Campbell: Israeli PM Sharon Threatened Bush with Nuking Iraq (Mearsheimber & Walt vindicated)

Alastair Campbell’s serialized memoirs contain a bombshell that is largely being ignored in the Western press, the revelation that in conversations with President George W. Bush in late 2002, then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon threatened to nuke Baghdad if Saddam Hussein hit Israel with rockets again. (Campbell was then British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s communications director).

It is an astonishing threat. The Iraqi SCUDs that hit Israel during the Gulf War of 1991 were primitive and hardly the sort of threat to Israel that would trigger a nuclear response among sane people.

It is also clear that the threat was intended to force George W. Bush to act aggressively against Saddam:

“Campbell also relays another nuclear threat a year later when George Bush told Blair he feared that Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister, was planning to launch a nuclear attack against Iraq. In an account of a conversation with Bush at a Nato summit in Prague in November 2002, as diplomatic pressure intensified on Saddam Hussein, Campbell writes: “[George Bush] felt that if we got rid of Saddam, we could make progress on the Middle East. He reported on some of his discussions with [Ariel] Sharon, and said he had been pretty tough with him. Sharon had said that if Iraq hit Israel, their response would ‘escalate’ which he took to mean go nuclear. Bush said he said to him ‘You will not, you will not do that, it would be crazy.’ He said he would keep them under control, adding ‘A nuke on Baghdad, that could be pretty tricky.’”

That the threat was made so cavalierly can only provoke some speculation as to whether current Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is behind the scenes once again playing this bargaining chip with regard to Iran. I have long wondered why Western leaders pay so much attention to Netanyahu, the leader of a small country of 7.5 million with a gross domestic product only a little bigger than that of Portugal. Is it because, behind closed doors, they still talk the way Sharon did? Does Israel regularly use its nuclear warheads to blackmail the US and the West more generally?

In their pathbreaking book, The Israel Lobby, John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt argued that among the more important impetuses for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the Israel lobby. Important evidence for this allegation was the central role played in propagandizing for the war by Neoconservative figures such as Richard Perle (chair of the Defense Advisory Committee), Paul Wolfowitz (deputy Secretary of Defense), Douglas Feith (undersecretary of Defense for planning, and himself more or less a militant West Bank settler); along with other officials such as Irv Lewis “Scooter” Libby (convicted of perjury), David Wurmser and John Hannah– all high-ranking members of Israel lobbies at one time or another.

The response to Mearsheimer and Walt’s closely reasoned book was an unseemly food fight. They were denounced as anti-Semites (mostly by bigots who themselves hold racist views of Arabs) on the one hand and accused of presenting insufficient evidence on the other. A chorus of important political figures went so far as to deny that there even is an Israel lobby. (Just as NYT poobah David Brooks had denied that there were any Neoconservatives, provoking Michael Lind and others to some amusement).

Given that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee vigorously pushed Sharon’s policies in the US Congress, it is impossible that Sharon’s alarm about Iraq did not animate their lobbying efforts in fall of 2002, when US politicians were inveigled into giving Bush carte blanche to attack Iraq.

Campbell’s revelation is not only support for the Mearsheimer/Walt thesis, but it actually goes much beyond their analysis. They probably hadn’t dreamed that Sharon was wielding nuclear blackmail to get Bush to go after Iraq!

I myself think that the Iraq War was overdetermined, i.e. that there were multiple motivations for it, and I include oil. But that the Israel lobbies were central to it seems an inescapable conclusion.

At a time when a US war on Iran is building, under the pressure of the same Israel lobbies and the Likud Party in Israel, the American people deserve to know from President Obama whether Netanyahu has threatened to nuke Iran. We have been bamboozled into too many ruinous wars, and the health of our society, values and economy won’t survive another such catastrophe.

45 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    What a convincing argument for the establishment of the Middle Eastern WMD Free zone! This lady’s reading list is a good place to start for those who don’t know how to build one. link to chathamhouse.org

  2. “Sharon,”? Don’t you mean Netanyahu, or are they interchangable?

    • Ariel Sharon was prime minister until his stroke in 2006. Deputy PM Ehud Olmert took over in the interim; Netanyahu was selected as prime minister in 2009.

      No, they aren’t interchangeable…

  3. The Israelis have been threatening to attack Iran for ages. All discussion of this so far seems to be about whether their air force has sufficient capacity to do this effectively, and I strongly suspect that the answer is: no. So the threat to use a nuke seems highly plausible to me.

  4. I fully agree with you: it’s vital for the survival of the USA that President Obama speaks on the mater, even if he fears it may cost him a second term. History will be the judge!

  5. I’m sure that Sharon was exaggerating. He would bomb the hell out of Iraq, but not with nukes. Are the great leaders and politicians that dumb or power crazy?

