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.

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.

So where does that leave us? With a pro-Israel lobby consisting, not surprisingly, of pro-Israel activists who are essentially unopposed in a foreign-policy establishment in which the pro-Israel consensus is virtually 100 percent. The arrangement calls to mind Jorge Luis Borges’s sly parable about a map so detailed that it was as big as the empire it was meant to depict. The Israel lobby, by the same token, is a conspiracy so vast that it is essentially conterminous with the policy-making centers it aims to control. Since it has the field to itself in Washington, it is no longer a lobby but a kind of committee of the whole. It has no need to manipulate the government because, considering the extraordinary degree of bipartisan support that it enjoys, it pretty much is the government.

Thus, the lobby paradigm (to lapse for a moment into wonk-speak) is inadequate to the subject at hand. Yet Mearsheimer and Walt cling to it regardless. They advance a dualistic view that has the US national interest in one corner and the Israel lobby in the other, with the latter consistently riding roughshod over the former. This entirely artificial distinction leads to some remarkable conclusions, the most astounding of which is that the invasion of Iraq did not originate in a breakdown or crisis in American politics but rather was imposed on a reluctant Bush Administration from without: “There is abundant evidence that Israel and the lobby played crucial roles in making that war happen…. Had the circumstances been different, they would not have been able to get the United States to go to war. But without their efforts, America would probably not be in Iraq today.”

The same goes for US policy regarding Syria and Iran. According to Mearsheimer and Walt, the lobby has pushed Bush “to take a more confrontational line toward Syria than he would probably have adopted on his own,” while “Israel and the lobby…are the central forces today behind all the talk in the Bush administration and on Capitol Hill about using military force to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.” If it wasn’t for the lobby, they add, “the United States would almost certainly have a different and more effective Iran policy,” which is to say, one that relied more on persuasion than military force.

The United States as inherently diplomatic and nonconfrontational? Few people, on either the right or left, would take such a notion seriously. Mearsheimer and Walt assume a degree of pliability on America’s part that is astonishing given the record of American belligerence during the postwar period and especially since 9/11, when the United States has gone into imperial overdrive.

Nowhere is this upside-down Weltanschauung more apparent than in the authors’ contention that oil was not a factor in the invasion of Iraq because Saddam, rather than hoarding Iraq’s oil or giving it to America’s enemies, would have been happy to sell it to anyone who could pay hard cash. With the price of crude hovering around $30 a barrel, roughly forty percent of the current level, petroleum in the months leading up to the war was cheap and abundant and therefore irrelevant to the decision to invade. “Moreover,” Mearsheimer and Walt write, “if the United States wanted to conquer another country in order to gain control of its oil, Saudi Arabia–with larger reserves and a smaller population–would have been a much more attractive target.” And since Osama bin Laden is a Saudi, like fifteen of the nineteen hijackers involved in 9/11, the attacks would have provided “an ideal pretext” for going after Saudi Arabia. Yet the United States did not attack Saudi Arabia; it attacked another country, with a larger and better armed population–and fewer oil reserves. Mearsheimer and Walt’s conclusion: whatever goals the Bush Administration had on its mind going into Baghdad, gaining control of Persian Gulf oil reserves was not one of them.

This is remarkably simplistic. True, oil was cheap and abundant in 2003. In fact, had it not been for the US-led trade sanctions on Iraq, oil would have been more abundant, since Saddam would have had sufficient export earnings to modernize the Iraqi oil industry and increase production. But the value of oil is based on more than just its spot price, a fact that’s crucial to understanding both Saddam’s hold on power and America’s increasingly hostile response to it.

The nations of the Persian Gulf are not only major oil exporters but also among the world’s biggest consumers of military hardware. Between 1995 and 2002, according to Michael T. Klare’s Blood and Oil (2004), eight Persian Gulf nations (Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) accounted for more than $87 billion in arms purchases, more than 60 percent of it from non-US sources. The combination of petrodollars and advanced weaponry has fueled nearly three decades of war in the region and, in the process, allowed Saddam to amass an enormous amount of power even as his support was eroding at the base. The United States did not mind when he used his weaponry to attack Iran in 1980, but it was unforgiving when he used it to invade Kuwait, a close American ally, a decade later. Saddam was no longer a useful counterweight to revolutionary Iran but a problem waiting to be solved. Accumulated oil wealth and military hardware kept him in power a dozen years longer, but the delay made Bush all the more determined to take him down.

