"The Israel Lobby":
Harvard version (very large PDF file)
London Review of Books version (HTML)


The second wave against Mearsheimer and Walt:
A well-tempered smother-out
as a new war looms




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The initial reaction to John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's essay "The Israel Lobby" consisted of a relentless barrage of vituperative insults, smears, character assassination, misrepresentations, and other inflammatory rhetoric that condemned the essay in toto. In large part, the vicious pillorying of the piece came from members of the Israel lobby denying their own power and even existence. Presumably, the purpose of that approach was to intimidate anyone from ever daring to investigate the subject. But the effect of the venomous verbal bombardment also unintentionally illustrated the absolute correctness of the essay's claim about the lobby's power to suppress.

Since that initial period a more moderate tone has emerged in the responses, which in many cases concede a substantial portion of the points presented by Mearsheimer and Walt. Nonetheless, despite a general improvement in substance as well as tone, the more temperate responses have tended to downplay the actual value of the essay and the significance of the rabid attacks that initially accompanied it. This more recent approach to the "Israel Lobby" study represents a variant of what Harry Elmer Barnes, the great revisionist historian of the two world wars, described as the smother-out approach. At best, the newer responses divert attention to peripheral issues — was the essay properly nuanced? was the issue of the Israel lobby placed in proper context? — rather than accept and emphasize the significance of the essay's central thesis and current relevance. In short, the essential need to apply the message of the study to current American Middle East policy — namely, the move on Iran that is being spearheaded by Israel and its lobby — receives minimal attention.

It is interesting that, among the more recent critics, the least supportive of the Mearsheimer-Walt message are two giants of the intellectual Left — Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein — both of whom have focused on the history of the Middle East and have not shied away from taboo topics. Chomsky praises Mearsheimer and Walt for their courage but then goes on to contend that the Israel lobby, though enjoying the appearance of power, is actually powerless. It succeeds, he maintains, only when its interests coincide with the interests of the dominant powers in the United States. In essence, the lobby is merely a tool of U.S. imperialism, and America is simply engaging in the same type of imperialist enterprise in Iraq and the Middle East that it carries out and has carried out in the rest of the world, with oil being the special concern in this particular region. [1]

Chomsky manages to make all of his claims without citing any empirical evidence for them; at least that is so with respect to the ongoing Middle East misadventure. The fact of the matter is that leading elements of the U.S. security/foreign-policy establishment — Bush the elder and his cronies, Brzezinski, foreign-policy "realists," liberal internationalists, the oil interests, global capitalists (e.g., George Soros), the military brass, career State Department and CIA professionals — were cool or hostile to the war on Iraq and to the Middle East war agenda in general.

Though a noted authority on language, it seems that Chomsky falls into a simple logical fallacy — he assumes what he is trying to prove. U.S. foreign policy is directed by some nebulous corporate elite, he believes, so that elite must have directed America's current foreign policy in the Middle East. Oil is a fundamental concern for the United States in the Middle East, so oil interests must have been a fundamental motive for the war policy — but Chomsky neglects, of course, the empirical fact that the oil lobby did not push for war and actually wanted to end sanctions on Iraq and Iran. Somehow this powerful controlling imperial interest posited by Chomsky is completely sheltered from politics — so that the Israel lobby could not influence policy at all through its funding of candidates, its lobbying power, or its success in infiltrating its members into the executive branch. But Chomsky's model must immediately provoke us to ask: if the Israel lobby couldn't affect American policy, who could? Chomsky's approach seems to offer little hope of ever rectifying the problem of American foreign policy — short of a revolution.

Norman Finkelstein provides a modification of Chomsky's version in an effort to take care of some of the obvious weaknesses in the latter's broad-brush account. While Finkelstein holds that the Israel lobby does not determine American Middle East policy, he grants that it is influential on the Israel-Palestinian issue. "Without the Lobby and in the face of widespread Arab resentment," Finkelstein contends, "the U.S. would perhaps have ordered Israel to end the occupation by now." [2] Now, this concession to the power of the lobby is no small thing, since Israeli leaders perceive control of the West Bank and its resources as essential for Israel's survival — at least its survival as a wealthy, powerful, secure, exclusively Jewish state. And it was the goal of eliminating the Palestinians' will to resist that, in significant part, motivated the neocon/Likudnik campaign to weaken, by means of war, Israel's external enemies who have provided aid to the Palestinian resistance.

