Avi Shlaim on the Neoconservative Middle East War Agenda

by Stephen J. Sniegoski

A friend, Phil Collier, an avid student of and sometime writer on Middle East affairs (and  a National Master in chess), recently  informed  me that Avi Shlaim, in his recent book, Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations, has one chapter, “Palestine and Iraq,” that presents a thesis almost identical to what I have written in The Transparent Cabal. This naturally encouraged me to obtain the book, and Collier’s description turns out to be correct.

This similarity is quite significant since what I have written on the neocons regarding their strong influence on U. S. Middle East policy and their connection to Israel is taboo in the American mainstream, with even numerous antiwar individuals (especially those with higher status) and publications shying away from my work. But Shlaim, a professor of international relations at Oxford,  is a recognized scholar, with such notable books on Israel and its neighbors as The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (2001).  And he is also Jewish and an Israeli citizen, who served in the Israeli Defense Forces.  His works cannot be ignored, nor can he be accused of anti-Semitism. His book was honored as a  Kirkus Best Book for 2009.

Now, in his  ten-page  chapter on this subject, Shlaim could only present a much-abbreviated version of the major themes that I elaborate on at length in my 447 page book.   The following are some poignant examples from Shlaim’s work, with my commentary drawing comparisons to The Transparent Cabal.

“The basic premise behind George W. Bush’s policy towards the Middle East reflected this strong pro-Israeli bias,” Shlaim opines. “The premise was that the key issue in Middle East politics was not Palestine, but Iraq.” (p. 297)    This is the essence of my thesis, but it is something many establishment people, including those who have been antiwar, ardently deny when they claim that the elimination of Saddam  not only harmed  Israeli interests by empowering Iran, but that this result  was clearly foreseen by  Israelis and supporters of Israel prior to the attack on Iraq and that the government of Israel thus allegedly opposed the war.  The Transparent Cabal, of course, shows that the entire neocon war agenda in the Middle East was directed to advancing Israel’s security by weakening its enemies and that Israeli leaders did, in fact, promote the war on Iraq.   Of course, in the United States, any  claim that American Jews promote Israeli interests, no matter how well adduced, invariably elicits accusations of anti-Semitism.

“American proponents of the war on Iraq promised that action against Iraq would form part of a broader engagement with the problems of the Middle East,” Shlaim notes.  “The road to Jerusalem, they argued, went through Baghdad.  Cutting off Saddam Hussein’s support for Palestinian terrorism was, according to them, an essential first step in the quest for a settlement.” (p. 297)  Later he observes:  “One of the main arguments for regime change in Baghdad was to put an end to Iraqi support for Palestinian militants and for what was seen as Palestinian intransigence in the peace process with Israel.” (p. 300)

As I point out in The Transparent Cabal, the neocons maintained that it was the removal of not only Saddam, but most “non-democratic” regimes in the Middle East, which was necessary to bring about a  peaceful settlement of the Palestinian issue.  However, the “peace” the neocons had in mind was one dictated by Israel. Elimination of the Middle Eastern “non-democratic” regimes would facilitate this development because it was just these regimes  that provided moral and material support to the Palestinian resistance, portrayed by the neocons as “Palestinian intransigence.”  Without outside

support, the isolated and dispirited Palestinians would ultimately be forced to accede to whatever type of peaceful solution Israel offered, which would create nothing like a viable, Palestinian state, but which would serve to remove Israel’s Palestinian problem and thus help to secure the Jewish nature of the state of Israel.

“The influence of the Likud and of its friends in Washington could be detected across the entire spectrum of American policy towards the Middle East,” writes Shlaim.  “Particularly striking was the ideological convergence between some of the leading neoconservatives in the Bush Administration – such as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith—and the hardliners in Ariel Sharon’s inner circle.” (p. 298)

I go to great lengths in The Transparent Cabal to highlight the link between the neocons and the hardline Likudniks. In fact, I show that the neocons’ very plan to reconfigure the Middle East paralleled the Likudnik goal of destabilizing and fragmenting Israel’s enemies, which was best articulated by Oded Yinon in the early 1980s.

In illustrating the neocons’ identification with Israeli interests, Shlaim underscores the significance of the neocons’ “A Clean Break” paper, writing: “In 1996, a group of six Jewish Americans, led by Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, wrote a paper for incoming Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu.  Entitled ‘A Clean Break’, the paper proposed, in essence, an abrupt reversal of the foreign policies of the Clinton Administration towards the Middle East.” (p. 298)  After mentioning the major goals  of the plan, including the removal of Saddam’s regime, Shlaim declares: “Thus, five years before the attack on the twin towers, the idea of regime change in Baghdad was already on the agenda of some of Israel’s most fervent Republican supporters in Washington.” (p. 299)  Regarding the connection of that policy to actual American interests,  Shlaim opines that “While the authors’ devotion to Israel’s interests was crystal-clear, their implicit identification of those interests with American interests was much more open to question.” (p. 299) Shlaim accepts the obvious  fact that the neocons were influential in shaping Bush policy: “The Bush Administration’s entire policy towards the Middle East was similarly supportive of Israel’s short-term strategic interests.” (p. 299)

It should be noted here that Shlaim, in accord with what I write in  The Transparent Cabal,  makes three taboo points that often lead to charges of anti-Semitism when he observes that the neocons are Jewish, that they are devoted to Israel, and that they were influential enough to shape U. S. Middle East  policy in the interests of Israel.

