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American interest

The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen M Walt (Allen Lane 2007), reviewed by Richard Kuper

December 27, 2007
11 min read

John Mersheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy offers a brilliant account of US economic and military support to Israel, writes Richard Kuper. Its flaws lie not in an alleged anti-semitism, but in overstating the influence of the lobby over a US administration that is out of step on a broad range of foreign policy issues.

This book arose out of a long article, originally commissioned by the Atlantic Monthly in 2002, developed in close consultation with Atlantic’s editors and delivered in January 2005 – only to be rejected. Published in the London Review of Books in March 2006 it immediately provoked a firestorm of criticism: here were renowned academics giving credence to what many critics saw as at best a misguided thesis, at worst an openly anti-semitic one.

What is the book saying? Centrally, that US policy in the Middle East runs counter to its ‘national interest’, arising neither from strategic nor moral concerns. It can be understood only as the result of the power of the Israel lobby, ‘a loose coalition of individuals and groups that seeks to influence American foreign policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ways that will benefit Israel’ (page viii).

Many, on both left and right, eager to explain apparent unstinting US support for Israel have embraced the argument.

Reason to be cautious

There is reason to be cautious, even before reading a single word. The authors are not bleeding-heart liberals but highly respected, hardnosed bruisers, hawkish members of what is known as the neo-realist school of international relations (IR): a state-centric approach which focuses on states as rational, self-interested actors seeking to maximise their relative power. This is not how even moderate progressives wish to see states act in the modern world. International law and human rights are central to progressive approaches, and not, as perceived by this school of IR, likely barriers to the pursuit of rational state interest. Mearsheimer himself comes from the heart of the system, a West Point graduate who served for five years as an officer in the US air force.

All this should give us pause. Yet, there is a case to answer, as shown in the first part of the book, which establishes the general parameters of the argument, particularly in its stunning opening chapter ‘The great benefactor’. This shows in detail the quite extraordinary economic and military support the US gives to Israel, let alone its ‘diplomatic protection and wartime support’. It is by far the best thing I’ve seen on the topic.

‘Israel became the largest annual recipient of US foreign assistance in 1976, a position is has retained ever since’ receiving ‘about $3 billion in direct foreign assistance each year … roughly one-sixth of America’s direct foreign assistance budget.’ About three-quarters is military aid, the rest economic. It amounts to a direct subsidy of more than $500 per year for each Israeli. Egypt, number two recipient of American foreign aid, receives only $20 per head. Furthermore, ‘the canonical $3 billion figure omits a substantial number of other benefits and thus significantly understates the actual level of US support’ – estimated at ‘more than $4.3 billions’ ‘because Israel gets its aid under more favourable terms than most other recipients of US assistance’.

For example, ‘since 1982, the annual foreign aid bill has included a special clause specifying that Israel is to receive its entire annual appropriation in the first 30 days of the fiscal year’ – an early transfer costing the US taxpayer an extra $50-60 million per annum. And while the foreign military financing programme normally requires recipients to spend military assistance in the US, Israel has a special exemption to spend around a quarter on its own defence industries. ‘Remarkably, Israel is the only recipient of US economic aid that does not have to account for how it is spent’ (all quotes, pages 26-28). And on it goes.

This ‘singling out’ of Israel and the host of tax supports and financial breaks it receives from the US really does require explanation.

Chapter Two argues that while support for Israel may have had some strategic value in the cold war, this is definitely no longer the case, whether in the ‘war on terror’ or in confronting rogue states. As Mearsheimer and Walt (MW) put it provocatively (page 64): ‘The United States did not form an alliance with Israel because it suddenly realised that it faced a serious danger from “global terrorism” and urgently needed Israel’s help to defeat it. In fact, the United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it has been so long supportive of Israel.’ Chapter Three argues that there is a dwindling moral case for supporting Israel and the next three chapters look at what the ‘Israel lobby’ is and how it works both within the political structures and in attempting to direct the wider national debate.

The second half of the book is devoted to the lobby in action: against the Palestinians, on Iran, Syria and the Lebanon war. In each case the authors argue that the Israel lobby very effectively steers such actions, outside US interests. For example (page 334), ‘It kept the United States firmly aligned with Israel during the [second Lebanon war] conflict, despite the strategic costs and dubious moral position this entailed’.

Finally, there is the briefest what is to be done which entails identifying US interests in the Middle East, outlining a strategy to protect them and, in turn, developing a new relationship with Israel.

Lines of critique

Two lines of critique have been advanced against MW’s argument: first, that their conception of the ‘Israel lobby’ is at best misleading, at worst antisemitic; and second, that insofar as the lobby exists, it doesn’t have the power they claim for it. I will add a third: their very notion of the American ‘national interest’.

The original article was heavily criticised for having presented ‘the lobby’ in conspiratorial terms. In fact ‘the lobby’ is conceived of in reasonably nuanced terms. The centrality of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations is recognised, as is the role of the Christian Zionists, Christians United for Israel (CUFI). Above all, the legitimacy of lobbying in the US political system is fully recognised and affirmed. The argument is not that anything wrong, unusual or conspiratorial is being done, simply that the lobby is too damned good at it for America’s – or indeed Israel’s – own good.

