Posted on 06/21/2012 by Juan Cole - Informed Comment
Alastair Campbell’s serialized memoirs contain a bombshell that is largely being ignored in the Western press, the revelation that in conversations with President George W. Bush in late 2002, then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon threatened to nuke Baghdad if Saddam Hussein hit Israel with rockets again. (Campbell was then British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s communications director).
It is an astonishing threat. The Iraqi SCUDs that hit Israel during the Gulf War of 1991 were primitive and hardly the sort of threat to Israel that would trigger a nuclear response among sane people.
It is also clear that the threat was intended to force George W. Bush to act aggressively against Saddam:
“Campbell also relays another nuclear threat a year later when George Bush told Blair he feared that Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister, was planning to launch a nuclear attack against Iraq. In an account of a conversation with Bush at a Nato summit in Prague in November 2002, as diplomatic pressure intensified on Saddam Hussein, Campbell writes: “[George Bush] felt that if we got rid of Saddam, we could make progress on the Middle East. He reported on some of his discussions with [Ariel] Sharon, and said he had been pretty tough with him. Sharon had said that if Iraq hit Israel, their response would ‘escalate’ which he took to mean go nuclear. Bush said he said to him ‘You will not, you will not do that, it would be crazy.’ He said he would keep them under control, adding ‘A nuke on Baghdad, that could be pretty tricky.’”
That the threat was made so cavalierly can only provoke some speculation as to whether current Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is behind the scenes once again playing this bargaining chip with regard to Iran. I have long wondered why Western leaders pay so much attention to Netanyahu, the leader of a small country of 7.5 million with a gross domestic product only a little bigger than that of Portugal. Is it because, behind closed doors, they still talk the way Sharon did? Does Israel regularly use its nuclear warheads to blackmail the US and the West more generally?
In their pathbreaking book, The Israel Lobby, John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt argued that among the more important impetuses for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the Israel lobby. Important evidence for this allegation was the central role played in propagandizing for the war by Neoconservative figures such as Richard Perle (chair of the Defense Advisory Committee), Paul Wolfowitz (deputy Secretary of Defense), Douglas Feith (undersecretary of Defense for planning, and himself more or less a militant West Bank settler); along with other officials such as Irv Lewis “Scooter” Libby (convicted of perjury), David Wurmser and John Hannah– all high-ranking members of Israel lobbies at one time or another.
The response to Mearsheimer and Walt’s closely reasoned book was an unseemly food fight. They were denounced as anti-Semites (mostly by bigots who themselves hold racist views of Arabs) on the one hand and accused of presenting insufficient evidence on the other. A chorus of important political figures went so far as to deny that there even is an Israel lobby. (Just as NYT poobah David Brooks had denied that there were any Neoconservatives, provoking Michael Lind and others to some amusement).
Given that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee vigorously pushed Sharon’s policies in the US Congress, it is impossible that Sharon’s alarm about Iraq did not animate their lobbying efforts in fall of 2002, when US politicians were inveigled into giving Bush carte blanche to attack Iraq.
Campbell’s revelation is not only support for the Mearsheimer/Walt thesis, but it actually goes much beyond their analysis. They probably hadn’t dreamed that Sharon was wielding nuclear blackmail to get Bush to go after Iraq!
I myself think that the Iraq War was overdetermined, i.e. that there were multiple motivations for it, and I include oil. But that the Israel lobbies were central to it seems an inescapable conclusion.
At a time when a US war on Iran is building, under the pressure of the same Israel lobbies and the Likud Party in Israel, the American people deserve to know from President Obama whether Netanyahu has threatened to nuke Iran. We have been bamboozled into too many ruinous wars, and the health of our society, values and economy won’t survive another such catastrophe.
Juan Cole further comments:
I agree Turkey is the elephant in the room here.
It is very hard to discern exact Turkish policy given the multi-layered character of its influences and ambitions in northern Iraq. There is the historical claim on the former Ottoman province of Mosul. There is support and active investment in the KRG. And there is talk about Turkish support for Kirkuk as a standalone federal-entity.
In all of this, I am not sure whether Maliki can realistically expect Turkey to act as a check on Kurdish tendencies of going it alone, perhaps in everything but the name. I mean, lately the Turks even had bilateral meeting with Iraqi Kurds on pipelines and border crossings – the kind of issues that even in Iraq are seen by many as within the prerogatives of the central govt. In this case the schizophrenic policy may perhaps be intended, and maybe Turkey would be happy to cede influence in southern Iraq to Iran.
I think given the strategic value of southern Iraqi oil, I am not sure the USG would be ready to consciously cede control in southern Iraq to Iran, which will almost inevitably follow if the central govt gets very weak.