Beyond Incompetence: Washington’s War in Iraq

Beyond Incompetence: Washington’s War in Iraq


Jonathan Cutler



If there is a central principle animating Noam Chomsky’s commentaries on US foreign policy, it is his affinity for Realpolitik analysis. As Chomsky argues in a recent interview, “Our leaders have rational imperial interests. We have to assume that they’re good-hearted and bumbling. But they’re not. They’re perfectly sensible.” This methodological axiom presents some serious challenges for those trying to understand the US war in Iraq. With so much evidence of bumbling within the Bush White House, it is tempting to join the chorus of critics, led by the Democrats, who say that incompetence is the defining feature of US foreign policy. Is it possible to tell the story of the US invasion of Iraq as “perfectly sensible”?


Chomsky is adamant and he is right to warn against the idea that foreign policy elites are more fool than knave. “Consider the actual situation, not some dream situation… If we can enter the real world we can begin to talk about it… We have to talk about it in the real world and know what the White House is thinking. They’re not willing to live in a dream world.”


What, then, is the “actual situation” that led the Bush administration to make the “perfectly sensible”—if entirely imperialist—decision to invade Iraq and topple the regime of Saddam Hussein? Here, according to Chomsky, is the real world:


“If [Iraq is] more or less democratic, it’ll have a Shiite majority. They will naturally want to improve their linkages with Iran, Shiite Iran. Most of the clerics come from Iran… So you get an Iraqi/Iran loose alliance. Furthermore, right across the border in Saudi Arabia, there’s a Shiite population which has been bitterly oppressed by the U.S.-backed fundamentalist tyranny. And any moves toward independence in Iraq are surely going to stimulate them, it’s already happening. That happens to be where most of Saudi Arabian oil is. Okay, so you can just imagine the ultimate nightmare in Washington…”


Chomsky isn’t making this stuff up. One can get quick confirmation of Chomsky’s characterization of this “ultimate nightmare” scenario from the key “realists” of Republican foreign policy establishment—folks like Bush Sr., former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, former Secretary of State James Baker, and Colin Powell. When presented with a Shiite uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991, the “realists” opted to leave Saddam in power, rather than let the nightmare become reality. In a co-authored 1998 memoir, A World Transformed, Bush Sr. and Scowcroft insist that they acted to preserve “the long-term balance of power at the head of the Gulf” (p.489). In his 1995 memoir The Politics of Diplomacy, James Baker recalls that he didn’t want to “play into the hands of the mullahs in Iran, who could export their brand of Islamic fundamentalism with the help of Iraq’s Shiites and quickly transform themselves into the dominant regional power” (p.437). Colin Powell, in his 1995 memoir My American Journey, is equally blunt. “Why didn’t we finish him off?… In March, the Iraqi Shiites in the south rose up in arms… But our practical intention was to leave Baghdad enough power to survive as a threat to an Iran that remained bitterly hostile toward the United States” (pp.512, 516).


The problem is that fear of this “ultimate nightmare” provided the rationale in 1991 for not invading Iraq, or more precisely, not promoting the political ascendance of the Iraqi Shiite majority. Chomksy argues that fear of the nightmare scenario will deter realists from supporting US withdrawal from Iraq. But did the “realists” get us into Iraq? “Realists” may keep us in Iraq, but did the “realists” unleash Iraqi Shiite power by terminating Sunni Baathist political and military rule? “Realists” may, in fact, be sensible—at least in a self-serving way—but Scowcroft, Baker, and Bush Sr. all publicly warned George W. Bush about the risks of unleashing the ultimate nightmare. Kissinger—who first floated the idea of seizing the Eastern Province from the Saudis in the mid-1970s, prior to the Iranian revolution—was explicit in a Washington Post Op-Ed. The key to any move to topple Saddam, he insisted, was the contour of “the political outcome,” especially insofar as Saudi Arabia would be unlikely to cooperate in the formation of a “Shiite republic” that “would threaten the Dhahran region in Saudi Arabia, and might give Iran a new base to seek to dominate the gulf region.” Chomsky is at a loss to explain—in Realpolitik terms—the 2003 decision by George W. Bush to invade Iraq and empower the Iraqi Shiite majority.


Gilbert Achcar, like Chomsky, is inclined to stipulate the decisive role of Realpolitik in US foreign policy. Looking at the case of Iraq, however, Achcar makes an exception. “In the case of Iraq, and in this case exclusively,” writes Achcar in a 2004 CounterPunch article, “the Bush administration has acted on ideological views so contrary to the ‘reality principle’ that they could only lead into this major nightmare of U.S. imperial policy… History will probably record this venture as one of the most important blunders ever committed by an administration abroad from the standpoint of U.S. imperial interests.”


Chomsky and Achcar both agree that the general aim of the invasion was based on “realism.” As Chomsky says, the US would not have invaded Iraq “if its main product was lettuce and pickles… If you have three gray cells functioning, you know… the US invaded Iraq because it has enormous oil resources.” Likewise, Achcar is “fully aware of the very oily factors” involved in US military intervention. However, Achcar insists that “many of its concrete decisions”—chiefly the “clumsiness of de-Baathification… [and the] dissolution of the Iraqi military”—represented “blunders” and “wild dreams” of “crackpot idealists” who allow “high-flying moral rhetoric” to help guide foreign policy “in a way that stands in blatant contradiction to pragmatic needs.”


For Achcar, the crucial decisions were not the ones that simply toppled Saddam Hussein but the ones—made in May 2003, at the start of the formal US occupation—to actively undermine authoritarian Sunni minority rule in Iraq. “Whatever the reason,” says Achcar, “the fact is that Bush Jr. and his collaborators have acted for a while in conformity with their democratic proclamations.” These decisions unleashed a major “nightmare” because they “opened the way for the Iraqi people to seize control of their own destinies… to the benefit of Islamic fundamentalist forces, somewhat on the Iranian pattern.” The “clumsiness” is particularly difficult to explain in the terms of Realpolitik since regime change—without Shiite empowerment—could have been accomplished “more effectively…had the Bush administration acted from a craftily Machiavellian perspective and managed to get hold of Iraq through an arrangement with the Iraqi army and other apparatuses of the Baathist state.”


If there is room for rapprochement between Achcar and Chomsky, it is because Achcar actually agrees that the familiar “realist” crowd never would—and never did—jettison craftily Machiavellian perspectives on foreign policy. Achcar insists, however, that on the key questions regarding the political outcome in Iraq—de-Baathification, military dissolution, and Shiite power—the “administration was divided.” Realists fought against all of these policies for post-invasion Iraq, favoring something more like a US-backed military coup that would result in a political outcome akin to Saddamism-without-Saddam and an “arrangement” with the Baathist state. There was, however, a rival faction within the Bush administration: the so-called neo-conservatives, vaguely defined as those who favored a “crusade for bringing democracy” to Iraq. Neo-conservatives championed comprehensive de-Baathification and dissolution of the Sunni-led military establishment—even if it meant empowering Iraqi Shiites.


