Neoconservative responsibility for the Iraq war

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Bill Kristol, who along with
Robert Kagan, founded the
Project for the New American Century in 1997

The other day I published a dialogue with Ron Kampeas of JTA on the question, 
Do Jewish neoconservatives bear responsibility for the Iraq war disaster? Two very smart friends in the media have sent me addendums to the discussion.

Both are more thoughtful than my (quick) response to Kampeas. Letter one:

You are missing data points in this debate that fit your argument, and which you could cite in your defense.

Yes, Cheney and the White House rose to office looking to unseat Saddam, but where did the motivation to do this spring from? The Bush administration ethos was not built in a day, on January 20, 2001. Remember, Iraq was decimated after the First Gulf War, yet that article you cited the other day on Israel’s Eastern Front tells us Israelis were already in a huff about Iraq rebuilding immediately after the war:  “Iraq was in fact the primary threat that the IDF believed it faced until the mid-1990s following the First Gulf War,” till the focus allegedly shifted to Iran.

In fact, the Israeli focus on Iraq ties together neatly with Clean Break , wherein a group of U.S. neoconservatives wrote lines for a partisan political speech for incoming prime minister Bibi Netanyahu, and included policy background. That document clearly states these U.S. neoconservatives’ interest in upending Saddam and rather hilariously proposed that replacing Saddam with a Hashemite kingdom (Democracy!) would weaken Iran’s position. That was 1996. In 1997, Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, two leaders of the neoconservative movement, launched the Project for a New American Century. The ‘founding principles’ and subsequent letters and documents of PNAC were signed by a who’s who of neoconservative allies like Cheney and Rumsfeld, but the signatory lists for each are dominated by neoconservatives, including but not limited to Norman Podhoretz, whose views with regard to Israeli/Jewish interests you’ve delved into at length.

By 1998, the group issued its letter to Clinton on Iraq, making “the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power” a top policy priority, and prescribed “a willingness to undertake military action.” The signatories included again non-Jewish aggressive nationalists like Bolton and Rumsfeld, but the list is again dominated by the neoconservatives who would, like those colleagues, move into positions of power in the Bush administration, among them Perle, Abrams, Wolfowitz and of course the group’s founders.

In 2000 Kristol and Kagan launched a book, ‘Present Dangers’, where Perle wrote the chapter on Iraq. Weeks after 9/11, another PNAC letter prioritized Iraq. In April 2002, yet another letter “urg(ing) [Bush] to accelerate plans for removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq,” including, as you mention, citing terror against Israel as a reason.

People will dismiss these points as conspiracy theorizing. But is this history real? Does anyone deny it happening? Is it just a coincidence that the champions of these causes, clearly linked by Clean Break to issues of Israel, ended up in prominent posts in the Bush administration which by then merely happened to come into office already decided on leveling Iraq? Can we deny that these efforts were unequivocally spear-headed — both in public opinion and in policy apparatuses — by dyed-in-the-wool neoconservatives? (Remember: the Cheneys, Rumsfelds and Boltons signed the letters, but the organization itself was founded by two neoconservative leaders.)

Kampeas’s bit about anti-Semitism is a weird strawman. It’s not that The Jews caused the war, but rather that Some Jews — Jewish neoconservatives, who despite common acquiescence to their narratives in the larger Jewish establishment, still constitute a vast minority of American Jews — were leaders in the push for war with Iraq.

One can hypothesize that they were not the single, deciding factor in the push, but one cannot deny the simple fact that they, along with, yes, a few of their aggressive nationalist allies in tow, led the charge for war with Iraq. Then it actually happened. But not, we’re told, just because of them.

You should ask Kampeas: What other group, if not neoconservatives who happen to be Jewish, pressed this hard early and often for attacking Iraq? I want names and citations.

Second letter:

I was very interested to read your most recent response to Ron Kampeas. It is, as you say, a “good debate.” If I may chime in on it, I think you have made some errors in parts of your argument.

Some of those errors lean unnecessarily to the right, so to speak, by conceding too much to the neoconservatives’ regarding the role of Israel in their motives. Other of your arguments lean too far left by making sweeping negative generalizations about “the neoconservatives” that glop together two generations of neoconservatives as one undifferentiated big, bad thing.

But let me address your characterizations of neoconservative motivations in supporting the Iraq war. You state: “No one ever said that Cheney and Bush and Rumsfeld didn’t start the war. They started the war. No one said that some of these planners didn’t have a deluded American interest in mind that had nothing to do with Israel. The irresponsibility that Kampeas is exhibiting here is the claim that ideas are not important in such matters. The best and brightest fostered the Vietnam war for some reasons I haven’t studied; and in this instance, the idea that was relentlessly promoted by the neoconservatives was the claim that by imposing democracy by force on an Arab nation of importance, democracy would take hold across the region. This was a very powerful and very stupid idea. It held sway. It affected Ken Pollack and Tom Friedman deeply. …neoconservativism came out of the Jewish community, and its forefathers Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz specifically formulated the school because they feared that a weak American military program would drive a knife into Israel, as Kristol framed it. In the runup to the Iraq war, neoconservatives, who were to be sure not only Jewish, pushed the Iraq war because they said Israel’s war against terror is our war. In countless manifestos for the war (Paul Berman, Kristol and Kaplan, Wurmser, Frum, Perle), Saddam’s actions against Israel in supporting suicide bombers were described as a threat to the west. Israel was on their minds.”

