Saturday, June 17, 2006

The "Israel Lobby" and American Foreign Policy

Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt are two of the most prominent and important international relations scholars working today. Their books on alliance formation and offensive realism are among the most influential in the contemporary realist tradition. Their reputations, however, appear to have taken a bit a ding with the March publication of their coauthored paper, "The Israel Lobby," in the London Review of Books (the paper's also available at the website of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard).

After an early initial wave a criticism in opinion pages and so forth (see here for some background), a newer round of longer commentaries is appearing in various publications. Indeed, Michael Massing's June 8 article in the New York Review of Books ought to be required reading on the subject. His introduction indicates the significance of the controversy:

Not since Foreign Affairs magazine published Samuel Huntington's "The Clash of Civilizations?" in 1993 has an academic essay detonated with such force as "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy," by professors John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Published in the March 23, 2006, issue of the London Review of Books and posted as a "working paper" on the Kennedy School's Web site, the report has been debated in the coffeehouses of Cairo and in the editorial offices of Haaretz. It's been called "smelly" (Christopher Hitchens), "nutty" (Max Boot), "conspiratorial" (the Anti-Defamation League), "oddly amateurish" (the Forward), and "brave" (Philip Weiss in The Nation). It's prompted intense speculation over why The New York Times has given it so little attention and why The Atlantic Monthly, which originally commissioned the essay, rejected it.

The objects of all this controversy are two eminent members of the academic establishment. Mearsheimer is a graduate of West Point, a veteran of five years in the Air Force, and the author of three books, including The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. In 1989, Mearsheimer persuaded Walt to leave Princeton and to join the faculty at Chicago, and they worked closely together until 1999, when Walt left for Harvard's Kennedy School; he's been its academic dean for the last three years. Last year, he published Taming American Power: The Global Response to US Primacy. As their book titles suggest, both professors belong to the "realist" school of international relations, viewing national interest as the only effective ground for making foreign policy.

In their paper (the Web version runs eighty-two pages, forty of them footnotes), Mearsheimer and Walt argue that the centerpiece of US policy in the Middle East has been its unwavering support for Israel, and that this has not been in America's best interest. In their view, the "extraordinary generosity" the US showers on Israel— the nearly $3 billion in direct foreign assistance it provides every year, the access it gives Israel to "top-drawer" weapons like F-16 jets, the thirty-two UN Security Council resolutions critical of Israel that it has vetoed since 1982, the "wide latitude" it has given Israel in dealing with the occupied territories—all this "might be understandable if Israel were a vital strategic asset or if there were a compelling moral case for sustained US backing." In fact, they write, "neither rationale is convincing." Israel may have had strategic value for the US during the cold war when the Soviet Union had heavy influence in Egypt and Syria, but that has long since faded. Since September 11, Israel has been cast as a crucial ally in the war on terror, but actually, according to Mearsheimer and Walt, it has been more of a liability; its close ties to America have served as a rallying point for Osama bin Laden and other anti-American extremists. Morally, Israel qualifies as a democracy, the authors write, but it's a deeply flawed one, discriminating against its Arab citizens and oppressing the Palestinians who have lived under its occupation.
I spent close to an hour yesterday giving this article a careful reading -- it's a good, balanced piece that benefits from a handful of interviews with a number of congressional and interest group insiders. Massing disagrees not so much with Mearsheimer and Walt's central claims, but with the shoddy research that went into the publication. Not to be outdone, Measheimer and Walt have published a rejoinder to their critics in the new issue of Foreign Policy. Here's a key section:

Every year, the United States gives Israel a level of support that far exceeds what it provides to other states. Although Israel is now an industrial power with a per-capita GDP roughly equal to Spain’s or South Korea’s, it still receives about $3 billion in U.S. aid each year—that is, roughly $500 per Israeli citizen. Israel also gets a variety of other special deals and consistent diplomatic support. We believe that this generosity cannot be fully explained on either strategic or moral grounds. Israel may have been a strategic asset during the Cold War, but it is a strategic burden in the war on terror and the broader U.S. effort to deal with rogue states. The moral rationale for unconditional U.S. support is undermined by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and its unwillingness to offer them a viable state. We believe there is a strong moral case for Israel’s existence, but that existence is not at risk. Palestinian extremists and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may dream of wiping Israel “off the map,” but fortunately neither has the ability to make that dream a reality.

The “special relationship” with Israel, we argue, is due largely to the activities of the Israel lobby—a loose coalition of individuals and organizations who openly work to push U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. The lobby is not synonymous with Jewish Americans, because many of them do not support its positions, and some groups that work on Israel’s behalf (Christian evangelicals, for example) are not Jewish. The lobby has no central leadership. It is not a cabal or a conspiracy. These organizations are simply engaged in interest-group politics, a legitimate activity in the American political system. These organizations believe their efforts advance both American and Israeli interests. We do not.