Chomsky, however, seems not to have taken note of neo-conservatives or any factional battles within the Bush administration. In his many interviews on the war in Iraq, he rarely if ever says anything about neo-conservatives (a peculiar asymmetry in light of neo-conservative vilification of Chomsky). His analysis posits not only Realpolitik, but a unified actor. One of the great merits of Achcar’s analysis, by contrast, is his attention to the crucial split between neo-conservatives and realists in Washington.



Machiavelli for Zionists


Do neo-conservatives represent the antithesis of Realpolitik? Are neo-conservatives bumbling crackpot idealists who unwittingly opened Pandora’s box in Iraq by substituting idealistic dreams of democracy ahead of realist Machiavellian statecraft? Indeed, Achcar suggests that the neo-conservative agenda for Iraq represents “a typical case of self-deception.” Perhaps. Financial Times columnist Samuel Brittan, in a typical attack on the neo-conservatives, published an October 2003 Realpolitik manifesto—This Is Not a Time for Boy Scouts—in which he condemned neo-conservative zeal as “almost indistinguishable from that of the liberal imperialists” who think foreign policy should be guided by morality. Another defender of Realpolitik, John J. Mearsheimer, dismisses neo-conservative theory as “essentially Wilsonianism with teeth.”


Some neo-conservatives welcome that depiction, if not the accompanying criticism. William Kristol and Lawrence F. Kaplan, two prominent neo-conservatives, insist that their book, The War Over Iraq: Saddam’s Tyranny and America’s Mission, “wears its heart on its sleeve” (p.ix). They present a relentless critique of “a narrow realpolitik that defined America’s vital interests in terms of oil wells, strategic chokepoints and regional stability” (p.viii). Even as they celebrate “creating democracy in a land that for decades has known only dictatorship” (p.ix), they make no mention of—and seem utterly oblivious to—the prospect of Iraqi democracy emboldening Shiites in Iraq, Iran, or Saudi Arabia.


Kristol and Kaplan may be “Boy Scouts,” as suggested by Brittan; or maybe they simply find it convenient to appear good-hearted and bumbling, as Chomsky warned. Either way, not all neo-conservatives wear their merit badges or their heart on their sleeve. The neo-conservative movement is hardly monolithic; there have been many fissures and splits along the way. The crucial point, however, is that some key neo-conservatives are as committed to cold-hearted Machiavellian Realpolitik as any so-called “realist.” The battle dividing the Bush administration in Iraq is between two factions of Realpolitik strategists.


Indeed, as Achcar has recently noted, “in some neo-con circles” there is actually support for the same scenario feared most by Chomsky’s realists: “some kind of Shia state controlling the bulk of Iraq’s oil” that would align itself with Iranian Shiites and “unleash” Shiite power in the whole area, “including the Saudi Kingdom where the main oil producing area is inhabited by a Shia majority.” To assume that evidence of neo-conservative support for de-Baathification in Iraq represents a simple blunder by naïve and incompetent Wilsonian idealists is, at best, a misunderstanding—at worst, a serious underestimation—of neo-conservative visions for US foreign policy.


Consider, for example, David Wurmser’s book, Tyranny’s Ally: America’s Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein (hereafter, TA). Wurmser published Tyranny’s Ally while serving as a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a think tank long identified with neo-conservative foreign policy analysis. After his time at AEI, Wurmser moved on to service within the Bush administration, most recently serving as Middle East expert in the office of Vice President Richard Cheney. Published in 1999, the book is a Machiavellian tour de force—and a blueprint for US policy in the Middle East. There are striking parallels between the policies endorsed in Wurmser’s book and those enacted by the Bush administration at the start of the US war in Iraq.


Wurmser directly confronts so-called “realist” fears regarding Shiite power in Iraq.


“The ensuing chaos of any policy that generates upheaval in Iraq would offer the oppressed, majority Shi’ites of that country an opportunity to enhance their power and prestige. Fear that this would in turn enable Iran to extend its influence through its coreligionists has led Britain and the United States, along with our Middle Eastern allies, to regard a continued Sunni control of Iraq as the cornerstone for stability in the Levant. Saudi Arabia in particular fears that any Shi’ite autonomy or control in Iraq will undermine its own precarious stability, because an emboldened Shi’ite populace in Iraq could spread its fervor into Saudi Arabia’s predominantly Shi’ite northeastern provinces. The Saudi government also fears that this upheaval could spread to predominantly Shi’ite Bahrain, or to other gulf states with large Shi’ite minorities.” (TA, p.73)


Wurmser’s book is animated by a persistent focus on “balance of power” realist politics. “Iran and Iraq… are serious threats to the United States. How can we vanquish one without helping the other? Similarly, how can we deal either with a radical, secular, pan-Arabic nationalism or with fundamentalist pan-Islamism without allowing one to benefit from the other’s defeat? (TA, p.72). For Bush and Scowcroft—and for the Clinton foreign policy team—the only plausible response was a balance of power based on the “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran. Wurmser, however, proposes a Realpolitik basis for moving US policy from dual containment toward a “Dual Rollback of Iran and Iraq” (TA, p.72).


Wurmser offers a direct challenge to the underlying factual premise of balance-of-power policies in the Gulf, even as he embraces the Machiavellian principles of balance-of-power politics. “U.S. policy makers have long presumed that the majority Shi’ite population of Iraq would serve as Iran’s fifth column there; but would it?” (TA, p.72). Wurmser thinks not. Instead, he argues that “Iraqi Shi’ites, if liberated from [Saddam’s] tyranny, can be expected to present a challenge to Iran’s influence and revolution” (TA, p.74). More specifically, Wurmser claims that “Shi’ite Islam is plagued by fissures, none of which has been carefully examined, let alone exploited, by the opponents of Iran’s Islamic republic” (TA, p.74, emphasis added). The idea of exploiting fissures is entirely consistent with realist theories of power balancing.


Wurmser argues that at the theological core of the Iranian revolution is “a concept promoted by Ayatollah Khomeini, the wilayat al-faqih—the rule of the jurisprudent” that served as “the bulldozer with which Khomeini razed the barrier between the clerics and the politicians” (TA, p.74). For Wurmser, the central strategic fissure within Shiite Islam is between those who favor Khomeini’s vision and those who reject the rule of the jurisprudent. “The concept of wilayat al-faqih is rejected by most Shi’ite clerics outside Iran (and probably many of those within Iran, too)… The current leading ayatollah of Iraq, Ayatollah Sayyid ‘Ali Sistani, has reaffirmed [this rejection], much to the chagrin of the Iranian government” (TA, p.75).