In fact, they did not hold that we should attack Iraq because Israel’s war on terror was our war. They were much more explicit about both Israel being on their minds, and on the specific way that they hoped the Iraq war would aid Israel.

Shortly before the war started, this piece by Larry Cohler-Esses appeared in the Forward that elucidated this. “One-Track Minds on Two-Track Mideast Solutions, January 24, 2003.” Excerpts follow [six long paragraphs, marked off by quotations]:

“In 1975, Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders scandalized Congress by becoming the first administration official to tell lawmakers that the Palestinian problem was the “heart of the conflict” between Israel and its Arab adversaries. Despite the shellacking Saunders took for his stance, a generation of Israeli and Western peacemakers ultimately adopted his view that the Palestinian problem was both solvable and the key to unsnarling the layers of wartime barbed wire between Israel and its Arab adversaries.

“Now, the Bush administration has all but declared war on Iraq, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sinks every day to new lows. And there are some — perhaps even Bush himself — who seem ready to flip Saunders’s premise on its head. Maybe, they say, settling the “Arab problem” is the key to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not the other way around. It’s a corollary to the goal of region-wide reform, if not revolution, that Pentagon policy-makers such as Paul Wolfowitz seek via the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s bloody regime. Indeed, Fouad Ajami, one of the foremost cheerleaders of the Wolfowitz project, describes one of its great virtues as the chance to deal a fateful body blow to “virulent pan-Arabism” of the sort that sustains violent Palestinian resistance, including terrorism, against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. …

“It’s a conclusion that proponents believe a chastened Syria and Iran — both of which would be encircled by American bases and/or Israel after an American victory over Iraq — will also reach. David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explains, “The Bush administration’s hope is that with Iraq’s defeat, there will be dividends in the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah cluster, and that if Saddam goes, then Yasir Arafat’s star dims. Then, it’s a new constellation. If all of a sudden you have a more benign environment, concessions that are impossible for Israel under current conditions may become possible.”

“That’s one possibility. It may even be supported by Wolfowitz, the administration’s resident Wilsonian idealist. ..

“At the side of the current President Bush — and Wolfowitz — are  a panoply of Pentagon hawks with a history of bristling, deeply ideological opposition to the notion that peace should be based on large territorial concessions to create a sovereign Palestinian state. One of these is Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy generally seen as the No. 3 official in the Pentagon. I can bear personal witness to Feith’s adamancy on the issue. As a reporter during the late 1980s and early 1990s for Washington Jewish Week — whose attorney he was — I debated him several times over dinner on the very notion of Palestinian peoplehood. It was also personal. Feith was then one of the two principals of the Washington law firm Feith & Zell — the other being his close friend Mark Zell, a West Bank settler and prominent ideologue for the settlers movement. Zell recently wrote that “if you deny the legitimacy of our [West Bank] habitations, you deny the legitimacy of the entire Jewish state.” In 1996, Feith co-wrote [CLEAN BREAK, referenced above] a proposed agenda for the incoming administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with, among others, Richard Perle, now chair of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, and David Wurmser, now special assistant in the State Department. Territorial compromise is not part of the agenda. Rejection of the Oslo peace process forms its core. The paper declares “removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq” to be “an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.” …

“In other words, it is vanquishing the Arab problem that will quiet the Palestinian conflict — and, apparently, enable Israel to retain its settlements. Last August, the influence of these counselors was apparent on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whose sway over Bush these days is undisputed…. “

About your error leaning too far left, so to speak: You cite Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol from that generation to make your case that neocons have always and everywhere been about defending Israel. They were, for sure, all Zionists. But important members of the first generation–folks like Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, Saul Below–brought to early neoconservatism a greater diversity of views on Israel (and on the question of publicly criticizing Israel) than most folks have bothered to notice or acknowledge. Several supported Peace Now…

The second gen, unfortunately, are just lockstep apparatchik mediocrities.

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Phil, re: the first letter. Watch this, eight minutes with General Clark in 2007. Clark covers everything in the first letter, but states it started earlier than Clean Break. (The longer piece it came from rounds it out, esp. the Q&A.)

(h/t anonymouscomments)

Another question worth the answer.
Do the same Jewish neoconservatives, that bear responsibility for the Iraq war disaster, are drumming loudly for a new war, this time with Iran??
a) Yes, they do (plenty of proof)
b) no, they don’t (hm, really?).

Very important video to see.
“Financial interests behind Islamophobia”
Interview with Max Blumenthal.!


On Israeli legitimacy: “Bank settler and prominent ideologue for the settlers movement. Zell recently wrote that “if you deny the legitimacy of our [West Bank] habitations, you deny the legitimacy of the entire Jewish state.”” Agreed: first, the logic is correct, and, second, both are illegitimate. I myself do not… Read more »


Just a note on A Clean Break — A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm was prepared for the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (IASPS) in Jerusalem. The biography of David Yerushalmi on the website of the IASPS in Jerusalem provides some information on the… Read more »