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The undisputed power

When one views the pictures of president George W. Bush being informed of 9/11, bewilderment and shock are evident. After all the American mainland, protected by two oceans, had never suffered a direct attack.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 was on a US possession not on the mainland. Years later, the disintegration of the Soviet Union reduced if not eliminated the chance of a nuclear attack by the Russians on the mainland.

The effect of 9/11 on the psyche of the American establishment and the general public was profound. I had predicted at that time that American foreign policy would be determined by the ‘war on terror’ for the next decade or more. This turned out to be true.

What one did not know at that time was that as early as Sept 12 — a day after the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon — president Bush directed Richard Clarke, his counterterrorism expert, to unearth Saddam Hussein’s connection to the 9/11 attack, dismissing testily Clarke’s demurral and the assertion that this was an Al Qaeda attack with which Iraq had no real linkages.

Clearly long before 9/11, president Bush had bought into the thesis of the Project for the New American Century— a think tank whose members came to occupy key positions in the Bush administration — that American interests in the Middle East could only be preserved by effecting regime change in what was then a heavily sanctioned and “well-contained” Iraq. Was this an American goal or did it have another country’s interests at heart?

Writing in November 2003, a former CIA analyst, Ray McGovern, said: “The war on Iraq was just as much prompted by the strategic objectives of the state of Israel as it was the strategic objectives of the United States of America. Indeed, the people running this war are people who have worked for the government of Israel in the past, people who have prepared position papers for former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others.”

He described the Israeli objective as “being hell-bent on remaining the dominant power in the Middle East.

The destruction or at least the reordering of Iraq’s military potential was a prime Israeli objective because after the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, Iraq was the only country with the population, territory and resolve that could lead an Arab coalition against Israel. It was perhaps this objective rather than the situation on the ground that led Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority — in effect the first American czar of occupied Iraq — to issue orders for the disbandment of the Iraqi army and the banning of any participation in the new Iraqi administration of Ba’ath Party members.

In Saddam’s Iraq, it was the multiethnic army that had to be relied upon to maintain law and order. Its disbandment was bound to exacerbate the sectarian divide, encourage Kurdish separatism and make impossible the maintenance of law and order.

The Iraqi civil service and public service providers were generally regarded as being the best in the Middle East in the 1970s when I was in Iraq. They became Ba’athists in the Saddam regime not out of conviction but because that was necessary for advancement and even for survival. Therefore the ban on the Ba’ath meant in effect the collapse of the administration.

It is difficult to believe that this was an honest mistake. More plausible is the thesis that such steps were necessary to reduce for decades to come Iraq’s ability to challenge Israel. One must place in the same category the scheme that had the support of such stalwarts as the US vice president, Joe Biden, for the division of Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni and Shia states.

Today there can be no doubt that with a damaged Iraq, a Syria torn apart by sectarian strife, an Arab world in turmoil and more worried about Iran than about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Israel is the undisputed pre-eminent power in the Middle East which can cock a snook at suggestions that it arrive at a settlement with the Palestinians based on the 1967 borders or to resurrect the 1993 Oslo Accords.

President Obama started his recent Middle East tour, with the painful knowledge that the two wars initiated by his predecessor had both ended badly for America. He was conscious, that the two wars had cost almost $2 trillion in appropriated funds and would cost by some estimates another $2tr to $4tr to provide benefits and health cover to the over one million American soldiers who were at one stage or the other deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He was conscious that a dominant Israel with a belligerent Netanyahu as prime minister could well draw the US into an unwanted war with Iran.

So what could Obama do except be placatory? And this in effect is what happened. He made no effort to impress upon Netanyahu the importance of adhering to a freeze on settlements. Instead, he advised the Palestinians to recommence negotiations without insisting on such a freeze.

In return what he got was Netanyahu’s acceptance that the Iranians were still a year away from acquiring a nuclear device but not in explicit terms the modification of the Israeli ‘red line’ which was preventing the acquisition of the necessary know-how by Iran. What he got was the ‘diplomatic’ success of a repair of the Turkish-Israel rupture — something that the Israelis were moving towards in any case.

What he got was an opportunity to tell the Israeli people through addressing a small group of students that Israel would be better off if the people forced the government to accept that it needed to move towards a two-state solution if it was to avoid being isolated and if it was to retain its democratic credentials.

Can the Americans really expect that the Obama tour will do anything other than providing new impetus to recruitment into the ranks of terrorist organisations in the Arab and Muslim world?

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Najmuddin A Shaikh, "The undisputed power," Dawn. 2013-04-03.