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.

21 thoughts on “Prayers for Mearsheimer and Walt

  1. This makes sense, although I wish you would have discussed how the Israel Lobby prevents American Presidents from criticizing Israel or taking political risks for peace. You give that subject short shrift and, as a result, some might think you are minimizing the lobby’s power.

  2. Why take a gratuitous slap at Reform Judaism? We don’t “make it up as we go along” when we pray If you do, that’s your privilege, but it has nothing to do with Reform rituals…Other than that, I completely agree with you. Many of Mearsheimer and Walt’s basic arguments are right. It’s the way they backed up their arguments and their tone that I objected to.

    I have found that when I take exception to some of what M/W argue in discussions with leftist friends, I’m accused of defending the Israel lobby, which is…wierd, because like you I don’t have much patience for the lobby.

  3. Dan,

    Like many people, I wasn’t happy with some of the particulars of original M/W piece, not because I disagreed entirely with their main thesis, and certainly not because I wasn’t happy that mainstream scholars had pointed their fingers at the lobby, but because I wanted a better paper than they wrote. They should be congratulated mightily for opening the discussion — and, of course, they exposed the tactics of their opponents.

    As for substance, I am afraid that I lean more to the analysis of Khalidi and Finkelstein, who believe that the problem is not, or at least not only, the power of a high-financed lobby like AIPAC and its supporters, but the fact that in the United States, the only narrative out there is the Israeli one. The NYTimes and Washington Post are considered “balanced,” and even critical of Israel — when, in effect, they always take an approach that meshes with the Israeli left. You can see what an uphill battle Palestinians have. So American’s tilt towards Israel, at least as represented as polls, cannot be explained as simply the machinations of a powerful lobby. True, those polls are never as rabidly pro-Israel as the congress, and it makes me sick to my stomach to have to pull a lever for a Democrat who will be indistiguishable from a Republican on the Israel question.

    I am sure that the book will answer the critics, and will try to defend their peace. I look forward to it, and I cheer these guys.

    One more comment — at the town hall (NYU?) in which Ben Ami, Indyck, Khalidi, Ross, and one of the authors attended, Indyck and Ross (especially Indyck) were incensed that they would be considered part of the Israel lobby. But they most certainly are. A liberal zionist who is critical of Israel is, nonetheless, a zionist; and it is extraordinary that Ross was brought in as the architect of American foreign policy on Israel Palestine. That was one of the principal errors of the peace process. It may not have been so noticeable when Shamir was at the helm,but once Barak came in, Ross basically was there pitching for the Israeli labor party.

    But that is the subject for another post

    Jerry Haber
    The Magnes Zionist

  4. This evening I reread the Walt/Merscheimer article on the “Israel Lobby”,$File/rwpv5_06_011_walt.pdf

    I too felt that it was horridly misrepresentative and even OFF in its political emphasis and argument, in fact fishing more than proving or even describing.

    “The US national interest should be the primary object of American foreign policy”.

    Why? Shouldn’t good be the primary interest and goal of every entity’s actions and efforts?

    I have multiple goals in every action that I do that include always thinking of the betterment of my own, and the betterment of others. ALWAYS.

    To ignore either is immoral and impractical.

    That the permanent preservation of Israel’s existence, including the “vague” goal of protecting Israeli citizens from increased terror (from 0 to 1 victim even), is a valid goal of Israeli policy is lost in the article.

    It will always be a part of humanists’ equations, and should be.

    The “Israel lobby” is diverse and constantly so. For example, the article criticized the lobby for “its” condemnation of an Edgar Bronfman article publicly criticizing Israel, while by inference criticizing him viciously for being a strong participant in the lobby.

    The article struck me as frankly amateurish in its depiction of the powerlessness of dissent that is actual dissent.

    I experienced it as an embarrassing representation of criticism of Israeli policy.

  5. Jerry, I think Ross, A.D. Miller, Indyk et. al. were trying to fashion an agreement that would be politically acceptable to the Israeli public as well as Palestinians. That has somehow been transmuted into the accusation that they were “Zionists” who were carrying Barak’s water. Maybe they and their boss leaned too far in Israel’s direction but they were constantly coming up with ideas and suggestions that were anathema to large sections of the Israeli public –e.g. much of the Clinton plan. I think M & W gave them a bum rap.

