The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy
by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 496 pp. $26.00
John J. Mearsheimer is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and co-director of the university’s program on international-security policy. Stephen M. Walt is a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he was formerly dean. Both men are prominent and highly respected theorists of the “realist” school of international relations, and both have published widely in some of the most reputable journals and newspapers in America.
That is in part why, when “The Israel Lobby” first saw light in March 2006 as a long article in the London Review of Books, it caused a worldwide sensation—and why its charges were taken with the utmost seriousness by gleeful admirers and shocked detractors alike. It is also why, in devoting a starred review to this expanded and somewhat revised version of the article, Publishers Weekly singled out “the authors’ academic credentials” and the “meticulous documentation with which they support their claims” as reason to take it, too, with the utmost seriousness.
In short, much of The Israel Lobby’s authority derives from its authors’ résumés. And something similar can be said of the book’s effect, and particularly of the damage it has caused by throwing a mantle of academic legitimacy over some of the most disreputable ideas ever to infect political discourse. Before even considering Mearsheimer and Walt’s argument, such as it is, these extrinsic factors of credentials and reputation need to be acknowledged.
As for that argument, The Israel Lobby makes the case, briefly, that American support for Israel is not only wildly and irrationally excessive but has increasingly become a strategic liability; that it can no longer be justified on moral grounds; that it has led the U.S. into one catastrophic misadventure in Iraq and may soon lead it into further misadventures against Syria and Iran; and—what is key—that it has been sustained only by the strenuous and sometimes bullying exertions of a “loose coalition” of pro-Israel interest groups and individuals, which in turn are often coordinated with the Israeli government.
To be sure, the charge that Jews use their cunning, their financial and media muscle, their behind-the-scenes influence in the halls of government, and their web of international contacts to manipulate the powers-that-be for their own advantage has been around for a very long time. The belief that Israel is itself a miscreant state, often hostile to U.S. strategic interests, goes back to Eisenhower’s administration, if not to Truman’s. The view that America’s terrorism problem owes in large part to its support for Israel has been argued by everyone from the reactionary polemicist Patrick J. Buchanan to the radical professor Noam Chomsky. The suggestion that Israel and pro-Israel groups and individuals explain the Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq got its first airing at least five years ago from such people as the Democratic Congressman Jim Moran and the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Ditto for the notion that Israel is all that stands between better U.S. relations with Islamic regimes.
Say what you will about the thesis of The Israel Lobby, then, original it is not. But old arguments are not necessarily bad ones. Nor is it quite fair to say that just because a certain argument resonates with crackpots, it is itself a crackpot argument. (In their book, the authors are at pains to distance themselves from unsavory endorsements like the one offered by the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who hailed their original essay as “a great step forward.”) Precisely because it has issued from two respected establishment figures, and comes cloaked in a tone of academic reasonableness, The Israel Lobby and its claims have been subjected to exceptionally close scrutiny over the last year-and-a-half by any number of careful analysts and researchers. What their collective labors have demonstrated beyond any doubt is that behind the authors’ conclusions lies a farrago of shoddy or non-existent scholarship and rank intellectual dishonesty.
In a review, it is not possible to do much more than point to a few symptomatic particulars that will have to stand for much of the whole. For example: writing on Israel’s allegedly systematic violations of human rights and its “dwindling moral case” for American sympathy, Mearsheimer and Walt assert that, in the Six-Day war of 1967, Israeli soldiers murdered “hundreds of Egyptian prisoners of war.” The claim is made en passant, asserted casually as an uncontroverted fact. In a footnote, an Israeli journalist named Gaby Bron is cited as the main source.
Years ago, however, the same Gaby Bron, who had been a soldier in the 1967 war, told the historian Michael Oren that the story of this alleged massacre was completely false. “The 150 POW’s were not shot, and there were no mass murders,” said Bron. “In fact, we helped the prisoners, gave them water, and in most cases just sent them in the direction of the [Suez] Canal” (see Oren’s “Unfriendly Fire,” the New Republic, July 23, 2001).
One charge of atrocity, one fallacious footnote to support it. Now consider the challenge for a reader or reviewer who must wade through not just The Israel Lobby’s 355 pages of text but its no fewer than 1,399 footnotes, many of which contain references to multiple sources. The opportunities for intellectual mischief are staggering, and Mearsheimer and Walt rarely miss a chance to take them. Amid the blizzard of detail, however, one thing stands out: the complete absence of original scholarship. Scarcely any primary source materials cited; no first-hand interviews; no hint that either Mearsheimer or Walt ever bothered to visit Israel during the course of their researches or so much as spoke to an actual member of the “lobby” against which they level heavy charges of working at cross-purposes with vital U.S. interests. How many readers will notice this travesty of academic standards? Their number does not include the well-placed reviewer who assured American book buyers of the “meticulous documentation with which [the authors] support their claims.”
