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February 10, 2007

Helping Israel Die


by Ray McGovern

President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are unwittingly playing Dr. Jack Kevorkian in helping the state of Israel commit suicide. For this is the inevitable consequence of the planned air and missile attack on Iran. The pockmarked, littered landscape in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan and the endless applicant queues at al-Qaeda and other terrorist recruiting stations testify eloquently to the unintended consequences of myopic policymakers in Washington and Tel Aviv.

Mesmerized. Sadly, this is the best word to describe those of us awake to the inexorable march of folly to war with Iran and the growing danger to Israel's security, especially over the medium and long term. An American and/or Israeli attack on Iran will let slip the dogs of war. Those dogs never went to obedience school. They will not be denied their chance to bite, and Israel's arsenal of nuclear weapons will be powerless to muzzle them.

In my view, not since 1948 has the very existence of Israel hung so much in the balance. Can Bush/Cheney and the Israeli leaders not see it? Pity that no one seems to have read our first president's warning on the noxious effects of entangling alliances. The supreme irony is that in their fervor to help, as well as use, Israel, Bush and Cheney seem blissfully unaware that they are leading it down a garden path and off a cliff.

Provoke and Preempt

Whether it is putting the kibosh on direct talks with Iran or between Israel and Syria, the influence and motives of the vice president are more transparent than those of Bush. Sure, Cheney told CNN's Wolf Blitzer recently that the administration's Iraq policy would be "an enormous success story," but do not believe those who dismiss Cheney as "delusional." He and his neoconservative friends are crazy like a fox. They have been pushing for confrontation with Iran for many years, and saw the invasion of Iraq in that context. Alluding to recent U.S. military moves, Robert Dreyfuss rightly describes the neocons as "crossing their fingers in the hope that Iran will respond provocatively, making what is now a low-grade cold war inexorably heat up."

But what about the president? How to explain his fixation with fixing Iran's wagon? Cheney's influence over Bush has been shown to be considerable ever since the one-man search committee for the 2000 vice presidential candidate picked Cheney. The vice president can play Bush like a violin. But what strings is he using here? Where is the resonance?

Experience has shown the president to be an impressionable sort with a roulette penchant for putting great premium on initial impressions and latching onto people believed to be kindred souls – be it Russian President Vladimir Putin (trust at first sight), hail-fellow-well-met CIA director George Tenet or oozing-testosterone-from-every-pore former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Of particular concern was his relationship with Sharon. Retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, a master of discretion with the media, saw fit to tell London's Financial Times two and a half years ago that Sharon had Bush "mesmerized" and "wrapped around his little finger."

As chair of the prestigious President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under George W. Bush and national security adviser to his father, Scowcroft was uniquely positioned to know – and to draw comparisons. He was summarily fired after making the comments about Sharon and is now persona non grata at the White House.

Compassion Deficit Disorder

George W. Bush first met Sharon in 1998, when the Texas governor was taken on a tour of the Middle East by Matthew Brooks, then executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Sharon was foreign minister and took Bush on a helicopter tour over the Israeli occupied territories. An Aug. 3, 2006 McClatchy wire story by Ron Hutcheson quotes Matthew Brooks:

"If there's a starting point for George W. Bush's attachment to Israel, it's the day in late 1998, when he stood on a hilltop where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and, with eyes brimming with tears, read aloud from his favorite hymn, 'Amazing Grace.' He was very emotional. It was a tear-filled experience. He brought Israel back home with him in his heart. I think he came away profoundly moved."

Bush made gratuitous but revealing reference to that trip at the first meeting of his National Security Council (NSC) on Jan. 30, 2001. After announcing he would abandon the decades-long role of honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians and would tilt pronouncedly toward Israel, Bush said he would let Sharon resolve the dispute however he saw fit. At that point he brought up his trip to Israel with the Republican Jewish Coalition and the flight over Palestinian camps, but there was no sense of concern for the lot of the Palestinians. In A Pretext for War James Bamford quotes Bush: "Looked real bad down there," he said with a frown. Then he said it was time to end America's efforts in the region. "I don't see much we can do over there at this point," he said.