Wurmser suggests that the US could and should exploit this fissure to its own advantage. The “liberation” of the Iraqi Shia can be used to achieve a “Regional Rollback of Shi’ite Fundamentalism.”


“[A] shift of the Shi’ite center of gravity toward Iraq has larger, regional implications. Through intermarriage, history, and social relations, the Shi’ites of Lebanon have traditionally maintained close ties with the Shi’ites of Iraq. The Lebanese Shi’ite clerical establishment has customarily been politically quiescent, like the Iraqi Shi’ites. The Lebanese looked to Najaf’s clerics for spiritual models [until it was transformed into a regional outpost for Iranian influence]. Prying the Lebanese Shi’ites away from a defunct Iranian revolution and reacquainting them with the Iraqi Shi’ite community could significantly help to shift the region’s balance and to whittle away at Syria’s power” (TA, p.107, 110).


The core of the Regional Rollback, however, is Iran. For Wurmser, so-called “realists” have always been correct to emphasize the link between Iraqi and Iranian Shiites, but they have misunderstood the potential nature of the link. If realists have traditionally feared Iranian influence in Iraq, Wurmser argues that the more likely scenario is Iraqi influence in Iran. The demise of traditional Sunni rule over the Iraqi Shiites “could potentially trigger a reversal” of fortune for the Iranian regime.


“Liberating the Shi’ite centers in Najaf and Karbala, with their clerics who reject the wilayat al-faqih, could allow Iraqi Shi’ites to challenge and perhaps fatally derail the Iranian revolution. For the first time in half a century, Iraq has the chance to replace Iran as the center of Shi’ite thought, thus resuming its historic place, with its tradition of clerical quiescence and of challenge to Sunni absolutism… A free Iraqi Shi’ite community would be a nightmare for the theocratic Islamic Republic of Iran” (TA, p.78-79).


For Wurmser, the liberation of Najaf and Karbala would promote and empower potential US allies in Iraq and Iran. Wurmser’s strategy foresees US military intervention against the Sunni minority in Iraq, not primarily as a springboard for further military intervention in Iran, but as the Iraqi detonator for a populist, Shiite-led rebellion against rival clerics in Iran. Neo-conservative support for the political ascendance of Shiite Iraq is not about the principle of democracy. Nor are neo-conservatives blind to the ways in which regime change in Iraq might transform the relationship between Iraq and Iran. Neo-conservatives who favor de-Baathification in Iraq might seem like blundering fools who would unwittingly hand Iraq to Iranian clerics. Wumser’s scheme, however, is to hand Iran to Iraqi clerics, especially the followers of Ayatollah Sayyid ‘Ali Sistani. For Wurmser, the road to Tehran begins in Najaf.


Wurmser is hardly alone in his strategic vision for the Middle East. His successor at AEI, Reuel Marc Gerecht—formerly a CIA agent in Iran—enthusiastically embraces the same vision for dual rollback in Iraq and Iran. In a May 2001 article entitled “Liberate Iraq,” Gerecht dismisses “fear of an Iraqi-Iranian Shi’ite collusion upsetting the balance of power in the Middle East. This kind of fraternity between Iraqi and Iranian Shi’ites simply does not exist—except in the minds of Republican ‘realists’ who tragically used this argument a decade ago.” An August 2002 article entitled “Regime Change in Iran?” makes the case for dual rollback and argues that the ascendance of the Iraqi Shia “will be brutal for the mullahs.” Similarly, a March 2003 article by Michael Ledeen—another prominent neo-conservative at AEI—predicts, “If we understand this war correctly, the Iraqi Shi’ites will fight alongside us against the Iranian terrorists.”


That is a very big “if” at the heart of neo-conservative thinking about Iraq and Iran. Richard Perle, doyen of neo-conservatives at AEI, writes in his 2003 book with David Frum, An End to Evil (hereafter, EE), that “President Bush took an enormous risk in Iraq. The risk could well have gone wrong—and it could still go wrong” (p.36). Similarly, Gerecht warns that “the mullahs”—once they saw signs of Iraqi Shiite rule in Iraq—would fight back. Gerecht’s August 2002 Weekly Standard article acknowledges that “the Bush administration should prepare itself for Iranian mischief in Iraq’s politics.”


In advance of the war, however, neo-conservatives found comfort in some “area studies” research—which they published and promoted—that found reason to believe Iraqi Shiites might ultimately prevail in any intra-Shiite competition between clerics in Iraq and Iran. In an April 2000 book Who Rules Iran?, published by the Washington Institute, Wilfred Buchta argues that Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamene’i, successor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has “a theological Achilles’ heel”—unlike Khomeini before him, and unlike Sistani in Iraq, Khamene’i is not a Grand Ayatollah. In his review of clerical opposition to the Iranian regime, Buchta describes Sistani as “Khamene’i’s most serious competitor for the religious leadership of Shi’is throughout the world” (p.89).


Whatever the particular merits or deficiencies of Wurmser’s analysis of fissures within Shiite Islam, these do not fully explain the intensity of “realist” opposition to Bush administration policies in Iraq. Neither realists nor neoconservatives shed tears for Saddam Hussein, nor would either grieve the fall of the incumbent Iranian regime. Realists, however, fear that the end of Sunni Arab control in Iraq and the rise of the Shia will tip the balance of power in the Persian Gulf away from a key US ally: the Sunni Arab regime in Saudi Arabia.


Moreover, neo-conservatives agree with realists that the Saudi regime fears Shiite regional power. Echoing the “nightmare” scenario articulated by Chomsky and the “realists,” neo-conservatives like Richard Perle agree that the House of Saud has good reason to fear a Shia Gulf.


“[W]hile the royal family, the government, and the moneyed elite all live on the western, Red Sea side of the country, the oil is located on the eastern, Persian Gulf side. And while the people in the west are almost uniformly Sunni, one-third of the people in the Eastern Province… are Shiites…. Independence for the Eastern Province would obviously be a catastrophic outcome for the Saudi state” (EE, p.141).


Sounds just like the realists—but with a crucial twist. Unlike Chomsky’s realists, Perle and Frum think that Shiite control of Arabian Peninsula oil would be catastrophic for the Saudi state, but think it “might be a very good outcome for the United States” (EE, p. 141). This is the great neo-conservative heresy. If realists make little or no distinction between what is good for the Saudis and what is good for the United States, neo-conservatives regard Saudi Arabia as an unreliable, if not downright hostile, regime. Wurmser describes the “Saudi Wahhabi state” as “particularly menacing” (TA, p.68).



