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The Earthly Interests of Power: A Response to Philip Weiss

[Originally published on Mondoweiss, September 20, 2012]

In a piece entitled "It's not about religion, says Gregory Harms. I say it is," Mondoweiss co-editor Philip Weiss addressed a number of issues in response to the observations I make in It's Not about Religion. In his analysis, he focuses more on the role of Jewish-Zionist influences, good and bad, in the Middle East. While I am not in a position to speak on matters of Jewishness and the "Jewish political soul," I would like to discuss some of Weiss's main points concerning the Middle East's management and manipulation, and the role the United States and Israel play in these affairs.

As Weiss mentions, "Harms is critical of those who speak for the American interest, but it must be pointed out that these types have long opposed the relationship with Israel as counter productive." He then goes on to cite the hesitance of the State Department regarding the establishment and US recognition of Israel in 1947-48. This hesitance did exist, and even more broadly than Weiss indicates. Along with State, most of the defense and intelligence community were against partition of Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state. The judgment was merely practical: Partition of Palestine would offer a significant change in the regional status quo, inviting unknown outcomes. Moreover, the Middle East in 1948 was not yet the major strategic concern it was to become, so it was deemed best to keep things constant.

The decision to recognize Israel, again, was based on pragmatism and power. Given the Zionists' resourcefulness and martial performance during the 1948 war, Washington began to take interest in Israel as being a potential use. The view from the White House toward Tel Aviv has always been one of service and utility. Truman's feelings about the Jews - which bounced around from sympathetic to anti-Semitic dismissal - hardly played a role. So in 1948, the assessment among US policymakers went from hesitance regarding an unknown quantity to viewing Israel as a possible instrument. That Israel was a Jewish state factored little if any in the calculus. It is also worth bearing in mind that Washington's other geostrategic "pillar" in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia. Power is not overly particular.

Weiss then notes the hesitance of former planners such as Brent Scowcroft and James Baker regarding the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that "Neoconservative Zionists pushed for the Iraq war" to America's detriment. As Weiss notes,

[The invasion] would gain us nothing in terms of oil or strategic advantage. And they [those who were hesitant] were plainly right; it was hugely costly to the U.S..... Today Russia and China have oil concessions in Iraq, and Iraq is working against the U.S. on Iran.

The thesis that the Neocons and the Israel lobby pushed the United States into Iraq (also maintained by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their book The Israel Lobby) defies logic and runs counter to how power has worked throughout human history. The top advisers around the president (Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al.) saw an opportunity and presumed it would be a turkey shoot. The decision to invade and the manifest thinking behind that decision are entirely consistent with the history of US foreign policy, especially the post-1945 period. Weiss is right that the operation was a failure according its apparent objectives, and that it was costly. But to whom was it costly? The burdens are borne by the military, their friends and families, and the American tax payer. Were these actual concerns - which they never are - the United States would simply never invade foreign countries.

With regard to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, Weiss lists a number of intellectuals and members of the defense and political establishment who, as he states, "have said that the occupation doesn't serve America's interest. Both George H.W. Bush and Obama called for an end to settlements, and both failed; there's still an occupation." It is true some view the occupation critically, for various reasons. However, the argument that the occupation does not serve US strategic interests is not convincing. Israel's control of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem serves a dual use. First, it helps keep Israel in the mode of militancy. By remaining thus, Israel then has two constant needs: it requires more and better weaponry, along with diplomatic protection. So the defense industry benefits handsomely, and Washington benefits by having a needy client and therefore better leverage over its behavior. Second, democracy prevention is a core doctrine in US foreign policy. If the Palestinians achieve easy self-determination, other groups might become similarly inspired (called the "domino theory," among other labels). The occupation therefore sends a sober message to this effect. And if Israel's occupation did indeed run counter to US geostrategic interests, there would be no more occupation.

Weiss correctly observes that neoliberal capitalism carries on in regions and countries such as South America, Vietnam, and others, regardless of greater independence from the United States. However, this has been despite Washington's past efforts to exert greater influence. Palestine is not vital to American corporate intrigue; and upon the eventual creation of a Palestinian state, yes, there will be opportunities to make some money. But for now, Palestine remains a domino and something to keep Tel Aviv occupied, as it were.

The issue of settlements teeters on the edge of what is acceptable to White House policy. Bush Sr. and Obama (and others) did not "fail" in achieving a halt to settlement construction; the issue is just of low to medium priority. Israeli expansion in the West Bank can raise the temperature too high and possibly provoke local and regional instability beyond preferred, manageable levels. When Israel oversteps its bounds, its leash gets jerked. Israeli recalcitrance is expected; it's part of Tel Aviv's job to be difficult. But again, at acceptable levels. Were the settlements a serious issue where US priorities were being impeded, a phone call would be made and there would be no more settlement expansion.

After 1945, the United States emerged the most powerful state on earth, with Soviet Russia coming in a distant second place. By the early 1950s, the strategic value of the Middle East began to increase, and US interest along with it. The history of American involvement in the Arab world has been one of control, and all the brutality that goes with it. Is Washington engaged in a war on Islam? No. It is and has been, however, engaged in an effort to suppress the region's inhabitants and their basic desires for freedom and dignity. That they are mostly Muslim is not an underlying factor; the situation would likely be no different were most people in the region Presbyterian, Taoist, Rastafari, or adherents to Choctaw Indian spirituality.

Weiss is correct that religion does enter the picture and play a role in defining the various groups and how they interact. Islam and Judaism (and Zionism) are integral to the backgrounds and beliefs of those living in the region. Religion, therefore, is definitely in the frame. However, when one surveys the patterns of Western global dominance over the course of the last hundred years, what has been at work is a very short list of impulses, all of which are of this earth. As a result, the grievances of those in the Middle East living under this domination are also of an earthly nature, namely, the secular political demands being made by the Arab Spring.

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