    Richard, I suspect that by now the two of them realize that, in their original paper, they waded into territory that required more knowledge and experience than they could bring to bear. They appear to have relied upon grad students to find newspaper articles that backed up predetermined conclusions and broad generalizations, rather than do careful research that included at least some primary sources. For example, they drew conclusions about the lobby’s role in the Iraq war without speaking to any Bush administration officials or Israeli officials –including dissenters.

    But they still put an important topic on the table. I hope they get it right this time. They have the potential to do some good.

  6. Dan,
    When the Walt and Mearsheimer article came out I had mixed feelings about it. I felt it was a very important milestone to openly criticize the role of AIPAC in American Middle East Policy, but I thought their scholarship and logic in many areas was very shaky including the Iraq War issue and their dismissiveness of Israel’s uniqueness as a democracy in the Middle East. I hope that their book will be better researched and rely on real scholarship.

    I know both of the scholars by reputation and they have solid academic reputations. Unfortunately, they diminished these by wading into an area in which they lacked academic expertise.

  7. Interesting to see liberal Zionists appreciate the efforts of Walt and Mearsheimer to discuss a truth that Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek and other sc-called “peace groups” have never been willing to acknowledge: slavish U.S. support for Israel is not and never has been in America’s interest. You seem to object to specific diplomatic acts by different Administrations, not the relationship itself, which is the core of the problem.

    Even under Nixon, using Israel as the battering ram in the Cold War only served to ratchet up the tensions in that conflict, as it made it easier for the Soviet Union to get Egypt and Syria to do its bidding. But even if you disagree with that, what possible good does it do America now to take the side of an occupying power despised by much of the world? I think that is the topic Mearsheimer and Walt have bravely brought out in the open, and all of the liberals who insist on calling themselves “pro-Israel” or “progressive Zionists” will need to do some real soul-searching.

  8. I am not as interested in what is in America’s interest as I am in what is good in the world.

    I regard America as at least partially an arbitrary political jurisdiction, and to make a fetish out of “America’s interest, is to conduct an effort that is MORE arbitrary and more abusive than Zionism.

    Zionism is at least reflective of a real people, that are and identify as a people, and therefore have a substantive basis of association.

    The mix of “America’s interest” as the defining sin of AIPAC (“they have dual loyalties”) with the leftist flavors of anti-exploitation, is an ODD pairing.

    It is a pairing that plausibly results in fascist formulas of political appeal, paranoid, conspiratorial ones.

    Even the term “Israel lobby” describes something monolithic, non-organic. Although Walt and Mearsheimer acknowledged that the “Israeli lobby” is not monolithic in that sense, they still continued to and emphasized that it was somehow monolithic.

    It reminds me of strained Marxism describing the owning class as monolithic, and that “they all” seek x goal or y goal, when in fact half of the monolith opposes x goal 180 degrees.

    Its the same with the Israel lobby.

    The common idea is that Zionism is a valid basis of polity. That is NOT a conspiratorial monolith. That is political identity, one’s body.

    There analysis struck as more whine than content, more silhouette than portrait.

  9. Richard,

    You “regard America as at least partially an arbitrary political jurisdiction, and to make a fetish out of “America’s interest, is to conduct an effort that is MORE arbitrary and more abusive than Zionism.”

    That is based on abstract theory, not the world as we know it. All political organization or cultural groupings are arbitrary to some extent. I agree that one should not make a “fetish” of any kind of nationalism, Jewish or otherwise, but for now, America is the country I live in and it does have distinct “interests.” The national interest need not be equated with corporate interests or jingoist priorities. To my mind, American’s interests come down to protecting its citizens from both internal and external threats.

    Regardless of what you think, the world regards America and Israel as very real. More and more of the world regards them as enemies, two sides of the same evil coin. I have read Dan Fleshler making the same point as an argument for Israel’s obligations to America.

    So even if you are correct about Zionism being a “valid basis of polity” –which I would dispute in the strongest possible terms!!!– or more valid than Americanism, it doesn’t matter. When the suicide bombers finally do reach these shores or attack Americans overseas, Israel will have a lot to do with it. Isn’t that obvious?

  10. Having family that live in Canada, I KNOW that community is not described by borders but by relationship.

    Israel, a community of communities, comprised of families of families, is a far more real basis of polity than the US “interest”.

    If you wish to fundamentally dissent, and not just incidentally, it would be relevant to actually question power structure and the institutions that create abusive relations.

