The Mearsheimer-Walt Thesis Deconstructed
by Bill Weinberg, WW4 REPORT
The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy is this month to be released as a book—for which authors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt are said to have received a $750,000 advance from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. On this occasion, we present again the critique we ran last year of the work as it appeared in Middle East Policy Journal, then the latest version. This time the writer, who used the pseudonym “William X,” reveals himself as WW4 REPORT editor Bill Weinberg
The lengthy essay entitled “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy” first appeared in the London Review of Books in March 2006, against a backdrop of fast-escalating carnage in Iraq and renewed Israeli aggression in the Occupied Territories. It immediately sparked an outrage. Here a view long consigned to the left and right fringe—that the Israeli “tail wags the dog” of US foreign policy—was being voiced by thoroughly mainstream scholars. The authors were John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago professor and author of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, and Stephen Walt, academic dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and author of Taming American Power: The Global Response to US Primacy. An expanded version was posted on the Working Paper website of the Kennedy School.
By the end of March, Harvard had announced it was removing its logo from the study. It also appended a harshly worded disclaimer to the study, stating that it “does not necessarily” reflect the views of the university. The semi-retraction came after much protest from both the mainstream and Jewish press. Finally, the Kennedy School announced that Walt would step down as academic dean at the end of June, although he would stay on as a professor.
Yet a third version of “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy” appears in the Fall 2006 issue of the journal Middle East Policy, this time with additional material addressing the criticisms. In the introduction, the authors state they are also preparing a detailed “Response to Our Critics,” adding that they have been “struck by how weak and ill-founded” many of the criticisms have been.
What Mearsheimer and Walt (hereafter M&W) refer to as “the lobby” is not only the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), but a wider ideological complex of allied organizations, prominently including the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA), and the Israel on Campus Coalition
The controversy around the essay indicates how nearly all ideological struggle is narrowing to a clash of conservatisms. The opposition to M&W has come overwhelmingly from the Zionist right, which holds the upper hand in the Bush administration. M&W themselves subscribe to an American nationalist right position with overtones of xenophobia and (however much the charge has been abused) anti-Semitism. Ominously, even the anti-war “left” is increasingly lining up with the latter conservatism. There has been practically no effort to critique the essay from a position which is anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist, but also sensitive to anti-Semitism. The degree to which such perspectives have been sidelined is especially dangerous given how Israel replicates the historical cycles of Jewish scapegoating by serving as imperialism’s proxy.
What follows is an attempt to respond to “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy” from a position which cuts slack neither for Israel’s real crimes, nor for US “foreign policy” (read: imperialism), nor for anti-Semitism, conscious or implicit.
M&W: “The US national interest should be the primary object of American foreign policy. For the past several decades, however, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, a recurring feature—and arguably the central focus—of US Middle East policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering US support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracy throughout the region has enflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized US security… Why has the United States adopted policies that jeopardized its own security in order to advance the interests of another state?”
To begin with, M&W accept the notion that there is a US “national interest” or even that the US is a traditional nation-state. They avoid dealing with the fact that the US is first and foremost a global empire—the first truly global empire in world history. Foreign policy debate—especially in the executive branch, but to a lesser degree in Congress as well—is concerned with the maintenance of a global empire. The situation is, mutatis mutandi, akin to that of ancient Rome, in which the citizens of one city had the right to vote for the leaders of an empire that stretched from Palestine to Iberia. Only today, it is the citizens of one-third of a continent (North America between the Rio Grande and the 49th parallel) who vote for the leaders of an empire that essentially covers the planet, with the exception of a handful of “rogue states.” The “Latin right” and “Italian right” that defined the relatively privileged roles of subject peoples close to the Roman imperial center but still denied actual Roman citizenship are analogous to the rights of NATO and G-8 members, afforded important managerial roles in the global empire, but always under clear US leadership. The aim (largely achieved since the end of the Cold War) is a single, integrated planetary capitalist system, in which the US ruling class is assured the pre-eminent place.
The rhetoric in Washington’s corridors of power has reflected this reality rather openly at least since the formative years of the Second World War. The minutes of a series of closed meetings between the State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations beginning in 1939 explicitly charted the post-war rise of the US to the status of global empire: “…the British Empire as it existed in the past will never reappear and…the United States may have to take its place.” US leaders therefore “must cultivate a mental view toward world settlement after this war which will enable us to impose our own terms, amounting perhaps to a Pax Americana.”
As significant a turning point has been reached in the post-Cold War and especially post-9-11 era, reflected even more clearly in official rhetoric. The Cold War nomenclature of “national security” is being abandoned in favor of “global (read: imperial) security” and, most tellingly, “homeland security.” This latter formulation especially makes clear that the US continental “homeland” is perceived less as a nation-state than the seat of global governance.
As the most critical resource on the planet—that which drives the whole global leviathan in both figurative and literal terms—oil is the most imperative strategic concern of the empire. The notion of a “war for oil” has much currency in anti-war circles, but it is generally understood in imprecise and oversimplified terms. The most deluded misreading assumes that military adventures such as that in Iraq are aimed at securing cheap oil for US consumers—again, taking notions of “national security” at face value. Closer to the mark but still oversimplified is the assumption that the aim is corporate profits for the big oil companies. The Middle East military crusades are to be correctly understood—and again, as we shall see, this is stated explicitly in official parlance, albeit not that intended for public consumption—as a strategic gambit for control of oil, as the critical means of assuring continued US global pre-eminence.
Israel plays a unique role in the US-dominated global order. As the leading recipient of US aid it is by definition a client state. Although its military and economic might are disproportionate to its size and clearly decisive in a regional context, neither are sufficient to merit NATO or G-8 membership, even if these were seen as politically desirable. Yet, alone among US client states, it is afforded the relatively privileged position of our metaphorical “Latin right.” In the current US administration, it has obviously secured an especially privileged voice among imperial policy-makers.
