Many who oppose the war on Iraq believe that U.S. support for Israel is a separate question. Israel and the Clash of Civilizations by Jonathan Cook, an independent journalist based in Nazareth, is an important contribution to the debate on Israel’s role in furthering the U.S. imperial project.
Cook unearths the dense web of cooperation between the United States and Israel on every level, from logistical military planning to shared ideological frameworks. He focuses in particular on the post–Cold War period in which both the United States and Israel sought to redefine their priorities in the Middle East. Both states were specifically concerned with replacing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein with a pro-Western regime and weakening the Islamic government in Iran. The post–9/11 “War on Terror” allowed both countries to pursue these goals in a much more aggressive and explicit manner than was possible before.
But in addition to describing the way in which Israel and the United States work together to control the Middle East, Cook seeks to analyze the nature of the relationship between the two countries. This is where he stumbles. One common view of the relationship is that Israel serves U.S. interests, and that is why the U.S. supports Israel so strongly. Another is that U.S. policy in the region serves Israeli interests, even when it contradicts U.S. interests, thanks to the power of the Israel lobby. Cook attempts to stake out a third position—that Israel attempts to shape U.S. Middle East policies and align them with Israeli interests, and is most successful when Washington is convinced that these policies are in its interests as well. In this view, sometimes genuine U.S. interests would be obscured by the selling job. Cook sees U.S. strategy in Iraq and its threats against Iran as cases in point, where Israel—and the neoconservative section of the Bush administration—have pushed Washington into adopting self-destructive policies.
He argues that the neoconservative and Israeli plan was to sow “organized chaos” in the Middle East as a means to assert control. He counterposes “regime change”—the policy of replacing defiant strongmen with compliant ones—to “regime overthrow.” In “overthrowing” a regime, an imperial power would dissolve and partition nation-states, pitting ethnic and sectarian groups against each other in an effort to justify permanent war and occupation. He details various Israeli plans going back to the 1980s for the “Ottomanization” of the Middle East—the idea that the states set up by colonial rulers in the 1920s are no longer useful and that a more desirable model is one in which the U.S. and Israel rule over a region of warring ethnic and sectarian cantons, much as the Ottomans did prior to the First World War. September 11, the theory goes, gave Israel and the neocons the opportunity to put this strategy into practice. For Cook, the result is that the United States invaded Iraq with a plan to let the country fall apart through civil war, spreading the instability and dissolution throughout the region.
There are several reasons why this analysis is wrong. First, Cook counterposes this Israel/neocon strategy to that of Big Oil and their political representatives, as if these are two distinct camps with separate interests. Second, establishing a local strongman to serve Western interests while also stoking divisions within the local population are not incompatible strategies. In Iraq, the United States has tried to do both at the same time, even if they have had a tougher time finding a reliable strongman than sowing a bloody civil war.
Third, while the neocons definitely used metaphysical rhetoric about “creative destruction” and turning the Middle East into a “cauldron,” their own imperial arrogance and racism convinced them that they would be greeted by Iraqis as liberators—that the occupation would be orderly. Stoking civil war was a conscious strategy of divide-and-rule that was intensified in 2004 after the United States began to fear the power of a united national resistance movement to force the U.S. out. While the chaos engulfing Iraq has made it difficult for the United States to achieve its aims there, sectarian violence was seen as a way for it to maintain control. The United States and other powers have used similar strategies in colonial occupations from Central America to Vietnam—in cases where there was no influence from Israel or the neocons. These strategies in the Middle East have continued even as the neocons have fallen out of favor in the last two years. Barack Obama plans to export the same techniques to Afghanistan. Ironically, Cook’s own historical sketches in other parts of the book make these very same points and contradict his larger arguments.
Most significantly, Cook’s framework obscures the nature of U.S. imperialism and its relationship with Israel. Reshaping the Middle East is crucial to the United States maintaining itself as the sole world superpower. American politicians and generals will do whatever they believe will be most effective at any given time to achieve that goal. They will use strongmen, and they will use divide-and-conquer strategies. They will “change” regimes and they will “overthrow” them. They will rely on clients and they will occupy countries directly. They will strive to maintain stability and they will try to produce instability. The consistent rule is the U.S. aim to stay the dominant capitalist power. When these policies fail, it is not because they aren’t actually in Washington’s interest, but because they face resistance from the oppressed population.
Of course, Israel has specific goals for which it seeks U.S. support, but it is successful much of the time because there is little difference between U.S. and Israeli goals. The U.S. project is about gaining and maintaining control of the region’s oil resources—the world’s most important geopolitical prize. The Israeli project is about expanding a Jewish-only state through grabbing land and establishing settlements. Both goals involve displacing, marginalizing, and disempowering the local Arab and Muslim populations. Israel and the United States work together to achieve their common goals, but there should be no doubt that the United States sets the guidelines and that Israel is dependent on U.S. support.
Activists have to be clear about this relationship in order to effectively oppose U.S. support for Israel’s crimes and Washington’s wider imperial aims. Read Cook’s book to get useful details on how closely the United States and Israel work together, but look elsewhere for analysis on the nature of their relationship.