‘Lobby’ Authors Confront and Transcend Controversy

The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy - By John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) - Out Now

“It is difficult to talk about the [Israel] lobby’s influence on American foreign policy,” note the authors of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” “without being accused of anti-Semitism or labeled a self-hating Jew.” For the two authors—University of Chicago political science professor John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, former academic dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government—whose new book discusses that lobby, this statement clearly reflects personal experience.

When the pair wrote an article, also entitled “The Israel Lobby” and published in the London Review of Books in 2006, they encountered what they call “a firestorm of criticism from prominent groups or individuals in the lobby” and were denounced as anti-Semites.

In the book, which is essentially a larger, more thorough, and more up-to-date version of the original piece, the two take tremendous pains to controvert any such criticisms.

Their careful and logical argument—that the numerous groups that lobby for Israel’s interests in America are uncommonly powerful and are pushing the United States government towards actions that damage our own national interest and perhaps even that of Israel—is well-defended against such criticisms by extensive and thorough research. The book’s final arguments reach too far and don’t stand up to muster, but the bulk of the book is very persuasive.

The authors begin by describing the nature of America’s tremendous support of Israel before dissecting the strategic and moral arguments that defend such support, which they dismiss both as wrong and insufficient to explain its unusually unconditional nature.

For them, the main culprit is the titular “Israel Lobby,” a largely decentralized collection of groups and individuals who believe that “the United States should give Israel substantial diplomatic, economic, and military support even when Israel takes actions the United States opposes” and who devote significant energies to “encouraging this sort of support.”

Mearsheimer and Walt then investigate the nature of this support and examine the lobby’s history of extraordinary success in both directly affecting U.S. foreign policy and dominating public discourse about Israel.

The array of evidence Mearsheimer and Walt marshal to make their arguments is frequently astounding, largely because of the impressive reach and influence of the lobby itself. In their chapter on the lobby’s influence on the government, the authors clearly document the unhealthy sway that the lobby has had on Capitol Hill, essentially blocking or forcing from power large numbers of Congressional hopefuls or preventing the advancement of sitting Congressmen who fail to side with the lobby’s interests.

Equally convincing and alarming is the pair’s examination of the lobby’s widespread support in the media world. Mearsheimer and Walt provide a large body of evidence not only on the tremendous media support for Israeli policies, but also on the disquieting history of lobby attempts at censoring opposing views.

As the authors point out, the past decade has seen significant censorship of such opinions not only in the popular media, but also across the academic world. Such attempts to pressure, censor, or even intimidate opposing opinions are deplorable, because, as the authors explain, critics of Israeli policies simply “believe that Jews are like other human beings, which means that they are capable of both good and bad deeds.” The lobby, on the other hand, seems to insist on the media’s almost unconditional approval for and support of Israel’s actions.

Of course, Mearsheimer and Walt’s arguments about the lobby’s domination of public discourse bear striking similarities to conspiratorial claims that Jews “control the media.” The two are careful to point out, however, that the Israel lobby is not a “cabal” of powerful individuals that connives in secret, but rather “just another interest group engaged in legitimate political activities.”

It is a particularly powerful interest group, however, and the authors are convinced that it has frequently used its considerable power to bring about results that are, unintentionally, harmful to America’s national interest. As they observe with an almost humorously matter-of-fact tone, “no two countries will always have the same interests. It is just not the way international politics works.” In light of this truism, any lobby that pressures America to act in another country’s interests will by nature put our interests second.

In fact, as the authors make clear, ever since the rationale for supporting Israel during the Cold War became obsolete, our excessive support of Israel has been a consistent thorn in our side and has helped attract the animosity of much of the Arab world.

But when the authors attempt to extend this argument into the modern day by claiming that the Israel lobby has brought America significant trouble in recent years, even contributing heavily to our entrance into the war in Iraq, their arguments begin to rely on less solid evidence and start to wear thin.

Their section on “The Lobby and the Iraq War” contains surprisingly little mention of actual pro-Israel groups and instead focuses on neoconservative war hawks. The authors’ main shortcoming is particularly clear here: they are too ready to attribute to the broadly defined Israel Lobby many of the mistakes made in American foreign policy.