Editorial note: This is the second part of a three-part article. Part I is here. Part III will appear on Friday.
It was and is a matter of high principle for the neoconservatives that the US unconditionally support Israel in its struggle against the Arab world. Disputing the neocons’ claim to the mantle of Wilsonianism, Michael Lind described this odd nexus of radical universalism and ethno-nationalism as “Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution mingled with the far-right Likud strain of Zionism,” adding: “Genuine American Wilsonians believe in self-determination for people such as the Palestinians.”
Saddam Hussein, you’ll recall, had been offering bounties for suicide bombers, at least according to the propaganda we heard, and — alongside the contention that he was also developing nuclear weapons — this was the pitch the neocons, and the Israel lobby, gave in public to justify the invasion. Yet there was another layer of rationalization which went largely undetected in America, and the argument was contained in a paper prepared for then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in 1996, under the auspices of the Israeli Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, which had organized a “Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000.” The paper was shaped by a series of seminars in which several figures who would figure prominently in the administration of George W. Bush participated, including Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser, and Meyrav Wurmser. Entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” the proposal proffered by these future American policymakers urged Netanyahu to undertake a long-term project to break Israel out of its geographic and demographic boundaries and engage in a campaign of “regime change” in the Middle East. To the incoming Prime Minister, who had upended the long rule of the Israeli Labor Party, they gave the following advice: ditch the peace process, and make a “clean break” with the policy of appeasing both the Palestinians and the United States. Stand up to Uncle Sam, insist on mutuality, build up support for Israeli objectives in the US Congress, and go on the offensive against the enemies of the Jewish state:
“Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq — an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right — as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.”
The entire regime change operation we are seeing unfold in the Middle East is a veritable laundry list of neoconservative goals as outlined in the “Clean Break” document, as well as in the agenda of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), Bill Kristol’s vehicle for injecting a strong dose of interventionism into the incoming Bush administration. Aside from calling for regime change in practically every Middle Eastern state — all this prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks — PNAC’s proposal for tripling the military budget was prefaced by a yearning for “a new Pearl Harbor,” which would wake the American people up to the imperative of American military supremacy at any cost.
The neocons got their Pearl Harbor on September 11, 2001, and they were more than ready to take full advantage of the opportunity to implement their agenda of permanent war. While the administration made a half-hearted attempt to capture Osama bin Laden they failed to corner him in Afghanistan, and the top leadership slipped through the American dragnet with the help of its Taliban allies. This, however, didn’t really concern the neocons all that much: Paul Wolfowitz and others were arguing inside the administration that the real enemy was in Baghdad. After the preliminaries in Afghanistan, they turned their sights on the real object of their war-lust: Iraq.
The “Clean Break” scenario envisioned the overthrow of Iraq’s Ba’athist regime as a prerequisite for Israel’s success, and the Israel lobby, in concert with the neoconservatives, played a key role in dragging us into that disastrous war of aggression. Yet that was just the beginning of the road they wanted to take us on, and we are halfway down it already. As Ariel Sharon told a delegation of American congressmen in 2003, after Iraq must come Iran, Libya, and Syria:
“These are irresponsible states, which must be disarmed of weapons mass destruction, and a successful American move in Iraq as a model will make that easier to achieve," said the Prime Minister to his guests, rather like a commander issuing orders to his foot-soldiers. While noting that Israel was not itself at war with Iraq, he went on to say that “the American action is of vital importance.”
Of course it was, but as far as the Israelis and their American amen corner were concerned, it was to be just the beginning.
The Israelization of American foreign policy under George W. Bush was a policy consciously promoted by the neoconservatives from their well-situated perch at the heights of the national security apparatus. The progenitors of the “Clean Break” scenario saw the Israeli state facing a terminal crisis: the Jewish state, in their view, was suffering from an “exhaustion” that could lead to extinction. The idea was to break with the idea of “containment” and go for a policy of preemption. As the “Clean Break” document put it:
“Notable Arab intellectuals have written extensively on their perception of Israel’s floundering and loss of national identity. This perception has invited attack, blocked Israel from achieving true peace, and offered hope for those who would destroy Israel. The previous strategy, therefore, was leading the Middle East toward another Arab-Israeli war. Israel’s new agenda can signal a clean break by abandoning a policy which assumed exhaustion and allowed strategic retreat by reestablishing the principle of preemption, rather than retaliation alone and by ceasing to absorb blows to the nation without response.”
