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Neocon Perfidy

Jonathan Cook, Israel and the Clash of Civilisations (London: Pluto Press, 2008)


Reviewed by Stephen J. Sniegoski




In May 2009 the Justice Department announced that it was dropping its case against Steve Rosen (below) and Keith Weissman, two former staffers of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), who had been indicted in 2005 for espionage. In its analysis of the Justice Department announcement, the Wall Street Journal opined that

This prosecution needs to be understood in the context in [sic] the aftermath of the Iraq invasion and the swirl of conspiracy theories about "neocon" influence over U.S. policy. In this bizarro reading of events, President Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and Condoleeza Rice chose to invade Iraq due to the influence of Jewish officials such as Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, Scooter Libby, and Richard Perle. One sign of those times: In the immediate aftermath of Mr. Franklin's arrest, CBS's Lesley Stahl asked whether "Israel [used] the analyst to try to influence U.S. policy in the war in Iraq?" In other words, the AIPAC case resembled a political hit more than a legitimate "espionage" case.

Missing from the Wall Street Journal's analysis was any consideration of how Defense Department analyst Larry Franklin could go to prison for passing government secrets to Mssrs. Rosen and Weissman, but how Rosen and Weissman could get off scot free for receiving them. Missing from the Journal's report, in other words, was any honest analysis of the clout of the Israel Lobby in American politics.

Representatives of the two parties try to outdo themselves in their praise for America's allegedly most trustworthy and morally pure ally in the Middle East, deserving of unqualified American support against the forces of Islamic evil. But what is the reality of the Israeli-American relationship? Israel and the Clash of Civilisations takes a critical look at America's and Israel's plan to remake the Middle East, bringing out the sordid and destructive impact of this endeavor.

The book's author, Jonathan Cook, is a British freelance journalist based in Arab city of Nazareth, Israel, who covers developments in the Middle East and is especially noteworthy for his courage to report on the dark side of Israeli policy. In this work, Cook deals with the taboo topic of the close connection between the neoconservatives and the state of Israel. In the land of the free, a focus on this subject is certain to bring on the most lethal smear of "anti-Semitism" and cause all respectable folks to run for cover so as to avoid being tarred by the same deadly brush. Cook, however, dauntlessly points out that the neocons were the driving force for American Middle East policy and that the aim was to the destabilize and fragment Israel's enemies in order to enhance the Jewish state's security—obviously, the weaker ones enemies the better. Cook brings out how this was a geostrategic policy that had a long history in Israel, especially among the Israeli Right. Cook makes reference to the policy paper by Oded Yinon in the early 1980s, which best articulates this fragmentation strategy, and, of course, is never mentioned by the American mainstream media.

Steve RosenThe occupied territories have served as a laboratory for Israel to test the dissolution strategy. It was obvious that the most effective way to control the Palestinians was to keep them factionalized and fighting each other. Israel facilitated this development by supporting the Islamicist Hamas when the secular nationalist PLO was dominant, and then switching to backing the PLO when Hamas had achieved superiority. Moreover, the dissolution of Israel's external enemies was inextricably related to the perceived Palestinian demographic threat to the Jewish state, and the Israeli need to counter this. Cook writes that "Remaking the Middle East by dissolving the main Arab and Muslim states would ensure not only Israel's domination of the region but Israel's unchallenged right to continue the creeping process of ethnic cleansing of the occupied Palestinian territories." (p. 115)

Although the neocons essentially adopted the geostrategy of the Israeli Right, Cook contends that the neocons were not merely agents or tools of Israel but rather that the relationship between the neocons and Israel was dynamic in nature. "Israel did not simply sell a vision to the neocons and then seek its implementation," Cook writes. "The neocons were persuaded of the basic Israeli strategy for dominating the Middle East (and that it was in both parties' interests), and then set about devising their own policies to realise these goals. It is quite possible, on this reading, that at times Israel found itself being dictated to by the neocons, or pushed to deliver on promises it struggled in practice to attain." (p. 93)

Undoubtedly, the neocons did not simply parrot the position of the government in power in Israel but rather had their own particular policy to enhance Israeli security. Sometimes their policies were more extreme and riskier than the governments in Israel, even right-of-center governments, were willing to implement. For example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refrained from carrying out the militant strategy proposed by the neocons in their "Clean Break" agenda presented to him in 1996, which called for Israel to take militant steps to destabilize its Middle East enemies. (Of course, the neocons were able to persuade the Bush administration to carry out a very similar policy in attacking Iraq in 2003). Furthermore, in launching the attack on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert refrained from taking the drastic measures that the neocons hoped would bring Syria and Iran into the fray and thus provide a casus belli for the United States to enter the conflict on the side of Israel.

While Cook appears very perceptive in describing the neocon/Israel policy, it is less clear that he fully understands the neocons' motives—an understandable weakness since his expertise is on the Middle East rather than on the neoconservatives. (As noted by the title, the focus of the book is on Israeli policy rather than a detailed account of the neocons.) While Cook definitely points out the neocons' pro-Israel orientation, he implies that the neocons were also truly concerned about the United States (more accurately, the American empire)—that they had "good reason" to believe that the fragmentation of Israel's Middle East enemies would be beneficial to the US. (p. 121) In fact, sometimes Cook makes it appear that for the neocons Israel was simply the instrument to advance American imperial interests. "The Middle East, with its huge oil wealth, was at the heart of their designs, and Israel—as Washington's closest ally in the region—was, in their view, the key to American success." (p. 25) But Cook provides very questionable evidence to substantiate this claim. First, he maintains that by taking over Iraq and Iran the United States and its Western allies would gain access to cheap oil. But there was actually no good reason for such a belief. Experts predicted just the opposite for Iraq, with the likelihood of a high degree of chaos prevailing that would stifle oil production. It is quite understandable that oil companies would see no value in investing in a destabilized region where there was a high likelihood that their investment would be destroyed. Prior to 9/11, the representatives from the oil companies were generally pushing for an end of sanctions against Iran and Iraq. The most reasonable answer why the neocon vision of cheap oil was not generally accepted by those with expertise on the matter was that it appeared untrue, which turned out to be the case.

