10 September 2007 - Judge this book by its cover
After all the hype, and all the debate, I really expected something more from John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. The authors have updated their paper, and even nod in the direction of some of their critics. That is not, however, the same as answering them. Basically, their claim—that the “Israel lobby” is bad for America—remains unchanged and unproven.
Walt and Mearsheimer’s argument consists of three basic parts. First, they argue that the U.S. offers Israel “extraordinary material aid and diplomatic support.” This is true. Next, they argue two separate but related claims: that “the lobby is the principal reason for that support,” and that the relationship—which they describe as “uncritical and unconditional”—is “not in the American national interest.”
And what is “the lobby”? It turns out to be a broad, amorphous set of actors—from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to writers like yours truly—anyone who acts to promote the U.S.-Israel alliance. This loose definition allows the authors to blame “the lobby” for anything done by any pro-Israel individual or group—and to ignore the things not done by the same people and organizations.
The authors allow that not everyone in “the lobby” agrees with everything “the lobby” does. But this is merely a superficial admission, made for the purposes of deflecting criticism. The entire argument turns on this bit of calculated imprecision. Such vagueness is also—though the authors would deny it—the hallmark of conspiracy theories. To put it charitably: this is a polemic, not a scholarly work.
Would the U.S. support Israel without “the lobby”? It’s a counterfactual claim, difficult to prove even with the best evidence and intentions, and the authors have neither. They dismiss claims of shared values by accusing Israel of “crimes against Palestinians” and presenting a polarized portrait of Israel in which they assume what they claim to prove: that only “the lobby”could defend such a state.
Setting aside the absurd claim that U.S. support for Israel is “uncritical and unconditional,” the authors’ argument that the alliance is against American interests rests on two claims: first, that Israel’s policies are a motivating force for anti-American terror; and second, that Israel has goaded the United States into attacking Iraq and isolating Syria, and is leading it into confrontation with Iran.
How do the authors prove that “[t]he United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it has long been so supportive of Israel?” They don’t. They simply state that Palestinian terror groups “do not attack the United States” (demonstrably untrue) but that Al-Qaeda does because of Israel. The latter claim is false, denied even by Robert Pape, whom the authors rely on for many of their conclusions.
(They add that those who disagree—whom they describe as “deny[ing] that there was any connection” (my emphasis) between Al-Qaeda and the Palestinian cause—want to protect “unconditional” U.S. support for Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Walt and Mearsheimer include such people as Dennis Ross, Martin Kramer, and Alan Dershowitz in this group, all of whom are critical of Israeli policies and would certainly acknowledge Al-Qaeda’s hatred of Israel. Here, and elsewhere, Walt and Mearsheimer indulge in the very labeling and slander that they claim Israel’s defenders mobilize against critics of the Jewish state.)
How do they prove that “the lobby” has brought the U.S. to war with half of the Middle East? They don’t. They cite newspaper reports, op-ed articles, after-dinner speeches and the like, elevating these bits of hearsay to geopolitical importance rather than presenting any concrete evidence of causation. They also ignore almost anything said or done by Arab states, Iran, and international terror groups.
Consider their theory that Israel and “the lobby” influenced the decision to invade Iraq. Exhibit A is a visit to Washington by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Exhibit B is an interview in a Cleveland newspaper by Ariel Sharon’s press spokesperson. Exhibit C is an appearance on CNN by former Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Exhibit D is an op-ed by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
So the utterances of these former Israel prime ministers and press secretaries—none of whom was in any position of real responsibility at the time—are credited with decisive influence. And “the lobby”? Well, AIPAC never supported the war, so the authors have a hard case there, but they point to all the neocons in the administration, shifting the definition of “the lobby” to fill their empty argument.
Oh, and “the lobby” was not going to let former Israeli prime ministers hog the limelight. They were writing op-eds and making speeches, too. All of this hearsay is presented by these two self-professed “realists” as the mechanism by which a great nation mobilized hundreds of thousands of troops halfway around the world and convinced the American people to wave tearful goodbyes to their grim-faced sons.
Walt and Mearsheimer are on even shakier ground when it comes to Iran, downplaying the imperial ambitions of the regime and the apocalyptic fanaticism of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, both of which are a threat to U.S. interests whether or not Israel’s security is at stake. On Syria, they describe Israel as the villain—no mention of the Hariri assassination or any other reason to fear the Assad regime.
And what do they conclude? That it is no use opposing “the lobby,” because it is simply too powerful—the foregone conclusion that lurks at the end of any conspiracy theory. Instead, they argue that Americans should focus on “[r]edirecting the lobby’s agenda,” backing leftist elements of “the lobby” that support a two-state solution (as if the rest do not). It’s a wimpy end to a very, very weak book.
Perhaps the “taboo” the authors break is not, as they claim, criticizing the role of the “Israel lobby” in U.S. foreign policy. Perhaps, as the cover of the book suggests—with the red, white and blue of the U.S. flag replaced with Israeli azure and white (note the similar superimposition of symbols on the infamous 2002 New Statesman cover)—what they are really suggesting is that the “lobby” controls much more.
The idea of Jewish control is taboo for a good reason: it has served as the justification for antisemitism for the past century. Here we have to distinguish between Jewish power, which is real, and Jewish control, which is perverse fantasy. Power reflects success in the game of interest group politics, playing by the democratic rules. Control means preventing other groups from competing at all.
If American supporters of the Palestinian cause wish to have a positive influence on the conflict, they should invest time and resources in Palesitnian nation-building and in strengthening liberal Israeli institutions. (This is, in fact, starting to happen already.) To suggest, as Mearsheimer and Walt do, that the obstacle to peace is a distant bunch of lobbyists, advisers and newspaper columnists is to invite ridicule.