Friday, July 07, 2006

That Pesky Lobby

Foreign Policy has a number of articles in its latest issue as part of a roundtable (subscription required for all but one article) on the question of the "Israel Lobby," which has recently received prominence with the article in the London Review of Books and the Kennedy School working paper written by John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard University. Foreign Policy asks the question, "Does the Israel Lobby have too much power" in American politics. Taking the affirmative are Professors Mearsheimer and Walt, along with Zbigniew Brzezinski. Taking the opposite side are Cheney's former Deputy National Security Advisor and professor Princeton, Aaron Friedberg, Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli cabinet official under Ehud Barak, and Dennis Ross, former Middle Eastern envoy under President Clinton.

I have yet to read all of the articles, but will do so in the near future. In the meantime, I'll focus on the original article by Professors Mearsheimer and Walt. Some people think it was anti-Semitic, but I am not one of them. I just think it was wrong, and incredibly sloppy social science. In my mind, this article is a black mark on the work done over the decades by these two academics. Not all of it I have agreed with, but it has all been written at a consistently high standard that this work simply does not even come close to meeting.

Methodological Flaws

With regards to methodological flaws, the historian in me cringes at a purportedly scholarly piece of writing taken almost entirely from newspaper articles. I've noticed a disheartening trend in international relations scholarship in recent years where sourcing seems to come entirely from newspapers. Read through an edition of International Security, for example, to find evidence of this trend. I wouldn't be willing to stake money on this, but a lot of articles with this type of sourcing have happened to be ones heavily critical of the current administration. Of course, if this is what they set out to do, there has been all sorts of cannon fodder in the newspapers over the last couple years, but that does not mean it has been right. All sorts of speculation, unnamed sourcing and inaccurate information makes its way into press accounts. Professors from institutions like the University of Chicago and Harvard should not be using this as their primary material for the scholarly work.

In his rebuttal of the Mearsheimer/Walt aritcle, Alan Dershowitz raises this same point. There is very little, if, indeed, anything in the way of primary research done for this article. Neither Mearsheimer nor Walt appear to actually have talked to anyone involved in the policy-making process with regards to Israel. As a result, there are serious historical errors and quotes taken out of context that are referenced in the article. Certainly, such research will not always unveil the truth, but it would probably require some sort of analysis on the part of the authors and would do wonders to raise the scholarly level of the article.

Additionally, while I understand documents on the decision making process that led to the Iraq War are probably hard to get ones hands on (not so much the case for documents dealing with our relationship with Israel in past decades though), there are, nevertheless, many VERY in depth accounts out ther of the decision making process that led to the war, based on original research, have been written. To take just two examples of such authors, Bob Woodward and George Packer. I don't know if Mearsheimer and Walt even bothered to try and get interviews or to try and see if there were any declassified documents to get their hands on, but I tend to doubt it. A paper like this simply should not be written from one's office in Chicago or Cambridge using little more than a Lexis-Nexis search. As Dershowitz pointed out - that can easily lead to silly factual/historical
errors.

Finally, Mearsheimer and Walt define the Israel Lobby as "a loose coalition of individuals and organizations who openly work to push U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction." To begin with, their use of the word "loose" is the overstatement of the year. Members of the Israel Lobby range from neo-conservatives to former Clintonites like Martin Indyk, who neo-conservative publications have treated with near-contempt, calling him "Arafat's 'Yes-man.'" To believe that these two groups of people, with vastly different ideological roots, could ever agree (even without knowing it) on a certain direction in which to drive US policy towards Israel is laughable. Thus, the major flaw of the thesis - there is no causality involve - a cardinal sin in the halls of the political science buildings at Chicago and Harvard. Mearsheimer and Walt name a lof names, but they never show a coherent link between these people and the policies that result from their actions, other than to show a few loose groupings, for example around AIPAC. .