The question of how this state of affairs has come about is a vital one, but M&W formulate it problematically from the start. Insisting on posing the query in terms of US national sovereignty, they dispense with what they call “moral” and “strategic” explanations.
M&W: “Instead, the overall thrust of US policy in the region is due primarily to US domestic politics and especially to the activities of the ‘Israel lobby.’ Other special-interest groups have managed to skew US foreign policy in directions they favored, but no lobby has managed to divert US foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US and Israeli interests are essentially identical.”
The unlikely proposition of a client state seizing control of imperial policy is taken as a fait accompli. The possibility does not even seem to have occurred to them that US elites—even if in a counter-productive strategic blunder—have perceived a convergence of US imperial and Israeli national interests at this juncture, or perceived a unique usefulness of Israel as a regional proxy. Maintaining a regional proxy (which implies a more nuanced relationship than that between the imperial center and outright puppets, such as the Cold War military dictatorships of Central America) means granting a certain degree of access to imperial power and decision-making. It does not mean a surrender of power and decision-making.
Even in cases where the privileged clients have nowhere near the degree of access to power that Israel’s ideological agents have been granted in the current administration, this error has often been evidenced. US policy on Cuba has remained essentially unchanged through both Democratic and Republican administrations since 1959. The all-too-conventional wisdom holds that this is due to the voting power of the exile establishment in Miami, and that establishment is itself encouraged to nourish the illusion of determinant influence. But the notorious Cuban American National Foundation has only won its degree of access to Washington power in the context of official concerns about the spread of the revolutionary contagion throughout Latin America, undermining US hegemony over the western hemisphere. The Miami establishment has proven its usefulness in providing a political support base for counter-revolutionary intrigues, and a pool of terrorists which the CIA has tapped not only against Fidel Castro’s regime but also against revolutionary Nicaragua in the 1980s. The notion that decisions of global strategic import are made to appease sectors of the domestic electorate is an illusion which those sectors are allowed to cultivate to ensure their loyalty and usefulness as proxies.
M&W: “Washington has given Israel wide latitude in dealing with the Occupied Territories (the West Bank and Gaza Strip), even when its actions were at odds with stated US policy.”
This is factually correct but politically meaningless. Colombia’s notoriously brutal paramilitary network, the Orwellianly-named United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), has been on the US State Department’s “foreign terrorist organizations” list since 2001. The US is actually legally barred from abetting them in any way. Human rights reports have repeatedly documented the close degree of collaboration—and, in fact, personnel overlap—between the AUC and Colombia’s armed forces. Despite repeated fruitless admonishments to break ties with the AUC, the US continues to massively fund and direct the Colombian military. Colombia is the third largest recipient of US aid after Israel and Egypt. Since “Plan Colombia” was adopted in 2000, it has received some $3.5 billion in overwhelmingly military aid (about what Israel receives in a year). Some 1,000 US military advisors and contract agents closely direct the counterinsurgency war against leftist guerillas. Yet nobody has implied that Colombia has seized control of US foreign policy. It is understood that Washington is playing a hypocritical game. The admonishments and lip service to human rights serve a propaganda purpose, and no more. The actual political relationship is what matters: the AUC is a de facto extension of the Colombian military which, in turn, is an extension of US imperialism.
Arguably, Palestinian national aspirations do not pose the same threat to US imperial interests that Colombia’s restive peasantry does, especially since the Palestinian leadership has turned so thoroughly post-socialist. But Palestinians are clearly perceived by some in elite sectors as a part of the general Islamist terrorist threat, especially since the ascendance of Hamas. Israel’s ideological agents have certainly done all they can to encourage this perception. However, the manipulation is likely a two-way street: Israel is permitted a free hand with the Palestinians because it serves as a useful proxy force for US interests in other ways. Brutalization of the Palestinians is seen by some in Washington as, at best, a very small price for the maintenance of a regional “bad cop” to intimidate the Arab regimes (while the State Department itself plays “good cop”). The Israeli Defense Forces can also be seen as an extension of US imperialism, even if they have far greater autonomy than Colombia’s military. Hezbollah is certainly on the State Department terrorist list for less hypocritical reasons than the AUC, and the recent Israeli assault against Lebanon was equally certainly viewed as a proxy action by many within the Beltway. Ominously, the assault was also perceived by many in both Tel Aviv and Washington as a “test war” for an attack on Iran, a regime the US has its own overriding strategic reasons to see destabilized—about which more below.
M&W: “America’s support for Israel is, in short, unique. This extraordinary generosity might be understandable if Israel were a vital strategic asset or if there were a compelling moral case for sustained US backing. But neither rationale is convincing.”
US support for Israel is unique. Israel not only receives far more aid than any other US client, but is allowed almost perfect freedom to spend and direct non-military aid (while more traditional clients such as Colombia are obliged to earmark funds for pre-determined programs, with full accountability). But M&W’s dismissal of the “rationales” for this state of affairs reveals much about their deluded world view.
Most revealing is their apparent assumption that morality is a serious consideration in setting US foreign policy. “Every nation makes decisions based on self-interest and defends them on the basis of morality,” as the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin noted. No nation on Earth has ever been fundamentally guided by morality in its foreign policy, much less a global empire. For instance, to shore up its leadership in Europe and further reduce Russia’s influence sphere, the US launched a military campaign against Yugoslavia in the name of a supposed moral imperative to protect civilians from “ethnic cleansing” and genocide. Simultaneously, the US was underwriting and directing roughly equivalent crimes against civilian populations in Colombia—as it did in Central America not 20 years earlier, and, more directly still, in Southeast Asia not 20 years before that. Since the Iraq adventure, with its clearly fabricated justifications and its atrocities at Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, the notion of a “moral” impetus to US foreign policy is more transparent than ever.
