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Avi Shlaim on the Neo-conservative Middle East War Agenda

By Stephen J. Sniegoski

A friend of mine, Phil Collier, is an avid student of and sometime writer on Middle East affairs (and a National Master in chess); he informed me that Avi Shlaim has one chapter in his book Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations, headed "Palestine and Iraq", which presents a thesis almost identical to what I have written in The Transparent Cabal. This encouraged me to obtain the book, and Collier's description turns out to be correct.


This similarity is quite significant, since what I have written about the neo-cons and their strong influence on US Middle East policy and connection to Israel is taboo in the American mainstream; numerous anti-war individuals (especially those with higher status) and publications have shied away from my work. However, Avi Shlaim is a professor of international relations at Oxford University and a recognized scholar, with notable books on Israel and its neighbours, such as The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (2001). Prof. Shlaim is also Jewish, an Israeli citizen with dual British and Israeli nationality who served in the Israel Defence Forces; this affords him some protection from charges of anti-Semitism. Because of his credentials, his writings cannot be ignored, and the book in question was honoured as a Kirkus Best Book for 2009.

In his ten-page chapter on "Palestine and Iraq", Shlaim presents a much-abbreviated version of the major themes that I elaborate at length in my 447-page book. The following are some pertinent examples from Shlaim's work, with my commentary drawing comparisons to The Transparent Cabal.

"The basic premise behind George W. Bush's policy towards the Middle East reflected this strong pro-Israeli bias," Shlaim opines. "The premise was that the key issue in Middle East politics was not Palestine, but Iraq." (p. 297) This is the essence of my thesis, but it is something many establishment people, including those who have been anti-war, deny ardently when they claim that the elimination of Saddam Hussein not only harmed Israeli interests by empowering Iran, but that this result was also clearly foreseen by Israelis and supporters of Israel prior to the attack on Iraq and that the government of Israel thus allegedly opposed the war. The Transparent Cabal, of course, shows that the entire neo-con war agenda in the Middle East was directed to advance Israel's security by weakening its enemies and that Israeli leaders did, in fact, promote the war on Iraq. Of course, in the United States, any claim that American Jews promote Israeli interests, no matter how well adduced, invariably elicits accusations of anti-Semitism.

"American proponents of the war on Iraq promised that action against Iraq would form part of a broader engagement with the problems of the Middle East," Shlaim notes. "The road to Jerusalem, they argued, went through Baghdad. Cutting off Saddam Hussein's support for Palestinian terrorism was, according to them, an essential first step in the quest for a settlement." (p. 297) Later, he observes: "One of the main arguments for regime change in Baghdad was to put an end to Iraqi support for Palestinian militants and for what was seen as Palestinian intransigence in the peace process with Israel." (p. 300)

As I point out in The Transparent Cabal, the neo-cons maintained that it was the removal of not only Saddam, but most "non-democratic" regimes in the Middle East, which was necessary to bring about a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian issue. However, the "peace" the neo-cons had in mind was one dictated by Israel. Elimination of the Middle Eastern "non-democratic" regimes would facilitate this development because it was just these regimes which provided moral and material support to the Palestinian resistance, portrayed by the neo-cons as "Palestinian intransigence." Without outside support, the isolated and dispirited Palestinians would ultimately be forced to accede to whatever type of peaceful solution Israel offered, which would create nothing like a viable, Palestinian state, but which would serve to remove Israel's Palestinian problem and thus help to secure the Jewish nature of the state of Israel.

"The influence of the Likud and of its friends in Washington could be detected across the entire spectrum of American policy towards the Middle East," writes Shlaim. "Particularly striking was the ideological convergence between some of the leading neo-conservatives in the Bush Administration – such as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith-and the hardliners in Ariel Sharon's inner circle." (p. 298)

I go to great lengths in The Transparent Cabal to highlight the link between the neo-cons and the hard-line Likudniks. In fact, I show that the neo-cons' very plan to reconfigure the Middle East paralleled the Likudnik goal of destabilizing and fragmenting Israel's enemies, which was best articulated by Oded Yinon in the early 1980s.

