The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy
John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt
In March of 2006, professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer started quite a firestorm when they published an article called “The Israel Lobby” in the London Review of Books. Now they’ve followed one of the most controversial articles in recent memory with one of the most controversial books in recent memory. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy aims to answer critics and expand upon the original article’s thesis: to explain the closeness of the US-Israeli relationship (due, they say, to the Israel Lobby), the general thrust of American Middle Eastern policy (due, they say, to the Israel Lobby), and whether or not this policy is the right one (they say it is not).
Responses to “The Israel Lobby” dominated the letters page of the London Review for weeks, finally tapering off three months later. Wide-ranging critiques, concurrences and rejoinders from all corners of the ideological spectrum covered the internet and publishing worlds. Elliot Cohen declared “Yes, it’s Anti-Semitic” in the Washington Post. Zbigniew Brzezinski voiced his support. Christopher Hitchens called it “partly misleading and partly creepy,” while Foreign Policy and others gave it cover stories. Much the same has occurred with the book’s publication, albeit with reviews in the mainstream press varying anywhere from derisive to guardedly derisive.
In the introduction, after highlighting the general morass that is American policy in the Middle East, the authors say:
These are all vexing problems, and the United States will not be able to address any or all of them effectively if Americans cannot have a civilized conversation about our interests in the region and the role of all the factors that shape U.S. foreign policy, including the Israel lobby. To encourage that continued conversation, we have written this book.
Whatever one thinks of their argument, in this the authors have succeeded. The conversation has been lively, illuminating, and oddly enough, great fun to read.
More fun than the book itself, actually. The tone of the book, especially in the beginning, is almost painfully conciliatory. Huge swaths of pages are devoted to mollifying the reader, and the book’s (sometimes plodding) methodological approach to building its case mark The Israel Lobby as a supreme effort in self-control. The author’s arguments and their pragmatic “realist” view of world affairs make it plain that they wished to say more. They wished say it more forcefully and without so many constraints. This book, then, is a successful attempt to push the conversation in that direction, even if the arguments don’t persuade. And the arguments don’t entirely persuade.
Their first objective is to show that America gives Israel an unequaled amount of support. It’s a necessary but inauspicious beginning. Walt and Mearsheimer are shooting fish in a barrel. The existence of a U.S.–Israeli “special relationship” isn’t up for debate. Leaders of both countries don’t just acknowledge it; they openly proclaim it, in forceful and emotional language. Israel receives more aid than any other country, and America provides Israel with priceless diplomatic support.
In our authors’ efforts to show the disparity between aid to the Jewish state and aid to other countries, their Israel-centric theory of American Middle Eastern policy is already showing its cracks. After they signed peace treaties with Israel, both Egypt and Jordan (in the ‘70s and ‘90s, respectively) received exponential increases in U.S. aid. For the authors, “most of this money should be seen as a reward for good behavior – specifically, their [i.e. Egypt’s and Jordan’s] willingness to sign peace treaties with Israel.” It couldn’t be that Egypt and Jordan’s peace with Israel was a test that, once passed, signaled their new commitment to the United States (and in Egypt’s case, completed their break from the Soviet Union). It’s as if the idea of projecting influence and gaining allies couldn’t have occurred to presidents Carter and Clinton because Israel was the only thing in the Middle East they really cared about. Despite this brief foray into myopia on our authors’ part, the evidence for Israel’s privileged place among American allies is strong. The level of military and economic aid to Israel (with its favorable conditions and lack of oversight) combined with diplomatic protection from what amounts to the rest of the world are enough to convince us that America does indeed have a “special relationship” with Israel.
But this isn’t the real bone of contention. The big question is why this relationship exists. The authors devote more than sixty pages to debunking the arguments for it. They claim that the current level of support cannot be justified on either strategic or moral grounds. Making their case that Israel is a strategic liability, the authors are on their home turf: the opportunity cost assessments of realist foreign policy. Given the favorable playing field it’s surprising that Walt and Mearsheimer fumble so badly. They concede that Israel may have been a strategic asset during the Cold War but claim that “the benefits have declined sharply in recent years while the economic and diplomatic costs have increased.” Reasonable enough, but this degenerating situation combined with the existence of a powerful pro-Israel lobby leads them to some rather implausible prima facie conclusions.
