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March 28, 2006

"The Israel Lobby": Why John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt are wrong about United States Middle East policy and its motivations - Brendan Simms offers a "realist" response to their LRB article

Posted by Brendan Simms

"The Israel Lobby"
by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt
London Review of Books
23rd March 2006

In a controversial article ("The Israel Lobby", 23rd March 2006) in the London Review of Books John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt - respectively Wendell Harrison Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University - argue that United States Middle East policy:

derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the "Israel Lobby".
Brendan Simms - Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge - argues that the article is seriously flawed and offers a "realist" response.

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argue that US policy in the Middle East since 1967 increasingly:

derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the "Israel Lobby".
Mearsheimer and Walt argue that this is at the expense of what the national interest might otherwise demand. They make some good points, especially when they criticise Washington's reluctance to put more pressure on Israel to facilitate a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and to dismantle the settlements in the occupied territories. It should do so not as a gesture to the Arab world, because they will not be grateful, but because it is morally the right thing to do and there is no other way of uniting Israeli domestic opinion, breaking up the settler and fundamentalist lobby within Israel and rallying European opinion behind it.

Mearsheimer and Walt's strictures against academic thought-police such as Campus Watch, which encourage students to denounce their professors for anti-Israeli bias, are also justified. In most respects, however, the article is seriously flawed.

The huge question begged right at the outset of the article is what the US national interest actually is, or should be. The authors nowhere reveal the precise criteria against which they are judging US policy. Some might argue that the national interest today dictates support for a thoroughgoing democratic transformation of the region. In that case, support for Israel which for all its flaws is the region's strongest democracy does not seem so odd. But let us assume that Mearsheimer and Walt, like most "realists", see as the principal US interests in the region:
the containment of Soviet power, prior to the end of the cold war;
the security of global energy supply;
and the prosecution of the global war on terror.

Even by this measure, their critique fails to convince. There are many points that could be made, but I shall confine myself to six, mostly of a "realist" nature.

1. Historically, the "centrepiece" of US policy in the region has been not Israel but the oil reserves of the Gulf region, and the related desire to exclude Soviet influence. The key alliances here have been those with Riyadh and until 1979 Teheran, not Jerusalem-Tel Aviv. There are many arguments to be made against these policies, but they can hardly be blamed on the Jewish lobby or concern for Israel. Moreover, the authors are wrong to locate the origin of the al-Qaida threat primarily in the US-Israeli relationship, however large it might loom today. It is well-known that Osama bin Laden's initial falling-out with the United States concerned the arrival of American troops in Saudi Arabia in 1991 at the invitation of the royal family prior to liberating Kuwait. He saw this as a desecration of the Holy Places. In other words, the opening salvoes in the War on Terror arose not out of the Washington-Jerusalem/Tel Aviv axis, but from the kind of hard-headed realist power-projection, the first Gulf War, of which the authors surely approve.

2. The authors lament that:

the US will do most of the fighting, dying, rebuilding and paying
and that Israel
will end up protected by the world's only superpower.
In fact, Israelis have shown no reluctance to fight on their own behalf in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and so on; in 1991, the US, as the authors point out in another context, tried to stop Israel from defending itself against entirely unprovoked attack. It is Israel's Arab neighbours, not the Jewish state, which have historically benefited most from superpower intervention: the Americans got Egypt back the Sinai (twice!), while both Egypt and Syria had to be saved from utter annihilation by their Soviet sponsors, and the Kuwaitis got their whole country back in 1991, in spite of having bankrolled the Palestinian cause for so long. Mearsheimer and Walt have got it exactly the wrong way around.