So much for the Sermon on the Mount. The version I read puts a premium on actively working for justice. There is no suggestion that tears suffice.

Then-Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill, who was at the NSC meeting, reported that Colin Powell, the newly-minted but nominal secretary of state, was taken completely by surprise at this nonchalant jettisoning of longstanding policy. Powell demurred, warning that this would unleash Sharon and "the consequences could be dire, especially for the Palestinians." But according to O'Neill, Bush just shrugged, saying, "Sometimes a show of strength by one side can really clarify things." O'Neill says that Powell seemed "startled." It is a safe bet that the vice president was in no way startled.

A similar account reflecting Bush's compassion deficit disorder leaps from the pages of Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine. Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's de facto leader, was in high dudgeon in April 2002 when he arrived in Crawford to take issue with Bush's decision to tilt toward Israel and scrap the American role of honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With Bush's freshly bestowed "man-of-peace" epithet for Sharon still ringing in his ear, Abdullah began by insisting that the president and his aides watch a 15-minute video. It showed the mayhem on the West Bank, American-made tanks, bloodied and dead children, screaming mothers. Then, still wordless, they all filed into another room where the Saudis proceeded to make specific demands, but Bush appeared distracted and was non-responsive. After a few minutes, the president turned to Abdullah and said, "Let's go for a drive. Just you and me. I'll show you the ranch."

Bush was so obviously unprepared to discuss substance with his Saudi guests that some of the president's aides checked into what had happened. The briefing packet for the president had been diverted to Cheney's office. Bush never got it, so he was totally unaware of what the Saudis hoped to accomplish in making the trip to Crawford. (There is little doubt that this has been a common experience over the past six years and that there are, in effect, two "deciders" in the White House, one of them controlling the paper flow.)

Not that Bush was starved for background briefings. Indeed, he showed a preference to get them from Prime Minister Sharon who, with his senior military aide, Gen. Yoav Galant, briefed the president both in Crawford (in 2005) and the Oval Office (in 2003) on Iran's "nuclear weapons program." Sorry if I find that odd. That used to be our job at the CIA. I'll bet Sharon and Galant packed a bigger punch.

There is, no doubt, more at play in Bush's attitude and behavior regarding Israel and Palestine. One need not be a psychologist to see ample evidence of oedipal tendencies. It is no secret that the president has been privately critical of what he perceives to be his father's mistakes. Suskind notes, for example, that Bush defended his tilt toward Israel by telling an old foreign policy hand, "I'm not going to be supportive of my father and all his Arab buddies!" And it seems certain that Ariel Sharon gave the young Bush an earful about the efforts of James Baker, his father's secretary of state, to do the unthinkable; i.e., crank Arab grievances into deals he tried to broker between Israel and the Palestinians. It seems clear that this is one reason the Baker-Hamilton report was dead on arrival.

With Friends Like This...

George W. Bush may have the best of intentions in his zeal to defend Israel, but he and Cheney have the most myopic of policies. Israeli leaders risk much if they take reassurance from the president's rhetoric, particularly vis-à-vis Iran. I am constantly amazed to find, as I speak around the country, that the vast majority of educated Americans believe we have a defense treaty with Israel. We don't, but one can readily see how it is they are misled. Listen to the president exactly two years ago:

"Clearly, if I was the leader of Israel and I'd listened to some of the statements by the Iranian ayatollahs that regarded the security of my country, I'd be concerned about Iran having a nuclear weapon as well. And, in that Israel is our ally [sic] – and in that we've made a very strong commitment to support Israel – we will support Israel if her security is threatened."

We do no favors for Israeli leaders in giving them the impression they have carte blanche in their neighborhood – especially as regards Iran – and that we will bail them out, no matter what. Have they learned nothing from the recent past? Far from enhancing Israel's security, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Washington's encouragement of Israel's feckless attack on Lebanon last summer resulted in more breeding ground for terrorist activity against Israel. This will seem child's play compared to what would be in store should the US and/or Israel bomb Iran.

Bottom line: there is a growing threat to Israel from suicide bombers. The most dangerous two work in the White House.


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  • Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years – from the John F. Kennedy administration to that of George H. W. Bush.

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