American foreign policy American Jews Israel Israel lobby Mearsheimer and Walt

Prayers for Mearsheimer and Walt

The chattering/blogging class eagerly awaits the publication of the new, full-length book on the “Israel lobby” by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in September. A taste of what may be in the offing was provided last week by a report that their Sept. 27th presentation at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs was cancelled. As has been reported by MondoWeiss and Muzzlewatch, the Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire asserts that the two of them got the boot “under pressure from critics who were uncomfortable with the academics’ arguments, according to a letter drafted by Mearsheimer and Walt to the Council’s board.” If that is true, it is either an example of inane thought policing by their critics or a brilliant bit of pre-publication publicity.

My take on Mearsheimer/Walt was summed up by a letter I wrote to the Nation in response to a piece by Philip Weiss. It was in the June 26, 2006 issue:

When he interviewed me for his article on the infamous Mearsheimer-Walt paper, I told my friend Philip Weiss that America would benefit from candid conversations about the pro-Israel lobby in the public sphere. But I also said that if academics are going to venture into this explosive territory, they should be “very careful” to get their facts straight and avoid using simplistic generalizations to sum up very complex events and trends. Mearsheimer and Walt did neither.

As an activist for Israel’s peace camp who has been skirmishing with the conventional Israel lobby for decades, I would have welcomed an informed, scrupulously documented and honest critique of that lobby by two distinguished scholars. What I read was an elaborate attack ad that was riddled with so many inaccuracies, omissions and unsubstantiated assertions that, as Michelle Goldberg put it in Salon, “it seemed expressly designed to elicit exactly the [hostile] 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.”

Right-wing American Jews were infuriated by this paper. I was deeply disappointed. These scholars had an opportunity to give people who are inhibited about criticizing Israel and its lobbyists some lucid arguments and facts to help them overcome those inhibitions. They blew it.

Now, in my make-it-up-as-I go-along Reform Jewish fashion, I am going to say a few prayers as we await the publication of their book:

1-May American Jews who are uncomfortable with Mearsheimer and Walt resist the temptation to suppress discussion of their work. May they accept what is incontrovertibly true in the book rather than simply smearing it for whatever untruths it might contain.

In one of his comments to Phil Weiss’ post on the recent Chicago controversy, “David” accuses me of being “the one who famously tried (behind the scenes) to get Phil Weiss to desist from publicly discussing the power of the Zionist lobby. Very much like the folks who contacted the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, I imagine.”

Sorry to disappoint you, David. I think there is no more important topic to discuss in the American public arena. What I have been trying to do is to figure out HOW to talk accurately about Israeli policy and the power of the lobby, without doing more harm than good.

Needless to say, discouraging public discussion of this topic hurts the Palestinians. But it also hurts Israel because some of what the conventional lobby has advocated –like putting onerous conditions on U.S. aid to Palestinian moderates—is not in Israel’s interests. And it hurts American Jews because it appears to vindicate the claim that the conventional lobby censors dissent against Israeli or American policy. And it hurts all Americans because the positions and tactics of the Israel lobby have a direct impact on this nation’s interests.

2– May Mearsheimer and Walt clean up all of their errors of scholarship.. There were so many mistakes and half-truths in their original paper that they undercut the power of their argument

3- May Mearsheimer and Walt accurately describe the power of the conventional Israel lobby, rather than exaggerating it. May they give this lobby its due, as a very important player that helps to set the domestic political context of America’s Middle East policies, but not an omnipotent monster that has complete control over those policies.

I touched upon this in a speech at an event sponsored by Ameinu and Meretz USA on March 6, 2007. An edited excerpt:

For those who haven’t read it or need a refresher course, here is how Walt and Mearsheimer explain America’s Middle East policy:

First, they show why support for Israel is not and has never been in America’s strategic interests. Second, they explain that there are few moral justifications for American support for Israel, because much of Israeli policy has been immoral.

Third, in a wild inferential leap, they argue “If neither strategic nor moral arguments can account for America’s support for Israel, how are we best to explain it? The explanation lies in the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby.”

That kind of reductionism is so simplistic it is almost bizarre that these distinguished professors could rely on it…They are two of this country’s leading political scientists. They must know that people in their field have identified all kinds of influences that go into the sausage-making process of American foreign policy.

There are many studies of the interplay of different factors that influence decisions about foreign policy: the role of bureaucrats and the bureaucratic process, domestic politics, the group-think that settles into any organization, including the White House staff. Sometimes, believe it or not, the White House and State Department try to think rationally about what is in America’s interest.

The classic study of this kind of interplay is Essence of Decision by Graham Allison, which analyzes the different factors involved in the Kennedy Administration’s decisions during the Cuban missile crisis. Stephen Walt has said it was the first book he read in graduate school. You wouldn’t know it from his paper on the Israel lobby.

