Sunday, March 26, 2006

Mearsheimer & Walt on the Zionist Conspiracy ...

... with a response by Herf & Markovits.

In the ultra-right white-supremacist circles that helped shape the ideology of people like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, in which neo-Nazi books like The Turner Diaries are influential best-sellers, it is widely accepted that the US is under the control of a Zionist Occupation Government (or ZOG). Of course, in the US--unlike some other parts of the world--these beliefs are lunatic-fringe stuff. But when it comes to arguments about US foreign policy, more toned-down versions of such claims are not that uncommon in some circles of the more respectable right and the not-so-loony left.

In western Europe, they have long been fairly standard in "mainstream" political discussions. Back in the early 1980s, for example, I recall reading a piece by Ian Gilmour, a prominent and respected figure in the British Conservative Party who has always been strongly pro-Arab and hostile to Israel, in which he described the US Senate as a "Zionist rotten borough." The terminology varies, but the general notion that Israel and its supporters (you know who they are) have a pervasive, harmful, and illegitimate influence over US foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, is close to conventional wisdom in serious publications like The Guardian or Le Monde and tends to pop up in conspiracy theories about everything from globalization to the Iraq War--which is often seen, even by some otherwise intelligent people, as a Zionist plot hatched primarily by Israel and its supporters (or agents) in the US political system.

Even in their mainstream versions, these perspectives are not always free of anti-semitic overtones, but it would be oversimplified and misleading to assume that they are necessarily anti-semitic in inspiration. Indeed, they are not always inspired by hostility to Israel per se. In some cases, the primary sentiment seems to be a sense that Israel and its concerns are just massively inconvenient--though the failure of Israel and its supporters to avoid complicating matters for bigger and more significant countries often does lead to a sense of exasperated irritation with "that shitty little country," as the French ambassador to Britain put it in 2001. ("Why should we be in danger of world war three because of these people?")

In American politics and intellectual life, for example, there have long been a range of tendencies that opposed US support for Israel on so-called "realist" grounds--that is, they have argued that US alignment with Israel, and perhaps even Israel's creation in the first place, have been harmful to what they consider hard-headed US national interests. (It is well known that many so-called foreign-policy "realists"--not all, I should add--often have an excessively narrow, superficial, and unrealistic conception of "national interests" and of the factors shaping international politics, but that is another matter.) Unsurprisingly, this camp has always included major elements of big business, especially those with oil connections, as well as Arabists in the foreign-policy establishment and journalists like Robert Novak. As Jimmy Carter's brother Billy used to point out with undiplomatic bluntness, there are a lot more Arabs (not to mention other Muslims) than Jews, and they have a lot more oil. These sentiments have also been strong in remnants of the old isolationist right, epitomized nowadays by Pat Buchanan, who can sometimes find patterns of Israeli influence that the rest of us miss. Buchanan was convinced that even the first Gulf War in 2001 was a Zionist plot. The only Americans who favored going to war, he argued at the time, were the Israelis and their "amen corner" in Washington--which somehow included the first President Bush, James Baker, and Dick Cheney. In case the "amen corner" charge was too subtle, Buchanan spelled it out more explicitly: "Capitol Hill is Israeli occupied territory."

Self-styled "realists" have always been upset by the distorting impact of domestic politics on the conduct of foreign policy--particularly by the political influence of ethnic minorities like Irish-Americans or Jewish-Americans. These minorities used to be accused explicitly of "dual loyalty," though in recent years more euphemistic formulations have been used. Of course, it is not always easy for "realists" to stay exclusively at the level of cool, hard-headed, national-interest analysis, especially when they get irritated and dismayed by the pernicious influence of Israel and its supporters. Both the dynamics of ideology and the needs of propaganda often push them toward demonizing Israel. (To avoid the usual distractions and red herrings, let me make it clear that demonizing Israel means something more than just the criticism of specific Israeli policies and actions, which people sympathetic to Israel, like myself, often make, too.) For example, someone like Pat Buchanan, who has complete contempt for the idea that US foreign policy should be at all influenced by considerations of "human rights" or "democracy," expresses great indignation about Israel's unjust, inhumane, and undemocratic treatment of the Palestinians, sympathizes with Arab resentment about these injustices, and so on.

=> All of which serves as background to a recent publication by two prominent "realist" academics, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The full 83-page version (with footnotes) was printed as a Working Paper at Harvard entitled "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy," and a condensed version (without footnotes) appeared in the London Review of Books (vol. 28, #6 - 23 March 2006) as "The Israel Lobby."

