The Lobby Made Me Do It

The Harvard University logo is gone, but the controversy lingers on. In mid-March, the dean of the Kennedy School of Government co-authored a paper arguing that a vast pro-Israel lobby controls, to the detriment of the country, American foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East. Predictably, the work drew down a storm of criticism, and Harvard soon afterward distanced itself from the writers.

However, what could have been an interesting debate has turned quite ugly. Law professor Alan Dershowitz called the two authors — Harvard dean Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, a respected scholar on international relations from the University of Chicago — "bigots" and claimed they lifted some of their quotations from neo-Nazi sites. White supremacist David Duke just made matters worse when he said the paper vindicated his own beliefs.

Now, as a former student of Walt and Mearsheimer, I never once heard them utter an anti-Semitic word. In fact, Mearsheimer sits on the international academic advisory board at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, at Bar-Ilan University — which, I don't know, may make him a part of the same lobby he allegedly unmasked! What I do know is that the 83-paper paper is a strange, error-filled polemic unworthy of the two academics.

Seeking to explain the high level of American support for Israel and, more recently, the overthrowing of Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein, Mearsheimer and Walt do something of a summersault. The two reject their own neo-realist notions of the rational state and balance of power, arguing instead that "the thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the 'Israel Lobby'."

They arrive at this surprising conclusion by rejecting, one by one, other reasons for American patronage, such as sympathy for an underdog or fellow democracy; the desire to make up for the Holocaust, or strategic ambitions in the Middle East. Strikingly, they never consider anti-Arab racism a possible explanation because — and this is just one flaw with their approach — they fail to realize that bad reasons are reasons nonetheless.

Another flaw is their tendency to oversell arguments.

Is the Jewish State really a strategic asset? The professors have their doubts. They correctly note that Israelis, though able to field a strong army, cannot help the US dominate the supply and pricing of Middle East oil. Quite the opposite, they provoked the OPEC embargo of the 1970s! Likewise, Patriot missile batteries had to be diverted to Israel during the first Gulf War "to prevent Tel Aviv doing anything that might harm the alliance against Saddam Hussein."

However, Mearsheimer and Walt go too far when discussing al-Qaeda. They argue that Osama bin Laden attacked the US, in part, because it supports Israel. Well, yes, but this misses far more crucial factors: One, Islamists divide the world into the House of Islam and the House of War; two, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988 persuaded militants of their own invincibility; three, the American infidels have been in the Land of the Two Mosques, i.e. Saudi Arabia, since 1990.

As for the fellowship of democracies argument, the professors do not address it in any serious fashion (perhaps due to their bias in favor of realpolitik). They just contend that "there are many democracies around the world, but none receives the same lavish support." Actually, these states do; the support just doesn't arrive as foreign aid. Rather, the US military operates bases in Japan and South Korea, spending billions upon billions each year to ready troops to repel an unlikely Communist invasion.

Another line of attack is to suggest that Israel is less than democratic. To do so, Mearsheimer and Walt allege that Israeli "citizenship is based on the principle of blood kinship" or compare Palestine, as envisioned by Ehud Barak in 2000, to Bantustans. These are cheap shots, pure and simple. In fact, the only honest mistake the professors make here is when they claim that two-thirds of Palestinians killed in 2000-2005 were civilians (the real figure is less than 45 percent).

Be that as it may, the two conclude that the pro-Israel lobby dictates America's policies in the Middle East. Now leave aside for the moment the fact that Egypt gets $2.2 billion a year in foreign aid without the benefit of an Egyptian-American lobby in DC. Clearly, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its affiliates must have some influence on US policy; otherwise, they would be a waste of time and effort. The question, though, is how much influence and whether it's all about the money.

In 2003, AIPAC spent $1.28 million on pleading Israel's case — one-sixteenth of what the American Association of Retired People budgeted, yet the former is reportedly the second most influential lobby in Congress. Mearsheimer and Walt go so far as to say, "US policy towards Israel is not debated there, even though that policy has important consequences for the entire world."

That's quite a feat considering the deep pockets of Big Oil. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the oil and gas industry — with its extensive ties to the Persian Gulf — contributed four times as much money to election campaigns in 2004 as did pro-Israel political action committees. In fact, Zionist PACs did not even make it to the list of top 50 spenders.

It could be argued that what they lack in funds, pro-Israel forces make up with passion. Partisans do work closely with members of Congress, researching topics, drafting speeches and arranging tours of Israel. "AIPAC also organizes letter-writing campaigns and encourages newspaper editors to endorse pro-Israel candidates," note the professors.

So does the lobby single-handedly create foreign policy? Has it hoodwinked American politicians into supporting a cause alien to the ideals or interests of the republic? It's tempting for AIPAC staffers to thump their chests and critics to cry foul, but the lobby, relentless though it is, cannot claim credit for winning the first major outlays of foreign aid to Israel. These were instead independent government responses to tumultuous events in the Middle East.

