Provocateurs

It is fitting that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, prominent U.S. foreign-policy and international-relations experts who teach at the University of Chicago and Harvard respectively, have dedicated their new book to Samuel Huntington. Like Mearsheimer and Walt, Huntington is the author of a sensational article whose controversial thesis was subsequently elaborated and documented in an equally inflammatory book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). There Huntington, another Harvard political scientist, argued provocatively that a major shift in U.S. foreign policy was necessitated by a new set of undeniable, if inconvenient, geopolitical facts. While nation-states would remain major players in global affairs, Huntington acknowledged, the post-cold-war world would be characterized by conflicts between “civilizational blocs,” not least of which is Islam, with its “bloody borders.” Following the tragic and epoch-making events of 9/11, the Huntington thesis, taken up with renewed vigor by neoconservative pundits and politicians, set the ideological stage for President George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” (The eminent Princeton historian of the Middle East, Bernard Lewis, among other pro-Israel intellectuals, is said to have been influential in advancing the supposedly anti-Islamist tenets of the “civilizations” thesis within the Bush administration.)

Mearsheimer and Walt’s sensational article, now elaborated and documented in the equally inflammatory book under review, was originally published in the March 2006 edition of the London Review of Books (see Commonweal, August 11, 2006, “Can We Say No to a Friend?”). The authors’ argument is as provocative as it is straightforward. A major shift in U.S. foreign policy is necessitated by a new set of undeniable, if inconvenient (to some), geopolitical facts. While the interests of the United States and Israel often converged during the cold war, with Israel serving as a bulwark against the Soviet-supported Arab states of the Middle East, the situation has changed radically with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the advent of a politically Islamicized Middle East. In this context, the authors contend, Israel has become a strategic liability rather than an asset. Accordingly, it is high time to reassess and reduce America’s “unconditional” support for the state of Israel. In order to move even an inch in this direction, the authors explain, something must be done to curtail the enormous influence of the Israel lobby, which they define as “the loose coalition of individuals and organizations that actively work to shape U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction.”

Some of the same personalities who transformed The Clash of Civilizations from an academic exercise into a policy platform, including the neoconservatives and their academic underwriters, also play lead roles in the drama narrated in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. But here they appear mostly as villains. For Mearsheimer and Walt have made a bold effort to reverse the ill-considered U.S. policies and underlying orientation to the Middle East that Huntington inadvertently helped legitimate. (Indeed, the misuse of the Civilizations thesis caused great concern to its author, who had set out to describe, not prescribe, he later insisted. Like Mearsheimer and Walt, Huntington found the decision to invade Iraq inane, and believes U.S. power should be used jealously and selectively-not, that is, in service to an ideological crusade.)

The vaunted “special relationship” between the United States and Israel, Mear¬sheimer and Walt report, does not come cheap. The state of Israel is the recipient of approximately $3 billion in U.S. assistance each year-one-sixth of America’s annual foreign-aid budget. (An additional $2 billion goes to Egypt, largely a reward for signing and continuing to honor the 1978 Camp David peace agreement with Israel.) In addition, the majority of the $154 billion total in U.S. economic and military assistance to Israel, most of it provided during the four decades following the Six Day War in June 1967, has been delivered under terms that are significantly more favorable than those offered to other recipients of U.S. foreign aid. The funds, which come largely in the form of outright grants, are paid not in quarterly installments but in the first thirty days of the fiscal year, requiring the U.S. government to borrow $50 to $60 million dollars upfront and allowing Israel to invest the money it does not spend immediately. Moreover, Congress grants Israel a special exemption from the requirement that recipients of U.S. aid spend all of the money through contracts with the U.S. defense industry; the exemption allows Israel to spend one-fourth of U.S. assistance building up its own defense establishment. Washington also provides loan guarantees allowing Israel to borrow money from commercial banks at lower interest rates. In addition to U.S. government support, Israel receives an estimated $2 billion annually in private donations from U.S. citizens; a special clause in the U.S.-Israel income-tax treaty allows many of these donations to be tax deductible.

