Getting the Israel lobby wrong
With that in mind, I approached "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," the new book by scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, as I would a map of my neighborhood drawn up by an urban planning critic who has a known bias against gentrification.
You know it will emphasize blight and ignore greenery to the point of unfairness, but you're interested anyway because you might learn something, confront a discomfiting truth or two and get an idea of how to make things better.
Imagine the surprise, then, with the map laid out on the table, you see unrecognizable quadrants describing nonexistent dungeons and moonscapes. Is this guy on drugs, you might wonder.
Sitting across from Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, and Walt, an international affairs professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, in the lobby of the Madison Hotel in Washington, I recognized that these guys are not on drugs. But why did they make up stuff?
Clearly this was not going to be a routine book tour interview, so I tried to make that understood from the outset. I explained to the authors that I was not going to settle for the usual "How did you get your ideas?" sort of questions because their ideas seemed so strikingly wrong.
Others have called the Walt-Mearsheimer writings borderline anti-Semitic. I don't think so, but their fantastic claims -- particularly about Israel, the lobby's role in the lead-up to the Iraq war and the creation of the Bush administration hostility to Syria -- demand answers.
First let me emphasize that just as "The Israel Lobby" is severely flawed on many counts, the book has its strong points and weak points that merit less than a tidal wave of condemnation. For starters, the chapter outlining who and what constitutes the pro-Israel lobby and how these combined forces exercise their influence in Washington is a useful consolidation of reporting by others.
The chapters on what the authors describe as Israel's dwindling moral standing and decreasing strategic values to the United States invite plenty of disagreement on several fronts, but the authors do ask some hard and helpful questions about how the lobby functions and whether more discussion on Middle East policy matters would be useful.
The chapter on Israel's dealings with the Palestinians is certainly one-sided, omitting or downplaying crucial information that would provide uninformed and unbiased readers with a balanced picture, but at least the arguments put forth by Mearsheimer and Walt are grounded in an existing Palestinian and pro-Palestinian narrative.
It is on the subject of the Iraq war -- specifically the effort to assign blame to Jerusalem and Jewish organizations -- that the authors go off the rails. Take this assertion: "There is considerable evidence that Israel and pro-Israel groups -- especially the neoconservatives -- played important roles in the decision to invade."
The first problem with the contention is in its phrasing, conflating the neoconservative agenda entirely with that of Israel and the pro-Israel lobby. Certainly the neoconservative movement is pro-Israel, but that's not its sum.
On this question I asked Mearsheimer and Walt particularly about their focus on Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy defense secretary who was an architect of the war. In making the case that Wolfowitz was thinking Israel when he argued for an Iraq invasion, they cite The Jerusalem Post and the Forward quoting AIPAC members as saying Wolfowitz is pro-Israel.
Second-hand quotes from interests vested in the idea of a pro-Israel polity do not constitute evidence either of his pro-Israel leanings or how such feelings influenced his support for the war. I pointed out to the authors that AIPAC reflexively brands every civil servant in this town above the rank of driver as "enthusiastically pro-Israel."
Why, I wondered, no mention of Wolfowitz's many writings on the general idea of pre-emptive action, his efforts as the lead U.S. official shepherding democracy into the Philippines and Indonesia in the 1980s?
And what about his 2003 endorsement of the Geneva agreements positing Israel's return to pre-1967 lines, made explicitly because he believed the Israel-Palestinian issue had to be solved if Iraq was to succeed? (To say the lobby was less than enthusiastic about the Geneva agreements would be an understatement.)
In response to my questions about the neoconservative case for war, Mearsheimer responded: "We're not making the argument that they were monomaniacal, that the United States had to invade Iraq for Israeli benefits."
Yet absent other evidence of the Bush administration's commitment to invade Iraq, that is exactly how their book comes across. The writers assemble quotes from leaders in Jerusalem to show that while Israel "did not initiate the campaign for war against Iraq," it "did join forces with the neoconservatives to help sell the war to the Bush administration and the American people."
All of the quotes offered up by the authors postdate the May 1, 2002 scene described in the opening of "Hubris," the best-selling account of the Iraq war by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, when President Bush says of Saddam Hussein, "I'm going to kick his m-----f-----g ass all over the Mideast."
