October 3, 2007


The Usual Suspect: a review of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy By John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt (Jeffrey Goldberg, 10.08.07, New Republic)

[S]ince many people in the West are queasy about attaching the label of anti-Semitism to almost anybody, regarding the charge of anti-Semitism as itself proof of prejudice, let me begin by describing bin Laden's view of history less inflammatorily--not as anti-Semitic, but as Judeocentric. He believes that Jews exercise disproportionate control over world affairs, and that world affairs may therefore be explained by reference to the Jews. A Judeocentric view of history is one that regards the Jews as the center of the story, and therefore the key to it. Judeocentrism is a single- cause theory of history, and as such it is, almost by definition, a conspiracy theory. Moreover, Judeocentrism comes in positive forms and negative forms. The positive form of Judeocentrism is philo-Semitism, the negative form is anti- Semitism. (There are philo-Semites who regard the Jews as the inventors of modernity, and there are anti-Semites who do the same; but the idea that Spinoza, Freud, and Einstein are responsible for us is as foolish as the idea that their ideas are j├╝dische Wissenschaft.) In both its positive and negative forms, Judeo- centrism is always a mistake. Human events are not so neatly explained.

In the inflamed universe of negative Judeocentrism, there is a sliding scale of obsession. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, seems at times to view the world entirely through the prism of a Jewish conspiracy, and he regularly breaks new ground in the field of state-supported Holocaust denial. In Cairo, the activities of Jews, Israeli and other- wise, are a continual source of worry. Many of the monarchs in the Gulf countries, by contrast, will sometimes exploit anti-Jewish feeling for political reasons, but they do not seem to be personally obsessed by Jews. They are too worldly for that. In Europe, too, one finds great variations in the expression of Judeocentrism. There are still traces of Holocaust-induced philo-Semitism in places like Germany; but there are also figures such as Clare Short, the former British cabinet minister, who recently blamed Israel for global warming.

America, too, has a history of Judeocentrism, and also of the negative kind, the essence of which has been the belief that Jews, in order to advance their own interests, are responsible for entangling America in unnecessary wars--what we now call "wars of choice," which the Jews, it is alleged, have chosen for us. In the years leading up to World War II, the Jewish desire for war against Hitler was a constant theme of Father Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh, and Joseph P. Kennedy. "Instead of agitating for war, Jews in this country should be opposing it in every way, for they will be the first to feel its consequences," Lindbergh said in a speech in Des Moines on September 11, 1941. In more recent times, figures such as Patrick Buchanan, Louis Farrakhan, and David Duke have updated the notion and explained America's woes--Buchanan cleverly, Duke crudely, Farrakhan insanely--as the work of the Jews. (In 1990, as the first Bush administration was building up to war against Iraq, in order to expel Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait, Buchanan stated that "Capitol Hill is Israeli-occupied territory.") Perhaps the best and most succinct expression of this school of American Judeocentrism was offered by Mel Gibson when he explained, upon his arrest for drunk driving, that "the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world."

It is an odious tradition, and I do not see how any thoughtful or decent individual would wish to belong to it. (I say thoughtful because the theory has no analytical value, and decent because the theory has harmful consequences.) But the tradition has now found a couple of unexpected new tribunes. The Judeocentric understanding of America's foreign policy is now the special province of two ostensibly reputable scholars, John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University. The two men gained their fame--which is wildly disproportionate to their achievement--last spring, after the publication of an article in the London Review of Books that condemned the activities of Jewish-American supporters of Israel and argued that those activities are responsible for an astounding number of world-historical developments.

In the article, the word "lobby" was ominously capitalized, Robert Ludlum style, as "the Lobby," to connote the perfect grip of pro-Israel activists upon Washington. In their new book, which builds on (and worsens) that earlier work, Mearsheimer and Walt lower-case the word "lobby," as a small tribute, I suppose, to the reality-based community. They have also excised some of the rougher language of their original blast. They have corrected some, though not all, of their errors of fact. But otherwise the book remains true to the malignant and dishonest spirit of the article. It represents the most sustained attack, the most mainstream attack, against the political enfranchisement of American Jews since the era of Father Coughlin.

The villains in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy are almost entirely Jewish. Many of the chapters of the book contain extensive lists of Jews (even Rothschilds) who, the authors claim, act against the best interests of the United States. And act effectively: the Israel lobby in this book is an invincible juggernaut. In some of Mearsheimer and Walt's pages, AIPAC resembles SMERSH or THRUSH. The America-Israel Public Affairs Committee, you see, "has an almost unchallenged hold on Congress," and therefore on the United States. (In the London Review article, the "hold" was described as a "stranglehold.")