The same naivete which is evidenced in even considering morality as an explanation for US support of Israel is equally manifested in M&W’s blithe dismissal of the “strategic asset” explanation. That the US is essentially moved in its foreign policy by strategic considerations is axiomatic and even borders on the tautological. Israel may indeed be a “strategic liability,” as M&W argue. But almost by definition, it is not perceived that way by the current administration. And, once again, rather than being hoodwinked into this perception of strategic utility by Israel’s ideological agents, it is more likely that the dominant US policy elites have granted those agents privileged access precisely because this perception already existed. It is not an either/or: obviously, the situation is self-perpetuating, like a feedback loop. But M&W can only see one side of the equation.
M&W: “Even if Israel was a strategic asset during the Cold War, the first Gulf War (1990-91) revealed that Israel was becoming a strategic burden.”
The perception that Israel is a strategic liability is growing within elite circles, and may yet result in a backlash against Israel under a future administration. But meanwhile, Israel’s perceived usefulness has outlived the Cold War. The Arab nationalism of Nasser and his emulators was not merely a threat to US interests because it was allied with the rival superpower, but also in its own right. Indeed, the nationalization of oil resources was likely a greater concern than the spread of Soviet influence even in the Cold War years. Therefore this threat has survived the Cold War. Worse still, political Islam, cultivated by Washington to undermine nationalist and communist regimes in the Cold War, has become an even more formidable threat to the one remaining superpower. Israel is especially useful because while, on one hand, it intimidates and even on occasion attacks recalcitrant regimes, it simultaneously provides the ruling elites of the Arab and Muslim worlds a scapegoat, an outside enemy on whom popular rage can be deflected. So Israel helps shore up strategic US allies in the Arab world, even while seeming to oppose them.
Elite US opinion is clearly divided between those who view Israel as a strategic proxy against Arab nationalism and radical Islam, and those who see it as a liability which paradoxically strengthens these enemies. Just as clearly, the prior tendency has the upper hand in the current administration.
M&W: “Beginning in the 1990s, and especially after 9/11, US support for Israel has been justified by the claim that both states are threatened by terrorist groups originating in the Arab or Muslim world… This new rationale seems persuasive, but Israel is, in fact, a liability in the war on terror… [S]aying that Israel and the United States are united by a shared terrorist threat has the causal relationship backwards. Rather, the United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel, not the other way around.”
This is a convincing argument. The problem is that M&W seem to believe either that the Bush policy-makers share this perception and are consciously acting contrary to US interests, or that, once again, they have been hoodwinked. M&W seem to dismiss even the possibility that the error is their own.
Traditionally (and for obvious reasons), that wing of the US elites most ensconced in the oil industry has been relatively closer to the Arabs, and that based in the policy think-tanks has been closer to Israel. Since 9-11, a significant portion of the prior bloc has shifted to a pro-Israel position. The apparent connivance of elements of the Saudi regime with al-Qaeda led many even in Washington’s theretofore Arabophile circles to conclude that the conservative Arab regimes were no longer reliable clients, and to switch their allegiance. It was due to this perception shift that the ideological complex M&W refer to as “the lobby” found such fertile ground. This, combined with the ideological cross-fertilization between the Beltway conservatives and their grassroots rural electoral base, with its “Christian Zionist” proclivities, accounts for the current administration’s aggressively pro-Israel posture. Note that this is largely a dynamic internal to US ruling circles—not predominantly the fruit of a “lobby.”
M&W: “As for so-called rogue states in the Middle East, they are not a dire threat to US interests, apart from the US commitment to Israel itself… President Bush admitted as much, saying earlier this year that ‘the threat from Iran is, of course, their stated objective to destroy our strong ally Israel.'”
Once again, M&W display perfect blindness to the geo-strategic considerations which are propelling the US towards military aggression against Iran. Tehran’s growing sway over the Baghdad regime poses a threat to US control of Iraq and its critical oil resources. Southern Iraq, which straddles the most critical oil reserves on the planet, is already a de facto Shi’ite mini-state in Tehran’s orbit. Saddam Hussein’s 1981 invasion of Iran was undertaken, at the behest of the Gulf states and with a “green light” from Washington, precisely to keep Tehran away from these reserves. Bush’s hubristic blunder in Iraq, aimed at bringing the Persian Gulf under direct US control, has, paradoxically, only brought about precisely the reality that US policy had sought to avoid for a generation.
As if this weren’t bad enough, recent news reports indicate European Union support for an Iranian pipeline route to deliver the Caspian Basin oil resources to global markets, long proposed by Russia as an alternative to the US-favored Baku-Ceyhan route through NATO ally Turkey. The Baku-Ceyhan pipeline does not yet extend to the eastern side of the Caspian Sea, where the burgeoning Kazakh oil and gas fields are being developed. Development of the Iranian route before the Baku-Ceyhan extension to Kazakhstan is built would leave Tehran strategically positioned to control the Caspian reserves. If Bush’s Afghanistan and Iraq adventures were aimed, in large part, at securing the Caspian and Persian Gulf oil reserves for US interests, both victories may now prove Pyrrhic—with the laurels going, ironically, to Axis of Evil member Iran. Worse still, once and potentially future imperial rival Russia would also be better positioned in the new Great Game for control of Eurasia.
Therefore, effecting “regime change” in Iran is a pressing strategic imperative for Washington, and the reasons have little to do with Israel. But this does not mean that Israel will not have a strategic role to play in Washington’s plans for Iran. The first element of the role is a propaganda one. In the same speech that M&W quote above, Bush also said: “I made it clear, and I’ll make it clear again, that we will use military might to protect our ally Israel.” So rather than another oil grab, itself necessitated by the counter-productive Iraq blunder, the campaign against Iran can be portrayed as the noble defense of an ally. More ominously, Israel may have a military role to play—that of throwing the first punch.
