Flawed but Still Important

Flawed but Still Important

Mini Teaser: Mearsheimer and Walt should have included more field work in their research. Yet their book still deserves to be read and discussed.

by Author(s): Geoffrey Kemp

When two distinguished professors of political science write a highly controversial book on U.S. foreign policy one expects a comprehensive explanation of their hypotheses and their chosen methodology to demonstrate and confirm their arguments. If one is identifying the power of one lobby (in this case the Israel lobby), how does this lobby's influence compare to that of other ethnic lobbies-e.g, the Greek, Armenian and anti Castro Cuban lobbies? Certainly if they are making very controversial statements about the decision of the U.S. government to go to war, one anticipates an exhaustive list of primary sources who have spoken to the authors, on or off the record, to support or rebut their case. Most important, one looks for new government documents that add bona fides to their case.

The authors try to cover some of the methodological issues in their introduction and make the point that official documents on contemporary events are difficult to come by. For this reason they rely on multiple source footnoting. What they have produced is a 350-page text with an additional 106 pages listing secondary sources. By my count there are 1,247 footnotes; only three refer to correspondence with a source and only two mention interviews with sources. I could find no references to any communication with key players in the U.S. government, the Israeli lobbies and Israel who might have had some interesting confidential comments on the matter in question. It seems that their research lacked extensive field work, including background interviews, especially among the Washington elite who make up both the lobby and its targets. This is not a trivial matter, and as a consequence the book has a sharp, somewhat strident and detached tone-devoid of the atmospheric frills and descriptions of the personality quirks and complicated motivations of key players that are to be found in the works of the best investigative journalists. It is also superficial in its coverage of the Washington think-tank community, an issue that is worthy of more space than is available in this quick review.

Nevertheless, the book raises important issues for American foreign policy that must be addressed and should be debated. And the fundamental issue today is not whether the Israel lobby has huge influence in Congress and upon the White House-of course it does. The real question is whether the lobby has skewed American foreign policy in the Middle East in favor of Israel to the detriment of broader U.S. interests in the region. More specifically-and what is clearly a motivating factor behind the book-did the lobby play a seminal role in the Bush decision to invade Iraq in 2003, and is the lobby set upon dragging the United States into a war with Iran? They make a strong case that neoconservatives overwhelmingly pushed for war, especially after 9/11; that AIPAC supported the war and that many in the Israeli government felt the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would be in their interests. These are old accusations, and these players were not the only ones leading the charge: Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush were not puppets. Furthermore, the senior U.S. military leadership, flush from its easy victory in Afghanistan, was a willing enabler. But, in my mind, there can be no doubt that had the neoconservatives and their allies opposed a war with Iraq, it would not have happened.

The case of Iran is likewise more complicated than the authors would have us believe. Intense dislike for the regime in Tehran can be found across the spectrum in Washington-and this goes back to the 1979-1980 hostage crisis. The authors suggest that Iranian efforts to work out a modus vivendi with the Bush Administration have been stymied by the lobby. They offer no hard evidence for this, merely the well-known fact that at various times Iranian leaders have suggested a deal is possible. But no one has a clue whether the current regime in Tehran is capable of following through on any agreement. There are good reasons for skepticism. This is not to say the use of force is inevitable. Given the mess in Iraq it is unlikely the lobby can use its powers to persuade Bush to attack yet another Muslim state. But if the Iranians do something stupid, that's another matter.

Two concluding points: The authors are not anti-Semitic. They make no inferences that the American Jewish community is working against American interests. To the contrary, they believe diversity in the community is growing and is positive. Certainly, they are often one-sided and unfair in their criticism of Israel, but they are not anti-Israel in the virulent sense one finds throughout the Muslim world and among European left-wing intellectuals. The prestigious Chicago Council on Global Affairs has seen fit to cancel a scheduled presentation by the authors because of objections from individuals who threatened that their appearance would have serious negative consequences for the institution. This type of reaction is troubling. The book-however flawed and one-dimensional-deserves to be read and challenged in a wide number of forums.

Geoffrey Kemp is the director of regional strategic programs at the Nixon Center.

Essay Types: Book Review