Monday, 22 February 2010

Book review: The Transparent Cabal by Stephen Sniegoski

Book Review
The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel by Stephen Sniegoski (Foreword by Congressman Paul Findley Introduction by Paul Gottfried).
(Enigma Editions, Norfolk Virginia 2008).

(Word version here)

In this meticulously researched and cogently argued book, Stephen Sniegoski presents the thesis that the 2003 Iraq war was, at root, all about Israel.

More precisely, Sniegoski argues that

the origins of the American war on Iraq revolve around the United States’ adoption of a war agenda whose basic format was conceived in Israel to advance Israeli interests and was ardently pushed by the influential pro-Israeli American neoconservatives, both inside and outside the Bush administration…

Such a thesis does not mean that the neoconservatives intentionally sought to aid Israel at the expense of the United States, but rather that they have seen American foreign policy through the lens of Israeli interest.

Sniegoski identifies the neocons as a group and establishes that they have, at least since the late sixties, been strongly motivated by a close identification with the state of Israel, and specifically with a Likudnik view of that state's interests. A substantial part of the book (the best part of five chapters) is dedicated to a detailed history of the neocons, and a huge amount of evidence is amassed, making this part of the book useful as a general - if not definitive - reference on the history of the neocons.

Among the events covered in this section are the neocons’ move from the Democratic to the Republican party - apparently motivated by the latter's more congenial attitude to an aggressive foreign-policy - and their wielding of disproportionate influence by means of a network of interconnected, overlapping and mutually supportive think tanks, which also extended to explicitly pro-Israel and indeed Israeli, and Israeli government, institutions.

The evidence adduced for the neocons' strong attachment to - even preoccupation with - a certain view of Israeli interests is overwhelming.  Besides their connections with the Israeli foreign policy establishment, Sniegoski adduces in evidence a number of policy documents, detailed below, which make it quite clear that the neocons were directly concerned with the interests, as they saw them, of Israel, unmediated by a conception of US interests.

In the course of establishing the neocons’ attachment to Israel, Sniegoski goes further and relates the development of a specific war strategy for the middle east originating with right-wing Israeli strategists, and carried forward both in Israel and among American neoconservatives, culminating in the emergence of the specific neocon plan to bring down Saddam. Sniegoski describes a consistent strategy which varies in its details but not in its central focus: the geopolitical ‘reconfiguration’ of the Middle East by a weakening of Israel's neighbour states, generally by means of destabilisation and fragmentation.

Sniegoski amasses a significant body of evidence for this approach, starting with a 1982 article by Oded Yinon, an Israeli foreign policy strategist and ex-government advisor, which recommends just such a fragmentation policy, with specific emphasis Lebanon as a model and Iraq as a target. It has been suggested that Sniegoski places too much reliance on this document in support of the fragmentation thesis as applied to the motives for the Iraq war, but  this is not clearly so. Certainly considerable evidence is presented that the strategy formed a main current in Likudnik thinking at the time and since.

An article by Yoram Peri, another government advisor specialising in military matters, argued against the policy - clearly stating that it was at the time dominant, and its intended outcome desirable - on the grounds that it would alienate the USA. As it transpired he was proved right when Israel received heavy criticism for its second invasion of Lebanon shortly after both papers were published.

That invasion, it must be admitted, does not quite conform to Sniegoski’s very specific thesis of a fixed destabilisation and fragmentation policy. Although the 1978 invasion had indeed achieved just such an outcome in Lebanon, Sniegoski suggests that the aim of the second invasion was to install a friendly Christian government for the whole of the country.

However, this could easily be seen as a second, consolidatory, stage of a strategy depending on fragmentation. Furthermore, Sniegoski adduces evidence that the further aims of the invasion included striking a blow against Syria, another target for destabilisation identified by Yinon.

In any case, Sniegoski can happily grant that installation of a dependably pliant government was an outcome at least as desirable to belligerent Israeli opinion, without abandoning the view that the fragmentation policy he establishes was also central. In fact, ascribing to strategists an utterly inflexible policy of destabilisation over regime-change would be rather implausible. Perhaps a more salient objection to Sniegoski’s account would be that it does not establish that the neocons took on the policy from its Israeli originators.

An argument taken from the translator of the Yinon article, Israel Shahak - that the references in that article reveal substantial connections to the neocons - is maybe somewhat overstated, and would in any case suggest an influence in the opposite direction.  However, while it is not clear that the neocons were involved in the development of the strategy from its inception, Sniegoski establishes that the neocons did indeed adopt the strategy not long after, and continued to work closely with Israelis in propounding it up to the time of the second Iraq war.

Indeed, Sniegoski suggests that the emergence of neocon involvement in the strategy only emerged after – and as a consequence of – its first outing in Lebanon. As Peri had warned, the intervention in Lebanon drew widespread criticism, including from Israel’s patron the USA. His recommendation had been to effect a change in US policy, rather than attempting to go it alone.

