Thursday, August 30, 2007

An Arabist Looks at the Israeli Lobby

David Remnick has an interesting piece on the "friends of Israel" in this weeks New Yorker. He examines the excitement caused last year by the Mearsheimer/Walt affair:
Last year, two distinguished political scientists, John J. Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago, and Stephen M. Walt, of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard, published a thirty-four-thousand-word article online entitled “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” a shorter version of which appeared in The London Review of Books. Israel, they wrote, has become a “strategic liability” for the United States but retains its strong support because of a wealthy, well-organized, and bewitching lobby that has a “stranglehold” on Congress and American √©lites. Moreover, Israel and its lobby bear outsized responsibility for persuading the Bush Administration to invade Iraq and, perhaps one day soon, to attack the nuclear facilities of Iran. Farrar, Straus & Giroux will publish a book-length version of Mearsheimer and Walt’s arguments on September 4th.

I read this with avid interest as for decades I was echoing the same sentiments, often voiced before in many foreign policy debates, that Israel was pushing the US into areas that hurt American interests elsewhere. I had gained high proficiency in written and spoken Arabic as an FSO and spent two tours in the Middle East as a political officer. The ramifications of the "Palestinian Problem" were everywhere in US relations with our Arab friends. I had contributed to Paul Findlay's book "They Dare To Speak Out," and read dozens of books that promoted multilateral US diplomatic efforts over our bilateral relationship with Israel. Remnick's overview is well done:
Mearsheimer and Walt are “realists.” In their view, diplomatic decisions should be made on the basis of national interest. They argue that in the post-Cold War era, in the absence of a superpower struggle in the Middle East, the United States no longer has any need for an indulgent patronage of the state of Israel. Three billion dollars in annual foreign aid, the easy sale of advanced weaponry, thirty-four vetoes of U.N. Security Council resolutions critical of Israel since 1982—such support, Mearsheimer and Walt maintain, is not in the national interest. “There is a strong moral case for supporting Israel’s existence,” they write, but they deny that Israel is of critical strategic value to the United States. The disappearance of Israel, in their view, would jeopardize neither America’s geopolitical interests nor its core values. Such is their “realism.”

I disagree with Remnick's implication, or my inference from his description, that M/W somehow may favor the "disappearance" of Israel. I also have come around to the belief that Israel does represent one of America's core values, though I agree that it is moot whether our geopolitical interests are BEST served by supporting Israel in the present fashion. But then Remnick cuts to the chase, the charge of anti-Semitism:
The authors observe that discussion about Israel in the United States is often circumscribed, and that the ultimate price for criticizing Israel is to be branded an anti-Semite. They set out to write “The Israel Lobby,” they have said, to break taboos and stimulate discussion. They anticipated some ugly attacks, and were not disappointed. The Washington Post published a piece by the Johns Hopkins professor Eliot Cohen under the headline “Yes, It’s Anti-Semitic.” The Times reported earlier this month that several organizations, including a Jewish community center, have decided to withdraw speaking invitations to Mearsheimer and Walt, in violation of good sense and the spirit of open discussion.

Mearsheimer and Walt are not anti-Semites or racists. They are serious scholars, and there is no reason to doubt their sincerity. They are right to describe the moral violation in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. (In this, most Israelis and most American Jews agree with them.) They were also right about Iraq. The strategic questions they raise now, particularly about Israel’s privileged relationship with the United States, are worth debating––just as it is worth debating whether it is a good idea to be selling arms to Saudi Arabia. But their announced objectives have been badly undermined by the contours of their argument—a prosecutor’s brief that depicts Israel as a singularly pernicious force in world affairs. Mearsheimer and Walt have not entirely forgotten their professional duties, and they periodically signal their awareness of certain complexities. But their conclusions are unmistakable: Israel and its lobbyists bear a great deal of blame for the loss of American direction, treasure, and even blood.

I agree that M/W are not anti-Semites. And I had a long discussion with Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg at Columbia U back when I was politically involved concerning the charges that there is some sort of "cabal" which mysteriously manipulates American political decision-makers through various maneuvers to support Israel's interests over perhaps even the best interests of the USA in certain circumstances. Remnick proceeds:

In Mearsheimer and Walt’s cartography, the Israel lobby is not limited to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It is a loose yet well-oiled coalition of Jewish-American organizations, “watchdog” groups, think tanks, Christian evangelicals, sympathetic journalists, and neocon academics. This is not a cabal but a world in which Abraham Foxman gives the signal, Pat Robertson describes his apocalyptic rapture, Charles Krauthammer pumps out a column, Bernard Lewis delivers a lecture—and the President of the United States invades another country. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Exxon-Mobil barely exist.