    Imagine one single Iraqi SCUD or the equivalent bomb dropped or hand delivered and set off in any American city. Immediate reprisal, but not with nukes.

    America got painfully hit by terrorists flown aircraft and took questionable reprisal, seriously bombing and invading the wrong country. The terrorists were and are apparently from Afghanistan, not Iraq. With the corrupt help of and direction by the Military Industrial Complex, America for some unknown reasons(control of oil) went into to Iraq and avoided focusing on Afghanistan. More money and years?

    For the trillions of dollars that have been spent in the Middle East and in Iraq, couldn’t America and the world have focused on replacing Saddam Hussein and “loaning” a few billion dollars to the Iraqis to get their economy rolling, their oil would cover the loan?

    Just a quick comment, early in the morning.

      • Correct.

        There were all trained in Afghanistan after having joined al Qaeda, because that was al Qaeda’s base of operations in the years before 9/11, but none of them were Afghans.

      • Not Iraq.

        Apparently, supposedly according to the US Government, FBI, Aljazeera and/or others, most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis that probably received training in Afghanistan and/or Pakistan, not Iraq. The hijacking pilots received training in Florida. Blah, blah, blah.

        Forget the simple mistakes.

        The point made, “wrong country”, why?

        Solutions to corruption?

  6. The reason why American politicians do whatever Israel wants is that they do not want to end up like Julius Caesar (politically).

    • Two modern US presidents stood up to Israel: George H Bush and Jimmy Carter. Bush over settlements and Carter in being “evenhanded” in the Middle East. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that these were also our only modern one term US presidents.

  7. It would not be surprising if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was. There is much the American people do not know… so much that has gone on behind the scenes.

  8. It probably was a bluff and should have been called. If Sharon would have nuked Iran – it would not be America’s responsibility but the blowback would fall on Israel like a ton of bricks. It would bring world opprobrium upon Israel – including from a large percentage of American Jews. If Israel nukes any nation without first facing a clear and immediate existential threat – that would probably be the ultimate end of Israel as a Jewish nation.

    • I agree, but I wouldn’t bet Israel wouldn’t do. Just that it’d be Israel’s problem if they did, and whatever security they didn’t enjoy by coercion would promptly evaporate: They’d be rocketed irreversibly down the course they now appear to be merely sliding down. Theoretically they can still turn themselves around, but this sort of attack would ultimately be suicidal to Israel as a state.

  9. “I fully agree with you: it’s vital for the survival of the USA that President Obama speaks on the mater, even if he fears it may cost him a second term.”

    Whew! Tough call, eh? Sadly we have been reduced to precisely this.

  10. No problem getting a bunch of responses here. Stephen King’s Chuckee was small but it didn’t keep him from being the driving force of that story.

    For a multitude of reasons Israel has a ring through the noise of US foreign policy, and they aren’t shy about exercising their power. To say the Likudniks is more correct, but it also true that Israelis in general are responsible through tacit support of the Right (in the same way we in the US all bear a degree of responsibility for the actions of GWB).

    Now, take your observations and apply them to the Moscow talks. Obama has to be under incredible pressure, even as he knows that the best interests of the US have nothing to do with Israeli priorities in this matter. If he can get past the elections the pressure will lessen, but the Israelis know it; they may have even worked a deal to allow him that time with the understanding of what is to follow….

    I was struck by the new conference following the March meeting between Obama and Netanyahu. N was looking at O intently as he spoke, as if to confirm, once again, a central understanding he wanted to make sure there was no misunderstanding about: that Israel is a sovereign country and its prerogatives are under no constraint.

    Not to re-open the whole whats-going-to-happen-with-Iran discussion, but logic aside, the situation is looking worse and worse. Raytheon in Tucson just had a announcement of success on a new missile, designed to take out speedboats. The momentum of any number of other factors is all one-sided in preparation for a War of some sort, and creating a reality.

    There is a fine case to be made that a nuclear Iran would be the BEST thing (see Sagan, Waltz and Betts, link to iis-db.stanford.edu ), in terms of creating a regional equilibrium of power. This would also serve to encourage a fair and equitable solution to the Israel/Palestinian conflict, by neutralizing Israel’s current regional hegemony. To be sure, in a realpolitical sense Iran needs to be constrained, but so does Israel. Saudi concerns are also real, but there is a Gulf between them, and a fair and equitable balance between the various powers is possible and needs to be pursued.

  11. Israeli nuclear blackmail is no surprise.

    One of the theories behind Israel’s bombing of the USS Liberty was Israel’s suspicion that the Liberty was monitoring Israeli communications to determine if Israel was about to use its nukes. The US supposedly feared that Israel might resort to nukes if things didn’t go well. Then the US might have acted preemptively to prevent that. Once the Liberty was blinded, Israel could use its nukes…and threaten the world that it might use them, if Israeli demands were not met. Johnson immediately started giving Israel all the aid it wanted.

