The Israel Lobby
And a Reply to Drezner
Philip Weiss weighs in on the Mearsheimer and Walt paper on the Israel lobby at The Nation. It is a fine, searching, level-headed treatment. The big surprise: The influence of Leon Uris on American political science!
Thanks to bloggers, by the way, for taking up the issue of the petition I started allowing academics to defend the authors from scurrilous charges of anti-Semitism. Among those who responded: Majikthise; Left2Right, Bill Totten’s Weblog; and Cursor.org. (Also, today, BTC is thoughtful on the issue.) I guess I still don’t think the debate has really been joined by most academic bloggers. There is going to be an LA Times article on the whole affair that will mention the petition.
Speaking of which, I at one point wrote out a refutation of Daniel Drezner’s (quite scholarly and moderate) critique of the Mearsheimer and Walt article. I never got around to publishing it, but may as well now:
Among the thoughtful responses were the remarks of political scientist and blogger Daniel Drezner, who has taught as Mearsheimer’s colleague at the University of Chicago but will soon leave for another university. Drezner agrees with the authors’ case that interest group lobbying has shaped some of US policies toward the Middle East, and applauds them for daring to break the general taboo in the US on discussing “ethnic lobbying” and Israel, which he admits he has encountered in his own classes. He also admits that the Cuban-American lobby is another example of the phenomenon, just as do Mearsheimer and Walt.
He raises a few questions, however. He makes the common point that the Israel lobby was not the only group with an interest in an Iraq War, and that it was supported by Rice, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush. He dismisses the idea that the largely Jewish Neoconservatives, such as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Abram Shulsky and others were involved in a “conspiracy” to “dupe” the other, more powerful members of the administration. This argument is another straw man and a dangerous one. Mearsheimer and Walt never once use the word or concept of “conspiracy.” They are talking about ordinary pressure politics. Nor do they use the word “dupe.” Drezner concludes that “In the end, it’s far more likely that Bush is exploiting the neoconservatives’ ideological arsenal to advance his preferred set of policies than vice versa.”
Drezner is assuming that Bush and Cheney “favored” a set of policies all along, and needed no convincing. Bush certainly wanted to “take out” Saddam Hussein, but probably thought in terms of snipers or cruise missiles. In the 2000 presidential campaign he pronounced himself opposed to Bosnia-type interventions. He had to be convinced of the utility or necessity of a conventional war in Iraq that risked military occupation of it and a degree of nation-building. Likewise, Cheney had opposed going to Baghdad with US troops, and had to be convinced it was desirable. Who convinced them? And how would they have been “exploiting” (as opposed to “drawing on”) the persons who convinced them?
Mearsheimer and Walt hold that it was the Neoconservatives around them who most effectively took advantage of September 11 to argue for a land war in Asia and a reshaping of the Middle East through direct military action. Their account is not without some substantiation in the documentary record. Bush asked Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who had urged that the US attack Iraq before going on to Afghanistan, after September 11 what the likelihood was that Saddam Hussein was involved in it. Wolfowitz replied that it was between a 10 percent and a 50 percent chance. This allegation was ridiculous, and the false idea that Saddam had been involved in the first World Trade Center bombing of 1993 was promoted by Neoconservative circles around Laurie Mylroie of the American Enterprise Institute. It was rejected by terrorism czar Richard Clark, as well as by the CIA and the FBI. The Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon, under Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith functioned as a Neoconservative attempt to cherry-pick intelligence and to stove-pipe poorly digested raw intelligence (most of it fraudulent) to John Hannah in Cheney’s office, bypassing the professional intelligence agencies. The professionals were all far more circumspect on all the arguments for war than was the OSP, but could not get a hearing from Cheney, who was listening to Neoconservatives such as I. Lewis Libby and John Hannah.
The authors point out that the United States lived with a nuclear Soviet Union, and lives with a nuclear Communist China and even a nuclear North Korea, and therefore could live with a nuclear Iran. They attribute Washington’s fixation on preventing Iran from pursuing its nuclear energy research to pressure from the Israel lobby. Drezner replies that he is “pretty sure there’s more to U.S. opposition to Iran possessing nuclear weapons than the protection of Israel.”
