Not a terribly exciting headline. And yet, for all the credence offered to Profs Mearsheimer and Walt's dog wagging hypothesis these days, you'd think it really was news.
Writing on Counterpunch last week about the role of the
Israel lobby in propelling the US towards war with , Ray McGovern quotes US Vice President Dick Cheney. Iran
"Given the fact that
Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of , the Israelis might decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards." Israel
Does this not sound like the so-called "Cheney plan" being widely discussed in the media today? An Israeli attack; Iranian retaliation; the
United States springing to the defense of its "ally" ? Israel
What the Cheney Plan appears to evidence more than anything else is that the
US foreign policy elite regard as a proxy force to be deployed at their pleasure, in this case, effectively as bait – hardly the kind of attitude you’d expect when all American politicians are in thrall to the Israel Lobby. Israel
Last year’s vicious attack on
Lebanon provided some commentators with conclusive proof that the US did the Israel lobby’s bidding and others with proof that Israel was a tool of foreign policy. I thought it was ambiguous who was wagging what, as it seemed to me that both US Israel and the US believed they had a common interest in eliminating what they perceived as a potential threat from Hizb’allah, which they identify as an instrument of Iranian foreign policy, in the event of an attack on . Iran
This is not to say that there is no
lobby, or that its influence is trivial. Among them, the organisations that comprise the lobby appear to be able to exert quite a strong influence on flows of campaign funds to, and away from, candidates. And this has been very effective in muzzling any politician inclined to voice criticism of Israel . But, as Mearsheimer and Walt acknowledge, the lobby does not always get its own way. For example, the lobby had been articulating the urgent need for regime change in Iraq at least since 1992 when then Defense Department Deputy Undersecretary for Policy Planning in the first Bush regime, Zalmay Khalilzad, drafted the Defense Planning Guidance, which leaked to the NY Times. If the 2003 Israel US invasion of was at the Lobby’s behest, as Walt and Mearsheimer imply, the dog seems reluctant to respond to instructions from the tail. Iraq
It is of course a testament to the lobby’s power that it has been so effective in stifling rational discussion of
and Zionism. But at the same time, the stridency with which critics are attacked and the carelessness of the argumentation their spokespersons bring to their rhetoric betoken desperation. I would like to think that this evidences a decline, or at least a well founded fear of decline, in the lobby’s influence. But for the time being, I think I’ll err on the side of c Israel aution and assume the worst.
When I first read Mearsheimer and Walt’s article in the London review of books last year, I just couldn't help noticing that they had gobbled up the myth of 'national interest' hook, line, and sinker. I don't think this is so unusual for international relations academics, some of whom also share their penchant for anthropomorphising nation states. But by the same token, it doesn't manifest the kind of rigorous and dispassionate observation and analysis typically expected of, or at least attributed to, academic enquiry.
On the strength of their article, I never had any intention of squandering more of my life reading their book, now released to great acclaim - it currently ranks #256 on Amazon and 75% of reviews there give it four or five stars. But I did come across an excerpt on Alternet.
They begin with the curious assertion that in the US presidential campaign, 'The candidates will inevitably differ on various domestic issues – health care, abortion, gay marriage, taxes, education, immigration – and spirited debates are certain to erupt on a host of foreign policy questions as well'.
What course of action should the United States pursue in Iraq? What is the best response to the crisis in Darfur, Iran's nuclear ambitions, Russia's hostility to NATO, and China's rising power? How should the United States address global warming, combat terrorism, and reverse the erosion of its international image? On these and many other issues, we can confidently expect lively disagreements among the various candidates.
Doubtless there will be lively disagreements, but they will confine themselves to comparatively trivial matters. None of the candidates actually considered in the running disagrees that ‘we’ must win in Iraq, whatever that may mean, that even if the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a ‘mistake’, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is justified, that ‘all options are on the table’ regarding Iran’s ‘nuclear ambitions’, that the US is entitled to exercise military force wherever it likes in pursuit of the perceived ‘national interest’, that health care remain a private profit making industry, and many other basic issues, not to mention the more fundamental assumptions they share about the essential beneficence and inevitability of production of goods and services for private profit.