    I have long suspected that part of Israel’s effort to create urgency in the US for dealing with Iran was nuclear blackmail. If the US doesn’t do it, Israel would just nuke them.

    • Not withstanding agreement on your general point, the Liberty incident makes a lot more sense when you just look at events unfolding on the ground adjacent to where the Liberty was situated that week. Israel had events well in hand and simply wanted to keep it that way

    • Why use Nukes if the surprise attack is going well?
      Intelligence sources have said that Israel had 2 crude Nuclear bombs at offset of 1967 war.Probably as a backup option.

  12. Sharon’s threat to escalate in the event of a scud attack by Saddam is included as a footnote in a Guardian article about the Pak nuke threat.

    It sounds as if Bush was determined to keep that particular mad dog muzzled.

    I doubt whether the situation with US and Israel has changed greatly since, despite different actors now in the lead roles.

  13. Judging whether this was a bluff or not is not really the main point in my opinion.

    First of all, the article indicates that it was Bush’s interpretation that ‘escalate’ would imply nuking. Sharon did not say that explicitly.

    The main point is that a nuclear weapon only serves as a deterrent if it is in the hands of a rational regime. Iran’s regime is claimed to be irrational by the mainstream media and by war-hungry hawks. There have, of course, been notable statements by high-ranking people in Israel and the USA to the contrary. There isn’t any proof Iran is developing nuclear weapons, but in spite of that, the ‘irrationality’ argument is used against Iran to support efforts to curb its indigeneous nuclear program (civilian or otherwise).

    What’s interesting here is that Campbell’s latest revelations might provide some evidence that Israel is an ‘irrational partner’. Its ability to react disproportionately to aggression has been proved many times (Gaza, Lebanon). May be Sharon did think of using nuclear weapons. Can such a country be trusted with having a nuclear weapons arsenal?

    • And since Israel will NOT be giving them up (after all, they’ve not admitted to even having them), the US should back-off and let Iran develop latency. That alone would go far to even the regional power differential and increase the probability of reaching an enduring accommodation with the Palestinians.

  14. We were worried that Israel would nuke Iraq back in 1991 when the SCUDs first started hitting Tel Aviv.

    If that had happened, the Arab coalition partners might very well have switched sides. We were ready to evacuate Jeddah airport (which we were using at the time) on short notice if that happened.

    We threw all our efforts into “SCUD hunting”, which wasn’t very effective but at least kept the Israelis appeased.

  15. A citation from a well-known Israeli war historian Martin van Creveld from his interview of 2003 (see link to en.wikipedia.org ):

    We possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets and can launch them at targets in all directions, perhaps even at Rome. Most European capitals are targets for our air force…. We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that that will happen before Israel goes under.

    • Since Italy and most European nations are NATO members now, that means, per the NATO charter that an attack against one NATO member “is an attack against all” this would place the U.S. in a potential war with Israel should an Israeli attack occur against Europe.

  16. Agree there were multiple motivations and a veiled threat from Israel to use nukes would go into the basket but the main motivation came from Bush and Cheney or Cheney and Bush however you want to characterize it. They wanted the war and that is all it took.

  17. “I have long wondered why Western leaders pay so much attention to Netanyahu, the leader of a small country of 7.5 million with a gross domestic product only a little bigger than that of Portugal.”

    In the U.S. it’s because of money and support from American Jews. AIPAC will do its best to defeat any American presidential candidate who doesn’t toe their line. Plus the republican party depends on its Christian fundamentalist who believe that Israel must be supported and preserved for the battle of Armageddon.

    • “Plus the republican party depends on its Christian fundamentalist who believe that Israel must be supported and preserved for the battle of Armageddon.”

      Or some such thing.

    • Yes, there’s money and support, but the key is how it is made available and distributed. The really deadly lobbies in the US are the ones that have bought BOTH parties. This seems to require awesome resources, otherwise every pressure group would have already done this generations ago. But Israel got a shortcut. It naturally had its supporters in place in the Democratic Party. But it got the GOP as a gift from the Christian Right in the 1970s, and moved quickly to colonize it (something that Israel is pretty good at).

      Also, in order for any of these lobbies to usefully control both parties, it must force at least one of the parties to betray much of its base – which is why it’s ridiculous to expect blacks to split their votes between the parties; the GOP will never betray its racist faction to give blacks what they want. The Israel lobby, however, got the Democratic Party because it got many of the party’s most loyal factions to embrace blind spots in their principles (and understanding of the facts) where Israel is concerned. Human rights, anti-colonialism and anti-white supremacy simply are not modern Republican principles, so no need for cognitive dissonance on that side.

