Just before the Mourner's Kaddish is recited during Shabbat services at my synagogue, the rabbi intones the names and ages of American soldiers who were killed in Iraq the previous week. This grim ceremony often prompts a rush of anger at the American government that I haven't felt since the Nixon Administration bombed hospitals in Hanoi.
Adding to my distress is the uneasiness I experience whenever I confront the accusation that America invaded Iraq for Israel's sake--that Israel's leaders, the pro-Israel lobby, and influential Jewish "neoconservatives" conspired to push the U.S. into war. This theory is now being espoused in mainstream academia and media, most notably by Professors John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Steven Walt of Harvard University. In a controversial March 2006 paper--which was abridged for the London Review of Books--they asserted that "the [Iraq] war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel secure" and "the war was due in large part to the [Israel] Lobby's influence, especially the neoconservatives in it."
As an American Jew who cares about Israel, opposes the Iraq war, and worries that all Jews will be impugned by these accusations, I decided to conduct my own investigation to determine if defending Israel was in fact the motivating factor behind the U.S.-led invasion.
The Mearsheimer/Walt paper reinforces and provides new credibility to ideas popularized by a host of fringe figures--including radical libertarian Jason Raimondo, leftist ideologue Jeffrey Blankfort, and ex-CIA analysts Kathleen and Bill Christison--who have long claimed that Jewish fifth columnists have conspired to hijack American foreign policy in the service of Israel. This shared conspiracy theory--which is promoted on literally thousands of websites--is based in part on the fact that some officials in the Bush Administration who advocated for and helped to plan the Iraq war have ties to Israel, Likud, or pro-Likud think tanks.
In an article published a few months before the invasion, and later cited by Walt and Mearsheimer, the Christisons write that the list of these pro-Israel officials "reads like the old biblical 'begats.' Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz leads the pack. He was a protégé of Richard Perle, who heads the prominent Pentagon advisory body the Defense Policy Board....Another Perle protégé is Douglas Feith, who is currently undersecretary of defense for policy, the department's number-three man, and has worked closely with Perle...in co-authoring strategy papers for right-wing Israeli governments....At lower levels, the Israel and the Syria/Lebanon desk officers at Defense are imports from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank spun off from the pro-Israel lobby organization AIPAC."
That list is in many ways accurate.
Wolfowitz was, in fact, put in charge of planning the war by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Mearsheimer and Walt correctly point out that he is "pro-Israel," citing quotes about his commitment to the Jewish state from the Forward and Jerusalem Post and a reward he received from the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
For his part, Douglas Feith established two independent offices within the Pentagon, the Policy Counterterrorism and Evaluation Group and the Office of Special Plans, which found and then publicized questionable--to put it gently--intelligence data that linked Saddam to al-Qaeda and made the case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Mearsheimer and Walt observe correctly that Feith has written articles supporting the Israeli settlement movement.
Another important--and true--component of this theory is that prominent and influential neoconservatives (including Wolfowitz, Feith, and Perle) advocated toppling Saddam Hussein long before President Bush decided to invade Iraq.
Conspiracy theorists claim to have what Blankfort calls "a smoking gun," a document that supposedly proves the connection between Israel's interests, Israel's supporters in the Administration, and the Iraq war--the 1996 essay entitled "A Clean Break: Securing the Realm." Virtually all the websites that mention this paper assert that it was written for incoming Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu by Feith, Perle, and David Wurmser, who later worked closely with Feith as a Middle East advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney. (Feith says that while the paper was the product of separate phone conversations that Wurmser had with him, Perle, and half a dozen other people, Wurmser was its sole author.) Mearsheimer and Walt describe the essay as follows: "Among other things, it recommended that Netanyahu 'focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq--an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right.' It also called for Israel to take steps to reorder the entire Middle East."
Those who accuse the neocons of dragging the U.S. into war for Israel's sake portray "A Clean Break" as a ready-made blueprint for regime change in Iraq. In A Pretext for War, investigative reporter James Bamford calls the essay a "plan" for the war. According to this theory, with all of the Saddam-obsessed, pro-Israel neocons in high places, the stage was set for a long-dreamed-of war to oust the Iraqi dictator. The 9/11 attacks gave them the chance they had been waiting for and, Bamford writes, "they dusted off their preemptive war strategy and began putting it to use....The fact that several of the key players most aggressively pushing the war had originally outlined it for the benefit of another country raises the most troubling conflict of interest questions."