I will pass over Sniegoski’s detailed and compelling account of Israeli involvement in the Iran-Iraq war, which is something of a diversion from his main line of exposition. (It is a mark of its high quality that of the book’s few flaws, this is probably the most obvious: that at times Sniegoski goes into too much detail or includes material of only tangential relevance to the core thesis. Even this mild criticism is blunted by the fact that, like a good reference book, Sneigoski’s is extremely well-organised, and the individual chapters quite self-contained. As a result the reader can postpone or omit reading individual chapters with little loss of comprehension of those that are read.)

We take up the story at the end of the first Gulf war with an article by A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times. Rosenthal may be regarded as a neo-con fellow traveller in virtue of his hawkish brand of support for Israel which in 1999 earned him the Guardian of Zion Award, an honour he shares with Krauthammer, Safire, Podhoretz and the younger Pipes.

Sniegoski relates that Rosenthal’s article marked the beginning of the ‘regime change and democracy’ policy which became the mainstay of neocon rhetoric regarding the Middle East. Objecting to the failure of the US to press their advantage and invade Iraq, he wrote:

the “realists” have dominated American foreign policy, particularly on the Middle East. They constantly search for a “balance of power” that is unattainable because it is based on dictatorships, which by their very nature are the cause of instability. They dismiss the concept of morality in international affairs and believe that democracy is impossible in the Middle East.

At the same time as articulating the position that was to remain a distinctive feature of neocon discourse, Rosenthal manifested a clear, though indirectly stated, intention that Iraq should be fragmented in the process of invasion:

were Americans sent into combat against Saddam Hussein so that Washington should now help him keep together the jigsaw country sawed out of the Middle East by the British after World War I?

Sniegoski follows the trail through the last days of the Bush I presidency and the 1992 draft Defense Planning Guidance document produced in by Paul Wolfowitz, I. Lewis Libby, Richard Perle and Albert Wohlstetter. Calling attention to the effect the document had in extending a militantly aggressive strategy into the post-cold war age, he notes that the document established the neo-con tropes that were to be called on later, referring to WMD as the main danger to the United States and even, in its draft form recommending “pre-emptive” strikes as a supposed countermeasure. When a leak of this content sparked global outrage, Sniegoski reports that “the emphasis on unilateral action in the draft was altered to mention collective security, but the aim of US world domination and the emphasis on WMD remained.” Sniegoski might also have mentioned that the main scenarios considered involved Iraq and North Korea.

During the Clinton administration, the neocons were not idle. Lacking direct influence at home, their military strategising focused more directly and obviously on Israel. Sniegoski cites the 1996 paper “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” the realm in question being Israel, the publisher an Israeli think tank, the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, and the report’s producers including, among other neocons,  Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser.

The ‘Clean Break’ document, Sniegoski reports, was intended for the incoming Likudnik Netanyahu government, and laid out a comprehensive and aggressive new strategy for dominance over the Palestinians and the region as a whole. The plan started with a “pre-emptive” strike against Saddam, replacing him with a Hashemite monarchy.

As in the case of the 1982 Lebanon invasion, this iteration of the policy to neutralise Iraq deviates slightly from the ‘fragmentation’ policy – though Sniegoski points out that like the rest of the document, it manifests little concern for the ideal of democracy that was later to be vaunted in neocon propaganda. The installation of an unthreatening regime in Iraq, itself regarded as an important objective, was also to be the first step in a wider onslaught taking in Syria and Iran (both of which the US did indeed threaten after the invasion of Iraq, but did not in the end attack). Another notable feature of the ‘Clean Break” recommendations was an emphasis on the need, purely from a propaganda viewpoint, to appeal to “Western values” and US interests in, for example, missile defence in gaining US support for Israeli actions. Sniegoski points out that the document was directed toward the aim of achieving greater independence for Israel from US influence, while still receiving US support. As Sniegoski remarks,

…the “Clean Break” study was an astounding document that has been given insufficient attention by the mainstream American media. Though written to advance the interests of a foreign country, it appears to be a rough blueprint for actual Bush administration policy, with which some of the “Clean Break” authors – Perle, Feith, and Wurmser – were intimately involved.

Sniegoski further relates that Wurmser produced an extended follow-up document for the same think-tank, entitled “Coping with Crumbling States: A Western and Israeli Balance of Power Strategy for the Levant.” As the “clean Break” report had, Wurmser’s analysis viewed Iraq entirely from the viewpoint of Israeli interests, concluding that it was both the strategic key to the region and a vulnerable and harmless “crumbling” state. This view, it might be argued, could explain the move away from the fragmentation strategy at this time, since it would hardly be necessary to break up by force a country which was on the brink of disintegration in any case. It might be surmised, though Sniegoski does not do so, that as apparently had been the case in Lebanon in 1982, a second, post-fragmentation stage was envisaged, under which the area, or parts of it, were to be stabilised under an unthreatening regime. This might however be to rely too much on the imposition of a presumed consistency onto matters which can be assessed in any case only speculatively – something which Sniegoski to his credit avoids doing throughout his complex and closely-sourced narrative.

