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Gregory Harms on the earthly interests of power

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Gregory Harms’s new book

In a piece entitled “It’s not about religion, says Gregory Harms. I say it is,” Philip Weiss addressed a number of issues in response to the observations I make in my book, It’s Not about Religion. In his analysis, he focuses more on the role of Jewish-Zionist influences, good and bad, in the Middle East. While I am not in a position to speak on matters of Jewishness and the “Jewish political soul,” I would like to discuss some of Weiss’s main points concerning the Middle East’s management and manipulation, and the role the United States and Israel play in these affairs. 

As Weiss mentions, “Harms is critical of those who speak for the American interest, but it must be pointed out that these types have long opposed the relationship with Israel as counter productive.” He then goes on to cite the hesitance of the State Department regarding the establishment and US recognition of Israel in 1947-48. This hesitance did exist, and even more broadly than Weiss indicates. Along with State, most of the defense and intelligence community were against partition of Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state. The judgment was merely practical: Partition of Palestine would offer a significant change in the regional status quo, inviting unknown outcomes. Moreover, the Middle East in 1948 was not yet the major strategic concern it was to become, so it was deemed best to keep things constant.
The decision to recognize Israel, again, was based on pragmatism and power. Given the Zionists’ resourcefulness and martial performance during the 1948 war, Washington began to take interest in Israel as being a potential use. The view from the White House toward Tel Aviv has always been one of service and utility. Truman’s feelings about the Jews – which bounced around from sympathetic to anti-Semitic dismissal – hardly played a role. So in 1948, the assessment among US policymakers went from hesitance regarding an unknown quantity to viewing Israel as a possible instrument. That Israel was a Jewish state factored little if any in the calculus. It is also worth bearing in mind that Washington’s other geostrategic “pillar” in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia. Power is not overly particular.
Weiss then notes the hesitance of former planners such as Brent Scowcroft and James Baker regarding the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that “Neoconservative Zionists pushed for the Iraq war” to America’s detriment. As Weiss notes,
[The invasion] would gain us nothing in terms of oil or strategic advantage. And they [those who were hesitant] were plainly right; it was hugely costly to the U.S….. Today Russia and China have oil concessions in Iraq, and Iraq is working against the U.S. on Iran.
The thesis that the Neocons and the Israel lobby pushed the United States into Iraq (also maintained by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their book The Israel Lobby) defies logic and runs counter to how power has worked throughout human history. The top advisers around the president (Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al.) saw an opportunity and presumed it would be a turkey shoot. The decision to invade and the manifest thinking behind that decision are entirely consistent with the history of US foreign policy, especially the post-1945 period. Weiss is right that the operation was a failure according its apparent objectives, and that it was costly. But to whom was it costly? The burdens are borne by the military, their friends and families, and the American tax payer. Were these actual concerns – which they never are – the United States would simply never invade foreign countries.
With regard to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, Weiss lists a number of intellectuals and members of the defense and political establishment who, as he states, “have said that the occupation doesn’t serve America’s interest. Both George H.W. Bush and Obama called for an end to settlements, and both failed; there’s still an occupation.” It is true some view the occupation critically, for various reasons. However, the argument that the occupation does not serve US strategic interests is not convincing. Israel’s control of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem serves a dual use. First, it helps keep Israel in the mode of militancy. By remaining thus, Israel then has two constant needs: it requires more and better weaponry, along with diplomatic protection. So the defense industry benefits handsomely, and Washington benefits by having a needy client and therefore better leverage over its behavior. Second, democracy prevention is a core doctrine in US foreign policy. If the Palestinians achieve easy self-determination, other groups might become similarly inspired (called the “domino theory,” among other labels). The occupation therefore sends a sober message to this effect. And if Israel’s occupation did indeed run counter to US geostrategic interests, there would be no more occupation.
Weiss correctly observes that neoliberal capitalism carries on in regions and countries such as South America, Vietnam, and others, regardless of greater independence from the United States. However, this has been despite Washington’s past efforts to exert greater influence. Palestine is not vital to American corporate intrigue; and upon the eventual creation of a Palestinian state, yes, there will be opportunities to make some money. But for now, Palestine remains a domino and something to keep Tel Aviv occupied, as it were.
The issue of settlements teeters on the edge of what is acceptable to White House policy. Bush Sr. and Obama (and others) did not “fail” in achieving a halt to settlement construction; the issue is just of low to medium priority. Israeli expansion in the West Bank can raise the temperature too high and possibly provoke local and regional instability beyond preferred, manageable levels. When Israel oversteps its bounds, its leash gets jerked. Israeli recalcitrance is expected; it’s part of Tel Aviv’s job to be difficult. But again, at acceptable levels. Were the settlements a serious issue where US priorities were being impeded, a phone call would be made and there would be no more settlement expansion.
After 1945, the United States emerged the most powerful state on earth, with Soviet Russia coming in a distant second place. By the early 1950s, the strategic value of the Middle East began to increase, and US interest along with it. The history of American involvement in the Arab world has been one of control, and all the brutality that goes with it. Is Washington engaged in a war on Islam? No. It is and has been, however, engaged in an effort to suppress the region’s inhabitants and their basic desires for freedom and dignity. That they are mostly Muslim is not an underlying factor; the situation would likely be no different were most people in the region Presbyterian, Taoist, Rastafari, or adherents to Choctaw Indian spirituality.
Weiss is correct that religion does enter the picture and play a role in defining the various groups and how they interact. Islam and Judaism (and Zionism) are integral to the backgrounds and beliefs of those living in the region. Religion, therefore, is definitely in the frame. However, when one surveys the patterns of Western global dominance over the course of the last hundred years, what has been at work is a very short list of impulses, all of which are of this earth. As a result, the grievances of those in the Middle East living under this domination are also of an earthly nature, namely, the secular political demands being made by the Arab Spring.
Gregory Harms

