From the China Lobby to the Israel Lobby

For about two decades after World War II, a powerful coalition of U.S. congressmen, publishers, businessmen, and military generals operating close to the highest levels of government in Washington tried to ensure that the United States would not recognize “Red China” and would continue backing Taiwan (the Republic of China) in its goal of ousting the Communist regime in Beijing. The coalition included figures such as Republican Sen. Richard Nixon; Henry Luce, the publisher of the Time and Life magazines; his wife, Clare Boothe Luce; and renowned author Pearl Buck (The Good Earth).

Indeed, the common perception in Washington was that the so-called China lobby was politically invincible and that no U.S. president would dare challenge it by taking steps to establish ties with the People’s Republic of China.

I was reminded of the China lobby when I was attending an event in Washington last week where the main topic of discussion was a controversial study by two noted American political scientists [.pdf] who allege that the Israel lobby exerts enormous influence on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East by tilting it in a pro-Israel direction.

The two scholars – Professors John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard University – argue in their report, "The Israel Lobby" (which was published in a condensed version in the London Review of Books), that the powerful lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), as well individuals operating in the bureaucracy, think tanks, and editorial pages are responsible for the pro-Israeli slant of U.S. policymaking and of the American media.

“No lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially the same,” Mearsheimer and Walt write. “The United States has a terrorism problem in good part,” they add a few pages later, “because it is so closely allied with Israel, not the other way around.”

The study ignited very strong reactions not only in the media and academic circles but also among many bloggers who criticize the authors for questioning the loyalty of American Jews who support Israel and for perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz called the study “paranoid and conspiratorial,” while military historian Eliot Cohen described it as “anti-Semitic” in an op-ed in the Washington Post.

Indeed, following some of this bashing of the two scholars, one would have to conclude that they had authored a sequel to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. This kind of criticism is unfair and, in a way, malicious. Criticizing Israel and/or those lobbying on its behalf in Washington should not be equated with “anti-Semitism” in the same way that criticism of “affirmative action” policies, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, or South Africa’s AIDS policies should not be regarded as “racism.”

Israel and its political lobby in the U.S. are political entities that promote a specific interpretation of the political concept of Jewish nationalism (Zionism) that is not shared by most of the Jews who do not live in Israel, nor by the more than 25 percent of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish.

Whether an American citizen supports close ties with Israel depends on whether he or she perceives that to be in line with U.S. interests and/or values, not on whether he or she is pro- or anti-Semitic.

In fact, some U.S. political figures, such as Presidents Richard Nixon and Harry Truman, who shared some negative stereotypes of Jews, were still in favor of strong political ties with Israel, while many American Jews have been very critical of Israeli policies.

So if Mearsheimer and Walt have concluded that Israel is pursuing policies that run contrary to U.S. interests and/or values, raising that as part of public discourse is as legitimate as if the two were criticizing U.S. ties to France or Japan. Similarly, the Israel lobby should not be treated any differently than other domestic or foreign interests, including those of Saudi Arabia. In the same way, one has the right to challenge any critic of Israel or its lobby by challenging the criticism on its merit, not by applying “negative stereotypes” to the critic, that is by suggesting that he or she is an anti-Semite.

Unlike many of the critics of Mearsheimer and Walt, I have actually read their study and cannot find any flaw with their argument that the Israel lobby in the form of AIPAC, not unlike the old China lobby, is a very powerful player with enormous political and financial resources, and exerts a lot of influence on the executive and legislative branches when it comes to U.S. policy toward Israel and in the Middle East.

I also agree in general with their observation that there is a very influential pro-Israel community in the U.S. that includes many influential Jews and non-Jews (including many evangelical Christians). It seems to me that Israel and its supporters in America should be proud of their success in mobilizing so much support for that country.

That explains why so many foreign countries envy Israel and try to model their lobbying efforts in Washington after AIPAC and its satellites. To put it differently, you cannot have it both ways. If Coca-Cola succeeds in becoming the most popular soft drink in America, it cannot then bash those who point to that fact by accusing them of exhibiting “anti-Coca-Colaism.”

Moreover, the two authors are correct in pointing out the role of neoconservative ideologues and policymakers, most of whom would describe themselves as supporters of Israel, in driving the U.S. into the war in Iraq and the costly Imperial-Wilsonian project in the Middle East. Many of these neocons accept as an axiom that what is good for Israel is good for America, and vice-versa, and that American hegemony in the Middle East helps protect Israel while Israel helps secure American hegemony there.

Mearsheimer and Walt, like many other analysts, disagree with that axiom and insist that American and Israeli interests are not always compatible. Interestingly enough, while there is a growing recognition in Washington that the invasion of Iraq and the entire neocon agenda of “democratizing” the Middle East have run contrary to U.S. interests, many Israelis also seem to be reaching the same conclusion: this agenda harms long-term Israeli interests by destabilizing the Middle East.

There is no doubt that U.S. support for Israel has been responsible for much of the Arab hostility toward Washington. Ending the alliance with Israel would certainly reduce some of the Arab hostility and, by extension, the costs of U.S. intervention in the Middle East.

But it is the U.S. intervention in the region in its totality – support for Israel AND the alliances with the pro-American Arab regimes – that is responsible for the current anti-American sentiment in the Arab world.

The Israel lobby, like the Saudi lobby or the Iraqis who lobbied for U.S. invasion of their country, could be compared to what economists refer to as “rent seekers,” that is interest groups who profit from government policies, in this case U.S. interventionist policies in the Middle East.

From this more balanced perspective, the Israel lobby is no more responsible for current U.S. policies in the Middle East than the China lobby was responsible for U.S. policies in East Asia in the 1950s and 1960s (which were then driven mostly by Cold War-era strategic considerations).

Powerful lobbies can only operate and thrive in the context of existing consensus in Washington over the U.S. national interest. When that consensus changes, any lobby, even the most powerful one, loses its influence and its relevance.

US presidents have resisted the power of the Israel lobby in the past when it came to crucial decisions like selling arms to pro-American Arab countries or pressing Israel to make concessions as part of the peace process.

That President George W. Bush and his top foreign policy aides (Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) have decided to adopt the neocon agenda has to do with their perception of U.S. national interests, not the power of the Israel lobby or, for that matter, American Jews (the majority of whom did not vote for Bush and were against the war in Iraq).

And if and when Bush or another U.S. president decides to change policies in the Middle East based on a calculation of American interests – for example, by launching an opening to Iran – even the most powerful lobby in Washington will not be able to prevent him or her from doing that.

Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

Read more by Leon Hadar