Is Israel the organ-grinder?
Yes, the war in Iraq was not in America's national interest - but Walt and Mearsheimer are way off the mark to claim that Israel orchestrated it.
This review is republished from the October 2007 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.
The Israel Lobby And US Foreign Policy, by John J Mearsheimer and Stephen M Walt, single-mindedly pursues a simple argument: that American foreign policy in the Middle East is dictated by one powerful interest group, the so-called Israel lobby.
Academics Walt and Mearsheimer insist that this lobby has successfully subordinated Washington’s foreign policy interests to those of Israel, with damaging consequences for the United States. Walt and Mearsheimer detect the invisible and not-so-invisible fingerprints of this pernicious Israel lobby in virtually every aspect of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Either directly or indirectly the Israel lobby is apparently responsible for the ‘war on terror’, the invasion of Iraq, and America’s poor relations with Syria. The implication of Walt and Mearsheimer’s argument is that if it were not for Israel, America’s relationship with the Middle East and the wider Islamic world would be far more harmonious than it is today.
Indeed, the implicit and often explicit message of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy is that if it were not for Israel, and the insidious influence of its agents in Washington, then the whole world would be a more peaceful place. The authors self-consciously try to engage with the post-9/11 sentiment of disillusionment and demoralisation in American circles. They seem to believe that if only we could roll the film backward, and rid ourselves of the troublesome ally that is Israel, then America would be great again. After 9/11, US President George W Bush and others asked: ‘Why do they hate us?’ Walt and Mearsheimer offer a very simplistic answer: ‘Israel.’
According to their analysis, an Israel-free United States would enjoy greater global popularity and would be spared from the threat of terrorism. They argue that ‘US support for Israel is one of the main causes of anti-Americanism around the world’. The American-Israel relationship apparently fuels ‘the rage of anti-American terrorists’. ‘In fact, the United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it has long been so supportive of Israel’, write Walt and Mearsheimer. In short, Israel is a strategic liability that undermines Washington’s capacity to deal with terrorism. ‘Backing Israel against the Palestinians makes winning the war on terror harder’, they claim. Their implication is that dumping Israel is the precondition for winning the ‘war on terror’.
Walt and Mearsheimer have a one-dimensional view of the world, where Muslim hatred for Israel is seen to be the principal driver of regional and global instability. To substantiate this view, the authors frequently cite Muslim radicals who attack the US for supporting Israel. Their aim is to demonstrate that radical Islamists have no problem with America per se, only with its support of Israel. Thus they note that Ramzi Yousef, who organised the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, said he felt ‘guilty about causing US deaths’, but his ‘remorse’ gave way to ‘the strength of his desire to stop the killing of Arabs by Israeli troops’. Apparently, the organisers of the 9/11 attack were driven by similar concerns, and Walt and Mearsheimer quote various statements made by Osama bin Laden and others to demonstrate this fact. ‘It is hard to imagine more compelling evidence of the role that US support for Israel played in inspiring the 9/11 attacks’, they claim.
Walt and Mearsheimer continually cite the declarations of radical jihadists, which means they effectively rely on rhetoric and propaganda as the empirical foundation of their core argument. The methodological naivety of these two seasoned academics is striking. Classically, propaganda declarations, including those uttered by radical Islamists, are made for political effect – often to divide opponents and to isolate targets. For example, no credible historian would uncritically accept Hitler’s declarations as proof that he had no problem with the French or the British, only with their support for the Czechs and the Poles. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is a mean-spirited mood of appeasement, rather than an objective assessment of the evidence, that motivates Walt and Mearsheimer’s views on Israel and the US.
The weakness of their arguments is especially clear in their attempt to depict the Israel lobby as the main driver of America’s misguided invasion of Iraq. We are told that if it were not for the efforts of Israel’s agents, ‘America would not be in Iraq today’. However, in an attempt to substantiate this claim, Walt and Mearsheimer shift their focus from the Israel lobby itself to a cabal of influential neoconservatives. The neoconservatives were motivated by a ‘desire to make Israel more secure’, they argue. They concede that ‘Israel did not initiate the campaign for war against Iraq’, but argue that it was neoconservatives in the US who were ‘principally responsible for pushing it forward’. They do not explain their conceptual linkage of the Israel lobby with this cabal of neoconservatives, other than to draw attention to the fact that a significant number of Jews are associated with both groups. Citing a New York Times journalist, they claim that a small group of 25 neocons were responsible for the war in Iraq – a conspiracy of influential insiders if ever there was one!
Walt and Mearsheimer go to great lengths to challenge one conventional explanation for the invasion of Iraq: that is, the war was motivated by a lust for oil. Time and again they argue against the simplistic worldview that sees Western intervention in Iraq as a product of the imperatives of energy consumption. Indeed, they go so far as to suggest that the ‘oil lobby’ has a puny influence compared with the Israel lobby. Unfortunately, they dismiss one fashionable conspiracy theory about Big Oil only to replace it with another: Big Israel. As one reads the book, it becomes clear that the authors feel closer to the cause of retaining American access to oil in the Persian Gulf than they do to any other Middle Eastern concern. Indeed, if one were to adopt Walt and Mearsheimer’s own conspiratorial outlook, one could make a plausible case that, in the tradition of Western Arabist officials, the authors represent the interests of oil.
This book suffers from a bad case of historical amnesia. Not so long ago, America and its allies in the West were anxious about the rising tide of Third Worldism, and about the possibility of the Soviet Union turning anti-imperialist sentiment to its advantage in the Cold War. Not surprisingly, therefore, Washington was on the lookout for reliable strategic partners who could enforce Western interests in various parts of the so-called Third World. It was this concern, rather than the machinations of a domestic lobby, that explains the unusually close relations that the US forged with Israel in the 1960s. And this was not a marriage of convenience between two equals: the US was, and remains, the dominant partner in the relationship. And once it feels that Israel has become a geo-political liability, it will have little hesitation in ditching its ally, whatever the arguments of the Israel lobbyists.
It is a pity that Walt and Mearsheimer are so distracted by their obsession with the Israel lobby – because one of their premises, which is that the invasion of Iraq was not in America’s geopolitical interest, is essentially correct. However, instead of searching for culprits who led America astray, it would be better to explore the wider issue of why Washington promotes policies around the world – in North Korea, Russia, Iran and elsewhere – that often prove short-sighted and which undermine America’s strategic position. Surely the Israel lobby is not responsible for bringing about the distracting and unnecessary clash between America and North Korea, which occurred in the middle of the inconclusive engagement in Iraq?
A closer inspection of the evidence would suggest that, in recent decades, many Western nations have lost the capacity first to evaluate their geo-political interests, and second to act on them. Certainly since the end of the Cold War international relations and diplomacy have acquired an unusually arbitrary character. It is Western nations’ seeming inability to act in accordance with their national interests – and not just in Iraq – which really needs to be addressed. As this book amply demonstrates, the search for a hidden agenda is no substitute for a rigorous analysis of what is really going on.
Frank Furedi’s Invitation To Terrorism: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown will be reviewed in the November issue of the spiked review of books.
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