The most frightening thing about The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy is how bad, shockingly bad, it is. That two professors at two of the world’s leading universities could have produced a book so lacking in serious scholarship or even basic familiarity with their topic; that a major publishing house put its imprimatur on the book; and most significantly that it has attracted a wide readership and thrust the two authors and their views into the limelight is truly cause for concern.
The two authors Stephen Walt of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago purport to prove that American foreign policy has been subverted by the so-called ” Israel lobby” to the benefit of Israel and at great damage to the United States. One would expect a book about American policy-making to actually examine the decision-making process of American policymakers. Yet Walt and Mearsheimer do not cite, much less rely, on government documents.
They have spent no time in the archives. Nor have they interviewed key policymakers. Of the book’s 1,247 footnotes, only three refer to correspondence with a primary source and only two mention interviews with sources. No Congressman was interviewed, even though the picture of Congress as “Israeli-held territory” (in Patrick Buchanan’s pithy description) is adopted by Walt-Mearsheimer. Even reading through the vast secondary literature on American Middle East policymaking was two much for the distinguished professors. That literature attributes little impact to domestic political concerns on American foreign policy.
So how do our intrepid authors know that the Israel lobby has wielded such an immense influence on American foreign policy? “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.” They deduce that influence. To members of the “realist school” to which Walt-Mearsheimer belong, the war in Iraq was utter and total folly. Indeed a folly so complete that no rational explanation can be offered for it. And since according to realist dogma all nations pursue a narrow set of “interests,” any action totally at odds with those interests must be explained by some outside force. The only one that occurs to Walt-Mearsheimer is the stranglehold of the Israel Lobby on American foreign policy.
Walt-Mearsheimer are surely correct to view the war in Iraq as a rejection of their “realist” foreign-policy prescriptions. As President Bush declared in Nov. 6, 2003, in signaling his break with the realist school that dominated his father’s administration: “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because in the long-run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”
For Walt-Mearsheimer the President’s rejection of “realism” on the grounds that it had proven counter-productive on its own terms, at the expense of America’s highest ideals, is so fiendishly wrongheaded that no goy could have ever dreamed it up – not the President, not Vice-President Cheney, not Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. They are mere dupes of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in the Walt-Mearsheimer telling. And Wolfowitz, as the name implies, was acting as a card-carrying Likudnik.
There are, however, a few problems with this rendition. The first is the casting of such men as Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld as helpless puppets easily outsmarted by Jews in the Defense Department, like Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith. The second problem is that for Wolfowitz American policy towards Israel was a function of the war in Iraq, which was paramount, rather than Iraq policy being a function of Israel’s needs. Thus Wolfowitz supported Yossi Beilin’s Geneva Initiative – every Likud member’s worst nightmare – because he believed it would facilitate America’s conduct of the war in Iraq.
But the biggest hole in the theory is that Israel itself was not particularly enthusiastic about America going to war in Iraq, and certainly not the instigator of American policy. Lawrence Wilkerson, Secretary of State’s Colin Powell’s chief of staff, and a determined foe of the Defense Department neo-cons, told Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Republic that Israel consistently warned the administration that Iran, not Iraq, was the main threat. “The Israelis tried their best to persuade us that we were focused on the wrong enemy; they were very leery of destroying the balance of power in the Middle East.”
More shocking yet, at least Mearsheimer knows this. In an interview with NPR’s Tom Ashbrook, Mearsheimer let slip, “In early 2002 when the Israelis caught wind of the fact that we were seriously thinking about doing Iraq, that they came to Washington and told us that they would prefer we do Iran first. The Israelis very clearly thought that Iran was a greater threat than Iraq.” In short, Mearsheimer is fully aware that the initiative for the war in Iraq did not come from Israel, and did not comport with Israel’s view of its best interests. That admission itself should have been the end of the matter.