Departing from Chomsky's head-in-the-sand approach, Finkelstein deals with the obvious fact that the neocons instigated the war on Iraq. But he denies that they are ideologically committed to Israel, arguing instead that they "watch over the U.S. 'national' interest, which is the source of their power and privilege." Finkelstein essentially agrees with the neoconservatives regarding their identification with American national interests, but he gives that connection a negative spin. He bases his claim about the neocons' lack of any real ideological support for Israel on the fact that the original neocons of the late 1960s had not previously evinced any strong support for Israel. And he goes so far as to compare them to the Jewish police during the Holocaust who served their Nazi German masters. "As psychological types, these newly-minted Lovers of Zion most resemble the Jewish police in the Warsaw ghetto," Finkelstein asserts.

That is a gratuitous and outrageous calumny for which there would seem to be no real evidence. For all intents and purposes the neocons have expressed and demonstrated support for Israel. Douglas Feith, who pushed the neocon war propaganda as the third-highest figure in the Defense Department during George W. Bush's first administration, has been closely associated with the right-wing Zionist group, the Zionist Organization of America. His father, Dalck Feith, while living in Poland during the 1930s, was active in Betar, the youth organization of the right-wing Revisionist Zionist movement founded by Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky.

In 1997, Douglas Feith and his father were the guests of honor at the 100th anniversary dinner of the Zionist Organization of America, in New York City, and both were given significant awards. [3] Colonel Yigal Carmon, formerly of Israeli military intelligence, was a co-founder of the neocon think tank Middle East Media Research Institute (Memri) along with Israeli-born Meyrav Wurmser, who is the wife of David Wurmser, an important figure in the neocon American Enterprise Institute and the Bush II administration. With the beginning of the Gulf War of 1991, Norman Podhoretz actually went to live with his daughter in her home in Jerusalem in order to show his solidarity with Israel, which Saddam had threatened with a missile attack, actually carrying out his threat to a limited extent. [4]

Neocons have been involved in institutions that promote the interests of Jews and Israel — especially Commentary magazine, which is funded by the American Jewish Committee, and the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs — demonstrating that Finkelstein's claim that neocons are lacking in their support of Israel is unknown to the pro-Israel financial backers of those entities.

It just does not make sense for Finkelstein to base his inflammatory charge on the fact that certain leading neoconservatives failed to champion Israel in their pre-neocon days. Many men have made far greater changes in their philosophical and political views — one thinks of the Communists who became right-wing anti-Communists, or of St.  Augustine, who had explicitly rejected Christianity as a young man. It is also the case that, while the early neocons were converts to the cause of Israel and Jewish interests in general, later neocons had no need to convert; they were partisans of Israel from the beginning; and today those younger men and women are the most active in the movement.

Finkelstein's idea that neocons "watch over" American imperial interests makes one wonder why the many other establishment foreign-policy elements mentioned earlier in this essay were cool or opposed to the war on Iraq. Exactly who makes up the nebulous power elite that really determines the American imperial interest and to which the neocons report? If the neocons are responsible for watching over U.S. interests we may wonder why other parts of the neocon World War IV agenda for the Middle East — war on Iran and destabilization of Saudi Arabia — have not yet been adopted and why the neocons have often criticized actual U.S. foreign policy, especially during the Carter, Bush I, and Clinton administrations. What does this have to say for the actual foreign policy of those administrations? If the neocons "watch over" American imperial interests does that mean that those administrations did not pursue American imperial interests? But that would be impossible given Finkelstein's belief that the U.S. government always pursues those imperial interests. Finkelstein turns Occam's razor into a pretzel. A much simpler conclusion to draw is that the neocons' policy agenda differed from that of other dominant foreign-policy elites but that various factors, especially the trauma of 9/11, enabled their agenda to gain dominance, at least temporarily.

So much for the Left. Liberals actually tend to accept more of the Mearsheimer and Walt thesis. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen lambasted the hysterical charges of anti-Semitism, writing that the essay's "basic point — that Israel's American supporters have immense influence over U.S. foreign policy — is inarguable." [5] Michelle Goldberg in Salon acknowledged that vicious attacks on those who violate the taboo regarding Israel and its supporters are commonplace:

On the surface, the whole imbroglio seemed like the latest version of a story that has replayed itself countless times in the last few years. A public figure strays outside the boundaries of acceptable opinion about Israel, or calls attention to the disproportionate influence wielded by supporters of Israel's right-wing political factions, and is immediately attacked as a bigot or a paranoid. [6]
Yet despite their recognition of the essential correctness of the Mearsheimer-Walt analysis, liberal commentators found flaws they deemed serious. Goldberg claimed that "for anyone who hopes for a more open and critical discussion of the Israel lobby, their paper presents profound problems." She faulted the essay for "several factual mistakes and baffling omissions, one that seems expressly designed to elicit exactly the reaction it has received. The power of the Israel lobby is something that deserves a full and fearless airing, but this paper could make such an airing less, not more, likely." [7]

