Friday, 18 July 2008
Book Review: The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt
In the fall of 2002, two academics, John Mearsheimer of Chicago University and Stephen Walt of Harvard (M & W) were commissioned by the Atlantic Monthly to write an article about the influence of the Israeli lobby on American foreign policy. M & W came up with an article that talked of a very powerful Israel lobby in the United States which placed Israeli interests ahead of US interests. After receiving comments from the editors at Atlantic Monthly and incorporating them, M & W were nonplussed to find that Atlantic Monthly no longer wanted to publish their article. Ultimately, it was published by the London Review of Books in early 2006, bringing in its wake a very bitter media row. The authors were accused of anti-semitism and faced blistering attacks from various quarters, including from prominent US commentators. A year later, the article was published in the form of a book.
In their introduction, M & W make a startling prediction which I know to have been proved true very recently. During each presidential election, M & W explain, the candidates differ on a number of points. But on one topic, they will ‘speak with one voice’, that is on Israel. Five weeks ago, Barack Obama, the Messiah of Change, he-who-is-Audacious-enough-to-Hope, addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a prominent lobbying group, and declared that Israel's security was "sacrosanct" and "non-negotiable". John McCain of course, supports Israel unconditionally. Hilary, when she was in the race, was also an ardent supporter of Israel. This accurate prediction, made almost a year ago, gave me the incentive to read the rest of the book, which is a bit heavy and leaden. However, if you like political statistics and facts being thrown at you continuously for over 350 pages, this book is definitely for you.
Three propositions form the crux of M & W’s book. That the US has placed Israel on a pedestal, giving it more support and aid than any other ally the US has. This unconditional support and aid is a result of the Israel lobby. This uncritical and unconditional support for Israel is not in the US national interest. ‘What about Cuba?’ my brain screamed as soon as I read this. Thanks to extensive lobbying by Cuban émigrés in Florida, the US continues to maintain a trade embargo against Cuba even after Fidel Castro’s retirement. I should however admit that this embargo has not affected US national interest much, unfair and unjust though it might be.
The first proposition advanced by M & W is not particularly controversial. Who can deny that the US has gone out on a limb over Israel? But is the Israel lobby the main reason why it has done so? M & W make it clear that they are not against lobbying, which is bound to happen in a democracy. They also believe in Israel’s right to exist. The US is morally obliged to help Israel if its survival is at stake, they reiterate. The only problem they have is with the unconditional and unwavering support to Israel at a heavy cost to American interests.
Approximately one third of Amercian Jewry, we are told, does not consider Israel to be a prime issue. And so, the Israel lobby consists of not only American Jews, but also Christian Zionists and various neo-conservatives. These lobbyists come in all shapes and sizes and don’t always have the same opinion on all issues. However, they are able to work in tandem, without openly appearing to do so. They are highly effective in attacking any individual or organisation which opposes Israel or US support for Israel.
The US provides military, economic and diplomatic support to Israel, This support is much more than what any other country gets. M & W explain how US aid is without any strings attached, which means that Israel is able to use US aid for any purpose whatsoever, including the construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank and Gaza strip. One would get the feeling from M & W’s book that Israel is the only country which is able to divert US aid for other purposes. However, I can think of at least one other US ally which does this. Yes, Pakistan. US aid to Pakistan earmarked for development or for fighting Islamic fundamentalists is routinely used to buy conventional military hardware meant for use against India. Apologies, I digress yet again.
M & W do not comment on whether the formation of Israel itself was correct, though towards the end, they do say that it involved the violation of Palestinians’ rights. Most of the contentions made by M & W are perfectly acceptable. They say that Israel is not a reliable ally. Israel has double-crossed the US on various occasions. For example, during the Iran-Iraq war, when the US was quietly backing Saddam, Israel provided weapons to Iran. Israel has transferred US technology to China. Israel has spied on the US. The Israel lobby has been and still is pushing the US to go after Iran. This lobby prevented the US from opposing the Israel as it attacked Lebanon in 2006. M & W do make a strong case to show that the Israel lobby influences US policy towards Israel, a policy which does not make sense most of the time. Evidence that the Israel lobby has forced the US to support Israel’s short term interests at the cost of US interests and even long-term Israeli interests, is also compelling.
However, as they connect various dots, M & W make a few contentions which don’t appear to be tenable. For example, it is said that the Israel lobby influenced the US in its decision to invade Iraq. M & W do not claim that the Israel lobby was the main reason for the US decision, but they do say that without this lobby, there would have been no war. Apparently the Israel lobby has been trying to nudge the US into attacking Iraq since the days of Bill Clinton. They were unsuccessful, even though Clinton adopted the general goal of ousting Saddam. However, things became easier for them after 9/11 when stories of Iraq’s nuclear programme began to find greater acceptance. I find it difficult to believe that the Israel Lobby was the prime mover behind the Iraq war. I agree with M & W that the Iraq war was not about oil. But was it mainly to make Israel more secure? I think not. I think the Iraq invasion was the result of Dubya’s and Tony’s desire to remake the map of the middle-east. Look at it from George’s and Tony’s point of view. Both are extremely religious men who believe that God has sent them to earth for a reason. They want to bring peace and democracy to the middle-east. How do they go about it? They need to start somewhere. Where should they start? With Saudi Arabia? No. The people there are hardcore Wahhabis who will not easily accept democracy. Also, the rulers of Saudi Arabia are good friends of America. Iraq on the other hand was ripe for democracy. Its population is relatively secular. Its ruler was an enemy of the West. Its army looked formidable on paper, which was good, but was very weak after many years of western sancations. The majority of Iraqis are Shias who hate Saddam. Iraq was the perfect target, Blair and Bush believed. So they got a few intelligence reports ‘sexed’ up, whipped up public opinion and started the war.
M & W also say that the Israel lobby has forced the US to be confrontational towards Syria and seek a regime change in Syria even though the Syrian government had provided important intelligence about al-Qaida after 9/11. According to M & W, if it were not for the Israel lobby, the US would not be so antagonistic towards Syria; there would be no Syria Accountability Act; there might be a peace treaty between Israel and Syria; Syria might not be backing the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Here I ask - can’t there be an different explanation for this? Ever since the demise of the Soviet Union, the US has been in earch of new enemies. The arms lobby needs the US to have enemies in order to justify weapons sales to the US armed forces. Couldn’t this lobby have played a role in demonising Syria?
Which brings me to another point. There are various lobbies - the arms lobby, the oil lobby, and other special interests - who would be interested in skewing US policy on the middle-east. Maybe these lobbies have played as big a role as the Israel lobby in getting US foreign policy towards Israel to the point it is now.
To conclude, I would say that M & W have an interesting theory, but I was not fully convinced that the picture they formed by connecting various multi-coloured dots is not a red herring.