In any case, only three years later in 1999, Sniegoski reports, Wurmser, in association with Perle and Ledeen, produced another document, this time for US consumption. In keeping with the propaganda aims of the Clean Break document and its follow-up piece, and in stark contrast to the image of a weak and unthreatening Iraq portrayed therein, “Tyranny’s Ally: America’s Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein” offered stark warnings of a (rather nebulous) threat to the US from resurgent Arab Nationalism  -not, as Sniegoski remarks, the ‘Islamism’ that was later to become the pretext for the war.

Iraq, Wurmser claimed, was “a totalitarian tyranny. Such tyranny is, by its very nature, violent, aggressive, and rabidly anti-Western.”  Again, the recommendation (this time to the US) was for wider operations throughout the area, in the interests, of course, of its people, though not by way of democracy. Sniegoski reports that the document advocated

a return to the rule of the Hashemites and the powerful traditional families. And he presented Ahmed Chalabi as representing this viable, positive tradition.

Wurmser added: “For much of the Arab world, factionalism constitutes the sole barrier against the absolute power of its tyrants.” which suggests that plans for Hashemite ‘monarchy’ might not have been regarded as so different from fragmentation as one familiar with monolithic European constitutional monarchies might suppose.

Sniegoski reports yet a further step along this propaganda route which occurred with the publication of Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War against America in 2000 by a Laurie Mylroie. This alleged that major terrorist attacks from the 1993 WTC bombing onwards had been the work of Saddam. Sniegoski writes:

Mylroie’s Saddam conspiracy theory was far outside mainstream thinking, and she would have been considered something of an oddball if it were not for her connections to people with power.

He adds that the book acknowledged Wolfowitz, Libby, Wurmser and John Bolton, and was praised by Perle and Wolfowitz among others. He relates that after the 2001 WTC attacks, it was republished by Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins, retitled ‘The War Against America: Saddam Hussein and the World Trade Center Attacks’, while Mylrioe was employed as an Iraq expert by Fox News.

No account of the long road to the second Gulf war could fail to mention the neocon Project for a New American Century. Sniegoski traces the organisation from its foundation in 1997; through two letters, the second open, to President Clinton in early 1998 and a third to ex-House Speaker Newt Gringrich and Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, all calling for military action to overthrow Saddam; to the publication in 2000 of ‘Rebuilding America’s Defences: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century’.

Sniegoski describes the document:

In regard to the Middle East, the report called for an increased American military presence in the Gulf, whether Saddam was in power or not, maintaining:

The United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

The report struck a prescient note when it observed that “the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.”

There can be little doubt that Sniegoski establishes the Israeli origins and Likudnik aims of the neocons’ long-standing plan for an attack on Iraq. The very specific thesis that the chosen tactic was to fragment Iraq is persuasive but not entirely compelling. The final, PNAC-era phase of neocon thinking does  not feature the goal explicitly, though it is plainly a strong possibility, and less likely to be mentioned once the neocons had turned all their effort to persuading the US to do the neocons’ bidding.

In the end, the truth of the fragmentation thesis is independent of Sniegoski’s other arguments. It could be supplemented with the alternative that the neocons might have hoped to install a US- (and thus Israel-) friendly government – the US has certainly, predictably, attempted to ensure that  should a stable government emerge it will be pro-US, or to ensure that a permanent US garrison would remain – which it almost certainly will. All of these would further the supposed interest of Israel in weakening its perceived enemies, and Sniegoski amasses strong evidence that at least one of those aims was the intention of the neocons in pursuing the war.

Finally, it should be stressed that in tracing the influence of this doctrine, Sniegoski has also produced a valuable reference on the neocons in its own right, replete with thoroughly-referenced information, and with particular emphasis on the departure of neocon thinking on some social and economic areas from that of traditional conservative Republican thought.

This to some extent represents something of a digression from the main thrust of the book and perhaps reflects Sniegoski’s own concerns.  It forms a relevant part of the story at least insofar as it tends to show that neocons really did execute something of a coup in gaining such influence in the Republican party, which adds collateral support, if any is needed, to the thesis that the neocon strategy was by no means a programme based on traditional home-grown conservative foreign policy goals.

And so, with the neocons’ hopes of a New Pearl Harbour hanging breathlessly in the eery pre-9/11 calm, their members distributed among the second tier of Republican office, the media and Washington and in command of a highly leveraged echo-chamber of interlocking think tanks and foundations, we leave Sniegoski’s narrative, and consider some predictable concerns about the book’s general approach.


Sniegoski is well aware that his book is likely to attract accusations of anti-semitism. Proofing his book against such false ad hominem attacks costs him many extra pages of what ought to be, but are not, unnecessary clarifications. He is at pains to point out that the bulk of American Jewry were not in favour of the war and to cite Jewish sources, explicitly flagging their ethnicity, to back any claim relating to Israel and the neocons' Israeli connections.

