Eighteen years have now passed since the calamitous terrorist attacks on the United States which occurred on September 11, 2001. In a speech delivered two weeks later, President George W. Bush declared a “war on terrorism” that has since been one of the driving factors in American foreign policy for nearly two decades. In the ensuing time period, the United States has embarked on one foreign policy misadventure after another, with each of these generating counterproductive and often horrendous results.
The United States invaded Afghanistan a month after the September 11 incident, on October 7, 2001, for the purpose of destroying the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization that claimed responsibility for the attacks, and overthrowing Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. After 18 years of war in Afghanistan, the Taliban is poised to make a likely comeback following eventual US troop withdrawal. The war in Iraq that was launched in 2003 has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, perhaps millions. The primary victor of the Iraq War was Iran, whose long-time neighboring enemy, the regime of Saddam Hussein, was eliminated. Iraq is now governed by a coalition of Shiites and Communists that are sympathetic to Iran.[i] The 2011 war in Libya decimated what was once the richest nation in Africa. Libya has since descended into barbarism complete with the return of chattel slavery.
The war in Syria, which also began in 2011, was fueled in part by US support for so-called “moderate rebels,” which were in reality Takfiri terrorist organizations committed to the overthrow of the secular, multi-confessional Assad government and the creation of an Islamist regime. The Syrian civil war has also resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees, including the massive influx of refugees into Europe, which critics have argued threatens the cultural and demographic balance of Europe, and increases the risk of domestic Islamist terrorism in European nations. The growth of the Islamic State (ISIS) was made possible by the destabilization of the region because of the wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Despite the claims of the United States to be waging a “war on terrorism,” the number of terrorist organizations has continued to proliferate and is now larger than ever. The growth of Iran’s Resistance Block, which includes a network of states and non-state actors that transcend sectarian, ethnic, national, and ideological boundaries, has been made possible because of the perception of Iran as the leading regional counterforce to American imperialism in the Middle East. Throughout 2019, hostilities between US and Iran have continued to escalate.
It has been estimated that the war on terrorism has cost the United States approximately six trillion dollars. Nearly 7,000 American troops have been killed during the course of the post-September 11 wars. The worldwide loss of US prestige has been significant, as many of the world’s peoples now regard America as the leading threat to peace, in spite of the initial outpouring of goodwill the United States received following the September 11 attacks. From the point of view of a rational assessment of America’s foreign policy performance over the past two decades, the US has gained very little in the way of return on an investment of trillions of dollars, the lives of thousands of troops, and a conservative estimate of hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. Nevertheless, the United States continues to engage in “counterterrorism” activities in more than 75 nations.
The September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States were easily recognizable by informed people as the product of what is called “blowback” in intelligence circles. The late Chalmers Johnson, a former CIA intelligence analyst, described the relationship between US foreign policy and terrorist “blowback”:
The concept of “blowback” does not just mean retaliation for things our government has done to and in foreign countries. It refers to retaliation for the numerous illegal operations we have carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public. This means that when the retaliation comes – as it did so spectacularly on September 11, 2001 – the American public is unable to put the events in context. So they tend to support acts intended to lash out against the perpetrators, thereby most commonly preparing the ground for yet another cycle of blowback.
Dr. Michael Scheuer, who served as the chief of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden tracking unit between 1996 and 1999, described the motivations of the Al-Qaeda terrorists for the attacks, with these motivations being repeatedly emphasized by Islamists for decades at this point. The principal grievances of Islamist terrorist organizations against the United States include US support for governments in Muslim countries such as the Gulf monarchies that are seen as apostates and the presence of Western troops on the Arabian Peninsula which is viewed as an incursion into the Muslim Holy Land. The complicity of the United States in Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, and pressure on oil-producing Arab nations to keep energy prices low at the expense of impoverishing Muslim people, have also been cited by Islamists. The sanctions that were imposed on Iraq following the 1991 Persian Gulf War (which resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths), and subsequent outright occupation of Muslim nations such as Afghanistan and Iraq, have also fueled Islamic extremism. Additionally, the United States has provided support for Russia, China, and India during the conflicts between these regimes and Islamists in Chechnya, Kashmir, and Xinjiang.
