Saturday, March 25, 2006

More on Mearsheimer and Walt

Karl Lueger: Anti-Semite

John Mearsheimer: Critic of Israel Lobby

I've received a few emails from online pals who were wondering based on my earlier posts whether I "support" or "approve" of the paper/article that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (M/W) had written about the Israel Lobby. Interestingly enough, I’ve never been asked whether I “support” or “approve” of articles by, say, Paul Krugman or Tom Friedman but whether I “agree” with this or that stuff published by this or that “public intellectual.” My usual response is that I agree or disagree with some or most of what these guys have to say (believe it or not, I actually agree sometimes with what Krugman and Friedman have to say). And, hey, I sometimes find myself disagreeing with some of the things I had written a day or two ago… That’s the nature of intellectual discourse. You approve of or support the platform of a political party, a policy proposal or a diplomatic agreement. Yet when it comes to discussing Israel, especially in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, you’re forced many times to take sides. Are you "pro-Israeli" or "pro-Arab?" So, it’s not surprising perhaps that the critique by the two respected professors has ignited such an emotional reaction among the “pro-Israeli community” in the United States. No one that I’ve read has accused them of being “anti-Semites.” But the implication is that their views on the political power that the Israel Lobby exerts on American policy reflects anti-Semitic stereotypes a la The Protocols of Zion. And there has been more specific criticism of the quality of their scholarship, the facts they present and the sources they cite. Read summary here
Since I’m not interested in spending more time and energy discussing the M/W “thing,” let me in response to the hysterical reactions I’ve received make my views clear here (and I’m repeating some of my earlier points):
1. Criticizing Israel and/or those lobbying on its behalf in Washington shouldn’t be equated with “anti-Semitism” in the same way that criticism of affirmative action/racial quotas, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, or South Africa’s AIDS policies shouldn’t be regarded as “racism.” Israel like its political lobby in the U.S. are political entities that promote the specific interpretation of the political concept of Jewish nationalism (Zionism) that is not shared by most of the Jews who don’t live in Israel (as demonstrated by the fact that they haven’t immigrated there) and by close to 40 percent of the citizens of Israel (Arabs, non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews, and non-Jews from Russia and elsewhere) who are not Zionists. Whether an American citizen supports close ties with Israel depends on whether he or she perceives that to be in line with U.S. interest and/or values. Hence President Nixon and Truman who shared some negative stereotypes of Jews were still in favor of strong political U.S. ties with Israel while many American-Jews have been opposed to that. (And btw, I refrain from using the term “anti-Semite” -- which I apply to Hitler and Vienna Mayor Karl Lueger -- to describe people who hold negative stereotypes of Jews a group that included many members of the political and intellectual elites of 19th century Europe; but that’s an issue for another time). If Israel pursues policies that run contrary to U.S. interests and/or values, raising that as part of public discourse is as legitimate as criticizing France or Japan. Similarly, the Israel Lobby should not be treated any differently than other domestic (AARP) or foreign (those representing Saudi Arabia). In the same way, one has the right to challenge any critic of Israel or its lobby by challenging the criticism on its merit and not by applying…mm…negative stereotypes to the critic, i.e., suggesting that he or she is an anti-Semite.

2. Now… I’ve read both the article M/W published in the London Review of Books as well as the longer version of their study. I agree with them when it comes to their general observation that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is a very powerful lobby with enormous political and financial resources that exerts a lot of influence on the executive and legislative branches when it comes to U.S. policy towards Israel and in the Middle East. I also agree in general with their observation that there is a very influential pro-Israeli community in this country that includes American-Jewish groups, think tanks and other front organizations and that many journalists who work in the elite media tend to be more sympathetic towards Israel than to the Arabs. It seems to me that such conclusions should be celebrated by Israel and its supporters in this country who should be proud over their success in mobilizing so much support for Israel among elites and the general public. That explains why so many foreign countries envy Israel and try to model their lobbying efforts in Washington after AIPAC and its satellites. So… you can’t have it both ways. If Coca Cola succeeds in becoming the most popular soft-drink in America, it cannot then bash those who point to that fact by accusing them of “anti-Coca-Colism.”

