September 20, 2007
How Walt and Mearsheimer’s book got the pro-Israel lobby wrong
Covering Israel, its relationship with the United States and the influential lobby that straddles the two often requires the basic skills and instincts of a cub reporter on the neighborhood beat.
With that in mind, I approached "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," the new book by scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, as I would a map of my neighborhood drawn up by an urban planning critic who has a known bias against gentrification. You know it will emphasize blight and ignore greenery to the point of unfairness, but you're interested anyway because you might learn something, confront a discomfiting truth or two and get an idea of how to make things better.
Imagine the surprise, then, with the map laid out on the table, when you see unrecognizable quadrants describing nonexistent dungeons and moonscapes. You might wonder: Is this guy on drugs?
Sitting across from Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, and Walt, an international affairs professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, in the lobby of the Madison Hotel in Washington, it was obvious these guys were not on drugs. But why did they make up stuff?
Clearly this was not going to be a routine book tour interview, and I tried to make that known from the outset. I explained that I was not going to settle for the usual "How did you get your ideas?" sort of questions because their ideas seemed so strikingly wrong.
Others have called the Walt-Mearsheimer writings borderline anti-Semitic. I don't think so, but their fantastic claims -- particularly about Israel, the lobby's role in the lead-up to the Iraq War and the creation of the Bush administration hostility to Syria -- demand answers.
First let me emphasize that just as "The Israel Lobby" is severely flawed on many counts, the book has its strong points and weak points that merit less than a tidal wave of condemnation. For starters, the chapter outlining who and what constitutes the pro-Israel lobby and how these combined forces exercise their influence in Washington is a useful consolidation of reporting by others.
The chapters on what the authors describe as Israel's dwindling moral standing and decreasing strategic value to the United States invite plenty of disagreement on several fronts, but the authors do ask some hard and helpful questions about how the lobby functions and whether more discussion on Middle East policy matters would be useful.
The chapter on Israel's dealings with the Palestinians is certainly one-sided, omitting or downplaying crucial information that would provide the uninformed and unbiased readers with a balanced picture, but at least the arguments put forth by Mearsheimer and Walt are grounded in an existing Palestinian and pro-Palestinian narrative.
It is on the subject of the Iraq War -- specifically the effort to assign blame to Jerusalem and Jewish organizations -- that the authors go off the rails. On this question, I asked Mearsheimer and Walt particularly about their focus on Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy defense secretary, who was an architect of the war.
Why, I wondered, no mention of Wolfowitz's many writings on the general idea of pre-emptive action, his efforts as the lead U.S. official shepherding democracy into the Philippines and Indonesia in the 1980s?
And what about his 2003 endorsement of the Geneva agreements positing Israel's return to pre-1967 lines, made explicitly because he believed the Israel-Palestinian issue had to be solved if Iraq was to succeed? (To say the lobby was less than enthusiastic about the Geneva agreements would be an understatement.) Were these not more germane to understanding his commitment to war with Iraq than rumors of his commitment to Israel?
Mearsheimer responded: "We're not making the argument that they were monomaniacal, that the United States had to invade Iraq for Israeli benefits."
Yet absent other evidence of the Bush administration's commitment to invade Iraq, that is exactly how their book comes across. The writers assemble quotes from leaders in Jerusalem to show that while Israel "did not initiate the campaign for war against Iraq," it "did join forces with the neoconservatives to help sell the war to the Bush administration and the American people."
The idea that Israel joined with neoconservatives to "sell" Bush on Iraq posits an inversion of how Washington operates -- especially under this administration. Bush's proxies made it clear to Jewish leaders -- and just about everyone else -- in the first days of the administration that the tradition of joining forces on areas of agreement and agreeing to disagree on all else was null: You either signed on with the whole Bush agenda or you were frozen out.
And so, as 2002 wore into 2003, every interest group in Washington that needed access to an immensely popular president -- the media, the Democrats and, yes, Jewish and pro-Israel groups -- signed on more or less to the White House policy that arched over all others: invading Iraq.
The authors weren't buying.
"Never mind" also characterizes the authors' response to my questions about the recent revelation by Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's planning chief at the State Department and a fierce critic of the Pentagon neoconservatives who pushed for war, that Israeli leaders prior to the invasion made it clear that they thought Iran was the real threat and Iraq was a distraction.
"Once it became clear that the United States intended to do Iran and Syria after it handled Iraq, the Israelis quickly bought into the enterprise and pushed us very hard," Mearsheimer said.
But who was the "us" being pushed, if the Israelis were being pushed by the Bush administration?
