. One by one they lined up, Netanyahu, Sharon, Peres, and Barak, writing op-eds and issuing flaming warnings to convince Americans that Saddam Hussein was a menace of world-historical magnitude. Suddenly the message was that any delay of the president's plan to bomb, invade, and occupy Iraq would be seized on by "the terrorists" as a sign of weakness. Regarding the correct treatment of terrorists, as also regarding the avoidance of weakness, Americans look to Israelis as mentors in a class by themselves.

So a war projected years before by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz--a war secured at last by the fixing of the facts around the policy at the Office of the Vice President--was allowed to borrow some prestige at an intermediate stage by the consent of a few well-regarded Israeli politicians. Yet their target of choice had been Iran. They accepted the change of sequence without outward signs of doubt, possibly owing to their acquaintance with the Middle East doctrine espoused by the Weekly Standard and the American Enterprise Institute--a doctrine which held that to create a viable order after the fall of Iraq, regime change in Iran and Syria would have to follow expeditiously.

To sum up this part: the evidence of Mearsheimer and Walt suggests that Israel was never the prime mover of the Iraq war. Rather, once the Cheney-Wolfowitz design was in place, the Israeli ministers who trooped through American opinion pages and news-talk shows did what they could to heat up the war fever. This war was on the cards before they threw in their lot with Cheney and Bush; by their efforts they merely helped to confer on the plan an aura of legitimacy and worldly wisdom.

But now the American war with Iran they originally wanted is coming closer. Last Tuesday, when the mass media were crammed to distraction with the behavior of a senator in an airport washroom, few could be troubled to notice an important speech by President Bush. If Iran is allowed to persist in its present state, the president told the American Legion convention in Reno, it threatens "to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust." He said he had no intention of allowing that; and so he has "authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran's murderous activities." Those words come close to saying not that a war is coming but that it is already here. No lawmaker who reads them can affect the slightest shock at any action the president takes against Iran.

Admittedly, it was a showdown speech, reckless and belligerent, to a soldier audience; but then, this has been just the sort of crowd and message that Cheney and Bush favor when they are about to open a new round of killings. And in a sense, the Senate had given the president his cue when it approved, by a vote of 97-0, the July 11 Lieberman Amendment to Confront Iran. It is hardly an accident that the president and his favorite tame senator concurred in their choice of the word "confront." The pretext for the Lieberman amendment, as for the president's order, was the discovery of caches of weapons alleged to belong to Iran, the capture of Iranian advisers said to be operating against American troops, and the assertion that the most deadly IEDs used against Americans are often traceable to Iranian sources--claims that have been widely treated in the press as possible, but suspect and unverified. Still, the vote was 97-0. If few Americans took notice, the government of Iran surely did.

That unanimous vote was the latest in a series of capitulations that has included the apparent end of resistance by Nancy Pelosi to the next war. After the election of 2006, the speaker of the house declared her intention to enact into law a requirement that this president seek separate authorization for a war against Iran. On the point of doing so, she addressed the AIPAC convention, and was booed for criticizing the escalation of the Iraq war. Pelosi took the hint, shelved her authorization plan, and went with AIPAC against the anti-war base of the Democratic party.

This much, one might know without the help of Mearsheimer and Walt. But without their record, how many would trace the connection between the removal of Philip Zelikow as policy counselor of the state department, at the end of 2006, and a speech Zelikow had given in September 2006 urging serious negotiation and a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine? The ousting of Zelikow was a blessing to the war party, since it freed them from a skeptical confidant of Secretary of State Rice--perhaps the only person of stature anywhere near the administration whom she treated as an ally and friend. And the meaning of the change was clear when Zelikow's replacement turned out to be Eliot Cohen: a neoconservative war scholar and enthusiast, an early booster of the "surge" on the pundit shows, and incidentally a shameless slanderer of Mearsheimer-Walt ("Yes, It's Anti-Semitic," Washington Post, April 5, 2006).