Is "A Clean Break" the smoking gun that proves the claims of the conspiracy theorists? Not really. Take a close look at it, as I did.
First, the document--published by the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (IASPS), a think tank with offices in Jerusalem and Washington--calls for Israel to reduce its dependence on the U.S. and urges Netanyahu to adapt a "new strategy...stressing that Israel is self reliant, does not need U.S. troops in any capacity to defend it...and can manage its own affairs." If the people behind this paper wanted the U.S. to fight Israel's wars, that would be an odd recommendation to make.
Second, the paper points to heavily armed Syria, not Iraq, as the principal threat to Israel. Mearsheimer and Walt wrenched the aforementioned quote about toppling Saddam Hussein out of its regional context. Here is the full quote: "Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq--an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right--as a means of foiling Syria's regional ambitions. Jordan has challenged Syria's ambitions recently by suggesting the restoration of the Hashemites in Iraq. This has triggered a Jordanian-Syrian rivalry to which [Syrian President] Assad has responded by stepping up efforts to destabilize the Hashemite kingdom [of Jordan]."
A number of steps are recommended to help Jordan win this power struggle with Syria, including making Jordan the destination for Netanyahu's first official state visit. Regime change in Iraq does come up one more time, very briefly, in this context. But to call the document a "plan" for regime change that the U.S. eventually adapted is a gross mischaracterization.
The document also calls for a rejection of the Oslo peace process and a forceful response to Palestinian terror, and recommends some limited military actions against Syria, including "striking Syrian military targets in Lebanon and, should that prove insufficient, striking at select targets in Syria proper." It does not, however, call for a full-scale war with any country.
That said, "A Clean Break" (and a longer paper which Wurmser wrote later that elaborated on these ideas) does advocate a change in the balance of power in the region through the use of military force that would, in the process, further Israel's interests. However, these ideas should in no way be surprising to anyone familiar with neocon thinking: they believed the U.S. and other democratic states should apply these principles not only to some Arab nations, but also to other governments they didn't like in the Balkans, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. It is hardly surprising that a few of them recommended the same philosophy to Netanyahu.
Wolfowitz, Feith, Wurmser, and other neoconservative Administration staffers played important roles in the Iraq war, but they were not the decision makers with the ultimate responsibility of sending American troops into battle. The most important question is: how much was Israel's security factored into the prewar calculations of the key decision makers--George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell?
In the Administration's 2001 and 2002 Iraq discussions, Feith told me, "people debated what to do about threats to U.S. interests, including regional stability in the Middle East. Saddam was discussed as a threat to the region--to Kuwait, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel....The fact that [Saddam] had fired missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel was noted. But nobody argued that the United States should go to war because it would be good for Kuwait or Israel or any one country in the region. The only justification for going to war with Saddam was that he was a danger to the United States....The president decided that the risk of making Saddam's biological or eventually nuclear weapons available to terrorists, especially after 9/11, was unacceptable."
Other Administration insiders on the scene at the time ascribe greater importance to the threat Saddam posed to Israel--but not to the level of a full-blown war on behalf of Israel. For example, in his book Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke, formerly the top anti-terrorism official on the Administration's National Security Council staff, accepts the most well-known rationales for war--terrorism and weapons of mass destruction--and adds five more, among them "improving Israel's strategic position by eliminating a large, hostile military." However, he does not rank this reason any higher than cleaning up "the mess left by the first Bush Administration" when it left Saddam in power during the first Gulf war; creating another source of oil; fashioning a model Arab democracy in Iraq; and permitting American troops to withdraw from Saudi Arabia, "where they were stationed to counter the Iraqi military and were a source of anti-Americanism."
The war-for-Israel argument would be stronger had regime change in Iraq been high on the Israeli government's agenda. It wasn't. Feith recalls that in academic conferences throughout the 1990s, top Israeli officials often took issue with neocons like him who "highlighted threats to U.S. interests from Iraq." The Israelis were much more worried about Iran. "Virtually all the Israelis, especially the officials, were opposed to the so-called 'neocon view' on Iraq," Feith told me. "So it's highly ironic for commentators now to assert that 'neocons' were adopting an Israeli line."