Although it has received little media attention, the current AIPAC spy scandal is closely linked to the pending aggression against Iran. The principal classified documents leaked to Israel through AIPAC concerned Pentagon strategy against Iran. They were apparently leaked by Pentagon advisor Douglas Feith’s deputy, Larry Franklin, now under indictment for spying.
Meanwhile, in comments reported in London’s Daily Telegraph of Feb. 18, 2005 under the headline “AMERICA WOULD BACK ISRAEL ATTACK ON IRAN,” Bush stated: “Clearly, if I was the leader of Israel and I’d listened to some of the statements by the Iranian ayatollahs that regarded the security of my country, I’d be concerned about Iran having a nuclear weapon as well. And in that Israel is our ally, and in that we’ve made a very strong commitment to support Israel, we will support Israel if her security is threatened.”
So the scenario could well work like this: The White House goads Israel to initiate hostilities with Iran, to serve as Washington’s “attack dog,” as Israel commentator Uri Avnery put it. Then the US will be obliged to “support our ally” by jumping into the fray with overwhelming air-power. Meanwhile, as DC and Tel Aviv alike wait for the propitious moment to strike, a few AIPAC biggies and spooks are thrown to the Justice Department for show, to appease America-first nationalists and confuse the anti-war crowd about who is really playing who in this sinister game.
M&W: “Israel’s nuclear arsenal is one reason why some of its neighbors want nuclear weapons, and threatening these states with regime change merely increases that desire. Yet Israel is not much of an asset when the United States contemplates using force against these regimes, since it cannot participate in the fight.”
It is true that Israel was necessarily excluded from the coalitions assembled by the US in both operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. But just as Israel’s inclusion would have been too politically sensitive in these instances, it serves as a military proxy in situations in which direct US aggression would be too sensitive. The 2006 assault on Lebanon is the most recent example, but the pattern goes back to the 1956 war which humbled Nasser. Israel’s nuclear arsenal is tolerated by Washington despite the fact that it serves as an impetus to Iran’s nuclear ambitions because it represents the ultimate threat against the region’s recalcitrant regimes, while still allowing the US to pose as the “responsible” nuclear power whose arsenal is “permitted” by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In fact, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, presumably a response to Israel’s arsenal, also perversely serve US interests by providing a propaganda rationale for an anti-Tehran campaign mandated by other considerations: the strategic struggle for control of oil.
M&W: “A final reason to question Israel’s strategic value is that it does not act like a loyal ally. Israeli officials frequently ignore US requests and renege on promises made to top US leaders (including past pledges to halt settlement construction and to refrain from ‘targeted assassinations’ of Palestinian leaders).”
Once again, it is arbitrary for M&W to assume that these admonitions are any more serious than those made to Colombia’s government. The mere fact that Israel continues to be massively underwritten is evidence that they are not. In the case of Colombia we can assume that, admonitions notwithstanding, by continuing to unleash paramilitary terror Bogota is acting as a “loyal ally.” The case of Israel and Palestine is more complicated, but the contradictions of US policy, to the extent that they are real and not merely apparent, are more likely to reflect a division within the US ruling elites than one between those elites and foreign agents.
When M&W turn to the “dwindling moral case” for US support of Israel they finally display some refreshing cynicism:
M&W: “The United States has overthrown democratic governments in the past and supported dictators when this was thought to advance US interests, and it has good relations with a number of dictatorships today. Thus, being democratic neither justifies nor explains America’s support for Israel.”
They are certainly correct that moral considerations cannot “explain” US support for Israel, but their astonishing use of the word “justifies” reveals that, despite all their prattle about morality, they embrace the Machiavellian precepts of amoral statecraft.
When M&W address the notion that US support for Israel is warranted as “compensation for past crimes” against Jews, they become still more confused:
M&W: “There is no question that Jews suffered greatly from the despicable legacy of antisemitism [sic], and that Israel’s creation was an appropriate response to a long record of crimes. This history, as noted, provides a strong moral case for supporting Israel’s existence. Israel’s founding was also consistent with Americas’s general commitment to national self-determination. But the creation of Israel also involved additional crimes against a largely innocent party: the Palestinians.”
The establishment of Israel was an “appropriate response”—and not merely to the Holocaust, which arguably made it an inevitability in the aftermath of World War II, but to a “long record of crimes.” Yet they go on to document, persuasively if briefly, that the ethnic cleansing of the 1948 Naqba was a necessary concomitant of the establishment of a Jewish state. They do not seem disturbed by the contradiction.
This intellectual messiness becomes more blatant as M&W begin to directly address the issue they have thus far been tip-toeing around: anti-Semitism (which they insist on rendering in the lower case).
M&W: “If neither strategic nor moral arguments can account for America’s support for Israel, how are we to explain it? The explanation lies in the political power of the Israel lobby. Were it not for the lobby’s ability to work effectively within the American political system, the relationship between Israel and the United States would be far less intimate than it is today.”
They have the equation precisely reversed. The intimate relationship is a result of geopolitical considerations; the special status afforded the lobby in Washington is a product, not a cause, of that relationship. M&W are obviously intimidated by the charge of anti-Semitism “The lobby is not a cabal or conspiracy,” they write. And: “To repeat: the lobby’s activities are not the sort of conspiracy depicted in antisemitic tracts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” But these caveats ring hollow when they portray a vast and successful effort to “bend US foreign policy.”
M&W: “AIPAC prizes its reputation as a formidable adversary, of course, because this discourages anyone from questioning its agenda.”
