A Costly Friendship

A Costly Friendship

Much of the talk in Europe these days–in newspaper offices, at dinner parties, in foreign ministries–is about how the United States and Britain were conned into going to war against Iraq, or


Much of the talk in Europe these days–in newspaper offices, at dinner parties, in foreign ministries–is about how the United States and Britain were conned into going to war against Iraq, or perhaps how they conned the rest of us into believing that they had good reasons for doing so. It is now widely suspected that the war was a fraud, but who perpetuated the fraud and on whom? Were Bush and Blair fed fabricated intelligence, or did they knowingly massage and doctor the intelligence to exaggerate the threat from Iraq so as to justify an attack? Everyone agrees that Saddam Hussein was a monster, but the military invasion to depose him is seen by many, and certainly on this side of the Atlantic, as illegitimate and unprovoked, and a blatant violation of the UN Charter, setting an unfortunate precedent in international relations. Henceforth, in the jungle, only might is right.

Various intelligence and foreign affairs committees of the British Parliament and the US Congress have started inquiries into how the decision to go to war was taken–when, why and on what basis. But it will require a superhuman effort to penetrate the murky thicket of competing government bureaucracies, spooks, exiles, defectors and other self-serving sources, pro-Israeli lobbyists, magazine editors, think-tank gurus and assorted ideologues who, in Washington at least, have a massive say in the shaping of foreign policy.

How did it all begin? An important part of the story, though not the whole of it, is the special relationship between the United States and Israel. Warren Bass’s important and timely book Support Any Friend, written with candor and firmly rooted in primary sources, takes us back to the diplomacy of the 1960s, and to what he argues were the beginnings of today’s extraordinarily intimate alliance between the two countries. It is in effect the story of how Israel and its American friends came to exercise a profound influence on American policy toward the Arab and Muslim world. Bass believes it all began with JFK. It is an interesting thesis and he argues it well, although in my view the US-Israeli entente actually began with LBJ, after Kennedy’s assassination.

The neocons–a powerful group at the heart of the Bush Administration–wanted war against Iraq and pressed for it with great determination, overriding and intimidating all those who expressed doubts, advised caution, urged the need for allies and for UN legitimacy, or recommended sticking with the well-tried cold war instruments of containment and deterrence. War it had to be, the neocons said, to deal with the imminent threat from Saddam’s fearsome weapons, which, as Tony Blair was rash enough to claim in his tragicomic role as Bush’s “poodle,” could be fired within forty-five minutes of a launch order. This flight of blood-curdling rhetoric has now come home to haunt him, earning him a headline (in The Economist, no less) of “Prime Minister Bliar.”

Where did the information for his remarkable statement come from? How reliable was the prewar intelligence reaching Bush and Blair? The finger is increasingly being pointed at a special Pentagon intelligence cell, known as the Office of Special Plans, headed by Abram Shulsky. The office was created after 9/11 by two of the most fervent and determined neocons, Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Defense Secretary, and Douglas Feith, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, to probe into Saddam’s WMD programs and his links with Al Qaeda because, it is alleged, they did not trust other intelligence agencies of the US government to come up with the goods. It has been suggested that this special Pentagon intelligence cell relied heavily on the shifty Ahmad Chalabi’s network of exiled informants. If evidence was indeed fabricated, this may well have been where it was done.

One way of looking at the decision-making process in Washington is to see it as the convergence of two currents or trends. The first was clearly the child of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which both traumatized and enraged America, shattering its sense of invulnerability but also rousing it to “total war” against its enemies in the manner of a Hollywood blockbuster. Perhaps because they had more experience of wars and terrorist violence, Europeans were slow to comprehend the visceral impact of these events on the American psyche. Suddenly mighty America was afraid–afraid of mass-casualty terrorism; afraid of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; afraid that “rogue states” might pass on such weapons to nebulous, elusive, fanatical, transnational terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, enabling them perhaps to strike again with even more devastating effect.

The aggressive National Security Strategy of September 2002 sprang from these fears. It proclaimed that containment and deterrence were now stone dead; that the United States had to achieve and maintain total military supremacy over all possible challengers; that any “rogue states” that might be tempted to acquire WMDs would be treated without mercy by means of preventive or pre-emptive war. Under this “Bush Doctrine,” the United States gave itself the right to project its overwhelming power wherever and whenever it pleased, to invade countries it disliked, to overthrow their regimes and to transform hostile “tyrannies” into friendly–read pro-American–“democracies.” It was a program for global dominance, driven by the perceived threat to America but also by a modern version of imperial ambition.