If Iraq had not been an oil exporter–if, as Noam Chomsky once observed, it had been a pickle exporter in the middle of the Indian Ocean–it would never have come into America’s line of fire. Mearsheimer and Walt’s failure to consider this is perplexing, as is their failure to consider what would have happened had the invasion gone according to plan. If, through some miracle, Washington had succeeded in transforming Iraq into a peaceful little outpost of American-style liberal capitalism, the United States would have gained a commanding position at the center of global oil production, one that would have enabled it to bring Iran to heel and impose “reforms” on Saudi Arabia as well. OPEC might still control energy production, but America would control OPEC, and a generation of critics of US militarism would have had to hold their tongues. As Alan Greenspan puts it in his new memoir, “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.”

As for Mearsheimer and Walt’s comment that Bush would have been better off invading Saudi Arabia, all one can do is shake one’s head in disbelief. The House of Saud is America’s oldest ally and business partner in the Middle East, older even than Israel. For the United States to invade it after 9/11 would have been an admission that it had been wrong to go to war against Baghdad ten years earlier to protect the Saudis from the threat of an Iraqi invasion. And admitting a mistake is something an imperial power like the United States will rarely do.

The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy is filled with such bewildering moments. The authors cannot understand why Bush only mildly rebuked Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when Sharon ordered a helicopter missile attack on Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi in the Gaza Strip in June 2003. (The attack was unsuccessful, although a second strike finished him off the following April.) The best explanation Mearsheimer and Walt can come up with is that House Speaker Tom DeLay, a Christian Zionist and therefore a charter member of the Israel lobby, threatened recriminations on Capitol Hill if the White House’s response was any stronger. Yet they fail to mention that just a few months earlier in Yemen, the CIA had used a remote-controlled Hellfire missile to destroy a car containing an accused Al Qaeda leader named Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi and five others. Bush bragged about the incident in his 2003 State of the Union address, which is the chief reason he was unable to protest too vigorously when Israel used the same tactics against a leading “terrorist” of Hamas.

Curiously enough, Mearsheimer and Walt’s thin sense of history resembles Bush’s. Like Bush, who sees terrorism in essentially metaphysical terms (it is something evildoers do because they are evil), the authors have little to say concerning the actual social, political and historical conditions that have allowed organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to grow so powerful in the first place. The closest they come to acknowledging such conditions is when they write that “the lobby’s effectiveness…reflects the basic dynamics of interest group politics in a pluralistic society. In a democracy, even relatively small groups can exercise considerable influence if they are strongly committed to a particular issue.” The United States is vulnerable to manipulation by certain well-organized groups, in other words, because it is open and democratic. It is a case of America yet again being too benevolent for its own good.

Bush was a good deal more cogent when he told AIPAC in May 2004 that the reason America and Israel are natural allies is that they were both founded by immigrants escaping religious persecution in other lands. We have both built vibrant democracies, built on the rule of law and market economies. And we’re both countries founded on certain basic beliefs: that God watches over the affairs of men and values every life…. The Israeli people have always had enemies at their borders and terrorists close at hand. Again and again, Israel has defended itself with skill and heroism. And as a result of the courage of the Israeli people, Israel has earned the respect of the American people.

Stripped of its self-serving rhetoric, what Bush’s remarks boil down to is that Israel and the United States are both Zionist entities, or, if you will, crusader states convinced that they are a chosen people on a sacred mission to conquer and purify the Holy Land. Because God “values every life” within their borders, they feel justified in taking the lives of those outside to further divine goals. If “Israel has earned the respect of the American people,” it is because the United States, devastated by its experience in Vietnam and humiliated by the embassy takeover in Tehran, watched with growing envy as Israel racked up stunning military victories in 1967 and 1973 and then sent specially outfitted jets streaking across the desert to bomb Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 (a feat the White House would dearly like to emulate in Iran). The Israel Defense Forces were everything that aggressive imperial elements in Washington wanted America’s traumatized military to be. Hence, in their bipartisan struggle to overcome “the Vietnam syndrome,” the Republicans and Democrats set about remodeling themselves as overseas branches of Israel’s hawkish Likud Party. Groups like AIPAC did not grow of their own accord. Instead, the war party in Washington encouraged them to grow to help it win its battles on Capitol Hill.

