The Middle East: Turning the Page on US Foreign Policy

by , April 22, 2008

Editorial note: What follows is the text of a speech delivered at the MidCoast Forum on Foreign Relations in Rockport, Maine, on April 21, 2008.

One would think that the title of my talk – “The Middle East: Turning the Page on U.S. Foreign Policy” – is fairly noncontroversial, as such things go. Yet the very idea of turning the page – that is, of making a significant change – in our policy in the region is considered heresy, and not only in foreign policy circles but in Washington, D.C., generally. The reason is because our Middle Eastern policy has become hopelessly politicized, locked into a formulaic and increasingly unrealistic stance highly detrimental to our national interest yet artificially maintained by one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington.

Before we turn the page on U.S. policy in the Middle East, we must turn the page on the Israel lobby – the single most decisive factor in shaping our actions and pronouncements in that part of the world.

That the Middle East is a touchy subject is a contention few would dispute. The touchiness, however, only extends in one direction. One has only to utter a single word critical of Israel, and immediately a whole chorus of voices rise up, in unison, speaking in terms meant to end, rather than begin, the discussion. A battery of activist organizations, watchdog groups, and lobbying groups in the guise of “think tanks” springs into action, as if on cue, and the heretic is silenced.

This kind of thing has been going on for years. However, the publication of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, last year was the occasion for such a firestorm of vituperation that one would have thought its attackers were referring to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or some tract by David Duke. Indeed, both were invoked in all too many of the jeremiads unleashed at the authors of The Israel Lobby. In newspaper columns, editorials, and the book review sections of all the “respectable” magazines, with a few sterling exceptions, such as Foreign Policy magazine, two distinguished scholars were smeared as bigots and worse. John Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of political science at the University of Chicago and is well-known as the dean of the American “realists” and the author of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, whose reputation as a serious scholar has never been questioned – until now. Stephen Walt was the dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and his academic credentials, too, have been considered nothing less than sterling – until now.

Professor Mearsheimer, whose pieces used to appear on the op-ed page of the New York Times with some regularity, has since been banished from that prestigious forum: not a single one of his articles has appeared in their pages since the publication of The Israel Lobby.

Walt, too, has been blacklisted. As the writer Philip Weiss related: “A year or so back, Walt said to me that when he took the Israel lobby project on, he forswore high government service; he realized it would be out of reach for him if he attacked this issue.” Also, as Weiss points out, he “was biting the hand that feeds him, literally. His chair at Harvard is funded by Robert and Renee Belfer, who according to GuideStar.org are trustees of the right-wing Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank Walt attacked in his paper.”

Originally published in a shorter version by Harvard and put on the Kennedy School’s Web site, “The Israel Lobby” paper was stripped of its Harvard logo at the insistence of Alan Dershowitz and others. The call to de-fund Walt’s academic position went out. Weiss also relates that Walt “suffered some degree of social ostracism in Cambridge.” And a campaign to censor the authors was launched: their invitation to speak before the Chicago Council for Global Affairs was rescinded at the last minute: their subject was “too hot to handle.” In a letter to the Council board of directors, Mearsheimer and Walt relate the following:

“Council President Marshall Bouton phoned one of us (Mearsheimer) and informed him that he was canceling the event. He said he felt ‘extremely uncomfortable making this call’ and that his decision did not reflect his personal views on the subject of our book. Instead, he explained that his decision was based on the need ‘to protect the institution.’ He said that he had a serious ‘political problem,’ because there were individuals who would be angry if he gave us a venue to speak, and that this would have serious negative consequences for the Council. ‘This one is so hot,’ Marshall maintained, that he could not present it at a Council session unless someone from ‘the other side’ – such as Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League – was on stage with us. At the very least, he needed to present ‘contending viewpoints.’ But he said it was too late to try to change the format, as the fall schedule was being finalized and there would not be sufficient time to arrange an alternate date. He showed little interest in doing anything with us in 2008 or beyond.”

The argument made by the Lobby was that Mearsheimer and Walt were presenting views that could not be aired without an appropriate counterpoint: that if they were allowed to speak, Abe Foxman must be there, on hand to refute what can only be characterized, under the circumstances, as dangerous and even evil ideas. In other words, the authors of The Israel Lobby are purveyors of poison, and so we must have the antidote ready and in reach.

I want to emphasize that all this brouhaha over The Israel Lobby occurred before the book was even out. Prior to publication day, the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, a Jewish cultural center in Washington, and three organizations in Chicago had all canceled events at which the authors were scheduled to speak.

The irony is that this illustrates, in rather vivid terms, a central thesis of the book. As Mearsheimer and Walt put it:

“The Lobby doesn’t want an open debate, of course, because that might lead Americans to question the level of support they provide. Accordingly, pro-Israel organizations work hard to influence the institutions that do most to shape popular opinion.”

When the book was finally released, the “hot” polemic everyone had anticipated was nowhere to be seen. Instead, The Israel Lobby turned out to be a cool, dispassionate look at the structure, identity, motivation, and machinations of the pro-Israel forces in this country, and specifically their power and influence within the Washington Beltway and over the three main levers of power: Congress, the executive, and the media. Written in the style of a disinterested observer, the prose is dull, almost plodding, as the authors relate, in excruciating detail, how the Lobby has distorted both the policymaking process and also the debate around these issues insofar as they impact the Middle East.