Gregory Harms is an independent scholar and the author of The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction, 3rd ed. (Pluto Press, 2012); and It’s Not about Religion (Perceval Press, 2012).

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15 Responses

  1. W.Jones on September 20, 2012, 12:55 pm

    Mr. Harms,

    You wrote:

    The decision to recognize Israel, again, was based on pragmatism and power. Given the Zionists’ resourcefulness and martial performance during the 1948 war, Washington began to take interest in Israel as being a potential use… Truman’s feelings about the Jews – which bounced around from sympathetic to anti-Semitic dismissal – hardly played a role.

    Another article, however, says that the State Department and diplomats, who were responsible for US foreign policy were saying the opposite. If the goal was to make the US strong in foreign policy, wouldn’t they be the ones promoting the decision?

    Truman Adviser Recalls May 14,1948 US Decision to Recognize Israel

    By Richard H. Curtiss

    In a Nov. 10, 1945 meeting with American diplomats brought in from their posts in the Middle East to urge Truman not to heed Zionist urgings, Truman had bluntly explained his motivation:
    “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism: I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”

    Marshall and a majority of diplomats at the UN saw a direct UN trusteeship, succeeding the British mandate, as the only solution to halt the bloodshed [between Israelis and Palestinians]… The State Department urged Truman not to grant diplomatic recognition to the Jewish state when the British withdrew, but instead to side with rapidly growing sentiment in the United Nations in favor of trusteeship.


