Monday, March 27, 2006

The Israel Lobby?

I almost wish I hadn't fired up James Wolcott's blog and found out about this study by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, two prominent realist professors from the University of Chicago and Harvard, respectively. It's called "The Israel Lobby", and it is causing a storm of controversy.

What's it about? Well, check the title. It's about AIPAC and the other panapoly of pro-Israeli think tanks and lobbyists and the influence they have over American foreign policy: about how they work, about why they win, and the extent to which they have made Israel and the U.S. closer allies than they might otherwise be.

A quote from Wolcott's own quotation:

"For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centrepiece of US Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering support for Israel and the related effort to spread ‘democracy’ throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardised not only US security but that of much of the rest of the world. This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the US been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the US provides.

"Instead, the thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US interests and those of the other country – in this case, Israel – are essentially identical.

"Since the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing that given to any other state. It has been the largest annual recipient of direct economic and military assistance since 1976, and is the largest recipient in total since World War Two, to the tune of well over $140 billion (in 2004 dollars). Israel receives about $3 billion in direct assistance each year, roughly one-fifth of the foreign aid budget, and worth about $500 a year for every Israeli. This largesse is especially striking since Israel is now a wealthy industrial state with a per capita income roughly equal to that of South Korea or Spain."

..."This extraordinary generosity might be understandable if Israel were a vital strategic asset or if there were a compelling moral case for US backing But neither explanation is convincing..."

I'll stop there. The reasons they give for there not being a moral or strategic case for US backing are pretty easy to understand: the US and Israel are different states, with different leadership, and different strategic goals- those goals don't always overlap, even if they're aimed against the same type of opposition. In the case of terrorism, for example, terrorists who are interested in targeting Israel aren't necessarily interested in targeting the U.S. (and, theoretically vice versa; South American anti-US communists probably don't so much care about Israel)... but they are treated the same, and the interests in that respect are equated. They point out that Israel is not a weak state; it's actually very strong and quite able to defend itself, and the moral case for the unconditional support it gets from the United States is lacking, considering the ongoing problems in the West Bank.

Their most controversial contention is that this is also the case with regards to the Iraq war- that one of the reasons (if not a dominant reason) why it happened was because it was in Israel's strategic interest, a variant on the old complaint that Israel has the United States fight on its behalf.

It's certainly not outside the realm of possibility and theory that this sort of thing could happen- WWI was partially an example of smaller powers trying to draw in larger powers, and Taiwan certainly wouldn't be sniffing around the prospect of independence without the American carrier fleets in the region. Yet, this is a complaint older than Israel; charges that Jews exploit the Gentiles to their own ends have a long and notorious history. It raises the spectre of anti-semitism, and the authors do the same.

(Wolcott again:)

"No discussion of the Lobby would be complete without an examination of one of its most powerful weapons: the charge of anti-semitism. Anyone who criticises Israel’s actions or argues that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over US Middle Eastern policy – an influence AIPAC celebrates – stands a good chance of being labelled an anti-semite. Indeed, anyone who merely claims that there is an Israel Lobby runs the risk of being charged with anti-semitism, even though the Israeli media refer to America’s ‘Jewish Lobby’. In other words, the Lobby first boasts of its influence and then attacks anyone who calls attention to it. It’s a very effective tactic: anti-semitism is something no one wants to be accused of."
Errr.... see, this is why I don't speak about the Israel/Palestinian issue as much as I used to. The reason why the charge happens is because anti-semitism is still a very real problem; although Walt and Mearsheimer do point out that claims of rampant anti-semitism among Europeans and others is overblown anti-semitism certainly exists, which is precisely why the charge is so effective. Yet because the charge is so effective, I think they have a point that it can be and is used to stifle legitimate debate, and certainly debate over the power of the lobby.

And, in fact, the reaction to the article demonstrates this admirably. Some critics have been measured in their responses and one, Daniel Drezner, makes an excellent point that this article is "simply a massive exercise in explaining away a data point that realism can't cover", and that most of its flaws are rooted in the professors' inexperience in public policy debate and a lack of balance in the piece.