And there is an abundance of evidence dating back to the days following Sept. 11, 2001 that it was Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney directing the push to invade Iraq. Bush's former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neil has even suggested that confronting Iraq seemed to be on the minds of the president and vice president from the first days of the Bush administration.
In fact, the idea that Israel joined with neoconservatives to "sell" Bush on Iraq posits an inversion of how Washington operates -- especially under this administration. Bush's proxies made it clear to Jewish leaders -- and just about everyone else -- in the first days of the administration that the tradition of joining forces on areas of agreement and agreeing to disagree on all else was null: You either signed on with the whole Bush agenda or you were frozen out.
And so, as 2002 wore into 2003, every interest group in this town that needed access to an immensely popular president -- the media, the Democrats and, yes, Jewish and pro-Israel groups -- signed on more or less to the White House policy that arched over all others: invading Iraq.
"I guess I'm not persuaded by the argument that the Bush administration told them, 'You're with us or against us and that's the way we do business,' " Walt said. "Because these organizations were not at all bashful about taking on the Bush administration when they didn't like his calling for a Palestinian state, when he pushed Sharon around, when he tried to push Sharon around about the reoccupation of the West Bank."
I tried to make the case to the authors that risking White House alienation to lobby for one's direct interest -- in this case Israel -- was one thing; risking this agenda by opposing the president's overall foreign policy was quite another.
A few days later, Ira Forman of the National Jewish Democratic Council would offer a much more eloquent formulation in an essay in The New York Jewish Week. In rejecting the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis on pro-Israel responsibility for the Iraq war, Forman wrote: "As soon as a minority community tries to extend its organizational power to other public policy arenas, its power to affect policy is significantly reduced, as it must compete with other powerful interest groups."
The authors don't let anything get in the way of their theory, devolving at times into obfuscation and outright falsehood. Israel was "enthusiastic" about the first Persian Gulf War, they wrote, in an effort to explain why its leaders signed on to this one. In fact, many Israeli officials complained to their American counterparts that Israel's deterrence had been gravely damaged by having to sit on its hands in the face of Iraqi Scud missile attacks as others dealt with Saddam. But noting Israel's belief in the deterrence value of dealing with threats by itself would undercut the thesis that it pushed for the U.S. invasion this time around.
Mearsheimer and Walt assert that even Jewish liberals were enthused about the war. They quote Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform Movement's Religious Action Center, as saying that "the Jewish community would want to see a forceful resolution to the threat that Saddam Hussein poses."
Aside from the fact that what Saperstein told Salon magazine in September 2002 was clearly descriptive, not prescriptive, the quote begs the question of why authors able to research deeply enough to write that Saperstein is "known for his liberal views" were unable to uncover Saperstein and the Reform movement's endorsement of congressional efforts in early 2003 to force Bush to seek re-approval for war before invading. These legislative efforts were seen as attempts to head off an invasion.
No mention is made of the Bush administration's hard sell of the Iraq war to Jewish leaders and Jewish Democrats in Congress. Cheney made a presentation to Jewish lawmakers -- reported by JTA and others -- that included what turned out to be unfounded reports of missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction pointed at Israel.
No mention is made of solidly pro-Israel Jewish Democrats who were opposed to the war at the time -- U.S. Reps. Bob Filner of California and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois stand out. U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) led efforts to force Bush to seek reauthorization of the war.
"Never mind" also characterizes the authors' response to my questions about the recent revelation by Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's planning chief at the State Department and a fierce critic of the Pentagon neoconservatives who pushed for war, that prior to the invasion, Israeli leaders made it clear that they thought Iran was the real threat and Iraq was a distraction.
"What Wilkerson is saying is that the Israelis, when they caught wind of the fact that the United States was thinking about attacking Iraq, in early 2002 went to Washington and told the Americans, the Bush administration in particular, that the real threat was Iran, not Iraq, and they made it clear that they'd prefer we went after Iran and not Iraq," Mearsheimer said in our interview. "Once it became clear that the United States intended to do Iran and Syria after it handled Iraq, the Israelis quickly bought into the enterprise and pushed us very hard."
But who was the "us" being pushed if the Israelis were being pushed by the Bush administration?
It is one thing for the authors to omit telling details that would undermine their theory. When it comes to America's Syrian policy, however, they omit whole trends.