3. All this reflects a broader belief that Israel is strong only because the Americans made it so. In fact, as the authors themselves point out, in the first two decades of its existence, Israel turned itself into a regional superpower by dint of its own efforts and arms supplies from France and the eastern bloc. It became the biggest recipient of US military aid only in the early 1970s. That support was given not primarily for sentimental reasons but because as a weakened US disengaged from Vietnam, it looked around for powers to whom it could subcontract regional security. Some of these, such as Zaire, were truly awful; others, like the Shah's Iran were straightforward dictatorships; Israel was actually one of the more presentable candidates. Mearsheimer and Walt complain that Israel could not help against the Arab oil embargo of 1973, imposed as a punishment for US help to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. But Nixon, who was hardly a raving philosemite, took the pain because he saw no other way of containing what he saw as the Soviet proxies of Syria and Egypt.

4. The authors are strongly critical of the mainly Jewish neo-conservatives and accuse of them of divided loyalties. Here they make much of Richard Perle and Douglas Feith's Clean Break report of 1996, written for the then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But this document needs to be read within a much broader neo-conservative preoccupation with dictatorial threats. After all, at exactly the same time Perle and Feith were strong supporters of the cause of Bosnia's Muslims and advised the Bosnian government on how to secure US intervention against ethnic cleansing. Indeed, just how far apart the neo-conservatives and the Israeli right are in global terms is shown by their respective responses to the subsequent Kosovo crisis, when neo-conservatives supported the NATO campaign against Milosevic while Sharon, who considered the Kosovars dangerous terrorists, was resolutely opposed.

5. This is not to say that the neo-conservatives are without fault: like the author of this column, they greatly over-estimated the chances for a rapid democratic transformation of Iraq. The point rather is that the neo-conservatives conceive of US grand strategy in much broader terms than just the security of Israel. After all, what is striking about Clean Break, as described by the authors, is that it was trying to persuade a sceptical and in the end unpersuaded Netanyahu that removing Saddam Hussein was in the interest of Israel; the authors were trying to sell a US-generated transformative vision to the Israelis, not vice versa! Yet again, Mearsheimer and Walt have got the story back to front.

6. The authors claim that Israel's existence is not in jeopardy. This is a curious assertion in the light of the Iranian President's recent demand that Israel should be wiped off the map, at the same time as his country is openly seeking to develop a nuclear weapon capability.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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Brendan Simms offers a "realist" response to John Mearsheimer - very droll. For those unaware of the arguments in the arena of international relations, John Mearsheimer is one of the world's leading theorists of academic "realism" in international relations, indeed he is the father of "offensive realism". Brendan Simms on the other hand is an opponent of realism, a neoconservative or - as he prefers to call himself - liberal interventionist. Thus Dr Simms attacking John Mearsheimer from a realist perspective is something of an academic joke.

Posted by: Anon at March 28, 2006 11:08 AM

It is a little tough to assess a critique of an article that I cannot access from abroad and of which little is reprinted.

But having known many Washington members of the Israeli lobby over the years, including a few friends, i think that for the most part they have come to immense power by default. This Armageddonist fascination of the Christian Right is probably a decade-old and little more. But for more than 50 years, many American Jews have made the protection and funding of Israel their top priority.

We see the same process with American Greeks and Armenians, vocal and active minorities ever desperate to pursue their agenda against Turks. We also used to see it with the American Irish, who (mercifully in my opinion) have finally assimilated enough to distance themselves from ancient enmities and who stick to green beer on St Paddy's Day. But even 20 years ago many spoke in favour of, and some financed, IRA terrorists. Cuban Americans also wield foreign policy political clout greater than their numbers imply, because of money, activity and interest. This is not capture as such, since WASPs and others applied their democratic self-interest to other spheres.

To deny the existence of the Israeli Lobby and its enormous power is silly -- it has been privately acknowledged by everyone involved in American politics for generations now. AIPAC's own bragging (perhaps justified) over the years is a case in point. Whether America is too pro-Israel, or whether policies that merely appear to be pro-Israel are driven by other concerns is of course a matter on which a wide variety of opinions may be found.