During the Cold War, Israel was deemed crucial for blocking Soviet inroads into the Middle East. After the containment justification collapsed with the Berlin Wall, Walt and Mearsheimer can’t find any rationale at all for the continued alliance. This leads them, of course, to the pro-Israel lobby. While rightly claiming that terrorism wasn’t a lynchpin of the alliance before September 11th (just as it wasn’t during Reagan’s “War on Terror”), they skirt right over explanations that are staring them in the face. Why would the U.S. continue to support Israel in the same way after the Cold War ended? A partial answer is obviously inertia. Another–at least in the minds of American leaders–is stability. Israel, by this time allied with Turkey and at peace with Egypt, kept Syria and Iran busy funneling money and men into Hezbollah and Lebanon. The ongoing plight of the Palestinians also helps our authoritarian friends in the region focus the attention of their citizens elsewhere. All of this enables the projection of American influence.
Again, Walt and Mearsheimer’s picture of a Middle East seen through the Israeli prism leads them into trouble. According to them, the U.S. is concerned about rogue states “in good part because it was already committed to protecting Israel…with respect to Iran, for example, the main points of contention between Tehran and Washington were Iran’s opposition to the Camp David peace process, its support for Hezbollah, and its efforts to develop WMD.” And these issues were magnified by the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Never mind American support for the brutal Shah Pahlavi (which, mind you, kind of started that whole Iranian revolution thing). After he was overthrown, the Reagan administration supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran. All of this was compounded by the taking of American hostages and the flowery “Great Satan” rhetoric streaming out of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s mouth. But no, history’s not important. Why go for complexity when mono-causality is easier?
It’s not that the authors are wrong about Israel being a strategic liability. Viewed solely on their terms, it is. U.S. relations with other countries in the region have undoubtedly been strained by its “special relationship” (the obvious example is the oil crisis of the 1970s: after the U.S. supported Israel in the October War of 1973, OPEC punished America with an oil embargo that cost tens of billions of dollars). The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is undoubtedly a boon to terrorist groups, an issue that the authors focus on a great deal. And here it becomes clear that they’re missing the forest for the trees.
If American support for Israel is a tool for terrorist recruitment, then, yes, it is a strategic liability. It’s just not the only one around. Recall that Osama bin Laden’s primary motivation for attacking America was the presence of US forces in Saudi Arabia. For his lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, it was the Egyptian government and its American benefactor. For others it is Kashmir. Now, for many, it is the invasion of Iraq. What brings these disparate groups together is their belief that U.S. influence in the region is to blame for their respective grievances. So Walt and Mearsheimer’s own logic suggests that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey and others are all strategic liabilities. Yet, oddly enough, they claim that the fight against terrorism is “furthered by cooperating extensively and effectively with countries in the region.” The contradiction doesn’t even enter their minds. Despite this, their claim of strategic liability vis-a-vis Israel remains intact. It’s just lost much of its power.
Having dissected the strategic rationale with a cleaver instead of a scalpel, they move on to the moral justification for America’s support for Israel. Much of the argument here is culled from Israel’s “new historians,” who “make clear that after Israel gained its independence, it behaved much more aggressively toward the Palestinians and other Arabs than is commonly recognized.” This portion of the book focuses almost entirely on the behavior of Israel.
After “The Israel Lobby” appeared in the London Review, the authors were charged with presenting a one-sided “catalogue” of Israeli crimes, while “refusing to give equal time to Palestinian extremism, maximalism and truculence.” Anticipating a similar response to the book, they state:
Our focus will be primarily on Israeli behavior, and no attempt will be made to compare it with the actions of other states in the region or in other parts of the world…we recognize that virtually all states have committed serious crimes at one time or another…and we are cognizant of the fact that state building is often a violent enterprise…we focus on Israel’s actions because the United States provides it with a level of…support that is substantially greater than what it gives to other states, and it does so at the expense of its own interests.
Fair enough, and much (though certainly not all) of what they say is not in dispute. While the treatment of Arabs inside of the pre-1967 borders is certainly better than the treatment afforded to minorities in many of Israel’s neighbors, the settlement enterprise is almost universally regarded as wrong. Several of Israel’s wars were blatant acts of aggression, and it has turned down its share of chances for peace.