The second, overlapping trend–overlapping because it involved many of the same people–was more narrowly focused on Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors. Right-wing Jewish neocons–and most prominent neocons are right-wing Jews–tend to be pro-Israel zealots who believe that American and Israeli interests are inseparable (much to the alarm of liberal, pro-peace Jews, whether in America, Europe or Israel itself). Friends of Ariel Sharon’s Likud, they tend to loathe Arabs and Muslims. For them, the cause of “liberating” Iraq had little to do with the well-being of Iraqis, just as the cause of “liberating” Iran and ending its nuclear program–recently advocated by Shimon Peres in a Wall Street Journal editorial–has little to do with the well-being of Iranians. What they wished for was an improvement in Israel’s military and strategic environment.

The Iraq crisis has made their names and organizations familiar to every newspaper and magazine reader: Wolfowitz and Feith, numbers 2 and 3 at the Pentagon; Richard Perle, former chairman and still a member of the influential Defense Policy Board, sometimes known as the neocons’ political godfather and around whom a cloud of financial impropriety hangs; Elliott Abrams, senior director of Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, with a controversial background in Latin America and in the Iran/contra affair; and their many friends, relations and kindred spirits in the media, such as William Kristol and Robert Kagan of The Weekly Standard, and in the numerous pro-Israel think tanks, such as Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, the American Enterprise Institute, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the Project for the New American Century, the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (born out of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and many others. As has been observed by several commentators, 9/11 provided the neocons with a unique chance to harness (some would say hijack) America’s Middle East policy–and America’s military power–in Israel’s interest by succeeding in getting the United States to apply the doctrine of pre-emptive war to Israel’s enemies.

This trend rested on a mistaken, indeed willfully tendentious, analysis of the attacks that the United States had suffered–not just the body blow of 9/11 but also the numerous earlier wake-up calls such as the bombing of two US embassies in East Africa and the attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbor. The basic neocon argument was that terrorist attacks should not in any way be read as the response of angry, desperate men to what America and Israel were doing to the Arab and Muslim world, and especially to the Palestinians. Quite the contrary; America was attacked because the terrorists envied the American way of life. America was virtuous, America was “good.” The real problem, the neocons argued, lay not with American policies but with the “sick” and “failed” Islamic societies from which the terrorists sprang, with their hate-driven educational system, with their inherently “violent” and “fanatical” religion. So, rather than correcting or changing its misguided policies, the United States was urged to “reform” and “democratize” Arab and Muslim societies–by force if necessary–so as to insure its own security and that of its allies. Wars of choice became official American policy.

Concerned to insure Israel’s continued regional supremacy, and at odds with what they saw as distasteful opponents, such as Islamic militancy, Arab nationalism and Palestinian radicalism, the neocons argued that the aim of US policy in the Middle East should be the thorough political and ideological “restructuring” of the region. Exporting “democracy” would serve the interests of defending both the United States and Israel. A “reformed” Middle East could be made pro-American and pro-Israeli. All this seems to have amounted to an ambitious–perhaps over-reaching–program for Israeli regional dominance, driven by Israel’s far right and its way-out American friends.

Iraq was the first candidate for a “democratic” cure, but the need for this doubtful medicine could just as well justify an assault on Iran, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or wherever a “threat” is detected or America’s reforming zeal directed. Immediately after 9/11, Wolfowitz clamored for the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This was a cause he had advocated unsuccessfully throughout much of the 1990s. But the accession of the neocons to positions of power, the fear of more terrorist attacks and the President’s combative instincts now made what had been a Dr. Strangelove scenario appear quite doable. No scrap of evidence, however, could be found linking Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden. Nor did Iraq pose an imminent threat to anyone, least of all to the United States or Britain. Exhausted by two wars, it had been starved by a dozen years of the most punitive sanctions in modern history. Hans Blix’s UN arms inspectors had roamed all over the country and acquired a good grasp of its entire industrial capability. They had found no evidence that Saddam had rebuilt his WMD programs. They would have certainly liked more time to look further and make quite sure. This was the view of most European experts. Meanwhile, Arab leaders had buried the hatchet with Iraq at the Arab summit in Beirut in March 2002. All Iraq’s neighbors wanted to trade with it, not make war on it. In the atmosphere of reconciliation that then prevailed, even Kuwait did not think it seemly to admit that it still longed for revenge for Saddam’s 1990 invasion.

There were, however, plenty of reasons why Israel and its friends in Washington wanted Iraq “restructured.” Saddam had dared fire Scuds at Israel during the 1991 war and, more recently, he had been bold enough to send money to the bereaved families of Palestinian suicide bombers, whose homes had been flattened by Israeli reprisals. These “crimes” had gone unpunished. Moreover, in spite of its evident weakness, Saddam’s Iraq was the only Arab country that might in the long run pose a strategic challenge to Israel. Egypt’s government had been neutralized and corrupted by American subsidies and by its peace treaty with Israel, while Syria was enfeebled by internal security squabbles, a faltering economy and a fossilized political system. The Iraqi leader had to be brought down. His fall, the neocons calculated, would change the political dynamics of the entire region. It would intimidate Teheran and Damascus, even Riyadh and Cairo, and tilt the balance of power decisively in Israel’s favor, allowing it to impose on the hapless Palestinians the harsh terms of its choice. Some neocons were already envisioning an Israel-Iraq peace treaty as a bonus byproduct of the war.

