In the early weeks of the invasion of Iraq, when the US thrust toward Baghdad appeared to be meeting more resistance than expected, an awful row broke out in Washington over the role of pro-Israel groups and individuals in dragging the country to war. Increasing media examination of the roles of key neoconservative figures associated with Likudnik groups gave rise to a backlash that sought to tar anyone who dared raise questions with anti-Semitism.
Laurence Cohen, a columnist for the Hartford Courant, rejected criticism of key Iraq hawks Richard Perle, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and others, claiming, “It took about four seconds for this clustering to stir anti-Semitic rumblings to the effect that these crafty, secretive Jews had come together in the Rose Garden to chant special prayers that transformed George W. Bush, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld into anti-Iraqi warriors, prepared to sacrifice American lives in a subtle defense of Israel.” (13 April 2003) Such claims were echoed by many pro-Israeli figures, such as Rabbi Marvin Hier, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center who claimed, “It has now become en vogue to blame the war on Iraq on Jews.” (Washington Post, 15 March 2003)
Ironically, the only times such vicious anti-Semitic caricatures appeared in the US mainstream media were when commentators like Cohen introduced them. The effect was to give the entirely false illusion that such characterizations were rampant, and to seize on a few, rare and misplaced comments about Jewish officials to silence a legitimate debate about the role of pro-Israeli activists.
Now, a new firsthand account of life in the US Defense Department shows just how pro-Israeli groups exerted their influence from within the government. Karen Kwiatkowski retired as a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force after two decades of distinguished service. Her last posting was at the Near East South Asia (NESA) directorate at the Pentagon.
In a lengthy article in the online journal Salon.com, Kwiatkowski writes, “From May 2002 until February 2003, I observed firsthand the formation of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans and watched the latter stages of the neoconservative capture of the policy-intelligence nexus in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.” The “seizure of the reins of US Middle East policy,” Kwiatkowski recounts, “was directly visible to many of us working in the Near East South Asia Policy office, and yet there seemed to be little any of us could do about it.”
All this happened under the watch of Bill Luti, the deputy secretary of defense for NESA, and went up and down the chain of command.
Some of the specific incidents Kwiatkowski recalls are illustrative: “Longtime office director Joe McMillan was reassigned to the National Defense University. The director’s job in the time of transition was to help bring the newly appointed deputy assistant secretary up to speed, ensure office continuity, act as a resource relating to regional histories and policies … Removing such a critical continuity factor was not only unusual but also seemed like willful handicapping.”
Kwiatkowski said “the expertise on Mideast policy was not only being removed, but was also being exchanged for that from various agenda-bearing think tanks, including the Middle East Media Research Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.” The main agenda of all these organizations is advocating closer US-Israel ties. She saw the “replacement of the civilian head of the Israel, Lebanon and Syria desk office with a young political appointee from the Washington Institute, David Schenker. Word was that the former experienced civilian desk officer tended to be evenhanded toward the policies of Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon of Israel, but there were complaints and he was gone.” As the personnel changed, so did the atmosphere; Kwiatkowski recalls that a “career civil servant rather unhappily advised me that if I wanted to be successful here, I’d better remember not to say anything positive about the Palestinians.”
In an official meeting at which Kwiatkowski was present, Luti openly called Marine General, former Chief of Central Command, and Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni, a “traitor” for having reservations about the march to war, and open contempt and calls for Secretary of State Colin Powell to resign were common. What she observed until her voluntary early retirement was nothing less than a full-scale assault on the intelligence and policymaking apparatus of the United States. She witnessed intelligence and careful analysis being replaced with propaganda, falsehoods and manipulation and fed to the Congress and the Executive Office of the President. This “fear peddling” was, Kwiatkowski writes, “designed to take Congress and the country into a war of executive choice, a war based on false pretenses.”
What prompted Kwiatkowski to speak out is the “swiftness of the neoconservatives casting of blame,” for the failures in Iraq, “on the intelligence community and away from themselves.” She is indignant that, “we are told by our president and neoconservative mouthpieces that our sons and daughters, husbands and wives are in Iraq fighting for freedom, for liberty, for justice and American values. This cost is not borne by the children of Wolfowitz, Perle, Rumsfeld and Cheney. Bush’s daughters do not pay this price.” Many Americans and observers in the Middle East hope that if Bush is defeated in the November election, it will lead to a reversal of course in US policy. But realistically, a President John Kerry would not pressure Israel any more than Bill Clinton did, and in the post-September 11, 2001, environment, probably less. And Kerry, despite his misgivings about the Iraq war, talks of staying until the “job is done.”
But that doesn’t mean there is no difference between Kerry and Bush. Hussein Ibish, communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee explains that, “under President Kerry, the neoconservative influence on US foreign policy would almost certainly be greatly diminished for the simple reason that almost all the prominent neoconservatives have aligned themselves with the Republican Party.”
US policy would likely revert to what it was under Clinton, with some adjustments for the post-September 11 environment. But in the current circumstances, restoring the professional policymaking and intelligence apparatus of the US would be a huge improvement. Above all, it would neutralize the forces that are quietly still pushing for a march from Baghdad to Damascus in a second Bush term.
Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada. This article first appeared in The Daily Star.