It is one thing for the authors to omit telling details that would undermine their theory. When it comes to America's Syrian policy, however, they omit whole trends.
Q & A with John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt
Ron Kampeas, Jewish Telegraphic Agency's Washington bureau chief, recently sat down with scholars Stephen Walt, international affairs professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and John Mearsheimer, political science professor at the University of Chicago, to discuss their controversial new book, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy." What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
Ron Kampeas: How does one write a book about the lobby without interviewing the lobbyists and the people lobbied?
Stephen Walt: First, we did talk to a number of people who had either been connected with some of these organizations and who had worked on Capitol Hill to make sure the story we were assembling was an accurate one. Second, this is a difficult subject because lots of people won't talk on the record if you do try to interview them and a number of the people we do quote based on other sources were quoted anonymously in those sources as well. Third, there are limits to what any two people can do, and we felt there was such an abundance of evidence already available that we could get a very accurate story of the way these organizations operate. Based on that record, I guess the last point I would make is that the real issue is not the precise research methods we used but rather whether or not the story we told is an accurate one.
John Mearsheimer: The critical issue is whether or not we would tell a different story or someone else would tell a different story if they did more extensive interviewing than we did -- and we're confident that would not be the case. We regard the story as basically correct, and doing more interviewing would not alter the story line in any way.
SW: One other point -- there is really no disagreement about whether or not there is an influential set of pro-Israel organizations in the United States of America. No serious person questions that. The only question is whether their influence is beneficial to the United States and Israel or whether it's become harmful to the United States and Israel.
JM: And doing more interviews is not going to answer that question.
RK: What do you say to those who argue that statements from Israeli leaders and Jewish organizations in support of the Iraq War should be understood from the vantage point of having to deal with a Bush administration that was insisting on support for its major initiatives?
SW: I guess I'm not persuaded by the argument that the Bush administration told them "you're with us or against us and that's the way we do business." Because these organizations were not at all bashful about taking on the Bush administration when they didn't like his calling for a Palestinian state, when he pushed Sharon around, when he tried to push Sharon around about the reoccupation of the West Bank [in April 2002]. It's not to me anyway particularly credible that, you know, Adam Goldman [Bush's first liaison to the Jewish community] told everybody to get on board and they obediently supported the Iraq War [to avoid] a falling-out with the Bush administration.
RK: Last month, Larry Wilkerson, the former policy planning chief at the U.S. State Department and a fierce critic of neoconservatives in the Pentagon who backed the Iraq War, said that Israeli leaders expressed concerns beforehand about the invasion. JM: What Wilkerson is saying is that the Israelis, when they caught wind of the fact that the United States was thinking about attacking Iraq, in early 2002 went to Washington and told the Americans, the Bush administration in particular, that the real threat was Iran, not Iraq, and they made it clear that they'd prefer we went after Iran and not Iraq. They had no problem with the United States effecting regime change in Iraq and Syria.
Iran was more important. Once it became clear that the United States intended to do Iran and Syria after it handled Iraq, the Israelis quickly bought onto the enterprise and pushed us very hard.
SW: Former prime ministers wrote op-eds. [Shimon] Peres told reporters that the invasion of Iraq is a must in the fall of 2002. If this is something they didn't want the United States to do, they had lots of ways to try to get the United States not to do it.
Maybe they wouldn't have succeeded, but the point is there's just no evidence that they were ever putting the brakes on. They wanted to make sure that we did not lose sight of the Iran problem while we were focusing on Saddam.
RK: What is the "unifying theme" that defines the Israel lobby?
SW: Although they differ on certain policy questions such as the desirability of a two-state solution, disagreements between the Zionist Organization of America on one side and say the Israeli Policy Forum on the other side or Americans for Peace Now, virtually all these organizations believe that the United States should support Israel by diplomatic, economic and military support almost independent of what Israel's actions are. So Americans for Peace Now does not advocate making U.S. aid conditioned on an end to settlements. They say that U.S. aid shouldn't be used for settlements, but they don't say we ought to link [it to Israel's actions]. They all want to maintain the special relationship; that's the unifying theme.
RK: Why did you simply assert in the book that the pro-Israel lobby is the most powerful foreign interest lobby instead of also examining the activities of influential organizations that deal with Cuba and Taiwan?
JM: First of all, we do acknowledge that there are other lobbies that identify with other countries. This is a book about one of those particular lobbies, and it's a completely legitimate enterprise to write a book on the Israel lobby or on the China lobby or on the Irish lobby. Why did we decide to write this book? Well, in the wake of Sept. 11 it became clear to the vast majority of Americans that American policy in the Middle East really mattered, and that it is very important that all of us think very long and hard about what our policy is and what the consequences are of that policy.