To take another example: regarding the Camp David negotiations of July 2000, Mearsheimer and Walt contend that the terms offered to the Palestinian strongman Yasir Arafat by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak were “far from generous.” They refer their readers to a later statement by Israel’s then-foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami: “If I were a Palestinian I would have rejected Camp David as well.” Corroboration of their claim? Not quite. Ben-Ami’s accompanying observation—namely, that Arafat “was morally, psychologically, physically incapable of accepting the moral legitimacy of a Jewish state, regardless of its borders or whatever”—has been artfully omitted.
Again, in an effort to nail down their assertion of a “widely recognized” connection between Israeli interests and the U.S. war in Iraq, Mearsheimer and Walt recruit a March 2003 column from the New York Times in which Bill Keller (now the paper’s executive editor) wrote: “The idea that this war is about Israel is persistent and more widely held than you might think.” Elided is the contradictory fact that Keller went on to characterize this idea—their idea—as a “sinister narrative,” adding: “[T]he longstanding Bushite animosity toward Iraq is . . . hardly a secret, and the fact that our interests coincide with Israel’s does not mean that a Zionist fifth column has hijacked the President’s brain.”
And so forth. Instances in which Mearsheimer and Walt present claims that are either wholly unsubstantiated or blatantly contradicted by a reading of the sources they themselves cite in their footnotes multiply in dizzying profusion. It is no doubt for this reason among others that Benny Morris, a controversial Israeli historian on whose scholarship and credentials Mearsheimer and Walt heavily rely, wrote of their original essay that were it “an actual person, I would have to say that he did not have a single honest bone in his body.”
True, the authors are on somewhat safer ground with some of their other sources. But what sources those are! In addition to Noam Chomsky, one finds respectful appeals in The Israel Lobby to the work of Norman Finkelstein, a Jewish supporter of Hizballah, as well as to the revisionist “historian” Ilan Pappé, the hysterically anti-Israel Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and the radical online newsletter Counterpunch.
Where, moreover, the likes of the Brookings Institution and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy are dismissed by Mearsheimer and Walt as lapdogs of the Israel lobby, these other disseminators of supposedly more objective information escape identification as voices from the far Left or the lunatic fringe. The resulting “history” of the Middle East reads as if a Korean scholar, with no English at his command, were to pen an account of the United States based mainly on the translated works of the discredited and disbarred professor Ward Churchill, the leftist anti-American Howard Zinn, and the radical black poet and agitator Amiri Baraka.
When The Israel Lobby first appeared in essay form, some astute critics assailed it as a vulgar conspiracy theory that bore striking resemblance to anti-Semitic tracts of yore (see Gabriel Schoenfeld’s “Dual Loyalty and the ‘Israel Lobby’” in the November 2006 COMMENTARY). Mearsheimer and Walt did not help their cause by consistently capitalizing, to creepy effect, the “L” in “lobby,” or by providing fright subheadings like “Manipulating the Media.” In their book, “lobby” has now been lowercased, and in place of “Manipulating the Media” we have the elaborately pious disclaimer that “it is . . . wrong—and objectionable—to argue that Jews or pro-Israel forces ‘control’ the media and what they say about Israel.” In one especially oleaginous passage, the authors say that “using the term ‘Israel lobby’ is itself somewhat misleading,” and that a better term might be the “pro-Israel community” or the “help-Israel movement.”
So why does the title of the book remain The Israel Lobby? Because a “lobby,” in the sense not of some grassroots democratic movement but of a cabal of privileged insiders operating from the top down, is precisely what Mearsheimer and Walt have in mind. They devote page after page to cataloguing the alphabet soup of pro-Israel groups, from AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) to the ZOA (Zionist Organization of America). They offer multiple quotations attesting to the alleged power of this lobby, some of them flattering self-appraisals by AIPAC staff members, others disgruntled complaints from various Senators and Congressmen. (“The bottom line,” they write, “is that AIPAC has an almost unchallenged hold”—in the original, the word was “stranglehold”—“on Congress.”) They walk solemnly past the political tombstones of high officials supposedly felled by the Israel lobby. In their final chapters, a shopworn recitation of how the lobby sent the Bush administration rushing to war first in Iraq and soon, perhaps, in Iran and Syria, they rely heavily on allegations that the President took his counsel not from senior advisers but from second- or third-tier “neoconservatives”—translation: pro-Israel Jews —and from columnists and pundits like Charles Krauthammer.
Combined with the authors’ excuse for scholarship, this de-centered view of reality raises the question of whether our two realists have any clue whatsoever as to the nature of the actual threat facing either Israel or the United States in the era now upon us. If they do, they have successfully hidden it. Thus, on the one hand, they go out of their way to downplay or disavow the motivating factor of genocidal anti-Semitism in the worldview of radical Islam. On the other hand, their whole argument is geared toward insinuating (sundry disclaimers notwithstanding) that not Islamist but Jewish behavior, “objectively” considered, is the major menace to the peace of the world.