  2. traintosiberia on September 20, 2012, 1:58 pm

    “The top advisers around the president (Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al.) saw an opportunity and presumed it would be a turkey shoot. ”
    The opportunity was created by the media and the money that control the gates of the media with shutting those down who opposed the wars on the grounds advocated by war mongers.
    What was Cheny’s gain or Rumsfield when they had a better more robust opportunity to go after ,and seize the oil,and control the country with much less sceptisim or opposition in 1991?
    What changed? Who changed? During those years it was PNAC mebers and the media who ignored the effects of sanctions, who constantly referred to Iraq as threat to US interest ,asked the country to attcak the country from 1996 and put pressures and inserted bills in the Congress on a piece of napkin provided by AIPAC ,and who made sure anybody looking for jobs in the executive brancehs or legislative branches have right kind of credentials i.e 1- What will you do to remove threat from Iraq as if that were the most pressing issue Governemnt in terms of threat was facing. Thye also threw out Arabist form also in Hollywood and in TV soap opera.
    Cheney changed and he could not have prevented that self -mutation without being judged as ineffective, weak, or being exposed for some hidden things in his career or facing problems with exposre in his business delaings with oil whcih then could have been used by AIPAC as the reason he did not wbat to uposet the appale-cart. Bu going with the gangs , he achieved another term in vice presidency and god knows only what more.

    Though we focus on Iraq, for Israel any war in ME between US and ME conutry was desirable. iraq happened to ahve been demonized enough and could be cited ad libitum by the media liars as the devil trying to kill Bush father or setting Israel on flame or the raesons that US public will fall for and accecpt an Isarel knew that a war would lead to destabilization the one tyhey really wnated for gaining advantage over Palestine. Micheal Ledeen opnely talked about ” “CREATIVE DESTRUCTION” where CRAETION was for Israel AND DESTRUCTION WAS for Arab the war mongers made sure that there woudl be no democarcy and no post invasion paln to stabilize the counyrty . This is why their demads that US move to other countries after Iraq.
    911 did not offer an oppertunity.It was manufactured by media and the peoeple who cntrolled the media .They could have asked right questions ,demanded solid honest investiagtions and questioned the prudence of war against “Axis of Evil” No they did not. They promoted it and they suppressed or diverted any
    clue showing Israeli angle or governemnt’s failures.

  3. Dan Crowther on September 20, 2012, 3:50 pm

    Oh boy, Phil and the Lobby fetishists are gonna go nuts! Harms mentioned US Foreign Policy in other parts of the world! That’s the biggest cardinal sin at MW – you do that and the extreme lobby fetishists arguments go “POOF”!! into thin air. They don’t like that.

    Hope you’re doing well, Libra. I hope you will remind me – am I tweedle dee or is Keith?

  4. ColinWright on September 20, 2012, 3:56 pm

    I think the line of reasoning here is silly.

    Even viewed solely in terms of pragmatic geopolitics, our association with Israel has been a massive ball-and-chain that has been crippling us for sixty-plus years now. To argue that we have maintained this relationship out of pragmatic self-interest is absurd.

    That’s one of the many, many problems with our support for Israel. Aside from everything else, it is just stupid. In 1945, we were the one non-colonial, non-communist superpower. Had it not been for our support for Israel, we would have been in a position of uncontested influence in the Arab world, and presumably still would be. Israel has never been of any use as an ally, and as a matter of fact, has seriously damaged our interests on several occasions with her continual espionage. Finally, there is the minor detail that the relationship has cost us a great deal of money — not just in direct aid to Israel, but in aid to those of Israel’s enemies we have managed to buy off on Israel’s behalf, in increased oil prices, and most spectacularly, in the agonizingly prolonged fiasco of Iraq.

    If only our association with Israel had been a matter of self-interest. However, there isn’t even that to be said for it. Largely on Israel’s behalf, we have sacrificed thousands of American lives, expended hundreds of billions in treasure, and thrown away our influence in much of the globe. In exchange, we have got nothing.

    • dbroncos on September 20, 2012, 11:15 pm

      @ Colin Wright

      “In exchange, we have got nothing.”


    • LanceThruster on September 26, 2012, 6:13 pm

      As a nation, we have gotten little benefit, and substantial damage to our well-being for our choice to continue to prop up Israel and help shield it from its indefensible actions.

      As far as individuals go, particularly in positions of influence and power, they are rewarded and punished largely in conjunction with their fealty or lack thereof to Israel and the Zionist agenda.

  5. dbroncos on September 20, 2012, 11:11 pm

    “The top advisers around the president (Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al.) saw an opportunity and presumed it would be a turkey shoot.”