And how do we know that AIPAC has a hold on Congress? This is a very good question. For Mearsheimer and Walt are so thoroughly under the spell of their own assertions that they do not seem to notice the circular (or more precisely, agit- prop) quality of what they have written. Consider a typical sentence: "The real reason why American politicians are so deferential [to Israel] is the political power of the Israel lobby." That is not a proof. That is what requires a proof.

So what are Mearsheimer and Walt's methods? A hasty survey of a vast literature on Israel and the Middle East, clearly unfamiliar to them until very recently, so as to cite every and any remark that suits their purpose, its context or its veracity notwithstanding. Most significantly, and by their own admission, Mearsheimer and Walt did no reporting. They did not interview a single member of Congress for their book about Congress. Perhaps it is beneath them as scholars to behave like journalists. But their methodological arrogance, their failure to meet any serious standard of empirical inquiry, their slavish reliance on second- and third-hand works, is astonishing. The truth of what they say is just completely obvious to them. At an appearance in September at the bookstore Politics and Prose, in Washington, Walt confidently asserted that "I think if we had interviewed every member of Congress and every lobbyist at AIPAC we would not have found a substantially different story than the one we reported." How does he know?

After baldly declaring, in the manner of conspiracy theorists, and over and over again, also in the manner of conspiracy theorists, that AIPAC dominates Congress (at the same time claiming, risibly, that "we do not believe the lobby ... controls important institutions in the United States"), Mearsheimer and Walt then proceed to catalog all the mistakes and the crimes for which AIPAC and the many other groups that make up the pro-Israel lobby are, in their omnipotence, responsible. Mearsheimer and Walt are not alleging the existence of a secret Jewish plot to control American foreign policy; they are alleging the existence of an open Jewish plot to control American foreign policy. The most remarkable of their allegations--this one is actually quite breathtaking--is that the pro-Israel lobby is causally related to the attacks of September 11. They claim that AIPAC's control of Congress forced America into an unnaturally close alliance with Israel, and that this alliance infuriated bin Laden, as well as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the operation, who acted against America in large part because of its support for Israel.

This is not quite the view, commonly heard in the Arab world, that Israel had a direct hand in the destruction of the World Trade Center; but still it is heinous.

I have to confess, I don't fully get the heinosity there. It seems pretty uncontroversial to say that America has an unNaturally close alliance with Israel--as it does with most of the states of the Anglosphere and Axis of Good. That is to say, this collection of states has a tendency to take foreign policy actions that have little benefit to themselves so long as they redound to the favor of the various allies. In fact, it is not unusual for some or all of them to take actions that do nothing but assist the peoples living under rotten regimes in putative enemy states.

Nor does it seem terribly controversial to say that a lot of people resent this and even hate us for it. The proper response to people like the authors is not to act outraged when they point out that our friendship with Israel has consequences but to ask: so what? A bunch of whackos in caves don't like us--big deal?

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 3, 2007 10:06 AM

The question we should be asking about our alliance with Israel is simply, "Is is good for the Americans?"

It is, of course, being simultaneously a realization of our values of freedom, democracy and the trekker-forth spirit. and an anchor of our world-power objectives.

The present spasm of what looks like anti-Semitism is mostly anti-Americanism. The major impetus for it all is nostalgia for the "failed policy" par excellance, that is, Marxism, somewhat blended with the poltroon impulse.

You see, the left of old, save when THE FORMER SOVIET UNION was attacked, has always sought to exploit simple cowardice to morally disarm the Unitd States. Since it is Israel which commits us to final victory in the Middle East, it was inevitable that those who are ready to cast aside their shields should turn against the Jews.

Their confusion, and the domestic enemy is very confused about this, is both an opportunity and a danger. In the first instance, we can say that Truman had done well, and not the greatest seller of Democrat BDS snake-oil can chew off the Israel arm to get us out of the geopolitical Middle East trap the authors of our policy have set.

The danger is that opposition political rhetoric may encourage the spiritual jailhouse to dare our will. That's how world wars start.

Posted by: Lou Gots at October 3, 2007 8:59 PM

Mearsheimer and Walt boil down to: "Why does the US support a pro-US democracy in preference to a bunch of anti-US, terror-supporting tyrannies that want to destroy them? It must be the amazing hypnotic powers of their Washington lobbyists!"

Posted by: PapayaSF at October 3, 2007 11:58 PM

They alleged that Israel was majorly pushing for the Iraq war. That's something of a reach.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at October 4, 2007 5:35 AM