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Stifling the Debate?

Stifling the Debate?

Mini Teaser: Perhaps the most important argument made by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their new book concerns the impact of the lobby on the political discourse in the United States.

by Author(s): Stefan Halper

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's eagerly awaited The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy appeared ahead of schedule in the bookshops, continuing an odyssey of some note. Their thesis, accepted and then rejected (as too controversial) in 2005 by The Atlantic, was first published in London, joining the cut and thrust of Britain's intellectual life via the London Review of Books. Its American debut in book form promises controversy on a scale not seen since Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" sought to frame a new world order.

Simply put, Mearsheimer and Walt argue that the unprecedented material and diplomatic support given to Israel over the past half century cannot be explained by either moral or strategic arguments. Instead, it is due to the power of the "Israel Lobby", " a loose coalition of individuals and groups that seeks to influence U.S. policy in ways that will benefit Israel." They maintain that just as Israel has become a strategic liability for the United States in the post-Cold War era, the "Lobby" has stifled criticism of Israeli Middle East policy and suppressed a needed public debate in the United States. They say the lobby was responsible for suppressing criticism of Israel's misconceived policy in southern Lebanon and has steered the United States away from a dialogue with moderates in Iran and from talks with Syria. The authors believe this is not only counter to U.S. interests, but also detrimental to long-term Israeli interests.

Given the dangers of advancing these views, Mearsheimer and Walt (and doubtless many others) see themselves speaking truth to power. They have ventured onto treacherous ground where politicians, think tanks, journalists and academics have long feared the taint of anti-Semitism. They argue that while U.S. policy choices are not specifically determined by the lobby, the public and political discourse is heavily influenced by the fear that criticism of Israel or Israeli policy renders critics subject to anti-Semitic charges-regardless of intentions or the substantive issues at stake. In the sense that one of America's greatest assets is its capacity for a full debate in the public square, they maintain this asset is lost-resulting in distorted, often dysfunctional policy.

Mearsheimer and Walt pay special attention to the events of 2002, when the Bush Administration-supported by neoconservatives, the Christian Right and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)-advanced its argument for war with Iraq. The authors believe that just when "one would have expected the United States to focus laser-like on al-Qaeda, the author of 9/11, the Administration chose to invade a deteriorating country that had nothing to do with the attacks." They say that while there were several reasons for this, including the fear that Iraq had WMD that it might provide to terrorists and that toppling Saddam would deter others, a powerful pro-war faction that included the "Israel Lobby" believed that removing Saddam would advance both Israeli and U.S. interests-and that the lobby was a "critical element" in the administration's decision to attack.

Notably, as the nation moved to a war footing, there was a strange silence; the public debate was muted. Foreign Affairs, for example, published few if any articles challenging the administration's rationale for war between the summer of 2002 and the summer of 2003. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post later expressed regret for editorial policies that pushed criticism of the war to the latter pages. Congress led the applause for the administration's drama, and Washington's think tanks scheduled few if any events that questioned the administration's rationale for war. Mearsheimer and Walt do not argue that this phenomenon is the direct result of lobby pressure, but rather that the lobby encouraged these developments-that its public pronouncements advocated this direction, and that its interests were consistent with these trends.

There are, of course, parts of the Mearsheimer-Walt argument that have already drawn sharp objections. The authors call the lobby a "group"-a loose collection of people who have positive things to say about Israel-that bends U.S. policy. But critics point out that to call the "Israel Lobby" as a group is a misnomer. It is a collection of many groups and individuals, some of whom are Jewish and some who are not. They provide varying degrees of support for a range of regional objectives but share a broad common vision for the future of the Middle East and Israel's role. To suggest there is a group invites thoughts  of a shadowy clique quietly operating outside the bounds of normal public discourse.

This is not the case. The lobby, AIPAC in particular, is a publicly registered organization acting, as other interest groups do, to mold public opinion and legislation in support of its objectives. Sometimes, these are not Israel-specific: AIPAC helped the Clinton Administration with military assistance for Egypt and Jordan and development assistance for Lebanon. Furthermore, the limits of its power became clear when the lobby failed to persuade the United States to reduce or commute Jonathan Pollard's prison term for espionage, or to alter U.S. policy on other priority matters, including the relocation of the U.S. embassy from the Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Though it is accused of heavy-handed attacks on its opponents, AIPAC would argue that it has done nothing more than influence U.S. policy with powerful political arguments, financial support to friendly politicians and adroit placement of its supporters in the opinion sections of the media. The debate surrounding these questions will be explosive.

But this is just one of a number of difficult issues. There is, for instance, an extensive discussion of "dual loyalty." The czarist forgery, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", which charges that Jews worked together to control the world at the direction of a secret council of elders, infused 19th-century European thinking and became a tenet of twentieth-century American anti-Semitism. The authors assert that 21st-century America, with its large and varied immigrant population, takes a different approach to this matter. They make the point that Jewish-Americans are among the most loyal and patriotic, and that "scholars and commentators use the term [dual loyalty] in a neutral and non-pejorative fashion to describe the widespread circumstances where individuals feel genuine attachment (or loyalty) to more than one country." They add:

Indeed, political life in the United States has proceeded from the assumption that all Americans have a variety of attachments and loyalties-to country, family, employer, religion, just to name a few-and that American citizens will create formal and informal associations that reflect those loyalties and interests.

The book does not shy from the most pressing foreign policy issues of the day: U.S. policy toward Iran is fully, fairly and properly explored, along with the Israel lobby's role in it, and U.S.-Syrian relations are carefully reviewed. The neoconservative role in fashioning our views of Israel and the Middle East makes fascinating reading.

Some have charged that the book reflects poor scholarship-particularly with reference to sources and footnotes-but these, in my view, are more properly questions of partisan sniping. The treatment of the lobby as a group falls into this category, where questions have been raised by Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, and Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Perhaps the most important argument made by Mearsheimer and Walt concerns the impact of the lobby on the political discourse in the United States. The lobby's ability to diminish the reputation of its opponents is such that it takes some courage to criticize-or even to raise questions about-the notion that Israel remains a strategic asset of the United States, and that U.S. interests are served when Israeli interests are satisfied. Mearsheimer and Walt make the case that the structure informing U.S.-Israeli relations-the financial, media, personal and ideological relationships-no longer benefit either nation. Theirs is a powerful call for change for the sake of both Washington and Tel Aviv.

Stefan Halper is a senior fellow at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge, where he directs the Atlantic Studies Programme. He served in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan Administrations. He is co-author of The Silence of the Rational Center: Why American Foreign Policy is Failing (Basic Books, 2007).

Essay Types: Book Review