Finally, Israel is the only recipient of U.S. economic aid that does not have to account for how it is spent. “This exemption [from reporting],” the authors write, “makes it virtually impossible for the United States to prevent its subsidies from being used for purposes it opposes, such as building settlements on the West Bank.”

The bill for economic and military subsidies to Israel is a relative bargain, however, when compared to the strategic price paid by the United States for its special relationship to the Jewish state. Mearsheimer and Walt argue repeatedly (and the book is nothing if not repetitious) that Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, conquered in 1967, its annexation of Palestinian land and seizure of Palestinian property via state-supported Jewish settlements, its “brutal” treatment of the Palestinian people, and its summer 2006 bombing of southern Lebanon (with heavy civilian casualties) in an unsuccessful attempt to root out Hezbollah-all actions and policies perceived as enjoying at least the tacit blessing of the U.S. government and often undertaken with U.S.-made or U.S.-funded weapons-have destabilized the region, fostered a new and deeper wave of anti-American sentiment among dangerous Arab and Muslim states and populations, and fueled the growth of the numerous terrorist groups and movements that together constitute a profound threat not only to Israel but also to the United States.

Israel’s limited strategic value to the United States is also demonstrated, the authors contend, by the often weak or faulty intelligence it provides to the United States; its incitement of “rogue states” such as Iran, Syria, and Iraq; its rejection of U.S. admonitions and inducements to moderate its hard-line policies, especially toward the Palestinians; and its well-deserved status as a pariah in the Middle East, which has resulted in Israel’s “inability to contribute to an undeniable U.S. interest: access to Persian Gulf oil.” Among the authors’ most controversial claims is that there is a direct causal relationship between U.S. support for Israel and Al Qaeda’s attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. “In fact,” they insist, “the United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it has so long been supportive of Israel.”

A strong moral case once could be made for supporting Israel unconditionally. Because of the Holocaust, the horrific culmination of centuries of virulent anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, the Jews deserve a state of their own; as a democratic state surrounded by dictatorships or monarchies, the traditional argument continues, Israel is a natural ally of the United States.

Mearsheimer and Walt claim that this argument has lost some of its force, as the world has witnessed Israel behaving no differently from other states-by passing laws and pursuing policies designed to consolidate its political sovereignty, secure its existence, borders, and physical safety, and ensure the rights and privileges of its citizens. Such behavior, in the view of the realist school of international relations advocated by Mearsheimer and Walt (and Huntington), may well include systematic discrimination against minorities; occasional or frequent human-rights violations, often perpetrated in the name of state security; and a readiness, indeed an inclination, to coerce weak opponents through military might when diplomacy fails to achieve the self-aggrandizing ends of the state. In this regard, they suggest, Israel should not be penalized for behaving like other wealthy and mighty states; but neither should it be given a pass, much less protected, when its self-regarding policies incite anger among, and reprisals by, its regional neighbors, thus causing problems for the United States, whose interests are increasingly at odds with those of Israel.

Israel has made its fair share of blunders, as Mearsheimer and Walt never fail to point out, and the United States should stop absorbing the fallout, thereby protecting Israel from its own mistakes. Withdrawing unconditional support from Israel and treating it like any other state would not only be a suitable way of recognizing the Jewish state’s maturity; it would also be in the interests of Israel itself. That this advice seems to be offered in a spirit of good will and high regard for Israel-as long as Israel does not get in America’s way-has not made it any easier for its recipients to swallow.