To Mearsheimer and Walt, apparently, America’s Middle East policy is a function of a massive Israel lobby and Jewish money, nothing more. In their work, they don’t go into the nuts and bolts of how decisions are made. They just assume that, except for the lobby, no other explanation makes sense… .

To understand why that doesn’t wash, all we need to do is remember that one of most supportive Presidents Israel has ever had was Richard Nixon. Besides being an outright anti-Semite, he didn’t care at all about the Jewish vote. A very small percentage of his campaign contributions came from Jews, like Max Fisher. According to Kissinger’s memoirs, Nixon used to brag about how the Jewish lobby had no influence on him.

And yet Nixon was responsible for a massive increase in military and financial aid to Israel. He’s the one who established the ties between the military-industrial complexes of both countries that exist today. Why? Because he believed Israel was a bulwark against Communism, not because of Israel’s lobby….

…But those of us who have often disagreed with AIPAC and its allies need to do more than carp about the inaccuracies in Mearsheimer and Walt’s work…Because some of their most important premises are true…When American Presidents avoid criticizing Israeli settlement expansion, that is not in America’s interests. When this administration raises only a few, quiet objections to the route of a security barrier that sometimes cuts through Palestinian villages and olive groves, that is not in American interests….There is no doubt that one of the main reasons for this American passivity is the work of AIPAC and the conventional Israel lobby.

4. May their work help to encourage not only candid conversation, but also political action by those who want to change America’s Middle East policy without selling either Israel or Palestine down the river. More from my March 6th speech:

[Mearsheimer and Walt] could have been helpful to those of us who often disagree with the conventional lobby…An honest assessment would have given practical lessons to people who want to either transform the mainstream, pro-Israel forces in Washington or replace them. But by exaggerating the power of the Israel lobby, they made our job more difficult.

If M&W had scratched the surface, guess what they would have discovered? They would have found chinks in the conventional lobby’s armor. They would have found flaws and weaknesses. And, in finding them, they would have provided hope to American Jews who often don’t feel like the lobby speaks for them. The less it comes across as an irresistible political object that no force can remove, the easier it will be to recruit more American Jews and other Americans to either replace or transform it.

Take the power of American Jewish money, for example. Mearsheimer and Walt note that “Money is critical to U.S. elections and AIPAC makes sure its friends get strong financial support from the myriad pro-Israel political action committees. Those sees as hostile, on the other hand, can be sure AIPAC will direct campaign contributions to their opponents.”

Well, that’s certainly true. And, in my experience, it’s disheartening to peace activists who believe that we cannot possibly come close to matching the power of AIPAC’s money machine. But just how much is this money machine generating for members of Congress? When it comes to the impact of political fundraising, AIPAC’s most important tool is the widespread PERCEPTION that it is a major source of campaign gifts. That perception is often not reflected in reality.

You can follow the role of money in American politics by going to the website of the Center for Responsive Politics. They study federal election records and break down contributions into what they call “industries.” There is the energy industry. There are retirees. And there is the pro-Israel industry, which consists of PACS and individuals who mostly toe the AIPAC line.

In 2004, PACS and individuals categorized as “pro-Israel” contributed about $6 million to federal candidates and parties. That’s not a small amount. But the pro-Israel industry was ranked 39 out of the 80 “industries” listed by the Center. Lawyers, the top-ranked industry, contributed more than $85 million. The real estate industry gave about 35 million, six times as much as the pro-Israel industry. These and other corporate interests are the major league lobbyists when it comes to financial contributions. Compared to them, AIPAC and its friends are like Double A ballplayers.

One key aide to a friendly Member of Congress told me that “Except when they are really trying to punish somebody, which doesn’t happen that much, the AIPAC types contribute, at most, maybe 10% of a campaign.” Usually, he indicated, they contribute much less. And, usually, campaigns could survive easily without these contributions.

So it is true that most Members of Congress are reluctant to cross AIPAC. And one of the reasons is the fear of losing campaign contributions. Or the fear that AIPAC’s money machine will punish them by funding their opponents, a fear that is also mentioned by Mearsheimer and Walt. But it would not be inconceivable to diminish the conventional lobby’s hold on Congress.

If American Jews and other Americans who backed Israel’s peace camp launched a massive, well-organized, sophisticated effort to lobby and raise money for politicians, then Congress and the White House staff might stop being gutless. Our government might be more balanced, more pro-active when it deals with Israel and its neighbors….Stranger things have happened. If you will it, it is no dream.

When leaders of the mainstream Jewish community attack Mearsheimer and Walt for exaggerating the conventional Lobby’s power, they do it because they are concerned that the exaggeration will feed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. They’re not wrong…

…But I believe progressive Zionists also have another reason to show that Mearsheimer and Walt assigned too much power to AIPAC and its allies. We need to encourage the loyal Jewish opposition in this country to get off their butts, speak louder and spend more money.

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