Arab scholar: “Jewish lobby” scapegoat for imperial interests

This commentary in Egypt’s Al-Ahram Weekly gets it just right. The incredibly sad irony is that Al-Ahram’s editors obviously didn’t read it! The introdek they appended to it assumes the piece is making the same tired point about how the Jews control US foriegn policy. In fact, Massad, to his great credit, is making the opposite point: that the Jews are taking the hit for US imperial interests.

Blaming the lobby
Unless the Jewish lobby loosens its grip on Washington’s foreign policy, the US should expect a change in its standing among Arabs, writes Joseph Massad

In the last 25 years, many Palestinians and other Arabs, in the United States and in the Arab world, have been so awed by the power of the US pro-Israel lobby that any study, book, or journalistic article that exposes the inner workings, the substantial influence, and the financial and political power of this lobby have been greeted with ecstatic sighs of relief that Americans finally can see the “truth” and the “error” of their ways.

The underlying argument has been simple and has been told time and again by Washington’s regime allies in the Arab world, pro-US liberal and Arab intellectuals, conservative and liberal US intellectuals and former politicians, and even leftist Arab and American activists who support Palestinian rights, namely, that absent the pro- Israel lobby, America would at worst no longer contribute to the oppression of Arabs and Palestinians and at best it would be the Arabs’ and the Palestinians’ best ally and friend. What makes this argument persuasive and effective to Arabs? Indeed, why are its claims constantly brandished by Washington’s Arab friends to Arab and American audiences as a persuasive argument? I contend that the attraction of this argument is that it exonerates the United States’ government from all the responsibility and guilt that it deserves for its policies in the Arab world and gives false hope to many Arabs and Palestinians who wish America would be on their side instead of on the side of their enemies.

Let me start with the premise of the argument, namely its effect of shifting the blame for US policies from the United States onto Israel and its US lobby. According to this logic, it is not the United States that should be held directly responsible for all its imperial policies in the Arab world and the Middle East at large since World War II, rather it is Israel and its lobby who have pushed it to launch policies that are detrimental to its own national interest and are only beneficial to Israel. Establishing and supporting Arab and other Middle East dictatorships, arming and training their militaries, setting up their secret police apparatuses and training them in effective torture methods and counter-insurgency to be used against their own citizens should be blamed, according to the logic of these studies, on Israel and its US lobby. Blocking all international and UN support for Palestinian rights, arming and financing Israel in its war against a civilian population, protecting Israel from the wrath of the international community should also be blamed not on the United States, the studies insist, but on Israel and its lobby. Additionally, and in line with this logic, controlling Arab economies and finances, dominating key investments in the Middle East, and imposing structural adjustment policies by the IMF and the World Bank which impoverish the Arab peoples should also be blamed on Israel, and not the United States. Finally, starving and then invading Iraq, threatening to invade Syria, raiding and then sanctioning Libya and Iran, besieging the Palestinians and their leaders must also be blamed on the Israeli lobby and not the US government. Indeed, over the years, many pro-US Arab dictators let it leak officially and unofficially that their US diplomat friends have told them time and again how much they and “America” support the Arab world and the Palestinians were it not for the influence of the pro- Israel lobby (sometimes identified by the American diplomats in more explicit “ethnic” terms).

While many of the studies of the pro-Israel lobby are sound and full of awe-inspiring well- documented details about the formidable power commanded by groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its allies, the problem with most of them is what remains unarticulated. For example, when and in what context has the United States government ever supported national liberation in the Third World? The record of the United States is one of being the implacable enemy of all Third World national liberation groups, including European ones, from Greece to Latin America to Africa and Asia, except in the celebrated cases of the Afghan fundamentalists’ war against the USSR and supporting apartheid South Africa’s main terrorist allies in Angola and Mozambique (UNITA and RENAMO) against their respective anti-colonial national governments. Why then would the US support national liberation in the Arab world absent the pro-Israel lobby is something these studies never explain.