Moral and strategic imperatives dashed, Walt and Mearsheimer present “the Lobby” as the reason America has the pro-Israel policy it has today. In doing so, they run roughshod over the idea that while (according to them) there may be no moral or strategic rationale for the U.S.–Israeli relationship, others, including those in government, might find those arguments persuasive. Believing that these arguments are unjustified leads them to assume that others would feel the same way, if it weren’t for the power of the pro-Israel lobby.
Noting that many Americans share pro-Israel feelings (though the book correctly points out that the average citizen is more nuanced), the authors attribute this to the power of the pro-Israel lobby to pressure the media. And while there is surely truth in this, they ignore the subservience and silence exhibited by the media in other cases where elite consensus in the U.S. has supported a morally dubious ally. Not wanting to prick the readers they’ve been cooing for a few hundred pages, Walt and Mearsheimer also ignore the general lack of interest Americans have shown in these sorts of unpleasantries. American support for apartheid South Africa or the murderous Suharto of Indonesia are but two examples.
So what is this political behemoth that has so distorted our foreign policy? It’s worth quoting at length:
We use “Israel lobby” as a convenient shorthand term for the loose coalition of individuals and organizations that actively work to shape U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. The lobby is not a single, unified movement…the organizations and individuals who make up the lobby operate out in the open and in the same way that other interest groups do…One might more accurately dub this the “pro-Israel community” or even the “help Israel movement,” because the range of activities that different groups undertake goes beyond simple lobbying…Like other social and political movements, the Israel lobby’s boundaries are somewhat fuzzy.
And so on. Addressing ethnicity, the authors state that “the bulk of the lobby is comprised of Jewish Americans…yet the Israel lobby is not synonymous with American Jewry, and ‘Jewish lobby’ is not an appropriate term.” And so forth. Caveat, qualification, etc. While Jeffrey Goldberg in The New Republic calls it “the most sustained attack…against the enfranchisement of American Jews since the era of Father Coughlin,” one wonders how much more circumspect the authors could be before they were talking about nothing at all. Their definition is so broad as to hint at what was mentioned above, that the pro-Israel lobby operates within the confines of elite consensus.
Of course, the charge of anti-Semitism has to be addressed because, if it’s valid, it immediately renders null and void everything that Walt and Mearsheimer are saying. This charge is leveled on two counts. One is that they are anti-Israel (and therefore anti-Semitic), and would be happier if the country had never existed. The far more serious charge is their supposed belief in a Jewish conspiracy that has a stranglehold on American government.
Addressing the charge of being anti-Zionist, or anti-Israel is difficult because the assertions that The Israel Lobby makes can be carried further than its authors have gone. Theirs is a “realist” outlook on foreign affairs, one where states generally behave in the same fashion, whatever their form of domestic governance may be. According to this view, self-interest is (or should be) the basis upon which America and the rest of the world conduct their relationships. This cold (and it is cold) outlook on inter-state relations precludes morality as a basis for alliance; it just helps sometimes. In stating that Israel has become a strategic liability, and in saying that we should treat Israel as we do any other country, the realist imperative suggests we let them twist in the wind. In fact, the only reason our authors put forward for supporting Israel’s existence is a moral one: “As we have noted repeatedly, there is a strong moral case for supporting Israel’s existence.” This sits uncomfortably alongside their realist framework, and they’re not entirely successful in their efforts to reconcile the two. But it’s not anti-Semitic, because it doesn’t really care whether or not Israel’s inhabitants are Jewish.
Much easier to dispel is the notion that Walt and Mearsheimer are taking part in the what Jeffrey Goldberg called the “odious tradition” of blaming Jews for all that is wrong with the world. As mentioned above, the authors are perpetually conciliatory and careful in their description of the lobby. And while one may wish for a bit more distinction in policy between “pro-Israel” groups like American Friends of Likud and the American Friends of Peace Now, the authors are correct to focus on the most powerful groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
It has been argued that other ethnic lobbies, like the Cuban-American lobby, also have a near stranglehold on certain parts of foreign policy (and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Christopher Hitchens and others have argued it), but the Israel Lobby, according to the authors, is different because no other lobby has been able to steer U.S. foreign policy so far away from its national interest. But they never really convince us that the pro-Israel lobby is doing the steering. In the end, it seems that the lobby is responsible for (in the words of frequent critic of Israel Joseph Massad) “the details and intensity but not the direction, content, or impact of such policies.”
Walt and Mearsheimer note that many officials in presidential administrations of the past (and especially the present) have supposedly been a part of the pro-Israel lobby, but, again, this doesn’t lead them to consider that there may be much more common ground between the American government and the pro-Israel lobby than their thesis allows. From their perspective, the U.S. would have a completely different policy toward Israel if the lobby had never existed. Thus, the continuity between U.S. policy in the Middle East and its policy elsewhere is never mentioned. Once again, America has supported governments of dubious moral legitimacy before, governments whose crimes are far more grievous and clear-cut. The attempt to limit the influence of outside powers (and to maximize our own influence) in the Arab world mirrors similar attempts in Latin America and Asia, with all the requisite coups and propping up of dictatorships in the pursuit of stability.
If we are to believe Walt and Mearsheimer, American policy in the Middle East is a great aberration. The government is relieved of responsibility for errors it makes and the crimes it commits. As Daniel Lazare points out in The Nation, “the result is, bizarrely enough, an exculpatory portrait of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and the rest of the ‘Vulcans,’ whom Mearsheimer and Walt depict as naïve but fundamentally well intentioned.” This dovetails with the book’s rather fantastical conception of the U.S. Congress: an otherwise pure body bamboozled by the Israel lobby, where all other issues are debated contentiously, except this one.
Their characterization of the supposed conflation of US and Israeli places in the “war on terror” is also shallow. They say:
The implications of the new rationale are obvious: support for Israel plays no role in America’s terrorism problem or the growing anti-Americanism in the Arab and Islamic world, and ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or making U.S. support for Israel more selective or conditional would not help.
But there is a more urgent drive to solve the crisis, or at least a more pronounced desire to pay lip service to this drive. And whether or not those efforts are serious or will lead anywhere, implicit in them is the acknowledgement that the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis would be a boon to U.S. anti-terrorist efforts. While rhetoric denying any connection between Israel and terrorist recruitment is heard, and heard often, the authors’ effort to chop down the arguments against their book should not preclude a more accurate representation of the bigger picture.
As regards Iraq, “U.S. concerns about Saddam’s WMD programs…derive largely from the threat they are said to pose to Israel.” Forgetting the question of whether or not the case for war was made honestly (and forgetting their own mention of neoconservative-run groups formed to cherry-pick intelligence), Walt and Mearsheimer also ignore general, realist, common sense. Historically, the US has fought against the acquisition of nuclear weapons from states it generally opposes, and even from some of its allies. All for the sake of–you guessed it–stability.
The authors aren’t completely off when they criticize some of the pro-Israel lobby’s methods, and they’re dead on when addressing the lobby’s rightward bent. The tarring and feathering of critics of Israeli policies is despicable in a serious democracy, all the more so considering the vigorous debate taking place in Israel itself. The negative implications for the American citizen are obvious: the narrowing of acceptable debate, the lack of information and balanced analysis. The litany of presidential candidates lining up to give speeches by rote at AIPAC conferences should also give Americans pause, as the extreme positions of this organization (and its allies) don’t reflect the opinions of most Americans, much less American Jewry.
Walt and Mearsheimer make a solid case that one-sided support for Israel is not in America’s long-term strategic interest. And they make a solid case that the US should do more to achieve a settlement to the peace process. But this argument has been made more effectively elsewhere. The real value in this part of their thesis is the notoriety of their book itself; a place in the bestseller list and prominence in the news points to the chance for a more wide-ranging and vigorous debate.
Our authors rightly point out that the U.S.-Israeli relationship is a source of anger in the Muslim world, but they skirt over US support for other, more tyrannical governments in the Middle East (they even claim that the US-Israeli relationship limits our ability to be closer to these regimes). They also skirt over the realist considerations that led to these alliances. Ironically, Walt and Mearsheimer fail to realize that perhaps the best way for America to reduce terrorism and improve security is to move away from the very realist ethos that they have used to inform their analysis and their view of US foreign policy in general.
For all the controversy, one wonders how much this discussion will penetrate the ranks of the nation’s intellectual and political elite, much less the general population. And for that, at least, we can apportion some blame to the more reactionary parts of the lobby.
Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.