    And…? An opportunity to accomplish what? Clearly the neocons wanted to go to war with Iraq to protect Israel. “The road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad” – Paul Wolfowitz. As a piece of subterfuge they liked to emphasize the benefits of liberation that the Arabs would enjoy by way of an American bombing campaign and invasion. Meanwhile, the “crusted nut bars” – Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice had no interest in liberating Arabs and they weren’t Israel Firsters to the extent that they would send American troops to war for Israel’s exclusive benefit. They were concerned with Saddam’s clandestine WMD program. Bush was easily convinced by both the neocons and the wackos. He believed that Saddam had WMD and that “Bush the Leberator” had a nice ring to it.

    ” So the defense industry benefits handsomely, and Washington benefits by having a needy client and therefore better leverage over its behavior.”

    We’ve been hearing this “client state” nonsense for years from Noam Chomskey. In what respect did our militarized client state help us with our military campaigns in ’91 and ’03? Israel was not only of no help, it was a liability. In the Gulf War we paid Israel an additional $30 billion to NOT help us. Clearly Israel has no value to us as a militerized client state and by your calculation, if Israel has no value as a client state to the US, it has no value.

  6. traintosiberia on September 20, 2012, 11:28 pm

    Israel has never been a docile client handing over its core interest to US.Kennedy could not stop it nukes, Carter had to drag Israel to peace process and Carter was finished in 2 years . Reagan was lied openly and malevolently . Bush 1st was kicked out of office, Clinton was sabotaged with plants and by media. Bush 2nd was told effectively not to try to settle I-P issue for peace could run only through Baghdad. Israel killed American citizen every decade with impunity It has stolen trade secretes, it has infiltrated upper echelon of of US civil and military decision making process. Justice department from the times of Fullbright in 60s have declined to investigate crimes committed by Israel
    It has mobilized US public with monopoly over what gets out as news to sway public opinion to its favor.It presents itself as an election issue in a way that makes sure that the only option is left for the candidate is to support Israel .The ideas that promote and maintain an open democracy have been misused by Israeli supporters
    Israeli opponent in an age of secularism have been demonized mystically and with religious fervor with no dissent or discussion allowed within and outside the administration or media. People of politics,media,academia,literature daring to raise question have been silenced or simply removed .
    America sells military arsenals of all kind to Israel but they are often free or paid by US money indirectly and come with no strings attached. America can sell those stuff to another country with more oversight and upfront cash. US has no problem to do so with China, India, Brazil, S Africa or Poland but in ME, Israel has told US that US should tell Israel and its ME friends that the balance will always remain in Israel’s favor.
    Democracy is anathema to any hegemon including to US but it has always manged to adapt to new developments whether the issue is in in Vietnam,Phillipines,or Brazil or China or Myanamar. We did not see that over Iraq or Iran or Syria or Somalia.America has never pressurized so blatantly and aggressively UN IAEA , European countries India,Russia or ME allies to safeguard primarily Israeli interest at a cost to its own.It has not been voluntary .Behind the scene has been the loud media diatribes and quiet administrative machination by the lobby. Just look at current situation on Iran or the past post election reneging on Hamas. Prior to 911 the muslim anger against US was limited among some fanatics .Muslim anger about mostly Palestine and the anger was still mostly against Israel. Using 911 generated fear and manipulating the pivotal points of US society, Israel has been able to deflect that anger from itself and make it focus on US , a development that could not happened without those “25 geniuses” Mr Friedman had referred to in an unguarded moment of optimism and hubris.
    If it were the voluntary and informed choice of the US we would be lying to ourselves

  7. CitizenC on September 21, 2012, 1:14 am

    “So in 1948, the assessment among US policymakers went from hesitance regarding an unknown quantity to viewing Israel as a possible instrument. The US recognized Israel from pragmatic concerns”

    This is not true as a number of studies show, the best being Michael Cohen’s “Truman and Israel”. Cohen describes the formidable marshalling of forces by which Zionism overcame the overwhelming diplomatic and military consensus against US patronage of a Jewish state.

