Sunday, February 10, 2008

Notes on the Israel Lobby

I've been meaning to post something about the "Israel Lobby" for months. Instead of simply writing the thing and being done with it, I got ambitious, envisioning a huge, magisterial, all-encompassing post. Meanwhile, however, it's not as if the topic has lost any of its relevance. And then last week, Lenin at Lenin's Tomb posted exactly the kind of entry I had in mind, saying much of what I had intended to say. You should read it. I've tried to organize my own remaining notes as follows.

Israel is a perversely difficult topic of conversation in the United States. It is even more difficult to talk about Israel's role as an ally of the United States or about the role played by the "Israel Lobby" in shaping public debate or public policy. Nobody wants to be accused of anti-Semitism. My take on the Israel Lobby is that of course it is a powerful interest group lobbying members of Congress. I think the Lobby does have undue influence on aspects of American policy, and especially on the quality and content of American public debate. My view is that its lobbying achievements, such as they are, are largely at the level of stifling debate within Congress--as Lenin points out, this is a key reason why the right wing courted the Lobby in the first place. And it might just be possible that if debate in Congress could ever rise to the level of common sense or decency, then that august body might be able to put pressure on the executive. But the fact is that very few members of Congress question the basic aims of American foreign policy. (I wonder how many of them even understand it.) The few that occasionally make some noise about our role in the Middle East, or our relationship with Israel, have indeed run into problems. (Cynthia McKinney is but one example.)

But to leap from this limited exercise of influence to the larger point, that the Lobby determines American foreign policy, to the detriment of both Israel and American so-called "national interests", is to seriously misunderstand the purposes behind the policy (or even to not grasp the facts themselves). The argument presented by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, first in their hugely controversial article nearly two years ago in the London Review of Books, now expanded into book-length with The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (which I have not read), does just that. Such is the debased nature of our public discourse that Mearsheimer and Walt have been subjected to the customary accusations of anti-Semitism, even in normally level-headed places. It somehow never occurred to many people that such a conclusion could be reached without the presence of anti-Semitism. Nor did it seem to occur to these sorts critics that the thesis might simply be wrong for other reasons. (Though of course the accusation of anti-Semitism is so often merely a rhetorical ploy anyway, so it's likely that such critics simply don't care.)

It was on the occasion of Leslie H. Gelb's review of the book in The New York Times Book Review in September of last year, that I began to assemble my notes on the Lobby. To his credit, Gelb does not accuse the authors of anti-Semitism. He disagrees with the book’s premise, but he takes it seriously. He makes some good points, but he also operates under some questionable assumptions. Since Gelb is a former Times columnist and President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, his long review can be seen as an official response, of sorts, to the Mearsheimer/Walt thesis, as well as an official attempt to reinforce the preferred view of things. In his review, Gelb observes that, after an opening in which they explain that the Lobby is "certainly not a cabal or conspiracy that 'controls' U.S. foreign policy", Mearsheimer and Walt offer what Gelb says are largely unsubstantiated claims of the Lobby’s dominance. From there, Gelb proceeds to explain what he sees as the correct view. He begins fairly well:
At one level, this argument is obviously correct. Of course, America's close ties with Israel compund its problems with Arabs and Muslims. But at a deeper level, one ignored by Mearsheimer and Walt, these problems would not disappear or seriously lessen if Washington abandoned Israel. The main source of anti-Americansism and anti-American terrorism is America's deep ties with highly unpopular regimes in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, not to mention the war in Iraq.
So far, so good. But he goes on to make several demonstrably false statements, and reveals various working assumptions. Before I get to those, let me excerpt from Lenin's post now, on the purposes of the Israel alliance, and the problems that the war against Iraq poses for the thesis:
The American Right has latched onto Israel precisely because it helps them regulate discourse and win hegemonic battles. It facilitates the repackaging of an aggressive programme of imperial domination and extreme global violence as the defense of the ideals of democracy against - what do you know? - anti-Semites. [...] people who are primarily concerned with stifling internal left-wing dissent, and critical analysis of US policy, have used Israel as a crucial alibi in that struggle. And these lobbies and think-tanks, like the Hoover Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, are recipients of huge amounts of corporate cash. When it comes to corporate America, Israel can't compete in terms either of dollars or ideological reproduction. And this is a problem for Mearsheimer and Walt throughout their book. They list people and institutions as belonging to an 'Israel Lobby', even where their activity isn't really lobbying, even where they aren't funded by Israel, even where their motive has rather little to do with Israel. The neoconservatives support Israel, but the key institutions in which they work are auxiliaries of US capital, not of the Knesset. They are unable to explain anywhere why these pro-Israel neoconservatives have the weight that they do (and why being pro-Israel matters to US capital). This is because they have no conception of class power, a reductionist conception of the 'national interest' and a flimsy account of ideology.