This doctrine of preemption came to be known as the Bush Doctrine, but it really ought to be called the Sharon-Bush Doctrine, given its true origins. When George W. Bush declared that the United States has the “right,” and even the obligation, to attack any nation on earth, on the grounds that the target poses a potential threat to US interests, he was merely echoing what had by that time already become official Israeli policy. This policy was given free rein in a whole series of wars, aside from the permanent state of war prevailing in the occupied territories of Palestine: two invasions of Lebanon, and, today, terrorist attacks inside Iran carried out by Israeli intelligence agencies in cooperation with their proxies, such as the Mujahideen Khalq. The ultimate example of preemption would be an attack on Iran — and here we see a real conflict developing between the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s government.
The Israeli position on Iran is an application of the Bush Doctrine taken to its logical extreme. While the American intelligence community is clear that the Iranians abandoned their embryonic nuclear weapons program in 2003, and all subsequent “evidence” of a viable Iranian nuke in the making has turned out to be either forgeries or pre-2003 materials, Netanyahu gets around this by upping the ante. The danger, he says, is that the Iranians will achieve the capacity to put together a nuclear weapon on very short notice. The Romney campaign, taking its cues from Tel Aviv, has echoed this escalation of Israeli demands, with the formulation that they don’t want Tehran “one turn of the screwdriver away” from acquiring nuclear weapons.
This is a technical impossibility, a crude bit of war propaganda that has no basis in reality: but then again, that’s what war propaganda usually is — blind assertions meant to evoke an emotional response rather than one based on reason, or, in this case, on science. As the Wilson Center study on the costs and benefits of an attack on Iran put it, it would take at least two years or more for Iran to develop a deliverable nuclear warhead — and the effort would be detected long before that.
In short, the ticking time bomb scenario described by Netanyahu and his American co-thinkers is pure nonsense: in no sense could the Iranians ever be “one turn of the screwdriver away” from nuking Israel. Even given the doctrine of preemption, in light of these facts the justification for war simply does not exist. Netanyahu and his defense minister claim Israel faces an “existential” crisis, nothing less than the prospect of a second Holocaust. Yet there are no facts to back up this assertion: it is simply an emotional appeal. Something else is at work here other than fear of a genuine threat, and it is quite simply politics — that is, the internal politics of Israel, and also of the United States.
Objectively, there is no threat to Israel, or to the West, emanating from Iran: armed with nuclear weapons, and so far advanced militarily over its neighbors that the distance between them can only be measured in light years, Israel has no real reason to fear an attack that is not forthcoming in any event. The whole thing is manufactured by politicians who have but one goal in mind: to stay in power.
Meir Dagan, former head of the Mossad, says the idea of a preemptive attack on Iran is “the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,” and inside Israel support for Netanyahu’s gambit is far from solid. Shimon Peres, one of the last of the old-style (i.e. rational) Israeli leaders, recently went on television to expressly dissent from Netanyahu’s apocalyptic rhetoric and to give support to President Obama as a reliable ally.
What’s interesting is that the rhetoric coming from Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, has a distinctly anti-American strain. As Barak put it, in arguing for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran:
“Ronald Reagan did not want to see a nuclear Pakistan, but Pakistan did go nuclear. Bill Clinton did not want to see a nuclear North Korea, but North Korea went nuclear.”
“If Israel forgoes the chance to act and it becomes clear that it no longer has the power to act, the likelihood of an American action will decrease… We cannot wait to discover one morning that we relied on the Americans but were fooled because the Americans didn’t act in the end…. Israel will do what it has to do.”