Where they differ is on tactical matters – what level of troops ‘we’ should maintain in Iraq, which militias to support, perhaps on the colour of the carpets in their spectacular Emerald City embassy… A quick perusal of the ‘Issues’ pages on the Clinton, Obama, and Giuliani websites shows that Israel is not a high priority for them, as it doesn’t seem to rate a mention. None of the sites has a search facility. Their positions on ‘the conflict in the
Middle East’ may be in there somewhere, but clearly do not merit emphasis. I’m prepared to speculate, however, that they agree on the fundamentals – that Israel has a ‘right to exist’ as a Jewish state, that there should be a viable Palestinian state, as if that were ever a realistic possibility, that Hamas must be ostracized, that quisling PA president Abu Mazen, not the elected PA legislature, represents the Palestinians, including the refugees, that the refugees’ right to return ‘to their homes’ in ‘Israel proper’ is not feasible, etc. There are probably differences over where the border should be drawn, the level of control Israel ought to be permitted over border crossing, airspace, etc., whether Abu Mazen is an effective quisling, whether to support Dahlan, treatment of ‘illegal outposts’, the number of checkpoints... Walt and Mearsheimer are certainly right to think the candidates are unanimous in their unwavering support for Israel, but disagreement over the details is probably as lively within this broad consensus as it is over the other areas of agreement.
So Mearsheimer and Walt exaggerate the level of concord among candidates on Israel and the level of disagreement over other foreign and domestic policy issues. But there is something to explain: the
US government’s munificent, no strings material and moral support for Israel and the reluctance of US politicians to criticise . These two matters are clearly related, but are not the same thing. Walt and Mearsheimer seem to me to conflate them. Israel
What explains this behavior? Why is there so little disagreement among these presidential hopefuls regarding Israel, when there are profound disagreements among them on almost every other important issue facing the United States and when it is apparent that America's Middle East policy has gone badly awry? Why does Israel get a free pass from presidential candidates, when its own citizens are often deeply critical of its present policies and when these same presidential candidates are all too willing to criticize many of the things that other countries do? Why does Israel, and no other country in the world, receive such consistent deference from America's leading politicians?
Leaving aside the hyperbole about ‘profound disagreements’, it may not be apparent to all Washington decisionmakers that their policy has gone badly awry. They may believe, for example, that the occupation of Iraq may be messy and costly, but the prize is worth it. Israel’s struggle for her very survival against Palestinian terrorism places her in the front line of the war on terror – our staunchest ally.
There are indeed things that other countries do that politicians feel free to criticise.
Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, for example, or Venezuela’s refusal to renew the broadcast license of Radio Caracas TV. But Israel is not the only country to get a free pass. I haven’t heard any of the candidates condemning the slaughter of unionists in Colombia, for example, or Indonesia’s occupation of West Papua.
Mearsheimer and Walt are cavalier in dismissing the two explanations they consider.
Some might say that it is because Israel is a vital strategic asset for the United States. Indeed, it is said to be an indispensable partner in the "war on terror." Others will answer that there is a powerful moral case for providing Israel with unqualified support, because it is the only country in the region that "shares our values." But neither of these arguments stands up to fair-minded scrutiny. Washington's close relationship with Jerusalem makes it harder, not easier, to defeat the terrorists who are now targeting the United States, and it simultaneously undermines America's standing with important allies around the world. Now that the Cold War is over, Israel has become a strategic liability for the United States. Yet no aspiring politician is going to say so in public, or even raise the possibility.
There is also no compelling moral rationale for America's uncritical and uncompromising relationship with Israel. There is a strong moral case for Israel's existence and there are good reasons for the United States to be committed to helping Israel if its survival is in jeopardy. But given Israel's brutal treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, moral considerations might suggest that the United States pursue a more evenhanded policy toward the two sides, and maybe even lean toward the Palestinians. Yet we are unlikely to hear that sentiment expressed by anyone who wants to be president, or anyone who would like to occupy a position in Congress.
They don’t set out what informs the moral judgements so prominent in these two paragraphs, but I will not belabour the point. They probably do so in later chapters or a footnote omitted from the excerpt.
