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Last month Foreign Affairs ran an article saying that Iran and Israel were engaged in mutual hostilities that could drag the United States into a war not of our choosing, and there was no mention in the article of the people who really do want the U.S. to go to war with Iran, the neoconservative branch of the Israel lobby. Last week Foreign Policy ran an article by one of those neoconservatives, saying that if the U.S. returns to its deal with a “rogue regime committed to Israel’s destruction,” Israel will likely go to war against Iran.
It ought to be terrifying that our supposed client state is escalating its attacks on Iran just as the United States is trying to reenter the Iran deal; and its friends in the U.S. are escalating the war of words. But the most you hear about this on mainstream media is Andrea Mitchell venturing to Jake Sullivan that Israel “is being unhelpful” to the United States with its attacks.
It’s as if the Iraq war and the neoconservative/Israel lobby role in pushing that invasion has disappeared down the memory hole.
That’s what makes Scott Horton’s new book such essential reading. “Enough Already” is the radio host/libertarian/antiwar.com editor’s meticulous analysis of how the U.S. “war on terrorism” has generated unending suffering in the Middle East. A million lives lost in Bush’s war on Iraq alone, as Horton said during the Israel lobby conference April 24.
And yet because some of the same well-connected actors are now pushing a war with Iran as a matter of supposed U.S. national security, they get a pass from a media that likes to say that Americans are tired of “forever wars.”
The strength of Horton’s analysis is first, exposing the roots of the Iraq war, in an entire political establishment’s signing off on a calamitous folly out of credulity in a half-baked idea of spreading democracy. And second, showing how the neoconservative vision, of the destruction of Arab capitals to realign the Middle East, only empowered Iran and put the U.S. on the side of Al Qaeda’s offspring in Syria.
I found the most damning statement in Horton’s book to be this: “Polls showed that by the time of the invasion, in March 2003, as much as 2/3 of American people believed Iraq had helped carry out the September 11 attack against our country.”
These days when everyone is talking about rightwing delusions and conspiracy theories, we really need to understand how such a lie became so repeatable by American leaders. And the neoconservative ideologues played a key role in that deception. Horton captures the vulnerability of the establishment to such a committed faction:
“The true neoconservatives have probably never counted more than 100 men and women among their ranks. But during the runup to the invasion of Iraq, they divided themselves almost perfectly into newspaper, magazine, think tank, and undersecretary positions across the national security bureaucracy.”
The neocons sought to topple the Saddam Hussein regime for years. Under Bill Clinton’s presidency, Zalmay Khalilzad and Paul Wolfowitz wrote a piece called “Overthrow Him” for the Weekly Standard. Then the next year, Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol founded the Project for a New American Century and immediately demanded regime change in Iraq, in a letter signed by Kagan and Kristol and Wolfowitz, Khalilzad, Richard Perle, Elliot Abrams, James Woolsey, and Francis Fukuyama among others.
“They succeeded in getting Congress to pass the Iraq Libertion Acti of 1998, which made it official American policy to seek regime change,” Horton relates.
The neocon logic was that toppling Saddam would strengthen Israel’s position. Neocon prodigy David Wurmser argued in 1996 that Israel’s primary foreign adversary was Hezbollah, and in order to weaken Syrian and Iranian influence, the U.S. should “focus on removing Saddam Hussein… an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right — as a mean of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.” Jordan would then take over Iraq, and “Syria would be isolated and surrounded by a new pro-western Jordanian-Israeli-Iraqi-Turkish bloc,” which would help “contain and manage.. the scope of the coming chaos in Iraq and most probably in Syria.”
Horton says charitably that Wurmser was “hallucinating.”
Wurmser, Perle and Douglas Feith made a geopolitical argument that was just as farcical in “A Clean Break: a new strategy for securing the realm,” a paper they prepared for Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996 that imagined a reordered Middle East.
While in another influential neoconservative tract, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” the Project for a New American Century in 2000 argued for a “permanent [U.S.] role in Gulf regional security.” Iraq provided the “immediate justification” for a “substantial American force presence” in the region.
