The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy

John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt
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Dreams of Regional Transformation

The Iraq war was not supposed to be a costly quagmire. Rather, it was intended as the first step in a larger plan to reorder the Middle East. This ambitious strategy was a dramatic departure from previous U.S. policy, and the Lobby and Israel were critical driving forces behind this shift. This point was made clearly after the Iraq war began in a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal. The headline says it all: “President’s Dream: Changing Not Just Regime but a Region: A Pro-U.S., Democratic Area is a Goal that Has Israeli and Neo Conservative Roots.”180

Pro-Israel forces have long been interested in getting the U.S. military more directly involved in the Middle East, so it could help protect Israel.181 But they had limited success on this front during the Cold War, because America acted as an “off-shore balancer” in the region. Most U.S. forces designated for the Middle East, like the Rapid Deployment Force, were kept “over the horizon” and out of harm’s way. Washington maintained a favorable balance of power by playing local powers off against each other, which is why the Reagan Administration supported Saddam against revolutionary Iran during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88).

This policy changed after the first Gulf War, when the Clinton Administration adopted a strategy of “dual containment.” It called for stationing substantial U.S. forces in the region to contain both Iran and Iraq, instead of using one to check the other. The father of dual containment was none other than Martin Indyk, who first articulated the strategy in May 1993 at the pro-Israel think tank WINEP and then implemented it as Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council.182

There was considerable dissatisfaction with dual containment by the mid-1990s, because it made the United States the mortal enemy of two countries who also hated each other, and it forced Washington to bear the burden of containing both of them.183 Not surprisingly, the Lobby worked actively in Congress to save dual containment.184 Pressed by AIPAC and other pro-Israel forces, Clinton toughened up the policy in the spring of 1995 by imposing an economic embargo on Iran. But AIPAC et al wanted more. The result was the 1996 Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, which imposed sanctions on any foreign companies investing more than $40 million to develop petroleum resources in Iran or Libya. As Ze’ev Schiff, the military correspondent for Ha’aretz, noted at the time, “Israel is but a tiny element in the big scheme, but one should not conclude that it cannot influence those within the Beltway.”185

By the late 1990s, however, the neoconservatives were arguing that dual containment was not enough and that regime change in Iraq was now essential. By toppling Saddam and turning Iraq into a vibrant democracy, they argued, the United States would trigger a far-reaching process of change throughout the Middle East. This line of thinking, of course, was evident in the “Clean Break” study the neoconservatives wrote for Netanyahu. By 2002, when invading Iraq had become a front-burner issue, regional transformation had become an article of faith in neoconservative circles.186

Charles Krauthammer describes this grand scheme as the brainchild of Natan Sharansky, the Israeli politician whose writings have impressed President Bush.187 But Sharansky was hardly a lone voice in Israel. In fact, Israelis across the political spectrum believed that toppling Saddam would alter the Middle East to Israel’s advantage. Aluf Benn reported in Ha’aretz (February 17, 2003), “Senior IDF officers and those close to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, such as National Security Advisor Ephraim Halevy, paint a rosy picture of the wonderful future Israel can expect after the war. They envision a domino effect, with the fall of Saddam Hussein followed by that of Israel’s other enemies … Along with these leaders will disappear terror and weapons of mass destruction.”188

In short, Israeli leaders, neoconservatives, and the Bush Administration all saw war with Iraq as the first step in an ambitious campaign to remake the Middle East. And in the first flush of victory, they turned their sights on Israel’s other regional opponents.

Gunning for Syria

Israeli leaders did not push the Bush Administration to put its crosshairs on Syria before March 2003, because they were too busy pushing for war against Iraq. But once Baghdad fell in mid-April, Sharon and his lieutenants began urging Washington to target Damascus.189 On April 16, for example, Sharon and Shaul Mofaz, his defense minister, gave high profile interviews in different Israeli newspapers. Sharon, in Yedioth Ahronoth, called for the United States to put “very heavy” pressure on Syria.190 Mofaz told Ma’ariv that, “We have a long list of issues that we are thinking of demanding of the Syrians and it is appropriate that it should be done through the Americans.”191 Sharon’s national security advisor, Ephraim Halevy, told a WINEP audience that it was now important for the United States to get rough with Syria, and the Washington Post reported that Israel was “fueling the campaign” against Syria by feeding the United States intelligence reports about the actions of Syrian President Bashar Assad.192

Prominent members of the Lobby made the same arguments after Baghdad fell.193 Wolfowitz declared that “there has got to be regime change in Syria,” and Richard Perle told a journalist that “We could deliver a short message, a two-worded message [to other hostile regimes in the Middle East]: ‘You’re next’.”194 In early April, WINEP released a bipartisan report stating that Syria “should not miss the message that countries that pursue Saddam’s reckless, irresponsible and defiant behavior could end up sharing his fate.”195 On April 15, Yossi Klein Halevi wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times entitled “Next, Turn the Screws on Syria,” while the next day Zev Chafets wrote an article for the New York Daily News entitled “Terror-Friendly Syria Needs a Change, Too.” Not to be outdone, Lawrence Kaplan wrote in the New Republic on April 21 that Syrian leader Assad was a serious threat to America.196