Shlaim correctly points out  that the neocons’ Middle East war  agenda transcended Iraq: “While Iraq was the main target, the neocons also advocated that America exert relentless pressure on Syria and on Iran.” (p. 300)  In The Transparent Cabal, I show that the neocons only regarded Iraq as the momentary “main target”—it was to be the first step in their plan to reconfigure the Middle East.

Shlaim refers to  Israeli support for the broader neocon Middle East war agenda, which would also primarily benefit that country, not the United States:   “Washington’s policy of confrontation and regime change was fervently supported in Tel Aviv.  Here too the benefit to Israel is much more evident than the benefit to America.   And here too, the US agenda towards the region appears to incorporate a right-wing Likud agenda.” (p. 300)

While fundamentally similar, Shlaim’s analysis does differ with The Transparent Cabal in a few respects.   For example, he depicts the noted Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis as a crucial influence on the neocons, maintaining that he provided “the intellectual underpinning for this policy [the neocon plan of democratizing the Middle East by war].” (P. 299)  While aware that Lewis expressed this Middle East democratization argument, I am not aware that the neocons actually derived this view from him.  To obtain expert opinion on this issue, I contacted Paul Gottfried, probably the foremost historian of neoconservatism, and he also was not aware of any evidence for Shlaim’s claim. Since Lewis is a well-known scholar, some neocons undoubtedly believed that publicizing their connection to him would enhance the credibility of their democratization argument, but whether they actually derived this view from him needs to be proven.

A more significant difference between Shlaim’s argument and that of The Transparent Cabal revolves around an assessment of the results of the neocon policy. While Shlaim holds that the  neocons were attuned to the views of the hardline Likudniks and sought to advance what they considered to be Israel’s security interests,  he seems to drift away from this position in looking at the policy’s results.  Instead, he seems to take the neocon rhetoric on democracy at face value and judges the results by both this standard and how the results affected Israel’s security, as he (a left-wing Zionist, not a hardline Likudnik) sees  it.  “The war on Iraq has not gone according to plan,” Shlaim asserts. “Saddam Hussein and his henchman have been removed from power but the goals of democracy, security and stability have proved persistently elusive. Today the shadow of civil war hangs over Iraq.” (p. 305)

In contrast to Shlaim’s view of Israel’s security, the neocons explicitly sought regional instability to allegedly achieve democracy, as I show in The Transparent Cabal.  And the hardline Likudnik position was to destabilize and fragment Israel’s enemies to enhance Israeli security.  The neocons similarly advocated such an approach in their “Clean Break” agenda, which did not emphasize  democratization.  In short, from the perspective of the neocons and the hardline Likudniks, the instability and the “shadow of civil war” resulting from the US invasion of Iraq were neither surprising nor unwelcome.  Thus the neocons’ plans failed only to the extent that the US has not, or at least not yet, moved on to attack and destabilize Iran and other enemies of Israel.

It is certainly pleasing to see themes that I present emerging  in the mainstream, but I am miffed that my much longer account remains largely ignored.  It would be great if  books such as Shlaim’s would serve to open the door to wider publicity for The Transparent Cabal, which would not simply be of personal benefit but would also provide mainstream readers with the most complete account currently existing of the neoconservative involvement in the war on Iraq and overall U. S. Middle East policy,  and thus serve as a guide to analyzing current U.S.  policy.  However, since Shlaim’s theme is buried among 29 other short chapters, its impact will likely be negligible.  And the overall blackout of these crucial themes will likely continue.

Stephen J. Sniegoski, Ph.D. is an American historian, with a focus on American foreign policy, and the neoconservative involvement in it. His first major work on the subject, “The War on Iraq: Conceived in Israel” was published February 10, 2003, more than a month before the American attack.  He is the author of The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel.

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3 thoughts on “Avi Shlaim on the Neoconservative Middle East War Agenda”

  1. It would be worthwhile to inquire further as to how promoting (their kind of) democracies can cause instability in Middle Eastern countries or (at least) neutralize their support for the resistance causes in Palestine and Lebanon. I have the elections in Palestine and Egypt from a few years ago in mind which were actively supported by Washington, but the results turned out to be in opposition to its wishes (and the argument is that from then on, Neocons quit that project of promoting democracies). Another dimension of this inquiry could look into Washington’s promotion of velvet revolution like situation in Iran recently in the name of human rights and democracy. (This suggestion does not by itself discredit the claims of the opposition movement, which would be another debate).

    When confronted with such an argument, a frequent strategy of mainstream/Washington scholars is to prefer ‘incompetence’ over ‘conspiracy’ (they really wanted to spread democracy, but things got messed up!). But below I quote an interview clip of Dick Cheney from 1994 which shows that the Neocons clearly knew what would happen in Iraq. But not just that, I believe, they knew the fault lines (polarized and exacerbated by Saddam’s neo-tribal and sectarian policies) and proactively exploited them to create instability in the country and justify their prolonged presence (A close scrutiny of Paul Bremer’s policies and of the presence of John Negroponte and Blackwater in Iraq would provide ample illuminations).

    Being there not only had financial incentives for the military-industrial complex, but also was crucial for the purpose of Washington’s long term hegemonic ambitions for the region. It is for the same reason Washington would want to stay longer in the so-called “Af-Pak” region. Having Obama in White House hasn’t ‘changed’ anything.

    Dick Cheney on Iraq, 1994

  2. Interesting and timely. I was recently arguing almost the exact same things on another site about israel’s/neocon involvement in the Iraq war, why and what they wanted to achieve. Glad I looked in here today.

  3. Mr. Sniegoski,

    You need to go over to Oxford and interview the guy and print the interview in the London Review of Books.

    THAT would be a fascinating discussion, and one I would love to read.

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