  18. Let me get this straight. Because of the mere possibility that Iran may sometime in the future be able to produce nuclear weapons and so may threaten other countries in the region with nuclear attack, the moral and rational way to deal with this possibility is to launch a nuclear attack against Iran now, just to show them that the world will not tolerate the use of nuclear weapons.

  19. Ariel Sharon was not the first to suggest nuclear weapons.

    Defense Minister Moshe Dayan suggested using them to PM Golda Meir during the Yom Kippur War when things were going badly for Israel.

    Avigdor Lieberman has expressed his consideraton for a nuclear option in Gaza.

  20. Years ago I read somewhere that the Iraq war was simply all about O.I.L: Oil, Israel, Logistics (US bases). Everything that’s come out since then has only strengthened this conclusion.

    Saddam’s evil rule and supposed WMD threat to the West had nothing to do with it, they were just the excuses needed to get public support for the slaughter.

  21. Is Israel suicidal?

    That question really needs to be answered because Israel does not appear to understand just what will probably happen if they ever uses any nukes.

    - If Israel nukes any of the close countries (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan or Egypt) the radioactive byproducts from the blasts will contaminate Israel, killing many Israelis. They will also contaminate southern Russia which could cause the NUCLEAR WEAPON capable Russians to nuke Israel.

    - If Israel nukes any other countries in the Mideast, they will contaminate all the countries down-wind of the blasts. The countries down-wind include THREE countries with NUCLEAR WEAPONS, with the will to use them in retaliation and two have the capability to nuke Israel (maybe all three).

    - If Israel nukes Europe, they will contaminate much of Europe and Russia. In addition to the NUCLEAR WEAPONS capable UK and France, Germany has US nukes in country. These three plus Russia will very probably nuke Israel in a heart beat.

    - Note that ALL of the nuclear capable countries will point blank tell the US to shut up and sit down while they nuke Israel and the US will have to shut up and sit down or face annihilation, since most of the nuclear nations have the capability of nuking the US completely.

    The bottom line is if Israel nukes anyone, they will be sealing the fate of most of the Jews on earth, not just the ones in Israel, because whoever survives the nuclear devastation will very probably hold all Jews responsible (not fair, but standard human response) and hunt down all they can find.

    So the question is “are Israelis Suicidal?”

    • The scenario you outline would be true if the American hegemony did not override the sovereign rights of its allies. Germany is not an independent nuclear actor, the UK is our partner in crime, and France can be pressured. Put it bluntly, with so much love of Israel and hatred of France propagated by every capitalist and conservative institutions, and with Americans totally ignorant of international law and so full of double standards, I could see the US threatening to nuke France for attempting to avenge its contaminated citizens. The people of France, and all Europe, mean nothing to us compared to the People of the Bible.

  22. O.I.L. would seem to be a somewhat obscurantist acronym for the much broader, more inclusive, more fundamental nature of the Beast: wealth transfer, at a rate that tops the Milo Minderbinder/Smedley Butler scale of unimaginably futile and stupid greed, year after year over year.

    This is mostly just all about wealth transfer. From the peasants to the self-perpetuating “elites,” to all those dumb-faux Messianic “contractors” and the politicos and officer-corporatists.

    We really are a fracked-up species…

  23. RE: “…in conversations with President George W. Bush in late 2002, then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon threatened to nuke Baghdad if Saddam Hussein hit Israel with rockets again.” ~ Juan Cole

    MY COMMENT: I wonder if this subject was broached in the conversations that Bush and Blair had with the Israelis during Blair’s April of 2002 visit to Bush’s “ranch” in Crawford (during which Blair allegedly committed to backing/joining a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq).

    FROM STEPHEN WALT (02/08/10):

    (excerpt) . . . In his testimony to the Iraq war commission in the U.K., former Prime Minister Tony Blair offered the following account of his discussions with Bush in Crawford, Texas in April 2002. Blair reveals that concerns about Israel were part of the equation and that Israel officials were involved in those discussions.

    Take it away, Tony:

    As I recall that discussion, it was less to do with specifics about what we were going to do on Iraq or, indeed, the Middle East, because the Israel issue was a big, big issue at the time. I think, in fact, I remember, actually, there may have been conversations that we had even with Israelis, the two of us, whilst we were there. So that was a major part of all this.”

    Notice that Blair is not saying that Israel dreamed up the idea of attacking Iraq or that Bush was bent on war solely to benefit Israel or even to appease the Israel lobby here at home. But Blair is acknowledging that concerns about Israel were part of the equation, and that the Israeli government was being actively consulted in the planning for the war. . .

    SOURCE – link to walt.foreignpolicy.com

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