Friday, February 23, 2007

Walt and Mearsheimer on the Israel Lobby

Much has been said in the past half year on the relationship between the US and Israel, some of it reasonable, rational and persuasive, and probably most not even worth mentioning. Interestingly enough, much of the recent controversy was started by two eminent scholars of international relations, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. They published an essay in the London review of books last March where they attempted to explain the seeming unconditional US political, military and economic support for Israel. They came to the conclusion that it was due in large measure to the existence, prevalence and strength of what they loosely termed the “Israel Lobby.”

Here is the general thesis of their essay.
This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the US been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the US provides.

Instead, the thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US interests and those of the other country – in this case, Israel – are essentially identical.
After reading their essay and then seeing the public reaction to it in such places as Foreign Policy Magazine, I found the character assassinations leveled at them most astounding. In July/August issue of FP Magazine Aaron Friedberg called their work a “stunning display of ignorance,” that they were being “irresponsible” and “slanderous.” In other areas their arguments were perhaps even more misunderstood, straw men were erected and the typical charges of anti-Semitism were leveled against them personally. These attacks aside, I was most intrigued by a rhetorical question in the comments section of the following FP Mag. issue:
After all, how could two realist thinkers suggest that US foreign policy has been influenced by a domestic lobby? Doesn’t realist international relations theory teach that a state makes decisions based exclusively on an assessment of the international balance of power? Don’t realist denigrate the “regime question,”… Surely, then, shouldn’t they be totally uninterested in the views of any domestic group?
This brings up an interesting question about theory. If states tend to operate under balance of power logic, then how could the US have subordinated its security interest to the Israel lobby? I think we can answer this question in a number of ways that maintain the relevance of realist theory. First, states “tend” to operate under such logic, they don’t always do so. Their rational interests can be subordinated to miscalculations, in this case precipitated by influential pressure groups. Second, when a state achieves such a level of unrivaled military, economic and technological supremacy as the US has, typical security concerns are greatly diminished, the likelihood of a great power war can be seen only as a distant prospect, and power can be exercised on the basis of other interests like humanitarianism. It almost seems as if the US has stepped outside the traditional anarchic realm of international relations while the rest remain trapped, and more importantly, subject to our erratic and unconstrained behavior. To modify Waltz, we are even freer “to do any fool thing we care to.” And indeed, in my opinion, we have. Its only a matter of time before we see some effective counter-balancing behavior against us.

As for Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, any debate about the future of US-Israel relations must include their work. In the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, they “have rendered a public service by initiating a much-needed public debate.” I tend to agree with him.

Here is a video of Walt and Mearsheimer talking about the issue.

1 comment:

Jeb said...

Fascinating post. That is a really interesting question, by the way, about the role of domestic actors in foreign policy decision-making since, of course, realists don't give much credence to the fact that such actors might play a part in the shaping of policy. I wonder how Walt would respond...