Sunday, September 9, 2007

Walt, Mearsheimer and Israel

Once again I feel I have to apologize for the long hiatus since my last post. The Muses have been visiting infrequently, and life seems at times to be the enemy of decent blogging. I return to give my two cents to a sensitive but important debate now raging in the academic and popular press; namely, the controversy surrounding the recent publication of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. For those who have been living under a rock for the past couple of weeks, these two eminent political scientists have launched an academic fusillade against the U.S.-Israeli special relationship and the domestic lobby that they charge maintains it. The book is actually an extension of an article that the two authors published last year in the London Review of Books, which was equally controversial.

Part of me hesitates to dip my toe into this particular debate, because it has become so vitriolic so quickly. Charges of anti-semitism have been frequently leveled at the authors as well as at others who share their views (recall the furor that greeted Jimmy Carter last year), and even the less strident criticism has tended to be fairly passionate. This reaction to the book is not entirely surprising, as the authors' argument that a (largely Jewish) pro-Israel lobby in the United States has far-reaching power over American Mid-East policy has uncomfortable echoes of old anti-semitic notions of nefarious Jewish cabals controlling the levers of government. Furthermore, the authors' stinging analysis of Israeli history, and their charge that U.S. policy has systematically enabled the worst instincts of the Jewish State in recent decades - to the detriment of all involved - amounts to a crushing repudiation of policies that have been consistently applied by both Republican and Democratic policymakers for years. Controversy, thus, is to be expected. That these arguments are being leveled by two highly respected realists, rather than by some Chomsky-esque left wing ideologue only increases the pitch.

Before I get to my analysis I feel I should stop here and clarify my own position. I am a strong supporter of Israel. I believe Israel has a right to exist, as a Jewish state, in Palestine, in peace, prosperity and security. Furthermore, I will be the first to acknowledge that short-sighted intransigence of Arabs of many factions has shamefully and inexcusably exacerbated and extended one of the World's most intractable and bloody conflicts. I believe strongly that Israel has a right and an obligation to defend itself against all threats to its security, conventional and otherwise, and I believe that right extends to the use of military force. All that said, I believe that no remotely impartial observer can deny that Israel has sometimes engaged in policies that were tactically foolish, strategically counterproductive and, on occasion, ethically indefensible. At such times, I believe that it is the responsibility of the United States to encourage Israel to change course, and I agree with Walt and Mearsheimer that we have often failed in that obligation.

With that in mind, I'd like to state emphatically that The Israel Lobby is not an anti-semitic work. It does not argue that the lobby does anything exceptional or nefarious, merely that it is quite adept at engaging in the kind of interest group politics that are part and parcel of American policy-making. Critics that take this line, in my view, misrepresent the argument that they critique, to nobody's benefit. I certainly understand the point made by the ADL's Abe Foxman, who argues that the book must be appraised in light of the history of anti-semitic canards into which it taps - however unintentionally - but the authors take great pains to repeatedly emphasize the differences between their point of view and that of true anti-Semites.

I do not accept the authors' argument wholesale by any means. It has weak links that lead to some overly strident and misguided conclusions. Still, I have difficulty finding fault with its core message. The authors' first point - that Israel is a poor strategic asset of the United States - has some merit, at least from the perspective of a traditional realist. Israel has not appreciably helped ensure American access to Persian Gulf oil, has not provided military assistance or political cover to advance American goals, and has indeed sapped the United States of much of its political capital in the region. Their argument that the US has little moral obligation to provide Israel with support is, in my opinion, weaker. The authors are overly harsh in their criticisms of Israeli democracy, which stem largely from the notion that the Jewish ethnic preference is incompatible with American values. True, Israeli citizenship is based on a different national idea than is that of the United States, but the same can be said of Korea, Japan, Germany (until recently at least) as well as many other democracies to whom America gives its support. That Israel is a Jewish democracy does not make it less of a democracy. Also, the authors' analysis of Israeli history, which is harsh to say the least, relies almost entirely on the work of Israel's "New Historians," who have recently shined a far more critical light on their nation's past than have their more traditional colleagues. I won't deny that the work of this group is valuable, but to my knowledge it remains quite controversial, a fact that Walt and Mearsheimer fail to acknowledge.