Though the concept of ‘the lobby’ is sometimes deployed by MW as an actor that ‘has concerns’ (page 168), ‘a desire to mould debate’ (page 178) and so on, this seems to me reasonable shorthand. They make it quite clear that they view it, as already cited, as ‘a loose coalition of individuals and groups that seeks to influence American foreign policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ways that will benefit Israel’. Just because they don’t continually repeat this point, they are not suggesting that there is a central committee that issues instructions to its members.

They do say, however, that a critic of Israeli policy ‘stands a good change of getting labelled an anti-semite’. Exaggerated perhaps, but far from fanciful in a situation where Norman Finkelstein was recently refused tenure at DePaul University after a vicious campaign spearheaded by Alan Dershowitz; where Shulamit Reinharz, a senior professor at Brandeis, can label a host of Jews critical of Israel as ‘Jewish anti-semites’; or where Pluto Press was threatened with having its book distribution arrangements with the University of Michigan Press terminated because of objections to its publication of Joel Kovel’s Zionism and its Discontents.

And among those central to the campaigns of vilification of radical critics of Israel are members of Aipac, the ADL and so on – central components in any conception of the ‘Israel lobby’.

Alan Dershowitz’s response to MW in the London Review of Books (20 April 2006) is revealing: ‘It is the “music” as well – the tone, pitch and feel of the article – that has caused such outrage.’ It seems to me that Dershowitz and the like are tone deaf or, rather, can hear only one tone – that of vindictive anti-semitism. And it doesn’t even have to exist for them to hear it. So while they aver that ‘legitimate’ criticism of Israel is always justified, their assumption in advance is that criticism is likely to be suspect.

The real criticism of MW is that they ascribe far too much influence to ‘the lobby’ in the formulation of US foreign policy towards the Middle East. Blaming the Israel lobby for the war in Iraq, say, simply lets the administration off the hook. If the administration is out of step with most western governments over Middle East policy, it is, too, over Kyoto or the decades-long embargo against Cuba. If the Iraq war was motivated by a desire ‘in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure’ (page 231) by ending the threat of terror, it has been singularly ineffective. Nor did the US have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into reluctant support for Israel in the Lebanon war in 2006 – however much its failure may be against both Israel’s and America’s interests.

America’s real interests

MW have a simplistic view of what America’s real interests are. When the US administration does not pursue what MW want, they feel obliged to blame the Israel lobby. A simpler explanation is that the administration sees the national interest differently. For in reality, the ‘national interest’ is never clear and unambiguous. It is always contested: by fractions of capital, by cliques in administrations, by NGOs and other agents. Never has this been truer than with regard to the neocon agenda. And while this agenda might have focused on Middle East policy, its aims are much wider.

Political analysts often claim to perceive the national interest better than the government of the day, but governments are rarely single-minded in the pursuit of what neo-realists see as their rational self-interest. Successive US governments, for example, needed no Israel lobby or its equivalent to lead them to disaster in Vietnam. Rather than there being a static, unified national interest there is a dynamic jostling over direction and winners and losers in any concrete policy direction adopted. The real talent of governments is finding ways of extracting partial victories from the disasters their own policies so often generate.

There is no simple way of saying that American Middle East policy is against America’s interests, as MW do. Yes, it alienates Arab states the US wants support from – but rarely sufficiently for the consequences to be truly upsetting; yes, it is feeding the terrorist threat rather than reducing it; yes, the US looks inconsistent in its support for human rights and international law or its opposition to nuclear proliferation.

But there are also enormous gains from the ‘irrational’ policies it has pursued: from the battlefield testing of US weapons to the tied market for US arms exports, from the ability to use Israel as a proxy in supporting dirty operations the US would rather not be openly seen as supporting (from Africa in the 1970s onwards) to the lessons Israel has been able to give the US in how to conduct irregular operations in Iraq and elsewhere. Even the disaster in Iraq looks like it can be turned into a major victory for US oil interests and the arms industry (and thus for US capital as a whole) if Jim Holt’s scintillating argument ‘It’s the oil’ (London Review of Books, 18 October 2007, see http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/ n20/holt01_.html) is even partially valid.

To put it another way, someone in the US has coined a fast buck from every twist and turn of US foreign policy and its Middle East policy is no exception. If you want an interest that really has benefited over decades from the support given to Israel simply cast a glance at the arms industry. Highly organised, and funded beyond the dreams even of the Israel lobby, the arms lobby has seen the US ‘investment’ in aid to Israel returned many fold, with the employment generated, spread over most of the country, providing a ready reason as to why politicians are loathe to challenge it.

It is this that goes a long way to explaining the extraordinary financial and military commitment that the US has to Israel, outlined in chapter one. That the Israel lobby has reinforced these policies with every resource available to it is not surprising. But its success in doing so – very real indeed with regard to the various financial breaks, both for Israel directly and for US private donors to Israel – is attributable to it going with, rather than against, the grain of what the heaviest weights in the American economic and political system are pursuing.

The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy can be purchased here.

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