By Stephen Zunes
Given the enormous tragedy of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the war’s tenth anniversary has inevitably raised the question of “why?”
As many of us predicted in the lead-up to the war, the official rationales for the U.S. invasion of Iraq—namely, that Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction” and had operational ties to al-Qaeda—were false. And the corrupt, inept, and repressive sectarian government the United States helped establish in Baghdad has undermined any pretense that the war was about democracy.
There are a number of plausible explanations, ranging from oil to strategic interests to ideological motivations. One explanation which should not be taken seriously, however, is the assertion that the government of Israel and its American supporters played a major role in leading the United States to invade Iraq.
The right-wing governments that have dominated Israel in recent years and their U.S. supporters deserve blame for many policies that have led to needless human suffering, increased extremism in the Islamic world, and decreased security, as well as rampant violations of international legal principles. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, however, is not one of them.
Arguments Supporting Claims of a Major Israeli Role in the U.S. Invasion of Iraq
There are four major arguments made by those who allege a key role by Israel and its American supporters in leading the United States to war in Iraq:
“Despite propaganda by the Bush administration and its bipartisan supporters on Capitol Hill, Iraq was not a military threat to the United States. As a result, the invasion had to have been done to protect Israel for an Iraqi attack.”
To begin with, Iraq during the final years of Saddam Hussein’s rule was no more of a threat to Israel than it was to the United States. All Iraqi missiles capable of reaching Israel had been accounted for and destroyed by UNSCOM. The International Atomic Energy Agency had determined that Iraq no longer had a nuclear program, and virtually all the country’s chemical weapons had similarly been accounted for and destroyed. All this was presumably known to the Israelis, who actively monitored UN disarmament efforts in Iraq and had the best military intelligence capabilities in the region. Indeed, as far back as the aftermath of the 1991 war, the head of the Israeli military intelligence revealed in an interview that Israel no longer considered Iraq a threat.
Though observers were less confident regarding the absence of biological weapons, the Israelis recognized that there was no realistic threat from that source either. Respected Israeli military analyst Meir Stieglitz, writing in the conservative Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot, stated categorically that “there is no such thing as a long-range Iraqi missile with an effective biological warhead. No one has found an Iraqi biological warhead. The chances of Iraq having succeeded in developing operative warheads without tests are zero.” Similarly, it is highly doubtful that Iraq would be able to attack Israel with biological weapons by other means, either. It is hard to imagine that an Iraqi aircraft carrying biological weapons could have made the 600-mile trip to Israel without being detected and shot down by U.S. planes constantly patrolling the area. In addition, Israel—as well as Iraq’s immediate neighbors—had sophisticated anti-aircraft capability.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, has revealed that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon specifically warned Bush against occupying Iraq or invading Iraq without an exit strategy. The Israeli prime minister also feared that an insurgency could radicalize the region, spill over Iraq’s borders, and strengthen Iran. Israeli Ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon was even instructed by Sharon to tell visiting Israelis not to encourage a U.S. invasion of Iraq for fear that its likely failure would be blamed on Israel.
More fundamentally, if the United States was really concerned about potential Iraqi aggression toward Israel, why did the U.S. government provide Iraq with key elements of its WMD capability during the 1980s—including the seed stock for its anthrax and many of the components for its chemical weapons program—back when Iraq clearly did have the capability to strike Israel?
“Though Iraq had no connection with al-Qaeda, it was supporting other terrorist groups that were attacking Israel. A U.S. invasion was seen as a means to stopping the terrorist threat targeted at the Jewish state.”
Saddam Hussein did support the Abu Nidal group, a radical secular Palestinian movement, during the mid-1980s, which tended to target moderate leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization as much as they did Israelis. Ironically, the Reagan administration dropped Iraq from its list of states sponsoring terrorism at that time in order to transfer arms and technology to Saddam Hussein’s regime, which would have otherwise been illegal. Iraq was put back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism immediately following its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, despite evidence that Iraq’s support for international terrorism had actually declined. Abu Nidal’s organization had been largely moribund for more than a decade when Saddam Hussein finally had Abu Nidal himself killed in his Baghdad apartment in 2002.