Looming large in the flaws found by the liberals was Mearsheimer and Walt's alleged treatment of the Israel lobby as monolithic, as opposed to being composed of diverse elements. Eric Alterman in his Nation article "AIPAC's Complaint" observed that while much of the lobby's

power and influence rest with AIPAC and the neocons — who together with many others did do everything they could to drag America into this catastrophic war — it also contains many passionate opponents of just these tendencies. These are Jews who identify as both Jewish and pro-Israel but do so on the basis of a fundamentally different vision from the one that animates the likes of Peretz, Podhoretz, Perle, and AIPAC's armies of the right. [8]
Alterman's objection is an accurate one, but the omission of such detail is not a serious flaw in a working paper, as opposed to, say, a 500-page tome. It does not negate the obvious fact of the Israel lobby's power. And for that matter, Mearsheimer and Walt did explicitly point out that most Jews do not support the war on Iraq.

Goldberg referred to many factual errors: "One could go on and on in this way, listing logical errors and over-generalizations. And that's unfortunate, because it clouds what is valuable in 'The Israel Lobby.' Walt and Mearsheimer are correct, after all, in arguing that discussion about Israel is hugely circumscribed in mainstream American media and politics." [9] Unfortunately for Goldberg, though, she relies on Alan Dershowitz's list of errors. In a letter following their original publication, Mearsheimer and Walt addressed Dershowitz's charges, pointing out that his allegation of factual errors generally arose from the fact that the two scholars relied on sources different from Dershowitz's, with Mearsheimer and Walt often relying on the more-conventional source. [10]

Concern is also evident among the liberals at the authors' rejection of the oil thesis for the war on Iraq. Goldberg is abashed that they reject the oil argument, even though they point out, correctly, that Big Oil was against the war. Goldberg includes as an illustration of the importance of oil the contention by neocon David Frum that the "liberation" of Iraq would lower the price of oil, though that is a far cry from showing that the oil interest was for the war or that leading geostrategic thinkers focused on the need to control Iraq's oil. Alterman also criticizes the authors for allegedly portraying "the lobby as virtually the only determinant of U.S. Middle East policy" and leaving out the oil lobby. (At the same time, Alterman does acknowledge that "things have probably progressed to the point where the AIPAC team can best the Saudis and their minions most of the time." [11] ) Undoubtedly, over the decades since World War II oil has played a significant role in determining American policy in the Middle East — but it was not dominant in influencing the war on Iraq or in fomenting the American hostility toward Iran. [12]

Expanding upon his point, Alterman complains that Mearsheimer and Walt do not put the Israel lobby in the context of other lobbies, writing that "while it's fair to call AIPAC obnoxious and even anti-democratic, the same can often be said about, say, the NRA, Big Pharma, and other powerful lobbies. The authors note this but often seem to forget it. This has the effect of making the Jews who read the paper feel unfairly singled out, and inspires much emotionally driven mishigas [Yiddish: crazy or senseless behavior] in reaction." But surely in a paper on foreign policy it is no more necessary to discuss other lobbies at length any more than it would be necessary to discuss the Israel lobby when dealing with gun-control policy. Moreover, it is not apparent that the Israel lobby is the same in crucial respects as other lobbies. As powerful as the gun lobby is, there is no danger in pointing out its power, as is the case when analyzing the Israel lobby.

In the end, the liberal commentators tend to conclude that the flaws in the Mearsheimer-Walt essay outweigh its truth content. Goldberg even implies that writers should not treat the subject of Jewish influence in a straightforward manner because of the history of anti-Semitism:

There is, after all, a reason for the taboo surrounding talk of Jewish power and treachery. Tales of Jewish groups using money and secret influence to twist politics for their own, unpatriotic ends are a hallmark of reaction, spouted by everyone from the Nazis to Father Charles Coughlin to David Duke. Walt and Mearsheimer are not anti-Semites, or aligned with anti-Semitic forces. They seem, however, somewhat oblivious as to why the issue they've taken on is so horribly sensitive, and they make little effort to address the causes of the taboo they're trying to dislodge.
Worse, Goldberg suggests that the Israel lobby is to a degree justified in sabotaging discussion of this topic by means of lies, slander, and other nefarious tactics: "Before a rational discussion can proceed, some of that emotion has to be defused. Instead, it's been stoked." According to Goldberg, then, the point is not to present the truth as well and as clearly as it can be determined but to present it in a way that will not irritate organized Jewry.

