February 27, 2006
As Iraq spirals deeper into chaos and perhaps civil war in the wake of the attack on the Golden Mosque, critics of the US-led invasion and occupation will no doubt refocus attention on the role of Israel in the march to war and the conduct of the occupation.
The Israeli role in Iraq has in fact been one of the open secrets of the US presence in Iraq, but the anger that details surrounding it would generate has made it very hard to determine its scope and extent.
This has led many Iraqis to imagine Israel as an omnipotent force pulling the strings of the United States to ensure that Iraq, previously one of Israel's most dangerous enemies, can never regain its former military and economic power. Even some experienced journalists have taken to blaming Israel for much that goes wrong in the country.
For example, a senior German reporter pulled this correspondent aside at Baghdad airport and confided that a new and top-secret Israeli "nuclear or radiation weapon" was responsible for reports of melted or liquefied Iraqi bodies. The actual culprit turned out to be white phosphorus, a weapon similar in effect to napalm, that US commanders recently admitted having deployed.
Some things are not in dispute, however. It is clear that US Special Forces trained in Israel to prepare for the kind of "Arab urban warfare" that Israel has extensive experience waging in the Occupied Territories. And evidence from Abu Ghraib and other detention centers reveals that the US has used many of the same coercive interrogation techniques deployed by Israel on Palestinian prisoners, much to the dismay of Israeli, Palestinian and international human-rights organizations.
More controversial than evidence of shared military and interrogation tactics has been the argument, widespread among critics of the invasion, that a coterie of neo-conservatives at the heart of the US administration planned the invasion in consultation with the Israeli government, and with the express goal of strengthening the position of the Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians and its remaining Arab antagonists.
Dubbed the "Likudization" of US foreign policy by several commentators, this line of argument claims that the power of the White House has, in essence, been hijacked by the Israeli government to further its parochial ends in the region.
Such an argument, however, betrays a serious misunderstanding of the US-Israeli relationship and, more important, of US goals in Iraq and the Middle East more broadly. It assumes that Israel and its supporters in the United States actually have the power to shape US policies in ways that are not in the interests of the US policymaking establishment. But this is nonsense.
The United States supports Israel not because of "shared values" and "democracy", but rather because for four decades Israel's actions - particularly those that ostensibly harm the chances for peace - have served US goals in the Middle East.
Specifically, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and the larger regional tensions it helps perpetuate are the linchpin of a regional system characterized by continual but manageable levels of conflict, the moderately high oil prices and disproportionate levels of defense spending such hostilities generate (and the unprecedented profits to US oil and defense companies these involve), and a host of authoritarian and corrupt regimes whose grip on power depends on the very system President George W Bush has pledged, but for good reason done little, to transform.
Understanding this dynamic is vital to appreciating the rationales behind a set of US policies in Iraq that at almost every turn have seemed to be characterized by strategic shortsightedness and sometimes outright incompetence. Such criticisms make sense only if we assume that the US has actually sought to create a vibrant, democratic Iraq. If we assume that its true goals have been less philanthropic - for example, securing a long-term if reduced military presence in the country and a strong degree of influence in the disposition of its oil resources - then the chaos, corruption and violence that have plagued the country for the past three years make more sense.
As a senior intelligence aid to former Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L Paul Bremer explained to a colleague of mine when asked about why US forces failed to rebuild in years what it took Saddam Hussein to do in months after the first Gulf War in 1981, "There's an old Arab proverb: If you starve a dog he'll follow you anywhere."
In other words, why bother fixing a country when your strategy is to break the will of its people so they accept a post-occupation system, tailored to US interests, that they would otherwise not tolerate? Indeed, with Bush on record saying that the United States would leave Iraq if asked to do so, a primary consideration of US strategy has had to be making sure that the Shi'ites and Kurds never felt comfortable enough to pop the question.
And it is here that the close relationship between the US and Israel comes back into play. The US is not doing Israel's bidding in Iraq, but it has clearly followed Israel's strategy for quelling the latest Palestinian uprising in managing its occupation. And so when my colleague responded to the intelligence official's proverb by suggesting that the policy he described mirrored Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, he answered, "Of course," as if the Israeli paradigm of rule in the Occupied Territories was a natural model for the US occupation of Iraq.
What is this paradigm exactly? As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon explained in a recent New Yorker interview with Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, it involves bringing the Palestinians to the point of political chaos and then luring them into a deal that would "give them only the minimum necessary", while ensuring continued Israeli military and economic control over the West Bank.
For almost three years, the Israeli-inspired US strategy for managing its occupation of Iraq has, albeit at a high price, allowed the Bush administration to imagine that Iraqis would gradually be worn down from the violence, corruption and lack of development and accept a long-term US presence in their country. Indeed, in late February a military intelligence analyst about to return to the country confidently assured this correspondent that Sunni leaders were no longer demanding a complete US withdrawal as a precondition for ending the insurgency.
But Hamas' landslide electoral victory in January should have warned him of the power of the "law of unintended consequences" when it comes to Middle Eastern politics. This law has now come home to roost in Iraq, in spades. If the US thought that by generating enough chaos in Iraq it could dig itself in so deeply that Iraqis would eventually stop trying to push it out, the attack on the Golden Mosque reminds us that the wages of chaos are steep indeed. The Bush administration's Israeli-inspired application of chaos theory in Iraq could well wind up spelling the end not just of a united Iraq, but of the Bush administration's imperial ambitions as well.
Unless, of course, splitting up Iraq has been the long-range goal all along, as some administration critics have argued since the buildup to the invasion.
Perhaps the most frightening idea is that Iraq is going exactly as Vice President Dick Cheney, former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and the rest of the hardcore neo-realpoliticians hoped it would. While such a scenario is indeed hard to imagine, one thing is for sure: the worse things get, the more money the oil, defense and heavy-industry companies, whose profits have soared thanks to the violence, will grow.
Iraq might take down Bush, but in the process it will make ExxonMobil, Halliburton and others richer than ever.
Mark LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic studies, University of California-Irvine, and author of Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld, 2005).
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