From Zelikow to Cohen was only a step on the long path of humiliation that now stretched before Condoleeza Rice. When, in March 2007, amid suggestions of a renewal of diplomacy, she intimated that talks might be helpful in dealing with the Hamas-Fatah unity government (whose formation the Arab world had greeted as offering a promise of peace), she was demolished by an AIPAC-backed advisory letter bearing the signatures of 79 senators, which directed her not to speak with a government that had not yet recognized Israel. From that moment Rice was effectively neutralized.

The hottest cries for another war have been coming this summer from Joe Lieberman. He has called for attacks on Iran, and for attacks on Syria. It is as if Lieberman, with his appetite for multiple theaters of conflict, spoke from the congealed memory of all the wars he never fought. But Joe Lieberman is a stalking-horse. He would not say these things without getting permission from Vice President Cheney, a close and admired friend. Nor would Cheney permit a high-profile lawmaker whom he partly controls to set the United States and Israel on so perilous a course unless he had ascertained its acceptability to Ehud Olmert.

Yet the chief orchestrater of the second neoconservative war of aggression is Elliott Abrams. Convicted for deceptions around Iran-Contra, as Lewis Libby was convicted for deceptions stemming from Iraq--and pardoned by the elder Bush just as Libby had his sentence commuted by the younger--Abrams now presides over the Middle East desk at the National Security Council. All of the wildness of this astonishing functionary and all his reckless love of subversion will be required to pump up the "imminent danger" of Iran. For here, as with Iraq, the danger can only be made to look imminent by manipulation and forgery. On all sober estimates, Iran is several months from mastering the nuclear cycle, and several years from producing a weapon. Whereas Israel for decades has been in possession of a substantial nuclear arsenal.

How mad is Elliott Abrams? If one passage cited by Mearsheimer-Walt is quoted accurately, it would seem to be the duty of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to subject Abrams to as exacting a challenge as the Senate Judiciary Committee brought to Alberto Gonzales. The man at the Middle East desk of the National Security Council wrote in 1997 in his book Faith or Fear: "there can be no doubt that Jews, faithful to the covenant between God and Abraham, are to stand apart from the nation in which they live. It is the very nature of being Jewish to be apart--except in Israel--from the rest of the population." When he wrote those words, Abrams probably did not expect to serve in another American administration. He certainly did not expect to occupy a position that would require him to weigh the national interest of Israel, the country with which he confessed himself uniquely at one, alongside the national interest of a country in which he felt himself to stand "apart...from the rest of the population." Now that he is calling the shots against Hamas and Hezbollah, Damascus and Tehran, his words of 1997 ought to alarm us into reflection.

Among many possible lines of inquiry, the senators might begin by recognizing that the United States has other allies in Asia besides Israel. One of those allies is India; and there is a further point of resemblance. In a distinct exception to our anti-proliferation policy, we have allowed India to develop nuclear weapons; just as, in an earlier such exception, we allowed Israel to do the same. But suppose we read tomorrow a statement by the director of the South Asia desk of the National Security Council which declared: "There can be no doubt that Hindus are to stand apart from any nation in which they live. It is the very nature of being Hindu to be apart--except in India--from the rest of the population." Suppose, further, we knew this man still held these beliefs at a time of maximum tension between India and Pakistan; and that he had recently channeled 86 million dollars to regional gangs and militias bent on increasing the tension. Would we not conclude that something in our counsels of state had gone seriously out of joint?

The Mearsheimer-Walt study of American policy deserves to be widely read and discussed. It could not be more timely. If the speeches and saber-rattling by the president, the ambassador to Iraq, and several army officers mean anything, they mean that Cheney and Abrams are preparing to do to Iran what Cheney and Wolfowitz did to Iraq. They are gunning for an incident. They are working against some resistance from the armed forces but none from the opposition party at home. The president has ordered American troops to confront Iran. Sarkozy has fallen into line, Brown and Merkel are silent, and outside the United States only Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency stands between the war party and a prefabricated justification for a war that would extend across a vast subcontinent. Unless some opposition can rouse itself, we are poised to descend with non-partisan compliance into a moral and political disaster that will dwarf anything America has seen.

David Bromwich teaches literature at Yale. He has written on politics and culture for The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and other magazines.

(c) 2007 Huffington Post

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