Back on Capitol Hill, Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY) had reintroduced the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act on April 12.197 It threatened sanctions against Syria if it did not withdraw from Lebanon, give up its WMD, and stop supporting terrorism, and it also called for Syria and Lebanon to take concrete steps to make peace with Israel. This legislation was strongly endorsed by the Lobby—especially AIPAC—and “framed,” according to the Jewish Telegraph Agency, “by some of Israel’s best friends in Congress.”198 It had been on the back burner for some time, largely because the Bush Administration had little enthusiasm for it, but the anti-Syrian act passed overwhelmingly (398-4in the House; 89-4 in the Senate), and Bush signed it into law on December 12, 2003.199

Yet the Bush Administration was still divided about the wisdom of targeting Syria at this time. Although the neoconservatives were eager to pick a fight with Damascus, the CIA and the State Department were opposed. And even after Bush signed the new law, he emphasized that he would go slowly in implementing it.200

Bush’s ambivalence is understandable. First, the Syrian government had been providing the United States with important intelligence about al Qaeda since 9/11 and had also warned Washington about a planned terrorist attack in the Gulf.201 Syria had also given CIA interrogators access to Mohammed Zammar, the alleged recruiter of some of the 9/11 hijackers. Targeting the Assad regime would jeopardize these valuable connections, and thus undermine the larger war on terrorism.

Second, Syria was not on bad terms with Washington before the Iraq war (e.g., it had even voted for U.N. Resolution 1441), and it was no threat to the United States. Playing hardball with Syria would make the United States look like a bully with an insatiable appetite for beating up Arab states. Finally, putting Syria on the American hit list would give Damascus a powerful incentive to cause trouble in Iraq. Even if one wanted to pressure Syria, it made good sense to finish the job in Iraq first.

Yet Congress insisted on putting the screws to Damascus, largely in response to pressure from Israel officials and pro-Israel groups like AIPAC.202 If there were no Lobby, there would have been no Syria Accountability Act and U.S. policy toward Damascus would have been more in line with the U.S. national interest.

Putting Iran in the Crosshairs

Israelis tend to describe every threat in the starkest terms, but Iran is widely seen as their most dangerous enemy because it is the most likely adversary to acquire nuclear weapons. Virtually all Israelis regard an Islamic country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons as an existential threat. As Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer remarked one month before the Iraq war: “Iraq is a problem …. But you should understand, if you ask me, today Iran is more dangerous than Iraq.”203

Sharon began publicly pushing the United States to confront Iran in November 2002, in a high profile interview in The Times (London).204 Describing Iran as the “center of world terror,” and bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, he declared that the Bush Administration should put the strong arm on Iran “the day after” it conquered Iraq. In late April 2003, Ha’aretz reported that the Israeli ambassador in Washington was now calling for regime change in Iran.205 The overthrow of Saddam, he noted, was “not enough.” In his words, America “has to follow through. We still have great threats of that magnitude coming from Syria, coming from Iran.”

The neoconservatives also lost no time in making the case for regime change in Tehran.206 On May 6, the AEI co-sponsored an all-day conference on Iran with the pro-Israel Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute.207 The speakers were all strongly pro-Israel, and many called for the United States to replace the Iranian regime with a democracy. As usual, there were a bevy of articles by prominent neoconservatives making the case for going after Iran. For example, William Kristol wrote in the Weekly Standard on May 12 that, “The liberation of Iraq was the first great battle for the future of the Middle East …. But the next great battle – not, we hope, a military one – will be for Iran.”208

The Bush Administration has responded to the Lobby’s pressure by working overtime to shut down Iran’s nuclear program. But Washington has had little success, and Iran seems determined to get a nuclear arsenal. As a result, the Lobby has intensified its pressure on the U.S. government, using all of the strategies in its playbook.209 Op-eds and articles now warn of imminent dangers from a nuclear Iran, caution against any appeasement of a “terrorist” regime, and hint darkly of preventive action should diplomacy fail. The Lobby is also pushing Congress to approve the Iran Freedom Support Act, which would expand existing sanctions on Iran. Israeli officials also warn they may take preemptive action should Iran continue down the nuclear road, hints partly intended to keep Washington focused on this issue.