Neocons bought this “bill of goods,” Horton relates, because of Israel’s presumed interest. “Israel’s interests had always been the purpose of the neoconservatives’ advocacy of American militarism.” (Horton notes that Perle was said to have been recorded by the FBI for leaking classified information to Israel (per mainstream sources) “but was never prosecuted.” While Douglas Feith was fired from NSC in 1982 “because he’d been the object of an inquiry into whether he’d provided classified material to an official of the Israeli Embassy in Washington.” (Counterpunch, 2004)).
And of course when George W. Bush assumed the presidency in 2001, his braintrust was this neoconservative gang. Wolfowitz, Perle, Wurmser, and Feith all had policymaking jobs at the Pentagon.
By November 2001 Rumsfeld was working on a plan to invade Iraq and “floating proposed excuses for it, such as showing an Iraqi link to September 11th or the anthrax attacks, or an alleged violation of international restrictions [on WMD].” Rumsfeld’s plans included a Pentagon memo to “take out seven countries in five years,” among them Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran, none of which had anything to do with 9/11 or were allied with Al Qaeda. Another conspiratorial lie was that North Korea, Iran, and Iraq were an “axis,” working with Al Qaeda to foster terrorist attacks on the U.S. “It was just nonsense… a giant bait-and-switch.”
Horton captures the majestic arrogance and brutality of the American scheme.
The government was determined to attack Iraq “and they were going to come up with whatever propaganda was necessary to get the people to allow them to do it. It did not matter that Iraq was a small, poor country that the U.S. had already been bombing for 12 years straight, which had a gross domestic product the size of northern Arkansas, possessed no navy, no air force and no ability to project power beyond its borders whatsoever,” he writes.
Saddam was a secular leader and no ally of bin Laden. But the U.S. establishment was intoxicated with a faith in the use of military power.
“The Bush government and the media’s narrative was that the lesson of September 11th is that we must start all the wars from now on ourselves. That way, no one can ever attack us because we already attacked them first. This was just an excuse for aggression.”
Horton surveys the evidence and concludes there can be no question “that they knew they were lying about Iraq’s alleged ‘threat’ to America.” High Bush national security aides, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, had stated that Saddam could be easily contained.
Horton describes the political and psychological motive for the war: Bush wanting to prove he was tougher than his father and assure his reelection. Oil also had a role, as part of a “harebrained” scheme to privatize Iraqi oil and lower prices and break Saudi Arabia’s OPEC cartel.
The media was utterly passive. Broadcast media said that the attack was the “only logical consensus of the American foreign policy community,” Horton relates, though this was not the case. Broad segments of that community opposed the war, from the left and progressives to libertarians, realists, and conservatives, not to mention millions of American demonstrators. The war was championed by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld and a chorus of neoconservative hawks in the administration and media. Those three officials had “stacked the government with the men [Bush’s father George H.W. Bush] had labeled ‘the crazies.’”
Neoconservatives and their friends dominated the Washington, D.C. think tanks, from Heritage to Hudson Institute to AEI to WINEP. In maintream media “they pushed ceaselessly for invading Iraq.” Among them: Kristol, William Safire, Danielle Pletka, Norman and John Podhoretz, Robert Kagan, David Brooks, Fred Hiatt, Reuel Marc Gerecht.
“The political right was joined in urging an attack by their counterpart liberal hawks, journalists and ‘humanitarian interventionists’ like Jeffrey Goldberg, Christopher Hitchens, Thomas L. Friedman, Matthew Yglesias, George Packer, Andrew Sullivan, Ken Pollack, Peter Beinart, Robert Kerrey, and the major networks,” Horton relates. “[Dan] Rather later complained that CBS had ‘regulatory needs’ in Washington, D.C., that he needed to consider before telling the American people the truth about the war.” While Tom Friedman has said he would do it all over again.
The broader Israel lobby also pushed for the war. AIPAC lobbied for it. Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress that Saddam had a “secret uranium enrichment program and…’if you take out Saddam…I guarantee that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region.’”
The pro-Israel argument was rarely made openly. Six months before the war, Philip Zelikow, then assistant to Susan Rice the national security advisor, said,
[T]he argument that [Bush administration aides] make over and over again is that this is about a threat to the United States. And then everybody says: ‘Show me an imminent threat from Iraq to America. Show me, why would Iraq attack America or use nuclear weapons against us?’ So I’ll tell you what I think the real threat is, and actually has been since 1990. It’s the threat against Israel. And this is the threat that dare not speak its name, because the Europeans don’t care deeply about that threat, I will tell you frankly. And the American government doesn’t want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it’s not a popular sell.
