Mearsheimer and Walt and the Israel question

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John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt dropped by the boardroom Tuesday to discuss their new book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. The book expands on an article Mearsheimer and Walt published in The London Review of Books last year. That piece set off an ongoing controversy as opponents flamed the authors and Mearsheimer and Walt hit back. Read on to see if they got a warmer welcome from the Los Angeles Times.

On Israel’s strategic value in the post-Cold War era

Nick Goldberg: On the strategic side of things, when you say in the book, and you said just now, that our relationship with Israel makes it harder to defeat the terrorists, is that really a legitimate reason for, you know, upending a 60-year relationship? I mean it’s kinda, you could argue that’s blaming the victim certainly.

Stephen Walt: Well, the point is what are America’s interests — strategic interest; we’ll leave moral questions aside — America’s strategic interests in the Middle East, right? I would argue that there are three: keeping the oil flowing out to world markets, because we all like to drive SUVs and other countries need oil too; second, trying to discourage countries from getting weapons of mass destruction — that’s something that would be an interest of ours even if Israel didn’t exist, by the way: we wouldn’t want Iran to develop a nuclear capability, and we wouldn’t have wanted Saddam Hussein to develop a nuclear capability; and third, the terrorist problem that the whole world now faces, but particularly the United States.


We worry about anti-American terrorists, terrorists that want to attack the United States like al Qaeda. And the point is that the relationship with Israel is both one of the things that’s motivated bin Laden and others — and the 9/11 Commission report makes this clear, that it was one, not the only, but one of the key items on his agenda — and second that it makes it easier for him to recruit people in these societies, by pointing out unfair policies. And finally it makes other regimes in that region more reluctant to side openly with us on any number of other issues, because again, we’re seen as so controversial inside the region, and so one-sided. It’s not to say they don’t, but it’s so much harder to get.

One way to think about this, I always say, is look: Whatever you think Israel’s strategic value was in 1985, it’s pretty hard to argue that the value’s gone up, from 1985 to 2007. All right, make the Cold War case, but I think almost any objective look at this would say that the strategic value’s gone down. Yet American support continues to increase and if anything becomes less and less conditional over time. George Bush the elder on a few occasions put some pressure on the Israelis and made some progress. Jimmy Carter put some pressure on the Israelis. Clinton didn’t put much, and Bush has been unable to put virtually any, despite occasionally trying briefly. So the puzzle is if the strategic value is going down, why is the support going up?

Jim Newton: And when you say support, how are you measuring support?

Stephen: Two ways. The material aid we continue to give: $3 billion to $4 billion in direct and indirect economic and military aid every year.

Jim: And that’s steadily increasing?

Stephen: No, I wouldn’t... Increasing pretty steadily. But not at 10% a year or anything like that. So that’s part of it. But the consistent diplomatic support — vetoing U.N. resolutions that are critical of Israel... I think we, what was it 42?

John Mearsheimer: Between ’72 and 2006...

Stephen: ...we vetoed 42 security council resolutions critical of Israel, and that’s more than the sum total of all other vetoes cast by all other security council members. Uh, the kind of backing we gave them in the Lebanon war, where we delayed the cease-fire, which was deeply contrary to Israel’s interests — which many Israelis now recognize, that the war was a disaster. And we would have been a better ally if we had in fact shut it down quickly, and worked with them to come up with a better a response to the legitimate problem they had with Hezbollah rockets on their border.

On the non-perniciousness of the Lobby


Nick: You say several times in the book that the Israel lobby is, it’s not a cabal and it’s not monolithic, you know; it’s a lot like other interest groups like the NRA and the American Petroleum Institute. Well if that’s the case, what’s so pernicious about it?

John: There’s nothing pernicious about it.

Nick: OK?

John: Tell us what’s so pernicious about it.

Jim: Well you wrote the book...

Tim Cavanaugh: Why is it more worthy of a book than the Cuban-American...

Stephen: People have written books about the Cuban-American lobby...

John: We never said this is a pernicious organization, or that what it’s doing is pernicious. I mean, we believe that the Lobby believes that the policies it’s prescribing are in America’s national interest and Israel’s national interest. We just think they’re wrong. And we think it’s very healthy, in a democracy like the United States, to have an open debate about these issues. We are not arguing for one second that this is pernicious behavior on the part of the Lobby.

Jim: Do you think it’s bad for both Israel and the United States or just for the United States?

John: It’s bad for both. The settlements, the Lebanon war...

Nick: You do say that they silence people. You do say that they, that this is a subject the lobby won’t allow to be discussed or that won’t be discussed for one reason or another in the presidential campaign. You do say in the article — I don’t know if you say it in the book — that this Israel lobby has had enough of a presence in power to be very influential in starting the war in Iraq.

Stephen: It has.

Nick: But that’s not pernicious?

John: That’s wrongheaded.

Stephen: Let me put it in a different context: Every time a farm bill gets passed by Congress, there’s articles in various newspapers around the country about what a disaster the farm bill is, how it’s, you know, rewarding agribusiness and how it’s sending the wrong incentives for farmers to do the wrong thing. Farmers are 2% of the American population. And we basically hand a giant subsidy to agribusiness. And lots of Op-Ed writers criticize this and say this is terrible. I don’t think the farmers and agribusiness are engaged in pernicious behavior. I think they’re pursuing their own self-interest as they see it. But most people would argue that the farm bill that comes out really isn’t in the overall national interest. And I could multiply that example a zillion times. Interest groups are part of how American politics works, and we all kind of pick our favorite interest group that we think leads the country astray, whether it’s on gun control, or whether it’s our policy toward Castro’s Cuba, or any number of others, protectionist legislation that shields some industry that’s not competing otherwise.