The whole of the second chapter is given over to showing that the war-for-Israel claim is widely shared by those not plausibly regarded as anti-semites including Jewish journalists and politicians, and documenting the campaign of anti-semitism accusations made against those supporting such a claim. Indeed he quotes Jewish sources decrying this devaluation of antisemitism, ending the chapter with a quotation from another impeccable Jewish source, Forward magazine:

The line between legitimate debate and scapegoating is a fine one. Friends of Israel will be tempted to guard that line by labeling as antisemites those who threaten to cross it. They already have begun to do so. But it is a mistake. Israel and its allies stand accused of manipulating America’s public debate for their own purposes. If they were to succeed in suppressing debate to protect themselves, it only would prove the point. Better to follow the democratic path: If there is bad speech, the best reply is more speech.

Conspiracy Theories

The other accusation that Sniegoski risks is one commonly intertwined with that of antisemitism - that of propounding a 'conspiracy theory'. This Sneigoski disavows too, pointing out that - as the title of his work and the foregoing summary of their paper trail suggests - the neocons were quite overt about their aims and much of their plotting:

Evidence for the neoconservative and Israeli connection to the United States war in the Middle East is overwhelming and is mostly out in the open. There was no dark, hidden “conspiracy,” a term of derision often used by detractors of the idea of a neocon connection to the war. But in the realm of politics, as George Orwell observed, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

The topic of 'conspiracy theories', their nature and status, is of great contemporary importance for the public understanding of history and politics. At present, dominant mainstream discussion of the topic tends to assume only two possible approaches: the quietistic, whereby all talk of conspiracy is taboo, and the quixotic, whereby anything goes except coincidence or cock-up.

Sniegoski errs, if at all, on the side of the quietists. He draws attention to the (admittedly ridiculous) conspiracy theories put forward by neocons - notably Mylroie, mentioned above. Sniegoski notes her description as 'the neocons' favourite conspiracy theorist', and reports her pre-9/11 stories which accused Saddam of masterminding a terrorist campaign against the US. Likewise, the neocons' angry cries of conspiracy in response to the 2007 National Intelligence Assessment, which adjudged Iran to pose no current military threat to the US, are understandably rejected.

At one point Sniegoski makes rather questionable use of the 'conspiracy' label. He rejects the hypothesis that the US deliberately encouraged Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait: 'though logical, the conspiracy thesis assumes too much planning on the part of the U.S. government.'

This is perhaps a little too quick. Deceptive use of diplomacy to trick an adversary does not amount to a 'conspiracy' in the usual sense, nor, in the absence of further explanation, is the reason given very convincing. It must be noted however that Sniegoski does not claim to have disproved the thesis, only to find it implausible. Further, this is a peripheral issue dealt with only in passing, which fact in turn suggests that the paucity of argument might reflect space constraints rather than a cavalier dismissal of the 'conspiracy thesis'.

Sniegoski entirely avoids the issue of 9-11 covert action scenarios (or 'conspiracy theories'). This is entirely understandable, especially given that it is not part of his remit to speculate on such matters. One may note, though, that his honest and thorough approach means that he does not suppress facts or opinions which might be thought to support such theories. For example, his book inevitably highlights how very useful - indeed indispensable - the events of 9-11 were to the neocon cause. He quotes the paper 'Rebuilding America's defences':

The United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Adding that

The report struck a prescient note when it observed that “the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.”

Chapter 8 ('September 11') reports Netanyahu's contemporary comment that the attacks were 'good' for Israel and Sharon's opportunistic announcement that 'Arafat is Bin Laden'. Of course these factors are not lost on those who are willing to countenance 9-11 covert action (or inaction) scenarios, and of those willing to speculate about the sponsorship of such hypothesised covert action, many suggest some Mossad involvement. Sniegoski, to reiterate, does not address any such matters, which lie outside the scope of his concerns.

Sniegoski's claim that there is no conspiratorial element in the events he describes is not entirely accurate since the key events triggering the war very clearly involved an organised campaign of deception which can only at the expense of all plausibility be regarded as innocent.

Sniegoski maintains the general approach of denying a ‘conspiracy’ despite making valid observations such as “the deceptive means used by the neoconservatives to mobilize domestic support for the war especially belied their identification with the ethos of democracy”. It is possible that this is an expository tactic designed to head off knee-jerk reactions to the label ‘conspiracy theory’. Or it may be that Sniegoski himself shares this aversion to such vocabulary.