This piece is quite appalling, but it seems to me that it is also significant and deserves careful attention. That is not because it introduces any new or especially convincing arguments--quite the contrary. As Shalom Lappin and others pointed out, one of the striking things about it is that it really offers no new information or analysis. Instead, it simply recycles a whole set of standard propaganda lines that have been around for decades and adds some that have appeared more recently. What it amounts to is an attempt to present a more academically credible and respectable restatement of an essentially Buchananite perspective. So it may turn out to be a dangerous straw in the wind

It has to be said that Mearsheimer and Walt don't pussyfoot around. The LRB version of their manifesto begins as follows:
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.  [As Lee Smith sarcastically observed, this analysis by these two alleged "realists" somehow manages to leave out the US relationship with "A Place Called Saudi Arabia". --JW]  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?  [Note the language here. The charge is not simply that the U.S. has compromised its security by supporting Israel, but that it has "set aside its own security."]  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’.
Believe it or not, the rest of their piece makes it clear that the last assertion is meant seriously. That is, the "Israel Lobby" not only controls the US position in the Arab/Israeli conflict, but "almost entirely" shapes "the thrust of US policy" in the Middle East as a whole. This claim pushes their argument beyond the bounds of plausibility, or even of normal polemical overstatement, into the borderlands of paranoid political propaganda.

=> To avoid, once again, the usual distractions and red herrings, I want to emphasize quite seriously that there is absolutely no reason to believe that either Mearsheimer or Walt is personally an anti-semite. Nor is the argument of this piece anti-semitic in any crude or direct sense. It is clear that if American Jews who support Israel's survival and security would just shut up and stop trying to influence US foreign policy, they would have no problems with us. (It should be noted that Mearsheimer and Walt make little effort to distinguish between people who blindly support everything Israel does and other people who are sympathetic to Israel but strongly criticize particular Israeli actions or policies.)

Also, to be fair, Mearsheimer and Walt never quite say explicitly that Jewish-American voters constitute a fifth column who place their loyalties to Israel above their loyalties to the US. Nor do they precisely recommend that Jewish government officials should be kept away from involvement with Middle East diplomacy and policy-making unless they are certifiably unsympathetic to Israel. Mearsheimer and Walt are more circumspect than that--though the basic message comes through clearly enough. As Robert Fine noted perceptively:
Beware of denials, is a lesson Freud and most of us learn at an early age. When your mother says ‘I am not angry’ and her face is turning incandescent red, it usually means that her fury had passed all illocutionary bounds. [....] In this piece there are classic examples of denial. ‘There is nothing improper about American Jews and their Christian allies attempting to sway US policy’ means that there is everything improper. ‘The Lobby’s activities are not a conspiracy of the sort depicted in tracts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ means they are a conspiracy of this type. ‘This is not meant to suggest that “the Lobby” is a unified movement with a central leadership’ means that the Lobby is a wilful, undifferentiated, conspiratorial subject.
But leaving all that aside....

=> In terms of its explicit argument, this piece is bad enough. It is not just appalling but also a bit peculiar. Given the fact that the authors are academic heavyweights, the analysis is surprisingly crude, superficial, and unconvincing, and the discussion is full of assertions that are tendentious, misleading, or simply incorrect. Furthermore, at times the authors go beyond questionable or one-sided analyses to dangerous absurdities. In particular, they claim that the Israel Lobby played the "critical" role in pushing the US into the 2003 Iraq war. (Again, one has to wonder--how do people like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and so on fit into this picture?) Mearsheimer and Walt believe that the Iraq war was a bad idea, and they are certainly entitled to feel this way. But blaming the Iraq war on the Jews--which, quite frankly, is what they do--is absurd and outrageous.

=> Sorting out all the errors, fallacies, and misrepresentations in this piece would require a long discussion. So far, one of the most effective and penetrating brief critiques of this bizarre pseudo-scholarly manifesto is the following letter sent to the LRB by two scholars who happen to be friends of mine, Jeffrey Herf and Andy Markovits.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

[UPDATE:  For a larger compendium of critiques, see Some Rebuttals to Mearsheimer & Walt's "Israel Lobby"]

[This letter by Profs. Jeffrey Herf and Andrei Markovits is reprinted with their permission. It was published by the LRB, along with other responses, in the issue dated April 6, 2006--JW] [See also HERE]

Accusations of powerful Jews behind the scenes are part of the most dangerous traditions of modern anti-Semitism. So it is with dismay that we read John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt's "The Israel Lobby."

