Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

A Different Tack

Israeli officials warned the George W. Bush administration that an invasion of Iraq would be destabilizing to the region and urged the United States...

Print Friendly

Israeli officials warned the George W. Bush administration that an invasion of Iraq would be destabilizing to the region and urged the United States to instead target Iran as the primary enemy, according to former administration official Lawrence Wilkerson.

Wilkerson, then a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and later chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, told the Inter Press Service that the Israelis reacted immediately to indications that the Bush administration was thinking of war against Iraq. After the Israeli government picked up the first signs of that intention, Wilkerson said: "The Israelis were telling us Iraq is not the enemy—Iran is the enemy."

Wilkerson described the Israeli message to the Bush administration in early 2002 as being: "If you are going to destabilize the balance of power, do it against the main enemy."

The warning against an invasion of Iraq was "pervasive" in Israeli communications with the administration, Wilkerson recalled. It was conveyed to the administration by a wide range of Israeli sources, including political figures, intelligence community members, and private citizens.

Wilkerson noted that the main point of their communications was not that the United States should immediately attack Iran, but that "it should not be distracted by Iraq and Saddam Hussein" from a focus on the threat from Iran.

The Israeli advice against using military force against Iraq was apparently triggered by reports reaching Israeli officials in December 2001 that the Bush administration was beginning serious planning for an attack on Iraq. Journalist Bob Woodward revealed in Plan of Attack that on December 1, 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had ordered the Central Command chief Gen. Tommy Franks to come up with the first formal briefing on a new war plan for Iraq on December 4. That started a period of intense discussions of war planning between Rumsfeld and Franks.

Soon after Israeli officials got wind of that planning, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked for a meeting with Bush primarily to discuss U.S. intentions to invade Iraq. In the weeks preceding Sharon’s meeting with Bush on February 7, 2002, a procession of Israeli officials conveyed the message to the Bush administration that Iran represented a greater threat, according to a Washington Post report on the eve of the meeting.

Israeli Minister of National Infrastructures Binyamin Fouad Ben-Eliezer, who was visiting Washington with Sharon, revealed the essence of the strategic differences between Tel Aviv and Washington over military force. He was quoted by the Post as saying, "Today, everybody is busy with Iraq. Iraq is a problem. … But you should understand, if you ask me, today Iran is more dangerous than Iraq."

Sharon never revealed publicly what he said to Bush in the February 7 meeting. But Yossi Alpher, a former adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, wrote in an article in the Forward last January that Sharon advised Bush not to occupy Iraq, according to a knowledgeable source. Alpher wrote that Sharon also assured Bush that Israel would not "push one way or another" regarding his plan to take down Saddam Hussein.

Alpher noted that Washington did not want public support from Israel and in fact requested that Israel refrain from openly supporting the invasion in order to avoid an automatic negative reaction from Iraq’s Arab neighbors.

After that meeting, the Sharon government generally remained silent on the issue of an invasion of Iraq. A notable exception, however, was a statement on August 16, 2002, by Raanan Gissin, an aide to Sharon. Gissin declared: "Any postponement of an attack on Iraq at this stage will serve no purpose. It will only give [Hussein] more of an opportunity to accelerate his program of weapons of mass destruction."

As late as October 2002, however, there were still signs of continuing Israeli grumbling about the Bush administration’s obsession with taking over Iraq. Both the Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff and its chief of military intelligence made public statements that month implicitly dismissing the Bush administration’s position that Saddam Hussein’s alleged quest for nuclear weapons made him the main threat. Both officials suggested that Israel’s military advantage over Iraq had continued to increase over the decade since the Gulf War as Iraq had grown weaker.

The Israeli chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Farkash, said Iraq had not deployed any missiles that could strike Israel directly and challenged the Bush administration’s argument that Iraq could obtain nuclear weapons within a relatively short time. He gave an interview to Israeli television in which he said army intelligence had concluded that Iraq could not have nuclear weapons in less than four years. He insisted that Iran was as much of a nuclear threat as Iraq.