The United States has had a consistent policy since World War II of fighting all regimes across the Third World who insist on controlling their national resources, whether it be land, oil, or other valuable minerals. This extends from Iran in 1953 to Guatemala in 1954 to the rest of Latin America all the way to present-day Venezuela. Africa has fared much worse in the last four decades, as have many countries in Asia. Why would the United States support nationalist regimes in the Arab world who would nationalise natural resources and stop their pillage by American capital absent the pro-Israel lobby also remains a mystery unexplained by these studies. Finally, the United States government has opposed and overthrown or tried to overthrow any regime that seeks real and tangible independence in the Third World and is especially galled by those regimes that pursue such policies through democratic elections. The overthrow of regimes from Arbenz to Goulart to Mossadegh and Allende and the ongoing attempts to overthrow Chavez are prominent examples, as is the overthrow of nationalist regimes like Sukarno’s and Nkrumah’s. The terror unleashed on populations who challenged the US-installed friendly regimes from El Salvador and Nicaragua to Zaire to Chile and Indonesia resulted in the killing of hundreds of thousands, if not millions by repressive police and militaries trained for these important tasks by the US. This is aside from direct US invasions of South East Asian and Central American countries that killed untold millions for decades. Why would the US and its repressive agencies stop invading Arab countries, or stop supporting the repressive police forces of dictatorial Arab regimes and why would the US stop setting up shadow governments inside its embassies in Arab capitals to run these countries’ affairs (in some cases the US shadow government runs the Arab country in question down to the smallest detail with the Arab government in question reduced to executing orders) if the pro-Israel lobby did not exist is never broached by these studies let alone explained.

The arguments put forth by these studies would have been more convincing if the Israel lobby was forcing the United States government to pursue policies in the Middle East that are inconsistent with its global policies elsewhere. This, however, is far from what happens. While US policies in the Middle East may often be an exaggerated form of its repressive and anti- democratic policies elsewhere in the world, they are not inconsistent with them. One could easily make the case that the strength of the pro-Israel lobby is what accounts for this exaggeration, but even this contention is not entirely persuasive. One could argue (and I have argued elsewhere) that it is in fact the very centrality of Israel to US strategy in the Middle East that accounts, in part, for the strength of the pro-Israel lobby and not the other way around. Indeed, many of the recent studies highlight the role of pro-Likud members of the Bush administration (or even of the Clinton administration) as evidence of the lobby’s awesome power, when, i t could be easily argued that it is these American politicians who had pushed Likud and Labour into more intransigence in the 1990s and are pushing them towards more conquest now that they are at the helm of the US government. This is not to say, however, that the leaders of the pro-Israel lobby do not regularly brag about their crucial influence on US policy in Congress and in the White House. That they have done regularly since the late 1970s. But the lobby is powerful in the United States because its major claims are about advancing US interests and its support for Israel is contextualised in its support for the overall US strategy in the Middle East. The pro- Israel lobby plays the same role that the China lobby played in the 1950s and the Cuba lobby still plays to this day. The fact that it is more powerful than any other foreign lobby on Capitol Hill testifies to the importance of Israel in US strategy and not to some fantastical power that the lobby commands independent of and extraneous to the US “national interest.” The pro-Israel lobby could not sell its message and would not have any influence if Israel was a communist or anti-imperialist country or if Israel opposed US policy elsewhere in the world.

Some would argue that even though Israel attempts to overlap its interests with those of the US, that its lobby is misleading American policy- makers and shifting their position from one of objective assessment of what is truly in America’s best interest and that of Israel’s. The argument runs as follows: US support for Israel causes groups who oppose Israel to hate the US and target it for attacks. It also costs the US friendly media coverage in the Arab world, affects its investment potential in Arab countries, and loses its important allies in the region, or at least weakens these allies. But none of this is true. The United States has been able to be Israel’s biggest backer and financier, its staunchest defender and weapon-supplier while maintaining strategic alliances with most if not all Arab dictatorships, including the Palestinian Authority under both Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas. Moreover, US companies and American investments have the largest presence across the Arab world, most prominently but not exclusively in the oil sector. Also, even without the pathetic and ineffective efforts at US propaganda in the guise of the television station Al-Hurra, or Radio Sawa and the now-defunct Hi magazine, not to mention US-paid journalists and newspapers in Iraq and elsewhere, a whole army of Arabic newspapers and state-television stations, not to mention myriad satellite television stations celebrate the US and its culture, broadcast American programmes, and attempt to sell the US point of view as effectively as possible encumbered only by the limitations that actual US policies in the region place on common sense. Even the offending Al-Jazeera has bent over backwards to accommodate the US point of view but is constantly undercut by actual US policies in the region. Al-Jazeera, under tremendous pressure and threats of bombing from the United States, has for example stopped referring to the US occupation forces in Iraq as “occupation forces” and now refers to them as “coalition forces”. Moreover, since when has the US sought to win a popularity contest among the peoples of the world? Arabs no more hate or love the United States than do Latin Americans, Africans, Asians, or even and especially Europeans.