Thus, while Goldberg professes to look for truth, she would render that search virtually impossible: "In taking on a sensitive, fraught subject, one might expect such eminent scholars to make their case airtight." That demands a standard of proof for subjects involving Jews that is much stricter than the standard applied to everyone and everything else. Since there is always controversy in history or in commentary on current events — no analysis is ever accepted by everyone (absent coercion) — it would be impossible to write anything on the subject that was not approved by the Jewish organizations. Goldberg assumes not only the existence but also the justification of an intellectual double standard. She would award Jews a preferred and specially protected status because of their history of suffering.

Though Alterman is more favorable to the Mearsheimer-Walt essay, he still underplays its potential value. "While much of the paper is compelling," he writes, "its weaknesses will hinder the authors' attempt to pierce the wall of ignorance and intimidation erected around such policy debates by the very institutions upon which it seeks to shed light. This is a damn shame, as AIPAC and its minions are pushing for an attack, possibly nuclear, on Iran, and, God help us, it seems to be working — again." But academic working papers cannot be comprehensive, nor can they be flawless. If perfection were required from the start, it would not be possible to discuss anything. [13]

Richard Cohen takes a somewhat different tack. After acknowledging the Israel lobby's existence, he concludes his piece by lauding America's ultra-supportive policy toward Israel as being well-merited and based on "shared values." Somehow the smearing, intimidation, and suppression of discussion by Israel's supporters is unimportant because America should support Israel in view of those "shared values." One would be tempted to add that suppression of truth is one of the values that the two countries share, were it not for the remarkable irony that there is greater freedom to discuss Israeli policy in Israel than there is in the United States.

All in all, these liberal commentators perform a number of varied intellectual gyrations to avoid granting the simple fact that Mearsheimer and Walt hit on some key truths that are essential for understanding American policymaking. Philip Weiss recognizes that in his sympathetic and knowledgeable analysis,"Ferment over 'The Israel Lobby,'" appearing in the May 15, 2006, issue of the Nation. Weiss points out that

the liberal intelligentsia have failed in their responsibility on specifically this question. Because they maintain a nostalgic view of the Establishment as a Christian stronghold in which pro-Israel Jews have limited power, or because they like to make George Bush and the Christian end-timers and the oilmen the only bad guys in a debacle, or because they are afraid of pogroms resulting from talking about Jewish power, they have peeled away from addressing the neocons' Israel-centered view of foreign relations.... The extensive quibbling on the left over the Mearsheimer-Walt paper has often seemed defensive, mistrustful of Americans' ability to listen to these ideas lest they cast Israel aside. [14]
Contra Weiss, it is not apparent that American liberals, from at least the time of their romance with Stalinist Russia in the 1930s if not before, have ever exhibited a strong concern for truth. So their lack of responsibility here is about par for the course. But still it is intriguing that liberals would be more concerned about the possibility of harm coming to Israel than about trying to stop an unnecessary war against Iran that might even involve the use of nuclear weapons. One would think that the consequences of such a war would be far more serious than anything that might happen to Jews or Israel from having the unadulterated truth presented about the Israel lobby.

To reiterate, the concern for truth on this matter does not mean that Mearsheimer and Walt's presentation was absolutely perfect. But the gist of their message was absolutely true: Israel and its neocon supporters played a fundamental role in leading America to war against Iraq, and the role of Israel and its lobby has been even more explicit in the buildup for war against Iran. The war propaganda on Iran does not even seem to focus much on any threat to the United States — rather, it potrays the threat to Israel as paramount. If Iran obtained a nuclear weapon, the propagandists imply, it would immediately use it on Israel. But Israel is a major power with an estimated 100 to 200 nuclear warheads and intermediate-range ballistic missiles to deliver them, as well as biological and chemical weapons (in all likelihood), and high-tech conventional weaponry about on par with that of the United States. Israel should not be terribly threatened by a nuclear bomb that Iran might be able to produce in roughly ten years.

Still, isn't Iranian President Ahmadinejad a certified loon, a believer in the hidden twelfth imam, who went into hiding more than a millennium ago and is about to reappear to take control the world? And loonier yet, does the Iranian ruler not demand physical proof for the Holocaust death camps? But as horrendous as reappearing-hidden-imam belief/Holocaust non-belief may be, it is not apparent that such views constitute a casus belli. Israel, it turns out, can work with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the alleged good counterweight to the evil Hamas-controlled Palestinian legislature, even though Abbas wrote a dissertation, later turned into a book, that significantly minimized the number of Jewish deaths in the Holocaust and questioned the existence of extermination gas chambers, positions that are conventionally described as "Holocaust denial." 

