Blaming Israel/Jews for 9/11 and Iraq

The following revisits debates from recent decades that still weigh upon American Jews and supporters of Israel, but leaves aside blatant antisemitic conspiracy theories.  How do we fairly assess the impact of the “Israel Lobby” and the neoconservatives on the al Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and on the US response — including its misadventure in Iraq? 

Even reputable mainstream academics — most prominently, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard — have blamed an ill-defined Israel lobby (seeming to discredit dovish pro-Israel groups as well) for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Mearsheimer and Walt’s main conceptual failing was in equating neoconservatives with this so-called Israel Lobby — noxiously impugning the patriotism of both, and reducing the neocons to their Jewishness (not all are Jews) and their Jewishness to a right-wing species of Zionism (also a reductionist leap).  As you will see, I don’t deny that neocon officials and public intellectuals contributed to the Iraq fiasco, but Mearsheimer and Walt elevated secondary and third-level appointees to decision makers in an administration that had no Jews of cabinet rank at the time.

Moreover, the good professors were so intent on equating neocons with pro-settler Zionists that they totally misread a reference to Paul Wolfowitz, a neocon who served as deputy secretary of defense under Donald Rumsfeld.   In a scathing Forward editorial, J.J. Goldberg, then its editor-in-chief, decried their single-minded tendentiousness, catching a glaring error in their “cherry-picking” of sources: 

In one egregious case, they attempt to prove how deeply Paul Wolfowitz is “committed to Israel” by quoting the Forward, which “once described him as ‘the most hawkishly pro-Israel voice in the Administration.’” A check of the endnotes shows that the words did appear in the Forward, but they were describing the conventional wisdom, not the Forward’s view. The article was about a pro-Israel rally where Wolfowitz was booed for defending Palestinian rights. The point was that the conventional wisdom was wrong.

What follows is a shortened, revised version of my 2017 History News Network review of “Counter Jihad: The American Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria” by Brian Glyn Williams, a professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth:

Prof. Williams begins inauspiciously by positing, in italics, that “America’s pro-Israel stance is the cornerstone and foundation of the Muslim terrorists’ deep hatred of the United States, and no understanding of anti-American terrorism can be made without understanding this crucial background.” This view is asserted more than documented, however. He eventually comes across as a moderate attempting to be fair-minded, but devotes less than 11 pages to a cursory and surprisingly under-informed recitation of Jewish history in the land of Israel, from Biblical to modern times.  

While there can be little doubt that Israel is part of the Jihadi narrative against the US and the West in general, it makes more sense to view the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq as the trigger for Al Qaeda’s enmity. Bin Laden is known to have urged the Saudi regime to depend upon his Jihadi fighters for protection against Saddam Hussein, instead of housing “infidel” Christian and Jewish servicemen in the land of Mecca and Medina (the Muslim holy land) as they massed to retake Kuwait and devastate Iraqi forces. This explains why his anti-American Jihad began well into the 1990s, rather than soon after the first Intifada began in the Gaza Strip, in Dec. 1987.

Nevertheless, Williams’ analysis of where the Bush-Cheney administration went wrong in attacking Iraq is right on the money. While debunking the administration’s effort to tie Saddam Hussein to bin Laden, he does indicate that Abu Musab Zarqawi — the Jordanian-born brute who later founded “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” the progenitor of ISIS — danced around with Saddam as an independent Jihadi, sometimes distantly allied with him in fighting Kurdish nationalists in the north, while at other times positioned against him. As for bin Laden, Zarqawi rejected his leadership more often than not.

There’s also the almost comic saga of Saddam’s non-existent WMDs, with Iraqi army generals stunned by his confession on the eve of the Bush-Cheney invasion that they were destroyed during the 1990s. Despite the faulty justification for the second US-Iraq war, and the overwhelmingly negative response in most of the world, the invasion might have emerged as a historical success if not for two bone-headed decisions made by Paul Bremer as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA):

(1) banning even low-ranking members of the Ba’ath party from state employment (effectively barring many Iraqis — but disproportionately Sunni Arabs — from regular jobs, given that party membership was a routine requirement for positions in Iraq’s heavily socialized economy) and

(2) disbanding Saddam’s army, just as key officers were offering to support the CPA — which, according to the 2007 award-winning documentary film, No End In Sight, triggered the Sunni insurgency and the ensuing bloody sectarian violence.

For good reason, Williams is unsparing in his depiction of the so-called neoconservatives, a loose clique of intellectuals and ideologues from whose ranks key staffers were appointed to the Bush administration’s Pentagon and the office of Vice President Cheney. It’s well documented that the rush to war with Iraq was rife with wishful thinking and manipulated uses of intelligence, engineered in particular by Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser. Donald Trump’s absurd 2016 campaign statement that US forces should not have left Iraq in 2011 without “taking” its oil reminded me of Wolfowitz’s irresponsible testimony to a Congressional committee during the pre-war debate when he asserted that Iraq’s oil would pay for the war.

Yet Bush’s second term was a departure from his first, with the President moving away from the unfortunate influences of Dick Cheney and the neocons. Readers should note the author’s discussion of Bush’s second-term “surge” of forces, cast by the left as an escalation of the war, but actually a policy that reduced civilian casualties.

General David Petraeus is credited with embedding small teams within populated areas, where they cultivated trust, coming to be seen as protectors against sectarian violence. He also forged an alliance with the “Sons of Iraq,” a movement of Sunni tribesmen in Anbar Province who rose up against Al Qaeda in Iraq, funding them with bundles of cash even if many had previously fought the Americans.

Yet Pres. Obama’s effort to duplicate the surge’s success in Afghanistan was less successful. The author rebuts Republican criticism of Obama, however, for not leaving a substantial residual force in Iraq. For one thing, Bush agreed to the withdrawal timetable in 2008.

Still, the author can be faulted for not mentioning the protracted 2010 electoral struggle that ended with a coalition of Shi’ites, Sunnis and secular elements led by the first post-Saddam prime minister, Ayad Allawi, being outmaneuvered by the rival slate of Shi’ite parties headed by Nouri al-Maliki, despite the former having won two more parliamentary seats. It seems apparent that if Allawi’s alliance of Shi’ite and Sunni parties had gained power, Anbar Province would not have become a bastion for ISIS.

Maliki proceeded to purge Sunnis from government, imprisoning many and even killing some, and reneging on the promise to incorporate Sons of Iraq Sunni militiamen into the national security services. His blatant pro-Shi’ite sectarianism has to be considered a key factor in the revival of Al Qaeda in Iraq, this time as ISIS, successfully portraying itself as protecting the hard-pressed Sunni population. Prime Minister al-Maliki was forced from office with the stunning victories of ISIS in 2014.