Indeed, a number of reports (including post-invasion analyses by Israeli Brigadier General (Ret.) Shlomo Brom and former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Dore Gold) have shown that while Saddam was a concern for Israel's security establishment, key Israeli defense officials and former officials downplayed the threat from Iraq and instead focused much more on Iran and Syria in 2002 and 2003. "Speaking in August 2002," according to Gold, "Israel's former defense minister Moshe Arens concluded that in the immediate future, 'the [missile] threat that Israel is most likely to contend with' is that of Syria. Arens described the Iraqi capability as 'relatively limited....' In an open address at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in October 2002, Major General Yaakov Amidror, the former head of analysis for Israeli Military Intelligence, explained...that since the Iraqi missile units had not conducted military exercises and lacked spare parts, the Iraqi threat to Israel was minimal."
Nonetheless, in the months leading up to the U.S.-led invasion, Sharon's government did publicly welcome the idea of toppling Saddam. And Israel supplied arms and intelligence information to the "coalition of the willing."
Tel Aviv University Professor Martin Kramer offers the best explanation I could find for this apparent paradox: "Once Israel's leaders realized that the Bush Administration was dead serious about ousting Saddam, they clambered onto the bandwagon. Israel's politicians joined the chorus, and the security establishment fell into line. Mearsheimer and Walt would seem to have it exactly wrong. It wasn't Israel that persuaded the Bush Administration of the war's necessity, but vice versa: the Administration persuaded and then enlisted Israel."
Did American Jewish interest groups play a role in prodding the U.S. to invade Iraq? Prior to the invasion, only a few Jewish groups (the American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs) voiced clear public support for unilateral military action against Iraq (some groups backed that option only as a last resort if diplomacy failed; others took no position). The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a 52-member umbrella group, never endorsed regime change.
As for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, longtime Washington reporter James Besser says that "when the Administration was making noises about invading Iraq, I talked to a number of pro-Israel lobbyists, including people from AIPAC. [They] said that while they were in favor of getting rid of Saddam, they were more concerned that a war on Iraq would make it less possible to respond to the major threat, which was Iran....I looked into the extent of direct American Jewish support for the war. Many people on the Hill told me that they were never lobbied directly by AIPAC for the war option."
Given all of the factors weighed by the Administration before it went to war, the mixed signals coming from Israel and its American supporters do not justify the sweeping conclusion of Mearsheimer and Walt that "there is little doubt that Israel and the Lobby were key factors in shaping the decision for war. Without the Lobby's efforts, the United States would have been far less likely to have gone to war in March 2003."
The question remains: did Jewish officials in the Bush Administration who made the case for the war do so because they put Israel's interests ahead of America's?
I found no evidence whatsoever that these officials were motivated mainly by concern for Israel. The most one can say is that perhaps a commitment to Israel gave these officials added impetus to do what they believed to be in America's best interests.
Consider the perspective of Karen Kwiatkowski, a recently retired army colonel who worked on the Near East and South Asia desk at the Pentagon from 2002 to 2003, and a fierce critic of both the Iraq war and the political appointments of "pro-Israel, anti-Arab" neocons to Pentagon positions. If she believed that some of her former Pentagon colleagues promoted the invasion of Iraq because of their loyalty to Israel, she would have told me so. Instead, she called that characterization "simplistic."
"I believe the get-tough and preemptive-war push is part of neoconservatism, but not particular to those neoconservatives like Doug Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, who also happen to be Jewish," Kwiatkowski said. "These folks...made their political bones as anti-communists. The so-called Islamists are seen by neoconservatives as the new communism.... Neoconservatives wish to see an 'End of Evil' in a big, loud, decisive bang. We see a kind of predisposition for violent confrontation that isn't as much based on loyalty to Israel, but on something much closer to home."
In my view, the neoconservatives with this predisposition who helped lead us into Iraq have shattered America's international credibility and made the world a much more dangerous place. They have many things to answer for. But sending American troops into the Middle East to fight and die for Israel is not one of them.
Dan Fleshler, a member of Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation in New York City, is a media and public affairs strategist and a board member of Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu.