Monday, March 20, 2006

Why are we in Iraq?

Today (March 19, 2006) marks the third anniversary of the ill-starred invasion and occupation of Iraq. Commentators have given much attention to what went wrong in the execution of this misadventure, but little to its root causes. To be sure, it is now generally acknowledged that the two major reasons given at the time for the incursion-—namely the weapons of mass destruction and the al-Qaeda link-—have proved to be altogether without foundation. Yet the deeper reasons for the war have gone mostly unexamined.

It is timely then that The London Review of Books has just published a long piece by two American professors tracing a good deal of the relevant background. Here is the beginning of the article “The Israel Lobby” by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.

"For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centrepiece of US Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering support for Israel and the related effort to spread ‘democracy’ throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardised not only US security but that of much of the rest of the world. This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the US been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the US provides.
"Instead, the thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US interests and those of the other country – in this case, Israel – are essentially identical.
"Since the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing that given to any other state. It has been the largest annual recipient of direct economic and military assistance since 1976, and is the largest recipient in total since World War Two, to the tune of well over $140 billion (in 2004 dollars). Israel receives about $3 billion in direct assistance each year, roughly one-fifth of the foreign aid budget, and worth about $500 a year for every Israeli. This largesse is especially striking since Israel is now a wealthy industrial state with a per capita income roughly equal to that of South Korea or Spain. . . . "

It is well worth looking up the rest of the article, to be found at

In relation to the Iraq war our narrative now moves forward, to the last decade. The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) is a conservative think tank founded by Richard Perle and Robert Kagan. In 1996 PNAC issued a report of some length entitled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm." The report, written at the behest of the right-wing Israeli politician Benjamin Netanyahu, offers a comprehensive plan for proactive intervention in the Middle East. Among its proposals is an invasion and occupation of Iraq. This report is the fons et origo of what came afterwards.

Two years later the recommendations of the report were whittled down, and recycled as a single-minded insistence on the urgency of regime change in Baghdad. Comparison of the two documents, the long one from 1996 and the concise statement from 1998, reveals the genealogy and purpose of the prowar arguments. “A Clean Break” is too long to reproduce here; it may be found at the PNAC site on the Internet, and elsewhere.

Here are some relevant passages from the 1998 document, an open letter to President Clinton.

"We are writing you because we are convinced that current American policy towards Iraq is not succeeding. We face a threat in the Middle East more serious than any we have known since the end of the Cold War. … [The] strategy should aim, above all at the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power."

The letter goes on to question the existing policy of containment, which it asserts is impossible to verify. The money quote is as follows: "It hardly needs to be added that if Saddam does acquire the capability to deliver weapons of mass destruction, as he is almost certain to do if we continue along the present course, the safety of American troops in the region, of our friends and allies like Israel and the moderate Arab states, and a significant portion of the world’s supply of oil will all be put at hazard."

In short "A Clean Break" was the original text; the letter to Clinton, the Classics Comics version—-probably all the more effective for that reason. Executives prefer to read executive summaries.

The letter had eighteen signers, not at first sight a homogeneous group. However several significant clusters emerge. A number of the signers became officers in the Bush administration. Among these are Richard J. Armitage, John Bolton, Zalmay Khalilzad, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz. There was also a kind of old curmudgeon group, including William Bennett and James Woolsey. Francis Fukuyama has since jumped ship. Others, and here we must not mince words, were Israel Firsters, a group headed by that ubiquitous éminence grise Richard Perle.

Dick Cheney did not sign the letter to President Clinton, but the sequel has shown that he agreed wholeheartedly with it. On his first day in office as vice-president Cheney asked when we were going to do something about Iraq. Methodically, relentlessly, he took charge of the war party, easily ensnaring George W. Bush, who was inexperienced in foreign affairs. Cheney’s instrument was the White House Information Group (WHIG), whose mission was to sell the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the public. Andrew Card, White House Chief of Staff, set up the task force in August of 2002. Karl Rove chaired the Group, coordinating all the executive branch elements in the run-up to the war. WHIG fashioned and promoted various types of rhetoric about the danger Iraq ostensibly posed to the US, including the introduction of the term "mushroom cloud."

The rationales offered for the Iraq war have been numerous and shifting. The administration seems to come up with a new one every three or four months. Now that all the earlier claims have collapsed, we learn that spreading democracy is the main goal. However, Washington’s angry reaction to the Hamas victory in the Palestinian election shows that the commitment of our government to democracy is selective—which means that it is not a commitment at all. In fact the administration seems to be quietly abandoning this rationale—-though probably George W. Bush will be the last to learn of the shift.

The true reason for the invasion and occupation of Iraq has been, and still is, to rearrange the power balance in the Middle East. And that rearrangement has two goals: securing our supply of oil and aiding Israel.


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