Posted by: s masty at March 29, 2006 06:21 AM

The "fasces" from which "Fascism" draws its name are
by definition weak reeds that can not resist pressure
and snap. They are defined as weak and mediocre when
standing alone. But, the theory goes, if you tie the
mediocre fasces tightly together, they form a strong
entity that cannot be broken. My opposition to the
Bush Administration-- after supporting Bush's campaign
for the Presidency in 2000, heart and soul-- came,
particularly at the spectacle of the 2004 Republican
Presidential Convention (just compare it with the
"diversity" Convention in 2000, when I realized that
the weak and mediocre Fasces-- most of whom played GI
Joe, but like Cheney, but when came time to answer the
nation's call, put on a uniform and fight, chose the
deferment path because they "had other priorities"--
had been tightly twined together into what might
solidify even in America into Fascism, ie., the rule
of the tightly disciplined mediocres. The other Nazi
like trait, besides big lies and pre-emption, that I
noticed was corruption and war profiteering. We are
now awash in all of this. The only element yet to
appear is scapegoating of the Jews. And with full
frustration of our Mideast polices, I worry that-- as
the Roman Catholic moralists break away from the
Fundamentalist Christian Right (aroused by their
humanitarian instinct and sense of Christian
charity)-- the fundamentalist "Christian" shysters
will not be able to resist the easy explanation for
why their imaginary self-made prophecies came to
naught-- the Jews betrayed us!

There's lots of hallucinogenic gris for their mill.
After all, a very few of Jewish origin who recently
suffered a sudden surge of testosterone (no other
surepticious plot involved), making them insanely
aggressive, and the assumption that "my ticket came
in"-- as they weal and deal all sorts of political
corruption in Wash DC-- have made themselves
conspicuous claiming to speak for all but
"self-hating" Jews through the Conservative media
organs they bought for 5c on the dollar when the Cold
War ended and corporate funding of anti-Communism
dried up. The media eclipsed the fact that these
"neocons" speak for a very tinny proportion of the
American Jews, 85% of whom voted for Kerry in 2004.

But some, not all, neocons seem to want this
scapegoating in order to force most Jews to immigrate
to Israel in fear of anti-Semitism in America; most
Jews but not themselves, that is-- they buying up
villas, as Richard Perle did, in southern France, the
nation they denounce as the most "anti-Semitic" in the

As American confidence in Bush declines because he
lacks the wherewithal to rid himself of Cheney and
Rumsfeld, as he did with the neocons (Bolten is Jewish
but no way a neocon), the masters of the cultish
Christian Yahoos will find blaming the Jews
irresistible in order to protect their tax-free cash
fiefdoms. Well, it's a free country, and if
Fundamentalist Christians choose to put 10% of their
earnings into crooked operations like those by now
notorious, I can't say anything. But as one who was
literally raised by Jews and owe them much of my
education-- indeed, they have been the keepers of our
Western culture-- I will not stand idle and let the
Fasces become a fascist regime threatening them. Nor
will I allow the neocons in their crazy
alliance-of-convenience to bring about any danger to
America's Jews.

So let me declare openly, that I am determined to go
down with the democratic ship, if need be. I will
fight the Fasces tooth and nail and will defend our
Jewish brethren with whatever it takes. To blame then
for our Mideast fiasco is utterly a repeat of the 20th
Century's biggest Big Lie. The evolving crisis in
America was brought about by mediocre Fasces bound
together to impose mediocrity on an American public
suffering from the "ain't my kid going to Iraq"
syndrome of disconnect. The loudest voices against
them and their war were Jewish, if you bother to look.
These Jews sought to teach us the evils of pre-emption
much as they taught us the evils of racism in the
1950s and 60s, the neocons not withstanding.

So let us all say a loud "NO" to anyone threatening
our nation's single greatest asset: our Jewish
teachers, doctors, lawyers and businessmen who
contributed far beyond their numbers to making America
great. Let us remind our fellow Americans that the
Jewish roots are our roots, part of our common tree of
civilization, making our fruits their fruits. We must
together preserve and protect the great American Tree
of Life.

Daniel E. Teodoru

Posted by: deteodoru at May 18, 2006 01:18 AM
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