Nonetheless, Sniegoski faithfully reports conspiratorial aspects of the neo-con project. For example, Chapter 12, ironically titled ‘Democracy for the Middle East’ summarises the tactics used by the neocons and other elements in the Bush administration. It is hardly necessary to rehearse here the scattergun approach to advocacy that included duplicitous variations on the themes of Al Qaeda, WMD and humanitarianism/democracy. But it is clear that a significant degree of deception was involved, and the standard excuse of mistake rather than dishonesty cannot really stand in the face of such shifting approaches. The question of the motive for such deception is to a great extent irrelevant – after all, almost any set of actions can be described as being done for subjectively good motives - especially if self-serving rationalisations are allowed to count.

Another conspiratorial aspect which Sniegoski somewhat underplays is secrecy – a common (though not strictly essential) component of conspiracies. Sniegoski points out that the neocons acted to some extent ‘in the open’ – and it is of course their non-secret statements that provide most of Sniegoski’s data. But that is only half the story. Secrecy is not an all-or-nothing business, as Sniegoski notes in passing: "...though acting largely in the open, they nonetheless have been shrouded in a certain measure of secrecy, especially regarding their connection to Israel...".

This secrecy was not hermetic. Washington insiders and those who knew where to look could easily discern the neocons’ excessive sympathy with the Likud line. Likewise, it was not terribly difficult to discern that the neocons were engaged in a propaganda campaign in favour of war in Iraq. The image of a conspiracy in public life as surrounded by an impermeable barrier of secrecy is misconceived. One may draw an analogy between secrecy and hygiene. Even in surgery, there is no attempt to eradicate all bacteria from the environment. One merely needs to reduce the risk of serious infection to a low enough level.

In the same way, secrets do not need to be absolute – except in cases where the truth is so virulent that the very idea of its possibility (rather than its establishment to the satisfaction of those who would rather not hear it) would undermine the plan, however plausibly denied or dismissed. This was not such a case - so the odd whistleblower or indiscreet remark could easily be dealt with – and the conspiracy remain, from the point of view of the general public, just as much a conspiracy, even while it may have been something of an ‘open secret’ in the esoteric and clannish circles of the Washington elite, the political class and the low-circulation ‘insider’ press.

Competing accounts

In chapter 17, ‘The Supporting Cast for War’ and chapter 18, ‘Oil and other arguments’, Sniegoski addresses challenges to his thesis that the neocons were the ‘driving force’ behind the war.

Almost all of these are concerned with oil or private profit or both, and most are considered explicitly by Sniegoski. These are: private US oil interests, a general US interest in gaining access to Iraqi oil and control of the oil-rich region, and relatedly, the desire to establish more permanent military bases in the Middle East. There is also the matter of personal enrichment of some of the war planners via lucrative military and reconstruction contracts, which may seem a dreadfully venal reason for starting a war, but is not necessarily much more so than the others under consideration – and more importantly, is not entirely implausible given the characters involved.

Sniegoski is persuasive but not conclusively convincing on these matters. He argues that since the major US oil companies seemed to be opposed to military action and had been lobbying for sanctions to be lifted, they were not a significant factor in pushing for war. Certainly this seems plausible – though the significance of the push for lifting of sanctions is doubtful – after all, lifting sanctions is one way of getting hold of Iraqi oil, regime change another.

More importantly, Sniegoski rather neglects a more plausible ‘oil war’ hypothesis: that a perceived US strategic interest in gaining control of Iraqi oil might have provided a significant motivating factor. This possibility is briefly considered, but rejected on the grounds that maintaining such control would in turn require very tight control over a puppet regime – and that in any case, there do not appear to have been plans for taking such control.

This is not entirely convincing. First, poor planning is not necessarily a sign of lack of intent. More importantly, US strategic interests are advanced by having guaranteed access to Iraqi oil, without necessarily having total control over every aspect of the Iraqi oil industry.  But most significantly, the US administration have succeeded in installing a very friendly government, as well as establishing a permanent fortified military presence throughout the country – a crude but effective form of influence.

Furthermore, the Bush administration drafted an Iraqi Oil Law which the Iraqi government is pushing and which would put US companies in control of extraction for most of Iraq’s oilfields. It is worth noting that if US companies have contracts to extract oil from most of Iraq, then they have a good deal of control over oil production – and can certainly prevent it from being arbitrarily halted.

Another angle to which Sniegoski gives perhaps inadequate attention is the question of wider oil policy in the region, specifically OPEC’s threatened move towards the Euro as the currency in which oil is bought and sold. This had serious ramifications for the US economy and its global power – and Saddam had only recently announced the decision to make the change (one which the other ‘Axis of evil’ countries and the disproportionately demonised Chavez were also involved in). That move – as regards Iraq anyway – has now been headed off. This is not the place to investigate that issue, but it is certainly one which merits consideration.

On the whole, however, Sniegoski’s thesis is persuasively argued and – even though there may have been significant role for other motives in explaining the participation of non-neocons in the war effort, it seems unlikely that these would have been sufficient to precipitate the war in the absence of the neocons’ efforts.

One cannot hope to establish the complete truth about the Iraq war, however, without understanding the motivations and actions of one man who above all was the kingpin and central actor in the process.

