Home | Subscribe | Current Issue
From Foreign Affairs , November/December 2007
Summary: Sloppy execution means "The Israel Lobby," however commendable the intentions of its authors, will have the opposite of its desired effect: impeding new thinking about U.S. policy in the Middle East rather than advancing the debate.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD is Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt claim that they want The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy "to foster a more clear-eyed and candid discussion of this subject." Unfortunately, that is not going to happen. "The Israel Lobby" will harden and freeze positions rather than open them up. It will delay rather than hasten the development of new U.S. policies in the Middle East. It will confuse the policy debate not just in the United States but throughout the world as well, while giving aid and comfort to anti-Semites wherever they are found. All of this is deeply contrary to the intentions of the authors; written in haste, the book will be repented at leisure.
That is not to say that The Israel Lobby is all bad. Mearsheimer and Walt were previously known as hard-core "realists" who minimized the importance of studying domestic politics and culture to understanding foreign policy. They seem to have abandoned such "structural realism" for what might be called "political realism": the view that the beliefs, values, and interests of various domestic actors shape their perception of the national interest and that the interaction between these domestic forces and international conditions holds the key to understanding policy. This political realism is a significantly richer and more fruitful (if more intellectually demanding and methodologically complex) approach than the structural realism that Mearsheimer, especially, advocated in the past.
One must also commend the two authors for their decision to focus on an important topic that has not received the attention it merits. The politics of U.S. policy in the Middle East is a subject that is not well understood. Pro-Israel organizations, political action committees (PACs), and individuals do play significant roles in the U.S. political process, and they do influence politicians and journalists. Given the importance of the Middle East in U.S. foreign policy and world affairs, these actors and their influence should be explored. Even if The Israel Lobby is in the end not as helpful as they hope, Mearsheimer and Walt have admirably and courageously helped to start a much-needed conversation on a controversial and combustible topic. There should be no taboos among students of U.S. foreign policy -- no questions that should not be asked, no issues that should be considered too hot to handle, no relationships or alliances, however deep or enduring, that should not be regularly and searchingly reviewed.
Walt and Mearsheimer's belief that the United States needs to find ways to bridge the gap between its current policies and the national aspirations of Palestinians and other Arabs is correct. But Mearsheimer and Walt have too simplistic and sunny a view of the United States' alternatives in the Middle East -- a fault they share with the "neoconservatives," who serve as the book's bÍtes noires. Overcoming the challenges of U.S. policy in the Middle East will not be nearly as easy as Mearsheimer and Walt think, and the route they propose is unlikely to reach the destination they seek, even if some of their concerns about the United States' current stance in the region are legitimate.
The book's problems start very early and run very deep. Mearsheimer and Walt outline the case they plan to make on page 14: "The United States provides Israel with extraordinary material aid and diplomatic support, the lobby is the principal reason for that support, and this uncritical and unconditional support is not in the national interest." Note the slippage. The "extraordinary" support of the first clause quietly mutates into the "uncritical and unconditional" support of the last. "Extraordinary" is hardly the same thing as "uncritical and unconditional," but the authors proceed as if it were. They claim the clarity and authority of rigorous logic, but their methods are loose and rhetorical. This singularly unhappy marriage -- between the pretensions of serious political analysis and the standards of the casual op-ed -- both undercuts the case they wish to make and gives much of the book a disagreeably disingenuous tone.
Rarely in professional literature does one encounter such a gap between aspiration and performance as there is in The Israel Lobby. Mearsheimer and Walt fail to define "the lobby" in a clear way. Their accounts of the ways in which it exercises power, as well as their descriptions of the power it wields, are incoherent. Their use of evidence is uneven. At the level of geopolitics, their handling of the complex realities and crosscurrents of the Middle East fails to establish either the incontestable definition of the national interest that their argument requires or the superiority they claim for the policies they propose.
Beyond these faults, the insensitivity that the authors too frequently display in their handling of difficult topics will leave many readers convinced that, despite their frequent protestations to the contrary, the authors are sly and malicious anti-Semites. These charges -- made inevitable although not accurate by the authors' unwitting and innocent use of certain literary devices that trigger unhappy memories -- are generating an ugly, ill-tempered, and thoroughly pointless debate about the authors' character and intentions. In that debate, at least, I can stand behind Mearsheimer and Walt. This may be a book that anti-Semites will love, but it is not necessarily an anti-Semitic book.