As Horton says, “Nobody told the American people this.” We were told “Iraq was going to attack us with weapons of mass destruction if we did not stop them first.”
The national security branch went along with the lie. Perle, Kenneth Adelman, James Woolsey and Jeanne Kirkpatrick along with former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Henry Kissinger led the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, which recommended attacking Iraq as early as Sept. 19, 2001.
The Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon became an “expanded Iraq desk” run by a former Perle aide and staffed by AEI and WINEP “hacks” such as Michael Ledeen as well as the hotheaded Michael Makovsky of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. The office would pick through CIA “trash” and collect tall tales from the Iraqi National Congress and “funnel the lies that led to war up the ‘stovepipe,’ straight to the White House and mainstream media in ready-made talking point format,” Horton writes.
Other neocons in power undertook efforts to “purge actual Middle East experts from their positions and replace them with loyal hawks from the think tanks.” While Feith and Wurmser helped set up a counter-terrorism group at the Pentagon that “pushed the fake story about an Iraqi official meeting with September 11th hijacker Mohammed Atta in Prague…shortly before the attack.”
It was absurd to suggest that Saddam Hussein would give unconventional weapons to Osama bin Laden. That would have been purely self-destructive. But Horton says one reliable count states that the top 7 officials of the Bush administration made 935 false statements of Iraq’s possession of banned weapons and support for al Qaeda in the year before the war.
While it is true that Iraqi intelligence had met with bin Laden’s men “a few times over the years…nothing had ever come of it, as the CIA had…repeatedly told the White House,” Horton says.
Joe Biden played an important role in enabling the Iraq war. As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden and his aide Tony Blinken “called just two days of sham hearings on the question of invading Iraq,” Horton writes. “Only hawks were permitted to testify and serious experts who could have cast doubt on the cause for war were excluded.”
Biden, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry, along with the majority of Senate Democrats “made the obviously political decision to support Bush’s war,” Horton says, while reminding us that Nancy Pelosi and the majority of Democrats in the House opposed it.
“Biden did not just support the war. He served as Bush and Cheney’s Senate gatekeeper and whip, guaranteeing a majority vote for the war in the upper chamber while controlled by the opposition party. If Biden had any moral courage at all, he could have stopped the war.”
All Biden would have had to do is bring in real experts like Scott Ritter and Anthony Zinni “to debunk the case that Iraq was stockpiling banned weapons or had programs that necessitated war,” Horton says.
Or Biden could have held up the 2002 vote authorizing the use of force.
Instead, Biden conspired with the White House to force the authorization through. He also continued to endorse the war publicly for years after that, though he has since spent the better part of a decade denying he ever did, lying that he only wanted the inspectors back in the country.”
Obviously Biden has changed, but his weakness when a strong political force was pushing war must give us all pause.
The neocons haven’t gone away. Their thinktanks continue to push for war, and they have publications to get out the word. “Dangerously obsessed doesn’t begin to describe this,” one observer of the rightwing Israel lobby writes.
The Capitol Hill riot showed that an advanced democracy is vulnerable to fake news and conspiracy theories, promoted by powerful people, in that case the White House. But the Iraq war was one of the biggest mistakes in the history of modern statecraft, creating enormous suffering and instability that has persisted for nearly 20 years. That decision was propelled by lies and false conspiracy claims—and it was approved by leading news organizations and politicians, including the current president. It is arguable that Donald Trump would never have become president, with his own regime of lies, if the imperial folly/horror of the Iraq war had not paved the way.
Joe Biden is not the only one to survive that error of judgment. There has been very little accountability at all for the Iraq war. The establishment that got us into that war is the same establishment that claims now to want to end “forever wars;” and many politicians, experts and media figures have little interest in any scrutiny of the record—with some insisting to this day that one of the biggest fabrications, the Iraq WMD argument, was made in good faith.
Scott Horton’s book is an indispensable contribution to the record of imperial madness. Its careful documentation and moral outrage are as much historical accountability as we can expect, for now.
This article was originally featured at Mondoweiss and is republished with permission.