Richard Bruce "Dick" Cheney

Cheney is not obviously seen as an 'Israel-firster', largely because he lacks the characteristic most obviously and commonly associated with allegiance to the Jewish state: Jewish identity. This is manifestly the central factor in the neocons' attachment to Israel and as Sniegoski points out:

there is nothing outré in the view that people would be affected in their foreign policy views by ethnic and emotional ties to a foreign country… American historians, for their part, have often broached the idea that the foreign policy views of various ethnic groups – German-, Polish-, Irish-, and Cuban-Americans – have been based on their ethnic identities and loyalties. This clearly corresponds to the contention that the neocons’ predominantly Jewish background and their identification with Israel shaped their view of Middle East policy.

However, notoriously secretive and inscrutable, Cheney is something of an enigma. Sneigoski does say:

Although never identified as a neoconservative, Cheney was closely connected to the neoconservative elite. Halper and Clarke in America Alone view Cheney’s connection to the neocons in terms of a similarity of ideas. They describe him as an “American nationalist,” rather than a full-fledged neoconservative, whose views on American exceptionalism and American power “paralleled” those of the neoconservatives. But Cheney’s neocon ties transcended ideas.

This last claim is vindicated by reference to Cheney’s membership of various neocon think tanks and lobby groups.

Sneigoski also acknowledges that Cheney had the reins of security policy, endorses a quotation describing him as the most powerful Vice President ever, notes that Cheney’s appointment was the single most important Bush decision for war, and points out that:

[the neocons']...potential power could be fully actualized only if it had positive support from the top, otherwise the neocons would remain on the periphery as they had in the Bush I administration. Cheney would serve that supportive function by exerting far more power on behalf of the neocon agenda than James Baker had ever been able to wield...

Cheney's importance being thus estabished, the question of his motives remains a significant, and possibly the only significant, gap in Sniegoski’s analysis.

The question, to oversimplify, is: who was following whom? Was Cheney in some way co-opted, duped, won over or recruited by the neocons, or did he use them to further his own ends? More probably, was there an alliance between, on the one hand, Cheney, with his downstream oil interests and concern for US access to middle east oil, and on the other, the neocons, with their concern for (a debased idea of) Israeli security? Or was Cheney's adoption of the Iraq war strategy simply a favour to his helpful neo-con staff?

It is unsurprising that Sniegoski cannot provide a definitive answer to these questions - for neither can anyone else. Cheney's secrecy was extreme. As Sniegoski reports, he used huge safes to secure routine documentation, refused to supply documents to others and even talking points provided to journalists were often marked ‘secret’.

Some possible motives were a general US interest in access to Iraqi oil and greater control of the oil-rich region in general through permanent bases in Iraq and the need to prevent OPEC abandoning the petrodollar in favour of the Euro, especially  precipitately.

These are the kind of motives which could be seen- at least by the elite -  as furthering the interests of the US as a whole, though that does not of course provide any defence against the Nuremberg hanging-offence of waging aggressive war. But as Sniegoski points out, the traditional 'realist' foreign policy establishment appeared to oppose the war. It is possible that Cheney shared their aims and simply disagreed on how best they were to be achieved - but in such a case, it seems likely that his opinions on the matter were influenced by his neocon coterie.

Another motive - for some war or other - might have been Cheney's quasi-fascist mission to 'restore the powers of the presidency' (and we must add, to boost those of the vice presidency). The events of 9/11 and of the subsequent 'War on Terror' were instrumental in his project of massively increasing executive powers. But there seems no compelling reason why he need have expended so much effort in directing the war plans in the direction of Iraq in particular, in which case once again a neo-con influence may be appealed to.

Finally there is the standard motive for most premeditated crime: filthy lucre. With his (temporarily shelved) interests in Halliburton, profits to be made in downstream oil and reconstruction were of course of significant interest to Cheney. And it may be that the downstream oil interests who had been lobbying for the removal of sanctions would accept a war as the means to that end, if the simple lifting of sanctions was unattainable. And of course a major force opposing the lifting of sanctions against Saddam's Iraq was the Israel lobby, particularly the hyper-Likudnik neocons.

So in the end, Sniegoski can admit any or all of these possibilities without endangering his conclusion. The neocons did, he demonstrates, gain pervasive power in the Bush administration. They did view the US national interest through the prism of their own conception of Israel's national interest, and they did provide the main driving force for the Iraq invasion - very probably with the intention of fragmenting the country into less powerful and possibly warring states.

Further, just because he is not Jewish or a Christian Zionist one cannot rule out the possibility that Cheney shared the neocons' Israel-centric view of that most conveniently nebulous of concepts: the national interest. Sniegoski certainly shows that Cheney has, for whatever reason, been in bed with the neocons for some time.