In other words, contrary to the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis, what AIPAC and its affiliates really do is secure American aid that has already been given (and perhaps expand on the terms). Sound farfetched? Just look at the dates: First came the Arab-Israeli wars; then came Uncle Sam's dollars, and finally, a powerful pressure group took shape.

Sy Kenen founded what would become AIPAC in 1951, and for the next two decades, it remained a laughably small operation. Still, from 1964 to 1967, military loans to the Jewish State jumped from zero to $90 million, and after the Yom Kippur War (but before first the pro-Israel PAC emerged), aid levels soared again.

Today, AIPAC has 100,000 members and dozens of allied PACs in tow, but it would be absurd to explain past events in light of the current situation. Yet that's exactly what Mearsheimer and Walt do. For example, they claim that the lobby forced the US to turn "a blind eye to Israel's acquisition of nuclear weapons."

The real story is that President Kennedy tried to curb nuclear proliferation, but from 1961 and on, the Israelis blocked all but the most cursory inspections of the Dimona reactor. Soon after Lyndon Johnson took office in 1963, he realized what was going on but did not care enough to press the issue.

"In respect, to stop Israel from acquiring nuclear weapons," says Avner Cohen, author of Israel and the Bomb, the definitive book on the subject, "Johnson would have had to force a showdown and treat an ally like a conquered nation." So long as the Israelis didn't wave their nukes around, LBJ was willing to let sleeping dogs lie, as has every subsequent president.

And that's the point Mearsheimer and Walt miss — the will of the White House. To boost their theory of an all-powerful lobby, the professors only list AIPAC victories. However, the organization lost key battles over AWACS jet sales to Saudi Arabia in 1981 and over loan guarantees to Israel a decade later. It has also failed to get the US embassy moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and why? Because the president opposed it.

Besides cherry-picking data, Mearsheimer and Walt define, rather expansively, the Israel lobby as a "loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction." So an evangelical preacher is a lobbyist; a Jewish academic is a lobbyist; a neoconservative columnist is a lobbyist, and of course, a registered lobbyist is a lobbyist. While beautiful in its simplicity (Jewish names are easy to pick out), this is not an original idea; Pat Buchanan said the same thing three years ago.

"We charge that a cabal of polemicists and public officials seek to ensnare our country in a series of wars that are not in America's interests …," Buchanan wrote in the American Conservative. "We charge them with deliberately damaging U.S. relations with every state in the Arab world that defies Israel or supports the Palestinian people's right to a homeland of their own."

The problem with these sorts of theories is they do not connect the dots too well. For example, it's one thing to say "the Lobby's perspective prevails in the mainstream media," but it quite another to explain how. A Jewish editor might very well give his own slant to Middle East events, but do newspapers only employ pro-Israel columnists? Do the Washington Post or Los Angeles Times administer ideological litmus tests to writers?

Ironically, Mearsheimer and Walt believe the news they read is "more even-handed" and attribute this to dedicated journalists who cannot help but report the ugly truth in the territories. The two seem blissfully unaware of what really goes on in the West Bank and Gaza — outright intimidation by the Palestinian Authority; Palestinian stringers in the employ of wire services and cable TV stations, and a local journalist body that warns members to toe the party line.

Consider the Ramallah lynching in October 2000. The killing of two unarmed Israeli reservists at a PA police station was caught, in all its goriness, on film — angering the Palestinians and prompting an abject apology from Ricardo Christiano of Italian state TV. Christiano explained to readers of al-Hayat al-Jedida that another station, not his own RAI, had broadcast the images and promised he would "continue to respect" PA press guidelines.

But on to college campuses.

Mearsheimer and Walt raise the alarm about Jewish-funded Israel Studies programs (another informal arm of the Lobby), while ignoring the endless flow of Arab money to Middle East Studies. To take one example from Professor Walt's own Harvard University, a Saudi prince recently gave $20 million to the Kennedy School of Government — and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Guess who supports Washington think-tanks like the Middle East Institute, the Middle East Policy Center, and the Council for the National Interest?

Wrapping up their 83-page polemic on the Lobby, Mearsheimer and Walt go from swashbuckling crusaders for truth, justice and the American way to timid intellectuals. They have diagnosed a problem that threatens the security of the United States — nay, of the world — but offer the reader no solution.

Should Congress pass a quota for American Jews in government? Should newspapers fire columnists with views not supported by the State Department or CIA? Perhaps the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which also pushes a pro-Israel line, should register as a foreign lobby. How about scrapping the electoral system in order to neuter the Jewish vote in swing states?

The two do not elaborate because they most likely find these ideas abhorrent. Instead, they make a plea for more open discussion — as if mainstream publications like The Nation, Prospect, and Newsweek have not already taken on AIPAC. "What is needed is a candid discussion of the Lobby's influence and a more open debate about US interests in this vital region," they assert.

Well, my esteemed professors, you've had your say. Now get back to writing real analyses.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Erik Schechter.