We have known and respected John Mearsheimer for over twenty years which makes the essay all the more unsettling. A long reply to the erroneous history of recent events they present would exceed the length of a letter to the editor. The following must suffice.

First, it is not true that the American relationship with Israel has been "the centrepiece of US Middle Eastern policy." That centrepiece has been and remains access to oil for the United States and for the global economy. As it became apparent during the 1960s that Israel was not merely the only democracy in the region but also a supporter of the West in the Cold War, the American relationship intensified. At that point, support for Israel, which had been strongest among liberals who supported a Jewish state in the wake of the Holocaust, expanded to include the previously less than enthusiastic traditional military and diplomatic foreign policy establishment, some of which was deeply hostile to Israel and suspicious of Jews, to put it mildly. This was not due to the efforts of the Jewish lobby or the power of the five million Jews (in a country of almost 300 million). It was due to an assessment of American national interest made by an overwhelmingly non-Jewish political and military establishment long before Christian fundamentalism became a factor in the Republican Party. It coincided with increasingly close ties with the Saudi regime.

Second, it is not true that the United States went to war in Iraq due to the pressure of a Jewish lobby. Even if the key decision makers were Jews, this would not prove the point about the Jewish lobby. As it happens, primary advisers and war planners for Bush were Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and Rice and the entirely non-Jewish military leadership, not the usual suspects now trotted out by those peddling stories about Jewish power behind the scenes. Whatever Israel or its supporters in the United States may or may not have wanted, American and British leaders decided to go to war for their reasons grounded in their interpretation of the respective national interest. Saddam Hussein stunned and surprised his military leaders three months before the United States and Britain invaded by revealing to them that indeed, Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction. There were many officials in London and Washington - or Berlin and Paris, for that matter - who would have been just as surprised.

One need not think the decision to go to war was the correct one to remember that it was not motivated by concerns about Israel's national security. One need not agree that oil below the ground and dictatorship above it posed an immediate threat to recall that British and American (as well as other Western) leaders believed that Saddam with weapons of mass destruction in years to come would have posed a threat to the other Arab oil producing states as much as Israel. Mearsheimer and Walt's realism ignores this conventional threat on the minds of American and British policy makers.

Third, while much opinion in the Arab and Islamic world has rejected the presence of a Jewish state in its midst, anti-Americanism, hatred of Europe (including Britain) and of liberal modernity in general would exist if Israel was not there. Mearsheimer and Walt stand in a long tradition of "realist" political scientists known for naivete regarding the power and import of ideological fanaticism in international affairs. This naivete is the reason that radical Islam and the enduring crises of modernization in the region that produced it receive hardly a word in their long attack.

Fourth, American Jewish citizens have a right to express their views without being charged with placing the interests of Israel ahead of those of the United States. Mearsheimer and Walt's attack appears eight years after the terrorist war against the West declared by Osama Bin Laden; six years after Ehud Barak offered a compromise plan to end the conflict and occupation of the West Bank and Yassir Arafat responded with a terrorist campaign of his own; after countless terrorist attacks all over the world by Al Qaeda and its sympathizers, including the London underground bombings; after repeated acts of terrorist barbarism in Iraq by radical Islamists; the declaration by the Iranian President that Israel should be wiped out and that the Holocaust was a myth; and most recently after the world's first electoral victory with a solid majority won by an openly anti-Semitic terrorist organization, Hamas. Mearsheimer and Walt further ignore that all of this happened also after Israel withdrew from Lebanon; offered the Barak plan; retaliated to the terrorist campaign as any state - including Britain or the United States - would; accepted the principle of a Palestinian state and thus agreed to withdraw from over 90% of the West Bank; and then withdrew completely from Gaza. If the Palestinians had responded to these offers of a compromise peace, they would now have a functioning state perhaps before radical Islam came to dominate their politics. It was radical Islamist and secular Palestinian militants as well, not the Jewish lobby, that destroyed prospects for a compromise settlement.

Were Mearsheimer and Walt's views to win the day in Washington - and we are confident that they won't - terrorists inspired by Islamic fundamentalism would conclude that the terror campaign of recent years has paid handsome dividends among some Western academics, perhaps among some Western politicians. If the United States concluded that it no longer had a vital interest in the continued survival of the only democracy in the Middle East, those now attacking Western modernity might conclude that the Americans could be convinced that defence of Europe - and Britain as well - was also not in the American interest. Turning one's back on one's good friends when times are tough has never been, is not now and will never be a realistic, decent or wise foreign policy.

Jeffrey Herf, Professor, Department of History, University of Maryland
Andrei S. Markovits, Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies, Department of Political Science and Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, The University of Michigan