As is often the case with dramatic and horrifying events, many conspiracy theories have emerged offering alternative explanations for the events of September 11, including those attributing responsibility for the attacks to Israel’s Mossad, or even US intelligence itself. Conspiracy theories of these kinds are regrettable because they have the effect of obscuring serious critiques of the role of blowback in the proliferation of terrorist activity targeting the United States. A more plausible theory involves the possibility of a connection between the September 11 hijackers and Saudi intelligence, as indicated in the initially redacted 28 pages of the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001, which was conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, with the report being issued in December of 2002. The 28 pages were finally declassified in 2016 and revealed the investigative committee’s suspicions of funding having been provided to the hijackers by persons associated with the Saudi government, including at least two Saudi intelligence officers. However, it would also be a mistake to attribute the events of September 11 to “the Saudis” or to Saudi intelligence per se.
Instead, the series of disasters that have taken place within the context of the relationship between the “Atlanticist” powers (the United States and its European allies) and their allies and foes in the Middle East must necessarily be understood in a wider geopolitical context. Many critics of US foreign policy have offered a range of perspectives concerning the motivations that drive America’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Many of the present day conflicts between the West and various forces in the Middle East can be traced to the impact of the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the area for six centuries prior to being defeated by the Atlanticist powers in World War One. Much of the area was subsequently occupied by various Atlanticist and Central European imperial forces, and divided into colonial territories with no regard for natural boundaries involving ethnicity, religion, language, or geography. In the era following World War Two, American involvement in the region became increasingly pervasive due to the presence of oil wealth in the Middle East, and the desire to curb Soviet influence within the context of Cold War geopolitics.
The two leading Atlanticist powers of the mid-20th century, the United States and England, were influential in the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1933. The relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia has been especially strong since the emergence of the US as the world’s dominant superpower in the aftermath of World War Two. The United States and England were also instrumental in the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the relationship between the US and Israel has intensified in the ensuing decades as well. As the United States became the dominant Atlanticist power in the postwar period, what has often been called a “special relationship” between the US and Saudi Arabia, and the US and Israel, developed. During the Cold War, these relationships were often claimed to be the result of anti-Soviet concerns. However, the development of the so-called “Washington Consensus” at the end of the Cold War modified the geopolitical framework of the relationship between the United States and the Middle East.
The Washington Consensus was a statement of principles expressing the preference of the United States for the development of a global economy based on neoliberal policies which other nations were expected to adopt, and a unipolar world order that would be maintained by means of American military power. A leading proponent of this perspective, the neoconservative commentator William Kristol, described the world order that emerged in the post-Cold War era as supposed “benevolent global hegemony.” Consequently, nations which have refused to be incorporated into the global economy under conditions specified by the Washington Consensus, or the principles of neoliberalism, have come to be known a “rogue states.” Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya were previously considered to be rogue states, and Iran, Syria, Sudan, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea continue to be given this label. Critiques of US foreign policy are frequently one-dimensional to an excessive degree and attribute US actions in the Middle East, or elsewhere, to singular causes or motivations on the part of policy-makers. Among the motivations often cited are “oil,” “Israel,” “empire-building,” “ideological crusades for ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights,’” “globalization,” or “the military-industrial complex.” None of these factors alone can explain the entirety of US actions in the region, although all of them provide a plausible explanation of at least some US actions at certain times.