This is the most ironic line in the piece. Everything M&W write merely plays into the image of AIPAC as a “formidable adversary.” Their section on “Manipulating the Media” begins with the statement that “the lobby strives to shape public perceptions about Israel and the Middle East.” But they go on to portray a wide pattern of media bias. They quote Robert Bartley, the late editor of the Wall Street Journal: “Shamir, Sharon, Bibi—whatever those guys want is pretty much fine by me.” And former New York Times executive editor Max Frankel: “I was much more deeply devoted to Israel than I dared to assert.” If this is the leadership of, at least, the East Coast establishment press, “manipulating the media” would seem utterly superfluous. M&W portray what would appear to be an ingrained cultural phenomenon precisely as a “conspiracy.”
In the section entitled “The Great Silencer,” they cut to the chase, anticipating that their critique will be met with charges of anti-Semitism:
M&W: “Anyone who criticizes Israeli actions or says that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over US Middle East policy—an influence that AIPAC celebrates—stands a good chance of getting labeled an antisemite… In effect, the lobby boasts of its own power and then attacks anyone who calls attention to it This tactic is very effective; antisemitism is loathsome, and no responsible person wants to be accused of it.”
No responsible person wants to be accused of anti-Semitism, but being truly responsible (morally and intellectually) means not being intimidated into silence by disingenuous charges of anti-Semitism. The critical point M&W overlook is that irresponsible people don’t want to be accused of anti-Semitism either! Just because the charge of anti-Semitism is used cynically doesn’t mean real anti-Semitism doesn’t exist. Anti-Zionism really does serve as an acceptable cloak for genuine anti-Semites. Israel’s increasingly atrocious actions have made this cloak all the more effective, which helps account for the current upsurge of global anti-Semitism. M&W seek to minimize or actually deny this upsurge, which is the surest sign of their bad faith. Anti-Zionists repeat like a mantra that “anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism,” but a lack of concern with real anti-Semitism is the surest way to tell the difference.
M&W: “[I]n the spring of 2004, when accusations of European antisemitism filled the air in America, separate surveys of European public opinion conducted by the Anti-Defamation League and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that it was actually declining.”
In that same spring of 2004, M&W fail to mention, a report by the European Union Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) found that attacks on Jews had increased in several European Union states. “There has been an increase in anti-Semitic incidents in five EU countries,” the EUMC said, citing France, Belgium, the Netherlands, UK and Germany. “Although it is not easy to generalize, the largest group of perpetrators…appears to be young, disaffected white Europeans.”
So as Jews are knifed and beaten (even, in one instance, at an “anti-war” rally in Paris!), synagogues torched and cemeteries desecrated, M&W are reassured by a survey in which disproportionately comfortable and middle-class citizens say “no” when asked by a phone jockey something akin to “Are you an anti-Semite?” They seem not to realize that polls exist to create public opinion, not reflect it. The survey they cite was likely an (utterly misguided) attempt to combat anti-Semitism by portraying it as marginal. The results belie the grisly facts, which point to a major resurgence of anti-Semitism which has been underway worldwide since 9-11.
M&W: “According to a recent article in Ha’aretz, the French police report that antisemitic incidents in France declined by almost 50 percent in 2005, despite the fact that France has the largest Muslim population of any country in Europe.”
Could be, but given the paroxysm of anti-Semitic violence in France that began in the spring of 2002, one wonders if this report even indicates that the attacks are back down to 2001 levels. And given the fresh upsurge in 2006 (which included the torture-killing of a Parisian Jew), one wonders if the statistics have not shot back up.
M&W: “Finally, when a French Jew was brutally murdered by a Muslim gang in February 2006, tens of thousands of French demonstrators poured into the streets to condemn antisemitism.”
The vociferous condemnation of the attack was certainly a very hopeful sign, but it is wildly ironic for M&W to cite it as evidence against an anti-Semitic upsurge. By definition, the French men and women who took to the streets after the attack were not so complacent as M&W about the threat of anti-Semitism! It is reasonable to assume most would object to their paradoxical invocation in such an argument, and would at least question M&W’s assertion that resurgent anti-Semitism “is worrisome, but it is hardly out of control.”
Alarmist overstatements are, of course, presented as easy strawmen to knock down. For instance, the US ambassador to the European Union apparently said in 2004 that the continent was “getting to a point where it is as bad as it was in the 1930s.” But M&W’s refutation is nearly as deluded as the statement itself. They write that “when it comes to antisemitism, Europe today bears hardly any resemblance to Europe in the 1930s,” seemingly blind to the ominous if imperfect parallels. “This is why pro-Israel forces, when pressed to go beyond assertion, claim that there is a ‘new antisemitism,’ which they equate with criticism of Israel.”
Claims that “anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism” do indeed dangerously muddy the water. But they are made out a desire to conflate the two phenomena so as to delegitimize the prior—not out of a desperation to find evidence of the latter! Ironically, the quote from the ambassador is footnoted to a January 2005 article in The Nation by Tony Judt in which he, likewise trying to lull his readers into complacency, argues that contemporary Jew-hatred in Europe arises mostly from Muslim immigrants with legitimate grievances against Israel and is therefore not “your grandfather’s anti-Semitism.” In other words, it must be a “new anti-Semitism”!
The incessant hair-splitting about “new” (Muslim, anti-Israel) and “old” (European, classical) anti-Semitism is almost always an attempt to portray the problem as (in Judt’s shameful word) “illusory.” There is a clear continuity between the two anti-Semitisms. The contemporary Islamist embrace of classical European anti-Semitism (in which Jews are all-powerful, corrupting, uniquely sinister) is a direct result of Zionism, and there is no contradiction between recognizing the phenomenon and the phenomenon that fuels it. It is also true that there really were rich Jewish bankers and industrialists in Weimar Germany. This didn’t make Nazism any less of a threat.