These concerns, in addition to control of Iraq’s oil resources, rather than Saddam’s alleged WMDs, were the real aims of the war against Iraq. They were embraced by the United States to assuage its own fears and restore its sense of absolute power. But what made the attack possible–the motor behind it–was one overriding fact of American political life: the US-Israel alliance, as close a relationship between two states as any in the world today. The Iraq war was in fact the high-water mark of that alliance.

Warren Bass seeks to establish that the foundations of the US-Israel alliance were laid by the Kennedy Administration. He even gives a precise date–August 19, 1962–for the start of the military relationship as we know it. On that day in Tel Aviv, Mike Feldman, the deputy White House counsel and Kennedy’s indefatigable contact man with Israel and American Jews, met secretly with David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and told them that “the President had determined that the Hawk missile should be made available to Israel.” The Israelis were ecstatic. The Kennedy decision destroyed the Eisenhower embargo on the sale of major weapons systems to Israel. “What began with the Hawk in 1962,” Bass writes, “has become one of the most expensive and extensive military relationships of the postwar era, with a price tag in the billions of dollars and diplomatic consequences to match.”

The Hawk sale is therefore the first pillar of Bass’s case for saying that Kennedy was the father of the US-Israel alliance. The second is what he describes as Kennedy’s “fudge” over America’s inspections of Israel’s secret nuclear weapons plant at Dimona in the Negev. Although ingeniously and entertainingly argued with a wealth of detail, the thesis is not conclusively proven. As a matter of fact, the Kennedy team, with the exception of Feldman and his friends, did not want a special military relationship with Israel, fearing that it would trigger a regional arms race. Kennedy was not taken in by Ben-Gurion’s histrionic description of Nasser, the Egyptian leader, as a cruel aggressor bent on Hitlerian genocide. He knew Israel was strong enough to deal with any Arab threat. He didn’t believe it needed the advanced weapons and the formal American security guarantee Ben-Gurion requested. He told Ben-Gurion firmly that he did not want to be the US President who brought the Middle East into the missile age. Kennedy was in fact attempting to reach out to Nasser, whom he recognized as a nationalist, not a Communist. He feared that giving Israel preferential treatment might push the Arabs into the arms of the Soviets. In turn, the State Department’s Middle East experts saw no good reason for the United States to change its arms policy toward Israel. As an internal memo put it, “To undertake, in effect, a military alliance with Israel would destroy the delicate balance we seek to maintain in our Near East relations.”

Nevertheless, Kennedy finally approved the Hawk sale, which Eisenhower had rejected two years earlier. But he seems to have done so against his better judgment. He was eventually worn down by Israel’s persistent and systematic exaggeration of the Egyptian menace, and more particularly by Shimon Peres’s ability, based on chillingly detailed knowledge of internal Administration debates, to play off the Pentagon and the NSC against the State Department.

Bass’s case is also arguable regarding Dimona. Far from turning a blind eye to what was evidently going on there, JFK was totally opposed to Israel’s getting the bomb and was prepared to disregard the views of the American Jewish community on the matter. In the spring of 1963 he warned Ben-Gurion that (in Bass’s words) “an Israeli refusal to permit real Dimona inspections would have the gravest consequences for the budding US-Israel friendship.” He wrote Ben-Gurion two scorching letters, on May 18 and June 15, threatening that “this Government’s commitment to and support of Israel would be seriously jeopardized” if Israel did not permit thorough inspections to all areas of the Dimona site. Ben-Gurion and his successor, Levi Eshkol, lied through their teeth to Kennedy about Dimona but, as Bass writes, Kennedy was preparing to force a showdown. Had he not been assassinated on November 22, 1963, he was on course for a confrontation with Israel.

The fudge came later, with Lyndon Johnson, who was far less concerned than Kennedy with nuclear proliferation. Skirting the issue of Israel’s nuclear ambitions, Johnson approved the sale to Israel of large numbers of American tanks and warplanes even before the 1967 war, which propelled the Jewish state to stardom, pumping a large segment of the American Jewish community full of confidence, ambition and even arrogance. Johnson was the true father of the US-Israel alliance. It was he, rather than Kennedy, who “set the precedent that ultimately created the US-Israel strategic relationship: a multimillion-dollar annual business in cutting-edge weaponry, supplemented by extensive military-to-military dialogues, security consultations, extensive joint training exercises, and cooperative research-and-development ventures.”