Varieties of American Imperialism


Disagreement over the strategic value of the US-Saudi alliance goes to the heart of the venomous battle that has long raged between neo-conservatives and “realists.” Indeed, the “Saudi” question is, in many respects, the constitutive difference that cuts through the fog that otherwise surrounds the civil war in Washington over the political outcome of regime change in Iraq.


The earliest evidence of a split between neo-conservatives and “realists”—the decision by Ronald Reagan to sell Saudi Arabia an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS)—is also the most illuminating for making sense of the division. The most useful expression of neo-conservative hope for Reagan administration foreign policy and of subsequent “anguish” comes from a May 1982 New York Times Magazine essay penned by self-proclaimed neo-conservative, Norman Podhoretz, long-serving editor of Commentary, the official publication of the American Jewish Committee. After the fall of the Shah in Iran, Podhoretz explains, neo-conservatives looked forward with great enthusiasm to Reagan’s plan for “shoring up the American position” in the Persian Gulf in order “to secure the oilfields against either a direct or an indirect Soviet move.” This would be accomplished by stationing “American ground forces somewhere in the region,” perhaps on the Israeli-occupied Sinai peninsula.


Neo-conservative hopes were dashed, however, when “this new idea was dropped” after “Saudis…voiced their opposition.” For fear that the oil-rich “Saudis might have done something to damage” the US economy, explains Podhoretz, Reagan fell into the “habit of appeasing Saudi Arabia.” Having lost the Shah, the US would now “supply the Saudis with advanced weaponry, including the Awacs planes… depending upon them to police the region” on behalf of the US.


Podhoretz argues that the decision to substitute the fallen Iranian regime with a Saudi surrogate was “bad… on its own terms,” that is, for the immediate strategic interests of the United States. If Iran under the Shah proved to be an unreliable “pillar of sand” for the US, “what could we expect of Saudi Arabia?” But the tilt toward Saudi Arabia was “all the more disturbing in its implications for the American connection with Israel” because “the Saudis refused to join” a “de facto alliance” that would “unite the moderate Arab states and Israel.”


Podhoretz rejects as false the “general impression” that all neo-conservatives are Jewish, and in no way claims that all supporters of Israel are neo-conservatives. Indeed, the vast majority of Jewish voters and not a few Zionists remain loyal to the Democratic Party. Podhoretz acknowledges, however, “it is certainly true that all neo-conservatives are strong supporters of Israel” who “would all agree that at a minimum the United States has a vital interest in the survival” of Israel as an “outpost” of “the free world.” That is, if forced by Arab-Israeli conflict to choose between a strategic alliance with the Saudis and one with the Israelis, neo-conservatives support the latter, rather than the former.


Neo-conservatives lost the battle to prevent the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia, but that fight serves as an extremely useful proxy for distinguishing between “neo” conservatives—who believe that US interests are best served by reliance on Israel, if only that relationship were not regularly jeopardized by the American habit of appeasing the Saudis—and “realist” conservatives—who believe that US interests are best served by reliance on Saudi Arabia, if only that were not jeopardized by the American habit of appeasing the Israelis.


The AWACS battle reveals the misleading and potentially self-serving function of labels like “realist” and “neo-conservative,” then and now. Whatever the historical salience of the “neo-conservative” label, the term is neither adequate nor helpful in clarifying the defining qualities of the faction. The “neo” in neo-conservatives initially described liberals and anti-Stalinist Leftists who made common cause—on a number of different political fronts—with various factions of the traditional Right. Notwithstanding the diversity of neo-conservatives on a host of issues, however, the AWACS issue did a great deal to reveal a crucial division on the Right. As Podhoretz argued, the AWACS affair indicated that—in matters of foreign policy—“neo-conservatives” are united in support of Israel. More specifically, neo-conservatives are Right “Zionists” who believe US supremacy in the Persian Gulf is best protected by the US-Israeli alliance. As Podhoretz indicated, not all neo-conservatives are Jewish; so, too, not all are “new” to the Right.


The label “realist” may provide an implicit contrast with allegedly “unrealistic” or “idealistic” neo-conservatives, but it obscures more than it reveals about “realist” commitments in the Middle East. To judge from the Reagan administration AWACS affair, the so-called “realists” are Right “Arabists” who believe that US supremacy in the Persian Gulf is best protected by the US-Saudi alliance. Very few are Arab; some are Jewish.


Each side of this split regularly accuses the other of bad faith—of trying to serve two flags at once. Right Zionists insist that US recognition of Israel as a strategic asset is compromised by the influence of “big oil” money. Richard Perle and David Frum, for example, insist that the Saudis distort the prevailing US assessment of its strategic interests in the Persian Gulf.


“The reason our policy toward Saudi Arabia has been so abject for so long is not mere error. Our policy has been abject because so many of those who make the policy have been bought and paid for by the Saudis… [T]oo many of our recent ambassadors to Saudi Arabia have served as shills for Saudi Arabia the instant they returned home” (EE, p.141-142).


Similarly, critics of the US-Israeli alliance portray Israel as a strategic burden, rather than an asset. Most recently, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published an article in the London Review of Books entitled, “The Israel Lobby.”


“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 [Israel]… One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests… [but] the thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby.’”


Each side questions the strategic wisdom of appeasing the other side and searches for extra-strategic explanations for a strategic disagreement. The central strategic question, however, is unavoidable for any empire: which proxy state can most reliably “police” imperial interests?


Right Zionists and Right Arabists tend to agree that recurring battles in the US over policy toward Iraq and Iran are often “proxies” for larger strategic questions about the wisdom of the US alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Right Arabists like Caspar Weinberger, in his 1990 memoir, Fighting for Peace (hereafter, FP) argue that Israel survives, in part, through classic balance-of-power strategies. In explaining the basis for long-standing ties between Israel and the Shah of Iran, for example, Weinberger describes “a natural affinity of all religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East to unite (when at all they unite) against the vast majority—the Arab population. Hence some Jews, Christians, Turks, and Persians have long linkages… Israel had close ties to Iran under the Shah” (FP, p.365).


Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion allegedly referred to this strategy as the “Doctrine of the Periphery.” Gary Sick, a former Carter administration NSC staffer and a critic of Right Zionist activities with the US, describes the “Doctrine”—which he calls “a touchstone for Israeli foreign policy—in his 1991 book October Surprise: America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan.


