links for 2008-02-24
Why Fareed Zakaria Likes Barack Obama

The Crucial Flaws in Mearsheimer and Walt's "The Israel Lobby"

Henry Farrell picks up an excellent line from Scott McLemee:

The Monkey Cage: Discussions of the substance of Walt/Mearsheimer often degenerate rapidly in quite unpleasant ways, so I'll note my agreement with Scott McLemee's statement that[:]

[their] book has one thing in common with the state of Israel: Before any progress can be made, it is necessary to affirm its right to exist...

Henry moves on:

I'm less lenient than... on... [Mearsheimer and Walt's] lack of explicit interview[s].... Interviewees surely lie or shade the truth, but when you are trying to get at something as difficult to measure as the influence of a body that putatively does most of its work behind closed doors, you need to get some sort of sense of the world of shared understandings that policy makers work within. Interview evidence or (even better) participant/observer analysis are usually the only real ways properly to get at these understandings.

More broadly though, it seems to me that there is a characteristic flaw of much international relations scholarship in particular that pervades their work, and that is identified in this post by Jacob Levy on their original paper. When they say in an aside that:

The mere existence of the Lobby suggests that unconditional support for Israel is not in the American national interest. If it was, one would not need an organized special interest to bring it about.

they reveal themselves to be operating with a particular and systemic (in more than one sense) set of biases. As structural realists, neither Walt and Mearsheimer really believe domestic explanations for state behaviour. This means that they don't understand very well how domestic politics operates, arguing in effect that national interests are somehow so self-evident that they don't need to be defended, and that domestic interest politics are at the very best a source of distortion and error in state policy making. This, to put it mildly, jars with the kinds of assumptions and arguments that more domestically inclined political scientists (including, in fairness, some IR scholars) find necessary to a proper understanding of how politics works. Not all international relations scholars are systems theorists, let alone Waltzians, but the effect of systems theorists on the thought of IR scholars is pervasive. Even when, as in this case, it obscures far more than it reveals...

I would go a step further. The strength in America of what Walt and Mearsheimer call "the Israel lobby"--which is in truth not a lobby for Israel at all, but we'll get there--does not reflect the strength or deviousness of the lobbyists, but instead three other factors:

  • An American belief that justice is best served if the Jews of Europe, the Maghrib, and the Mashriq have a state to call their own, and that there are powerful, powerful reasons for having this state in the neighborhood of Jerusalem rather than of Bialystock or Seville or Cardiff or Salt Lake City.
  • A historical memory and some guilt over the genocides of the 1940s, for the U.S. was very late to the party that was WWII--although we did bring a s---load of refreshments when we finally showed up.
  • The belief of every churchgoing or ex-churchgoing or bible-reading American Protestant that at some deep level we are Israel.

None of these three are reasons that either Walt or Mearsheimer can understand, and so they--falsely and ignorantly--attribute the strength of the American one-sided alliance with Israel as due to corruption and propaganda by the Israel lobby. That is a bad thing for them to do.

But worse is their characterization of their subject as "the Israel lobby"--as a group that tries to make American foreign policy serve the "national interest" of Israel. But it doesn't. The principal deed done today by the Israel lobby is to block any effective American action to slow or reverse the settlement of Israeli citizens on the West Bank. And planting settlers on the West Bank is no more Israel's national interest than the installation of a German-speaking mayor in Strasbourg is Germany's, or than the conquest of Toronto or Vancouver is America's. In fact, less so: every day that the number of settlers on the West Bank increases--indeed, every day Israeli settlers remain on the West Bank--Israel becomes weaker, and the chance that Tel Aviv will become an abbatoir, a sea of radioactive glass--along with Damascus and Tehran--goes up. Whether "the Israel lobby" has influence that is in some sense "outsized" is a much less important and vital question than the question of what future its actions are pushing all of us towards.