I have always admired Jimmy Carter. Or, let me amend that, I always thought he got a bum rap. So I was happy to see that messieurs Mearsheimer and Walt gave this much maligned president credit for doing what presidents should do: ignore pressure, think straight, be balanced and twist arms, see that the American interest is served. That’s how he got Camp David. You may lose elections, but you may gain peace and long term stability. Wish we had more presidents like him.
To the point: Mearsheimer and Walt analyze American policy in the Middle East from the perspective of the American interest. Their premise is that American policy has not served the American interest, and for good measure, has not served the Israeli interest either. Leaving aside the Israeli interest for a moment, they argue forcefully that policy since World War II has developed in a way that prevents the United States from reaching its goal of stability in the Middle East, not, to be sure, for the sake of stability, but to reach three strategic goals: secure the flow of oil, prevent weapons of mass destruction in the region and reduce the threat of terrorism. Secondary goals in this strategic perspective are to prevent one nation in the region to gain dominance. The US can be quite ruthless in its policy: Richard Nixon tried to build up Iran under the Shah to play a regional balancing role while president Reagan supported Iraq in its bloody and agressive war against the same Iran when it was outside the American orbit. As strategic thinkers – I am also an admirer of Mearsheimers grand opus The tragedy of Great Power Politics – the authors realize that Iran does have to play a role in this region. So the US would have to deal with that, no matter what Israel or its lobby thinks about it.
Their analysis is interesting, and this is where I enjoyed this book immensely. It is good to realize that before 1967 American support for Israel was considerably more evenhanded. Of course, we say now, Israel played and plays the major role in the Middle East policy. But that was not foreordained, the ‘of course’ is not selfevident.
They make a good case that American policy is flawed. And yes, this begs the question why American administrations follow policies that do not serve American interests. Like it ot not, the security of Israel has also become an American interest. Maybe more a moral interest than a strategic one, but an interest it is. Has at least that interest been served? Arguably not. I am not a specialist in Israeli foreign policy or Israeli security, but my feeling is that the country needs stability and has been missing opportunity after opportunity to reach that goal – the unpalatable settlement policy by religious radicals, supported by a unattractively nationalistic Israeli administration, being the most visible result. I don’t know whether Israel is more secure, I doubt it. I do know that the country has fewer friends than it used to have and admirers are now few and far between. So I take their word that neither American nor Israeli interests have been served.
So far, so good. That brings us to the second part of my evaluation but actually to what is the first and foremost thesis of this book, shouting at us already from the title. This sorry situation has been caused single-handedly by the Israel Lobby. The authors present a wealth of information, facts and opinions, numbers and suggestions, all of them mixed into their strategic story. And the more I read, the more this irritated me. They weaken their story when at every turn they try to prove their pernicious influence. They try too hard. At points it actually gets counterproductive, especially where they try to prove that the Israel lobby was a major, if not the major, factor in getting the Bush/Cheney administration to start their misadventure in Iraq. An example on page 232: ‘A handful of public figures (and they include here idiot politicians, columnists, military) either said or strongly hinted that pro-Israel hardliners in the US were the principal movers behind the Iraq war.’ So what? Said? Strongly hinted? Is that prove? Further on the page they don’t argue but postulate that ‘the connection between Israel and the Iraq war was widely recognized’. Michael Kinsley, much admired pundit, said so. In this particular chapter they ‘show abundant evidence’ that Israel and the lobby played crucial roles in making that war happen. I, for one was not convinced.
Was it in the American interest to go into Iraq? I must confess that I was one of those persons who thought that Kenneth Pollack’s indeed omniously titled ‘The Threathening Storm’ made a pretty good case for it. Pollack did contribute to the debate with what I considered decent arguments. Now, we all know that the execution of the war was of unbelievable incompetence, but I think Mearsheimer and Walt don’t do Pollack (or myself as a reader) justice by suggesting that Pollack changed his mind and put his arguments together because he moved to Brookings Saban Center for Middle Eastern Policy where Martin Indyk, one of their targets and indeed, a fervent Israel lobbyist, was calling the shots. When I read this in the last chapter I realized why from the first chapter on my resistance against the Israel lobby-argument was actually growing. Too much suggestion, too many ‘common sense tests’ or ‘there cannot any other explanation than …’. To put it bluntly, it insults my intelligence as a reader. I like arguments, not suggestions.
But it hardly matters. They do show that the Israel Lobby is very influential. And yes, they do show that the US policy is flawed and against its own interests. They do show that the administration often does the lobby’s bidding. My point is that we are still talking about a lobby. If all politicians are cowered into a meek acceptance, should we blame the lobby? The American political system is wide open to lobbyists. We have the NRA, the gun lobby, which sounds a lot alike. Supporting the lobby’s bidding does not do them much good, but going against it will bring them harm. Well, heroes they are not. Now, I do not want to suggest that it is only a matter of having competing lobby groups so that the democratic process is served. What I would suggest that a lobby is only so strong as the politicians are weak. If indeed the Israel Lobby does have this influence on American policy then the authors should come out against the politicians, not against the misled and misleading Israel fanclub that is damaging their own country ánd Israel. The price for this stupidity remains to be paid.
To wrap it up, I think Mearsheimer and Walt would have done a much better job if they had made a clear and compelling argument that US policy is wrong, both for the US interests and the Israeli interests. I would have like to have read a slim, well argued book much like parts of their last chapter, getting to the real thing out of the Mearsheimer school: offshore balancing. I would not have minded at all if they had written another book about where the Israel lobby influenced American decisions. By throwing both books together they weaken both stories. Now, they may argue that this book is about the lobby, as the title clearly states. I say it would have been stronger if you just had shown that the policies are wrong and against our interests.
I must admit that the unsavory tactics with which the lobby has reacted to their article confirms their bullying attitude. It has become the argument of the morally weak now to call anybody critical of their position, critical of Israeli policies and behaviour, an anti-semite. This is the last resort of the scoundrel. Preposterous and unacceptable. I whish politicians said something about it. Maybe even a president that would make a courageous statement about the freedom of discussion – or, God forbid, a Democratic candidate. And let’s keep that out of the discussion.
I commend our visitors for their clear and interesting analysis of US policy and I remain interested in how policy can be changed, become more balanced. Exposing the lobby for its influence, while it is not always clear how far that influence reaches, is part of the political game. So I commend that part too. Now we have to get politicians that are willing to tell friends to shape up, tell lobbyists to get lost, tell academics to give them serious policy options. Politicians like, yes, Jimmy Carter.