Finally we come to the financial argument, namely that the US gives an inordinate amount of money to Israel — too exorbitant a cost that is out of proportion to what the US gets in return. In fact, the United States spends much more on its military bases in the Arab world, not to mention on those in Europe or Asia, than it does on Israel. Israel has indeed been very effective in rendering services to its US master for a good price, whether in channelling illegal arms to central American dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s, helping pariah regimes like Taiwan and apartheid South Africa in the same period, supporting pro-US, including Fascist, groups inside the Arab world to undermine nationalist Arab regimes, from Lebanon to Iraq to Sudan, coming to the aid of conservative pro- US Arab regimes when threatened as it did in Jordan in 1970, and attacking Arab nationalist regimes outright as it did in 1967 with Egypt and Syria and in 1981 with Iraq when it destroyed that country’s nuclear reactor. While the US had been able to overthrow Sukarno and Nkrumah in bloody coups, Nasser remained entrenched until Israel effectively neutralised him in the 1967 War. It is thanks to this major service that the United States increased its support to Israel exponentially. Moreover, Israel neutralised the PLO in 1982, no small service to many Arab regimes and their US patron who could not fully control the organisation until then. None of the American military bases on which many more billions are spent can claim such a stellar record. Critics argue that when the US had to intervene in the Gulf, it could not rely on Israel to do the job because of the sensitivity of including it in such a coalition which would embarrass Arab allies, hence the need for direct US intervention and the uselessness of Israel as a strategic ally. While this may be true, the US also could not rely on any of its military bases to launch the invasions on their own and had to ship in its army. American bases in the Gulf did provide important and needed support but so did Israel.

AIPAC is indeed powerful insofar as it pushes for policies that accord with US interests and that are resonant with the reigning US imperial ideology. The power of the pro-Israel lobby, whether in Congress or on campuses among university administrators, or policy-makers is not based solely on their organisational skills or ideological uniformity. In no small measure, anti- Semitic attitudes in Congress (and among university administrators) play a role in believing the lobby’s (and its enemies’) exaggerated claims about its actual power, resulting in their towing the line. But even if this were true, one could argue, it would not matter whether the lobby has real or imagined power. For as long as Congress and policy-makers (and university administrators) believe it does, it will remain effective and powerful. I of course concede this point.

What then would have been different in US policy in the Middle East absent Israel and its powerful lobby? The answer in short is: the details and intensity but not the direction, content, or impact of such policies. Is the pro- Israel lobby extremely powerful in the United States? As someone who has been facing the full brunt of their power for the last three years through their formidable influence on my own university and their attempts to get me fired, I answer with a resounding yes. Are they primarily responsible for US policies towards the Palestinians and the Arab world? Absolutely not. The United States is opposed in the Arab world as elsewhere because it has pursued and continues to pursue policies that are inimical to the interests of most people in these countries and are only beneficial to its own interests and to the minority regimes in the region that serve those interests, including Israel. Absent these policies, and not the pro-Israel lobby which supports them, the United States should expect a change in its standing among Arabs. Short of that, the United States will have to continue its policies in the region that have wreaked, and continue to wreak, havoc on the majority of Arabs and not expect that the Arab people will like it in return.

The writer is associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University. His recent book The Persistence of the Palestinian Question was published by Routledge.

See our last posts on “the lobby” and Jewish scapegoating.

  1. Massad
    The situation here is hopeless. So steeped in
    denial and fear are the Arab Academics that they
    reject the identity of their own tormentors.

    So what is the denial and fear?

    The denial is that Jews are welcome members to
    the American elite and that one can not seperate
    out “US interests” from the interests of its
    elite decision makers. So if you are looking for
    the connection between US imperial policies in
    Latin America and US policy towards Israel, it is
    that they each serve the interests of different
    sectors of the American elite.

    The fear is what would happen to their
    reputations and livelihood if they talk openly
    about the practices and power of elite Jews.

    Its sickening for me to watch. it reminds me of
    Malcom X’s diatribe on the house Negro:

    “If the master’s house caught on fire, the house
    Negro would fight harder to put the blaze out
    than the master would. And if you came to the
    house Negro and said, “Let’s run away, let’s
    escape, let’s separate,” the house Negro would
    look at you and say, “Man, you crazy. What you
    mean, separate? Where is there a better house
    than this? Where can I wear better clothes than
    this? Where can I eat better food than this?”
    That was that house Negro. In those days he was
    called a “house nigger.” And that’s what we call
    him today, because we’ve still got some house
    niggers running around here.”

    1. You are the one who is in denial, Zaid
      Applying that Malcolm X quote to someone who is taking a radical-left anti-imperialist line on the Middle East is insulting (and trivializing of Malcolm’s words) beyond belief. Massad is more likely to win friends among the Anglo-nationalist wing of the ruling elites by toeing the ever-more-popular Judeophobe line. And while the ruling elites have their splits (Judeophile/Arabphile, Yankee/Cowboy, etc.), the overriding concern of control of oil is utterly critical to US policy in both the Middle East and Latin America. All the tendencies within the ruling class are equally hostile to Massad’s genuine anti-imperialist position. He has staked out the loneliest turf, as far as wooing the powerful is concerned.