The idea that attacking Iran would somehow bring cheap oil has not been expressed by the neocons. For regarding Iran, the focus is on a bombing campaign not a land force occupation. And the general belief in America is that such a conflagration would cause oil prices to spike due to Iran's likely ability to close down the vital Straits of Hormuz water passage for oil tankers. Even some neocons—such as Norman Podhoretz and Charles Krauthammer—have acknowledged that an American bombing attack would lead to significant oil price rises but claim that the grave Iranian threat to the US justifies the risk.

Cook also claims that the Middle East policy was directed toward control of China. Cook implies that the dominant groups in the administration had given up the goal of integrating nations of the world in a "rule-based" liberal capitalist order. But it is not apparent that corporate interests had given up their belief in global capitalism, and American imports from China continued to climb. Moreover, it was not clear how the US would gain "direct control" over these oil fields of the Middle East so as to reduce or eliminate oil exports to America's enemies such as China. Control of Middle Eastern oil for American global strategic interests would be a long-term operation and would presuppose a permanent American occupation, making the American-controlled Iraq resemble the World War II-era Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo or Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. No lesser control would suffice, since there could be no guarantee that even a friendly semi-independent Iraqi government would pursue an oil policy that would sacrifice its own economic well-being for American global strategy. Such an extended occupation would require extensive planning and involve colossal expense. There is no evidence that before the war the Bush Administration ever considered the requisite long-term occupation, much less planned for it. As it is, instead of advancing any type of strategy of global hegemony, the fact that the American military has been bogged down in the Middle East makes it less able to intervene in other strategic areas or even threaten such intervention, a situation brought out by various military and national security experts.

This reviewer, whose expertise is just the reverse of Cook's—more on the neocons than on Israeli policy—believes that the evidence clearly shows that the lodestar of neoconservative Middle East policy was Israeli security, or, better stated, the neocons' view of Israeli security. Quite obviously, neoconservatism emerged in the early 1970s to enhance perceived Jewish interests—the very flagship of the neocon movement during its first decades being Commentary magazine, which pronounced as its mission: "To safeguard the welfare and security of Jews in the United States, in Israel, and throughout the world." As Murray Friedman notes in The Neoconservative Revolution: Jewish Intellectuals and the Shaping of Public Policy, "A central element in [Norman] Podhoretz's evolving views [in the early 1970s], which would soon become his and many of the neocons' governing principle was the question, 'Is It Good for the Jews,' the title of a February 1972 Commentary piece." (Friedman, p. 147) A cursory analysis of the neocons' backgrounds shows their close identification with Israel. It is not apparent that they would better understand how to facilitate American access and control of Middle East oil than James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, representatives of the oil companies, and other members of the traditional foreign policy establishment who rejected the neocons' nostrums. It is obviously apparent is that what distinguishes the neocons from the aforementioned groups and individuals is their close identification with Israel. In short, neocons supported Israel because they truly want to enhance Israel's interests, as they perceive those interests. This is not to say that the neocons were consciously disloyal to the US but rather that they saw American interests through the lens of Israeli security—what was good for Israel was, ipso facto, considered to be good for the United States. One can understand how someone who is not an American and does not reside in America could find it hard to believe that a small group devoted to a foreign country could set American foreign policy in a strategic part of the globe. Undoubtedly, this is something that one must see in practice to believe. (The continual profession of all-out support for Israel by the 2008 presidential candidates should help to make this view understandable.)

Despite these caveats about the motivations for the neocons' policy prescriptions, it should be emphasized that the bulk of the book deals with Israeli policy and that it is in this area that Cook especially shines. For example, Cook points out that Israel's strike on Lebanon was more than simply retaliation for the abduction of its soldiers. Plans for an invasion were already in the offing, the kidnapping serving only as a "triggering" event. Hezbullah formed a strong deterrent to Israel's ability to invade and dominate Lebanon, and Israel hoped to eliminate that impediment. And if Israel had been successful in eradicating Hezbullah, it would have attacked Syria. However, Cook maintains, Hezbullah's ability to fire numerous rockets into northern Israel sapped Israel's morale and thus prevented the war's expansion. Interestingly, Cook maintains that, contrary to the Western media's portrayal, Hezbullah's rockets were aimed at military targets instead of being an indiscriminate attack on civilians, and many actually did hit their targets.

All and all, Cook has provided an excellent, informative work countering the half-truths and total distortions of the American mainstream media. He does not profess to discern the ultimate outcome of the militant American-Israel policy in the Middle East, but he recognizes that it will not be the idyllic democratic world depicted by its advocates. "The only certainty," writes Cook, "was that, if the West carried out with its 'war on terror,' there would be no victory—only 'war without end.'" (p. 149) Obviously, such an outcome would be horrendous for the United States and for the world in general, but a "war without end" among fragmented Arab/Islamic states with the United States intimately involved is exactly what the Israeli Right, and most likely the neoconservatives, actually seek. And it is only by revealing and publicizing this tabooed truth that the looming catastrophe can be avoided.CW

This review was published in the June 2009 issue of Culture Wars.

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