    I haven’t read his book, but Harms’s view may be based on articles by Irene Gendzier, poli sci prof at Boston Univ, from her book on the period, forthcoming from Columbia Univ Press. She is trying to backdate “strategic asset” to 1948 basically, has spun off a series of popular articles and given talks, at Columbia that I know of.

    The claim that the US noted Israel’s military prowess is true, and Cohen noted it, but also called it “ephemeral”, referring to the view of Israel’s strategic disutility that dominated, thru the late 1950s, when the first strategic asset argument surfaced, over Israel’s permission of British overflights to support King Hussein in Jordan in 1958.

    In an article Gendzier cites Clark Clifford as Truman’s exponent of Palestine policy, as if he were some disinterested expert. He was an emphatic advocate of Zionism for explicitly domestic political reasons, and embarrassed Truman in White House meetings with Marshall and others.

    Clifford was in touch with the Jewish Agency rep in Washington thru his special assistant Max Lowenthal, a former counsel to Truman’s Senate committee, who drafted memoranda for Truman based on JA positions.

    Clifford’s idea cited by Gendzier, that the US needed to recognize Israel to preempt Soviet recognition, was Jewish Agency propaganda. As if recognizing Israel had strategic value, when the whole Arab world was inflamed.

    Truman’s re-election launched Clifford’s career as consummate Washington insider.

  8. eGuard on September 21, 2012, 3:51 am

    I get the impression that Gregory Harms wrote a book about powers in the Middle East without mentioning Zionism.

  9. eGuard on September 21, 2012, 4:03 am

    Gregory Harms also wrote The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction (2005, 3rd edition 2012).

    Recently it was reviewed at Electronic Intifada. Conclusion: to “balance” (always a red flag word) Harms denies the Nakba.

    MW, in the comments we are not allowed to deny Nakba. But a Nakba denier can write a post?

  10. traintosiberia on September 21, 2012, 9:20 pm

    This was reported in ( constant presence of Israel in the mind of the neoocns)

    I came across the same in an article in

    “On March 2, 2007 Retired General Wesley Clark, former Supreme Commander of NATO forces, and 2004 Democratic contender for the presidency, appeared on Amy Goodman’s televised program Democracy Now. In the interview he revealed that shortly before the invasion of Iraq a highly placed Pentagon officer divulged a secret plan to him to overthrow the governments of seven countries-Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran. Speaking in San Francisco the following October Clark repeated this and added commentary about a conversation he had in 1992 with Paul Wolfowitz, a prime architect of George W. Bush’s policies, who at the time was number three in the Defense department. Quoting Wolfowitz Clark said: “One thing we learned [in the Persian Gulf War] is that we can use our military in the region- in the Middle East- and the Soviets won’t stop us. And we’ve got five or ten years to clean up those old Soviet regimes – Syria, Iran, Iraq- before the next superpower comes along to stop us.” By
    Paul Atwood , Interim Director of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, and faculty in the American Studies Department, University of Massachusetts-Boston, and member of the Smedley Butler Brigade, the Boston chapter of Veterans for Peace. 9/21/12

  11. HemiFaulk on September 22, 2012, 4:26 pm

    “The thesis that the Neocons and the Israel(i) lobby pushed the United States into Iraq defies logic and runs counter to how power has worked throughout human history.” Actually much has been written to the contrary based on the facts that yes it was the far right and Zionist lobby that has pushed quite hard to implement and\or convince American policy makers of the wisdom of invasion, Iraq and otherwise. Many of the above posts back up these facts so I must not beat a “Turin Horse.” American Foreign Policy and lack thereof is driving me crazy. Not guarding Embassy grounds and personnel along with at least 20 years of snafus world wide etc cannot be out of complete ignorance as much as stemming from failed policy by those who influence and implement these piss poor excuses for doctrine.

    But to get in one more lick, it has never taken any prodding from Americans to keep Israelis in a “mode of militancy.”