In doing research on the Middle East and thinking hard about what's going on in the Middle East, it became readily apparent to us that the lobby had significant influence on shaping that policy and yet no one was willing or hardly anyone was willing to talk about that publicly in the mainstream media. And we thought that it would be a good idea if someone wrote an article or wrote a book that focused on the Middle East and on the lobby's role in formulating the policy, American policy towards that region and asking the all-important question of whether or not that policy makes good sense for the United States of America. So that's what drove us to focus on the Israel lobby. It wasn't as if we had any animus to Israel.
SW: In [two separate assessments by Forbes and National Journal based on interviews with congressional staffers] the Cuban American National Foundation is not the one that comes in at No. 2. AIPAC comes in at No. 2, right behind I think AARP, or maybe it's tied with AARP right up there with the National Rifle Association. So if you go ask people on Capitol Hill who they think the most important lobbies -- you know, you were asking us "why didn't we go talk to people on Capitol Hill" -- guess what, Forbes and the National Journal went and talked to people on Capitol Hill, guess what answer they got? It wasn't the Armenian Americans who are, for their numbers, as Abraham Foxman now knows, a rather potent operation. But it's hard to argue that the United States has done as much for Armenia as it has done for Israel.
RK: Allegations of anti-Semitism, which you have faced from some critics, can be used to intimidate people from criticizing Israel. At the same time, accusing people of conducting a smear campaign simply because they attempt to analyze whether anti-Semitism is at work can also be seen as a way of silencing critics.
SW: I have yet to see much evidence that some people have been shy about playing the anti-Semitism card. We make it abundantly clear that not only do we condemn the most virulent forms of anti-Semitism, but we also condemn anything that is likely to limit the ability of Jews and anybody else in the United States to participate fully and actively in political and social life. The most mild and polite forms of stereotyping we also condemn; we think that Jewish Americans and all other Americans should be able to represent their views openly and use, express and manifest them. We condemn anything that gets in the way of that, and we certainly condemn anything that limits free speech and the expression of views. We made it very clear when we discussed anti-Semitism, we condemned all of its manifestations.
What we want to have is an open discussion of American interests and American policy in the Middle East and all the different factors that make that up. One of the nice things about writing the book is that we can keep the attention on substance, we can have that discussion, and we're going to learn from it, we're going to learn from our substantive critics, they're going to explain things that might be slightly different than what we thought they were. We're going to learn over time. We can't learn collectively as a society if we can't have an open discussion, and if we can't we're more likely to do stupid things that are bad for us and bad for Israel, too. RK: Professor Walt, do you regret that at an event in August 2006 organized by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, you said that Jews who previously served as U.S. diplomats, including Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk, "have attachments that shape how they think about the Middle East and how they think about American policy in that region?"
SW: I think many Americans of many different backgrounds have attachments for other societies that are based on their ethnic origins or their own personal experiences, like living overseas when they're in high school, and those affinities or attachments are going to shape how [they] think of different parts of the world. And I think that's wonderful; I have no problem with that whatsoever. We are a melting pot society, where lots of people have attachments; and, by the way, as you know, in the United States of America you can be a dual citizen, dual citizenship in both countries, and we don't assume that someone who's a dual citizen has no feelings whatsoever for the other country in which they are a citizen.
And it's perfectly OK for that person to then advocate policies that they think are good for the United States and good for the other society, too. This is just a fact of life in America and it's perfectly OK. But it's also OK for us to point out that individuals have multiple loyalties and to also argue that those multiple loyalties may fog up their view of what's in the American interest. It's complicated.
RK: In any way, have you purposely overstated your argument in an effort to land a political blow against pro-Israel organizations?
SW: We actually have no animus at all toward Israel or toward the organizations in the lobby. This is not some kind of crusade that we launched ourselves because we want to take down a set of organizations. We say in the conclusion, one of the things we hope will happen is that there's more open discussion of the issue, which would be good, and second we hope that some groups and organizations that we think are advocating polices that are in everybody's best interests become more influential -- not that we're trying to destroy these groups or organizations or even suggest that what they do is illegitimate. We just think that they have been advocating a set of policies that are not good for us and not good for Israel, and people can disagree with us, but it wasn't motivated by an anger or hostility. We're scholars; we're not part of any political movement, OK? We're just trying to write a book that's as accurate as possible.