Barak’s message is all too clear: the Americans are mercurial, and weak-willed — they can’t be counted on, and besides we have to do what we have to do. This is the spirit and letter of the “Clean Break” document, which decried US “intervention” in Israel’s internal affairs, and it is the language of the extreme nationalists, such as Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, who once advocated bombing the Aswan dam and is a former bouncer in a bar. His extremist right-wing party advocates a “Greater Israel,” and is supported by the “settler” movement — violent fanatics who want to create a Greater Israel based on their interpretation of the Bible.
In the context of growing extremism infecting the Israeli body politic, a politician like Netanyahu is considered a centrist. To his right are even more anti-American ultra-nationalists, and this movement is growing. In order to accommodate it, and contain it within the confines of his own party, Netanyahu has had to move in an even more extreme direction, even going so far as to threaten that Israel will strike Iran on its own, without US support.
This, of course, is a policy of de facto blackmail, since any war between Israel and Iran will almost inevitably see the Americans dragged in. This has been the whole Israeli strategy, so far — except that it hasn’t worked. The President has steadfastly refused to give in, at least up until this point. He has even gone so far as to inform the Iranians in advance that any such attack by Israeli forces will not have the sanction or support of the US — and, in such an event, to please refrain from attacking American targets in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.
In view of the lack of American support for war, both in Washington and among the American electorate, the persistence of the debate within Israel over whether they should attack all on their own is disturbing. Such a scenario could only be disastrous for the region, and for Israel in particular, as Gen. Dempsey, head of the US joint chiefs of staff, has recently made plain. The Israeli defense and intelligence establishment has been saying the same thing, and still Netanyahu and Barak continue to talk about it as if it were a real option.
While Netanyahu is bound to be deterred by the cold reception this idea has received in Washington, in this context we have to ask ourselves a sobering question: will Avigdor Lieberman’s finger some day be on Israel’s nuclear trigger? This is a question the Iranians, and others in the region, have no doubt asked themselves. That it is even a possibility is profoundly unsettling — and this, not the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, is the source of the real danger looming over the Middle East.
Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region is the real issue at hand, and it is one the Israelis have not had to face. It is known the Israelis possess at least two-hundred warheads. Their policy is one of “nuclear ambiguity,” neither confirming nor denying the existence of their deadly arsenal. Unlike Iran, they have refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and inspections of their nuclear facilities are therefore out of the question.
Iran, on the other hand, regularly submits to a tight schedule of inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which would soon discover any weaponization procedures in progress. Israel’s contemptuous attitude toward the international community is given a free pass by the US and its allies, while the Iranians are subjected to crippling sanctions and an international campaign of vilification on the mere suspicion that they might one day have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons. To call this a double standard is to understate the case.
The destabilizing effects of Israel’s nuclear monopoly are a major cause of regional tensions — and the entire basis for assuming Iran has nuclear ambitions above and beyond its stated intention of harnessing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. One of the arguments against containing Iran, as opposed to taking the military option, is that the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal by Tehran will spark a dangerous arms race throughout the region. Yet this is disproved by the existence of Israel’s own arsenal, which has sparked no such race — even though the Jewish state’s Muslim neighbors have ample reason to believe the Israelis could conceivably launch a first strike on them. This, after all, is the essence of the doctrine of preemption, which the Israelis have embraced.
While there is zero evidence the Iranians have restarted their nuclear weapons program, could one blame them if they did? How else could they possibly hope to deter an Israeli first strike? In a 2008 op-ed piece in the New York Times, the noted Israeli historian Benny Morris wrote:
“Iran’s leaders would do well to rethink their gamble and suspend their nuclear program. Bar this, the best they could hope for is that Israel’s conventional air assault will destroy their nuclear facilities. To be sure, this would mean thousands of Iranian casualties and international humiliation. But the alternative is an Iran turned into a nuclear wasteland.”
An Israeli nuclear strike at Iran is not inconceivable: indeed, it is all too conceivable. So who are the real aggressors in the Middle East?
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I regret to say that I’ve had to cancel my Vassar talk, which was scheduled for Wednesday, October 10 — I’ve apparently caught walking pneumonia! I was going to go anyway, but my doctor advised me against it. So I’m staying home, in bed, and the talk I didn’t get to deliver is being serialized this week in three parts. Part I is here: Part II is above, and the third part will appear on Friday.