Indeed, the arguments rehearsed so far would have been enough to secure the authors a reputation as Huntington-caliber pot-stirrers. To add a further dash of spice to this heady brew, however, they have placed at the heart of their polemic the contention that the best explanation for the stubborn refusal of America’s political leaders and opinion-makers to recognize the obvious wisdom of their recommendations is the pervasive influence of the Israel lobby. This influence derives from the remarkable success of the lobbyists, most of whom are prosperous and increasingly hawkish American Jews whose political views are farther to the right than those of most Jews in both Israel and the United States. The lobby has excelled in exploiting access to presidential candidates and members of Congress. It does so, like other powerful lobbies, by channeling campaign contributions toward or away from individual candidates for election or re-election to the House, Senate, or White House, and by making an object lesson, now and again, of wayward politicians.

A separate chapter is devoted to the Israel lobby’s attempts to control public discourse on topics dear to its heart. According to this account, the lobby skillfully manages the American media, which present a far more sympathetic and one-sided picture of the Israel-Palestine conflict than the media of other nations. It also exerts influence on policymakers through a related but distinct network of neoconservative think tanks and foundations, some of whose pro-Israel leaders enjoy, or have enjoyed, governmental positions in the Bush administration or earlier administrations (people such as Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle). More recently, Mearsheimer and Walt report, the Israel lobby has also sponsored incursions into American universities, where it has attempted to stifle open and critical discussion of Israeli policies and their impact.

Mearsheimer and Walt pile on the quotes of hapless politicians and the occasional media gadfly testifying ruefully to the effectiveness of these tactics. (The Catholic conservative commentator and former presidential candidate Pat Bu¬chan¬an, for example, famously quipped that “Capitol Hill is Israeli-occupied territory” and claimed that the driving force behind the 1991 Gulf War was “the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States.”)

The often pernicious or at least misguided influence of the lobby is documented, as are most of the claims in the book, through a combination of copious seriatim quotations taken from Israeli and U.S. newspapers, magazines, and scholarly articles, and samplings of data lifted from government documents or the occasional think-tank or academic study. The narrative is peppered with familiar and less familiar anecdotes illustrating the reach and power of the various individuals and organizations constituting the lobby (especially the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC). The authors or their research assistants have scoured much of the immense secondary literature and present its findings selectively to give the maximum level of support to their overall argument. They also distort some of the quotations they use by citing them out of context. Not the stuff of first-rate scholarship, but entirely routine for this genre-a polemic or “brief for the prosecution,” to put it strongly; a treatise designed to attract attention, provoke public debate, and ultimately advance the basic argument, to put it more mildly.

Are the authors anti-Semites? They warn us, based on their own experiences following the appearance of the London Review article and the harsh judgments visited upon other prominent critics of Israel, including former President Jimmy Carter, that their book will be misrepresented as a contemporary version of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a tsarist anti-Jewish forgery that was discredited long ago. And, sure enough, as if on cue, the other side quickly demonstrated the truth of the authors’ claim that “anyone who criticizes Israeli actions or says that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over U.S. Middle East policy stands a good chance of getting labeled an anti-Semite.”

To cite but two of several denunciatory reviews: the New Republic (whose editor Martin Peretz is charged by Mear¬sheimer and Walt with perpetuating the myth of Israeli “purity of arms”-the doctrine that “everything reasonable must be done to avoid harming civilians, even if that entails additional risks to Israeli soldiers”) published a remarkable cover-story screed by the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. His article begins by comparing Mearsheimer and Walt to Osama bin Laden and goes downhill from there. And even before The Israel Lobby appeared in book form, Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, published his own counterattack, titled The Deadliest Lies: The Israeli Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control. In that book’s preface, former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Schultz praises the “judicious tone” adopted by Foxman, who nonetheless writes: “Walt and Mearsheimer sound all the same notes-not with the crudity we’d encounter from spokespeople for neo-Nazi groups like the National Alliance, but with a subtlety and pseudo-scholarly style that makes their poison all the more dangerous.”

One who had not read The Israel Lobby but had read Foxman, Goldberg, and others might be surprised by the dozens of condemnations of anti-Semitism and statements of support for the state of Israel with which Mearsheimer and Walt have larded their book, in what they must have known would be a futile attempt to ward off such accusations.

