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Lobbying Degree Zero | The Nation

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Lobbying Degree Zero

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On March 23, 2006, John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, published a lengthy article called "The Israel Lobby" in the London Review of Books. Their thesis: a group of pro-Israel activists and propagandists is actively manipulating policy in Washington to benefit the Jewish state at the expense of the United States' national interests. The article had been on newsstands for just a couple of weeks when a neoconservative professor at Johns Hopkins named Eliot Cohen slammed it as "anti-Semitic" in the Washington Post. Several letters published in April in the LRB piled on by making similar charges. The editors then took the unusual step of turning over much of the letters column in the May 11 issue to Mearsheimer and Walt, who wrote a 2,200-word reply to their critics and defenders.

About the Author

Daniel Lazare
Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of...

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Mearsheimer and Walt were in the hot seat again in early September. A book-length version of their argument was barely in stores when David Remnick attacked it in The New Yorker for being "a prosecutor's brief that depicts Israel as a singularly pernicious force in world affairs." Later that month Mearsheimer and Walt were scheduled to discuss their book at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, but as a Wall Street Journal blog reported, the event was canceled due to pressure from "critics who were uncomfortable" with Mearsheimer and Walt's position. Given the kind of people who are criticizing Mearsheimer and Walt and the way the anti-Semitism card is used to silence dissent on the Israel-Palestine question, many might feel compelled to defend their thesis.

They should think twice before doing so. To be sure, Mearsheimer and Walt are not anti-Semites, and The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy does not portray Israel as uniquely evil or "singularly pernicious." But just because a book is not bigoted does not mean it is good, and the one that Mearsheimer and Walt have written suffers from significant methodological deficiencies, which is a polite way of saying it's a mess. In expanding their 13,000-word article into a 500-page book (with more than 100 pages of notes!), they have succeeded mainly in exacerbating the flaws of their original argument. They seem to know little about how American government works, how lobbyists function or how the United States interacts with the world at large. They are blind to history and tone-deaf to ideology. Because they blame America's Middle Eastern rampage on a knot of wily Zionist agents, they seem to think that the US role in the region would turn benign if those agents were removed.

The result is, bizarrely enough, an exculpatory portrait of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and the rest of the "Vulcans," whom Mearsheimer and Walt depict as naïve but fundamentally well intentioned. The American people should not blame them if they've made a mess of things in Iraq. It's not their fault, you see. Foreigners made them do it--or, if not foreigners, then Americans loyal to foreign interests.

Mearsheimer and Walt are a classic example of pundits hatching a thesis and then hacking away at the facts to make them fit. This is not to deny that their argument possesses a certain superficial plausibility. Clearly, Israel's influence in Washington is enormous, and certain prominent neoconservatives have been remarkably candid about where their true loyalties lie. Elliott Abrams, currently an adviser to Condoleezza Rice, wrote in 1997 that "there can be no doubt that Jews, faithful to the covenant between God and Abraham, are to stand apart from the nation in which they live. It is the very nature of being Jewish to be apart--except in Israel--from the rest of the population." If Israel is the only place where someone like Abrams feels at home, then presumably his chief concern is ensuring that it continues to flourish. On a similar note, Stephen Steinlight, former director of national affairs at the American Jewish Committee, once remarked that, as a "Jewish nationalist [and] even a quasi-separatist," he was raised in "the belief that the primary division of the world was between 'us' and 'them.' Of course we saluted the American and Canadian flags and sang those anthems, usually with real feeling, but it was clear where our primary loyalty was meant to reside." If it ever comes to a matter of "us" versus "them," it seems likely that Steinlight would side with the former.

So, yes, there is a pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Yes, it is powerful. And yes, critics like Mearsheimer and Walt are hardly out of bounds in asking if the lobby, which they go to great pains to demonstrate is composed of both Jews and gentiles, is truly serving what the authors consider to be the American national interest.

But formulating questions about the lobby's influence is precisely where Mearsheimer and Walt run into trouble. On the one hand, the Israel lobby is no different from the Taiwan lobby, the Cuba lobby or, for that matter, the NRA or AARP: all are dedicated to trying to game America's complicated constitutional machinery to their advantage. On the other hand, the Israel lobby is plainly different--bigger, more influential, more important as an intellectual force in government, media and academe. Yet when the authors attempt to pinpoint exactly where that difference lies, their language turns fuzzy. "The Israel lobby is not a cabal or a conspiracy or anything of the sort," they stress. But it is not quite a lobby either, since not everyone in it actually lobbies. Perhaps, they suggest, it is better to describe it as merely a "pro-Israel community" or a "help Israel movement" consisting of individuals who "actively work to shape American foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction." Attempting to dispel the fog, they write that maybe the best way to describe it is by describing what it is not. Other interest groups are occasionally rebuffed on Capitol Hill, but the Israel lobby is distinguished by "the absence of effective opposition." Where other lobbies lose now and again, the Israel lobby is distinguished by "its extraordinary effectiveness"--the fact that decisions in Washington about Middle East policy almost always align with its interests.

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