      I could with greater justice call you a “house nigger” for Pat Buchanan. Could—if I were willing to stoop to your level, that is.

      1. Denial and the Master
        Reading your nonsense Bill, I would conclude that Pat Buchanan was responsible for a massive smear campaign designed to throw out Joseph Massad from Columbia. I would also conclude that Anthony Wiener, who publicly took credit for forcing Rashid Khalidi off of a NYC Board of Education position, was an Anglo-nationalist.

        Im sorry to break this to you Bill, but for the past 30 years there hasnt been a shortage of “radical-left anti-imperialist” professors in academia. It is not by any means imaginable the “loneliest turf”. If you are wondering what the loneliest turf is, ask yourself this question: In the volumes of “radical-left anti-imperialist” papers that academia churns out, why hasnt there been a similar reaction? In other words, the Mersheimer-Walt Thesis has generated an unprecedented reaction from Harvard University where the University has removed its logo, substantially increased the size of the disclaimer and demoted Professor Walt, all within the span of 1 week of publication. Go see for yourself

        It would seem that Pat Buchanan is not too powerful of a master. He cant even muster enough support to keep ‘one of his boys’ out of firing range. Furthermore, where is this institutional support that you speak of? The media has either denounced them as anti-semites or has ignored them, and the government has done the same. So where is the master you speak of, “Where’s your Moses now?” It appears that your emperor has no clothes.


        1. You are confusing…
          …the power to get a professor demoted with the power to set US foreign policy. Precisely the confusion that the propaganda system must maintain in order to function.

          Mersheimer and Walt may have got in hot water, but they’ve also won a great deal of media attention—which translates into book sales. While real anti-imperialists get pilloried by right and “left” alike in these sad times.

          And you would be thanking your lucky stars that “Pat Buchanan is not too powerful a master” (yet) if you knew which way was up.

          1. I Am Confused
            Your read it right, I am confused Bill. It
            boggles my mind that you would make such claims.
            You are treating the Kennedy School of Government
            as if its a suburban high school. This is where
            government officials come from. When
            Jewish American elites can get a Dean from this
            school demoted, that’s an excercise of real power.
            It is a statement about how they intend to shape
            the thoughts of the future political elites.

            If Mersheimer and Walt were interested in media
            attention, then why have they been extremely
            reluctant to do interviews? Furthermore the only
            positive media attention they have received is
            from outside the US. Inside the US they have
            universally been received as anti-Semites by the
            US media. I’m sorry to explain this to you, but
            no distinguished academic likes to portrayed as a
            racist, not to mention the uber-racist stigma
            that being labelled an anti-Semite brings.
            Finally, I don’t consider myself lucky that
            Buchananites aren’t in charge. You have no idea
            whatsoever, what its like growing up as a
            Palestinian Arab in America over the past 30
            years. Where I am denied the right to identify
            my tormentors. Where I am labelled a racist for
            pointing the finger at Jews who openly advocate
            the ethnic cleansing of my family members and who
            openly lie and manipulate the American public.
            You don’t have a clue!

            So don’t tell me about what I should be thankful
            for. At least if Buchanan was the powerful
            master, I would be able to point to his beady
            white ass and call him, the master! At least
            there would be no illusions, no obfuscations. No
            one would say that when Harvard University sacks
            a professor it is engaged in a vast conspiracy to
            the myth of White power in the minds of
            People would say the White Man
            got his ass demoted, end of story. At least
            there would be honesty in discourse.

            1. Yes you are, I’m afraid
              Zaid, I never argued that the Jewish establishment in the US is powerless or irrelevant. Far from it. It really does have the power to get a prominent scholar demoted, or to get a stage production about Rachel Corrie cancelled. A part of the role that real power plays is to perpetuate the illusion of the greater power to determine US foreign policy. Not due to any conspiracy by the Anglo establishment, but due to the simple functioning of the system. “The function of a system is what it does.”

              I’m not here to cast aspersions on Mersheimer’s and Walt’s motives as you do on Massad’s. The worst case scenario is that they are entirely earnest.

              I don’t have a clue what it is like to grow up Palestinian in this (or any other) country. But I do have a clue about whether your situation would be better or worse if Buchanan had greater political power. If you interpret this as an exculpation of the Jewish establishment, that is entirely arbitrary.

              You may not agree with the discourse I am promoting, but I can assure you it is entirely honest. I have never conflated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, never used charges of the latter cynically, never been less than aggressive in calling out Israel’s crimes. Believe what you will.