The more serious question is whether the arguments withstand fair minded scrutiny. In my view an assessment of these propositions presupposes an analysis of the function of the state, presumably explicit elsewhere in the book. My own analysis is that the principal function of the state is to defend and advance the interests of the ruling class. In capitalist states, therefore, the state acts on behalf of capital. To this end, it regulates currency levels, interest rates, some relations among businesses; it offers subsidies and bailouts to businesses; it provides communication, transportation, and other important infrastructure; it educates each cohort of workers in the skill sets thought to suit business requirements; it may provide a level of health care to keep employees in working order or even a level of subsistence to ensure the survival of the reserve army of labour. Perhaps above all, it guarantees the availability of a workforce prepared to place a significant proportion of their lives at the disposal of an employer. But what’s important in this connection is that the state secures foreign markets and sources of raw materials. If you have not considered an analysis like this before, I think you will find it has a great deal of explanatory power. The alternative analysis, which assumes that the state mediates between the interests of the classes, or what amounts to the same thing, that it rules on behalf of all its citizens, is so transparently useless that it often leaves its adherents bewildered at how it can act so consistently contrary to its ascribed role. For example, from this perspective, it would be difficult to explain the vast influence corporations, which don’t even wield the power of the ballot, can exercise over government policies. Unfortunately, Walt and Mearsheimer’s first chapter evidences their embrace of just such an analysis.
In my analysis, candidates say what they do to demonstrate their commitment to advancing the interests of capital. Those seen to deviate from the straight and narrow can be dispensed with, by hook (e.g. Gough Whitlam) or by crook (e.g. Salvador Allende). So it’s important to understand that the positions they adopt need to reflect what the ruling class sees as in its interests, whether or not it is actually in their interests. Where differences exist among the ruling class, candidates may appeal to one or another faction. But on many issues nowadays, the
ruling class appears to have reached consensus. US
Their attempted refutation of the strategic asset argument relies in part on the presuppositions that terrorists are now targeting the United States and that the most appropriate response is to defeat them. (Everybody knows what they mean by terrorism, of course, even though none of the usual definitions succeeds in capturing that meaning – basically, the use or threat of violence in pursuit of political objectives by a ‘non state actor’ we don’t like.) If that were the case, then it still remains debatable whether ‘Washington's close relationship with Jerusalem [sic!]’ hinders or promotes the defeat of the terrorists. It is certainly arguable that the US gets good value from Israel even if only by sharing in Israel’s decades of experience in fighting terrorists. As I wrote recently, those who can afford the best prefer Israeli antiterrorism experts for their own security. It is also worth pointing out that terrorism is not really a strategic threat either to the US or to Israel. Terrorist incidents kill about as many people as bee stings or lightning strikes. Furthermore, in the absence of a communist threat, a terrorist threat has great appeal to the US and Israeli governments, as it does to the Indonesian, Russian, Turkish…governments, for its utility in keeping citizens frightened and compliant. So it doesn’t go without saying that the US wants to defeat the terrorists. If it were really the case that US support for Israel makes it harder, perhaps that’s deliberate. If so, it would certainly not make Israel a strategic liability.
I think they are right that US support for Israel ‘undermines America's standing with important allies around the world’, but this is a small part of a much bigger picture. The US has quite explicitly articulated its aim to achieve ‘full spectrum dominance’, which probably doesn’t endear it either to its allies or its enemies. The transparent object of the occupation of Iraq – to control the flow of energy to its economic rivals, Europe, Japan, and China – probably is not such a good look. Clearly, the US government is not out to win any popularity contests. So I am inclined to doubt that this is widely regarded as a strategic liability among those who matter, either.
One thing that the close relation does do is provide an additional pretext for violence against US targets. Curiously, Walt and Mearsheimer only mention this in passing.
Yet despite the lobby's efforts, a considerable number of Americans -- almost 40 percent -- recognize that U.S. support for Israel is one of the main causes of anti-Americanism around the world. Among elites, the number is substantially higher…In a 2006 survey of international relations scholars in the United States, 66 percent of the respondents said that they agreed with the statement "the Israel lobby has too much influence over U.S. foreign policy." While the American people are generally sympathetic to Israel, many of them are critical of particular Israeli policies and would be willing to withhold American aid if Israel's actions are seen to be contrary to U.S. interests.