The authors' analysis of the lobby's influence on US negotiation during the failed Oslo process is also open to dispute. While they make their case for general lobby influence quite well, they may overstate its influence in such diplomatic environments. Dennis Ross, a former diplomat under the Clinton Administration, notes that many of the seemingly pro-Israel positions taken by the United States during the negotiations were driven by a strategic assessment of what the Israeli negotiating team could get through their own Knesset, not by fear of the Israel lobby back home.

Perhaps the most controversial assertion of the book, that the Israel lobby was instrumental in pushing the United States to invade Iraq, is well argued, but suffers from a logical slip that is a function of how the authors define "the lobby." They broaden their definition from simply AIPAC and other formal pro-Israel lobbying groups to include pro-Israel reporters, pundits, and intellectuals, taking special aim at the neoconservatives. While their claim that the neoconservatives tend to be vociferous supporters of Israel is hard to dispute, the authors make too much of the extent to which a pro-Israel agenda drove the neoconservative consensus around the invasion of Iraq. To put it another way, the authors note that the Israel lobby was not the only group pushing for an invasion of Iraq, but that absent the lobby's pressure the invasion likely would not have happened. The problem with this counterfactual, though, is that it imagines the neoconservatives (a key constituency supporting the invasion) not simply as supporters of Israel, but only as supporters of Israel. I would argue that even if Israel did not exist, the broader philosophy of American power that the neocons advocate would still have led them to support a march on Baghdad. Thus, while it may be true that the Israel Lobby pushed for invasion, many of its supposed representatives did so based on a broader imperial agenda of which Israel was only a small part.

Finally, the authors in places fall prey to the assumptions of the "realist" paradigm to which they subscribe. In particular, their analysis of the dangers posed by an Iranian nuclear bomb is overly dismissive. They argue, almost in passing, that the logic of deterrence still applies, that Israel and the United States are both nuclear powers, that Iranian leadership is rational, and that at the end of the day a nuclear-armed Iran could be lived with as easily as a nuclear-armed China or USSR. I don't necessarily disagree with this arguments' premises - that nuclear-armed Ayatollahs aren't about to vaporize the Middle East on a fanatical whim - but I am less confident than they are that the logic of deterrence will always and in every situation prevail. I understand enough history to know that human civilization hung by a fraying thread during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I tend to agree with Robert McNamarra that the indefinite combination of human fallibility with the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons will eventually lead to catastrophe. Every new nuclear state - and if Iran joins the club you may rest assured that it will be followed - increases the odds that the house of cards will fall.

All that said, you need not agree with every word that Walt and Mearsheimer write to appreciate their core argument, nor do you need to be a disciple of realism to understand the strategic value of their insight. If anything, The Israel Lobby has the capacity to start an important, long-overdue conversation about America's true interests in the Middle East. I happen to think that protecting Israel remains one of those interests, but we must always be sure to do so with both eyes open.


Dick said...

You begin to develop a point which needs to be fully explored. To what extent do Walt and Mearsheimer critique on component of US policy in the Middle East, Israel, so the other components can proceed with less friction? For example, does the US need to rein in Israel, in order to get stronger Gulf Arab, Egyptian, and Jordanian support for the Iraq War, invading Iran, and maintaining the US's enormous military footprint throughout the greater Middle East?

In other words to what extent do Walt and Mearsheimer want to change US policy toward Israel in order to advance the rest of the US imperial agenda in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere in the region?

Matt Eckel said...

It's an interesting question, and they certainly address it in their book (I only have so much energy here as a blogger). The authors don't see the US agenda in the Middle East as imperial in the traditional sense. They see the appropriate American role as an "offshore balancer" that serves to flexibly maintain an advantageous balance of power in the Middle East (so invading Iraq, Iran etc. isn't in America's interest in the first place). To the extent that (in their view) overzealous US support for Israel harms that flexibility by locking the US into enmity with certain powers (Iran, Syria), it is a bad thing. They also note that the failure of the US to put pressure on Israel to deal fairly with the Palestinians harms America's reputation in the rest of the Middle East, makes it more difficult for regional governments to support US interests openly, and drives anti-American extremism. I don't know that I'm really doing their argument justice here, particularly as I don't completely agree with it. You may want to pick up the book, or at least read the original article, for a better synopsis.