The Lobby Strikes Back

by , April 01, 2006

The reaction to the Harvard University study by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” [.pdf] has been fury by the Lobby and its partisans – and a demotion for Walt, who, it was announced shortly after the paper’s release, would be stepping down from his post as [academic] dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government. As the New York Sun reports (via the Harvard Crimson):

“Yesterday’s issue of The New York Sun reported that an ‘observer’ familiar with Harvard said that the University had received calls from ‘pro-Israel donors’ concerned about the KSG paper. One of the calls, the source told The Sun, was from Robert Belfer, a former Enron director who endowed Walt’s professorship when he donated $7.5 million to the Kennedy School’s Center for Science and International Affairs in 1997. ‘Since the furor, Bob Belfer has called expressing his deep concerns and asked that Stephen not use his professorship title in publicity related to the article,’ the source told The Sun.”

The Kennedy School has removed its logo from the front page of the paper, and made more prominent a boilerplate statement to the effect that the school doesn’t necessarily endorse any or all of the views expressed therein.

Now, somebody please tell me that Mearsheimer and Walt have overplayed the power and influence of the Lobby in American political life.

The hate campaign directed at Mearsheimer and Walt underscores and validates the study’s contention that all attempts to objectively discuss our Israel-centric foreign policy and the pivotal role played by the Lobby are met with outright intimidation. We have O.J. Simpson defender and pro-Israel fanatic Alan Dershowitz claiming that the scholarly duo filched the majority of their sources from “hate sites” – although how Dershowitz knows this, without having looked directly over their shoulders as they wrote, is very far from clear. But don’t worry, he assures us, a “team” of researchers on his staff is looking into the matter. One wonders if this is the same “team” that looked into the evidence and concluded that Simpson was innocent.

Virtually every mention of the study informs us that David Duke is among its most fervent defenders. The Boston Globe and the Washington Post both featured Duke’s endorsement in their respective summaries of the controversy, and when the shameless Joe Scarborough of MSNBC had him on, he introduced the notorious racist this way:

“Thank you for being with us tonight, Mr. Duke. You have been attacked as a former Klansman, an anti-Semite, but tonight you’re in league with Harvard University. Do you feel vindicated?”

Mearsheimer and Walt are the ones who should feel vindicated, because this sort of cheap demagoguery proves their point about the Lobby’s modus operandi. Always they seek to set the terms of the debate in their favor: If you disagree with them and decry their influence, you’re a “Nazi.” How very convenient.

What would the Lobby do without the former Ku Klux Klan leader, who now inveighs against “ZOG” and the alleged perfidy of the Jews from somewhere in Central Europe? He ought to be getting some kind of stipend from them, in view of the tremendous service he performs: by setting up an avowed neo-Nazi as the chief spokesman for the other side, the Lobby gets to control the discourse.

Naturally, Scarborough would never have invited anyone like, say, Juan Cole on the show to defend the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis. He might have invited any one of a number of people cited in the study’s 200-plus footnotes, including Antiwar.com’s Ran HaCohen. But that is expecting far too much of the Lobby and its allies: intellectual honesty is not one of their strong points.

The same trope is continued and expanded on with Max Boot’s contribution to the debate, in which he conjures the ghost of Richard Hofstadter, departed neocon scholar of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” which sought, back in the early 1960s, to show that “right-wing agitation” (i.e., mainstream conservatism) was a psychopathology, rather than a bona fide ideology, consisting of little more than paranoid fantasies brought on by acute “status resentment.” Hofstadter, in turn, was simply carrying forward and applying the “social science” of Theodore Adorno, the Marxist sociologist who famously diagnosed opposition to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s policies as evidence of an Oedipal “father complex.” So far, it’s the same old malarkey, minus the footnotes, until, at the end, Boot bares his teeth:

“After finishing their magnum opus, I was left with just one question: Why would the omnipotent Israel lobby (which, they claim, works so successfully ‘to stifle criticism of Israel’) allow such a scurrilous piece of pseudo-scholarship to be published? Then I noticed that Walt occupies a professorship endowed by Robert and Renee Belfer, Jewish philanthropists who are also supporters of Israel. The only explanation, I surmise, is that Walt must himself be an agent of those crafty Israelites, employed to make the anti-Israel case so unconvincingly that he discredits it. ‘The Lobby’ works in mysterious ways.”

But not too mysterious. As we see, above, Belfer got on the phone to Harvard – and Walt was out of the dean’s office in no time. To notice this, however, is “paranoid.”

There have been a few substantive commentaries on the Mearsheimer-Walt study, to my knowledge, one by Daniel Drezner, and another by Daniel Levy, a former top adviser to Israel’s prime minister, which originally appeared in Ha’aretz. Drezner, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago and a very smart blogger, gives credit to the study for exploring truths that make people feel “very uncomfortable at cocktail parties,” and concedes that there is much to be said for the thesis that Israel seems to dominate “some aspects” of U.S. policy-making. However, he nits and picks:

“Shot through these papers are an awful lot of casual assertions that don’t hold up to close scrutiny. … The authors assert that, ‘If Washington could live with a nuclear Soviet Union, a nuclear China or even a nuclear North Korea, it can live with a nuclear Iran. And that is why the Lobby must keep up constant pressure on politicians to confront Tehran.’ I’m pretty sure that there’s more to U.S. opposition to Iran possessing nuclear weapons than the protection of Israel.”