He does not, however, say what the “something more” could possibly be. At what point would Iran be a greater military threat to the United States than Communist China? It certainly is not now. It is just a poor, small, ramshackle, mulla-ridden society with no unconventional weapons at all. Since the elections of 1997, Iran has had a lively reform movement and it is difficult to identify anything the Iranian state has done to the United States since then. Iranians mounted candle-light vigils for the US after 9/11, and President Mohammad Khatami spoke eloquently of his solidarity with the American people against terrorism. Iran cooperated with the US overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and likewise has been virtually an echo chamber for Washington’s policies toward Iraq, including the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the establishment of a parliamentary system that will inevitably ensconce the Shiite majority. Occasional British and US propaganda trial balloons absurdly attempting to blame Shiite Iran for the Sunni Arab insurgency in Iraq have met with the yawns and derision they so richly deserve. Indeed, a wise administration could have enlisted Iran as an ally against al-Qaeda. It is shadowy Israeli operatives such as Yosef Bodansky who made the silly argument that Iran was behind al-Qaeda. As for nukes, Iran has not even been proved to have a nuclear weapons program, as opposed to a perfectly legal nuclear energy program. The National Intelligence Estimate says that Iran is ten years from having an atomic bomb under the best of conditions, assuming it were trying to get one, which it denies. Why is there a crisis in 2006?
The only other charge against Iran besides its nuclear energy program, which the Bush administration hypes, is its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. But likewise it would be difficult to prove that since 1997 Hezbollah has done anything to the United States, and anyway it is a legitimate, elected part of the Lebanese government, the new democratic character of which Washington has praised. It does have a paramilitary, but so do, de facto, the armed Israeli colonists in the West Bank. The Israelis complain about Hezbollah shelling of the occupied Shebaa Farms territory, but that does not belong to Israel anyway, and they could avoid that problem by obeying international law and relinquishing land captured in 1967 on which they are squatting. Moreover, Hezbollah itself would not exist if the Israelis had not illegally invaded and occupied southern Lebanon, radicalizing the Shiites there. Where is the US interest in any of this?
While it is difficult to see why the United States should be more exercised about Iran than about Burma or Zimbabwe, it is no secret what the Israeli government thinks about the matter. In 2002, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that the day after the looming Iraq War ended, “pressure” should be immediately put on Iran. James Bennet of the New York Times wrote on February 27, 2003, “Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last week that after Iraq, the United States should generate ‘political, economic, diplomatic pressure’ on Iran. ‘We have great interest in shaping the Middle East the day after’ a war, he said.” In other words, precisely as Mearsheimer and Walt say, it is Israeli politicians and the American Israel lobby who are committed to generating pressure on Iran across the board. And, for anyone interested in the analysis of political rhetoric, Mofaz’s use of the word “we” in this sentence poses all sorts of questions. Who is the “we” that has an interest in “shaping the Middle East” after the Iraq War? Is it Israel? Or is it Israel plus the American Israel lobby? Does it even include the United States government at all, except as a means to an end?
As for the Israel lobby itself, its view of Iran is also hardly a secret. Tom Barry writes about a May 2003 forum on “the future of Iran,” sponsored by American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He adds, “the forum, chaired by the Hudson Institute’s Meyrav Wurmser, the Israeli-born wife of David Wurmser (he serves as Cheney’s leading expert on Iran and Syria), included a presentation by Uri Lubrani of Israel’s Ministry of Defense. Summarizing the sentiment of neoconservative ideologues and strategists, Meyrav Wurmser said: ‘Our fight against Iraq was only a battle in a long war. It would be ill-conceived to think we can deal with Iraq alone. We must move on, and faster.’” He also describes a policy forum in April, 2003, held by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs titled “Time to Focus on Iran—The Mother of Modern Terrorism,” A leading rightwing Zionist hawk and adviser to Karl Rove, Michael Ledeen declared there, “The time for diplomacy is at an end; it is time for a free Iran, free Syria and free Lebanon.” The institutions Barry mentions are all part and parcel of the Israel lobby, and anyone who knows anything about the situation inside the beltway is in no doubt that they are enormously powerful and influential.
Contrast the Wurmsers’ position on Iran (and remember that Neocon David Wurmser is Cheney’s chief adviser on the issue) to that of a WASP policy organization such as Brent Scowcroft’s Forum for International Policy. Scowcroft urges the use of European allies to moderate Iran and suggests cooperation between the US and Iran on Iraq.