IN OR OUT?
The problems start with the definition. The Israel lobby, write Mearsheimer and Walt, is "a convenient shorthand term for the loose coalition of individuals and organizations" working "to shape U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction." The lobby, as they see it, includes both hard-line groups such as AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and CUFI (Christians United For Israel) and dovish groups such as the Israel Policy Forum, the Tikkun Community, and Americans for Peace Now. All of these groups agree that Israel ought to be defended, and the groups and individuals in the lobby work in various ways to shape U.S. policy toward the Jewish state along what they consider to be favorable lines, but they have occasionally deep divisions over exactly what policies are best for Israel.
Mearsheimer and Walt say clearly that the lobby is neither conspiratorial nor antipatriotic. They concede that the overwhelming majority of those involved sincerely believe that what is best for Israel is best for the United States, and vice versa. Moreover, the tendency to reflexively support the Israeli government has diminished over time. And individual groups that are part of the lobby have broken with Israeli policies at various points, even if the largest groups tend to embrace hard-line views.
Still, questions arise. If everyone from AIPAC to Americans for Peace Now is part of the lobby, what, exactly, is the political agenda the lobby supports? And if a variety of U.S. policies are consonant with the different agendas of different components of the lobby, what criteria should be used to measure the impact of the lobby as a whole? What is the relationship between the internal dynamics of this divided lobby and the politics and policies of both Israel and wider American society?
When it comes down to it, Mearsheimer and Walt do not seem to know who, exactly, belongs to this amoebic, engulfing blob they call the lobby and who does not. Take their own case. They describe themselves as pro-Israel, in that they believe in the state's right to exist. They admire its achievements and wish secure and prosperous lives for its citizens. They state categorically that the United States should aid Israel "if its survival is in danger." They frequently argue that current Israeli policies and U.S. support for them are counterproductive -- that is, Washington should make its aid to Israel more conditional not because the two states do not share interests but precisely because they do. Conditional aid, Mearsheimer and Walt believe, will lead Israel to act in ways that ensure its survival while also benefiting the United States. And they care so passionately about this that they have written a long and controversial book on the subject. "We are obviously not part of the Israel lobby," they say. But under their own definition, is that really true?
The argument of The Israel Lobby actually seems to boil down to the point that the left wing of the lobby has a better grasp of both the Israeli and the U.S. national interests than the right wing of the lobby does. Mearsheimer and Walt maintain that when U.S. and Israeli national interests come into conflict, the United States should put its own interests first -- but this, too, is a view that, as they concede, most members of the lobby share. So what sets the authors apart from the rest of the large mass of Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, who want Israel to exist and care deeply about its fate but disagree and squabble over what the United States should do in the Middle East? Nothing, as far as I can see. Mearsheimer and Walt have come up with a definition of "the Israel lobby" that covers the waterfront, including everyone from Jimmy Carter and George Soros to Paul Wolfowitz and Tom DeLay.
Since virtually every possible policy position is supported by some element of this lobby, the lobby never loses no matter what happens in Washington -- like the man who always "wins" at roulette because he puts a chip on every square. President Bill Clinton presses Israel to make far-reaching concessions on the West Bank in a proposal that Mearsheimer and Walt agree should still be the point of departure for U.S. diplomacy in the region: obviously, a triumph for the Israel lobby. The Bush administration then shifts direction and stands by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as he rejects all talk of territorial concessions: another win for the Israel lobby. Red, black, even, odd: the lobby never fails.
THE WAGES OF INFLUENCE
From a definition like this, no good can come. Unfortunately, Mearsheimer and Walt's account of the U.S. political system is equally vague. Does the lobby use the same techniques or different ones to shape the foreign policy of Democratic and Republican administrations? Does a Labor-based government in Israel have a different relationship with the lobby than a Likud-based one? What mix of political conditions in Israel and the United States makes the lobby's work easier? What political environment poses the greatest challenge? Mearsheimer and Walt have no time for such details.