Remnick wrote a Pulitzer-Prize description of his years in Moscow in the eighties as the USSR crumbled and is not buying any of the hokum that M/W are pumping out.
Where many accounts identify Osama bin Laden’s primary grievances with American support of “infidel” authoritarian regimes in Islamic lands, Mearsheimer and Walt align his primary concerns with theirs: America’s unwillingness to push Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. (It doesn’t matter that Israel and the Palestinians were in peace negotiations in 1993, the year of the first attack on the World Trade Center, or that during the Camp David negotiations in 2000 bin Laden’s pilots were training in Florida.) Mearsheimer and Walt give you the sense that, if the Israelis and the Palestinians come to terms, bin Laden will return to the family construction business.

I agree that M/W generate more heat than light in their one-sided "prosecutorial brief" against Israel and the Zionist urge to people the land with diaspora Jews. My experiences in every Arab country in the Arab League [I have visited all save Libya and Djibouti] is that there are a lot of Arab politicians who get on the soapbox and preach loudly and even hysterically about Israel, then tell one personally that the Arabs need a lot of the commercial skills and entrepreneurial expertise, plus financing, that clever Israelis and their "American friends" can supply. These same Arab business and political types repeated these tropes to me at two World Economic Forum experiences in Casablanca [I met Arafat & Shimon Peres as an Amoco Representative] and Amman [where I shook Rabin's hand a week before he was murdered] in the mid-'90s, when Oslo was moving forward. Things were looking up. Remnick on the M/W narrative:
It’s a narrative that recounts every lurid report of Israeli cruelty as indisputable fact but leaves out the rise of Fatah and Palestinian terrorism before 1967; the Munich Olympics; Black September; myriad cases of suicide bombings; and other spectaculars. The narrative rightly points out the destructiveness of the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and America’s reluctance to do much to curtail them, but there is scant mention of Palestinian violence or diplomatic bungling, only a recitation of the claim that, in 2000, Israel offered “a disarmed set of Bantustans under de-facto Israeli control.” (Strange that, at the time, the Saudi Prince Bandar told Yasir Arafat, “If we lose this opportunity, it is not going to be a tragedy. This is going to be a crime.”) Nor do they dwell for long on instances when the all-powerful Israel lobby failed to sway the White House, as when George H. W. Bush dragged Yitzhak Shamir to the Madrid peace conference.

Every Arab sympathizer and advocate usually starts with the M/W "bantustan" metaphor. Then, if the interlocutor is honest, he will admit that Arafat refused four-fifths of a loaf for reasons other than mere "justice" and "historical ties." Arafat was supremely unable to give up the predominant position he had in the PLO hierarchy, which would have been threatened had he signed in 2000. More bluntly, he was afraid he would be killed, like Sadat. Arafat was a physical and moral coward. And Prince Bandar was supremely correct, for Arafat to reject the offer on the table with Barak was a "CRIME."

During my strange career path in DC, I worked for companies who were registered foreign agents several times, plus informally I worked for the Greek, Armenian, and Lebanese lobbies. I worked for Denis Neill on the Pakistan front, soon to be a major motion picture in "Charlie Wilson's War" and actually worked with Wilson on a low-level, but important project that netted Pakistan $450,000,000 in much-needed military aid [with the help of Dem. Senators Kerry & Dodd---I personally delivered the check!!!] My wife worked as the Greek representative for Daniel J. Edelman [and for Panama as well] Lobbies are part and parcel of the American way since Gen. Grant sat in the Willard Lobby and De Tocqueville wrote on how difficult American foreign policy would be to enforce because "domestic interests" would interfere with the prosecution of diplomatic initiatives. From the XYZ Affair onwards, the USA has had its foreign and domestic interests intertwined, as Remnick goes on to say:
Lobbying is inscribed in the American system of power and influence. Big Pharma, the A.A.R.P., the N.R.A., the N.A.A.C.P., farming interests, the American Petroleum Institute, and hundreds of others shuttle between K Street and Capitol Hill. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national-security adviser, recently praised Mearsheimer and Walt in the pages of Foreign Policy for the service of “initiating a much-needed public debate,” but he went on to provide a tone and a perspective that are largely missing from their arguments. “The participation of ethnic or foreign-supported lobbies in the American policy process is nothing new,” he observes. “In my public life, I have dealt with a number of them. I would rank the Israeli-American, Cuban-American, and Armenian-American lobbies as the most effective in their assertiveness. The Greek- and Taiwanese-American lobbies also rank highly in my book. The Polish-American lobby was at one time influential (Franklin Roosevelt complained about it to Joseph Stalin), and I daresay that before long we will be hearing a lot from the Mexican-, Hindu-, and Chinese-American lobbies as well.”