The need for the military-industrial complex to maintain a justification for its massive budgets, in spite of the fact that the US spends more money on its military than most other leading nations combined, is clearly present. The achievement and maintenance of access to valuable resources in the Middle East, such as petroleum, natural gas, minerals, and opium is obviously a motivating factor behind certain Middle East policies, along with the desire to maintain the position of the petrodollar. The relationship between the United States and Israel, and the influence of Israel in the domestic politics of the United States and over American foreign policy, is clearly a factor as well. Israel serves as a guaranteed export market for American armaments manufacturers that is underwritten by taxpayers in the United States. The US provides Israel with billions of dollars in annual subsidies with the requirement that substantial portions of these resources are used to purchase weapons and equipment from American arms makers.
Disagreement exists about the “dog and tail” aspects of the relationship between the United States and Israel. Some long-term critics of the US-Israel relationship, such as Noam Chomsky, have argued that Israel is largely a puppet, outpost, or at least a client of the United States. Other critics, like James Petras and Gilad Atzmon, have claimed that Israel has been successful at essentially colonizing the United States. Criticism of Israel has long been one of the strongest taboos in mainstream American journalism, education, and political culture. Americans that have sought to challenge the influence of Israel over US policy have been mercilessly targeted for professional ruin by pro-Israeli elements. Among the more notable targets have been politicians such as Pete McCloskey, Paul Findley, Earl Hilliard, and Cynthia McKinney, academics such as Norman Finkelstein, or writers such as Helen Thomas, Pat Buchanan, Joseph Sobran, and Murray Rothbard.
The role of Jewish influence generally and pro-Israel sentiment specifically in US electoral politics is beyond rational dispute. A 2016 article in the Jerusalem Post indicated that Jews contribute 50% of all donations to the Democratic Party, and 25% of all donations to the Republican Party. Key states in US elections such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida maintain significantly sized Jewish populations. It has been estimated that in the 2016 presidential election the Democratic Party received approximately 70% of the Jewish vote while the Republican Party received 30%.[ii] However, the opinions of American Jews concerning Israel are by no means monolithic. In recent years, the comparative moderate, George Soros-backed J Street organization has emerged as a counterpart to the more hard line, Likud Party-connected America Israel Public Affairs Committee. Leftist organizations such as Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) are also active. The JVP favors Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem and supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
Additionally, what has been called the “Israeli Lobby” in the United States is not monolithically Jewish in either ethnicity or religion. Israeli partisans in the United States include ethnic Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular Jews, Christians and secular Gentiles. On a numerical level, so-called Christian Zionists are much larger than the number of American Jews who profess loyalty to Israel. Christian Zionism is a tendency within Protestant evangelicalism and fundamentalism that regards the “restoration” of Israel in 1948 as the fulfillment of a supposed biblical prophecy concerning the prerequisite conditions for the return of Jesus Christ, or what Christians often refer to as the “Second Coming.” Conservative Protestants with Christian Zionist views are among the largest and most important constituent groups within the Republican Party. For example, while AIPAC is the most influential Zionist organization in the United States, Christians United for Israel, an evangelical organization led by the televangelist John Hagee, is actually the largest.
The so-called Israel Lobby is also divided into formal and informal sectors. The formal sector includes organizations that formally engage in political action on behalf of Zionist causes, such as AIPAC, Christians United for Israel, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the Zionist Organization of America. The informal sector includes a range of organization and institutions that provide direct or indirect support for Israel, including many Christian church denominations, along with Jewish organizations and secular political organizations with a pro-Israel orientation. Pro-Israel elements in the United States influence policy by a variety of means including voting, donating to political campaigns, sponsoring trips to Israel by American politicians, and forming university campus organizations. Many leading public policy “think tanks” maintain a strongly pro-Israel stance, including notable entities such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Security Policy, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), and the Brookings Institution-sponsored Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
Of course, critics of pro-Israel influence in American politics are often accused of promoting traditional anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the supposed pernicious Jewish influence over public affairs and world events. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have offered a more nuanced view:
In its basic operations, the Israel Lobby is no different from the farm lobby, steel or textile workers’ unions, or other ethnic lobbies. There is nothing improper about American Jews and their Christian allies attempting to sway US policy: the Lobby’s activities are not a conspiracy of the sort depicted in tracts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. For the most part, the individuals and groups that comprise it are only doing what other special interest groups do, but doing it very much better. By contrast, pro-Arab interest groups, in so far as they exist at all, are weak, which makes the Israel Lobby’s task even easier.[iii]
While other ethnic, religious, and international lobbies certainly exist within the context of US domestic politics (Cuban-Americans based in Florida are an obvious and important example), none of these have gained the level of power and influence that has long been held by the Israel lobby.