The book would benefit from a much more rigorous discussion of what the lobby, in its various incarnations and permutations, actually gets. Much of it seems to be straightforward pork-barrel politics: legislation involving foreign aid and arms deals is written so as to benefit Israel, and there is steady pressure on the executive branch to interpret these laws in ways favorable to Israel's interests. But to what real effect? Mearsheimer and Walt provide some estimates about the financial value of these provisions, but it is not clear how important these achievements are, either to Israel's defense strategy or to the politics of the Middle East. They also cite various pro-Israel legislative acts and congressional resolutions that passed by overwhelming margins. A closer analysis of the actual impact of these bills on policy is needed. The U.S. political system is extremely good at providing hollow victories for lobbyists that have little or no real impact on policy -- allowing the lobbyists to demonstrate their clout and legislators to score an easy political win. Mearsheimer and Walt never show that the legislative victories represent real control over critical matters of national policy either in the United States or the Middle East.
Also disappointing is their fairly conventional account of the relationship between neoconservatives and hard-line Israeli thinking. Mearsheimer and Walt present neoconservative thought as entirely in sync with -- and, indeed, at the service of -- Israeli security interests. There are, however, some important differences between neoconservative doctrine and the views of conservative Israelis -- in particular about Arabs. The neoconservative belief that the Arab world teems with Lockean democrats ready to build stable and liberal modern states once the dictators are removed could hardly be further from conventional Israeli views about the political culture and developmental possibilities of their neighbors. The Israeli defense establishment was deeply skeptical of neoconservative hopes for a democratic renaissance in the Middle East following the removal of Saddam Hussein. In short, the relationship between neoconservative thought and the worldview of the Israeli right is much more complex than the simplistic picture painted here.
The book's poor analysis of U.S. domestic politics sometimes involves a remarkably slipshod handling of evidence. One rubs one's eyes, frequently, at the spectacle of these two academics earnestly and solemnly presenting fundraising letters and convention speeches and other materials by paid employees of AIPAC and other such groups as conclusive proof of those groups' power and reach. Pro-Israel groups are hardly unique in their need to tout their clout and use the fabled blue smoke and mirrors to magnify their power. That is what every interest group in the United States does, so as to get more resources for its next "vital battle." Mearsheimer and Walt are so fond of this kind of evidence that significant stretches of the book are devoted to the self-serving promotional statements of the lobby. The authors seem to think that such passages provide incontrovertible proof of the lobby's importance: they convict the lobby out of its own mouth, as it were. Unsophisticated readers may be impressed; those wise in the crooked folkways of Washington will know just how far self-aggrandizing statements by lobbyists can be believed.
The authors' credulity never ceases to inspire. A group of 76 senators signed a pro-Israel open letter to President Gerald Ford. One of the signers, Senator Dick Culver (D-Iowa), later said that he "caved" and signed only because "the pressure was too great." Mearsheimer and Walt are uncritically enthralled and accept the retraction as revealing the true, inner Culver. Perhaps, but all one knows here is that Culver, by his own admission, was willing to say things he did not believe to gain a political advantage. When was he speaking the truth, and when was he seeking approval? Washington is unfortunately well supplied with loose-lipped opportunists who will say anything an audience -- any audience -- wants them to say. But here and elsewhere, Mearsheimer and Walt seem uncritically and even naively willing to take any statement from any source at face value if it will somehow help make their case.
Mearsheimer and Walt argue that financing campaigns is an important source of the Israel lobby's power, but their analysis of this phenomenon leaves much to be desired. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), they breathlessly report, received $30,000 from pro-Israel PACs for her 2006 reelection campaign. In fact, this figure significantly understates the support she received from what the Center for Responsive Politics calls "pro-Israel" money, which amounted to $328,000 toward her 2006 campaign. Still, although that number may look impressive, it was less than one percent of the money Clinton raised for her Senate reelection bid. Against the $328,000 in "pro-Israel" money, she received more than half a million dollars from the printing and publishing industry, $800,000 from health-care interests, $1 million from groups and individuals interested in women's issues, $2 million from donors based in real estate, and more than $4 million from lawyers and law firms. Had every dime of "pro-Israel" money gone to her opponent, there would have been no significant difference for her campaign.