Whatever Cheney's motives in pushing the Iraq war agenda, he could not have done it without the neocons. In the absence of a deliberate ploy by Cheney to set up the neocons as patsies for his own distinct plan - for which we have no evidence - Sniegoski’s thesis stands. There are always such theoretical possibilities which could, if true, undermine any historical thesis. But going on the evidence, Sniegoski has established his claim as well as anyone can expect - and certainly better than any competing claim can be demonstrated.

Tim Wilkinson can be reached at His blog is


  1. I appreciate very much Tim Wilkinson’s favorable review of my book, which knowledgeably covers its subject matter. I would like to take issue with some comments he made on the issue of oil, however.

    Although Mr. Wilkinson does not dispute the importance of the neocons in bringing about the war on Iraq, he still continues to concur with elements of the oil-for-war thesis and disagrees with my efforts to show otherwise. While I acknowledge that there were auxiliary groups (e.g., the Christian Right) that were important in the move toward war with Iraq, I deny that, on balance, the oil interest played a pro-war role. In fact, I show that individuals connected with oil, such as the elder Bush and his cronies (e.g., Brent Scowcroft and James Baker), were cool toward or opposed to the war on Iraq and the continued occupation. In fact, it would seem that the individuals tied to oil were very much concerned that the destabilizing aspects of war would be harmful to oil production, and, in fact, harmful to the economies of the US and the industrial world.

    When I point out that the oil companies in 2001 opposed economic sanctions on Iraq so as to do business with that country, Mr. Wilkinson writes that “the significance of the push for lifting of sanctions is doubtful – after all, lifting sanctions is one way of getting hold of Iraqi oil, regime change another.” But the dubious claim was not getting hold of oil per se (e.g., negotiating oil field business deals with the Iraqi government), but rather pushing for a U.S. war on Iraq to get hold of oil.

    While I point out that the US never made plans to dominate Iraq to the extent that would be necessary to control its oil for the geostrategic and military benefit of the US, at the expense of Iraq’s economic interests, Mr. Wilkinson writes: “More importantly, US strategic interests are advanced by having guaranteed access to Iraqi oil, without necessarily having total control over every aspect of the Iraqi oil industry. But most significantly, the US administration have succeeded in to installing a very friendly government, as well as establishing a permanent fortified military presence throughout the country – a crude but effective form of influence.” The “very friendly government” in Iraq, however, showed itself to be totally concerned about maximizing its own income (as I expected), and in its most recent auction of right to develop Iraqi oil fields, non-American companies dominated. As an article in the Washington Post (December 13, 2009) pointed out: “Chinese, Russian and European companies won the right this weekend to develop major oil fields in Iraq, while U.S. firms made a paltry showing at auctions that represent the first major incursion of foreign oil companies into Iraq in four decades.”

    If this result is considered assisting the US to control Iraqi oil, one wonders what type of evidence could possibly prove otherwise That the United States realizes that the economies of the industrial world depend upon access to Middle East oil to maintain prosperity would seem to be a prime reason why the American establishment has sought to avoid destabilizing wars in that region—and certainly is a fundamental reason why the U.S., so far, has not attacked Iran, as the neocons and the overall Israel lobby desire.

    As mentioned earlier, my comments that differ with Mr. Wilkinson’s views are not intended to show any displeasure with his excellent review, which is not only favorable but accurately covers the book’s crucial topics.

  2. I'm not sure I have much to add, but FWIW my (sorry, rather rushed) response would be:

    1. There is a distinction (albeit often blurred when convenient) between the short-medium term perceived interests of the oil companies and the US national strategic interest in oil - something that Cheney gave every appearance of being genuinely concerned with.

    2. Subsequent events may not be a good guide to past expectations: the adventure may not have turned out well for US oil interests, but that wasn't necessarily foreseen by Cheney et al.

    3. The intention in choosing Iraq (which wasn't necessarily the first choice of the Israel-first neocons) may have been the longer-term strategy of establishing military bases in the country in the expectation that subsequent military operations might be necessary (Cheney took peak oil seriously, it seems, and resource wars are a significant possibility in the medium-long term.)

    4. I wouldn't rule out the threat to dollar hegemony posed by Saddam's switch to the Euro as at least a triggering event. If the dollar were abandoned as the predominant (until recently, the only) oil trading currency, the consequences for US solvency could be catastrophic, if I understand the position correctly.

  3. So when one says oil, one is only talking about Cheney’s view not about a consensus opinion of the American foreign policy establishment. Certainly the advocates of this oil view, such as Chomsky, hold the latter view. Cheney supported a war on Iran even though the consensus of expert opinion is that any attack on Iran would cause the price of oil to skyrocket and do serious damage to the US economy and that this represents a fundamental reason NOT to attach Iran. Maybe Cheney really believes war would help the US economy. But why single out Cheney’s alleged views on oil as his true beliefs; why not include his other views as well. His biographer, Barton Gellman (“Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency”) claims that Cheney truly believed the US was actually threatened by Middle East countries (which just happened to be the enemies of Israel). So when referring to Cheney’s ideas one should add the idea that the US was threatened by a future nuclear attack, unmanned aerial vehicles spreading poisonous gas, and other phantasmagorical dangers that Cheney seemed to consider as real—he expressed these ideas far more often than a belief in “peak oil,” which I am not aware of him mentioning.. Thus, to avoid confusion, instead of claiming a oil reason for war, it would be more accurate to say that Cheney believed that a war on Iraq and on Iran would be good for the United States. The same can probably be said for the Jewish neocons. And Cheney as a member of advisory board of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), which has as its purpose the enhancement of the security of Israel, is (by his overt actions) like the neocons in his concern for the national interest of Israel.

