Voices in the Wilderness

Voices in the Wilderness

Mini Teaser: Notwithstanding the book's shortcomings, Mearsheimer and Walt do perform an important service in pointing out how difficult it is to produce pragmatic decisions based on national interest.

by Author(s): Dimitri K. Simes

When the "The Israel Lobby" first appeared as an article in the London Review of Books, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt instantly became the targets of a barrage of unjustified and vicious personal attacks. Such influential pundits as Martin Peretz, Eliot Cohen and Alan Dershowitz-Walt's colleague at Harvard-casually charged the pair with anti-Semitism, the nuclear option in any political debate. Under the circumstances, it was difficult not to feel respect for Mearsheimer and Walt's courage and disgust with the assault on them, sentiments I expressed on the pages of The National Interest

With this in mind, it is no surprise that their new book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, was controversial even before it appeared in print. Organizers cancelled several scheduled events with the authors, even at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a respected organization normally open to debate. Also unusual for major books, quotes on the back cover praise only Mearsheimer's and Walt's previous books-a clear signal that it was difficult to persuade prominent people to provide their names in a way that could appear to support this one.

After reading The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, I remain impressed with Mearsheimer and Walt's bravery. I also do agree with their main argument-that there exists a powerful if loose pro-Israeli coalition which has a major impact on U.S. policy in the Middle East, including on key decisions like the decision to invade Iraq that might not have been made without a vigorous campaign by Israel's supporters.

Still, the book is unlikely to make a dent in the U.S. debate on the Middle East. And not only because of the influence of pro-Israeli groups, but also because the argument Mearsheimer and Walt make is seriously flawed. First, as Geoffrey Kemp has observed, the authors conducted very few, if any, interviews with either lobbyists or policy and opinion leaders, whether in the executive branch, Congress or the media. They make what they consider logical inferences where personal insight is indispensable and easily available. And, of course, the fact that decisions made in government agencies, Capitol Hill cloakrooms or editorial offices appear objectively to reflect the preferences of Israel's supporters does not mean that there are not other more powerful reasons to move in the same direction.

Mearsheimer and Walt's view of Israel and its history clearly makes it difficult for them to accept that informed people of good will could side with Israel on their own, without pressure from the "Israel Lobby." However, while the authors are distinguished scholars of international relations whose realist philosophy I generally share, they are not experts in the Middle East. Far too often in their extensive footnotes one reads citations that begin with the words "quoted from"-meaning that they relied not on original sources, but on quotations provided by others. Coupled with their clear lack of empathy with Israel, this leads to a questionable characterization of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In one example of this, Mearsheimer and Walt deny that "Egypt and Syria are principally responsible for starting" the 1967 war and argue that Israel could have tried "to solve the crisis peacefully." This latter assertion is probably true, but Arab provocations-including terrorist attacks from Egyptian territory, Nasser's closing the Straits of Tiran and the removal of the UN peacekeeping contingent on Nasser's initiative-gave the Israeli government more than sufficient justification to proceed with a preventive strike. If another government or group of governments provoked the United States in this fashion, the country would quickly form a consensus that we should not wait to be attacked and should strike first.

Mearsheimer and Walt likewise deny that the Palestinians were principally responsible for the collapse of the Oslo process and argue that Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided to put an end to the negotiations. They barely acknowledge that Barak made the decision in response to the intifada, a wave of terrorist attacks launched by Palestinians inside Israel right after Barak offered historic concessions that could have created a new Palestinian state in Gaza and the bulk of the West Bank. The authors may be right in pointing out that Barak's accommodation was not as sweeping as sometimes portrayed, and they are correct to mention the impact on Palestinian opinion of Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount. But suicide bombings against innocent civilians were hardly the only option available to the Palestinians in responding to Israeli conduct.

Finally, Mearsheimer and Walt fail to recognize the obvious-that in most cases, American public opinion and American policy will side with the Israelis with or without an Israel lobby. Mearsheimer and Walt in all seriousness point out that while there are some American columnists who frequently criticize Israeli policies, no major newspaper "employs any full-time commentator who consistently favors the Arab or Palestinian side." But even if there were no Israel lobby, it is a little difficult to imagine an influential American columnist consistently supporting Yasir Arafat.

Notwithstanding their book's shortcomings, Mearsheimer and Walt do perform an important service in pointing out how difficult it is to produce pragmatic decisions based on national interest in an area as important to the United States as the Middle East. Unfortunately, the Israel lobby has been so successful not only because of its power, skill, and determination, but also as a consequence of the broader deterioration of the U.S. foreign policy formulation process. The growing role of money in American politics, the proliferation of lobbies of all kinds and the evolution of too many members of Congress from public servants to private political entrepreneurs is increasingly eroding both the policy process and the quality of its products. It is increasingly difficult to formulate decisions based on enlightened national interest rather than domestic politics-in fact, such decisions occur today only as a result of courageous and sophisticated presidential leadership, something we have not seen during the last two administrations. And if statements by major presidential candidates are any guide, we may not see it after 2008 either.

Dimitri K. Simes is the president of The Nixon Center and the publisher of The National Interest.

Essay Types: Book Review