He has enraged the Israel lobby in Washington with his book about the lobby and US foreign policy. He is persona non grata in many circles, but he’s not taking a step back.
Part 2 (of 2): The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.
In 2006, Mearsheimer and Harvard professor Stephen Walt wrote “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy”, which turned out to be so controversial that the Atlantic, which commissioned the paper, refused to publish it. It had to be published overseas, in the London Review of Books. Mearsheimer has been called an anti-semite and speaking engagements have been cancelled. Since then, the paper has been widely downloaded and circulated and the subsequent book has been published in 22 languages.
The book described the activities of a loose coalition of organisations in the US that wield great power and influence on US Middle East foreign policy; how this Israel lobby targets politicians and policy-makers; and its enormous resources. Mearsheimer calls it the most effective lobby in Washington.
Since “The Israel Lobby….” was published, Mearsheimer and Walt have followed up with many papers and talks, the talks mostly outside the US because they have had difficulty getting speaking engagements in the US.
For example, in 2007, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs cancelled a scheduled talk, the president explaining apologetically that he had been pressured. “He explained that his decision was based on the need ‘to protect the institution’. He said that he had a serious ‘political problem’, because there were individuals who would be angry if he gave us a venue to speak, and that this would have serious negative consequences for the Council,” Mearsheimer and Walt wrote.
Responding to claims of anti-semitism, Mearsheimer emphasises that the Israel lobby is not synonymous with American Jews because many Jews do not support the Israel lobby; that it is a political lobby, not an ethnic or religious lobby; that it is so powerful that often the US cannot do anything in the Middle East if the Israel lobby opposed it.
Over the years since 2006, his views on the lobby have changed little, helped perhaps by an article in the New Yorker in 2014, “Friends of Israel” by Connie Bruck, which detailed the operations of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), the principal member of the lobby.
In a 2017 paper, “What Has Changed Since Publication of The Israel Lobby and What the New Administration Can Do Differently”, in the Washington Report on Middle EastAffairs, Mearsheimer wrote:
“There is hardly any sustained criticism of Israel in the American foreign policy establishment. This is unsurprising since the lobby is as powerful as ever and, as I emphasised, it focuses most of its attention on keeping the country’s elites in line.
“Anyone who wants to be a serious player in the making of US foreign policy understands full well that if he or she criticises Israel, there will be a price to pay. The result is that there is no serious debate about Israel or the special relationship in Congress, the mainstream media, or prominent think tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations.”
Mearsheimer details clearly what the lobby is and is not, so there is no misunderstanding. “What exactly is the lobby? Steve and I argue that it’s a loose coalition of individuals and groups who actively work to influence US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction.
“It’s not a centralised organisation, and the groups that make up the lobby do not agree on every issue. It includes organisations like AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents [of Major American Jewish
Organizations], the Zionist Organization of America, and Christians United for Israel, just to name a few. It also includes think tanks like WINEP [Washington Institute for Near East Policy] and the American Enterprise Institute, and publications like The Weekly Standard and Commentary.
“It certainly is not a cabal or a conspiracy that ‘controls’ US foreign policy. Rather, it’s a powerful interest group like the NRA, the farm lobby, the Cuba lobby, or the AARP, and it operates pretty much the same way those other interest groups do.
“Very importantly, the lobby is not synonymous with Jewish Americans. Surveys suggest that about a third of American Jews do not care that much about Israel. Others do not support the lobby’s positions. Some groups that work on Israel’s behalf, such as the so-called Christian Zionists, are not Jewish. In short, the lobby is defined by its political agenda, not by ethnicity or religion.”
Mearsheimer wrote that the lobby has pushed policies that are in neither Israel’s nor America’s national interest. It would have been much better for both countries if the United States had long ago pressured Israel to stop building settlements and allow for the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
“But this did not happen – and it will not happen – because the lobby makes it impossible for American leaders to use the leverage at their disposal to pressure Israel.”
He wrote that three things have not changed since publication of The Israel Lobby…. “First, the lobby is as powerful as ever. The lobby does not win every time, and it is most likely to lose when it is pushing the United States to do something that might get it into a war.
“Where the lobby almost always wins is on matters relating to the Palestinians and financial support for Israel. The fact that the Obama administration could do virtually nothing to get Israel to move toward a two-state solution, yet still opted to provide Israel with $38 billion in aid over the next decade is clear evidence that the lobby remains very powerful,” he wrote.
On how the lobby achieves its effectiveness, Mearsheimer wrote: “It’s important to understand that the key to the lobby’s success is that it focuses mainly on influencing high-level policymakers and opinion makers, as well as the elites in both political parties – not the rank and file.
“I noted earlier that there has been a significant decrease in support for Israel within the Democratic Party. The reason that change has had little effect on policy is that the elites in the Democratic Party remain deeply committed to the special relationship. They fear the lobby will target them if there is any evidence they are wavering in their support for Israel.
“One might think that politicians who are supposed to place the American national interest above the interest of all other countries would stand up to the lobby when it pushes policies that they know are not good for the United States. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explains why this does not happen: ‘I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibility, micro-managerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thinskinned’ – here are the key words – ’and prone to put self and re-election before country’.”
Mearsheimer wrote that the second big nonchange is that US policy toward Israel, the special relationship, remains the same as it has been for the past decade.
“Of course, this continuity is hardly surprising, given that there has been no diminishment in the power of the lobby. As many of you probably remember, there was a brief moment during the recent presidential election where it looked like candidate [Donald] Trump might favour a more even-handed approach to dealing with Israel and the Palestinians. But he quickly reversed field and made it clear that he would go to great lengths to be even more pro-Israel than President Obama. Naturally, Hillary Clinton made the same pledge. Thus, there is no good reason to think that American policy toward Israel is going to change in a meaningful way any time soon.”
On why the US invaded Iraq,Mearsheimer wrote: “Our argument in the book (The Israel Lobby…), and of course in the article as well, is that the lobby was deeply interested in getting Iraq and taking Saddam Hussain down for a long time before the actual invasion on March 19, 2003. The lobby, and here we’re talking especially about the neoconservatives, were pushing very hard for a war against Iraq.
“In the wake of what looked like a stunning military victory in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, we came to the conclusion – falsely, of course – that we had the magic formula for taking down regimes and getting out of town quickly so that we could march on to the next target. This is what the Bush doctrine was all about.”
Asked about repercussions following “The Israel Lobby…”, Mearsheimer said that he and Walt had not been punished in any significant way at either Harvard or at the University of Chicago. “Both universities have fully supported our right to speak out on this issue and other issues. American universities are actually excellent when it comes to freedom of speech issues in almost all cases.”
He continued: “It’s hard to tell how much of the trouble I have getting speaking engagements here and there, or getting put on this board or that board, is due to the fact that I wrote The Israel Lobby, or due to the fact that I have been controversial on other issues as well. But I think just in general, without going into any details, there are surely a number of opportunities that we were not afforded because we wrote the article and the book.”
(John Tan was a deputy editor in the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore. He has been foreign editor and business editor.)