Drezner admits that the authors do a good job of cataloguing the ways in which Israel has been a strategic burden to the United States. But they neglect, he says, to mention cases where Israel has functioned as an asset, as with the 1981 bombing of the Osirak reactor in Baghdad. But in fact the attack on Osirak is another instance that proves the point Mearsheimer and Walt are making. The French built the Osirak reactor for Iraq, and designed it as a lightwater reactor, which cannot, practically speaking, be used to make a bomb. You would need a heavy water reactor for that. The French firmly refused requests for a heavy-water facility. When the Israelis quite unjustifiably destroyed the reactor, the Baath regime actually ramped up its attempts to get a bomb through the rest of the 1980s, though without success. The Osirak bombing was in fact counter-productive. Moreover, Israel was the first to introduce the atom bomb into the Middle East, and it provoked the subsequent arms race. By its aggressiveness, it determined regimes in the region to seek a bomb so as to avoid Israeli nuclear blackmail. The US would have a far better case for nuclear nonproliferation in the region, and regional powers would have much more impetus to adopt nonproliferation as a policy, if the US ally Israel had not thumbed its nose at the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and stockpiled hundreds of bombs.
Drezner concludes his critique with two final points. He says that the evidence for the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee cited by the authors is old. There is plenty of evidence for continued AIPAC clout in Congress and the executive, however, and surely Drezner is not suggesting otherwise? I was talking to a congressman once, and he said to me, “Juan, I’m glad you are speaking out on the Israeli-Palestianian issue. We can’t.” Nor is it any secret how the lobby disciplines and tempts congress. As recently as a 2002 congressional race in Alabama between Earl Hilliard and Artur Davis, hundreds of thousands of dollars came from elements of the Israel lobby, mainly in New York, into the coffers of Davis because Hilliard was mildly critical of some Israeli policy. While it cannot be absolutely proved that AIPAC made the difference, and while AIPAC does not always succeed in unseating members of congress it perceives as insufficiently pro-Israel, neither point matters. Many members of congress saw what happened to Hilliard as an object lesson, and certainly Hilliard and other members of the Black Congressional Congress saw it that way. When one has to run for office from one’s district every two years, it is easier not to make enemies who can direct $400,000 to one’s opponent’s campaign chest from New York. Israeli actions are criticized in all the parliaments of the world, and US members of congress are loquacious critics of injustice everywhere, but is it not remarkable how seldom criticism of Israel shows up in the Congressional Record?
Drezner questions the assertion that the Israeli-Palestinian issue was central to al-Qaeda’s resentments against the United States. He says that it “is funny, because I was pretty sure it was the presence of U.S. forces near the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina.” In fact, Usamah Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other high al-Qaeda leaders are obsessed with the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem. If Drezner had been paying attention, he would have heard Bin Laden lambaste the occupation of the three holy cities. Jerusalem was one of the three. The 9/11 Commission Report revealed that Bin Laden attempted to convince Khalid Shaikh Muhammad to move up the date of the attack in response to Ariel Sharon’s intimidating visit to the Dome of the Rock in fall of 2000, which many Muslims understood as a threat to tear down one of Islam’s holiest shrines. Audiotapes of Bin Laden and his circle in the late 1980s, now being analyzed by scholars, are full of long sermons on Jerusalem. The first sermon Bin Laden preached in Jedda after his return from Afghanistan in 1989 was a condemnation of the Israeli crackdown on the first Palestinian Intifadah or uprising. It is a little depressing that a well-informed, high-powered political scientist such as Drezner does not seem to know these simple facts, and that he questions them as a way of critiquing the Mearsheimer and Walt paper.
Drezner closes by appearing to acknowledge that AIPAC is highly influential on congressional policy toward Syria, but dismisses the policy itself as mere saber-rattling. He ignores the opportunity cost of the US having lost Syria’s cooperation in the war on terror, and the impact on Syrian willingness to police its borders to intercept volunteers going to fight US troops in Iraq. Indeed, the AIPAC-authored “Syria Accountability Act” certainly has contributed to US battlefield deaths in Iraq. In what way was it in the interests of the United States to end Syria’s cooperation against al-Qaeda and to impose an economic boycott?
In short, while Drezner’s was among the more substantive and thoughtful responses to the paper from an academic supporter of Israeli policies, its arguments seem to me mostly flawed. When the flaws are corrected, most of the points he makes actually support the Mearsheimer and Walt thesis. Still, it is to his great credit that he made arguments instead of calling names.