Substantive Flaws

Now, getting on to the substantive aspects of the Mearsheimer and Walt paper. I'll focus first on the question of whether Israel is a strategic burden or not. Mearsheimer and Walt put forth a number of arguments as to why Israel is a strategic burden. (As Daniel Drezner pointed out at one point, however, the never consider the benefits of Israel as an ally, therefore making it impossible to determine if Israel is a NET strategic burden or not)

1) "The first Gulf War revealed the extent to which Israel was becoming a strategic burden. The US could not use Israeli bases without rupturing the anti-Iraq coalition, and had to divert resources (e.g. Patriot missile batteries) to prevent Tel Aviv doing anything that might harm the alliance against Saddam Hussein."

This is hardly indicative of how Israel was a strategic burden. More so, it's indicative of how our need to court Arab opinion was (and still is) a strategic burden. We obviously could have defeated the Iraqi army on our own and pushed them out of Kuwait. Instead, we decided to build a big coalition, and to have Arab troops "liberate" Kuwait City (after we had done all the hard work). That was why we needed to keep Israel out of the war. We had to play nice with a bunch of thug dictators, so we had to sideline Israel. What does that have to do with what Israel does or doesn't have to offer on its own? This doesn't explain why Israel shouldn't be an American ally due to a conflict in interests, but rather that our alliance with Israel causes us problems elsewhere. I don't find that reason enough to drop Israel - to do that I would need them to explain to me, independent of outside factors, why Israel is a strategic burden.

On a side note, if we're talking the contributions Arab governments made in terms of military support in Gulf I, I'd personally rather have the far more professional and effective IDF fighting with me than the Syrians, Egyptians or Saudis.

2) "More important, saying that Israel and the US are united by a shared terrorist threat has the causal relationship backwards: the US has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel, not the other way around. Support for Israel is not the only source of anti-American terrorism, but it is an important one, and it makes winning the war on terror more difficult."

This has been used for the last 5 years by an array of people, primarily Europeans, who insist that if we just had an equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, al Qaeda would go away. In reality, this is a strawman. Terrorists aren't coming from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen or elsewhere because of the Palestinians' plight. The one thing the Palestinian issue does provide is great public relations. In fact, many would argue that's not much of a reason at all, including Osama bin Laden who has made clear that it is the presence of American troops on the Arabian peninsula that is driving America's terrorism problem. Professor Mearsheimer's colleague at Chicago, Robert Pape, has also argued that, if support for Israel was much of a driving motivation for suicide terrorism against America, you would expect to see the most attacks on US interests coming from Hamas and/or major attacks by al Qaeda on Israeli interests. You don't see either of those. Mearsheimer and Walt could still be right, but they spend so little time laying out their arguments for why Israel is a strategic burden and far too much time detailing which columnist and which assistant secretary of defense is a member of the "lobby." The latter doesn't tell us much, but elaboration on the former would.

3) "Iran’s nuclear ambitions do not pose a direct threat to the US. If Washington could live with a nuclear Soviet Union, a nuclear China or even a nuclear North Korea, it can live with a nuclear Iran. And that is why the Lobby must keep up constant pressure on politicians to confront Tehran."

Note that one sentence starting with "If" and ending with "Iran" is their entire argument on this point. Whether the US could tolerate a nuclear Iran is a contentious issue, on which you could write an entire book. To sum it up in this throw-away sentence makes a mockery of the whole issue. Like I said above, more time elucidating their arguments like these, less time naming names on who is a member of the "lobby" and who isn't.

On a side note, many have pointed out the the two leading "realists" in the field of IR suddenly managed to find the one issue in all of IR that is explained first and foremost by domestic politics rather than the structure of the international system. Rest assured, Mearsheimer and Walt aren't leaving realism. Note how they bunch the Soviet Union, China, North Korea and Iran together in a nuclear club, as if none of the members vary at all in implications for US security. No internal or external (other than the structure of the system) factors specific to any one of those countries allows for any variation at all in how the US should deal with these states.

4) "A final reason to question Israel’s strategic value is that it does not behave like a loyal ally. Israeli officials frequently ignore US requests and renege on promises (including pledges to stop building settlements and to refrain from ‘targeted assassinations’ of Palestinian leaders)."

Israel is an ally, not our lap dog. We weren't overly thrilled when Britain attacked Argentina over the Falklands or when France and Britain tried to start a war over the Suez, but we were bright enough to realize that things like this were going to happen, b/c even the interests of your closest allies don't always coincide with yours. There's plenty of things we wish our European partners would do and wouldn't do. Heck, by Mearsheimer and Walt's logic, France and Germany are also "strategic burdens" for not behaving like a "loyal ally."