“This doctrine was predicated on the belief that while Israel was destined to be surrounded permanently by a ring of hostile Arab states, just outside this hostile ring there were non-Arab states such as Turkey, Ethiopia and Iran that were themselves frequently at odds with the Arabs and therefore potential allies of Israel. It was a classic case of the old maxim, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ raised to the level of international policy” (p.60).


The Doctrine of the Periphery is simply Realpolitik for Right Zionists. For Israel and Right Zionists, however, the 1979 Iranian Revolution created complex new risks and opportunities for the Doctrine of the Periphery. On the one hand, there was the immediate crisis of anti-Zionist and anti-American zeal within the Revolution. On the other hand, the Shiite Revolution seemed likely to embolden Shia insurgents in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Gulf Emirates and aggravate hostilities between Arab and Shiite populations. For Right Zionists, the risk of Shiite anti-Zionism was partially offset by the opportunity for a strengthened alliance of the periphery forged on the basis of aggravated rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.


For Right Arabists, Iranian hostility toward the US, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia pointed in one direction and one direction only: support for incumbent Arab regimes. At the start of the Iran-Iraq war, the US remained officially neutral. But Caspar Weinberger (Secretary of Defense in the Reagan Administration) acknowledges that he found it “difficult… to remain neutral… we ‘tilted’ toward Iraq” (FP, p.358).


This tilt toward Iraq—in the service of the US-Saudi Alliance—was a grave concern for Right Zionists. Notwithstanding the anti-Zionist and anti-American fervor of the Iranian regime, Right Zionists like Michael Ledeen—a key player in the Iran-Contra affair—viewed the Iran-Iraq war very differently from those like Weinberger who tilted toward Iraq. In his 1988 memoir, Perilous Statecraft: An Insider’s Account of the Iran-Contra Affair (herafter, PS), Ledeen explains, “Israel was far more concerned about Iraq than about Iran, since Iraq had participated in the Arab wars against Israel… Iran, at least in the short run, posed no comparable threat to Israel” (PS, p.100). Even as Saudi Arabia—and Right Zionists like Weinberger—became pivotal supporters of Iraq in the 1980s Gulf War, Israel—along with Right Zionists like Ledeen—championed Iran in its battle against Iraq. As for the Iranians, Ledeen is quick to point out that their “hatred of Judaism did not prevent them from buying weapons from the Jewish state” (PS, p.97).


The AWACS battle lines held in the Iran-Contra affair. Weinberger refers to Iran-Contra as an “Israeli-Iranian plot.” For Right Zionists like Wurmser, Weinberger’s unofficial tilt toward Saddam Hussein—akin to a Saudi-Iraqi plot—helped the US become tyranny’s ally. So, too, Weinberger’s great fear was that any outreach to Iran “would adversely affect our newly emerging relationship with Iraq” (FP, p.364-366). Right Zionists feared the exact opposite—that the “newly emerging relationship” between the US and Iraq would adversely affect the US-Israeli alliance.


In many respects, Right Zionist war plans for Iraq represents an audacious attempt to reverse the pro-Saudi tilt in US policy that developed in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution and deepened with the movement of US forces onto Saudi soil following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Make no mistake: the US invaded Iraq, but it went to war with the Saudis. The Iraqi political tilt toward Iran is not an accident—the unintended consequence of bumbling naiveté—so much as the heart of a future geo-strategic alliance with Iranian Shiites, if not the incumbent clerical regime.


Right Arabists understand the stakes quite well and this—more than any dovish conversion on the road to Baghdad—explains the vehemence of their “anti-war” opposition. Although they have attacked the war on a variety of fronts—for its aggressive unilateralism, its abuse of intelligence, its abuse of prisoners, etc.—the heart of the critique has always been the political outcome—symbolized by de-Baathification and the disbanding of the Sunni-led Iraqi Army.



Whither Cheney?

In the history of Republican foreign policy factionalism, there seems to have been two major defections from the Right Arabist camp: Vice-President Richard Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In prior administrations, Rumsfeld and Cheney—Rumsfeld’s protégé in the Ford White House—fought side by side with Right Arabists. In the US invasion of Iraq, however, Cheney and Rumsfeld have drawn considerable fire from former allies on the Arabist Right. Any effort to explain the influence Right Zionist strategies at the start of the US invasion of Iraq must take account of the anomalous roles played by Cheney and Rumsfeld.

The timing and significance of any break between Cheney and Rumsfeld, on the one side, and the Right Arabists, on the other, will likely remain a matter of speculation for some time to come. For now, the record remains sketchy. Rumsfeld served as Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense in the administration of Gerald Ford, but he stayed out of government during the early Reagan administration. However, as the “Saudi-U.S. Relations Information Service” reminded readers of its website in December 2003—Rumsfeld came back to the White House to help Reagan overcome Zionist opposition to the sale of AWACS to the Saudis. Similarly, the “American Israel Public Affairs Committee” has never forgotten that Cheney—serving as a Congressman from Wyoming in 1981—voted to support the AWACS sale. And it was Rumsfeld who helped Reagan’s Arabists “tilt” the US toward Iraq in 1983 and 1984 when he traveled to Baghdad as special U.S. Middle East envoy and met with Saddam Hussein.

Somewhere along the way to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, however, Cheney and Rumsfeld ran into trouble with the Right Arabist crowd. Brent Scowcroft could not have been more explicit than he was in an October 2005 interview with the New Yorker.

“The real anomaly in the Administration is Cheney… I consider Cheney a good friend—I’ve known him for thirty years. But Dick Cheney I don’t know anymore… I don’t think Dick Cheney is a neocon, but allied to the core of neocons.”

More specifically, Scowcroft speculates that Cheney has been persuaded by the idea—rejected by Scowcroft, but attributed by him to Princeton professor Bernard Lewis—that “one of the things you’ve got to do to Arabs is hit them between the eyes with a big stick.”

There are some signs that Cheney and Rumsfeld had aligned themselves with Right Zionists before the 2000 Presidential election. For example, in June 1997, Rumsfeld and Cheney signed on to William Kristol’s “Statement of Principles” for his “Project for a New American Century” (PNAC). Other signatories included Right Zionists like Norman Podhoretz and his wife, Midge Dector; their son-in-law, Elliot Abrams—another key player in the Iran-Contra affair; Frank Gaffney; and Paul Wolfowitz.

In 1998, Rumsfeld signed another PNAC document that explicitly endorsed “removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power.” With Richard Perle, Wolfowitz, and Abrams as signatories, the document certainly had Right Zionist support. The wording of the letter, however, offered something for Right Arabists and Zionists alike. It explained how the failure to effectively contain Saddam Hussein endangered “our friends and allies like Israel and the moderate Arab states.” Maybe the refusal to name Saudi Arabia as a friend, ally, or “moderate” Arab state was intended to signal the dominance of Right Zionist influence. But the letter allowed for productive ambiguity.