  4. When I point out that the US oil interests do not currently control oil, Mr. Wilkinson writes: “2. Subsequent events may not be a good guide to past expectations: the adventure may not have turned out well for US oil interests, but that wasn't necessarily foreseen by Cheney et al.” However, as I point out in my book, there was no evidence that the US ever tried to establish the tight control of Iraq that would be necessary to prevent an Iraqi government from following its own economic interests, which probably would not involve giving the US any type of oil monopoly. To this, Mr. Wilkinson responds that “poor planning is not necessarily a sign of lack of intent.” However, historians (or political commentators) can’t determine intent except through actions or documents. Since there were no plans to control oil, it would be allowable to infer the goal from the results, though this could be questioned. In the case of Iraq neither planning nor results back the oil control claim. It would seem that Mr. Wilkinson is just positing the existence of the oil control motive and then not allowing any way of disproving it. In other words, he is assuming a hypothesis to be true (or likely to be true) without providing proof or allowing falsification

  5. Re: Cheney, peak oil:

    A bit late, but I've just tracked down this paper which I'd read without retaining any notes, a copy or a link: Dick Cheney, Peak Oil and the Final Count Down.

    It's obviously suggestive rather than conclusive, but gives some indication of Cheney's concerns in the time immediately preceding the events of Sep 11 2001. It refers to Cheney's speech to the Institute of Petroleum in 1999.

    Quick and very general musings about \explanation of strategic action:

    Often an explanation which involves a combination of multiple independent factors seems weaker than a simple, unitary explanation. This is partly because it has a scattergun aspect, like a lawyer arguing in the alternative, and when many parallel arguments are put forward the suspicion is that none of them is adequate.

    In attributing motives, especially to expert (or at least professional) strategists, this view has little force. Killing two or more birds with one stone is an excellent strategy, so one would expect competent planners who have a range of options at their disposal to opt for this kind of leveraging of impact. Concealing or obscuring motive is itself an important strategic aim which is furthered by adopting this kind of ambiguous course of action.

    Where a coalition of actors is required to effect large-scale action, one would of course also expect all of the constituent groups' disparate interests to be represented in the resulting plans.

  6. Perhaps I am missing something here, but I did not see that Mr. Wilkinson’s most recent post added anything new to the discussion. A pro-war coalition seems to be implied but no real coalition is described. So Mr. Wilkinson seems to be talking about Cheney’s motivation for war. But there is nothing that Cheney said about oil that implies war. Instead, what he says seems self-evident. In the near future, the world will be using more oil. The greatest oil reserves are in the Middle East. The US must have access to this source of oil. The oil men such as the Elder Bush, Jim Baker, and Brent Scowcroft were either cool or opposed the war on Iraq but would have uttered the same conventional wisdom. The exact same views were also held by the traditional foreign policy establishment and the national security/foreign policy bureaucracy.

    As I pointed out in an earlier posting Cheney explicitly expressed other reasons for war, which can be boiled down to Iraq being an actual military threat to the US. (March 8, First Post). In contrast, he does not explicitly give oil as a reason for war. Moreover, access to Gulf Oil would not be an obvious reason to go to war since many oil people and foreign policy experts use the oil issue as a fundamental reason for the US to avoid war. This is especially the case in the discussion of a US bombing attack on Iran, which according to the conventional wisdom would, for the short term, reduce American access to Gulf Oil and wreck havoc with the economies of the industrialized nations. Nor is it apparent that bombing Iran would somehow enhance US access to Iranian oil in the long-term. The ending of US sanctions on Iran, however, would provide the US with such access. Cheney, however, in line with the neocons, supported the bombing of Iran.

    But why is it even necessary to posit that Cheney’s support for war in the Middle East is due to oil, since Cheney’s close ties to the neocons—which include his membership in such leading neocon groups as JINSA and PNAC, and his wife’s job at AEI--would be sufficient to explain his support for the neocon agenda when he became vice-president. Significantly, he brought his neocon associates, whom he knew would try to implement the Middle East war agenda, into the Bush administration.

    According to Occam's Razor there is no need to add additional explanations if one suffices. So it seems that Cheney's neocon connections would completely account for his support for a US war policy in the Middle East. That the neocons were the driving force for war does not mean that support from other groups was unnecessary. I go over these supportive groups in my book. Oil, however, was not one of them.