Israeli strategists generally believed that taking down the Hussein regime could further upset an Iran-Iraq power balance that had already tilted in favor of Iran after the U.S. defeat of Hussein’s army in the 1991 Gulf War. By 1996, however, neoconservatives with ties to the Likud Party were beginning to argue for a more aggressive joint U.S.-Israeli strategy aimed at a "rollback" of all of Israel’s enemies in the region, including Iran, but beginning by taking down Hussein and putting a pro-Israel regime in power there.

That was the thrust of the 1996 report of a task force led by Richard Perle for the right-wing Israeli think tank the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies and aimed at the Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But most strategists in the Israeli government and the Likud Party—including Sharon himself—did not share that viewpoint. Despite agreement between neoconservatives and Israeli officials on many issues, the dominant Israeli strategic judgment on the issue of invading Iraq diverged from that of U.S. neoconservatives because of differing political-military interests.

Israel was more concerned with the relative military threat posed by Iran and Iraq, whereas neoconservatives in the Bush administration were focused on regime change in Iraq as a low-cost way of leveraging more ambitious changes in the region. From the neoconservative perspective, the very military weakness of Hussein’s Iraq made it the logical target for the use of U.S. military power.

Gareth Porter is a national security policy analyst who writes for the Inter Press Service. His latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005.


Gareth Porter, "A Different Tack," Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, September 4, 2007).

Share RightWeb

Featured Profiles

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), President Trump’s nominee for secretary of state to replace Rex Tillerson, is a “tea party” Republican who previously served as director of the CIA.

Richard Goldberg is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who served as a foreign policy aide to former Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL).

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has been advocating regime change in Iran since even before 9/11.

John Hannah, Dick Cheney’s national security adviser, is now a leading advocate for regime change in both Iran and Syria based at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Dennis Ross, a U.S. diplomat who served in the Obama administration, is a fellow at the “pro-Israel” Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Sheldon Adelson is a wealthy casino magnate known for his large, influential political contributions, his efforts to impact U.S. foreign policy discourse particularly among Republicans, and his ownership and ideological direction of media outlets.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is known for his hawkish views on foreign policy and close ties to prominent neoconservatives.

For media inquiries,
email rightwebproject@gmail.com

From the Wires

Print Friendly

North Korea and Iran both understand the lesson of Libya: Muammar Qaddafi, a horrifyingly brutal dictator, gave up his nuclear weapons, was eventually ousted from power with large-scale US assistance, and was killed. However, while Iran has a long and bitter history with the United States, North Korea’s outlook is shaped by its near-total destruction by forces led by the United States in the Korean War.

Print Friendly

Europe loathes having to choose between Tehran and Washington, and thus it will spare no efforts to avoid the choice. It might therefore opt for a middle road, trying to please both parties by persuading Trump to retain the accord and Iran to limit missile ballistic programs and regional activities.

Print Friendly

Key members of Trump’s cabinet should recognize the realism behind encouraging a Saudi- and Iranian-backed regional security agreement because the success of such an agreement would not only serve long-term U.S. interests, it could also have a positive impact on numerous conflicts in the Middle East.

Print Friendly

Given that Israel failed to defeat Hezbollah in its war in Lebanon in 2006, it’s difficult to imagine Israel succeeding in a war against both Hezbollah and its newfound regional network of Shiite allies. And at the same time not only is Hezbollah’s missile arsenal a lot larger and more dangerous than it was in 2006, but it has also gained vast experience alongside its allies in offensive operations against IS and similar groups.

Print Friendly

Donald Trump should never be excused of responsibility for tearing down the respect for truth, but a foundation for his flagrant falsifying is the fact that many people would rather be entertained, no matter how false is the source of their entertainment, than to confront truth that is boring or unsatisfying or that requires effort to understand.

Print Friendly

It would be a welcome change in twenty-first-century America if the reckless decision to throw yet more unbelievable sums of money at a Pentagon already vastly overfunded sparked a serious discussion about America’s hyper-militarized foreign policy.

Print Friendly

President Trump and his advisers ought to ask themselves whether it is in the U.S. interest to run the risk of Iranian withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. Seen from the other side of the Atlantic, running that risk looks dumb.