We treat the various groups, the heterogeneous groups in this lobby that push for unconditional support for Israel much the same way. They’re doing something I’m sure they think is in the American interest, and in Israel’s interest. We respectfully disagree, and we think you can have a full discussion about that.


The Israel lobby and the moral hazard

Jim: The argument that would commonly be made in the wake of the farm bill would be that it’s bad for America, good for the farmers. What seems somewhat qualitatively different in the argument you’re making is that it’s bad for both sides, that even the recipients of this lobbying are misguided somehow. So I guess I’d like to hear more — you cited a couple of examples obviously. Are those just mistakes that the lobby has made or is there something endemic to this sort of lobbyist that causes them to not act in Israel’s best interest?

Tim: And if I could just piggyback one thing on that question: I see an Israel that every year is in a stronger strategic position, all the way back to 1949. So are we really, you know, really persuaded that, that what the lobby is delivering is not what Israel needs or wants?

John: Just to be clear here, before 1967, certainly before 1973, Israel received very little aid from the United States. Nevertheless, it won the war in ‘48, it won the war in ‘56, and it won the war in ’67. Even in 1973, which is a war that took place before massive aid began to flow into Israel, they got caught in a surprise attack, you know, in October of that year. And despite suffering some initial setbacks, they won a stunning victory, and in fact the United States and the Soviet Union had to come in and in effect tell the Israelis to cease their military operations for fear they would completely finish off both the Syrian and Egyptian armies. So this is the state that has had the most powerful military in the Middle East from the beginning. And there was this belief in the United States that it was a David and Goliath situation, that the Israelis were David and the Arabs were Goliath. But as we pointed out, this is a myth.

There’s no question that American assistance has made Israel more powerful, relative to its neighbors, than it was before that aid started flowing. But the fact is Israel would still be much more powerful than its neighbors even without that assistance. The real problem here is when you give a country, no matter whether it’s Israel or any other country, unconditional support, and you allow them to pretty much do anything they want without any real costs associated with their actions because the United States is there to bail them out, you in a sense allow them to pursue foolish policies. And this we believe is what happened with regard to the settlements, and we believe it’s what happened with regard to Lebanon. The thing you want to remember about Israel is that, like the United States and like any country in the world, it occasionally does things that are foolish. States do that; it’s part of the warp and woof of daily life in the international system. And if you have a policy of unconditional aid, if you have a policy where you can’t criticize Israel in the United States without getting smeared, you’re going to give that state a lot of room to get itself in trouble. And our argument again is that it would be better if that aid were conditional and we were allowed to have an open debate about Israeli policy and the Israeli-U.S. relationship.

Stephen: That is, something similar to the debate that happens in Israel itself, where you have a very wide-open debate about what their policies are and whether they make sense, and where you find lots more people willing to take positions similar to ours than you would here in the United States.


Tim: Then why is the book called The Israel Lobby and not The Pro-Settlement Lobby or The Likudnik Lobby?

John: For the very simple reason that the lobby is not monolithic or homogeneous. There are groups inside the lobby that are opposed to settlements; there are groups inside the lobby that are in favor of settlements. Also you want to remember, we’re not arguing that this is a Jewish lobby. Despite our best efforts to make the case clear that this is the Israel lobby and not the Jewish lobby, people continue to talk as if we’re only talking about Jews.

Who’s in the lobby?

Tim: You mentioned the uh, the non...mono...lithicism of the lobby. And looking through the book, it’s weird to me to think that there’s some team that comprises Martin Indyk, Daniel Pipes, you know, I’m trying to think of a third...I mean, this is really a wide-ranging group of, you know, Abe...

John: Henry Siegman. Do you know Henry Siegman? He was head of the American Jewish Congress. But again, there’s no reason why people inside the lobby can’t be very critical of Israel. Let me give you an example: One of the best reviews of our book, one of the most favorable reactions inside the United States, came from M.J. Rosenberg, who used to work for AIPAC. He said very nice things about the book.

Nick: My, one of my, one of the things that confuses me as I read the book is that you are, you talk in these, often about the lobby. The lobby does this, the lobby does that. The lobby seems so broad as you’ve defined it that it’s hard for me to, to know if that’s a meaningful group that you’re talking about. The differences go broader than Martin Indyk...

Stephen: Martin got his start working for AIPAC. He helped found the Institute for Near East Policy.


Nick: He falls clearly in the...

Stephen: And that’s not to say that he hasn’t advocated positions, both in his official capacity and outside it, that John and I would agree with. He’s a two-state-solution person; he understands that getting this thing shut down is in everybody’s interest. We might disagree on some other issues. That said, he’s not someone who would ever say the United States should make its support for Israel conditional on ending the settlements. He’s never advocated that, he...

Jim: So that’s what defines your presence in the lobby, is unconditional support?

Susan Brenneman: Yeah, and not just support but by support you mean aid?

Stephen: Aid and diplomatic support. And again, you’ve got, the way we define it... I think we laid this out as clearly as... You’ve got to be actively working. It’s not just somebody who has an attitude toward Israel. You’ve got to spend some part of your daily life trying to advance that particular goal. I’d also point out, like all other interest groups, these are fuzzy groups, right? I mean, there are people who are clearly in the core: Abraham Foxman, nobody’s really going to argue whether he’s a member. But you’re going to have some people who are further out, to where you get to people who are clearly not in the lobby. And there are going to be some cases in between where you can argue back and forth, and they might change their minds. I acknowledge that the term “lobby” has a certain crude quality to it, but almost due to the limitations of language. One of the things we did was we often used phrases like “groups within the lobby,” “organizations in the lobby,” “organizations and individuals in the lobby...” Trying to underscore to the reader that this is not a monolith. This is not a Comintern that gives orders to the followers. That there are issues where they genuinely disagree. That’s not all that different from groups in the pro-life movement which often disagree on issues.