Such willful denial only weakens anti-Zionism. That charges of anti-Semitism are used, for instance, against calls for economic sanctions on Israel is predictable, and to be condemned. But equivocating on the reality of anti-Semitism undermines and even delegitimizes the condemnation.
M&W: “One reason for the lobby’s success with Congress is that some key members are ‘Christian Zionists’ like Dick Armey, who said in September 2002, ‘My number-one priority in foreign policy is to protect Israel.’ One would think that the number-one priority for any congressman would be to ‘protect America,’ but that is not what Armey said.”
Again recalling Hamlet’s “methinks (they) doth protest too much,” M&W present a cursory condemnation of the “antsemitic canard” of “dual loyalty”—and then go on to embrace precisely this canard! Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations is quoted as saying, “I devote myself to the security of the Jewish state.” With the Armey quote, they even portray this contagion as spreading to gentiles, recalling Hitler’s warnings of Germany becoming “judaized.”
After all their perfunctory disavowals of “conspiracy” theories and “dual loyalty” canards, M&W entitle their final section, apparently without irony, “The Tail Wagging the Dog.” As an example, they recall Bush’s efforts in the aftermath of 9-11 to rein in Israel’s expansionist policies in order to undermine support for extremism in the Islamic world. But in the months to come, this policy collapsed. By February 2003, a Washington Post headline read: “Bush and Sharon Nearly Identical on Mideast Policy.” M&W conclude: “The lobby’s influence was a central part of this switch.”
Congress evidenced the tilt first, with a May 2002 resolution stating that the US “stands in solidarity with Israel,” and that the US and Israel are “now engaged in a common struggle against terrorism.” M&W appear to attribute this shift to commentary by Robert Kagan and William Kristol in The Weekly Standard which attacked State Department efforts to rein in Israel as a terror war betrayal.
Before long, the White House itself was “caving,” in M&W’s word. “In short, Sharon and the lobby took on the president of the United States and triumphed.” They agree with former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft that Sharon has President Bush “wrapped around his little finger.”
It does not even occur to M&W that the seeming division between that wing of the ruling elites represented by Scowcroft and the State Department and the rival tendency represented by the incumbent Bush and Israel’s Congressional supporters exist in a state of dynamic equilibrium, in which one or the other may have the upper hand for a few months or years until, as in the stock market, a “correction” occurs. This serves not only to balance rival currents within the US elites, but also among their Middle East clients. In the 1980s, the US “tilted” to either Iraq or Iran in order to prolong their grueling war. Similarly, a strategic tilt to Israel is mandated when it is perceived the Arabs must be intimidated—and this perception has been widespread since 9-11. But dynamics internal to US elites and their imperial interests are invisible to M&W; everything is due to external “influence” from “the lobby.”
M&W: “Pressure from Israel and the lobby was not the only factor behind the US decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was a critical element. Some Americans believe this was a ‘war for oil,’ but there is hardly any evidence to support this claim. Instead the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure.”
If M&W fail to see evidence for a “war for oil” it is because they are not looking for it. You don’t have to probe too deeply to find evidence galore that the Iraq adventure is “critically” a war for strategic global control of oil, and only secondarily (at best) a war for Israel.
In the immediate prelude to the 2003 invasion, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Staw acknowledged in an address to British diplomats that the Foreign Office had established a series of strategic policy objectives, including “to bolster the security of British and global energy supplies.” The point was made with greater accuracy in “Rebuilding America’s Defences: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century,” the 2000 blueprint for the creation of a “global Pax Americana” drawn up by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) for Dick Cheney (now vice-president), Donald Rumsfeld (now defense secretary), Paul Wolfowitz (Rumsfeld’s ex-deputy), George W Bush’s younger brother Jeb and Lewis Libby (Cheney’s ex-chief of staff). The document stated: “The United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.” Control of the strategic Persian Gulf oil resources was seen as key to “maintaining global US pre-eminence, precluding the rise of a great power rival, and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests.”
As some commentators recalled at the time of its release, the PNAC blueprint echoed an earlier document drawn up by Wolfowitz and Libby for the Pentagon in 1992 that said the US must “discourage advanced industrial nations from challenging our leadership or even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” The 1992 “Defense Planning Guide” stated: “In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve US and Western access to the region’s oil.” (Washington Post, March 11, 1992)
In the prelude of the Iraq invasion, the US Agency for International Development and Treasury Department drew up a policy document on Iraq which laid out a wide-ranging plan for a “Mass Privatization Program…especially in the oil and supporting industries.” This was apparently the plan being followed in the fall of 2002, months before the invasion, when the Pentagon retained Philip Carroll, a former Shell Oil CEO in Texas, to draft a strategy for developing Iraqi oil. Shell, ChevronTexaco and other majors are already working for free on technical and training projects in the Iraqi oilfields to get a “foot in the door” as US-installed Iraqi officials are drafting a law to allow private investment in the oil industry, which had been nationalized 1972.
Opponents of the “war for oil” thesis point out that Exxon and its ilk are not exploiting Iraq’s oil. And they aren’t—due to incessant guerilla sabotage of Iraq’s oil infrastructure, general social chaos, and provisions in the new constitution mandating continued state control of existing oil fields (while allowing foreign corporate control of the undeveloped fields, the big majority). These provisions for a degree of continued state control of the oil are a sop to the Iraqi people, a necessary compromise to allow the client regime to stay in power (however precariously). However, Exxon and their ilk are making a mint from war-inflated prices. Exxon’s 2005 net profits of $36.1 billion broke all records.