    My issue with Its Not about Religion is another matter, also based upon the facts that forays into the foreign countries rarely bear only the fruit sought, in fact other than a few instances we leave either a chosen ?leader? or a power vacuum in our wake. Islam is not so complex that we cannot understand it, and even a cursory reading of history would show that Islam is the state and other than Turkey and maybe a couple minor players, western democracy has been rejected throughout the world of Islam time and again. See former Shah of Iran for details, though yes they were better off economically with the Shah, the Islamic brethren did not want a western puppet and took action against what they saw as a threat to their beliefs.

    If an Islamic country asks for our help, let’s go, I am all for it, but how many times must we make the same mistakes when they don’t want our help or influence? See Central and South America or the all time favorite Africa for results of failed foreign policy mixed with an unhealthy dose of corporate influence. The greater point(excuse) in the prior sentence is that it was a fight against the Communists or some evil regime with anti-corporate interests, good idea poor results, although perhaps it had to happen the way it did, great, have we not learned from making the same mistakes over and over…

    But in the Middle East it is grossly incorrect to suggest it is not about religion. Religion is life for devout Muslims and it controls their laws, customs and anything else they want it to, just as it is for the Haredi Jews(customs-roots, not Israeli law), they trace their roots back to an early beginning and claim supremacy over modernized or more recent versions of the same faith. Radical Islam is not Orthodoxy as seen by lack of support, such as 10% of one-billion Muslims protesting and raising hell or launching attacks would look far different from the small numbers we see now. Really we have only seen smoke from the fires of Muslim anger, very much based and steeped in religious (un)principle(ed) ignorance, but no real flames. Incorrect American Foreign Policy such as thinking its not about religion can only become a catalyst to smoldering fires

  12. Carowhat on September 23, 2012, 7:53 pm

    “Truman’s feelings about the Jews – which bounced around from sympathetic to anti-Semitic dismissal – hardly played a role (in America’s recognition of Israel).”

    That’s hard to believe. Truman’s close friend and business partner in his haberdashery days repeatedly came to the White House to lobby Truman to recognize Israel. Gore Vidal claims that John F Kennedy told him that a group of American Jews gave Truman a suitcase full of cash in exchange for his support for Israel at a time when Truman’s whistlestop express was so broke the train engineer had threatened to walk off the job until he was paid.

    It’s even harder to believe Harms’s central thesis–that everything that America did to help Israel–money, arms, UN support, the Iraq war–was actually done for our benefit, not Israel’s. If that were so, why has Israel maintained such a huge expensive lobbying effort in the US and invited so many congressmen to Israel in free junkets if America would have naturally done all those things on behalf of Israel even if there were no lobby?

    Harms’s contention that we want Israel to be a militarized state in continual preparation for war just so we can sell her arms is not only ridiculous, it shows astonishing mendacity along with enormous contempt for our common sense. How on earth does America make money on arms sales to Israel when we give them the money to buy the arms in the first place?

  13. vered on September 23, 2012, 8:33 pm

    Perhaps this article will serve as a bit of a wake up call, maybe not. It is amazing to me that there is this persistent insistence on Israel being the sole motivator for the attack and invasion of Iraq. This chanting of – “yeah, what did the US get?” It speaks volumes of not understanding the global aspect of these issues, and not being able to ascertain what role the US has played in this activity.

    None of the allies which the US has joined with are having arguments like this, that is because they understand the the US has merely opened the door for the systemic global community – those who dominate, or are known as part of the dominant circle. Without the invasion there would have been no handing out of these contracts to these foreign “alliances.” Mr. Harms is right when he says it is merely the people who are poorer from these invasions – it was launched on their credit card, so to speak. Those in power have never had any trouble spending the peoples money so a privileged few can profit – see history.

    Perhaps we will dispense with the centrality of Israel in the middle of everything here view, and understand that there are much stronger currents – but not to dismiss Israel on the global playground. In fact Israel is like any other country clamoring for the attention of the only global superpower (so to speak). However, the US has never been a sole global superpower, but works for the interest of the entire global community to keep its place of preeminence. Think about it, before you respond.

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