Vol. 28 No. 10 · 25 May 2006

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Little Americas

What Carol Brightman (Letters, 11 May) has to say about the military bases that the Americans have been building up in Iraq is both sinister and surprising. What’s sinister is how very large they appear to be, what’s surprising is that, given that scale, we haven’t hitherto heard much or even anything about them. Four ‘fortresses’, as she calls them, situated one in each of the four quarters of the country, are all too obviously strategic, not tactical, covering as they do by implication the entire territory. Are Western journalists allowed access to these extremely nasty examples of suburban sprawl, if only to down a burger and play a few holes of miniature golf? If they are, why haven’t any journalists gone there, and written about them? Pampered oases of security, filled exclusively by outsiders, in a desert of deprivation, they represent a gross and inflammatory insult to the Iraqi population facing the – to us – unimaginable daily risk of being slaughtered on the way to work. Brightman is right: remarks such as the one she quotes, by Condoleezza Rice, to the effect that the catastrophic US adventure in Iraq is ‘right on “strategy"’ get disregarded, because they’re taken to be the Bush people’s unforgivably lame excuse or apology for all that’s gone wrong since the invasion, to be one more attempt to take our minds off it. It’s valuable to be made for once to see things the other way round: to see all that’s gone wrong as the distraction which, whether by design or not, stops us from dwelling on the long-term strategic goal of that invasion, a long-term goal which this country or any other member of the so-called Coalition had absolutely no business sharing in.

One is bound to wonder whether this realisation proved too much in the end for our newly sacked foreign secretary, who having cosied photogenically up to Condoleezza Rice, first in downtown Blackburn and then, a few hours later and hardly by popular request, in the Baghdad Green Zone, decided that he would – if three years too late – break ranks with the Great Helmsman and dismiss as ‘nuts’ the idea of dealing with a nuclear Iran militarily. As Jack Straw leaves the war zone and subsides speechlessly into the role of leader of the House of Commons, we can perhaps feel a faint relief that his old job has been handed to the seemingly pacific Margaret Beckett and not to Hazel Blears, the thought of whom being let loose in the chancelleries of Europe or the rose garden of the White House chills the blood.

Donald Baker
London N1

The Israel Lobby

In their essay ‘The Israel Lobby’, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt invoke comments made by me as evidence for a controversial assertion of their own concerning the motives for the US invasion of Iraq (LRB, 23 March):

Pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was critical … The war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure. According to Philip Zelikow, a former member of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and now a counsellor to Condoleezza Rice, the ‘real threat’ from Iraq was not a threat to the United States. The ‘unstated threat’ was the ‘threat against Israel’, Zelikow told an audience at the University of Virginia in September 2002. ‘The American government,’ he added, ‘doesn’t want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it is not a popular sell.’

Readers may find it interesting to know what I actually said and how Mearsheimer and Walt appear to have misused my comments.

My talk was on 10 September 2002 at a 9/11 anniversary symposium. I argued that possession of nuclear (or biological) weapons by Saddam Hussein would be very dangerous. Reflecting on my White House work during the Gulf War in 1990-91, I did point out that I believed then, and later, that the most likely direct target of an Iraqi WMD attack would be Israel, but that policymakers had no wish to emphasise this. That said, any US or European government, in 1991 or later, would rightly have regarded an Iraqi nuclear attack on Israel – or on any other country – as a horrific prospect they would do much to prevent.

Neither of these conclusions – that Saddam’s possession of nuclear weapons would be dangerous, or that Israel might be most directly threatened by such weapons – was especially remarkable. These things were understood in 1991. Iraq tried very hard to pull Israel into that war and its politics, ultimately even bombarding Israel with ballistic missiles. The coalition laboured successfully to thwart Saddam and keep Israel out of that war.

None of this, though, bore on the question of what to do about a possible Iraqi WMD programme in 2002. On that issue – whether or when the US ought to go to war with Iraq – I expressed no view in my September 2002 talk, or on any other public occasion during those years.

Nor did I try to explain why the Bush administration went to war, either in 2002 or after the invasion in 2003 or 2004. And in those years I had little special knowledge of those motives. My work on the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (from which I resigned in February 2003) had not involved Iraq.

So how did my views wind up in Mearsheimer and Walt’s essay as evidence that Bush went to war in part for Israel? In 2004, local reports of my September 2002 comments were discovered by the Inter Press Service. To put it mildly, that body has a strong political point of view. It circulated on the web an article headlined ‘War Launched to Protect Israel – Bush Adviser’. Without any evidence other than the old September 2002 quotes, the article’s lead was: ‘Iraq under Saddam Hussein did not pose a threat to the United States but it did to Israel, which is one reason why Washington invaded the Arab country, according to a speech made by a member of a top-level White House intelligence group.’ The claim has bounced around the internet ever since. Mearsheimer and Walt cite this article, which they found in Asia Times Online, as their source for my comments.