Doubtless these surveys are footnoted, and the assertion that ‘many’ Americans would withhold aid quantified, in the book. Assuming that the surveys are credible, all it shows is that the lobby’s efforts are not as effective as they might hope. Nor is it clear that the views of the American public are evidence of the factuality of what they believe. After all, in a Harris Poll conducted in mid July last year, 50% thought
had possessed WMD at the time of the invasion in 2003 and 64% thought Saddam had ties to al Qa’ida. It’s worth pointing out that the Iraq authors assert that Americans ‘recognise’ support for Israel as a c ause of anti Americanism. Recognise is what is known as a ‘factive verb’ – it presupposes the truth of whatever is in the following that cl ause. They are using a rhetorical trick to elicit confidence in their assertions. In any event, while these numbers are impressive, they still only represent a minority position. Little could be more obvious than that US foreign policy is not sensitive to public opinion as expressed in opinion polls.
As for the international relations scholars, if they reason as rigorously as Walt and Mearsheimer, their views are hardly relevant. In any case, the wording of the question, where too much demands a value judgement on the respondent’s part, is not the kind of question a scholar can answer in that capacity. The question as worded can only elicit their personal opinion, not their scholarly assessment.
The ‘moral’ case also has much more to recommend it than Mearsheimer and Walt credit it with. Certainly many hold moral principles that would be scandalised by ‘Israel's brutal treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories’, not to mention those with Israeli citizenship and in the diaspora. But that is not the position they said they were arguing against. The assertion is that the ‘powerful moral case for providing Israel with unqualified support’ is ‘bec
ause it is the only country in the region that "shares our values."’ Israel’s actions in the occupied territories may not meet the professors’ high moral standards, but they demonstrably evidence shared values. Like Israel, the US is not above acquiring territory by force of arms. The US has occupied and annexed its colonies in Puerto Rico, Guam, and Samoa for over a century, and there are others, like , whose status some may deem more ambiguous. The US and Israel are cast in the same mold when it comes to justifying torture – but only for ‘ticking bombs’, of course, besieging populous cities like Falluja, use of airpower and ‘intelligent’ weapons to target individuals in populated areas, collective punishment… Birds of a feather, if you asked me. Hawai’i
It’s hard to take
authors seriously when they fail to engage the argument they state, instead setting up a straw man to knock over. But some of Mearsheimer and Walt’s explicit assumptions also suggest that they haven’t really though things through with much care. For example,
We are not challenging
's right to exist or questioning the legitimacy of the Jewish state. There are those who maintain that Israel Israel should never have been created, or who want to see transformed from a Jewish state into a bi-national democracy. We do not. On the contrary, we believe the history of the Jewish people and the norm of national self-determination provide ample justification for a Jewish state. Israel
No doubt in later chapters they elucidate the grounds on which they base this curious belief that millennia of oppression in Europe and the right to self determination somehow justify the permanent dispossession of millions of Palestinians, denial of their right to self determination, and the establishment of an exclusivist, militarised ethnocracy. It’s interesting that they don’t challenge ‘
’s right to exist’. As international relations professors, they would be aware that Israel is the only state to claim this right. Certainly, states like Israel Yugoslavia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and finally Serbia and Montenegro, didn’t enjoy such a right, nor did the USSR, , and others. But what’s significant here is that they are admitting that their argument proceeds from a particular, tendentious position on ‘the legitimacy of the Jewish state’ that itself rests on contentious assumptions about rights, history, etc. South Vietnam
To underscore their commitment to the welfare of the Jewish state, they continue,
We think the
United States should stand willing to come to 's assistance if its survival were in jeopardy. And though our primary focus is on the Israel Israel lobby's negative impact on U.S. foreign policy, we are also convinced that its influence has become harmful to as well. In our view, both effects are regrettable. Israel
If anyone believed that the
Israel lobby was as influential as Walt and Mearsheimer assert, they might think their protestation of concern for ’s interests, and their failure to challenge its right to exist or question its legitimacy, were evidence of the Lobby’s ubiquitous pressure! Israel
US foreign policy has displayed remarkable consistency over the past century and a half or so, going back to at least the Mexican War, which ended with the annexation of about half of Mexico’s territory, although you could with justice trace a consistently proprietary attitude to any area where the US asserted ‘vital national interests’ back to the 1823 Monroe Doctrine. The
Middle East is certainly no exception. Those who determine foreign policy decided it was advantageous to their control over the region’s energy supplies for a heavily armed and belligerent client state to perch on its western edge. It’s not as if there was a great deal of choice after the fall of their favourite shah in 1979. Zionism’s founding father, Theodore Herzl, envisaged just such a role – ‘a rampart of Europe against US Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism’. had groomed itself for it from its inception and had proven itself capable of defeating uppity Arabs. Israel
For all the opprobrium Mearsheimer and Walt have copped for raising the lobby as a topic for discussion, they are not very critical in the excerpted chapter.