One might argue that Israel and the Lobby have not had much influence on U.S. policy toward Iran, because the United States has its own reasons to keep Iran from going nuclear. This is partly true, but Iran’s nuclear ambitions do not pose an existential threat to the United States. If Washington could live with a nuclear Soviet Union, a nuclear China, or even a nuclear North Korea, then it can live with a nuclear Iran. And that is why the Lobby must keep constant pressure on U.S. politicians to confront Tehran. Iran and the United States would hardly be allies if the Lobby did not exist, but U.S. policy would be more temperate and preventive war would not be a serious option.


It is not surprising that Israel and its American supporters want the United States to deal with any and all threats to Israel’s security. If their efforts to shape U.S. policy succeed, then Israel’s enemies get weakened or overthrown, Israel gets a free hand with the Palestinians, and the United States does most of the fighting, dying, rebuilding, and paying.

But even if the United States fails to transform the Middle East and finds itself in conflict with an increasingly radicalized Arab and Islamic world, Israel still ends up protected by the world’s only superpower.210 This is not a perfect outcome from the Lobby’s perspective, but it is obviously preferable to Washington distancing itself from Israel, or using its leverage to force Israel to make peace with the Palestinians.


Can the Lobby’s power be curtailed? One would like to think so, given the Iraq debacle, the obvious need to rebuild America’s image in the Arab and Islamic world, and the recent revelations about AIPAC officials passing U.S. government secrets to Israel. One might also think that Arafat’s death and the election of the more moderate Abu Mazen would cause Washington to press vigorously and evenhandedly for a peace agreement. In short, there are ample grounds for U.S. leaders to distance themselves from the Lobby and adopt a Middle East policy more consistent with broader U.S. interests. In particular, using American power to achieve a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians would help advance the broader goals of fighting extremism and promoting democracy in the Middle East.

But that is not going to happen anytime soon. AIPAC and its allies (including Christian Zionists) have no serious opponents in the lobbying world. They know it has become more difficult to make Israel’s case today, and they are responding by expanding their activities and staffs.211 Moreover, American politicians remain acutely sensitive to campaign contributions and other forms of political pressure and major media outlets are likely to remain sympathetic to Israel no matter what it does.

This situation is deeply worrisome, because the Lobby’s influence causes trouble on several fronts. It increases the terrorist danger that all states face – including America’s European allies. By preventing U.S. leaders from pressuring Israel to make peace, the Lobby has also made it impossible to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This situation gives extremists a powerful recruiting tool, increases the pool of potential terrorists and sympathizers, and contributes to Islamic radicalism around the world.

Furthermore, the Lobby’s campaign for regime change in Iran and Syria could lead the United States to attack those countries, with potentially disastrous effects. We do not need another Iraq. At a minimum, the Lobby’s hostility toward these countries makes it especially difficult for Washington to enlist them against al Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgency, where their help is badly needed.

There is a moral dimension here as well. Thanks to the Lobby, the United States has become the de facto enabler of Israeli expansion in the occupied territories, making it complicit in the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinians. This situation undercuts Washington’s efforts to promote democracy abroad and makes it look hypocritical when it presses other states to respect human rights. U.S. efforts to limit nuclear proliferation appear equally hypocritical given its willingness to accept Israel’s nuclear arsenal, which encourages Iran and others to seek similar capabilities.

Moreover, the Lobby’s campaign to squelch debate about Israel is unhealthy for democracy. Silencing skeptics by organizing blacklists and boycotts – or by suggesting that critics are anti-Semites – violates the principle of open debate upon which democracy depends. The inability of the U.S. Congress to conduct a genuine debate on these vital issues paralyzes the entire process of democratic deliberation. Israel’s backers should be free to make their case and to challenge those who disagree with them. But efforts to stifle debate by intimidation must be roundly condemned by those who believe in free speech and open discussion of important public issues. Finally, the Lobby’s influence has been bad for Israel. Its ability to persuade Washington to support an expansionist agenda has discouraged Israel from seizing opportunities – including a peace treaty with Syria and a prompt and full implementation of the Oslo Accords – that would have saved Israeli lives and shrunk the ranks of Palestinian extremists. Denying the Palestinians their legitimate political rights certainly has not made Israel more secure, and the long campaign to kill or marginalize a generation of Palestinian leaders has empowered extremist groups like Hamas, and reduced the number of Palestinian leaders who would be both willing to accept a fair settlement and able to make it work. This course raises the awful specter of Israel one day occupying the pariah status once reserved for apartheid states like South Africa. Ironically, Israel itself would probably be better off if the Lobby were less powerful and U.S. policy were more evenhanded.

But there is a ray of hope. Although the Lobby remains a powerful force, the adverse effects of its influence are increasingly difficult to hide. Powerful states can maintain flawed policies for quite some time, but reality cannot be ignored forever. What is needed, therefore, 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 not its continued occupation of the West Bank or its broader regional agenda. Open debate will expose the limits of the strategic and moral case for one-sided U.S. support and could move the United States to a position more consistent with its own national interest, with the interests of the other states in the region, and with Israel’s long-term interests as well.

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