It is true there may be other reasons why Washington might not want Iran to go nuclear, but there is no reason to believe that these might prevail over prudence in the absence of the Lobby’s decisive influence. Drezner cites the study’s contention that the Lobby’s mere existence proves an imperfect congruence of Israeli and American interests – otherwise, “one would not need an organized special interest group to bring it about.” Drezner finds this “fascinating,” he writes, because of

“The implicit assumptions contained within it: i) the only interest group in existence is the Lobby, and; ii) in the absence of the Lobby, a well-defined sense of national interest will always guide American foreign policy. It would be very problematic for good realists like Mearsheimer and Walt to allow for other interest groups – oil companies, for example – to exist. This would allow for a much greater role for domestic politics than realists ever care to admit.”

Contra Drezner, Mearsheimer and Walt do not contend that the Lobby is the sole organization of its kind, only that they do a better job than anyone else. Far from denying the influence of domestic politics on foreign policy, the study shows that this sort of influence is decisive, especially in its discussion of the Christian evangelical-neocon convergence on the issue of Israel. Whether this comports with Drezner’s understanding of “realism” is, really, irrelevant.

While Drezner does not agree with Mearsheimer and Walt, he is too intellectually honest to go along with the Smear Brigade’s calumnies:

“On the one hand, it’s a shame that this isn’t being debated more widely in the mainstream press. On the other hand, it might be good if the mainstream media didn’t cover it, if this New York Sun editorial is any indication:

“‘It’s going to be illuminating to watch how Harvard handles the controversy over the decision of its John F. Kennedy School of Government to issue a “Faculty Research Working Paper” on “The Israel Lobby” that is co-authored by its academic dean, Stephen Walt. On page one this morning we report that Dean Walt’s paper has been met with praise by David Duke, the man the Anti-Defamation League calls “America’s best-known racist.” The controversy is still young. But it’s not too early to suggest that it’s going to be hard for Mr. Walt to maintain his credibility as a dean. We don’t see it as a matter of academic freedom but simply as a matter of necessary quality control.’

“This is an absurd editorial – just about any argument out there is endorsed by one crackpot or another, so that does not mean the argument itself is automatically invalidated. As for Walt’s sympathies towards David Duke, in the very story they cite, Walt is quoted as saying, ‘I have always found Mr. Duke’s views reprehensible, and I am sorry he sees this article as consistent with his view of the world.’

“I didn’t say this explicitly in my last post, but let me do so here: 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.”

Bravo – except for the “piss-poor” stuff. Drezner should ask himself, however, why it is that the debate over this study is being engaged in such a vicious manner by opponents of the Harvard study. Doesn’t that say something about the role of the Lobby and its methods, as characterized by Mearsheimer and Walt? Drezner believes the authors have failed to demonstrate that Israel is a strategic liability, that “U.S. foreign policy behavior” is determined “almost exclusively by the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’” and that the authors “omit consideration of contradictory policies and countervailing foreign policy lobbies.” Fine. All those points are debatable. But they aren’t being debated. Instead, the Lobby is busy smearing the authors and getting Walt kicked out of his job as Kennedy School dean.

Daniel Levy, a former adviser in the office of Israel’s prime minister, a member of the Israeli negotiating team at the Oslo B and Taba talks, and the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative, has the most thoughtful commentary to date, averring that the Harvard study “should serve as a wake-up call, on both sides of the ocean.” He notes that “the tone of the report is harsh,” and “jarring,” that it “lacks finesse and nuance,” but nevertheless,

“Their case is a potent one: that identification of American with Israeli interests can be principally explained via the impact of the Lobby in Washington, and in limiting the parameters of public debate, rather than by virtue of Israel being a vital strategic asset or having a uniquely compelling moral case for support (beyond, as the authors point out, the right to exist, which is anyway not in jeopardy). The study is at its most devastating when it describes how the Lobby ‘stifles debate by intimidation’ and at its most current when it details how America’s interests (and ultimately Israel’s, too) are ill-served by following the Lobby’s agenda.”

Hear! Hear!

Levy goes on to note that the response to the study by the Lobby “has been characterized by a combination of the shrill and the smug. Avoidance of candid discussion might make good sense to the Lobby, but it is unlikely to either advance Israeli interests or the U.S.-Israel relationship.” In the course of his argument that the Lobby is just as bad for Israel as it is for America, Levy makes a salient point:

“The Lobby even denies Israel a luxury that so many other countries benefit from: of having the excuse of external encouragement to do things that are domestically tricky but nationally necessary (remember Central Eastern European economic and democratic reform to gain EU entry in contrast with Israel’s self-destructive settlement policy for continued U.S. aid).”

The Lobby, by its success at neutralizing any effort to rein in the Israeli leadership’s more extreme impulses, undermines the interests of the Jewish state. But the ideologues who make up the Lobby don’t care about that: what they really care about is having the power to silence – and punish – their enemies.

The firing of Dean Walt is an outrage, one that should be met with a storm of indignation. That the Amen Corner would even attempt it – let alone go on the record as taking credit for it – is a testament to the Lobby’s enduring and unchallenged power. It shows how the Lobby operates, and why they must be stopped before any real debate over the foreign policy of this country can be conducted.

The reasons for this extreme defensiveness on the part of the Lobby are not hard to discern. If they are the prime movers of U.S. foreign policy, then they do indeed have a lot to answer for. As the consequences of the Iraq war roll across our television screens, tracing a path of blood and mindless destruction, we have to wonder: who got us here? We have to question their motivations. And we have to ask: Why?

Who lied us into war? For whose sake did 2,300 American soldiers, and tens of thousands of Iraqis, die? Whose interests were served? The tip of the spear Mearsheimer and Walt have pricked the Lobby with is the contention that they were the decisive influence in pushing us into war with Iraq. And the howls that are coming from right, left, and center are proof enough that they have struck home.

Read more by Justin Raimondo