Lobbyists did not force members of Congress to give the Likud heavyweight Benjamin Netanyahu a five-minute standing ovation when he addressed a joint session in 1996. When Ariel Sharon told William Safire a couple of months after 9/11, “You in America are in a war against terror. We in Israel are in a war against terror. It’s the same war,” no one forced members of Congress to nod like so many bobble-heads in agreement, as Hillary Clinton did a few months later when, just as Israeli troops were invading Nablus and Jenin in the West Bank, she declared, “We are one with the Israelis. Those who have supported Israel in the past have even more of a reason to do so now.” And they did so because they wanted to, because they thought the voters wanted them to or because they worried that they would be deemed unreliable if they did not. The problem is not that America is too democratic but that democratic debate about the Middle East has all but collapsed, which is the sole reason the militarists have been able to flourish.

The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy is a notable example of a new form of nativism that sees foreigners and their domestic allies as a big source of America’s problems and believes that the country would be better off if it could eradicate such influences. Anti-Semitic this is not, but it is still an evasion of the truth that could turn out to be highly dangerous. America will remain in its infantilized state as long as it tries to shift blame for its ills onto foreigners and their domestic agents. It will never solve its problems until it realizes that they originate entirely at home.

In an article in The New York Times Magazine last January, James Traub described a lunch with Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, at which Foxman got so exercised at the suggestion that the ADL was trying to stifle criticism of Israel that “he began to choke on his gratin.” Foxman’s denial that the ADL intimidates critics of Israel is harder than ever to swallow following the publication of The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control. Criticism that “faults specific Israeli policies and proposes realistic alternatives…is legitimate,” he writes. But “criticism that condemns Israel simply for existing and implies that the only way Israel can satisfy its critics is by disappearing is not legitimate” (emphasis in original).

Thus, even asking why a Christian, Muslim or white state is discriminatory but a Jewish state is not is beyond the pale. Similarly, criticism that takes into account Israel’s security concerns is permissible but not “criticism that ignores every problem Israel faces, assumes that its people and leaders can accomplish anything they desire instantly and without difficulty, and therefore concludes that only bad faith or evil motives can explain any failure or error on Israel’s part.” While it is OK to attribute “rejectionism, hatred, violence, and terrorism” to the Palestinians, as Foxman in fact does in The Deadliest Lies, it is not OK to attribute them to the Israelis, since that would mean charging them with bad faith or something else equally unpleasant. Only Palestinians are capable of terrorism, not Israelis, and if you don’t understand how this can possibly be, just ask the people at the ADL. They’ll straighten you out.

Statements like these are absurd, of course. The question, however, is not why people like Foxman utter them but why others take them so seriously. The reason is that such statements go to the heart of the US-Israeli alliance, an alliance that, until recently, few people dared question. Foxman sums up the situation quite nicely when he writes apropos of the Holocaust, “International complicity in that crime leads many people to feel that Israel deserves support as a way of saying to the Jewish people, ‘We will never again leave you without a home and a safe haven from hatred.'” Whether or not establishing the State of Israel was an appropriate response to the crimes of the Nazis–it certainly raises the question of why the Palestinians should then be forced to pay the price for the complicit parties’ own misdeeds–Foxman at least makes his position crystal clear. But then he goes on to say:

Whether or not Israel is a shining moral paragon, it certainly is not a pariah state to be condemned. It is, in fact, a nation among nations–a country much like any other, with its problems, its opportunities, its virtues, and, at times, its failings and shortcomings. In short, Israel is a “normal” country.

But is it? If it is “a country much like any other,” then outsiders should be free to criticize it with the same abandon with which they might criticize Britain or France. (When was the last time someone was accused of anti-British bigotry for criticizing British policy in Northern Ireland?) But if the establishment of Israel was a form of restitution, a way of making amends for the unparalleled crime of the Holocaust, then it is not a normal country and outsiders must be careful about what they say about it, because they still owe it an enormous moral debt. Criticism is permissible except when it’s not, and only the ADL and like-minded groups know whether the light is flashing green or red.

This is the great contradiction that stifles debate over the US-Israel alliance in this country. If Mearsheimer and Walt have accomplished anything, it is to demonstrate that nothing is beyond criticism, including the American-Israeli alliance, and that Foxman’s self-appointed role as guardian over what Americans can and cannot say about Israel must come to an end. The Israel Lobby gets a lot of things wrong, but at least it gets one important thing right.