The Lobby’s agenda is not only to secure more aid – both military and economic – than any other recipient of American largesse, but also to use American military power to reshape the Middle East to Israel’s advantage: in Lebanon, where Hezbollah threatens Israeli security, to Syria, backer of Palestinian resistance groups, to Iraq – where Saddam Hussein once offered to pay compensation to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers – to Iran, now the Lobby’s main target, where the drive to acquire nuclear power has been declared an “existential threat” by Israeli leaders. Central to this agenda is the undermining of America’s role as an honest Middle East peace broker when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As Mearsheimer and Walt relate in detail, the Lobby has fought relentlessly against the establishment of a Palestinian state and against the very idea of a more balanced treatment of the issue in American policymaking circles. This has been the case ever since Bush the first caved on the question of Israeli settlements in Palestine, and when Bill Clinton took office, things got worse.

The Clinton administration sided with Israel all during the Camp David process, letting the Israelis see documents and edit them before they were available to the Palestinians. Clinton also kept the Arab states away from Camp David and assembled a team bereft of anyone with expertise in Arab politics. President Clinton took daily calls from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and his chief negotiator, Dennis Ross, was and is a partisan of Israel. In the end, Clinton had the chutzpah to blame Arafat, of all people, for the failure of the peace process.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration made an initial attempt to pressure Israel to pull in its expansionist policies. For the first time, George W. Bush advocated a separate Palestinian state. The Bush people put what the New York Times characterized as “enormous pressure” on Ariel Sharon and the Israeli government to make some sort of accommodation with the Palestinians.

The Israelis were in a panic: Sharon denounced U.S. efforts as an attempt to “appease the Arabs at our expense,” likened Bush to Neville Chamberlain, and declared “We will not be Czechoslovakia!” It wasn’t long before Israeli tanks were barreling into Hebron.

In response to the Bush administration’s post-9/11 initiatives in the Middle East, Israel launched a full-scale campaign to delegitimize Yasser Arafat, the elected leader of the Palestinians, and isolate the PLO and the Palestinian people. Israel and its American lobby made a concerted effort to equate Arafat with Osama bin Laden – and, furthermore, to convince Americans that the Israelis were engaged in a fight against terrorism similar to that in which the U.S. was engaged with al-Qaeda. The equation of al-Qaeda with the Palestinians did not quite fit, but the propaganda offensive was on full throttle. An open letter from the Project for a New American Century, signed by prominent neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz, Charles Krauthammer, and Richard Perle, called on Bush to “fully support our fellow democracy,” Israel, and demanded an end to all support for the Palestinians. An effort in Congress to cut Bush off at the pass was successful: in November, 89 senators sent a letter to the president hailing his decision not to meet with Arafat and demanding that the U.S. refrain from putting pressure on Israel not to launch fresh attacks on the Palestinian territories.

By late in the month, the administration had come around to the Lobby’s point of view. When the Israelis attacked Palestinian positions in the Gaza strip, the U.S. said nothing. Sharon was visiting Bush at the time, and the meeting was friendly. No mention was made of U.S.-Israeli tensions, which had magically disappeared. The Israel lobby had chalked up a victory. The Karina A incident, in which a ship loaded down with Iranian arms was captured in the Red Sea, convinced Bush that the Palestinians were rearming with Iran’s help. This, in spite of the fact that the ultimate destination of the ship was in dispute: it’s likely the arms were headed to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Regardless of the truth of the matter, the Israelis won the day in Washington – and the Palestinians were once again isolated diplomatically. The American effort to engage with Arafat and restart the peace process was indefinitely stalled.

This did not put an end to the ongoing U.S.-Israeli contretemps. By late March, the Israelis were at it again: in response to a Hamas suicide bomber who killed 30 Israelis at a Passover Seder, they launched Operation Defensive Shield and took control of the occupied territories. The U.S. demanded Israeli withdrawal – and the Israel lobby went into action.

Their target was Colin Powell, then secretary of state, who was on a trip to the Middle East that included a visit with Arafat. Neoconservatives in the White House and the Pentagon went into action, determined to sabotage Powell’s efforts. The neoconservative media started attacking Powell: David Brooks on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Bill Kristol in the Weekly Standard, and the entire stable of neoconservative newspaper columnists went ballistic. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had made a special trip to America to make the case for Israel, announced that the Powell trip would not amount to a hill of beans. Powell, under constant pressure from the Lobby and its supporters, later described his trip as “ten of the most miserable days of my life.” In the end, Powell was neutralized, and his efforts came to naught.

The other target of the Lobby’s campaign was the president himself. Top Republican congressional leaders were mobilized: Tom DeLay, Trent Lott, and Dick Armey visited Bush in the White House and told him to lay off Israel. This was followed by the Christian evangelicals, led by Jerry Falwell, who organized a massive phone campaign in support of Israel: Washington was deluged with calls, e-mails, letters, and faxes.

It worked.

[Part 2 will appear on Wednesday.]

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