What was true for Clinton in 2006 was true overall. Pro-Israel PACs contributed slightly more than $3 million to House and Senate candidates in the 2006 election cycle -- less than one percent of total PAC spending in that cycle. There were a few individual races in which pro-Israel contributions played a significant role -- especially Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman's -- but in the overall context of U.S. campaign finance, "pro-Israel" money is a drop in the bucket. Moreover, in both 2000 and 2004, much more "pro-Israel" money went to Democratic candidates than went to Republican candidates, and Jewish voters overwhelmingly opposed George W. Bush. If Jewish voters overwhelmingly voted against Bush in both elections, and pro-Israel political groups gave much more money to Democrats than Republicans, how, exactly, did the lobby later control the Republican Congress it so signally opposed? And why should it bear particular blame for the policies of a president whose election it tried and failed to block?
None of this means that the role of pro-Israel groups in campaign finance should not be studied, or that relatively small amounts of money strategically placed and timed cannot have an impact. But Mearsheimer and Walt do not even list, much less take on, the various topics that an examination of the limited role "pro-Israel" money plays in U.S. politics would have to address. This is not serious scholarship.
A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP
As one might expect from international relations specialists, the book treats the geopolitics of the Middle East more professionally than U.S. domestic politics. Mearsheimer and Walt concede that U.S. and Israeli interests overlapped during the Cold War; for somewhat different reasons, both the United States and Israel wanted to keep the Soviets out of the region. They argue, however, that the strategic link weakened significantly after 1989. They find the close U.S.-Israeli relationship since then increasingly anomalous; the two countries' interests, they believe, are diverging even as U.S. policy remains firmly aligned with Jerusalem. Since this alignment, Mearsheimer and Walt argue, is not driven by common strategic interests or common moral values, it must be driven by the power of the Israel lobby.
Their geopolitical analysis of Israel's position is interesting and in many respects useful. But Mearsheimer and Walt seem not to see how it undercuts the importance of the Israel lobby. According to them, Israel is the dominant regional power, and its enormous advantages in weapons and technology are so great that it has relatively little need for U.S. support at this point. Both the military and the economic aid that the United States offers, Mearsheimer and Walt tell us, can be substantially reduced or even eliminated without undermining Israel's security. But they do not carry this point through to its logical conclusion: if U.S. aid is of relatively limited value to Israel, then threats to trim or withhold that aid will have relatively little impact on Israel's behavior. And if such aid is of relatively little importance in the regional power balance, then the efforts of the Israel lobby to extract more aid from the U.S. Congress are not really that important. In short, U.S. aid does not change the power balance, and withholding that aid would have little impact on Israel's negotiating position -- meaning that the Israel lobby, whatever its makeup or power over the U.S. political system, plays no significant role in determining the course of events in the Middle East.
Mearsheimer and Walt also significantly underestimate the importance of the U.S.-Israeli alliance to the United States. If Israel determined that U.S. foreign policy was shifting in a hostile direction, it would have the option of diversifying its great-power base of support. Given Israel's overwhelming military position in the Middle East, and its ability to provide a new partner with advanced U.S. weapons and intelligence information, China, Russia, and India might find an alliance with Israel well worth the cost in popularity points across the Arab world. Israel has changed partners before: it won the 1948-49 war with weapons from the Soviet bloc, partnered with France and the United Kingdom in 1956, and considered France (the source of Israel's nuclear technology) its most important ally in 1967. This potential shift is of major concern to the United States. One of the key U.S. objectives in the Middle East since World War II has been to prevent any other outside power from gaining a strategic foothold there. Alliances between other great powers and Israel -- the dominant military power in the world's most vital and crisis-ridden region -- could create major problems for U.S. foreign policy and significantly reduce the United States' ability to advance the Middle East peace process. Accordingly, maintaining the United States' relationship with Israel while managing its costs is the real challenge for U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Mearsheimer and Walt are correct that returning Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table -- with proposals based on but in some ways going further than those that President Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak presented at Camp David in 2000 -- is probably the best way to go. But as Mearsheimer and Walt show, Washington cannot simply impose that agenda on Israel by making threats. Israel cannot be compelled to negotiate on U.S. terms; it must be persuaded. Mearsheimer and Walt's goal of a fresh start in the peace process requires carrots, not sticks. And if and when those carrots are put on the table, will Mearsheimer and Walt denounce the offer as yet another triumph for the Israel lobby, or will they see it as an instance of the United States promoting its interests by coordinating policy with an indispensable local power in one of the world's most explosive regions?
