August 29, 2006 [LINK]

That controversial Israeli lobby

Earlier this year, political scientists John Mearsheimer (Chicago) and Stephen Walt (Harvard) wrote a paper, The Israel Lobby, that created quite a ruckus. They dared to raise the uncomfortable question of whether Jews in the United States and Israel are unduly influencing American foreign policy in ways that are contrary to our national interest. Yesterday they appeared at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and I caught a few snippets on C-SPAN. I've seen both men speak, and Mearsheimer is one of those polished scholars who has a knack for making a polemical argument sound very well reasoned and balanced. I'm not knocking him or belittling his scholarship, I'm just pointing out (or envying?) a quality that is very useful in the academic world. In today's Washington Post, Dana Milbank harped on Mearsheimer's mispronunciation of two members of Congress, which Milbank believes discredits his claimed expertise on Washington politics. Maybe. Bush administration officials Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith (both Jews) were singled out. More importantly, he derided the two authors for pandering to anti-Israeli sentiment in the Muslim world, and wrote, "Whatever motivated the performance, the result wasn't exactly scholarly."

Daniel Drezner (a former colleague of Mearsheimer at Chicago) has been following this academic spat very closely, and had a succinct response to the paper last March:

Walt and Mearsheimer should not be criticized as anti-Semites, because that's patently false. They should be criticized for doing piss-poor, monocausal social science.*


* This is not to deny that a pro-Israel lobby affects U.S. foreign policy, just as Cuban emigres undoubtedly have an effect on U.S. policy towards Cuba. It's just that Walt and Mearsheimer say that the lobby "almost entirely" explains U.S. policy. My contention is that they vastly overestimate both pro-Israel lobby's causal role -- and their uniformity of opinion and motivation.

I think that is a pretty fair assessment, but I wouldn't call it "piss poor." It almost goes without saying that the influence of Israel in Washington is problematic at times, but blaming foreigners for policy mistakes is quite unbecoming a Great Power like the U.S.A. It almost sounds like the hand-wringing excuses for inaction that one always hears in Latin America. "We can't reform! The gringos have our hands tied!"

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s I was briefly active in criticizing the excessive financial aid given by the United States to Israel, money that was used (directly or indirectly) to build new Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. Israel demanded U.S. loan guarantees for construction projects to help resettle all the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics, and it got pretty much all of what it wanted. The main target of my criticism was American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC), the lobbying organization that keeps Congress "in tow." I have nothing against Israel, however, and I think the Israelis are by and large a very good and useful ally. Being exposed to a constant, mortal security threat at their very doorstep, however, they are prone to take desperate measures and sometimes that means acting against U.S. interests. We should acknowledge this frankly. It does no good to pretend otherwise.