In fact, it was the Saudis, not the Israelis, who were pushing the war in Iraq. Bob Woodward, in his account of the decision-making process leading up to the war in Iraq, details a conversation between Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar and President Bush, in which Bandar urged the president to complete what his father started by getting rid of Saddam. A letter from Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah reiterated the same request. Richard Clarke, a participant in the administration’s deliberations on Iraq and later a fierce critic of the Bush administration, has written that most of the rationales for going to war reflected “a concern with the long-term stability of the House of Saud.”
Having somehow convinced themselves, despite Mearsheimer’s devastating admission, that the Israeli lobby was a major impetus for the war in Iraq , apparently by pushing the Bush administration to do what it had already independently determined to do, Mearsheimer/Walt then extrapolate backwards and conclude that the same lobby has been subverting American foreign policy for decades. In doing so, they dramatically understate the value of Israel to America and overstate the costs of the American-Israeli relationship to America .
In the Mearsheimer-Walt telling, the alliance with Israel provides almost nothing of value to the United States. They ignore the genesis of the close relationship between the United States and Israel in the aftermath of the 1967 War, when Israel decisively defeated two Soviet client states – Egypt and Syria – and in the process thoroughly discredited the value of the Soviet embrace. Until then, the relationship between the United States and Israel had not been particularly close, and at times nearly hostile, as when the United States forced an Israeli pullback from the Sinai in 1956. But thereafter Israel became the bulwark of protection against Soviet expansion in the region.
In 1970, the threat of Israeli intervention protected Jordan from a Syrian invasion. And even the Saudis welcomed Israel’s efforts against liberationist movements, which the royal family viewed as a threat to the long-term stability of the Saudi monarchy. Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 proved to be a major boon not only to the United States but to the whole world.
Even after the fall of the Soviet Union , Israel’s military strength has proven a crucial American asset in a vital and volatile region. While the United States has had to repeatedly commit hundreds of thousands of its own troops to conflicts in the Persian Gulf, Israel’s presence has freed it from any such necessity in the Eastern Mediterranean . Israeli technology and intelligence has proven a great boon to its American ally. General George Keenan, a retired chief of U.S. Air Force intelligence, commented in 1986 that it would have taken 5 CIA’s to supply America with the intelligence information it was receiving from Israel. Israel was also the only country to develop its own land-based missile defense.
The flipside of their dismissal of Israel ‘s strategic value is Mearsheimer-Walt’s overemphasis on the negative of impact of the association with Israel on America ‘s relationships with the Moslem world. Not just Walt-Mearsheimer, but most of the “realist” camp dramatically overstate the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to all the dysfunctions of the Moslem world. The truth, in the words of Chaim Hariri, is that “the entire Moslem region is totally dysfunctional . . . . and would have been so even if an independent Palestine had existed for 100 years.” The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has played absolutely no role in numerous examples of that dysfuntion: “the Khomeini Revolution, the bloody Iraqi and Syrian dictatorships, the more than a decade of Islamic terrorism in Algeria, or the Taliban in Afghanistan .
Most shockingly, Walt/Mearsheimer blame the American-Israeli alliance for the terrorist threat to America, indeed for 9/11 itself. That too requires ignoring Al Qaeda’s long list of grievances against America having nothing to do with Israel. In a 2002 letter to America, Osama bin Laden laid out a number of America’s alleged sins: attacking Moslems in Somalia; supporting Russia against the Moslem Chechnyans, supporting Indian suppression of Moslems in Kashmir , and most importantly the pollution of Moslem lands, preeminently Saudia Arabia, with American military bases. Richard Clarke, the expert on Al Qaeda in both the first Bush and Clinton adminstrations writes: “If you look at Al Qaeda’s own writing and their public statements, Israel was not a major theme. What they say is pretty clear.”
Clearly, the Walt/Mearsheimer thesis is stupid; the question we will consider next week is whether such stupidity is also anti-Semitic.
This article appeared in Yated Ne’eman on October 23