But the war is not fundamentally about a windfall for Exxon any more than it is protecting Israel. The fundamental imperative is preserving and extending US global dominance. It is less about “getting” Iraq’s oil for Exxon or US consumers, than keeping it off the global market, so that it won’t be used by an imperial rival such as Russia or China, or even an upstart Islamic state, to beef up military and industrial power. It is a means to prevent “advanced industrial nations from challenging [US] leadership or even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” So even the social chaos and insurgent attacks on oil infrastructure do not impede this imperative.
M&W: “According to Philip Zelikow, a former member of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and now a counsellor to Condoleezza Rice, the ‘real threat’ from Iraq was not a threat to the United States. The ‘unstated threat’ was the ‘threat against Israel‚’ Zelikow told an audience at the University of Virginia in September 2002. ‘The American government,’ he added, ‘doesn’t want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it is not a popular sell.'”
When the above quote was first reported in the press, one astute observer commented on a Jewish anti-occupation list-serve: “How convenient: the Bush administration is under attack because of its war on Iraq, and it blames the war on the Jews! And its own mole on the 9-11 Commission, who should not be there because he is one of the suspicious persons that the Commission should be investigating, makes the charges. This smells like disinformation to me, and a very dangerous version.”
M&W: “We do not have the full story yet, but scholars like [Bernard] Lewis and Fouad Ajami of John Hopkins University reportedly played key roles in convincing Vice President Cheney to favor the war. Cheney’s views were also heavily influenced by the neoconservatives on his staff, especially Eric Edelman, John Hannah and chief of staff [Lewis] Libby, one of the most powerful individuals in the administration.”
And on it goes. M&W usefully dissect the ideological complex that came together for the Iraq war. But they cannot discriminate between Israeli efforts to sway the administration and efforts by the administration, together with Israel, to sway the public, or at least those sectors of the public monied and influential enough to matter. The pro-war opinion pieces placed by current and former Israeli leaders in the US press (Ehud Barak in the New York Times, Benjamin Netanyahu in the Wall Street Journal) are examples of the latter, not the former. They are closer to the mark when they cite the open letters signed by JINSA and WINEP figures calling for Clinton to take action against Iraq, and note how figures from these organizations found their way under the Bush administration into elite Pentagon bodies such as the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group and Office of Special Plans. The two key figures in these bodies were, respectively, David Wurmser and Abram Shulsky. Wurmser, with fellow Pentagon civilian policy analysts Douglas Feith and Richard Perle, had authored the “Clean Break” report in 1996 for incoming Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which called for him to abandon the notion of land-for-peace. This section provides a worthwhile study, but again M&W cannot conceive that these figures were granted access because Rumsfeld and Cheney favored their agenda for their own purposes. They can only portray red-blooded but gullible Americans getting hoodwinked by wiley Jews.
M&W: “Barry Jacobs of the American Jewish Committee acknowledged in March 2005 that the belief that Israel and the neoconservatives conspired to get the United States into a war in Iraq was ‘pervasive’ in the US intelligence community.”
Note use of the loaded word “acknowledged,” which implicitly assigns the imprimatur of truth to this perception. In fact, Jacobs is speaking of his perceptions of other peoples’ perceptions: the “lobby,” with its delusions that it controls US policy, and the “intelligence community,” with its perpetual paranoia about contaminating foreign agents. This quote says very little indeed about reality.
M&W are correct to warn of the Bush administration’s “dreams of regional transformation.” Ironically, they point to the same Wall Street Journal they so recently portrayed as a tool of Israeli “influence” to back up their contention that these dreams originated in an Israeli vision of a transformed Middle East. A headline in the paper’s March 21, 2003 edition read: “President’s Dream: Changing Not Just a Regime but a Region: A Pro-US, Democratic Area Is a Goal That Has Israeli and Neoconservative Roots.”
The first moves towards this new order were seen with the embrace of a “dual containment” strategy, in which the US would introduce massive military forces to police the Persian Gulf against both Iraq and Iran, rather than playing one against the other as in the ’80s. M&W trace this policy to a May 1993 study for WINEP conducted by Martin Indyk. But given that this was after Saddam had proved himself a completely untrustworthy client with the Kuwait invasion of August 1990, this transition was inevitable in any case.
M&W fear, with very good reason, that Syria and/or Iran will be next. They present a series of ominous quotes that emanated from the neocon ideological complex in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq invasion. Wolfowitz: “There has got to be regime change in Syria.” Perle: “We could deliver a short message, a two-word message [to other hostile regimes in the Middle East]: ‘You’re next’.” An April 2003 WINEP report: Syria “should not miss the message that countries that pursue Saddam’s reckless, irresponsible and defiant behavior could end up sharing his fate.” It was also in this heady period that Congress passed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, threatening sanctions if Syria did not withdraw from Lebanon.
M&W: “Congress insisted on putting the screws to Damascus, largely in response to pressure from Israeli officials and pro-Israel groups like AIPAC. If there were no lobby, there would have been no Syria Accountability Act, and US policy toward Damascus would have been more in line with the US national interest.”
Rather than “bully” Syria, giving Damascus “a powerful incentive to cause trouble in Iraq,” M&W would groom Bashir Assad’s torture state as a terror war ally, and in fact praise it for cooperating with the CIA against al-Qaeda, including giving “CIA interrogators access” to prisoners. From the standpoint of human freedom, both of these policies—military aggression against Syria, or cultivating it as a proxy state—are atrocious. Which one is in the US “national (read: imperial) interest” is a matter of interpretation.
M&W: “AIPAC and its allies (including Christian Zionists) have no serious opposition in the struggle for influence in Washington.”