lobby is not a cabal or conspiracy or anything of the sort. It is engaged in good old-fashioned interest group politics, which is as American as apple pie. Pro-Israel groups in the Israel are engaged in the same enterprise as other interest groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the AARP, or professional associations like the American Petroleum Institute, all of which also work hard to influence congressional legislation and presidential priorities, and which, for the most part, operate in the open. United States
With a few exceptions, to be discussed in subsequent chapters, the lobby's actions are thoroughly American and legitimate.
We do not believe the lobby is all-powerful, or that it controls important institutions in the
. United States
So the fearsome Lobby is firmly in the tradition of good old American (US slang for ‘good’) interest group politics. They operate in the open and both their existence and their actions are as legitimate as the pensioners’ lobby (American Association of Retired People – AARP). Under the circumstances, it seems that what irks them is that they don’t agree with certain aspects of US foreign policy and they prefer to blame the lobby rather than the government.
Considering what we know about the
US’s history of military adventures in pursuit of the economic and strategic interests of US capital, how different would US foreign policy be if the lobby absolutely determined it? Some say, the Israel US would have invaded Iran before . US taxpayers would spend even more supporting the Israeli military. The pace of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians might accelerate. On the other hand, what if the lobby had no influence at all? At best, Iraq might receive less aid. The gradual transfer of Palestinians might proceed with a little less overt brutality. But I don’t think it is in doubt that US bombs and troops would still be deployed to ensure Israel control of crucial energy supplies. It is inconceivable that a Palestinian state in all or any part of the West Bank and US could ever have been economically and politically viable anyway. Or that the Gaza US would countenance anything threatening ’s ‘Jewish character’. Israel
What is in no doubt whatsoever is that the elites who make and influence
foreign policy act on behalf of the ruling class. The ordinary people who make everything and do everything are hardly likely to benefit whether it is US capital or Israeli capital, which are closely integrated anyway, that calls the shots. We only factor into their machinations insofar as our labour is the source of their profits and we need to be kept docile. And in this respect, the myth of a band of plucky Jews, surrounded by hordes of implacable Islamofascists brandishing scimitars, and braving a harsh environment to make the desert bloom, is very serviceable to both. This myth is central to the narrative about terrorists, motivated by an irrational hatred of everything Western and everything good rather than by what US foreign policy has done to them, besieging ‘us’ on all sides. Now that they can’t frighten us with the Communists anymore, the terrorists will have to do. And they have proven an excellent substitute, allowing the US government (not to mention the British and Australian governments) to carry out attacks on its own workers that might provoke resistance if it were not all done to protect them. The hysterical rantings about anti-Semitism have so far succeeded in marginalising the kind of serious scrutiny of US that could lead people to question the whole terrorism discourse that serves as such an effective instrument of social control. Israel
The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy probably does a competent job of exposing the links among the various organisations comprising the lobby and their modus operandi. But all in all, the kind of reasoning displayed in the excerpts offers little incentive to rush out and read the rest of the book. The real question that arises is whether a snarling Doberman straining at the leash still meets the needs of
capital, or ever did. What Walt and Mearsheimer seem to show above all is that a rift is opening between factions of the warring brothers over this question. US