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.