As Peter Beinart reminds us, when George W. Bush took office in January 2001 he and his closest national-security staff showed little interest in al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, despite alarms set off by the CIA and National Security Council counterterrorism "czar" Richard Clarke. Al-Qaeda of course had attacked U.S. government assets in the decade before Bush became president. (Also see this.)
"But both Clarke and [CIA boss George] Tenet grew deeply frustrated by the way top Bush officials responded," Beinart writes. "Clarke recounts that when he briefed [national security adviser Condoleezza] Rice about al-Qaeda, 'her facial expression gave me the impression that she had never heard the term before.'"
When that April [cabinet-level] meeting [demanded by Clarke] finally occurred, according to Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz objected that “I just don’t understand why we are beginning by talking about this one man, bin Laden.” Clarke responded that, “We are talking about a network of terrorist organizations called al-Qaeda, that happens to be led by bin Laden, and we are talking about that network because it and it alone poses an immediate and serious threat to the United States.” To which Wolfowitz replied, “Well, there are others that do as well, at least as much. Iraqi terrorism for example.”
Can we make any sense of this fixation on Iraq? I think we can.
If this is not enough to make sense of an otherwise seemingly senseless U.S. policy in the Middle East, we may also mention an earlier paper, written in the early 1980s by Oded Yinon, a journalist who had been in Israel's foreign ministry. This paper saw the Arab world as a "house of cards" ripe for "dissolution" by Israel and the United States:
Lebanon’s total dissolution into five provinces serves as a precedent for the entire Arab world including Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula and is already following that track. The dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically or religiously unqiue [sic] areas such as in Lebanon, is Israel’s primary target on the Eastern front in the long run, while the dissolution of the military power of those states serves as the primary short term target. Syria will fall apart, in accordance with its ethnic and religious structure, into several states such as in present day Lebanon, so that there will be a Shi'ite Alawi state along its coast, a Sunni state in the Aleppo area, another Sunni state in Damascus hostile to its northern neighbor, and the Druzes who will set up a state, maybe even in our Golan, and certainly in the Hauran and in northern Jordan. This state of affairs will be the guarantee for peace and security in the area in the long run, and that aim is already within our reach today....
Every kind of inter-Arab confrontation will assist us in the short run and will shorten the way to the more important aim of breaking up Iraq into denominations as in Syria and in Lebanon. In Iraq, a division into provinces along ethnic/religious lines as in Syria during Ottoman times is possible. So, three (or more) states will exist around the three major cities: Basra, Baghdad and Mosul, and Shi’ite areas in the south will separate from the Sunni and Kurdish north. It is possible that the present Iranian-Iraqi confrontation will deepen this polarization.
As a recent Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, put it, "The initial message about the Syrian issue was that we always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran." (Emphasis added.) Hence the suggestions, most notably from retired general and former CIA chief David Patraeus, that the U.S. government side with al-Qaeda's Nusra Front in Syria -- its "moderate" elements of course -- against the Islamic State. (Nusra also opposes the Assad government.)
This is not to say that the neoconservative-Likud alliance is the only force driving U.S. policy. It is well known that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states (which are no threat to Israel) wish to throttle Iran, perhaps fearful that a U.S.-Iran detente could be in the offing. Regime change in Syria would suit the Saudis' anti-Iran, anti-Shi'ite agenda, which is another reason why arms, money, and fighters have flowed so freely to the Sunni rebels in Syria. (If bona fide moderates there be among the rebels, their chief role has been as arms conduits to the jihadis.) The U.S. government, it hardly needs saying, does not wish to alienate its Arab allies, as long as their interests do not conflict with Israel's.
Sheldon Richman keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society. Become a patron today!