Also, to argue that Israel is not allowed to pursue its counterterrorist policy of targeted assassinations (regardless of whether you think its effective or not) when the US is doing the exact same thing to al any Qaeda leaders we find is downright hypocritical. Israel has had a terrorism problem far longer than we have. We can't just barge in, insist everything is to be done "our way" and act shocked when Israel disagrees with that course of action.

5) "Israel is hardly the only country that spies on the US, but its willingness to spy on its principal patron casts further doubt on its strategic value."

This is entirely irrelevant. We spy on every one of our allies in some way, shape or form - and they do the same to us. Go back to Feb/March 2003 when we were trying to get the second resolution passed in the Security Council to authorize war in Iraq. The Observer "broke" a story about how the US was spying on the UN delegation of the Security Council members to find out ahead of time how they were going to vote. The reaction from those countries was overwhelmingly one of indifference because they knew they'd done the same thing to us many times before.

Like I said before, I think there's also a strong moral case to be made for support for Israel - not that Israel is perfect, but that it is far and away morally superior to its neighbors. Mearsheimer and Walt actually (unwittingly) recognize this. When they lament that there is no debate on the issue in the US, they cite the far more robust debate that takes place in Israel itself. By recognizing this Mearsheimer and Walt implicitly recognize the key feature that makes Israel morally superior to its neighbors: its ability to engage in domestic debate and have that debate affect government policy when they recognize that they have been wrong on an issue. This debate drove a number of governments back to the negotiating table in the 1990s, caused a great deal of change in the treatment of Arab Israelis over the years and played a major role in the eventual withdrawal from Gaza last year and the formation of Kadima. Therefore, despite insisting that Israel is, at best, the moral equal of its neighbors, Mearsheimer and Walt recognize otherwise elsewhere in their paper

2 Comments:

Blogger Ameer said...

Regardless of their failure to adequately document their thesis, one thing is certain, Jews have the power, whether in the form of an efficient lobby, the power to finance the election of supporters of Israel, to mobilize the vote against the reelection of or finance the opposition to those who do not support Israel 100%.
This may be their legal right but when it has the effect of preventing any change in the voting pattern of elected representatives out of fear of losing their positions, it should be exposed as inhibiting if not preventing changes in policy that are in the national interest of the US. The elder Bush has to backtrack on cutting off funds if there was no halt in settlements.
To even suggest an even handed approach rather than a special one that chooses Israel over its neighbors resulted in a Jewish candidate for president being chastised by another one regarding this heresy. Generally, the US uses the threat of a cut off of aid or trade to pressure countries to adopt US policy. This is not an option regarding Israel given the danger to anyone who votes to restrict aid to Israel or who does not vote to increase it.
There is a campaign to demonize Arabs and Muslims by supporters of Israel and its evangelical friends in order to counter the growing their growing voting power. Appointments of Arabs or Muslims to public posts of influence are blocked so that only one side has access to the government. The “striped pants” members of the State Department were criticized as Arab lovers who were unsympathetic to the arguments of Israel for total obedience to their wishes.
The fact that the writers had difficulty getting their analysis published in the US and their campaign against academics who expose Israel’s power to make US policy shows that they have gone beyond what other countries have been able to do.
If objective information or balanced discussions cannot reach the public or our elected representatives cannot openly express alternative policies in the Middle East then we will not be able to find any satisfactory solution to our problems there.
Voices outside Israel and within that attempt to question policies are also condemned as coming from radical leftist or self-hating Jews.
Sincerely
Ameer Raschid
An American(Muslim) retired in Bodrum, Turkey

12:26 PM  
Blogger jeffepops said...

To those {including ameer) who support the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis I would like answers to the following logical follow up questions:

1. By just how much is the "Israel Lobby" too powerful? What would be just enough?

2. How would you go about taking away its power? Would you advocate passing special laws to limit Jewish power, or would you pass laws that would apply to civil rights advocacy, organized labor, business and feminist organizations and lobbies as well?

5:13 PM  

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