Perhaps the least persuasive of all examples is that of Iraq. Although, Mearsheimer and Walt concede that the US had powerful motives to invade Iraq, they insist that the Israel Lobby was the element without which it would not have happened. It is undoubtedly true that supporters of Israel were also strong supporters of the invasion of Iraq. It is true that Israel has also regarded Iraq as an enemy. It is true that Israeli interests were involved here. It is true that pro-Israel organisations 'lobbied' or simply vocalised hard on behalf of war with Iraq. Yet, if this is supposed to trump - not merely complement - US 'national interests', it is necessary for Mearsheimer and Walt to minimise the benefits of war. Their dismissal of the reasoning that holds control of the oil spigot to be a key goal is roughly as follows: if they wanted oil, they could have invaded Saudi Arabia, and anyway the oil companies would rather have traded with Saddam than overthrow him. This part of the argument is dealt with in a rather perfunctory fashion, but it demands considerably more attention than they are prepared to allot it. For example, it would appear as if the authors did not realise that Saudi Arabia is already subordinate. There is no need for an invasion force to trundle across the Nejd. Actually, one of the problems that Iraq solved was to enable America's troops to move out of Saudi Arabia, where their presence caused some trouble. Saddam Hussein represented, by contrast, the last outpost of Arab nationalism. Successfully conquering Iraq and installing a pro-American client state with a thin veneer of democratic rule, which must have looked incredibly easy after the initial cake-walk in Afghanistan, would have decisively altered the regional balance of power in America's interests. It would also have provided a model for further expansion. The aggressive right-wingers who contrived this policy explained their rationale: in the absence of a serious superpower rival, there was a brief window in which the US could powerfully assert itself as the next century's sole power, demonstrate its ability to fight and win multiple wars, and secure its dominance for the long-term.
In light of sensible, acute analysis like this, it increasingly appears that those "experts", like Gelb, who the press turns to for insight into these matters, either themselves don't understand American foreign policy, including the nature of the close relationship between the United States and Israel (recall Chomsky's many sarcastic comments over the years about how clueless Kissinger always seemed to be), or else they simply see it as necessary to reinforce widely held misconceptions. I'm focusing on Gelb, though his review is by now out of date, because his response is symptomatic of typical mainstream discourse--at least that discourse that has some claim to respectability (alas, truly typical mainstream discourse rarely rises to this level). In his review, Gelb repeats nonsense about Saddam Hussein's "quest" for nuclear arms and claims that "the more we know, the clearer it is" that Bush went to war to correct his father's "blunder" in allowing Hussein to remain in power in 1991. It doesn't seem to occur to him--or, more likely, perhaps, he is unwilling to admit--that it was at that time in the ruling class's interests ("national interests" as they are more generally known) to keep Hussein there. He says that "the greatest strategic bond between" the United States and Israel is that the latter is "one of the few nations in the world that share American values and interests, a true democracy." This sort of garbage is only true if, again, you correctly read the phrase "American values and interests" as those interests of the ruling class we continue to call "national interests". Gelb asserts that the U.S. has no choice but to ally itself not only with Israel, but also with the repressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere. This is because, he tells us, the alternative is far worse; there is, he says, no source of "moderate" views in the Middle East (no "center"). This sort of assertion is typical. And, typically, it elides an entire half-century and more of American political activity in the Middle East. Indeed, Gelb and the establishment he represents have no interest in anyone knowing or remembering this history. For example, he writes:
It's important to remember that the shah of Iran was overthrown not because he enjoyed good relations with Israel, which he did, but because a majority of his own people came to hate his regime and also his ties to the United States. There was no sustainable moderate center between the shah and the fanatical mullahs. And the lack of such a center is precisely what Washington needs to worry about now in places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Of course, much of this paragraph is true. But it intentionally leaves out a lot (and there are numerous other similar paragraphs in the review).  Gelb doesn't address why the shah's people hated his regime, or why he had good relations with Israel, or what variety of purposes the shah's regime, combined with Israel, served for American interests in the Middle East (for some details on this, see Mahmood Mamdani's excellent book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror). "There was no sustainable moderate center between the shah and the fanatical mullahs." "Sustainable" is an interesting word, and the words "moderate center" are nearly devoid of content (these kinds of words only ever refer to politicians or movements which are amenable to U.S. demands). What there was, in fact, was a left-wing revolutionary movement--a movement, to be sure, that finally ended up being destroyed by the "fanatical mullahs"--but what might have been the role of the U.S. in all of this? How does a democratic movement "sustain" itself under continuous threat of destruction from abroad?