In illustrating the neo-cons' identification with Israeli interests, Shlaim underscores the significance of the neo-cons' paper, "A Clean Break" thus: "In 1996, a group of six Jewish Americans, led by Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, wrote a paper for incoming Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu. Entitled 'A Clean Break', the paper proposed, in essence, an abrupt reversal of the foreign policies of the Clinton Administration towards the Middle East." (p. 298) After mentioning the major goals of the plan, including the removal of Saddam's regime, Shlaim declares, "Thus, five years before the attack on the twin towers, the idea of regime change in Baghdad was already on the agenda of some of Israel's most fervent Republican supporters in Washington." (p. 299) Regarding the connection of that policy to actual American interests, Shlaim opines that "While the authors' devotion to Israel's interests was crystal-clear, their implicit identification of those interests with American interests was much more open to question." (p. 299) Shlaim accepts the obvious fact that the neo-cons were influential in shaping Bush policy: "The Bush Administration's entire policy towards the Middle East was similarly supportive of Israel's short-term strategic interests." (p. 299)

It should be noted here that Shlaim, in accord with what I write in The Transparent Cabal, makes three taboo points that often lead to charges of anti-Semitism if made by Gentiles, when he observes that the neo-cons are Jewish, that they are devoted to Israel and that they were influential enough to shape US Middle East policy in the interests of Israel.

Shlaim points out correctly that the neo-cons' Middle East war agenda transcended Iraq: "While Iraq was the main target, the neo-cons also advocated that America exert relentless pressure on Syria and on Iran." (p. 300) In The Transparent Cabal, I show that the neo-cons only regarded Iraq as the momentary "main target"-it was to be the first step in their plan to reconfigure the Middle East.

Shlaim refers to Israeli support for the broader neo-con Middle East war agenda, which would also benefit that country primarily, not the United States: "Washington's policy of confrontation and regime change was supported fervently in Tel Aviv. Here too the benefit to Israel is much more evident than the benefit to America, and here too the US agenda towards the region appears to incorporate a right-wing Likud agenda." (p. 300)

While fundamentally similar, Shlaim's analysis does differ with The Transparent Cabal in a few respects. For example, he depicts the noted Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis as a crucial influence on the neo-cons, maintaining that he provided "the intellectual underpinning for this policy [the neo-con plan of democratizing the Middle East by war]." (P. 299) While aware that Lewis expressed this Middle East democratization argument, I am not aware that the neo-cons actually derived this view from him. To obtain expert opinion on this issue, I contacted Paul Gottfried, probably the foremost historian of neo-conservatism, and he also was not aware of any evidence for Shlaim's claim. Since Lewis is a well-known scholar, some neo-cons undoubtedly believed that publicizing their connection to him would enhance the credibility of their democratization argument, but whether they actually derived this view from him remains to be proven.

A more significant difference between Shlaim's argument and that of The Transparent Cabal revolves around an assessment of the results of the neo-con policy. While Shlaim holds that the neo-cons were attuned to the views of the hard-line Likudniks and sought to advance what they considered to be Israel's security interests, he seems to drift away from this position in looking at the policy's results. Instead, he seems to take the neo-con rhetoric on democracy at face value and judges the results by both this standard and how the results affected Israel's security, as he (a left-wing Zionist, not a hard-line Likudnik) sees it. "The war on Iraq has not gone according to plan," Shlaim asserts. "Saddam Hussein and his henchman have been removed from power but the goals of democracy, security and stability have proved persistently elusive. Today the shadow of civil war hangs over Iraq." (p. 305)

In contrast to Shlaim's view of Israel's security, the neo-cons sought regional instability explicitly, allegedly to achieve democracy, as I show in The Transparent Cabal. And the hard-line Likudnik position was to destabilize and fragment Israel's enemies to enhance Israeli security. Similarly, the neo-cons advocated such an approach in their "Clean Break" agenda, which did not emphasize democratization. In short, from the perspective of the neo-cons and the hard-line Likudniks, both the instability and the "shadow of civil war" resulting from the US invasion of Iraq were neither surprising nor unwelcome. Thus the neo-cons' plans failed only to the extent that the US has not, or at least not yet, moved on to attack and destabilize Iran and other enemies of Israel.

It is certainly pleasing to see themes that I present emerging in the mainstream, but it is disappointing that my much longer account remains largely ignored. It would be great if books such as Shlaim's would serve to open the door to wider publicity for The Transparent Cabal, which would not simply be of personal benefit but would also provide mainstream readers with the most complete account currently existing of the neo-conservative involvement in the war on Iraq and overall US Middle East policy, and thus serve as a guide to analyzing current US policy. However, since Shlaim's theme is buried among 29 other short chapters, its impact is likely to be negligible, and the overall blackout of these crucial themes and their discussion will continue.

Stephen J. Sniegoski is the author of The Transparent Cabal and a contributor to The Passionate Attachment.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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