De-Mystifying American Middle East Policy: A Response to Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer

The follow-up book to the controversial article “The Israel Lobby” by John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt has now been published. Like the article itself, the book is sure to stir controversy and, one expects that, like the original article, that controversy will consist largely of wild accusations of anti-Semitism and not nearly enough substantive debate. That is a loss for everyone involved, whether they agree with the thesis of the book or they do not.

In the wake of the original article, together with Chris Toensing, I published an article critiquing Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s thesis that the Israel lobby was a primary factor in the decision to go to war with Iraq.[1] The book does little to update their original thesis, though it does expand on it significantly, so our article, in the summer edition of Middle East Report, can be read as a partial response. But the book, like the article, makes much more wide-ranging statements than blaming the second Gulf War on the Israel lobby’s influence, and thus demands a similarly considered response.John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt

Is It Anti-Semitism?

As a Jew, who was worked for years to try to improve the situation in Israel and the Occupied Territories, and as someone who has extensive experience with both anti-Semitic ideas and anti-Semitic violence, I am compelled to open this analysis by addressing the question of whether Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s work reflects anti-Semitism. The question is unavoidable; the very idea of a lobby that draws much of its strength from a community holding an undue influence over American policy carries with it loud echoes of Jewish conspiracy theories up to and including the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion that stirred up intense anti-Semitism in Russia and Eastern Europe in the early 20th century.

Yet we Jews point with justifiable pride at the organization of our community into considerable political clout. No one argues when the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is ranked among the top five most influential lobbying groups in Washington.[2] Many other organizations work for the interests of the Jewish community in many different ways, frequently pursuing progressive domestic and international policies. Major Jewish organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish World Service and others are active on a host of political issues having nothing to do with Israel and they do impactful and excellent work. Some of these organizations as well as other, non-Jewish ones, also work very hard to push policies they support regarding Israel and the United States’ relationship with it. As Walt and Mearsheimer repeatedly point out, this is simply good, American-style politics.

Walt and Mearsheimer do not, however, assert that these groups intentionally seek to divert US policy away from American interests in service to Israeli ones. That would, indeed, be anti-Semitic. They say that the end result is harm to US, and sometimes Israeli, interests, but they consistently state that they are not accusing “The Lobby” of doing this intentionally. They assert repeatedly that those backing such policies believe them to be in America’s best interests.

As I will demonstrate below, Walt and Mearsheimer seriously underestimate the impact of other forces outside of the Jewish community (although they do repeatedly mention them in their book, they are clearly depicted as having considerably less impact than Jewish groups) in their work. The Christian Zionists and the arms industry in particular are mentioned but downplayed in Walt and Mearsheimer’s book. There are ways in which institutionalized anti-Semitism can be seen in this dynamic but that is an analysis for a different time and it does not reflect a personal bias by Walt and Mearsheimer.

The ideas Walt and Mearsheimer present are not comfortable and, in my view, sometimes not accurate. But they are not personally anti-Semitic, nor are they motivated by animosity toward Israel. Continue reading