Reverse Linkage: Debunked Iraq War Talking Point Is Back

Last week brought a marked increase in neoconservatives and their allies pinpointing “where the road to peace” leads through. In 2002 and 2003, they argued that road leads “through Baghdad.” In 2010, it now leads “through Tehran.”

On a nearly daily occurrence, neoconservative op-ed columns and blogs are recycling the worn talking point, with hawks reiterating peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis are doomed as long as Iran continues its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Back in April 2002, a year prior to the invasion of Iraq, Foreign Policy Initiative and PNAC co-founders Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote that Middle East peace would be unattainable unless Saddam Hussein was overthrown.

Their Weekly Standard article “Remember the Bush Doctrine” read:

… President Bush needs to stay focused on Iraq. Many of those who want him to become deeply and personally involved in the Middle East peace process also want him to do nothing about Saddam Hussein. In the Arab world, in Europe, in Washington and New York, and in some corners of the administration itself, there is the hope that Bush will become so immersed in peace-processing that he’ll have neither the time, the energy, nor the inclination to tackle the more fundamental problem in the Middle East. By turning Bush into a Middle East mediator, they think they can shunt him off the road that leads to real security and peace–the road that runs through Baghdad. We trust the president will see and avoid this trap.

Looking through the rear view mirror with 20/20 hindsight, it’s hard to detect much truth in Kagan and Kristol’s assertion. Although they called Saddam Hussein “the fundamental problem in the Middle East”, the 2006 Lebanon War, the 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza and the winter 2008-2009 Gaza War all occurred after he had been removed from power.

Now they want to drive down their newest repaved “road that leads to real security and peace,” because the last road doesn’t seem to have led anyone there. Their utter failure to chart a sound course in the first decade of the century hasn’t stopped the blustering of Iran hawks throughout Washington. Neoconservatives and their allies still employ the thoroughly debunked “road to peace through [insert Muslim capitol]” argument to redirect public attention away from negotiations over borders and towards the Iranian “existential threat.”

On August 31st, Benjamin Weinthal wrote on the The National Review’s blog, The Corner:

…[T]the Obama administration plans to ignore the 800-pound gorilla — the Islamic Republic of Iran. While the Obama administration is fixated on what will probably turn out to be an empty round of negotiations, Iran’s drive to develop nuclear weapons continues on an accelerated track. A nuclear-armed Iran will only bolster the reactionary Islamic Hamas and its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon. And Iranian nuclear missiles will further destabilize a region already filled with enormous instability.

On September 1st, the JINSA newsletter noted:

Iran is the elephant in the Israel-Palestinian “peace” talks. Iran provides funds and ideological support to Hamas, while Hamas and Fatah are engaged in a civil war that has moved from Gaza (where Fatah supporters have been pushed underground by brutal attacks) to the West Bank, where Hamas supporters are increasingly visible – including in yesterday’s murder of four Israelis. It should be impossible for the Administration to propose a “two state solution” while the Hamas government wages war on both Israel and Fatah.

In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Senator Scott Brown (R-MA), fresh off his first trip to the Middle East, started his op-ed by writing:

Those of us who hope for peace in the Middle East applaud the meeting of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The fact that Palestinians finally agreed to direct negotiations, without preconditions, is a positive step. But let’s not delude ourselves: There can never be peace in the Middle East with a nuclear-armed Iran.

Commentary‘s Jennifer Rubin ran with Brown’s argument, blogging “The Key to Middle East Peace is in Tehran.”

Rubin writes:

From the start of his presidency, Obama has had linkage backward — making the unsupportable claim that Iran can be disarmed only in the aftermath of a successful peace process. It is actually the reverse — toppling the mullahs would be the best encouragement (other than the Palestinians’ renunciation of violence and a one-state solution) to a true peace process. Ironically, doing what Obama loathes (attacking Iran, adopting regime change as our official policy) may be the only way for him to get what he desperately wants but cannot achieve (resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict).

This “reverse linkage” runs counter to much of the conventional wisdom in Washington. Many liberals, progressives, realists and notably, many in the highest echelons of the military establishment, agree U.S. strategic objectives in the Middle East will be easier to accomplish once Israeli-Arab peace (particularly with Palestinians) is achieved. This list includes maintaining stability in Iraq, defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, smothering Al Qaeda and deterring Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.

Last month’s 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll, an annual public opinion survey of residents in five Arab countries conducted by by Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution and the Zogby International polling firm, found that 61 percent of respondents cited the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as their biggest policy disappointment with the Obama administration and the percentage supporting an Iranian nuclear weapons program went up from 53 to 77 percent over the past year.

Back in March, David Petraeus, one of the most influential generals in strategic circles inside and outside the Pentagon, made the military’s position on linkage crystal clear. At the time he was heading up Central Command (CENTCOM), which is responsible for the Middle East and Central Asia.

In his Senate testimony he said:

Insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace. The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the [CENTCOM’s Area of Responsibility]. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas.

Mark Perry reported in Foreign Policy earlier this year that General Petraeus took the extraordinary step in January of requesting Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, currently under European Command, be moved into his CENTCOM purview.

The reverse linkage argument — where neocons tell the American public not to worry about Arab-Israeli peace but to focus instead on Iraq, Iran or another country yet to be named on their map — has been tried, tested and failed. Reverse linkage looks like it’s here to stay no matter how disastrous and ineffective the notion’s implementation has been. Perhaps the best counterargument against those who promote reverse linkage is in the title of Kagan and Kristol’s 2002 article, “Remember the Bush Doctrine.”

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.



  1. We keep going over this ground, and of course we should, given that the other side is forever coming up with new stratagems and lies intended to further its agenda. However, with a shambolic economy and a war that’s not going well in Afghanistan, you can be assured that the U.S. is not about to attack Iran — at least not while the Obama-Biden administration is in office.

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