ON THE JEWISH QUESTION
Domestic politics, geopolitics: next is cultural politics -- and especially the question of anti-Semitism. There have already been public charges of anti-Semitism, and more will come. Let me be unambiguously clear: those charges go too far. Mearsheimer and Walt state very clearly that they are not anti-Semites, and nothing in this book proves them wrong.
That said, some of the criticism that they will receive on this score is the result of their own easily avoidable lapses in judgment and expression. A little more care on their part could have done wonders in keeping what was bound to be a very heated discussion focused more tightly on the merits of the case.
The authors do what anti-Semites have always done: they overstate the power of Jews. Although Mearsheimer and Walt make an effort to distinguish their work from anti-Semitic tracts, the picture they paint calls up some of the ugliest stereotypes in anti-Semitic discourse. The Zionist octopus they conjure -- stirring up the Iraq war, manipulating both U.S. political parties, shaping the media, punishing the courageous minority of professors and politicians who dare to tell the truth -- is depressingly familiar. Some readers will be so overpowered by this familiar bugbear that they will conclude that the authors are deliberately invoking it. In fact, Mearsheimer and Walt have come honestly to a mistaken understanding of the relationship between pro-Israel political activity and U.S. policy and strategic interests. It is no crime to be wrong, and being wrong about Jews does not necessarily make someone an anti-Semite. But rhetorical clumsiness and the occasional unfortunate phrase make their case harder to defend.
One problem is that Mearsheimer and Walt decontextualize the activity of Jews and their allies. Attempts by pro-Zionist students and pressure groups to challenge university decisions to grant tenure or otherwise reward professors deemed too pro-Arab are portrayed as yet another sign of the long reach and dangerous power of the octopus. In fact, these efforts are part of a much broader, and deeply deplorable, trend in American education, by which every ethnic, religious, and sexual group seeks to define the bounds of acceptable discourse. African Americans, Native Americans, feminists, lesbian, gay, and transgendered persons -- organizations purporting to represent these groups and many others have done their best to drive speakers, professors, and textbooks with the "wrong" views out of the academy. Zionists have actually come relatively late to this particular pander fest, and they are notable chiefly for their relatively weak performance in the perverse drive to block free speech on campus.
The authors also end up adopting a widely used tactic that has a special history in anti-Semitic literature. When anti-Semitic writers and politicians make vicious attacks, Jews are in a double bind: refrain from responding with outrage and the charge becomes accepted as a fact, express utter loathing at the charge and give anti-Semites the opportunity to pose as the victims of a slander campaign by venomous Jews. Nazi propagandists honed this into an effective weapon. Anyone who lived through or has immersed himself in the history of the golden age of European anti-Semitism is keenly aware of this tactic, and when one sees it employed in writing about Israel or the Israel lobby, one naturally assumes the worst: that the use of a tactic long popular among anti-Semites is a sign that a contemporary writer shares their deplorable worldview. The greatest living practitioner of this passive-aggressive form of provocation (and not just against Jews) is former President Jimmy Carter, whose recently published Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid set off a firestorm by implying a parallel between the Israel of today and apartheid South Africa. Mearsheimer and Walt wag their fingers at those awful Jews who "smeared" the meek and innocent Lamb of Georgia. How dare the lobby be provoked by Carter's provocation!
To a certain audience, that chain of events signals a powerful and determined anti-Semitism at work. This is wrong, in both the case of Carter and the case of Mearsheimer and Walt. But paying a little more attention to the ways in which modern history has shaped the emotions and responses of participants in Israel policy debates would have helped Mearsheimer and Walt make their case. The relationship between U.S. domestic politics and U.S. policy in the Middle East is far too complex, emotional, and important a topic to be sidelined by red herrings.
Home | Subscribe | Current Issue
www.foreignaffairs.org is copyright 2002--2006 by the Council on Foreign Relations. All rights reserved.