Juan Cole highlights a detail from Alastair Campbell’s diaries that has so far received little media attention: that in 2002 Ariel Sharon apparently threatened a nuclear strike on Baghdad. Cole interprets this as an example of Israel engaging in nuclear blackmail and wonders whether Netanyahu is now using the same tactic.
Read what Campbell (Tony Blair’s Director of Communications and Strategy) actually wrote — it’s not clear to me that Cole’s interpretation actually makes much sense.
This is what The Guardian reported:
In an account of a conversation [Tony Blair had] with Bush at a Nato summit in Prague in November 2002, as diplomatic pressure intensified on Saddam Hussein, Campbell writes: “[George Bush] felt that if we got rid of Saddam, we could make progress on the Middle East. He reported on some of his discussions with [Ariel] Sharon, and said he had been pretty tough with him. Sharon had said that if Iraq hit Israel, their response would ‘escalate’ which he took to mean go nuclear. Bush said he said to him ‘You will not, you will not do that, it would be crazy.’ He said he would keep them under control, adding ‘A nuke on Baghdad, that could be pretty tricky.’”
The first question is: who is applying nuclear blackmail? Sharon on Bush, or Bush on Blair? Was Bush so intimidated by Sharon that he dared not ask him what kind of escalation he had in mind or did the ambiguity actually provide Bush with some useful leverage? In other words, could Bush use some fear of Mad Dog Israel in order to help build his international alliance against Saddam? It’s noteworthy that Bush’s assurance to Blair was that he would keep Sharon under control.
Whatever form of escalation Sharon was threatening, the one thing the diary does make clear is that this would be a possible response to an Iraqi strike on Israel. Just as much as this might sound like a demand for Bush to strike Iraq so hard that it couldn’t fire any Scuds at Israel, it probably said more about Sharon’s preoccupation with the Second Intifada. Unlike 1991 when Israel had acquiesced to American demands that it stay out of the conflict, even whilst under attack, this time around Sharon would as he said be compelled to make a show of Israel’s strength. Politically, Sharon could not afford to have his inability to prevent suicide attacks coupled with an unwillingness to respond to Scud attacks.