Last week’s fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war occasioned much debate in the British media. But the contributors to the debate conspicuously did not include the war’s principal British proponent, Tony Blair. As little inclined as ever to admit to culpability over the Iraq debacle, Britain’s former prime minister has “moved on” and is now preoccupied with a dizzying assortment of fresh projects.
One of those projects has been to resolve the Palestine-Israel conflict, though the signs are that it is already giving way to other concerns, such as combating climate change and making a start on his lucrative memoirs. Perhaps only a professional fantasist could ever have supposed that tackling a problem that has defeated so many others would require anything less than sustained personal commitment over an indefinite period of time. That Blair undertook the role of Middle East peace envoy on a part-time basis speaks for itself.
It is true that in the run-up to the war Blair insisted Britain would only support a US-led pre-emptive war on condition that it entailed an all-out effort to resolve the conflict. But, echoing the manifesto of the neoconservatives in Washington, he also intimated that simply deposing Saddam Hussein would yield a substantial peace dividend. The settling of the Palestine-Israel conflict was billed as the prize, the great byproduct of “regime change” in Baghdad and the emergence of Iraq as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East.
What is extraordinary is how Blair, along with all the other protagonists of the Iraq war, continues to be portrayed as having acted in good faith if nothing else. The mainstream Western media are little receptive to the notion that he functioned as one of the chief salesmen for an ideology-driven war whose true objective, far from being to make the Middle East a better place, was to create havoc. In the US, claims that the war was undertaken for essentially cynical reasons find no place in public discussion; they do not find much more of one in British public discussion either, for all that the media in Britain permit more open discussion of the Palestine-Israel conflict.
The British journalist, Jonathan Cook, makes a persuasive case that the chaos into which Iraq has descended was anything but an unintended consequence of the Anglo-American invasion. Yet Cook’s is a voice unfamiliar not just to the general public but even to the more educated sections of British society. A sometime staff writer for the Guardian who now lives in Nazareth, he operates, perforce, as an underground writer, publishing much of his work on the US online left-wing magazine Counterpunch: His trenchant analysis of the motives underlying the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq is deemed far too radical for mainstream consumption.
In his last book, Blood and Religion (2006), Cook argued that Israel is a pseudo-democracy whose systematic oppression of the Palestinian people was inherent in the Zionist program to establish a Greater Israel, an expanded military state where only Jewish blood and religion count. In his new book, Israel and the Clash of Civilizations, he argues that the Iraq war was as much a Zionist as an American undertaking and that it was inspired in no small degree by the US/Zionist ambition to sow discord in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It is a view of course that Cook is by no means unique in holding but few have propounded it with such cogency. Cook maintains that civil war in Iraq followed by partition was the projected upshot of the invasion, just what the pro-Israeli neoconservatives who came to shape US foreign policy under President George W. Bush wanted. He points out that while the United States has long gone in for regime change, especially in its “backyard” of Central America and the Caribbean, it has usually had in mind whom it was planning to install as its dependable “strong man”. In the case of Iraq, however, the striking thing is that it has not been impossible to identify the strong man Washington hoped would replace the old one. Indeed, the actions of the Bush administration guaranteed that no such strong man would emerge. In short, Iraq seems to be a case of “regime overthrow” rather than “regime change”, with brutal military occupation the actual goal of the invasion rather than a brief transitional phase while a new leader was installed.
Cook’s central contention is that this distinctive strategy for regime overthrow originated not in Washington but in Israel. In the early 1980s, he writes, the Jewish state’s security establishment developed ideas about dissolving other states of the Middle East with a specific view to nurturing ethnic and religious conflict. This was in effect a re-imagining of the regional power structure that existed under the Ottoman Empire — before the arrival of European colonialists and their reordering of the Middle East into nation states — but with Israel replacing Turkey as the local imperial power. The aim was to partition potentially powerful states such as Iraq and Iran between their rival ethnic and sectarian communities, thus neutralizing the threat they posed to Israel.
Not the least benefit of the ensuing chaos, it was calculated, would be that Israel became free to pursue the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from the occupied territories, and possibly from inside Israel too. That such a policy was bound to promote Islamic radicalism was seen by Zionist strategists as positively desirable, and the fact is that with the rise of Hamas in the occupied territories, Israel has succeeded in greatly increasing Western alarm about Islam as a global threat, in the process identifying the question of what to do with the Palestinians with the issue of what the West should do about Islamic extremism.
Of a piece with all this has been Israel’s assiduous cultivation of a view of itself as standing in the frontline of an epoch-making “clash of civilizations” between East and West. The message of Israel and the Clash of Civilizations is that Israel was all too well prepared to exploit the US “war on terror” to reshape the Middle East in its own interests and that the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians and that of the US occupation of Iraq have become inextricably bound up with each other.
What is certain is that the Zionist plan to remake the Middle East is no figment of Jonathan Cook’s imagination. Nor can it be doubted that, fortuitously or not, events have unfolded much as the plan envisaged. Whether Cook is right in every particular may be a matter for debate, but that he has written a challenging book is not. Nevertheless, the Western media can be expected to carry on peddling the line that the instigators of the Iraq debacle meant well, ignoring the indications that they were party to a project designed not to bring peace to the Middle East but to ensure Israel’s safety, albeit at the cost of plunging the Middle East into chaos.