In support of their sweeping contention that “the United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it has long been so supportive of Israel,” Mearsheimer and Walt note that Sayyid Qutb, the spiritual godfather of al Qaeda (whom they quaintly label an “Egyptian dissident”) was “hostile to the United States both because he saw it as a corrupt and licentious society and also because of U.S. support for Israel” (emphasis added). Leave aside the inconvenient fact that Qutb was executed by Nasser in 1966, before the U.S. became Israel’s primary patron. In any case, his real objection was not to Zionism or Israel. Rather, it was to Jews themselves, and the “objection” to which he gave contemporary voice dated at least as far back as 7th-century Medina, where the Jews of the day tangled with Muhammad.
Unadorned and unqualified hatred of Jews—Zionist, non-Zionist, anti-Zionist, or otherwise—still pervades the worldview not just of al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood but of much of the proverbial Arab street. “Everything will be on our side against Jews on [Judgment Day],” intoned the Islamist televangelist Yusuf al Qaradawi, probably the single most widely recognized cleric in Sunni Islam, in February 2006. “At that time, even the stones and the trees will speak, with or without words, and say, ‘O servant of Allah, O Muslim, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’” Muslim opposition to Zionism has many causes, but the fact that Israel is a Jewish state is major among them. As far as radical Muslims are concerned, the only way Israel will ever really cease to be an irritant is for Israel to cease to exist.
But—and here we come to the second part of the authors’ two-step—neither is Israel or Zionism the gravamen of al Qaeda’s case against the West and particularly the United States. This is a point that Mearsheimer and Walt seem almost to recognize before rapidly backing away from it. “[S]ome Islamic radicals,” they grudgingly concede, “are genuinely upset by what they regard as the West’s materialism and venality, its alleged ‘theft’ of Arab oil, the support for corrupt Arab monarchies, its repeated military interventions in the region, etc.”
True enough—so true, indeed, that the authors cannot afford to leave it at that, hastily adding that these same radicals “are also angered by U.S. support for Israel.” For if it is the case that Osama bin Laden is “genuinely upset” (!) over our sins against Islam, why should Mearsheimer and Walt’s principal prescription for palliating this discontent be to cut back or sever our ties with Israel? Why not press for cutting our ties to the Saudi royal family, or voluntarily paying more taxes on oil, or devoting ourselves wholeheartedly to improving America’s moral tone so as to lessen the offense to bin Laden family values?
Ah, but none of those would lead us back, always back, to Israel and its American “lobby.”
Alas, poor Mearsheimer and Walt. They seem utterly perplexed that, when images of bombed-out Israeli cafes and buses air on the evening news, most Americans conclude that, in the war against terror and tyranny, we and Israel are on the same side. To ordinary Americans, moreover, such a response seems the essence of realism itself, as well as the expression of a longstanding, deeply felt, and entirely salutary consensus. What need for manipulation by unseen forces when the simple truth, well formulated by former New Hampshire Senator Warren Rudman, is that friends of Israel have “a pretty good product to sell,” and that this “product” is neither fake nor fabricated nor ersatz but a country whose democratic history and daily tribulations resonate in a compelling way with a whole variety of American audiences: Jewish and Gentile, religious and secular, liberal and conservative?
To anyone who knows anything about Americans, this resonance is hardly a mystery, and need hardly be spelled out. And yet, neither can it be taken for granted—as witness the (partial) success of Mearsheimer and Walt’s noisome thesis on university campuses, in elite journals and book-reviewing media, and in certain precincts of the foreign-policy establishment. It is true that even in such places this new book of theirs has come in for a measure of criticism, sparked largely, it would seem, by collegial embarrassment over the no-longer-to-be-blinked rottenness of their scholarship. But they have also retained the sympathy of many of their critics, who, even as they permit themselves to wonder in print about what could have impelled two such even-tempered thinkers to undertake so patently specious a project, dance delicately away from the question of their motives.
Writing about this book in, respectively, the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review, David Remnick and Leslie Gelb come separately to the same theory. Like themselves, and like other concerned American citizens, they speculate, Mearsheimer and Walt must have been driven to distraction by the heinous, catastrophic, and seemingly unstoppable mayhem being committed in the Middle East by the incumbent President of the United States. It was in seeking systematically to explain this raging folly that they then regrettably—but, in the circumstances, forgivably—lost their wonted sense of balance and slipped into conspiracy-mongering.
Aside from being almost farcically patronizing, this speculation merely begs the question of why, with all the conspiracy theories that political scientists have at their disposal at any given moment, Mearsheimer and Walt should have alighted on this one. But that is a question to which the answer may finally have to be sought in modes of investigative analysis beyond the routinely political.