Mearsheimer and Walt ignore Israel's panic, reported by JTA and others, in late 2005 when it became clear that elements in the Bush administration were seeking regime change in Syria as "transformative." Israeli officials strove to make clear that it had outlined all post-regime scenarios and none of them were good.
Bush's fury with the Syrians for undermining the single Middle Eastern success of his pro-democracy policy, Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution" -- repeated in dozens of White House statements -- gets no mention in the Mearsheimer-Walt book. In fact, the only time the authors cite the successful ouster of Syrian occupation forces is when arguing that Israel's policies are inviting their return.
Similarly, the authors correctly describe Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), a Jewish Democrat, as "pro-Israel" and as driving efforts to isolate Syria. But they never mention the substantial Lebanese American community he answers to in his Bronx district.
It is fair to ask why so much hay should be made over three chapters -- on Iraq, Syria and Lebanon -- in a book with eight more, plus a substantial introduction and conclusion.
The authors say they are not anti-Semitic -- Walt's eloquent, impassioned condemnation of all its manifestations in our interview leads me to take them at their word. But anti-Semitism would be the consequence should it become common currency that Jewish and pro-Israel interests are controlling U.S. foreign policy in general, and especially a war that increasingly is seen as this century's first major fiasco.
While not anti-Semitic, the authors clearly wish for a pristine foreign policy community bereft somehow of the interests that define the to and fro of American political life. It's "OK," Walt said, for such interests to "advocate policies that they think are good for the United States and good for the other society, too. This is just a fact of life in America."
But then he adds: "It's also OK for us to point out that individuals have multiple loyalties and to also argue that those multiple loyalties may fog up their view of what's in the American interest. It's complicated."
Not really: What he's arguing is that some interests are more equal than others. And what appears to be clouded -- especially in ascribing without evidence an excessive pro-Israel interest to the likes of Paul Wolfowitz -- is how the authors understand what it means to be Jewish in America.
This matters because how Jews, Israel, the pro-Israel lobby and the U.S. government interact is critically important and is begging for a little light.
Unfortunately that tale was not forthcoming from authors who abjured original research.
"The critical issue is whether or not we would tell a different story or someone else would tell a different story if they did more extensive interviewing than we did," Mearsheimer said. "And we're confident that would not be the case. We regard the story as basically correct, and doing more interviewing would not alter the story line in any way."
Yet such research would have led them to learn that it was not AIPAC but congressional Republicans who during last year's Lebanon war undercut the efforts by Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), then the minority leader of the U.S. House of Represenatives, to include a line in a pro-Israel resolution urging "all sides to protect innocent civilian life."
It would have led them to report that it was White House pressure, in part, that pushed Israel in April to distance itself for a week or so from Pelosi's efforts to assure Syria that Israel did not want war.
In early 2005 Silvan Shalom, then the Israeli foreign minister, met with Hebrew-speaking reporters after his first meeting with Condoleezza Rice in her new capacity as U.S. secretary of state. Shalom made it clear that he had expected Rice not to emulate her predecessor, Colin Powell, by pressing too hard on Israel's settlement policy.
Whatever one thinks of the settlement enterprise, this should not have been news. And the failure to understand the screamingly obvious was Shalom's failure, to be sure, and that of his Israeli advisers. But it was also a failure of the pro-Israel lobby, which claims to warn Israel -- albeit behind closed doors -- when it is transgressing perceived American interests.
How such a breakdown in communications now characterizes the U.S.-Israel relationship would make a really good book and help launch an important discussion. "The Israel Lobby" is not that book. And all Walt and Mearsheimer have achieved with their massive diversion based on unfounded accusations of overly broad Jewish influence is to help those who want to shut down that discussion.
As our interview neared an end, I bounced a theory off them: Could it be that they were consciously overstating their arguments for political purposes -- in other words, were they essentially "swift-boating" the pro-Israel lobby?
"You can argue that we got the subject, we got the story wrong, that our interpretation is incorrect, that we didn't look at the right sources, but that's not swift-boating, that's just making mistakes," Mearsheimer said, referring to the 2004 attacks on the Vietnam War record of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) that helped sink his presidential bid and later were revealed as largely unsubstantiated.
"We don't accept that the book was full of mistakes," he said. "This is not to say there are zero mistakes in this book -- nobody can write a book or an article, nobody, and not make a mistake or two. It just goes with the territory. This book is not riddled with errors, although we're going to be charged with sloppy scholarship."
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