Iraq did support a tiny pro-Iraqi Palestinian group known as the Arab Liberation Front, which was known to pass on much of these funds to families of Palestinians who died in the struggle against Israel. These recipients included families of Palestine Authority police and families of nonviolent protesters, though some recipients were families of suicide bombers. Such Iraqi support was significantly less than the support many of these same families had received from Saudi Arabia and other U.S.-backed Arab monarchies, which—unlike Iraq—also provided direct funding for Hamas and other radical Palestinian Islamists. In any case, given that Israeli occupation forces routinely destroyed the homes of families of suicide bombers and the Iraqi money fell way short of making up for their losses, it was hardly an incentive for someone to commit an act of terrorism, which tends to be driven by the anger, hopelessness, and desperation from living under an oppressive military occupation, not from financial incentives.
“Individuals and organizations sympathetic to Israel strongly supported the invasion. Sizable numbers of otherwise dovish Jewish members of Congress voted in support of the war resolution, and the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), long considered one of the most powerful lobbying groups on Capitol Hill, pushed Congress to authorize an invasion on behalf of Israel.”
While AIPAC undeniably has influenced congressional votes on Israel-Palestine, it did not play a major role lobbying members of Congress to vote in favor of the resolution authorizing a U.S. invasion of Iraq, in large part because AIPAC’s leaders knew there was already sufficient bipartisan support for invading the oil-rich country. Far more powerful interests than AIPAC had a stake in the Persian Gulf region, including oil companies, the arms industry, and other special interests whose lobbying influence and campaign contributions far surpass those of the much-vaunted “Zionist lobby” and its allied donors.
While those who try to blame Israel for the war, such as political scientists John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt, quote a sizable a number of Israeli officials and American Zionist leaders who spoke out in support of the invasion, virtually all the citations took place after the decision had been made to invade Iraq in early 2002, apparently with the promise that Iran would become the next target. In other words, the Israeli government and the Israel Lobby were willing to use their clout to help their friends in the White House garner support from the public and Congress for a decision the Bush administration had already made on its own. Given Bush’s strong support for Israel’s acts of aggression, they were willing to return the favor. This is very different, however, from being responsible for the decision itself.
It is also noteworthy that in the authorization of force for the 1991 Gulf War, the majority of Jewish members of Congress voted against the war resolution, which is more than can be said for its non-Jewish members. In the more lopsided vote authorizing the use of force in October 2002, a majority of Jewish members of Congress did authorize the use of force, though proportionately less so than did non-Jewish members.
“Pro-Israel Jewish neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, and other neo-cons behind the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) were among the key architects of the policy of ‘preventative war’ and were the strongest advocates for a U.S. invasion of Iraq.”
While it is true that a disproportionate number of neoconservative Jews were among the policymakers who pushed for a U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is also true that a disproportionate number of Jews could be found among liberal Democrats in Congress and leftist intellectuals in universities who opposed the invasion of Iraq.
Most neoconservatives, Jewish or otherwise, opposed Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq primarily because of its challenge not to Israel but to U.S. hegemony in the region, which was always their priority. For example, in the introduction to the influential 2000 PNAC report Rebuilding America’s Defenses, they explicitly spelled out the neoconservative agenda: “At present the United States faces no global rival. America’s grand strategy should aim to preserve and expand this advantageous position as far into the future as possible.” The strong neoconservative support for Israel only goes as far as they see American and Israeli interests converging. They have not been major supporters of Israel, for example, when the right wing has not been in power there. And even under the Israel recent rightist governments, most Israeli government officials – with a few notable exceptions – saw Israel’s political and strategic interests at odds with the grandiose American neoconservative designs on Iraq.
Indeed, the Defense Guidance Plan of 1992, rejected by the senior Bush administration as being too extreme but adopted in large part by his son’s administration, also makes clear that the primary concern of the neoconservatives was advancing U.S. hegemony, not supporting Israel. The role for Israel, at least under its right-wing governments, was as an important ally in that struggle for American primacy in the Middle East and beyond, but not the main focus, which they spelled out quite clearly: “In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the preeminent outside power in the region and preserve US and Western access to the region’s oil.” Indeed, the evolution of PNAC is based on – in the words of their initial statement of principles – “A Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity.” Throughout the group’s published statements, their focus is on American primacy, not Israeli primacy.