The original slur did not deserve a response, but the situation is different when it is repeated by two accredited scholars, and endorsed by publication in the LRB. The claim still has three holes. First, like most of the world, I did think that, if Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear weapons, this would endanger the interests of America and the world in several ways, including the direct threat of a possible strike on Israel. Second, I did not state an opinion about whether this should be a cause for war in 2002-03. Third, I did not state an opinion – or even have any special knowledge – about the motives of the Bush administration in going to war in 2003.

I hope that readers will contrast these points with what Mearsheimer and Walt wrote in the passage quoted above. Readers will also notice that the passage leads with a reference to the ‘Lobby’, of which I am clearly presumed to be a part. There is no evidence for that either.

Philip Zelikow
Washington DC

John Mearsheimer & Stephen Walt write: Philip Zelikow claims he did not say in September 2002 that the present war in Iraq was motivated in good part by concerns about Israel’s security. He suggests that our reference to his remarks came from an unreliable source and says we ‘misused’ his comments. He implies that he was talking mainly about the 1990-91 Gulf War, not the US decision to invade Iraq in March 2003. Furthermore, he maintains that he ‘expressed no view’ on ‘whether or when the US ought to go to war with Iraq’. None of these assertions is correct.

Emad Mekay, who wrote the Asia Times Online article we referenced, is a well-regarded journalist who worked for Reuters and the New York Times before moving to Inter Press Service, a legitimate news agency. He did not rely on ‘local reports’ in writing his story, but had access to a complete and unimpeachable record of Zelikow’s talk. He repeatedly tried to contact Zelikow while writing his story, but his inquiries were not returned.

Below are excerpts from Zelikow’s remarks about Iraq on 10 September 2002 (we have the full text). It shows that 1. he was focusing on the possibility of war with Iraq in 2002-03, not the 1990-91 Gulf War; 2. he supported a new war with Iraq; and 3. he believed Iraq was an imminent threat to Israel, but not to the United States.

Finally… I wanted to offer some comments on Iraq… . I beg your patience, but I think there are some points that are worth making that aren’t being made by either side in the current debate.

The Iraq situation this administration inherited is and has been unsustainable. Ever since 1996 the Iraqi situation has basically unravelled… . So then the real question is, OK, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to end up fixing it? And if you don’t like the administration’s approach, what’s the recommended alternative?

Another thing Americans absorb, and this administration especially, is the lesson of Afghanistan. Because remember we knew that international terrorist groups were plotting to kill Americans in a sanctuary called Afghanistan… [I]n retrospect, it is perfectly clear that only … an [American] invasion could reliably have pre-empted the 9/11 attacks, which relied on people who were being trained in that sanctuary … So what lesson does one take from that with respect to Iraq? Well you can see the lesson this administration has taken from that example. And so contemplate what lesson you take.

Third. The unstated threat. And here I criticise the [Bush] administration a little, because the argument that they make over and over again is that this is about a threat to the United States. And then everybody says: ‘Show me an imminent threat from Iraq to America. Show me, why would Iraq attack America or use nuclear weapons against us?’ So I’ll tell you what I think the real threat is, and actually has been since 1990. It’s the threat against Israel. And this is the threat that dare not speak its name, because the Europeans don’t care deeply about that threat, I will tell you frankly. And the American government doesn’t want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it’s not a popular sell.

Now … if the danger is a biological weapon handed to Hamas, then what’s the American alternative then? Especially if those weapons have developed to the point where they now can deter us from attacking them, because they really can retaliate against us, by then. Play out those scenarios … Don’t look at the ties between Iraq and al-Qaida, but then ask yourself the question: ‘Gee, is Iraq tied to Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the people who are carrying out suicide bombings in Israel?’ Easy question to answer, and the evidence is abundant.

Yes, there are a lot of other problems in the world … My view, by the way, is the more you examine these other problems and try to put together a comprehensive strategy for America and the Middle East, the more I’m driven to the conclusion that it’s better for us to deal with Iraq sooner rather than later. Because those other problems don’t get easier … And the Iraq problem is a peculiar combination at the moment, of being exceptionally dangerous at a time when Iraq is exceptionally weak militarily. Now that’s an appealing combination for immediate action … But … if we wait two years, and then there’s another major terrorist attack against the United States, does it then become easier to act against Iraq, even though the terrorist attack didn’t come from Iraq? No… . [A]t this moment, because of the time we bought in the war against terror, it actually makes it easier to go about Iraq now, than waiting a year or two until the war against terror gets harder again.

In sum, it is Zelikow, not us, who is attempting to rewrite history. He was admirably candid in 2002, but not in 2006.

Gentleman without Means

Anthony Pagden refers to Antoine Polier as ‘marginalised’ and ‘of relatively humble background’ (LRB, 11 May). On the contrary, Polier was what one might call a gentleman of no independent means, a class that since feudal times has produced its fair share of wasters, chancers and social parasites, but also, out of sheer necessity, its fair and perhaps more than fair share of energetic and enterprising individuals attracted to the possibilities offered by overseas adventure. Polier, known to his relatives as ‘l’Indien’, came from an armigerous family of French origin established in Lausanne since 1575. The uncle whom he went to India to join was one of 16 children of a local landowner, which is explanation enough of his need to seek an honourable way of making a living.

Roger Jones
Andover, Hampshire

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