Mitchell Bard explains the predominant factors that motivate American pro-Israel elements in the United States:
American Jews recognize the importance of support for Israel because of the dire consequences that could follow from the alternative. Despite the fact that Israel is often referred to now as the fourth most powerful country in the world, the perceived threat to Israel is not military defeat, it is annihilation. At the same time, American Jews are frightened of what might happen in the United States if they do not have political power.[iv]
No doubt the legacy of traditional anti-Semitism and its excesses, combined with the horrors of the Holocaust, serve as a powerful motivating factor for many diaspora Jews, whether in the United States or elsewhere, to feel affinity with and offer support to Israel. No doubt many non-Jewish Americans are motivated by similar sentiments, particularly American Christians for whom the Jewish people are powerfully connected with their religious heritage.
However, it is also true that similar claims cannot reasonably be made about the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. It is often claimed that Israel merits support because it is an ostensible democracy, and a supposedly Western country. But Saudi Arabia is one of the most retrograde nations in the world, which functions an absolute monarchy and feudal theocracy. The status of women in Saudi Arabia is appallingly low by Western standards, and all public expressions of any religion other than Sunni Islam, including Christianity and Judaism, are forbidden in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government routinely inflicts medieval punishments on religious and political dissidents such as flogging, amputation, crucifixion, and beheading. The Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, a highly rigid form of theocratic fundamentalism, is the official state religion of Saudi Arabia.
However, like Israel, Saudi Arabia is an export market for American arms manufacturers that is subsidized by American taxpayers, in addition to the massive holdings by American petroleum companies in the kingdom. The support of Saudi Arabia for Takfiri terrorist organizations through the Middle East is well-known, along with similar support for terrorism offered by other Gulf monarchies such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia also maintains a significant lobby in the United States, although one that is not as influential as the Israel lobby, and which certainly lacks the level of popular support.
The disasters that have been produced by the foreign policy of the United States in the Middle East over the past two decades, if not much longer, clearly indicate the necessity of restructuring foreign policy in the region. It is not in the rational self-interest of the United States to pursue a foreign policy that is going to result in terrorist blowback or the ongoing proliferation of terrorist organizations, or which costs trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. Nor it is in the interests of the West to engage in wars and other foreign policy actions which produce millions of refugees seeking asylum in Western countries. The present US foreign policy paradigm in the Middle East benefits only a very narrow range of elite interests within the United States, and the interests of foreign states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia which often diverge from the interests of ordinary American citizens. Exposing the history of the relationship between the Atlanticist powers, Zionism, and Wahhabism is a necessary step to effectively altering America’s foreign policy paradigm in the region.
[i] Ali, Salam (2018). Shiite-Communist Coalition Wins Most Seats in Iraqi Election. Peoples’ World. Retrieved from https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/shiite-communist-coalition-wins-most-seats-in-iraq-election/
[ii] Benjamin, Medea (2015). 10 Reasons I’m Praying for AIPAC’s Decline. The Nation. Retrieved from https://www.thenation.com/article/10-reasons-im-praying-aipacs-decline/
[iii] Mearsheimer, John and Walt, Stephen (2006). The Israel Lobby. London Review of Books. Retrieved from https://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n06/john-mearsheimer/the-israel-lobby
[iv] Bard, Mitchell (2019). The Pro-Israel and Pro-Arab Lobbies. Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved from https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-pro-israel-and-pro-arab-lobbies