Those who try to blame Israel for the Iraq debacle cite the 1996 paper written for a right-wing Israeli think tank by two leading U.S. neoconservatives – Douglas Feith and David Wurmser – which encouraged Israel to make a “clean break” with the Oslo Peace Process and rely more on force to advance its objectives, including the removal of Saddam Hussein, as an example of the influence of neo-conservatives motivated by support for the Zionist state. However, the paper is a call for Israel to break from the U.S.-led peace process, then under the leadership of the more moderate Clinton administration, not a call for the United States to take risky initiatives at the behest of Israel. Similarly, the paper demonstrates how, rather than the Israelis and their supporters pressuring the United States, it was American neoconservatives pressuring Israel to change its own policies to a more hardline position.
Indeed, many of the same neoconservatives, while in the Reagan administration during the 1980s, were advocates of a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua and Cuba as well as a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union. In short, they are hawks across the board, not just in regard to the Middle East. Support for Israel has always been seen as part of a broader strategic design to advance perceived U.S. interests in the region.
Furthermore, the most prominent backers of the U.S. invasion of Iraq—Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney—are neither Jewish nor prone to putting the perceived interests of Israel ahead of that of the United States. Indeed, strong U.S. strategic interests in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region have existed for many decades and even pre-date the establishment of modern Israel.
Has the U.S. Invasion of Iraq Helped Israel?
To argue that the Israel Lobby was a crucial factor in prompting the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq assumes that the war has been good for Israel.
Evidence strongly suggests the contrary. As cited above, in the years leading up to the March 2003 U.S. invasion, Iraq was no longer a strategic threat to Israel, nor was it actively involved in anti-Israeli terrorism. In short, the Israelis had little to worry about Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s final years in power. They do now, however.
Key leaders of the Iraqi government are part of fundamentalist Shiite political movements heavily influenced by Iran. These movements are strongly anti-Zionist in orientation, and some have maintained close ties to other radical Arab Shiite groups, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah. One of the dominant parties of the Iraqi governing coalition has been the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, whose paramilitary unit, known as the Badr Brigade, was trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
The U.S. occupation led to the unprecedented rise of Salafists and other radical Islamists in Iraq, who are often anti-Israel extremists. While fighting U.S. occupation forces and the U.S.-backed Iraqi regime, these insurgents became increasingly sophisticated fighters, gaining valuable new experiences in urban guerrilla warfare as well as terrorist tactics. They developed close ties with radical Jordanian and Palestinian groups with the means and motivation to harm Israeli civilians.
University of Michigan historian Juan Cole, a leading authority on internal Iraqi politics, has noted that while such radical currents were kept under control by Saddam Hussein, “An Iraq in which armed fundamentalist and nationalist militias proliferate is inevitably a security worry for Israel.” Not long after the invasion, General Shlomo Brom, former chief of the Israeli army’s strategic planning division, stated that “The U.S. presence there actually causes harm to some of our interests.”
As a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the bloody counter-insurgency war that followed, popular resentment in the Middle East against the United States today is arguably even greater than popular resentment against Israel. Indeed, the death, destruction, and dislocation resulting from the Iraq war have far outstripped any recent Israeli policies in the West Bank. And although Israel has committed shameless war crimes against Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, U.S. war crimes against Iraqi civilians were arguably even worse. Israel’s serious mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners does not come close in scale to America’s torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Israel has openly violated the United Nations Charter and other critical standards of international law, but the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its aftermath is of even greater negative consequence to the international legal order.
As with other powers that have tried to control the Middle East, America’s efforts to impose its hegemony have spawned incredible resistance. But with the United States itself on the other side of the globe, Israel may become an easier target for anti-American militants.
While it may not be anti-Semitic per se to exaggerate the role of Israel and its supporters in the formulation of U.S. Middle East policy, it does indeed parallel a historic tendency to blame the Jews for the disastrous policies of Gentile leaders.
So let’s put the blame where it really belongs: on the Bush administration, its Democratic supporters (including the current vice president and secretary of state), and U.S. imperialism—not on nefarious foreigners and their fifth columnists among our ranks. While guilty of engaging in many immoral, illegal, and dangerous policies over the years, the Israeli government and its U.S. lobby were simply not a major factor in the decision for the United States to invade Iraq.
Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist and senior analyst, is a professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco.