September 23, 2007
By LESLIE H. GELB
THE ISRAEL LOBBY AND U.S. FOREIGN POLICY
By John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt.
484 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.
Fidel Castro thundered at me in a private meeting a decade ago: “You don’t have a democracy. Most Americans want good relations with Cuba, but a few thousand Cuban-American right-wingers control U.S. policy and make everything between us bad.” Castro was certainly right on one count — the Cuban American National Foundation essentially calls the tune on our Cuba policy because of its voting clout in a few key states, its generous campaign contributions and its passion.
Two highly respected scholars hurl almost identical charges — and worse — at “a loose coalition of individuals and organizations” that lobby for Israel, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, the publisher Mortimer Zuckerman and the neoconservatives.
Castro can be ignored because Cuba is not very important to American security. But John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard, can’t, because the Middle East is vital and because they’re arguing that the Jewish lobby pushes policy in directions that “jeopardize U.S. national security.”
Their book, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” is an extended version of their highly controversial article of a year ago, which appeared in The London Review of Books. Now, as then, they contend that the lobby has made United States policy so lopsidedly pro-Israel that it fuels Muslim terrorism against the United States, fosters the spread of nuclear weapons in Arab states and puts at added risk America’s critical energy supplies from the Persian Gulf.
This commentary could not be more serious, and I believe that the authors are mostly wrong, as well as dangerously misleading. But Mearsheimer and Walt are raising the very same fundamental, gut-check issues about American security and who controls policy that many Middle East experts talk about mostly in private. Former President Jimmy Carter made similar points, if rather hotly and self-righteously, in his recent book, “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid.” Mearsheimer and Walt, together with Carter and their phalanx of backers at universities and research institutes, have to be answered, not by calling them anti-Semites, but on the merits.
Mearsheimer and Walt live in the same foreign policy world I inhabit, and no one familiar with their extensive scholarship or their lives ever accused them of harboring anti-Semitic sentiments ... until the appearance of their article last year. And such charges are not unusual in this little world. But as my mother often said, “They asked for trouble” — by the way they make their arguments, by their puzzlingly shoddy scholarship, by what they emphasize and de-emphasize, by what they leave out and by writing on this sensitive topic without doing extensive interviews with the lobbyists and the lobbied.
Early on, they write that the Jewish lobby is “certainly not a cabal or conspiracy that ‘controls’ U.S. foreign policy.” They go on: “It is simply a powerful interest group, made up of both Jews and gentiles, whose acknowledged purpose is to press Israel’s case within the United States. ... Like the efforts of other ethnic lobbies and interest groups, the activities of the Israel lobby’s various elements are legitimate forms of democratic political participation, and they are for the most part consistent with America’s long tradition of interest-group activity.” No problem here.
But then they heat things up, declaring that no lobby has ever been more powerful. They start quoting others, like former Representative Lee Hamilton, who said in 1991 that “there’s no lobby group that matches it.” And they cite a number of staff members for the lobby bragging about their power. One said: “In 24 hours, we could have the signatures of 70 senators on this napkin.” Publishing these one-liners as some kind of evidence is not the stuff of good scholarship.
Most tellingly, and contrary to their careful opening definitions, Mearsheimer and Walt move on to one story after another, premised on the lobby’s domination of United States policy toward the Middle East. But they rarely back that premise up.
It’s true, for instance, that the lobby has made America’s longstanding $3 billion annual aid program to Israel untouchable and indiscussible. By the same token, there isn’t much discussion about the $2 billion yearly aid package for Egypt. The United States regards this $5 billion as insurance against an Egyptian-Israeli war, and it’s cheap at double the price.
The lobby also gives hives and hesitation to any administration thinking about criticizing Israel publicly. But instinctively and without being lobbied, American presidents don’t want to gang up on Israel, since virtually every other state does so. While most countries hammer Israel for crackdowns on the Palestinians, they hardly ever criticize Palestinian terrorists or other Arab terrorists and say little about the misdeeds of Arab and Muslim dictators. As for the American government, the record clearly shows that when Israel crosses certain important lines, as when it expanded Jewish settlements into Palestinian areas like the West Bank and Gaza, Washington usually expresses its displeasure in public and, even more so, in private. Mearsheimer and Walt just don’t mention that.
More troublingly, they don’t seriously review the facts of the two most critical issues to Israel and the lobby — arms sales to Arab states and the question of a Palestinian state — matters on which the American position has consistently run counter to the so-called all-powerful Jewish lobby.
For several decades, administration after administration has sold Saudi Arabia and other Arab states first-rate modern weapons, against the all-out opposition of Israel and the lobby. And make no mistake, these arms have represented genuine security risks to Israel. (Interestingly, Israel does not oppose the new $20 billion proposed arms sale to the Saudis, on the grounds that the weapons are needed against Iran, the bigger threat; and not surprisingly, Israel is reportedly receiving substantial additional military aid as well.)
And on the policy issue that has counted most to Israel and the lobby — preventing the United States from accepting a Palestinian state prior to a negotiated deal between Israel and the Palestinians — it’s fair to say Washington has quietly sided with the Palestinians for a long time. Every administration since 1967, when Israel won a war and occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, has privately favored returning almost all of that territory to the Palestinians for the purposes of creating a separate Palestinian state. President George W. Bush finally said this publicly in 2001, but Israeli leaders and lobbyists who weren’t in total denial knew the unspoken reality all along. If the lobby and Israel called the shots the way Mearsheimer and Walt and so many other Middle East experts insist, the United States would not have sold all those arms to the Arabs and never would have leaned in private toward a Palestinian state.
Most unbiased students of the matter would probably agree that the lobby is the single most influential force on American policy toward Israel. But among lobbies in Washington, it is one among many strong players. It is almost certainly less powerful than the pro-Taiwan China lobby, which successfully blocked American contacts with China, or even talk of it, throughout most of the cold war. It doesn’t touch the power of the gun lobby, or AARP when it presses for the interests of senior citizens. In fact, just to set all of this in a perspective that should be known to Mearsheimer and Walt, lobbying is how American democracy works. We have a democracy of “minorities rule,” as the great Yale political scientist Robert Dahl once explained, writing of the endless array of special-interest groups that control their issues almost totally.
As part of their incomplete picture, the two authors also minimize the lobbying influence of the Saudis and the oil companies, the other major forces on Middle East policy. The Saudis, along with the Egyptians, have been significant voices in Washington, arguing for a Palestinian state. Moreover, if Mearsheimer and Walt had asked policy participants over the years, they would have been told that the Saudis are the single most potent regional voice in American policy toward the gulf. And Riyadh, at least as much as Jerusalem, has been urging Washington to confront Iran. As for the oil companies, Mearsheimer and Walt say it’s obvious the firms want peace because peace is good for business. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that the Iraq war has added tens of billions to their coffers.
In any event, the real issue is not whether the Israel lobby controls policy toward Israel and the Middle East. All strong lobbies aspire to exercise control. The real issue is whether the Jewish lobby’s power seriously undermines or damages American interests.
Where Israel should stand in the hierarchy of American national interests has been one of the hot-button issues of American foreign policy since Israel’s founding in 1948. The first big question was whether the United States should recognize Israel at the United Nations. The most memorable battle over this issue took place in front of President Harry Truman. The contenders were his young but formidable counsel, Clark Clifford, and Secretary of State George Marshall, the single most respected American foreign policy figure of his era.
Clifford argued for recognition on moral and historical grounds. The United States and the world had a moral obligation to support a Jewish state because everyone had stood by and done nothing during the Holocaust. Marshall retorted that recognition would distort America’s true interests in the Arab world, mainly securing oil, to gain Jewish political backing at home. To Marshall, a few million Jews in their own state amid a sea of tens of millions of Arabs would cause nothing but grief for America, and in the end, the Arabs would drive the Jews into the sea anyway. Truman backed Clifford, but the battle never ended.
Israel and the lobby made, and for good reasons won, the case during the cold war that Israel was a strategic asset for the United States. During this period, many Arab leaders played games with Moscow and were not reliable allies. By contrast, Washington could count fully on Israel for intelligence and joint weapons development and as a base of military operations, if need be. But with the Soviet Union’s demise and the rise of new threats, the argument reopened about how vital Israel really was to the United States.
And here we arrive at the heart of the thesis of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy”:
“Many policies pursued on Israel’s behalf now jeopardize U.S. national security. The combination of unstinting U.S. support for Israel and Israel’s prolonged occupation of Palestinian territory has fueled anti-Americanism throughout the Arab and Islamic world, thereby increasing the threat from international terrorism and making it harder for Washington to deal with other problems, such as shutting down Iran’s nuclear program. Because the United States is now so unpopular within the broader region, Arab leaders who might otherwise share U.S. goals are reluctant to help us openly, a predicament that cripples U.S. efforts to deal with a host of regional challenges.”
At one level, this argument is obviously correct. Of course, America’s close ties with Israel compound its problems with Arabs and Muslims. But at a deeper level, one ignored by Mearsheimer and Walt, these problems would not disappear or seriously lessen if Washington abandoned Israel. The main source of anti-Americanism and anti-American terrorism is America’s deep ties with highly unpopular regimes in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, not to mention the war in Iraq.
Similarly, Mearsheimer and Walt mostly dodge the question of how to fix this problem. They don’t want to abandon Israel, they say, but they do want the United States to distance itself from Israeli policies. Does that mean talking to the Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists? These groups are relentlessly committed to violence and to the total destruction of Israel. What is there to talk about? As for pressing Israel to turn over the territories and accept Palestinian statehood now, there is the slight problem of which Palestinians to bargain with — the Hamas leaders, who genuinely have broad support, or the far less popular and far more corrupt Fatah party. Besides, what concessions do Mearsheimer and Walt want Israel to make beyond what it has made? In the closing days of the Clinton administration, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak met almost all Palestinian demands for a negotiated solution and was effectively turned down.
To be sure, Washington’s ties with Israel make things harder for United States policy, but historically, the prime effect of the relationship has been to provide Arab leaders and discontented Arabs with an excuse for not putting their own houses in order. I doubt Mearsheimer and Walt believe that if Washington stiff-armed Israel, this would induce Arab leaders to address their real problems or produce peace in the Middle East.
Then there is the issue of nuclear weapons and taming the proliferation genie. Yes, Israel’s nuclear ability adds to the hurdles Washington faces. But Mearsheimer and Walt should know that the driving force behind Saddam Hussein’s quest for these arms had much less to do with Israel’s nuclear weapons than with the threats he saw from Iran and the United States. The same is true for Iran today. Like Hussein, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad knows that only the United States can topple him and the regime of the mullahs he represents, and he wants the bomb principally for deterrence.
America’s central strategic problem in the region — the main reason to worry about future terrorists, nuclear proliferation and energy supplies — is that we need our corrupt, inept and unpopular Arab allies because the likely alternative to them is far worse. There is no reliable and strong Arab moderate force in the Middle East at present. Washington’s long-term goal must be to help build one. Yet Mearsheimer and Walt offer us no counsel on how to do this.
It’s important to remember that the shah of Iran was overthrown not because he enjoyed good relations with Israel, which he did, but because a majority of his own people came to hate his regime and also his ties to the United States. There was no sustainable moderate center between the shah and the fanatical mullahs. And the lack of such a center is precisely what Washington needs to worry about now in places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
As it happens, America’s commitment to Israel rests far more on moral and historical grounds than on strict strategic ones. Israel does not harm American security interests to anywhere near the degree that Mearsheimer and Walt claim it does. And the major reality is that despite whatever difficulties the Israeli-American relationship might cause, the United States is helping to protect one of the few nations in the world that share American values and interests, a true democracy. This is the greatest strategic bond between the two countries. (And not to be overlooked is the fact that when push has come to shove, Israel has always defended itself.)
The inevitable last question is this: Why have two such serious students of United States foreign policy written so weak a book and added fuel, inadvertently, to the fires of anti-Semitism? The answer lies in their treatment of the Iraq war.
Mearsheimer and Walt should feel very proud, indeed, for their foresight in opposing the Iraq war. Their writings were more on target than anyone’s, and they are justifiably mystified about how the United States could have been so stupid and self-destructive. They appear to have reasoned that a mistake of this magnitude could have been fostered only by some irresistible force. And the only such force they can conjure from the landscape of the powerful is the Israel lobby, as embodied by neoconservative gladiators like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. In the authors’ words, “the lobby did not cause the war by itself. ... But absent the lobby’s influence, there almost certainly would not have been a war. The lobby was a necessary but not sufficient condition for a war that is a strategic disaster for the United States and a boon for Iran, Israel’s most serious regional adversary.”
Their vitriol about the Iraq war — about being so right while others were so wrong — is so overwhelming that they minimize two key facts. First, America’s foreign policy community, including many Democrats as well as Republicans, supported the war for the very same reasons that Wolfowitz and the lobby did — namely, the fact that Hussein seemed to pose a present or future threat to American national interests. Second, the real play-callers behind the war were President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. They hardly have a history of being in the pockets of the Jewish lobby (more like the oil lobby’s), and they aren’t remotely neoconservatives. The more we know, the clearer it is that the White House went to war primarily to erase the “blunder” of the elder Bush in not finishing off Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf war of 1991.
Now, Mearsheimer and Walt fear that Israel and the lobby will shove the United States into a new war with Iran: “They are the central forces today behind all the talk ... about using military force to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. Unfortunately, such rhetoric makes it harder, not easier, to stop Iran from going nuclear.”
They are right again about why the United States should not be making counterproductive threats about war against Iran, let alone fighting another war. But they are wrong again about the prime movers behind the bombast. Wolfowitz and Perle and company surely favor another nice little war, but they are temporarily discredited. Meanwhile, plenty of foreign policy experts and politicians now call for “getting Iran.” And by the way, so do the two most powerful men in America, who neither need nor heed lobbying — George Bush and Dick Cheney.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former columnist for The Times and the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, is finishing a book on international power in the 21st century.