But doesn't Ahmadinejad say that Israel "must be wiped off the map"? [15] The Western mainstream media imply that such wiping means a nuclear attack and the physical extermination of the Jewish people in Israel. But it means nothing of the sort. In fact, the translation that uses "wiped off the map" leaves the wrong impression. The translation could instead use the word "vanish" — and it refers to the regime. [16] One could interpret this as a call for "regime change."

"Nobody can remove a country from the map. This is a misunderstanding in Europe of what our president mentioned," Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki maintains. "How is it possible to remove a country from the map? He is talking about the regime. We do not recognize legally this regime." [17] In this context, recall that most Muslim states in the Middle East have not recognized Israel. In any case it is apparent that Israel and the Israel lobby's targeting of Iran has nothing to do with Ahmadinejad since they were pressing for that targeting before Ahmadinejad became president in August 2005.

In short, Iran, like most Muslim states at one time or another, has rhetorically called for the elimination of the Zionist regime. But didn't Ronald Reagan call for the elimination of the Soviet Union and its "evil empire"? Only 100 percent left-wing peaceniks really thought Reagan was planning a nuclear first-strike on the Soviets. And conversely, the Soviet Union preached the ultimate elimination of all capitalist countries and the creation of a world federation of Soviet socialist republics patterned after the Soviet Union. Outside of a few Dr. Strangeloves, few Americans thought that this ambition on the part of the Soviets required an American preventive nuclear strike. To move closer to the point, the United States does not recognize the Islamic Republic of Iran, calls for its elimination ("regime change"), and is threatening to attack it.

It is true, nonetheless, that Iran does pose a threat to Israel because of its support of the Palestinian resistance. The Palestinians, both inside and outside Israel proper, threaten the existence of the Jewish state by virtue of their very numbers and high birth rate. To effectively combat the Palestinian demographic threat, the United States would have to force countries to stop supporting the Palestinians and to recognize Israel. Moreover, Washington would have to actively support any treatment of the Palestinian population, both on the West Bank and within Israel proper, that the Israeli government deemed necessary for the preservation of the Jewish state.

The removal of the Islamic regime in Iran would mean the elimination of a major bulwark of moral and material support for the Palestinians. With the removal of the Islamic regime, the next, rather easy, target would be the Saudi regime, which could be either destroyed or intimidated into submission. Without external support the West Bank Palestinians would have to accept whatever Israel offered them — an economically non-viable set of non-contiguous Bantustans surrounded by the "security" wall. The Jewish state would be more secure. Naturally the Middle East would be left in turmoil, and the American military would likely be stuck in the middle of a quagmire infinitely greater than the muddle it is now slogging through in Iraq.

An understanding of the role of the Israel lobby would greatly clarify what is actually going on in the Middle East. It is difficult to head off the looming catastrophe with Iran without understanding the deeper motivation behind American policy. Pretending that the war agenda is being driven by the oil lobby, global capitalists, and a deranged George W. Bush will not succeed in preventing war. Justin Raimondo incisively writes that "there is but one way" to halt the movement to war, and that is by "exposing the machinations and motivation of the Lobby. This would blunt the spearhead of the War Party and render it ineffective: people would begin to see it for what it is — as a megaphone for a foreign power, just as the Communist Party was once the Kremlin's echo chamber." [18]

The question to contemplate is which is worse: instigating a major war in the Middle East, or angering and scaring the Israel lobby? It is necessary to note here that most of the mainstream commentators on the "Israel Lobby" essay are Jewish. (All of those dealt with here are Jewish.) It is de rigueur, apparently, for mainstream media to have only Jews discuss the sensitive issue of the power of Jewish groups and their connections to Israel. But the same media do not limit discussions of the anti-Castro Cuban lobby to Cuban-Americans, or discussions of the alleged subversive activities of Arab-American groups to Arab-Americans. Clearly, some American Jews have made incisive points about the Israel lobby. But it is gentiles who must speak out — not to condemn Jews or even Jewish groups, but simply to say that America should not pursue policies harmful to its interests in order to enhance the supposed interests of Israel.

The power of the Israel lobby to influence American policy should be treated like any other issue. That's not hate. That's not anti-Semitism. And anyone who tries to squelch this type of analysis should be condemned by those who really believe in truth and the good of America and all humanity.

May 25, 2006

This article is © 2006 by Stephen J. Sniegoski. All rights reserved.
This page is © 2006 WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.


Dr. Sniegoski's first essay on "The Israel Lobby":
"Israel lobbying: The attack on Mearsheimer and Walt"

(April 20, 2006)

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