The Smoking Transcript

The historic piece on the Israel lobby in the London Review of Books in March continues to reverberate. The latest LRB contains a dispute between the paper’s authors, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, and the former executive director of the 9/11 Commission, Philip Zelikow.

The dispute was perhaps inevitable. The original article quoted Zelikow in such a way as to offer a smoking gun for the assertion that Israel’s interests played an important role in the U.S. decision to invade Iraq.

[Zelikow said] the ‘real threat’ from Iraq was not a threat to the United States. The ‘unstated threat’ was the ‘threat against Israel’, Zelikow told an audience at the University of Virginia in September 2002. ‘The American government,’ he added, ‘doesn’t want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it is not a popular sell.’

Zelikow now writes to the LRB that he was quoted out of context, and that he was referring to the 90-91 Gulf War. What he surely did not anticipate is that Walt and Mearsheimer would produce a transcript of the speech, which includes the following:

Third. The unstated threat. And here I criticise the [Bush] administration a little, because the argument that they make over and over again is that this is about a threat to the United States. And then everybody says: ‘Show me an imminent threat from Iraq to America. Show me, why would Iraq attack America or use nuclear weapons against us?’ So I’ll tell you what I think the real threat is, and actually has been since 1990. It’s the threat against Israel. And this is the threat that dare not speak its name, because the Europeans don’t care deeply about that threat, I will tell you frankly. And the American government doesn’t want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it’s not a popular sell.

The authors say that Zelikow is now trying to “rewrite history.” Where did they get the smoking transcript? Apparently from the reporter who broke the Zelikow story two years after the Virginia speech: Emad Mekay of Inter Press Service, writing in the Asia Times online. In 2004, Mekay wrote:

The statements are the first to surface from a source closely linked to the Bush administration acknowledging that the war, which has so far cost the lives of nearly 600 U.S. troops and thousands of Iraqis, was motivated by Washington’s desire to defend the Jewish state…

“Those of us speaking about it sort of routinely referred to the protection of Israel as a component,” said Phyllis Bennis of the Washington-based Institute of Policy Studies. “But this is a very good piece of evidence of that.”

How did Mekay get that transcript, a year after the war began? Jim Lobe of IPS says the Service declines to say. But Lobe adds: “Zelikow, who is now State Department counselor, traditionally a very influential position, has been one of Condi’s most important advisors dating from their NSC days under Bush I. That, more than his 9/11 commission position, is what makes his 2002 remarks so important. She was clearly talking with him.” Indeed, Zelikow’s comments reflect the huge and quiet institutional resistance to the radical neoconservatives. Those resisters don’t like being outed.

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