3. As I point in my book, Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East, the U.S. support for Israel that reflected moral considerations and has been sustained by domestic politics has been one component in post-World War II U.S. policy in the Middle East. M/W argue that "the thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby'" without discussing what I think is the main driving force of American intervention in the region -- its alliance with the oil producing states there. To put it differently, even if Israel didn't exist, Washington would have been drawn into close relationship with Saudi Arabia (and earlier Iran) as part of the Cold War strategy to contain the Soviet Union in the region and to maintain access to its oil resources (on which U.S. allies in Europe and Asia are more dependent than the United States), and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as a part of an effort to maintain U.S. hegemony in the Middle East (In the “Empire Lite” form under Bush I and Clinton and not in full-blown Empire under Bush and the neocons). A fair and balanced analysis of U.S. policy in the Middle East should therefore include a critique of both the Israel Lobby AND the pro-Arab/Oil Complex which is what I've done in my book as an equal opportunity basher, if you will. By failing to do the same, M/W open themselves to some legitimate criticism.

4. Moreover, while there is no doubt that U.S. support for Israel has been responsible for much of the Arab hostility towards Washington, it's important to stress that U.S. ties with the Arab dictatorships (like Egypt) and authoritarian regimes (like Saudi Arabia) is very much at the center of the anti-American agenda pursued by Osama bin Ladin, the Moslem Brotherhood, etc. Again, in my book, Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East, I call for U.S. disengagement from the Middle East, including by ending the alliances with the Saudis and the Egyptians AND with Israel. M/W create the impression that ending the alliance with Israel alone would help transform Arab attitudes towards the United States in a very dramatic way and suggest that the United States would then be able to maintain its dominance in the Middle East through “off-shore balancing” (as opposed to direct intervention) including continuing military ties with the “moderate” Arab regimes. I don't buy that. Ending the alliance with Israel would certainly reduce some of the Arab hostility, and by extension, the costs of U.S. intervention in the Middle East. But it's the U.S. INTERVENTION IN THE MIDDLE EAST in its totality -- including the support for Israel AND the alliance with the pro-American Arab regimes -- that is responsible for the current anti-Americans sentiments in the Arab World and helps increase the support for radical Islam.

5. I agree with most of M/W analysis when it comes to stressing the role of the pro-Israeli neoconservative ideologues and policymakers, many of whom -- but not all – were Jewish in driving the United States into the war in Iraq and the costly Imperial-Wilsonian project in the Middle East. There is no doubt in my mind that these neocons, including Wolfowitz, Perle, Faith and Woolsey, regarded as an axiom the notion what is good for Israel is good for America and vice versa and that American hegemony in the Middle East would help protect Israel while Israel would help secure American hegemony there. But since I don’t agree with that axiom that American and Israeli interests are compatible, I’ve never bought into this neocon view and had predicted before the war that the invasion of Iraq, the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the rise of a radical Shiite government in Baghdad would harm long-term Israeli interests. There is certainly no basis to suppose that the notion of "democratizing" the Middle East -- a central component of the (supposedly pro-Israeli) neocon agenda -- will help advance Israeli interests. Moreover, the majority of American-Jews as well the majority of Jewish members of Congress opposed the invasion. In short, blame Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice for adopting the neocon agenda and getting the U.S. into the war in Iraq. Bash the pro-Israeli, actually pro-Liukd neocons for promoting an agenda that ended up harming U.S. interests. And discuss the opportunistic behavior by the Israeli government and its lobby here that embraced that agenda and exploited it. But that's very different than saying that "Israel and American-Jews" were the driving force behind the war. And frankly, M/W are not saying that in their article.

6. Finally, I think that M/W could have pursued their discussion of the Israel Lobby by considering the following historical analogy: There was once a very powerful foreign policy lobby called the China Lobby and it doesn't exist anymore. The reason for that is that powerful lobbies can only operate in the context of existing consensus in Washington over the U.S. national interest. When that consensus changes -- as in the case of the opening towards Red China -- any lobby, even the most powerful one (as the China Lobby was) loses its influence (and relevance). That the Israel Lobby has become so powerful in Washington is in many ways a direct result of that rising American involvement in the region which provided incentives for “rent-seekers,” that include also the pro-Arab/Oil Complex, the Shah, the Kurds and the Chalabis of the Middle East to win American military assistance (and intervention) and other benefits (Similarly, if the U.S. federal government would not have been in the business of dispensing economic assistance to citizens and corporations, there would not have been lobbies in Washington trying to extract such assistance to their clients). What we need now is an honest debate in Washington over what exactly are U.S. interests in the Middle East and to what extent we need to continue maintain our military presence there, if at all. The relationship with Israel and its Lobby should certainly be on the top of the agenda if and when such a debate takes place. But don’t hold your breath….