The Mearsheimer/Walt Israel Lobby thesis suffers from a lot of the same problems that seem to face most Americans--especially educated Americans--in trying to make sense of U.S. foreign policy.  As Lenin puts it, they have a "reductionist conception of the 'national interest'".  This means, essentially, that they buy the basic rhetoric used by the ruling class to gain support for its actions and policies.  It is impossible to fully grasp the purposes behind American foreign (and, really, domestic) policy, if you persist in believing that the United States is a functioning democracy (and that, in general, it seeks to inculcate democratic values abroad); that the so-called "national interests" resemble what might actually be in the interests of the people of the nation, as opposed to simply those interests of the ruling class; that capitalist and neoliberal twaddle about free trade has anything to do with ideas of "freedom" as understood by actual people; etc.  It is belief in these kinds of ideas that allows many to accept notions of "humanitarian intervention" without investigating too deeply into other reasons that exist behind a given action.  These other beliefs are necessary to sustain the illusion that American foreign policy is intended to serve the interests of the American people, which then forces one to look to other causes which prevent these interests from being successfully served--in this case, the Israel Lobby.  So, for example, if you identify one such "interest" as "security from acts of terrorism", and you observe that the alliance with Israel, and the war against Iraq, has clearly only made matters worse, it is then all too easy to conclude that the alliance does not "serve" American "interests".  From this basic error, Mearsheimer and Walt then notice the very real impact of the Israel Lobby in such areas as the stifling of public debate, and leap to the conclusion that the Lobby determines that unsuccessful policy, and then are able to locate piles of circumstantial and anecdotal evidence in support of that conclusion. These kinds of errors are common, and themselves only serve to mystify and deflect and ultimately to aid the ruling class in its endless class war against the rest of us.


brandon said...

The right-wing's embrace of the Isreal Lobby, etc. etc. has always disturbed me for many of the reasons you suggested.

The extent of it really only hit me a few years ago, when Poli.-Sci classes would have a few conventionally Neo-Con white- like, truly white, you know what I mean- kids in it whose minor was Jewish Studies. The Right is using Israel etc. to hold over the heads of the left, to appear open-minded and to embrace a minority that uh, let's get real, isn't quite the same as well, actual minorities. It's safe and really kind of disgusting...

The part that really clicked for me in this was Gelb's mention that there is not some CONSPIRACY or anything, which makes anyone who critiques this- including your very even-handed blog entry- look crazy. It's not a conspiracy because the whole thing is right in front of our faces, that doesn't make it okay though or acceptable...good post.

Richard said...

Thanks, Brandon.

Another comment was posted, which I've decided not to publish. It's not abusive or anything, but it's simply the entire text of someone else's lengthy post about various serious rebuttals of the Mearsheimer/Walt thesis. I decided not to publish it because of the combination of how much space it takes up and its existence elsewhere. If anyone wants to see it, it can be found here:

It includes links to various articles and reviews, such as Gelb's, as well as responses from Chomsky, Stephen Zunes, and others (including C. Hitchens, and the completely unreliable Alan Dershowitz, who cannot be considered "serious" by anyone).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the intelligent and well-written post. I only wish I could regularly force myself to write with as much focus or energy.

Some thoughts on the Mearsheimer/Walt Israel Lobby thesis:

It's a shame about the backlash they have received from their article and book, because it will undoubtedly harden their own stance about the Israel 'Lobby', when indeed, as you rightly point out, they should be doing some hard thinking about what they are arguing.

What I find most interesting about the specious reasoning you mentioned, the "basic error" that leads them to "leap to the conclusion that the Lobby determines that unsuccessful policy," is very similar to how 9/11 Truthers like Barry Zwicker arrived at their conspiracy. Not that Mearsheimer/Walt's is conspirational, but that seem leap in reasoning is the same one that has led some many, especially on the Left, to assume that because the United States ruling class benefited from what happened on 9/11 (as detailed in Frances Fox Piven's 'The War at Home: The Domestic cost of Bush's militarism') it must then have planned 9/11 as well, in order to benefit from it.

Your comments about the naivety of Mearsheimer and Walt is well-made. They seem to apply an 'aberration' idea to their understanding of American foreign policy: that is, without the 'Israel Lobby' American foreign policy toward the Middle East might be more enlightened or less hardline. Again, this is a similar sentiment to those who assume that G. W. Bush's presidency is some kind of aberration, and that if only Gore were elected everything would be okay (I sympathize with Americans who hold this view, but it isn't particularly useful for understanding the situation).

A riposte to Gelb's point might be that even without Israel, U.S. strategic and economic 'interests' in the Middle East would be broadly similar.

Oh, that accursed word 'national interests'. It is almost as bad as the abstractions historians and journalists use when they say "Britain wanted this..." or "Russia desired that..." an abstraction that when used in public discourse serves to reinforce the illusion that the capitalist state serves everyone's 'interests' equally.