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May 01, 2006

Mearsheimer and Walt aren't antisemites

Juan Cole of Informed Comment is circulating a petition condemning the reckless and meanspirited accusations of antisemitism levied against Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the authors of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy (full-length working paper).

In their essay, Mearsheimer and Walt argue that U.S. support for Israel is excessive relative to America's national self-interest.

The authors assume that nation states are typically rational and self-interested. On their view, any perceived deviation that central norm cries out for explanation. In the first section of the paper, they attempt to establish that the strategic benefits of massive and unconditional support for Israel are offset by serious costs. Amongst other things, they point out that Israel both a friend in the war on terror and a provocateur of Islamic terrorism.

If America's Israel policy is contrary to American interests, how are we to explain this phenomenon? Mearsheimer and Walt argue that called "The Israel Lobby" exerts overwhelming pressure on American policy makers. There is no doubt that an Israel lobby exists, nor that it is powerful. Just for starters, check out the claims on AIPAC's own website:

[...] The New York Times has called AIPAC the most important organization affecting America's relationship with Israel, while Fortune magazine has consistently ranked AIPAC among America's most powerful interest groups.

Through more than 2,000 meetings with members of Congress - at home and in Washington - AIPAC activists help pass more than 100 pro-Israel legislative initiatives a year. From procuring nearly $3 billion in aid critical to Israel's security, to funding joint U.S.-Israeli efforts to build a defense against unconventional weapons, AIPAC members are involved in the most crucial issues facing Israel.

My primary criticism of the paper is that the authors define The Lobby too loosely. For the purposes of their thesis, it is a mistake to conflate neoconservative ideologues, Christian Zionists, defense contractors, old school energy lobbyists, and Jewish pro-Israel lobbyists--even though these interest groups often cooperate extensively in support of hawkish American policies on Israel. For Mearsheimer and Walt's thesis to succeed, the authors must distinguish effects of true lobbying from the preexisting ideological commitments of legislators and from the force of popular opinion.

The authors want to explain what they see as an irrational national policy. By contrast, the neoconservatives who shape America's policies towards Israel believe that unstinting support is essential to American self-interest. The authors claim that skillfully applied special interest pressure is pushing politicians away from rational solutions. An alternative hypothesis is that some of the most influential policy-makers don't need to be pushed because they already believe that they are acting rationally. 

The authors note that evangelical Christian Zionists are powerful players in the Israel lobby. Millions of evangelical Christians support Israel because they believe that Israel's existence is a necessary precondition for the rapture. The existence of powerful Christian conservative support for Israel both helps and hurts the authors' thesis. On the one hand, groups like the Christian Coalition are powerful lobbyists. However, their power stems in part from the fact that they claim to represent up to 70 million voters who, they claim, are deeply concerned with the survival of Israel. The authors emphasize that lobbying is most effective when the general public is largely indifferent to an issue. They note that Jews are a relatively small minority and that the average American Jew is less hawkish on Israel than the US government. The fact that so many Christians are deeply committed to Israel suggests that plain old electoral politics may count for as much as lobbying in terms of U.S. support for Israel.

This paper is flawed, but it is not antisemitic. The authors do not even argue that the U.S. should cut all support to Israel. They certainly don't question Israel's right to exist. They are merely pointing out a powerful, well-organized campaign to ensure massive military aid to Israel with as few strings attached as possible.

This campaign is not a conspiracy. It is neither illegal, nor secretive. Not all of the major players are Jews. America's policy towards Israel isn't motivated by some nefarious Jewish or Israeli nationalist agenda. By and large, it is driven by secular American nationalism (neocons), Christian religious dogma, and/or good old fashioned greed (defense contractors).

I signed the Freedom of Speech on the Israeli Lobby petition. I hope readers will read the original paper and do likewise.

Update: Molly Ivins has a good column on the antisemistism charges against M&W.


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Why cant support for Israel be predicated on Oh, the fact that it’s the only authentic Democracy in the region. Or that it has been a long time ally. Or maybe Americans view it as a small besieged country amidst a volatile and dangerous region.
Or perhaps its real sympathy with the Zionist project after WWII and a level headed realization of its still precarious standing. Or perhaps it’s a first world nation with a modern economy built from the ground up, and we respect that. Or all of the above.

How come we never hear these simple (and obvious) reasons for support for Israel? Why must it be a cabal or some Christian Armageddon fantasy that drives the support?

If I read their paper will I find common sense reference to any of the above?

The USA has refused to support plenty of countries that were the only democracies in their regions at the time. In fact many times it actively undermined democracy in these countries.

Besides, it's a known precept of realist foreign policy that you don't support countries based on their political systems. It doesn't matter if a country is democratic or not; what matters is whether supporting it is in your interest. And in most cases, modern countries follow that precept, even when it means dispatching the CIA to help the military instigate a coup and install a fascist regime. It's legitimate to ask why a country whose foreign policy is usually excessively realistic suddenly engages in idealism in one case.

The authors would argue that Israel deserves our support for all of these reasons, just not as much support as it's getting.

Israel gets incredibly special treatment relative to other recipients of American foreign aid. And it treats the U.S. shabbily in return--for example, by spying on us in ways we'd never tolerate from other allies and giving our secrets to China.

Israel's also a less-desirable ally than it might initially appear because it can't participate in military coalitions with any of its neighbors. Hence, Israel had to sit out the Gulf Wars.

I think the truth is that Israel in the U.S. are caught in an upward spiral of defense spending that benefits no one in the long run. Unstinting support empowers Israel to throw its weight around in ways that undermine collective security, which in turn motivates even more massive and unconditional military backing.

I'm not endorsing the authors' contention that the Israel Lobby is the tail that wags the dog. I'm just saying that it's not intrinsically antisemetic to entertain that hypothesis. Even if you believe that the Israel Lobby is disproportionately powerful, it doesn't follow that its existence reflects negatively on the Jewish people or American Jews, Christian Zionists, or any other religious or demographic group. Lobbyists are lobbyists. They serve the interests of elites.

It's impossible to criticize ANYTHING about Israel without having some ultra-Zionist hawk vomiting up the term "anti-Semite". Pammy of Atlas Shrugs immediately comes to mind as a prime example of this. So now I will immediately vomit up "Fuck them."

To me, the huge irony is that evangelical Christian Zionism is anti-semitic on its face. I'm not suggesting that every Christian who puts a theological stake in the survival of Israel hates Jews. However, CZ-ism is all about how Jews are Christ-bait to bring on the Armageddon, at which point we'll all have to convert or go to hell.(Covenant or no Covenant, I suppose. Nobody ever said Yaweh was fair....)

At least you know what you gotta do, Lindsay. Get thee to a nunnery!

Signed the petition, will post it on my blog too. Thanks for spreading the word.

A bit late as I drop by chance (id.e. googling). I agree with you on M&W in general but wanted to add two points:

1)National Interest is a void concept (an abstract universal in Hegel terms) if not completed with its concret contents. Is it the "national interest" of defence contractors or the Globalisation advocates the same of the American textile workers? Did Spanish peasants profiteered of the Borbonic Empire?. One of the first authors to adress this issue was (paradoxically) a zionist: Ber Borochov ("Class interest in the national question") and then the Italian antonio Gramsci, with his "historic block" concept. There's no need to throw the baby of the marxian thought with the rotten waters of the late Soviet Union.

2)What the aims of M&W were with their piece? To me they are a symptom of the need of the old style conservatives to regain ground in the GOP from the Neocon-Christian Right hegemony at the sight of the coming disaster.

Please, feel free to use any of my caricatures into your blog if you find it suitable to your posts. I'll visit here frequently.

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