Remnick finishes by accusing M/W of pushing the Israeli Lobby forward as a scapegoat:
Taming the influence of lobbies, if that is what Mearsheimer and Walt desire, is a matter of reforming the lobbying and campaign-finance laws. But that is clearly not the source of the hysteria surrounding their arguments. “The Israel Lobby” is a phenomenon of its moment. The duplicitous and manipulative arguments for invading Iraq put forward by the Bush Administration, the general inability of the press to upend those duplicities, the triumphalist illusions, the miserable performance of the military strategists, the arrogance of the Pentagon, the stifling of dissent within the military and the government, the moral disaster of Abu Ghraib and Guant√°namo, the rise of an intractable civil war, and now an incapacity to deal with the singular winner of the war, Iran—all of this has left Americans furious and demanding explanations. Mearsheimer and Walt provide one: the Israel lobby. In this respect, their account is not so much a diagnosis of our polarized era as a symptom of it

My oil background leads me to believe that American oil and energy interests might also had something to do with it, and a fear that Saddam would be let off the hook by the UN, that feckless monster polluting the East River, and return to developing the nuclear weapon that he was on the way to developint with the help of his French buddy Chirac [Osirak, remember that, blown up by Israeli jets in '81?]. The CIA's general intelligence failures and the unknown fact that Saddam had shipped his chem & bio weapons to Syria [as he shipped his air force to Iran in '90-91, remember that?] also threw dust in the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld troika's grand strategy. Resurrecting the Tarnoff Doctrine [promote democracy in foreign policy, remember that?] by the GWB troika was partly because Rumsfeld fired Gen Garner and some American Arabists who actually knew the region, and Bremer kept Khalilizad from being Joint Pro-Consul [who wants a linguist doing the serious business of Provisional Govt.] [personal anecdotes follow] Rumsfeld was Reagan's Ambassador-at-Large to the Middle East in the early eighties and my best man was his Deputy. My buddy told me that Rumsfeld hadn't the slightest interest in the Middle East except for its effect on the internal dynamics of Beltway politics, and that when Saddam kept Rumsfeld waiting for an hour in Baghdad, this little Dutchman seethed and vowed vengeance. Cobra II quotes him telling Garner "We need fresh ideas" in dismissing two years of a Task Force's work.
Rumsfeld never had an idea in his life, only received opinions and opinionated opinions. And an obsession-compulsion with the political Beltway worthy of a video game freak.

There's a lot of blame to go around for our present situation, and the Israel Lobby has a bit of it. But the M/W thesis simply is overstated and anti-Semitism does exist, just not in their academic world.

For that, look to Jimmy Carter.


rick said...

"Mearsheimer and Walt give you the sense that, if the Israelis and the Palestinians come to terms, bin Laden will return to the family construction business."

Bin Laden lamented in a post Decemeber 2001 video (when he was presumably running for his life) that "we can never allow a repeat of Analucia". Of course the MSM didn't get it. In fact, I never read mention of the matter anywhere. In the few minutes available to make his 'quickie video' he reveals that he is is still fuming over being 'shown the door' in southern Spain 500 years ago. He does not give a rats rear end about Palestinians. Nor does the rest of greater Arabia for that matter. I refer to Palestinians as those Arab refugees and their decendents currently residing in that portion of British mandate Palestine that was not ceded to Arab contol.

dave in boca said...

I stayed in the Andalusia Hotel in Jidda when I first arrived in April back in the seventies. Cockroach charm. Never forgave the Embassy for parking me down the street from Bab al-Mecca [which is the neighborhood young Osama grew up in, as it happens. I went to King Abd al-Aziz University a year later, while young Osama was a freshman, according to a bio I read, but don't recall any 6-4 Saudis in the halls. Most of my ASL classmates were Pakis who HATED me as the only hawaggi in the course. Both spiritually & mentally, they could have used some rehab.

Linklater said...

I also have come around to the belief that Israel does represent one of America's core values..

What does this mean? And do other countries, e.g, Iceland, represent the same?