    Israel is MORE a valid basis of polity than the arbitrary distinction between say northern Vermont and southern Canada, or between one side of the Rio Grande and the other.

    “America’s national interest” is the fascist MO. The term by definition regards the arbitrary jurisdiction as if it was fundamental.

  11. I’m sorry that Walt and Mersheimer identified that logic as the basis of their assertions.

    It is DIFFERENT than my concern, and I would hope would be different than other humanist dissenters.

  12. That is my prayer for Walt and Mersheimer, that they adopt humanist basis of dissent, and renounce ANY approach that might easily morph to (or be in fact) a fascist approach.

  13. For what its worth, Palestine is similarly a more real basis of nationhood than the US.

    A community of communities.

    Hence the two-state solution.

  14. Richard,

    I agree that it is wrong to adopt a ‘facist MO” and one must be careful to endorse any ideas that are backed by David Duke and Pat Buchanan. Their strain of thought must be denounced.

    But Mearsheimer and Walt were and are part of the “realist” school of foreign policy analysts. It is not surprising that in their hardnosed view of what constitutes American interests, support for Israel is a mistake. I disagree with them on a number of matters, but not that one.

    Regardless of which “polity” is justified or not, I live in the America. I wish we had a different kind of society, as I’m a democratic socialist. But in the meantime, you are still dodging what seems to me an undeniable truth: this country’s slavish support for Israel and refusal to criticize or sanction it is a security risk and is harmful to our global image and potentially our economy. Sorry. That’s just the way it is. Why won’t you admit that?

  15. Interview with Hisham Tillawi on Current Issues TV

    Tech Guy Tries Punditry ( )


    Comparisons between Zionist Israel and Nazi Germany
    Definition of “Jew”
    Israel Lobby (The covert Israel Lobby is far more important than the open Israel Lobby that Walt and Mearsheimer identified)
    Hollywood and Palestine
    Murdoch and the WSJ
    Cost of Israel to the USA

  16. Dan:

    I want to thank you for the most balanced assessment of the Walt and Mearsheimer paper and upcoming book, and the underlying issue of the role of the “Israel Lobby”, that I have read on any blog or by any writer at all.

    I cannot tell you how frustrated I have been over the inability of peace-loving zionists to come together with folks who should be their traditional allies in order to promote a just and peaceful two-state solution in Israel and Palestine. Instead, we are mired in an endless debate over whether the Israel Lobby is in actual control of American foreign policy, and this debate is at the expense of creating a strong and progressive force that would promote the kind of end result that realistic doves crave.

    I think Walt and Mearshemeier have every right to point out the extraordinary influence of AIPAC, but I also think that they have basked in any opportunity they have to claim that they are stifled. And, of course on the other hand, there is plenty of knee-jerk reaction on the zionist side of the coin to provide grist for that mill. This, then, i.e. who is being stifled, too often becomes the focal point of the debate, and of course the only thing that is stifled is any chance for productive debate at all.

    I think your take is right on the money, and I thank you.

    Bruce Levine
    New York, New York

  17. Bruce,

    Thanks for the kind words, which I just read while floating on the Kenai Peninsula. I suspect a great many people agree with you and me about the Walt/ Mearsheimer fracas, but because we don’t fall into easily classified ideological categories, we don’t get noticed on the blogosphere, let alone in mainstream media.

    Marco, you’ve raised some provocative points that are worth addressing and I hope to do so when I return.

  18. “But Mearsheimer and Walt were and are part of the “realist” school of foreign policy analysts. ”

    I’ve never seen a realist school in practice. There is ALWAYS perspective.

    The presumption of “realism” is very similar to the presumption that a particular religion is “the truth”.

    The instance you speak of “interests” you are no longer speaking of “realism”.

  19. Dan:

    I want you to know how seriously I take what you write. I live in Manhattan now but in my former life I raised three kids out on Long Island and was a member of the Plainview Jewish Center. I’m a union lawyer and every Labor Day weekend–much to the chagrin of my wife who would rather be up in the Berkshires–I am asked to address the congregation about Labor Day. This year I shall do that but shall relate to the role of Jews in this country today, rather than eighty years ago, and will focus on the soon to be released Walt and Mearshmeier book. I will counsel patience and understanding and will base much of what I say on what you have written here. Worry not, you will receive the appropriate credit for what I speak about! So I really do thank you.

    Safe travels.


    P.S. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.