Both critiques fit my own reaction when reading the article. Yes, they make an important and necessary point that the power of lobbyists to affect policy also extends to foreign policy, that the pro-Israel lobby is extremely good at its job, that there's nothing wrong with that per se (a point often missed in the critiques I've seen), and that said lobby is extremely camera-shy. The problem is that they don't examine why American political culture might be inherently friendly to Israel, and they don't look at the other foreign policy lobbyists (notably the Arabic oil lobby) and the role they play. Both are necessary for decent public policy analysis, but the former is anti-Realist and the latter is a tricky job at the best of time.

Yet look at the comments thread for Drezner's own piece. Almost every entry is either empty repetition of anti-Arab and pro-Israeli talking points (which the wingnuts love, largely because of the "anti-Arab" part) or, yes, accusations of anti-semitism. Many have been playing the game of guilt by association, saying that anti-semites like David Duke and others agree with the professors and make similar cases, thus showing that the authors are anti-semites themselves. Personally, I think that's risible- the fact that David Duke and I may both like grilled cheese sandwiches does not make me a neo-nazi, and this claim is about as valid. Still, it's out there, and it's being leveraged to try to discredit two of the best-known and most influential scholars in the IR field.

And this is an extraordinarily dangerous game. It always has been. Using the charge of anti-semitism to try to discredit legitimate (if flawed) arguments doesn't just tar the legitimate argument, it legitimizes anti-semitism. There is always going to be the guy in the audience who says "hey, these guys make sense, and they're tarred as anti-semites. I wonder who else has had this happen to them?" He starts reading, then believing, truly anti-semitic material, and any legitimate attempt to dissuade him of this notion is doomed to be dismissed as no different than those spurious charges that started him down that road. There is a very real danger of the people no longer caring if they hear somebody cry "Wolf". A much greater danger than anything Walt and Mearsheimer wrote.

Is it anti-semitic? No. They're careful to draw a distinction between the American Jewish community at large and those Jewish Americans who are policy entrepreneurs for Israel. There is no monolithic "jewish influence" so conspiracy theories about "the Jews" simply don't work. That these sorts of policy entrepreneurs exist might be construed that way, but they acknowledge that similar lobbying efforts exist for other ethnic groups. The authors state that they "are only doing what other special interest groups do, but doing it very much better". While that may be a debatable assertion, (and, as I mentioned, it underestimates the power of the Arab lobby) it isn't anti-semitic. Nor is their contention that Israel is a strong country and can be seen as being on morally shaky ground in the Occupied Territories; the former is empirically verifiable, and the latter debatable enough to be an extremely poor test of anti-semitism.

Indeed, I'd argue that an analysis of the response sheds a lot of light in-and-of itself. The two other states that benefit the most from the United States' friendship and largess are the United Kingdom (who gets to be a world power by proxy, as well as torrents of SIGINT) and Japan (which gets American military protection). Were this article aimed at the power Japanese or British policy entrepreneurs, would it have aroused this much controversy? Clearly not. Were, on the other hand, it aimed at the outsized influence of, say, Saudi Arabia? The same people who are attacking this article would be praising that one to the skies, no matter how shoddy the scholarship!

That's why I'm not inclined to believe the critics out-of-hand, and think there is something to Walt and Mearsheimer's (admittedly flawed) study.

(It doesn't help that the critiques include such weak entries as this one from CAMERA, which makes the very same mistake of equating the Israel lobby with pro-Israeli Jewish Americans when attempting to discredit "The Israel Lobby". The recitation of tired and creaking pro-Israeli talking points doesn't help either; who honestly believes that all the Arabs who left Israel during the War of Independence did so willingly, that the reason why the Israelis won that war had nothing to do with skill, or (incredibly) that
Al Qaeda didn't care about Israel prior to 9/11? Bin Laden didn't justify their actions using the Palestinians until later, but that's an entirely different issue. I realize it probably takes experience to call someone else a "propagandist", but really.)

In the end, this is all kind of a shame, because what it really reveals is that there doesn't seem to be much point in even discussing American foreign policy in the Middle East vis a vis Israel. Even if the Israel lobby doesn't have the kind of power that Walt and Mearsheimer claim they do, they certainly appear to have the power to poison the well during any kind of debate. An endless number of pro-Israeli arguments I've read are weaker than "The Israel Lobby" (many of them on that CAMERA site), but they go unchecked, whereas even eminences like Walt and Mearsheimer are hounded if they write something with far superior skill and care. Open debate is difficult at best, which will only let the underlying issues fester.

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