Most Right Arabists seemed to draw even closer to Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Abdullah in the late 1990s. Abdullah thrilled—and shocked—Right Arabists and US oil company executives in September 1998 when he unexpectedly abandoned the oil nationalism of the 1970s and invited US oil companies to consider direct upstream investment in new oil and gas fields (“Saudis Talk with 7 U.S. Oil Firms; Companies Were Kicked Out in 1970s,” Washington Post, September 30, 1998). In April 2001, Exxon Mobil and Saudi Arabia signed “preparatory agreements” that secured for Exxon Mobile its role as leader and operator of two of three core ventures in a new Saudi natural gas initiative (“Exxon Takes Saudi Gas Prize,” International Petroleum Finance, April 30, 2001). Final contracts were expected by December 2001.

Abdullah’s star was on the rise among Right Arabists impressed by his economic opening to the US oil industry. A serious deterioration in US-Saudi relations after September 11th seems to have engendered a split among Right Arabists about the future viability of any US-Saudi alliance. Cheney and Rumsfeld, in particular, seem to have developed serious concerns about Abdullah’s response to September 11th.

His associations with Kristol’s Project for a New American Century, notwithstanding, Right Zionists were hardly accustomed to thinking of Cheney as an ally. In fact, by some accounts, Cheney was actually the most powerful Bush administration opponent of any effort to weaken the US-Saudi alliance. In his 2002 book, The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa’ud from Tradition to Terror, Stephen Schwartz—a regular contributor to the Weekly Standard—describes Cheney as “the most active in diverting the president from any actions detrimental to Saudi interests” and accuses the Vice President of “clear conflicts of interest” because of his “lucrative” relations with the Saudis (p.271).

So, too, the Weekly Standard published an article in April 2002, “Cheney Trips Up: The Vice President’s Middle East Expedition Didn’t Help the War on Terror” that criticized Cheney because he “avoided putting the Arabs on the spot” about regime change in Iraq. In a subsequent editorial, “The Detour,” the Weekly Standard blamed Cheney—and his “ill-fated trip to the Middle East”—for diverting the Bush administration from “America’s war on terrorism” and for engineering the “administration’s sudden quasi-embrace of Arafat.”

By August 2002, however, Cheney seems to have gone from an obstacle to a key sponsor of Right Zionist ambitions for war in Iraq. Perhaps it is important to note that the $30 billion Saudi gas deal fell apart just prior to Cheney’s apparent reversal. The first public report of trouble appeared within weeks of the September 11th attacks, as the government-owned Saudi Aramco—the world’s largest oil exporter—“baulked at this foreign invasion” (“Western Oil Companies Join the Search for Gas,” Financial Times, October 29, 2001). By January 2002 oil industry officials suggested that new delays were a consequence of “political, not legal, reasons” (“US Firms say Timetable May Slip on Saudi Gas Deals,” The Oil and Gas Journal, January 21, 2002).

As deadlines passed and industry executives began to fret about the future of the gas deal, industry analysts reported, “There is reason to believe the status of the negotiations will be monitored at the highest levels of the US government. The Department of State announced Mar. 1 that Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of Vice Pres. Dick Cheney, would join the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in coming weeks as the deputy assistant secretary handling Middle East economic issues” (“Saudi Gas Partnerships with US Firms Delayed Again,” The Oil and Gas Journal, March 11, 2002). In April 2002, industry officials hoped that Cheney’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Abdullah’s visit to the United States would save the faltering gas talks, but feared “rising anti-American sentiment in Saudi Arabia” would scuttle the deal (“Talks Between Saudis, Oil Companies Falter,” Wall Street Journal, April 22, 2002).

In late July 2002, the Saudis announced that negotiators would meet to “present their final offers.” On Monday, July 29, 2002, the oil industry press reported that negotiations “ground to a halt” after it became clear “the [Saudi] ministers were against going forward” (“Saudi Gas Initiative at an Impasse,” Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, July 29, 2002). The deal was dead.

Little more than a week after the Saudis walked away from the US oil majors, Cheney went public in his support for a US invasion of Iraq. The Weekly Standard was quick to notice the change. Even as Kristol chastised Brent Scowcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and his deputy Richard Armitage for constituting an “Axis of Appeasement” within the Republican Party, he praised Cheney for a “fine speech in San Francisco on August 7”—the Vice President’s first major public appearance in months—in which the Vice President called Saddam Hussein a “growing threat.”

In the August 26, 2002 issue of the Weekly Standard, Kristol pointed to “the highly significant speech delivered today to the Veterans of Foreign Wars by Vice President Cheney” and concluded “The debate in the administration is over.” As far as Kristol was concerned, Cheney had switched sides and consummated his alliance with the Right Zionists. Moreover, Kristol noted that Cheney’s speech specifically targets “recent critics of the Bush Doctrine”—especially Brent Scowcroft. Cheney addressed himself—in minimally coded language—to the Right Arabist argument “that opposing Saddam Hussein would cause even greater troubles in that part of the world… I believe the opposite is true. Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits for the region… The reality is that these times bring not only dangers but also opportunities.” Even as Cheney thumbed his nose at Scowcroft, he tipped his hat to Right Zionists, citing Fouad Ajami’s prediction that “the streets of Basra and Baghdad are sure to erupt in joy.”

In short order, Rumsfeld and Cheney became the patron saints of Right Zionist ambitions in Iraq. For this they have earned the eternal enmity of Right Arabists.

The most famous Right Arabist attack on the Iraq war—celebrated by much of the Left–remains Richard Clarke’s 2004 book, Against All Enemies—an “insider” account that ostensibly confirmed the senselessness of the US invasion of Iraq and highlighted—in the person of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (p.30)—Right Zionist attempts to use 9/11 as a springboard for promoting their agenda for Iraq. “Instead of addressing [the al Qaeda] with all the necessary attention it required, we went off on a tangent, off after Iraq,” Clarke complains (p.286-287). The war in Iraq is a “mistaken and costly” attack on “an oil-rich Arab country that posed no threat to us” (p.264-266). Beyond the headline-grabbing charge that the invasion of Iraq was a “tangent” that sidetracked the war on terror, however, Clarke also offers an entirely different—if less publicized—“insider” analysis of the Realpolitik rationale for war.


Clarke asserts that al Qaeda inaugurated “a war intended to replace the House of Saud” (p.282). According to Clarke, it was “concern with the long-term stability of the House of Saud” (p.265) in light of the challenge from al Qaeda that led “some in the Bush administration, including Dick Cheney” (p.283) to favor war with Iraq. “With Saddam gone, they believed, the U.S. could reduce its dependence on Saudi Arabia, could pull forces out of the Kingdom, and could open up an alternative source of oil” (p.283). The war on Iraq was, in effect, an indirect attack on the House of Saud.