What are we who are neither anti-Israeli nor anti-Palestinian but pro-peace to make of The Israel Lobby and the fire¬storm of controversy it has ignited? Does the book’s farrago of information, opinion, and speculation constitute incontrovertible evidence for all of the authors’ claims about the power and influence of the Israel lobby or the purported tail-wagging-the-dog nature of Israel’s relationship to the U.S. government? No. Is the basic point nonetheless made, namely, that the Israeli Right and its hardline supporters in America exercise disproportionate and sometimes harmful influence in the debate, or lack thereof, regarding U.S. support for Israel? Yes.

Do the authors go out of their way to offend supporters of Israel? Perhaps less than in the original article, but they do not inspire confidence in their fair-mindedness with comments like this: “There is a strong moral case for supporting Israel’s existence, but that fortunately is not in danger at present.” (Easy to say while sitting in one’s study in Cambridge or Chicago.) And: “Even if allowing for the Palestinians’ various shortcomings, which group now has the stronger moral claim to U.S. sympathy?” (Odd, to say the least, to describe the targeting of innocent Israeli civilians by Palestinian suicide bombers as a “shortcoming.”)

Yet wouldn’t it have been a helpful departure from the “anything goes” spirit of debate about the Middle East to bend over backward to acknowledge the legitimate concerns and fears of the Israelis and their supporters? Wouldn’t a more balanced portrayal of the situation have strengthened Mearsheimer and Walt’s argument? Wouldn’t it have made more credible their otherwise perfunctory gestures toward neutrality, if not even-handedness?

Walt and Mearsheimer, as noted, are proponents of realism, that school of international relations based on the assumption that nation-states follow a specific logic that is reasonable and indeed predictable within the parameters of a Hobbesian worldview: the mighty prevail, and nation-states will be dedicated invariably to pursuing their own material interests by continually expanding their military and political might. While portions of The Israel Lobby are weakened by hyperbole and a tendentious use of evidence, much of the argument is reasonable and certainly worthy of serious consideration. And yet the weaknesses inherent in realism-particularly, its tendency to consider the nation-state in the abstract, to weigh its calculations as if they were made by Olympian gods hovering above and immune from the messy motivations and “reasoning” of the actual human beings who govern and inhabit the modern nation-state-are glimpsed in the policy recommendations put forward in the last chapter:

Although we believe that America should support Israel’s existence, Israel’s security is ultimately not of critical strategic importance to the United States. In the event that Israel was conquered-which is extremely unlikely given its considerable military power and its robust nuclear deterrent-neither America’s territorial integrity, its military power, its economic prosperity, nor its core political values would be jeopardized.

What the realists don’t seem to understand, in the final analysis, is that even the policy decisions of the great powers-and certainly the U.S. decision to maintain its special relationship with Israel despite its innumerable “shortcomings”-are often predicated on something greater, or at least more elusive, than the surface dynamics of great-power politics. That something exists in the always unpredictable realm of human psychology, where notions of freedom, allegiance, fraternity, and the recognition of moral claims play out in indeterminate but powerful ways. Americans, for good and for ill, have a soft spot for Israel, a psychological predisposition that is one of the ingredients constituting what Mearsheimer and Walt call “core political values.” Many will find the sentences just quoted unacceptably aloof from the lived realities of the Middle East, and therefore coldly “rational.”

Such psychological predispositions can change. Arab and Muslim Americans are trying, for example, to gain a foothold in the American imagination. It will take time. Mearsheimer and Walt have helped their cause by writing this big, contentious, partly outrageous, partly compelling treatise demanding an end to America’s special relationship with Israel. If nothing else, they have ignited a raging debate that will likely continue for many years. Professor Huntington must be proud.

Published in the 2007-11-23 issue: 

R. Scott Appleby is the Marilyn Keough Dean of the Keough School of Global Affairs and professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

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