Chronologically-challenged Professor Walt


In the past, I’ve demolished Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s claim that Israel and its friends drove the United States to war with Iraq. I did it when they published their article, and did it again when they published their book, The Israel Lobby. It’s a conspiracy theory, pure and simple. And because Walt is a conspiracy theorist, he does what they all do: he rips evidence out of context. Here’s his latest grasp at a straw: his claim that Tony Blair has “revealed” that “Israel officials were involved in those discussions” on Iraq held between Blair and George Bush in Crawford, Texas in April 2002. Walt brings as evidence this quote from Blair’s testimony to the U.K. (Chilcot) inquiry investigating the Iraq war:

As I recall that discussion, it was less to do with specifics about what we were going to do on Iraq or, indeed, the Middle East, because the Israel issue was a big, big issue at the time. I think, in fact, I remember, actually, there may have been conversations that we had even with Israelis, the two of us, whilst we were there. So that was a major part of all this.

Walt’s conclusion: “Blair is acknowledging that concerns about Israel were part of the equation, and that the Israeli government was being actively consulted in the planning for the war.” Walt goes on to declare that “more evidence of their influence [of Israel and the Israel lobby] on the decision for war will leak out,” and that “Blair’s testimony is evidence of that process at work.”

When people who don’t know much about the Middle East, like Stephen Walt, pose as experts, they make basic mistakes of chronology. So let me remind him of exactly what coincided with the Crawford meeting of April 6-7, 2002.

Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank on March 29. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon ordered the operation in response to a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings. Its objective was the reoccupation of West Bank cities, dismantling the infrastructure of terror, and laying siege to Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah HQ. On April 2, Israeli forces battled their way into Bethlehem and secured Jenin city, and on April 3, they began to clear out the Jenin refugee camp. When Bush and Blair sat down in Crawford, Israel was laying siege to terrorists holed up in the Church of the Nativity, and the Battle of Jenin was in full swing. The Arab propaganda mills exploited the fog of war to make the operation seem like Sabra and Shatila redux, replete with massacres and mass graves. Arab leaders bombarded Bush and Blair with demands for action to stop Israel.

Bush succumbed to the mounting pressure, and on April 4 told Sharon to pull Israeli forces out of West Bank cities. On April 6, the first day of the Crawford meeting, Bush sharpened that message in a press conference with Blair, calling on Israel to withdraw “without delay.” He said the same in a 20-minute phone call to Sharon that very day. It was the lowest point in Israeli-American relations during the Bush years, and a crisis of massive proportions. Here is the chronology.

So Blair was right to recall that at Crawford, “the Israel issue was a big, big issue,” and that there were conversations with the Israelis. But these weren’t “active consulting” over plans for the Iraq war (and nothing in Blair’s testimony suggests they were). They were urgent negotiations about an ongoing war in the West Bank, and consisted of full-court pressure on Israel to end it. That Walt doesn’t say so—that “April 2002″ doesn’t immediately trigger a mention of the historical context—is evidence either of ignorance or deception. Take your pick. (Illustration: New York Times front pages from April 6-8, 2002, the Crawford weekend.)

And while we’re on straws, Walt grasped at another one which left me smiling. Walt:

Consider that former President Bill Clinton told an audience at an Aspen Institute meeting in 2006 that “every Israeli politician I knew” (and he knows a lot of them) believed that Saddam Hussein was so great a threat that he should be removed even if he did not have WMD.

I never trust Walt to represent a source accurately (see past example), so I checked it. The quote was reported by James Bennet, who puts it in context:

[Clinton] segued into a discussion of Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman’s position in favor of going to war, noting how it squared with the view of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others that Saddam Hussein was such a menace he should be removed regardless of whether he had WMD. Then, out of the blue, came this: “That was also the position of every Israeli politician I knew, by the way.”

So Clinton attributed the idea that Saddam should be removed regardless of WMD to Cheney, Rumsfeld, Lieberman, and “others”—all of the usual suspects—and only then to Israeli leaders, “by the way.” As far as Walt’s thesis, this proves… well, what does it prove, Professor Walt? The amusing sequel comes when Bennet notes that even “I knew some Israeli politicians with doubts about the war,” and then relays this explanation:

One longtime and acute observer of Clinton, whom I won’t name here, suggested to me that, as is his tendency, Clinton was looking to please people he spotted in the crowd before him—in this case, seated in the front rows, several representatives of Arab nations, including Queen Noor of Jordan.

So Clinton wasn’t just speaking to “an audience” in Aspen. He had Queen Noor in the front row! Could Bill Clinton have been pandering? Naw, couldn’t be.

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