Clarke is not persuaded. “The risk that the United States runs is of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy” that will undermine the House of Saud “without a plan or any influence about what would happen next… The future and stability of Saudi Arabia is of paramount importance to the United States; our policy cannot just be one of reducing our dependence upon it” (p.283). Just for good measure, Clarke criticizes “firing of the army and de-Baathification” in Iraq (p.272). This is the Right Arabist critique in a nutshell. Clarke’s book was one of the earliest Right Arabist attacks on the war but his critique is hardly exceptional. Many of the same charges have been leveled by other Right Arabists, including Retired General Anthony Zinni, former commander of the U.S. Central Command responsible for protecting Saudi Arabia.



What’s Left?


The ongoing battles between Right Arabists and Right Zionists have complicated attempts to criticize the war without implicitly—and often inadvertently—taking sides within the terms of an intra-imperialist debate.


For example, Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 goes to great lengths to expose and condemn the role of Saudi money in the United States and to establish the Saudi connection to the Bush family, their friends and associates, all as a prelude to the decision to invade Iraq. Likewise, Craig Unger’s 2004 book, House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties has the misfortune of having been written in the older tradition—exposing the intimacy of Bush-Saudi ties, even as there were signs that “the relationship between the House of Bush and the House of Saud appears to be coming to a difficult end” (p.280). Unger finds all of this “difficult to believe” and ends his book with “one incontrovertible fact”: Never before has an American president been so closely tied to a foreign power that harbors and supports our country’s mortal enemies” (p.281). The foreign power in question is Saudi Arabia.


For Robert Dreyfuss, the foreign power in question is Israel, not Saudi Arabia. Dreyfuss, a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, and a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, is author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. In an on-line review of Fahrenheit 9/11, Dreyfuss declares that “in one critically important way, [Moore’s film] entirely misses the boat and gets nearly everything wrong.”


“Moore totally avoids the question of Israel. Not only that, but the opening polemic of the movie ties President Bush and company mightily to Saudi Arabia…. Huh?… If Bush is so ‘in the pocket’ of Saudi Arabia, why is he Ariel Sharon’s strongest backer?… And most important, why did he invade Iraq—since Saudi Arabia was strongly opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq? Why did he launch his Iraqi adventure over Saudi objections, with many of his advisers chortling that Saudi Arabia would be ‘next’? Why did he stock his administration with militant neocon crusaders who see Saudi Arabia as the main enemy?… Is that because attacking Israel is too hard? Moore’s photo-montage of Saudi princes borders on the racist, showing Bush and Co. clinging to grinning, Semitic-looking Arabs in flowing white robes… Did Moore notice that Baker, along with Brent Scowcroft, and other former advisers to Bush 41 (including Colin Powell) were against the Iraq adventure?”


In his book, Devil’s Game, Dreyfuss devotes considerable attention to close readings of Right Zionist authors, including Richard Perle, David Wurmser, and Reuel Marc Gerecht and participates in the vilification of the “neo-conservative” Right Zionists.


According to the worst accusations, Right Zionists are agents of Israel who serve a foreign flag. At best, they represent one imperialist faction within the US foreign policy establishment—the faction that believes Israel is able to police the Middle East and secure US access to the region’s strategic oil resources and the Suez Canal. Anti-imperialists on the Left have good reason to oppose this as an imperialist war and rightly assert that no more US troops should die in order to make the Middle East safe for US empire.


In doing so, however, the Left sometimes runs the risk of becoming unwitting partners in an intra-imperialist battle between Right Zionists and Right Arabists. Right Arabists—like Brent Scowcroft and General Anthony Zinni–posing as the equivalent of Republican “anti-war activists” do not demand immediate withdrawal of US troops; they attack the “incompetence” of those who have executed this war. Right Arabists are not opposed to the US micro-managing the political outcome in Iraq; they oppose the particular outcome that empowers Iraqi Shiites and Kurds at the expense of Sunni Arab power in Iraq and beyond.


The anti-imperialist Left has no business aligning itself with Right Arabists, and yet the dangerous consequences of this alliance have only grown as Right Arabists have begun to regain control of the US ship of state. Nowhere is the risk for the Left more evident than in the writing of Robert Dreyfuss.


Dreyfuss is a good reporter and, to his credit, he understands the Right Zionist and Right Arabist battle lines within the Bush administration. However, because all of his political firepower is directed at the “neocon-dominated” United States, his critique is completely neutralized in those instances where Right Arabists have managed to regain some influence over Iraq policy. Dreyfuss pins everything on the idea that Right Zionists are dominating US policy. It legitimizes his uncritical embrace of Right Arabist perspectives on Iraq.


In a December 2004 comment, for example, Dreyfuss finds evidence of considerable Right Zionist panic, expressed by “leading neocon strategist” Max Singer, that Right Arabists were winning greater influence over Iraq policy. “What world is Singer living in?” asks Dreyfuss. “The United States is supporting the Sunnis and Baathists? Course not.”


More recently, Dreyfuss has acknowledged that the balance in US policy might have shifted back toward the Right Arabists. In an article sub-titled “Bring Back the Baath,” Dreyfuss reports on “U.S.-Baath Talks.”


“What the United States ought to have done two years ago—namely, make a deal with the resistance and its core Baathist leadership—might, after all, be happening. It is unclear how far up the food chain in the Bush administration this effort goes, but it appears that a desperate Ambassador Khalilzad has realized the importance of forging ties to the Baath party… That’s all good….”


If Dreyfuss feels awkward about declaring the increasingly Right Arabist inclinations of a Republican administration “all good,” he certainly hides it well. Give Dreyfuss the benefit of the doubt and assume that his pro-Baathist perspective is derived not from his love of Sunni Arab authoritarianism but the fact that the “resistance and its core Baathist leadership” offer the best chances for driving the US out of Iraq. That remains to be seen. If the US makes its peace with the Baathists, it is Sistani and the Iraqi Shiites who may ultimately drive the US out of Iraq.


Whatever his intentions, however, Dreyfuss risks becoming a pawn of Right Arabists. Not surprisingly, they have embraced him openly. Charles Freeman, former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a prominent Right Arabist, provides a glowing blurb on the back cover of the book. Moreover, key chapters on Right Zionists draw on interviews with Freeman, former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Atkins, and other prominent Right Arabists whom Dreyfuss quotes approvingly.