We described how the Israel lobby fosters support within the U.S. Congress and the executive branch, and how it shapes public discourse so that Israel’s actions are perceived sympathetically by the American public. Groups in the lobby direct campaign contributions to encourage politicians to adopt pro-Israel positions. They write articles, letters, and op-eds defending Israel’s actions, and they go to great lengths to discredit or marginalize anyone who criticizes U.S. support for Israel. The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is the lobby’s most powerful organization, and it openly touts its influence over U.S. Middle East policy. Prominent politicians from both parties acknowledge AIPAC’s power and effectiveness. Former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt once observed that if AIPAC were not “fighting on a daily basis to strengthen [the relationship], it would not be.”

We also traced the lobby’s impact on recent U.S. policies, including the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Neoconservatives inside and outside the Bush administration, as well as leaders of a number of prominent pro-Israel organizations, played key roles in making the case for war. We believe the United States would not have attacked Iraq without their efforts. That said, these groups and individuals did not operate in a vacuum, and they did not lead the country to war by themselves. For instance, the war would probably not have occurred absent the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which helped convince President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to support it.

With Saddam Hussein removed from power, the Israel lobby is now focusing on Iran, whose government seems determined to acquire nuclear weapons. Despite its own nuclear arsenal and conventional military might, Israel does not want a nuclear Iran. Yet neither diplomacy nor economic sanctions are likely to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Few world leaders favor using force to deal with the problem, except in Israel and the United States. AIPAC and many of the same neoconservatives who advocated attacking Iraq are now among the chief proponents of using military force against Iran.

There is nothing improper about pro-Israel advocates trying to influence the Bush administration. But it is equally legitimate for others to point out that groups like AIPAC and many neoconservatives have a commitment to Israel that shapes their thinking about Iran and other Middle East issues. More important, their perspective is not the last word on what is good for Israel or the United States. In fact, their prescriptions might actually be harmful to both countries.
Foreign Policy published responses to Mearsheimer and Walt from Shlomo Ben-Ami, Zbigniew Brezezinski, Aaron Friedberg, and Dennis Ross. Here's the concluding section from Friedberg's comments:

Mearsheimer and Walt blame the distortion of U.S. policy on “the lobby,” which in their previous writing they deemed worthy of a capital “L.” They portray it as an amorphous entity, sometimes indistinguishable from a single organization, AIPAC, and at other times broad enough to include any person or group that seeks to “push U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction.” The authors generously noted in an essay in the London Review of Books that “not all Jewish-Americans are part of the Lobby, because Israel is not a salient issue for many of them.” But their definition is so broad as to capture the great majority of American Jews who do care about Israel. Mearsheimer and Walt say there is “nothing improper” in the lobby’s efforts to sway U.S. policy, but they go on to describe its activities in ways that suggest otherwise. The lobby stifles debate, “marginalize[s] anyone who criticizes U.S. support for Israel,” and, as they wrote in their original essay, convinces leaders to send young Americans to do “most of the fighting [and] dying” to defeat Israel’s enemies. Its members are not merely mistaken, they are guilty of putting the interests of a foreign country above their own.

At a minimum, this is a slanderous and unfalsifiable allegation of treason leveled at individuals whose views on Middle East policy differ from the authors’. At worst, it is an ugly accusation of collective disloyalty, containing the most unsavory of historical echoes. Mearsheimer and Walt have built successful careers out of advocating a rigorous, scientific approach to the study of politics. Sadly, their argument here is not only unscientific, it is inflammatory, irresponsible, and wrong.
It's a fascinating debate, one that raises key issues of scholarship and policy advocacy. One of the most interesting and important aspects of the discussion, I would argue, is found at a deeper level -- that is, how well does America's Madisonian system of interest group pluralism serve the country's interests?

1 comment:

The Matrix said...

First Oliver Stone uncovered the secrets of the JFK assassination, then Hillary discovered the “vast rightwing conspiracy...” now Harvard (via two academics, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, with the full backing of... David Duke, "PhD.") have dug deep and discovered the “Vast Israel Lobby Conspiracy” (VILC). So who’s in on this secret? A tiny cabal... of 40 million Evangelical Christians; secretive Neocons like this difficult-to-access web page; an army of secretive think tanks, newspaper columnists and mysterious media moguls like that evil Rupert Murdock; 5 million Jooooos; millions of other average Americans; both Republicans and Democrats too stupid and duped to know better: This tiny, secret group of... millions are conspiring together to manipulate our government to act against our own interests by using shady tools such as… the US constitution, democracy and "free speech," to petition the government. Ooh the humanity, now we know the TRUTH. Thank you Mr. Walt and Mr. Mearsheimer for finally breaking the da code and sorting all this out after years of at last.

PS: the Next Vast Israel Lobby Conspiracy (VILC) meeting, will take place on April 1, 2006 at the San Francisco TransAmerica Building, suite 462 at 10:36 AM in the conference room (This is on a need to know bases only).