The Making of American Foreign Policy

It's all about domestic politics

by , April 21, 2010

Writing on his Foreign Policy blog, Stephen Walt notes the uptick in war hysteria directed at Iran, and, like a good realist, looks at the US-Iranian military equation with a cold-eyed attention to facts and figures. He lists the huge military and economic disparities in favor of the US, bare numbers that speak truth to war propaganda, and then wonders aloud:

"The more one thinks about it, the odder our obsession with Iran appears. It’s a pretty unlovable regime, to be sure, but given Iran’s actual capabilities, why do U.S. leaders devote so much time and effort trying to corral support for more economic sanctions (which aren’t going to work) or devising strategies to ‘contain’ an Iran that shows no sign of being able to expand in any meaningful way?"

In search of an answer to this puzzling question, Walt goes on to explore the non-military aspects of the Middle Eastern conflict, averring that "simple bean counts like the one presented above do not tell you everything about the two countries, or the political challenges that Iran might pose to its neighbors." Pointing to Iranian support for Hezbollah and influence in Iraq and Afghanistan, Walt nevertheless urges us not to overstate the alleged Iranian "threat" and allow ourselves to be stampeded into another unnecessary war. One couldn’t agree more, and yet I can’t help but notice Walt failed to answer his own question: why are our "leaders" devoting so much time and effort to corral support for murderous sanctions (remember Iraq) and other acts of war?

The answer, of course, is contained in the pages of a book Walt co-authored, with John Mearsheimer, that tells a good part of the story. The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy is invariably described as "controversial," or even "extremely controversial," but this is merely an indication of how tame our political discourse has become in the Republic’s late senescence. In reality the book merely demonstrates, at length and in great detail, a simple truism that everyone already knows and long ago learned to live with: the decisive influence of Israel’s partisans in the formulation and conduct of US foreign policy.

This dominant position has been true since the Reagan years, and, what’s more, it has been common knowledge: after all, it was Fortune magazine, not The National Socialist News, that rated the Israel lobby the second most powerful in Washington. This lobby unites the broadest coalition in American politics, ranging from the left wing of the Democratic party all the way to the furthest reaches of the ultra-right, not to mention including the bipartisan political establishment in Washington.

A huge ongoing propaganda campaign is constantly churning out pro-Israel materials directed at a wide variety of special interest groups: the lobby’s most well-known success story is the Christian fundamentalist faction, which believes in the key role played by Israel as a harbinger of the second coming of Christ. The lobby has parlayed this into a powerful domestic constituency fanatically devoted to Israel’s cause – and not just the cause of the current Israeli government, but of the most extremist and expansionist elements in the Israeli polity.

A less well-known triumph of niche marketing is the Israeli propaganda effort directed at the gay community. The Israeli government has sponsored ads appearing in San Francisco’s bus shelters extolling the IDF because it doesn’t discriminate against gays, and a recent tour of Israel’s gay hot spots promises a visit with hunky IDF soldiers. Pat Robertson and the advocates of gay liberation – together at last!

We’re an empire now, and it’s perfectly rational for every state actor in the world who wants something from Uncle Sam to not only show up at the imperial court in Washington and seek the favor of the most powerful ruler in world history, but also to make an appeal to his subjects. Since Congress long ago ceded its war-making and oversight powers to the executive, an American president, once in office, can wreak considerable havoc in the conduct of our foreign affairs

Yet even Caesar operates under certain constraints: i.e. the vicissitudes of domestic politics, which require him to hand out favors to his supporters in order to remain in power beyond the next election. It is safe to say, with certain rare exceptions, that every political leader acts purely out of his own self-interest: that is, with an eye to either achieving political office or else retaining that office once elected. This is merely a restatement of a simple axiom: every ruling class acts to preserve its rule.

The American elite, however, is particularly ruthless, these days, in its pursuit of naked self-interest: the old British idea of politics as a "public service," a selfless act of noblesse oblige, went out with the first Bush administration, and had been near extinct long before then. Today, it is a veritable free-for-all, with various interest groups lunging at the loot, and battling over it on the public stage, so that American politics often looks like an episode of the Jerry Springer Show.

This vulgarity has carried over into the realm of foreign affairs, coinciding with the rising influence of the neoconservatives. The neocons, whose unabashed appetite for foreign conquests, and open boasts that they were establishing an "American empire," really defined the style and spirit of the American "hegemon," whose supremacy they proclaim [.pdf] must be the underlying objective of American foreign policy. The present administration, for all its talk of "change," has continued to operate within the same paradigm that assumes unchallenged American supremacy the world over.

With such an extremist philosophy, one would think the neocons would’ve had a hard time pushing though their hard-line policies, especially given the much-lamented "isolationism" of the American people, and yet their success hinged on the interests of various interest groups that, together, hardly constitute a majority of the American people, but certainly dominate the "higher circles" in government, in the business world, and in the media. Using this leverage, the War Party’s coalition of ideological, business, and foreign interests managed to whip up a storm of war hysteria against Iraq very similar to what is being whipped up today against Iran.

With one big difference: there is very little pretense being made as to whose interests a war against Iran is designed to serve, unlike in the previous instance. Here the power of the Israel lobby is rearing up to its full height, with Israeli government officials openly calling on the nations of the world – i.e. the United States – to commit acts of war against Iran: impose sanctions, set up a blockade, and effect "regime change" by whatever means. And Israel’s amen corner in the US is echoing this call, with the drumbeat for war getting louder by the month. Only a war-weary public, presently embroiled in bitter domestic internecine disputes, stands in the way of their success.

Our leaders are afraid of the public reaction if it should ever come to war, and so the President and his administration are caught in a vise, pressed by fear of the Lobby on one side, and fear of their own people on the other. On the one hand, a war at the height of an economic depression might be just the trick for turning things around politically. On the other hand, the backlash could be terrible, and politically fatal, like prematurely awakening a wild animal from hibernation – there’s always the danger it will turn on you. Under these circumstances, will they dare to go ahead with it?

In earnestly looking for some external reason for the drive to war – some geopolitical dynamic that would explain the inordinate attention paid to a weak adversary whose ability to hurt us is severely constrained – it’s no wonder Professor Walt came up empty-handed. No such dynamic exists: what does exist, however, is American politics, the course of which determines the policies we pursue overseas. There is no disinterested determination of where our interests, as a nation, lie, or what course would best protect the citizens of this country from attack: what is being protected, here, is not the physical and economic safety of the American people, but the particular interests of certain politicians and their supporters.

Will we go to war with Iran? No one knows. But if it serves the interests of a politically beleaguered, increasingly unpopular President or party to divert public attention away from domestic problems by launching a campaign of fear – The Iranians are coming! The Iranians are coming! – and creating a "crisis," well then, war is hardly inconceivable. Indeed, it seems more likely by the day.

Read more by Justin Raimondo