Monday, March 27, 2006

Mearsheimer and Walt and the Lobbies

It is a sign of how behind I have gotten on my reading that I am now only getting to the (in)famous John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt essay in TLS on the Israel Lobby.

Given my perch to observe Washington life, one of the interesting footnotes to this discussion is the extent to which other governments and causes have a strong and enduring belief in the power, reach and depth of the Israel lobby, that is to say, that if you can convince the lobby that support of a particular country or initiative benefits Israel, you can get this "behemoth" on your side. It has been interesting to see how Armenians, Azeris, Greeks, Turks, Albanians, Russian oligarchs, the Russian government on Chechnya, the Indians (see an interesting article in TNI a few issues back by Raj Menon and Swati Pandey on the belief in New Delhi that the road to improved relations with Washington ran through Tel Aviv/Jerusalem) -- to name a few -- adopted a strategy of trying to cultivate the Israel lobby. The Serbs feel that they took the Israeli lobby for granted in the early 1990s--that World War II memories about pro-Nazi/pro-Axis forces in Croatia and Bosnia, plus the relatively positive relations between Serbs and Jews, would be sufficient; needless to say, they were unpleasantly surprised by the lack of support from Washington, even though the Israeli press tended to be more pro-Serb, and even though a segment of Likud opinion sympathized with the Jerusalem/Kosovo parallels.

I've heard it rumored that a number of countries are receiving pitches from lobby groups in DC promising them that they can get their country's agenda folded into the U.S.-Israel relationship. I think most are quite overrated, but it is testimony to the power of belief in the "Israel Lobby" as a nearly omnipotent force that this perception is so widespread.

Your last point about lobbyists pitching to countries that they can get them in good with the pro-Israel lobby just sounds like another variant of the schemes Abramoff and co. were using to defraud the Indian tribes. And people fall for this?
So... what's your take on the substance of the article?
Here is a response you should read:
I think I'll put the article into my bag to bring up to the conference at Columbia on Friday and read carefully including finding the version with all the footnotes to check the sourcing.

By definition, a lobby exists to change perspectives, especially if there is a sense that the policy being advocated would otherwise not be enacted. This is true for a variety of domestic and foreign policies.

I forgot whose article it was in the late 1970s or early 1980s which essentially argued that all American ethnic lobbies were undermining U.S. national interests by getting the U.S. to take sides in conflicts that otherwise it would have no stake in (e.g. Greece v. Turkey, Armenia v. Turkey, etc.) The counter to this was that Americans are free to make the argument that the national interests of their "old country" are perfectly in sync with U.S. interests (e.g. the Polish lobby on NATO expansion in the 1990s).
Harvey Sicherman's comments from also useful, to follow on David's post. A segment from the conclusion:

the working paper does not work as a serious source of study on the Israel Lobby. It offers only more heat on a subject that needs more light. Perhaps mindful of the polemic nature of their work, Mearsheimer and Walt conclude on a more sober note. "What is needed is a candid discussion of the Lobby's influence and a more open debate about U.S. interests in this vital
region. Israel's well-being is one of those interests, but
its continued occupation of the West Bank and its broader regional agenda are not" (p. 23, short version). The results of such debate, we are promised, will not only be better for the U.S. national interest but also for "Israel's long-term interests as well" (p. 23, short version).

There is something true here but it is not new. The United States has never supported Israel's occupation of the West Bank or other areas captured in 1967; presidents have always advocated a negotiated withdrawal that results in recognized and secure borders for the Jewish state. That policy,
however, requires an Arab partner. Egypt has proven to be one, Jordan another. A Palestinian, however, has been harder to find: once thought to be Arafat, still hoped to be Abu Mazen, and now much in doubt because of Hamas. The United States has also never supported Israel's "broader regional agenda," whatever that might be, although it was certainly not an insistence that Arabs become democrats before peace could be reached. The push for democracy throughout the Middle East was hatched in Washington, not among the security-minded Israelis who negotiated the peace treaties with President Sadat and King Hussein, or Oslo with Chairman Arafat.

There is also something new here but it is not true. That is the authors' complaint about lack of open debate. Here, too, they offer their own refutation: 211 footnotes attached to the long version of "The Israel Lobby" provide a convenient compendium of criticism of Israel, AIPAC and U.S. policy. These sources were not published in secret and circulated in samizdat. Indeed, anyone wishing to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be inundated by the polemics, all too easily available. Every conceivable
critique and defense of U.S. and Israeli policy, and some very inconceivable, have been offered.

Finally, I return to the original approach of the realists.
Why have American (and Israeli) leaders not been following the national interest as defined by Mearsheimer and Walt? It is not that the policymakers are stupid. Nor have they been diverted from their national interests by the Israel Lobby, which is very influential but not always compelling. It is simply that the policymakers see the national interest in a different way from the professors. And if this paper is any guide, perhaps they are wise to do so.
It is indeed hard to believe that Israel's own interests would have been served by toppling Saddam and opening the door for the likes of Jaafari and Sadr to take power, and giving Iran the backdoor into Iraq. I would think Israel would have had the closer, wide angle view on the prospects (or roadmap) of democracy in Iraq, or in the Mid East, for that matter.
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