Not everyone on the anti-war Left is equally keen to mimic Right Arabist rhetoric. In an exchange with Alex Callinicos ahead of the January 2005 Iraqi elections, Gilbert Achcar breaks ranks and warns “the whole anti-imperialist left against falling into the trap of declaring the forthcoming elections ‘illegitimate’ just because some armed groups based among the Sunnis and some reactionary Sunni parties are trying to delegitimize them.” Achcar argues that “it is dead wrong for the movement and the left to condemn the elections in advance, thus probably putting us at odds with the great majority of the Iraqi people.”


The political allure of Achcar’s first commentary on Iraqi elections was certainly strengthened by three accompanying claims. First, “the US…tried to postpone as far as possible the prospect of holding elections and to replace them with appointed bodies.” Second, the US was forced to “backtrack” only when “countered by… Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani” whose call for demonstrations brought “huge numbers of people… into the streets of several Iraqi cities, especially in the Shia areas, with hundreds of thousands shouting ‘yes to election, no to designation.’” Third, the “overwhelming majority” of Iraqis are “hostile to US control of their land, and hence any truly representative democratically elected government would seek to get rid of the occupation.”


The second claim—that the decision to go forward with the elections was a direct consequence of Sistani-led demonstrations in support of elections—is indisputable. This fact afforded critics of Bush to celebrate the elections without conceding anything to the President. One anti-Bush blogger proclaimed it “The Elections Bush Didn’t Want.”


The political appeal of the first claim—that the “US” or “the Bushies” tried to postpone or cancel elections—once again presupposes, implicitly at least, a unified imperial actor. On that basis, the Sistani-led demonstrations and the elections can be depicted as a defiant thumb in the eye of US imperialism.


This claim is only partially accurate. Both the Sistani-led demonstrations and the Iraqi elections represent an enormous defeat for Right Arabists struggling to put the old Baathist lid back on Iraq. The Right Arabists had to backtrack. For Right Zionists, however, the Iraqi elections represent a great victory in their battles with Right Arabists in Washington. Indeed, one of the most stunning elements of the Iraqi elections is the way it allowed Right Zionists to snatch victory from the jaws of factional defeat at the hands of Right Arabists.


Setting aside all the talk—from allies and critics of the White House—about how this administration is dogged in its determination to “stay the course” at all costs, many Right Zionists suggest that the White House actually lost its nerve—and began to retreat—as early as October 2003, if not earlier. In August 2004, Michael Rubin—a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute—articulated the Right Zionist sense of betrayal.


“In October 2003, the White House launched a major reorganization of its Iraq-policy team. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice became titular head of the Iraq Stabilization Group… [and] her deputy (and former mentor) Robert Blackwill… became chief for political transition…. Whereas President Bush repeatedly promised that the U.S. sought democracy in Iraq, the British government, U.S. State Department, and the National Security Council project the opposite to an Iraqi audience. Iraqis were not blind to high-level discussions of a “Sunni strategy.” They interpreted the Sunni strategy to mean that Washington would not live up to its rhetoric of democracy, and instead return the Sunni minority to what many former Baathists—and the Saudi and Jordanian governments—felt was the Sunni community’s birthright. Iraqis interpreted Bremer’s decision to televise his April 23 [2004] speech announcing a rollback of de-Baathification as proof that Washington was pandering to Iraq’s Sunni population…. [T]he decision to reverse de-Baathification in effect traded the goodwill of Iraq’s 14 million Shia and six million Kurds for the sake of, at most, 40,000 high-level Baathists. Realism isn’t always so realistic.”


Reuel Marc Gerecht, also at AEI, was warning of a sellout as early as November 2003.


“The Pentagon’s and the Central Intelligence Agency’s decision to use the former exile organization, the Iraqi National Accord, as the basis for a new domestic Iraqi intelligence-and-security service is part of Washington’s and the Provisional Authority’s new “pro-Sunni” push…. The Shiite-American alliance–on which all hinges in Iraq–can snap if only a small number of Shiites grow fearful about America’s intentions. Working with Baathists… is a longstanding predilection in certain offices of the State Department, the CIA, and, more recently, among some American military field commanders… The CPA and the Bush administration obviously believe that democracy now is unworkable. They also fear… that elections now might give the Shiite clergy–especially Sistani–a potential veto over the nation’s future. To put it succinctly: We are enormously lucky to have Sistani in post-Saddam Iraq.”


At the start of October 2004, Gerecht published an article entitled “The Battle for Iraq.” The battle of which Gerecht writes, however, is located in Washington as much as Baghdad.


“The United States is engaged in a revolution in Iraq. We have toppled Saddam Hussein, the Baath party, and the Sunni Arab dominion over the country. We have promised to help the Iraqi people establish a democracy, which means that we are the midwife of a political system that will empower the Shia… [T]he Coalition Provisional Authority… wanted to be rather nice to the Sunni base of Saddam’s power in the hope of placating it, of getting it to play along. (The CIA’s dogged advancing of the pro-Sunni, Baathist-sympathetic, Shiite Ayad Allawi and the White House’s approval of him as prime minister was the culmination of this attitude.) The American retreat started in earnest in Baghdad last year… Any significant delay of elections would quickly force Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s preeminent Shiite cleric, to stand against the United States. If he were to do so, he would win, we and Prime Minister Allawi would lose.”


When the showdown occurred and Sistani did fight and win, Gerecht’s response—“The Birth of a Democracy”—was predictably ecstatic. It was also remarkably explicit about the larger meaning of the victory.


“ALL RIGHT. Let us make an analytical bet of high probability and enormous returns: The January 30 elections in Iraq will easily be the most consequential event in modern Arab history since Israel’s six-day defeat of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s alliance in 1967…. Continue to pray every night for the health, well-being, and influence of Grand Ayatollah Sistani.”


If the Iraqi votes of January 2005, October 2005, and December 2005 were the “Elections that Bush Didn’t Want,” the same can hardly be said of Right Zionists.


The Left would do well to remember that there are at least two imperialist camps in Washington—one Right Arabist and one Right Zionist. Both are “sensible,” within the framework of imperialist statecraft. Neither deserves our embrace.


Will Sistani—like the Shah before him—collaborate with Israel and police US interests in the Middle East? Or will the Baathists and Saudis patrol the region for the US? These are urgent questions for US imperialism. Not so for the anti-imperialist Left. Ours is not the quest for “indigenous” surrogates willing and able to police the Middle East on behalf of US Empire. US Soldiers are not cannon fodder for Right Zionist or Right Arabist imperial ambitions. Our demand is simple: Bring the troops home. Now.



Jonathan Cutler teaches sociology at Wesleyan University. For more Iraq analysis and commentary, go to his blog,


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