Bass raises the intriguing possibility that the Hawks were never really intended, as Ben-Gurion pleaded, to defend Israel’s air bases from a knockout blow by Nasser’s MIGs, but rather as a perimeter defense to protect the Dimona nuclear weapons plant. Some indirect corroboration of this thesis was later to emerge. In delivering its own knockout blow to Egypt’s air force on the first day of the 1967 war, Israel lost eight jets in the first wave of attack. One wounded plane came limping back to base in radio silence. It wandered into Dimona’s air space, and was promptly shot down by an Israeli Hawk missile.

From 1967 onward there was no stopping the extravagant blossoming of the US-Israel relationship. If Johnson had been the father of the alliance, Henry Kissinger was to be its sugar daddy. In 1970, he invited Israel to intervene in Jordan when a beleaguered King Hussein asked for US protection. Syrian troops had entered the country in support of militant Palestinians then engaged in a trial of strength with the little King. Israel was only too happy to comply with this most irregular request. It made some much-publicized military deployments in the direction of Jordan. Emboldened by this support, Hussein’s own forces then engaged the Syrians, who quickly withdrew. Hussein’s army was thus left free to slaughter the Palestinians.

Rather than seeing Black September as the local tiff that it actually was, Kissinger blew it up into an “East-West” contest in which Israel had successfully faced down not just the Syrians but the Russians as well. This was the real launch of the US-Israel “strategic relationship,” in which Israel was entrusted with “keeping the peace” in the Middle East on America’s behalf–and was lavishly rewarded with arms, aid and a cupboard-full of secret commitments directed against Arab interests.

Kissinger adopted as America’s own the main theses of Israeli policy: that Israel had to be stronger than any possible combination of Arab states; that the Arabs’ aspiration to recover territories lost in 1967 was “unrealistic”; that the PLO should never be considered a peace partner. His step-by-step machinations after the October war of 1973 were directed at removing Egypt from the Arab lineup, exposing Palestinians and other Arabs to the full brunt of Israeli military power. Ariel Sharon’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982–in which some 17,000 Palestinians and Lebanese were killed, triggering the birth of the Hezbollah resistance movement–was a direct consequence of Kissinger’s scheming. In 1970 Israel received $30 million in US aid; in 1971, after the Jordan crisis, the aid rose to $545 million. During the October war Kissinger called for a $3 billion aid bill, and it has remained in the several billions ever since.

In due course Congress was captured by AIPAC–in Bass’s phrase, “the purring, powerful lobbying machine of the 1980s and 1990s”–while the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, founded in 1985 by Martin Indyk, an Australian-born lobbyist for Israel, set about carefully shaping opinion and placing its men inside the Administration. Dennis Ross, Indyk’s colleague at WINEP and a high-level negotiator for Bush I, became Clinton’s long-serving coordinator of the Arab-Israeli peace process; he rarely failed to defer to Israel’s interests, which is one reason the peace process got nowhere. He has now returned to WINEP as its director and continued advocate.

But nothing in the history of the US-Israel alliance has equaled the accession by “friends of Israel” to key posts in the current Bush Administration, and their determined and successful struggle to shape America’s foreign policy, especially in the Middle East–including the destruction of Iraq.

The nagging question remains as to what the special friendship has achieved. Have the wars, security intrigues and political showdowns of the past decades really served Israel’s interest? A student of the region cannot but ponder these questions: What if the dovish Moshe Sharett had prevailed over the hawkish Ben-Gurion in the 1950s? Sharett sought coexistence with the Arabs, whereas Ben-Gurion’s policy was to dominate them by naked military force, with the aid of a great-power patron–ideas that have shaped Israeli thinking ever since. What if the occupied territories had truly been traded for peace after 1967 (as Ben-Gurion himself advised, with rare prescience), or after 1973, or after the Madrid conference of 1991, or even after the Oslo Accords of 1993? Would it not have spared Israelis and Palestinians the pain of the intifada, with its miserable legacy of hatred and broken lives? Has the triumphalist dream of a “Greater Israel” (which James Baker, for one, warned Israel against) proved anything other than a hideous nightmare, infecting Israeli society with a poisonous dose of fascism? The US-Israel alliance is officially and routinely celebrated in both countries, but its legacy is troubling. Without it, Israel might not have succumbed to the madness of invading Lebanon and staying there twenty-two years; or to the senseless brutality of its treatment of the Palestinians; or to the shortsighted folly of settling 400,000 Jews in Jerusalem and the West Bank, who are now able to hold successive Israeli governments to ransom.

An inescapable conclusion is that the intimate alliance, and the policies that flowed from it, have caused America and Israel to be reviled and detested in a large part of the world–and to be exposed as never before to terrorist attack.

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