And yet, despite their supposed marginalization, M&W can rely on quotes in defense of their position from the likes of Brent Scowcroft. The Council on Foreign Relations, the forum in which US elites have hashed out policy debates for two generations, runs a favorable review of M&W’s work in the September-October 2006 issue of its journal Foreign Affairs, absolving them of both sloppy scholarship and anti-Semitism, and urging: “May the storm kicked up by this article rage on.”
M&W do concede: “Yet there is still a ray of hope. Although the lobby remains a powerful force, the adverse effects of its influence are increasingly difficult to hide.” They concede that Washington’s blank check for Israeli expansionism may ultimately not be in Israel’s own national interest, perpetuating the Palestinian conflict and playing into the hands of extremists. Here they make a valid point—but even this is formulated problematically:
M&W: “Thanks to the lobby, the United States has become the de facto enabler of Israeli expansionism in the Occupied Territories, making it complicit in the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinians. The situation undercuts Washington’s efforts to promote democracy abroad and makes it look hypocritical when it presses other states to respect human rights.”
We can quibble with the “thanks to the lobby” line, but more important is the notion that “human rights” or “democracy” are in the US “national interest,” or that Washington’s efforts to promote them are honest. The US exploits these issues to pry open closed economies and expand “free markets”; it is just as quick to underwrite the most brutal regimes when it is perceived that this serves imperial interests—as it is evidently perceived in the case of Israel. And after Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, we needn’t even look so far as Washington’s underwriting of Israel (or Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Colombia) for evidence of US hypocrisy.
The W&M thesis is profoundly flawed. The notion of a client state seizing control of the military and foreign policy apparatus of an empire has no remote analogue in human history. To find even a highly imperfect parallel we have to delve beyond the modern era, to the usurpation of power in the Abbasid Caliphate by the Seljuk Turkish military slave caste in the 12th century, and the later similar usurpation by the Mamluks in Egypt. But this nearly reverses the analogy, as the Seljuks and Mamluks climbed to power by serving as a fighting force for their imperial masters, as W&M argue the US does for Israel. It is true that Rome eventually came under the rule of emperors drawn from conquered peoples, such as Diocletian, an Illyrian. But Diocletian ruled in the imperial interests of Rome, not the inimical interests of his native Illyria. This is more analogous to the descendants of slaves finding their way into the US ruling circles, like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.
Yet even the anti-war left increasingly chases after shadows like the supposed Zionist conspiracy, abandoning principles of anti-imperialism. They ironically abet Bush’s own propaganda in this error. Every time Bush invokes the need to protect Israel as a justification for his military adventures, the implicit message is sent that it is powerful Jews who are going to make him sacrifice the sons and daughters of the US working class on the killing fields of the Middle East. This propaganda makes it more likely that the eventual backlash against Israel will be in the context of a backlash against Jews.
Many Jews were doubtless happy at Harvard’s capitulation on the M&W essay. They shouldn’t be. It merely confirms the myth of Jewish power in the minds of the Judeophobes. M&W’s arguments should be repudiated—not silenced through intimidation. Censorship of bad speech is worse than censorship of good speech, because it paradoxically legitimizes it. In this case, the intimidation only serves to “prove” M&W’s point—for those who do not understand the historical function of anti-Semitism. Without such blatant displays of capitulation to Jewish “influence,” Jews would not make credible scapegoats in times of crisis.
Nothing could be worse for this already bad situation than Harvard’s disavowal of the study. This not only entrenches anti-Semitic paranoia, but (perhaps even worse) also entrenches Jewish “pronoia”—the illusion that the imperial power structure will protect real Jewish interests when push comes to shove. The more deeply these twin illusions are entrenched the uglier the backlash will be when it comes. And it is coming. The M&W study was the first sign.
The tradition of nativist xenophobia in American political culture goes back to the very roots of the republic. One early exemplar was George Washington’s warning of the “insidious wiles of foreign influence” in his 1796 farewell address:
“[A] passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification…. Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy, to be useful, must be impartial, else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people to surrender their interests.”
Washington was speaking, in barely veiled terms, of the threat from revolutionary France. His successor John Adams would instate the draconian Alien and Sedition Acts to combat this perceived foreign contagion, and bring the country close to war. But the Francophile wing of the ruling elites would recoup their losses with the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800, overturning the repressive legislation and mending fences with Paris.
Similarly, that wing of the contemporary ruling elites represented by Brent Scowcroft (and M&W) will doubtless recoup their losses eventually. Israel’s ideological complex is not likely to maintain its privileged position indefinitely. Perhaps there will even, eventually, be an aid cut-off and economic sanctions against Israel. But will this happen in the context of a global de-escalation, including justice and real self-determination for Palestine—or an orgy of anti-Jewish hatred which will only play into the hands of Israel’s advocates of “transfer,” finishing off the work of ethnic cleansing that began in 1948? The answer depends, in large part, on how accurately and usefully progressive forces can frame the debate today.
Marx was certainly subject to his own limitations, but his indispensable insights are the baby being thrown out with the bath-water on this post-ideological planet. It is still true: base determines superstructure. The global economy runs on oil, and the uniquely privileged place of the US ruling class in the global order is predicated on continued global control of oil. AIPAC and the neocons are indeed indispensably complicit in creating propaganda for the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) which is really a struggle for imperial control of the planet’s hydrocarbon resources, and they should not be let off the hook. But their ethnicity, and the imperative to protect their client state, are no more the fundamental reasons for the current hyper-interventionism than is chasing down al-Qaeda. Does this mean that either the Zionists or jihadists are irrelevant to the GWOT? By no means. But their role can only be appropriately viewed in the context of a strategic struggle for control of oil and continued US global hegemony.
“The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy” by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt Middle East Policy, Fall 2006 (PDF)
Review of “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy” by L. Carl Brown Foreign Affairs, September-October 2006
US State Department on George Washington’s 1796 farewell address
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