The Israel lobby-1: The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy

Most political observers have by now heard of the book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy by University of Chicago professor of political science John J. Mearsheimer and Harvard University professor of international affairs Stephen M. Walt. It is an expanded and updated version of their much-discussed March 23, 2006 article in the London Review of Books, and the working paper on which that article was based. The two authors gave talks at Case on September 26, 2007 as part of their book tour. The earlier articles and the current book have sparked considerable controversy and in this and the next two posts, I will try to present the main arguments made by the authors.

The main thesis of the book is quite straightforward and can be summarized as follows:

The US gives Israel a level of unconditional military, economic, and diplomatic support that far exceeds what it gives to any other country, both in absolute and per capita terms. This level of support cannot be justified on strategic or moral grounds and in fact has resulted in actual harm being done to the long-term interests of the US and even Israel. The existence of the current policies can only be explained as due to the successful lobbying efforts of a powerful group that they call the ‘Israel lobby’. A frank discussion would quickly reveal the negative consequences of these policies but this has not occurred because the lobby not only has the ability to influence the speech and actions of the administrative and legislative bodies, it also tries to stifle in the media any examination of its role in influencing policy by accusing critics of the policy and the lobby of being anti-Semitic, and lumping them with Holocaust deniers and purveyors of various conspiracy theories.

One thing that struck me from reading the book and article and listening to their talk is that the two authors, far from being some kind of radicals expressing extreme views, belong to the so-called ‘realist’ school of American foreign policy. They are not idealists. They start from the premise that the US should take whatever steps it needs to take to protect its own interests and that it is US interests that should drive US foreign policy. For example, they feel that the US has a right to ensure that supplies of Middle East oil are available to the West and should do what it takes to ensure it. The authors do argue for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East but not because such a presence is wrong in any moral sense. Instead they say that American strategic interests are better served by maintaining what they call an ‘over the horizon’ capability, with a rapid deployment force able to strike quickly when needed to protect US interests. The permanent physical presence of US forces in that region merely breeds resentment without achieving any worthwhile strategic goals.

Their main thesis is that the group they identify as the Israel lobby has steered US foreign policy away from that serving its own purely national interest, and towards identifying the interests of the US as identical with the interests of Israel (more accurately, with a particular segment of the Israeli political spectrum), and that what is good for one is good for the other. In particular, they say that the lobby urges the US to treat as enemies those whom Israel sees as its enemies (e.g., Iraq, Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, the PLO). The authors argue that this has resulted in policies (the invasion of Iraq, belligerence and bellicose rhetoric aimed at Iran and Syria, opposition to Palestinian rights, attacks on Lebanon) that have resulted in the US’s strategic interests being compromised and made the US a target of terrorism.

[These policies were] due largely to the political power of the Israel lobby, a loose coalition of individuals and groups that seeks to influence American foreign policy in ways that will benefit Israel. In addition to encouraging the United States to back Israel more or less unconditionally, groups and individuals in the lobby played key roles in shaping American policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ill-fated invasion of Iraq, and the ongoing confrontations with Syria and Iran. We suggested that these policies were not in the U. S. national interest and were in fact harmful to Israel’s long-term interests as well. (p. viii)

They do not charge that the members of the Israel lobby are seeking to benefit Israel at the expense of the US. They say that the members of the Israel lobby probably genuinely feel that both countries are served well by such a close identification of interests. But the authors strongly disagree with this. They argue that such a close identification has resulted in policies that are actually harming both the US and Israel. Strong, unconditional support for Israel has resulted in the most extreme members of the Israeli government being emboldened to pursue policies in the occupied territories that are rapidly precluding the possibility of any meaningful chance for long-term peace. While US interests may often coincide with the interests of allies like Israel, it should never subordinate itself to those other interests.

The authors argue that while there are some obvious common interests between the two countries, the US should treat Israel the same way that it treats any other ally, say Great Britain or Canada or Mexico. “When Israel acts in ways that the United States deems desirable, it should have American backing. When it does not, Israel should expect to face U.S. opposition, just as other states do.” (p. 341)

As they point out in their book, Israel receives a level of unconditional economic, military, and diplomatic support that is far in excess of that received by any other country and that this extraordinary level of support cannot be justified on either strategic or moral grounds. Israel is one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world. Its per capita income is 29th in the world, nearly double that of Hungary and Czech Republic, and far higher than Portugal, South Korea or Taiwan (p. 30). The US provides more aid with fewer strings attached to Israel than to any other country, which works out to about $500 per person. The second largest recipient of US aid (Egypt) gets $20 per person. Even extremely poor countries with whom the US has long historical ties, like Haiti, get just $27 per person. (p. 25)

The US also provides Israel with a great deal of military support, providing them with access to top-level hardware and technology. Israel is now a major military power with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs but is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) or the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions (p. 36). The authors argue that even without its nuclear capability, Israel maintains an overwhelming military superiority to all its neighbors and thus does not face an existential threat.

Israel is often portrayed as weak and besieged, a Jewish David surrounded by a hostile Arab Goliath. This image has been carefully nurtured by Israeli leaders and sympathetic writers, but the opposite is closer to the truth. Israel has always been militarily stronger than its Arab adversaries. (p. 81)
. . .
Today, Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East. Its conventional forces are far superior to those of its neighbors, and it is the only state in the region with nuclear weapons. (p. 83)
. . .
Indeed, current conditions in the Middle East pose a serious dilemma for the more hard-line elements in the lobby. Instead of defending a weak state surrounded by enemies, created in the aftermath of a great historical tragedy, they are now forced to defend a powerful, modern, and prosperous state that is using its superior force to confiscate land from the Palestinians and to deny them full political rights, while dealing harshly with troubled neighbors such as Lebanon.” (p. 353)

They argue that even the moral case that Israel is somehow ‘better’ than other states cannot be sustained, and that in fact its treatment of Palestinians and Lebanon are appalling. But despite this, the US provides almost unconditional diplomatic cover for such actions, enabling Israel to pursue policies that would merit swift condemnation if done by other countries. While Israel may have had some strategic value during the Cold War, it has ceased to be a strategic asset and is now a liability in that unconditional support for Israeli policies in the Middle East with respect to the Palestinians and Lebanon has fueled anti-Americanism worldwide and terrorism aimed at the US. (p. 65)

Next: Who makes up the lobby?

POST SCRIPT: Hey, what about the Wiccans?

Before I leave the Mitt Romney beat, my attention was drawn to the part of his speech on faith where he panders to every significant religious voting bloc, saying:

I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims.

The Weekly Standard has obtained the preliminary draft of this section.

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