U.S. & Israel: Dog Wags Tail Wags Dog

Allen Ruff

Israel and the Clash of Civilizations
Iraq, Iran, and the Plan to Remake the Middle East
by Jonathan Cook
London & Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2008, 204 pages, $24.95 paper.

A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT of ink and energy has been expended interpreting the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel. The debate over Israel’s influence on U.S. Middle East policy has engaged critics across the political and ideological spectrum. While some have long questioned the reasons for the unparalleled U.S. military and economic support bestowed on the “Jewish state,” the debates over Israel’s influence on U.S. foreign policy have increased dramatically in the wake of Bush administration military responses to September 11th.

The invasion of Iraq especially, but also Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon and more recently the increasing escalation of war talk aimed at Iran, have added to the wide-ranging debates over Israel’s Washington clout.

Often overly deterministic, conspiratorial and at times downright vulgar, much of that recent discussion has focussed on the sway of the “neocons,” that clique of Israel allied imperial war hawks that ascended to power with the presidency of George W. Bush.

Ranging from the reactionary right which has always blamed some sinister cabal of disloyal Jews for leading the country astray, the “Israel debate” has included those of the center and left who have narrowly focused on the impact and power of the “Israel lobby,” convinced that the “Israeli tail wags the American dog.” At the opposite end have been those such as Noam Chomsky, who assert that an imperial United States ultimately calls the shots and that Israel essentially does its bidding as the obedient and indebted client and dependent.

Nazareth-based Jonathan Cook, long-time Middle East correspondent for the London Guardian and Observer, has entered this often acrimonious fray with his Israel and the Clash of Civilizations. Taking issue on one hand with those, like Harvard academics Mearsheimer and Walt, who have explained Israeli sway by primarily focusing on the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), but also critical of those observers such as Chomsky who minimize the effect of Israel’s influence on U.S. policy, Cook has developed a somewhat more nuanced portrayal of the historic and contemporary symbiosis between the imperial power and its junior partner.

Cook does not minimize Israeli influence. While noting that a mutuality of interest has long existed within U.S. and Israeli ruling circles, he argues that the shared perspective between the ascendant neocons and the Israeli right has altered the strategic focus and modus operandi of U.S. operations in the region. He contends that the initial impetus for such a shift in goals and tactics came from the Israeli side, and that the Bush administration adopted an Israeli outlook developed over several decades.

In what way has U.S. policy for the region changed? First off, Cook tells us that the long-term guiding principle of U.S. imperial policy — the quest for social and political stability of compliant regimes, that prerequisite for safe investment and business opportunity — has been altered.

From Stability to Designed Chaos

For over a century if not earlier, U.S. strategists opted for “regime change,” the replacement of one ruling clique or “strong man” with another whenever and wherever national leaders or ruling parties denied free and open access to the “national interest” of capital or impeded broader U.S. geopolitical designs. Thus noncompliant and independent nationalist leaders were replaced with obedient clients around the globe, and especially in the Middle East — in Iran in 1953, Lebanon in 1958, Iraq in the same period and after, and elsewhere.

Cook tells us that this game has changed;  “regime change,” the replacement of leadership at the top, has been displaced by “regime ovethrow,” a chaotic situation of premeditated instability characterized by intercommunal and confessional sectarianism, ethnic, tribal and religious rivalry, partition and fragmentation, and resultant “all against all” civil war and violence as the counter to any secular nationalist project.

He contends that this reign of permanent reaction over the divided and conquered, a seemingly new guiding strategic principle of imperial rule forwarded by the Neocons, originated with the Israelis dating back to the 1980s.

Cook argues that the Israeli strategists early on came to understand how the destabilization of any and all Arab national projects, especially that of the Palestinians, would serve its strategic interests. Initially viewing secular Arab nationalism as the primary enemy but unable to foresee the eventual “blowback” that would occur, Tel Aviv’s tacticians aided and abetted the rise of inter-communal rivalries among the Palestinians with the early assistance to Hamas.

In Lebanon, Israel’s successive invasions and support for the Maronite Christians and their allies succeeded in neutralizing any possibility of a threat from the north (before the rise of Hezbollah, the direct result of Israeli aggression and occupation, that is.) The fragmentation and cantonization of the West Bank, Cook tells us, became the model for the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Regarding Iraq, Cook asserts that civil war was not the terrible unforeseen consequence of the U.S. invasion but the intended outcome of the neocon strategy, its intent. The primary goal has been to dissolve the states in the Middle East through the encouragement of ethnic and religious discord.

With Iraq dismantled, the administration leveled its sights on Iran. The development of an Iranian nuclear capacity would shatter the regional monopoly held by Israel. A nuclear deterrent in Tehran, totally unacceptable in Tel Aviv, would radically alter the correlation of forces in the Middle East and that, more than any other factor, has led to the ratcheting up of the “war on terror” rhetoric.

Convergence, Not Hijacking

Avoiding the vulgar argument that Israel and its supporters basically “hijacked” U.S. foreign policy, Cook contends that Israel persuaded the neocons that their respective goals (Israel regional dominance and U.S. control of oil) were related and compatible.

Cautious in laying out his argument, he notes, first off, that “the relations between the neocons and Israel have always been dynamic; Israel did not simply sell a vision to the neocons and then seek its implementation.” Rather, 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 realize these goals.” (93)

He suggests that Israel, at times, found itself being dictated to by the neocons, or pushed to deliver on promises it struggled in practice to attain, such as during the summer, 2006 invasion of Lebanon.

The best part of Cook’s analysis centers on the evolution of the shared mutuality of concerns and interests between the United States and Israel that extends back long before the rise of the neocons. He also suggests, as does Chomsky, that those interests tend to diverge on occasion and that that difference in outlook has pitted different factions of the national security state against one another.

For example, Cook argues that the neocon war in the Middle East has not been waged merely to seize and assure control over the region’s oil, but to weaken the power of OPEC and its major player, the Saudis, long viewed by the neocons and their Israeli allies as a key adversary and supporter of anti-Zionist militants.

But there are also powerful players in Washington, New York and London who view Saudi stability and petrodollar investment in the West as vital to the overall well-being of global capital. And therein lays a key source of contention and opposition to the neocon project.

At some level, Cook’s argument regarding “regime overthrow” is provocative and certainly provides for some informed speculation regarding a number of recent events across the Middle East. What really was going on behind the scenes in Iraq during the most intense period of inter-communal Sunni-Shiite violence of 2006-2007, for example?

At the same time, one cannot help to think his vision is that of the journalist, rather than that of the historian. After all, “divide and conquer” is as old as empire. The Romans understood “regime change,” the replacement of non-compliant client rulers with those more subservient when possible. It never hesitated to play one tribe or nation off against another, setting them at each others’ throats when necessary.

The European imperial powers of the modern era also understood such basic principles of colonial rule. So have those practitioners of U.S. realpoltik, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, not exactly neocons, who have long been proponents of the “stability of instability.”

Regardless, Cook’s book is certainly worthwhile and should be read by all those seeking some deeper understanding of the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel, especially as the imperial power plods ahead in its quest for strategic control of the Middle East and beyond.

ATC 138, January-February 2009.