“The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer

by Joshua H. Liberatore

I’ve often wondered how (and indeed, why) one goes about writing a book with a collaborator. My concern is for the basic logistics of dividing labor, reconciling stylistic preferences, and merging variant voices. But I suppose certain circumstances and subjects make shared authorship more attractive and efficient, and in the case of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, measurably safer as well. We’d be hard pressed to countenance a more provocative and controversial subject for two tenured professors at prestigious universities (Walt at Harvard, Mearsheimer at Chicago) than the powerful (and it turns out, deleterious) role played by the pro-Israel lobby in shaping American policies in the Middle East. And as they write in the book’s lucid introduction, talking candidly about forces within the lobby risks accusations of both anti-Semitism and Jewish self-hatred, the trump cards of those who would seek to intimidate open discussion or forestall publication of a book exposing the various pro-Israel dynamics operating within America’s most well-funded and vocal political elite.

    These anxieties are strange and paradoxical, however, for Walt and Mearsheimer illustrate just how happy key players within the lobby are to flaunt their own influence and clout on organization websites, in public remarks, and at fundraisers and conferences. But it’s not permissible for others to examine the depth of that influence, the scope of that clout? Thankfully for our understanding of crucial patterns in U.S. foreign policy choices over the past several decades, Walt and Mearsheimer display both the guts and sense of proportion to face whatever professional fallout this book has caused or will cause them in academic circles. As long as they don’t fancy running for public office, that is, they’re safe. That’s been the prevailing notion anyway, but in addition to its analysis of the ways in which the lobby has forcibly turned key elections and legislative votes in its favor, The Israel Lobby also devotes some attention to the underhanded tactics some organizations have employed in shaping university politics as well, such as the group Campus Watch’s attempt to influence hiring and recruitment decisions at top institutions. These actions go considerably beyond the traditional model of interest group politics in American public life and are cause for concern.

    Beyond its bold and important subject matter, The Israel Lobby’s strengths are many. For reasons of either editorial convenience or insurance against misinterpretation, Walt and Mearsheimer have fashioned their examination – which expands on a paper published originally in the London Review of Books – in the most systematic and cogent prose of any book on current affairs in recent memory, the best I’ve read since Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power. There is a certain unimpeachable safety in absolute clarity, and Walt and Mearsheimer are at pains to make their message as unambiguous and well documented as possible. Over a hundred pages of detailed citations and source notes accompany the main text for anyone who dares to question the authenticity of its abundance of references, quotations, and potent assertions. The research seems unassailable. Moreover, lest excitable readers feel inclined to skip around and scan the chapters for the kind of inflammatory nonsense Walt and Mearsheimer’s detractors will want to find there, each section begins and ends with a summative introduction and conclusion, and interchapter references are reinforced throughout the book through frequent mention. No gaps are left unattended. The structure and narrative arc are both airtight. Walt and Mearsheimer do not take any chances in that regard, disciples of the compositional mantra: tell them what you will tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.

    The Israel Lobby begins with a careful definition of what the lobby is and what it is not. First and foremost, it is not a unified Jewish cabal. It is not a symptom of “dual loyalty.” Walt and Mearsheimer are keen to undermine the conventional “canards” of racist conspiracy theorizing. The lobby is a loose collection of interest groups and individual activists with some diversity of platforms and policy priorities but one common underlying premise: unconditional support for Israel. Powerful advocacy groups like American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Anti-Defamation League but also think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Hudson Institute make the ranks, as well as some lesser known Jewish and Christian Zionist organizations that make support for Israel their single-issue cause. Walt and Mearsheimer also include opinion-makers and highly placed Israel advocates, a roster that includes well known journalists Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol, some members of the Bush gang only recently deposed like Elliot Abrams and David Wurmser, prominent neoconservatives such as Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle, and famous evangelical preachers like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

    Once the lobby is adequately defined, the argument turns to a step-by-step demonstration of the ways in which it operates and exactly how Israel’s perceived interests are kept at the forefront of congressional and presidential agenda, even when those interests directly conflict with American interests, and all at very high cost. The middle class tax rebates of 2008 and 2009, for example, were 600 and 400 dollars, respectively, enough to pay for a root canal or new flat screen television. The basic aid package to Israel is $3 billion per year, which amounts to about 500 dollars per Israeli, effectively an annual subsidy to Israel’s considerable prosperity and military might. Loan guarantees, offloaded interest burden, and tax-free reciprocities tack on an additional $3 to 4 billion per year. This annual flow of money, though perhaps not egregious in its own right, is never conditional on Israel’s actual behavior, an exception made for no other country on earth. And it’s worth remembering that Israel is not poor or needy by any standard: per capita GDP consistently ranks in the top 30 worldwide, at about $27,000 per annum. When a few tens of millions have occasionally been shaved off Israel’s annual dispersement as a symbolic punishment for Israel’s continued and illegal settlement activity in the West Bank, the overall effect was but a slap on the wrist, and any legislator sufficiently foolhardy to suggest a larger reduction in aid is roundly pilloried by the lobby’s media machine and broad network, damaging campaign contributions and thus electability.

    Walt and Mearsheimer are careful to point out that the most of the Israel lobby’s activities are no different from old-fashioned interest group politics, as American as the Big Mac. We are familiar with the deep-pocket involvement of salient industry lobbies in energy, health care, and pharmaceutical production in our public policy and lawmaking, and many ethnically and nationally oriented lobbies – the anti-Castro Cuba lobby is a good example – follow a similar organizational structure and legislative agenda. What makes the Israel lobby so effective and atypical, however, is the consistency and degree to which a particular and narrow set of interests have turned elections, swayed floor votes, and saddled presidential prerogatives, even when those interests are not persuasively aligned with the preferences of American voters, even the balance Jewish voters. Prodigious fundraising capacity and supreme networking have allowed the lobby to flex its muscles and push American policymakers to take incredible risks at exorbitant cost, even as the benefits were, at best, murky, and at worst, disastrous. Although their main objective is to show that the lobby thrusts its weight in a direction that often directly compromises U.S. interests in the Middle East, Walt and Mearsheimer also assert – and they are not alone in this view – that the lobby’s efforts are often counterproductive for Israel’s interests as well.

   The second part of the book examines several case studies in which the lobby’s efforts have encouraged policies that go often directly against American self-interest. The chapters on Syria, Iran, and the Palestinian plight provide evidence of flawed priorities and missed opportunities in American foreign policy. The discussion of U.S. complicity in the second Lebanon war of 2006, when American manufactured and supplied armaments, including illegal cluster bombs, were used on civilian targets with massive casualties, is particularly insightful. And the contention that the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq cannot adequately be explained as a regional power grab or a machination to secure Persian Gulf oil will take many readers off guard. But in each case, The Israel Lobby asks us to challenge our assumptions about precisely where American self-interest lies and whether actions taken in the Middle East fulfill those assumptions. Their logic is tight, their persuasiveness assured. If nothing else, the reader comes away from the book with a fresh perspective on American foreign policy and learns to consider the strange choices our leaders make on our behalf with renewed scrutiny. And even if Walt and Mearsheimer’s prescriptions for realigning those choices seem far-fetched or naïve, the health of our republic demands that we take them seriously and demand a full accounting of the system we currently condone by complacence.

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