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The Lobby Strikes Back: A new book riles the AIPAC crowd, but makes it

The Lobby Strikes Back: A new book riles the AIPAC crowd, but makes it
to the bestseller list anyway*. / by Scott McConnell //The American
Conservative / December 3, 2007

One prism through which to gauge the impact of John Mearsheimer and
Stephen Walt’s /The Israel Lobby/ / and American Foreign Policy/ is a
September incident involving Barack Obama. His campaign had placed small
ads in various spots around the Internet, designed to drive readers to
its website. One turned up on Amazon’s page for the Walt and Mearsheimer
book. A vigilant watchdog at the /New York Sun/ spotted it and contacted
the campaign: Did Obama support Walt and Mearsheimer? The answer came
within hours. The ad was withdrawn. Its placement was “unintentional.”
The senator, his campaign made clear, understood that key arguments of
the book were “wrong,” but had definitely not read the work himself. In
short, Walt and Mearsheimer had reached a pinnacle of notoriety. Though
/ The Israel Lobby/ was on the way to best-sellerdom and has become
perhaps the most discussed policy book of the year, the presidential
candidate touted as the most fresh-thinking and intellectually curious
in the race hastened to make clear he had not been corrupted by the
toxic text. The episode illustrates one of the book’s central arguments:
the Israel lobby is powerful, and American politicians fear its wrath.
Any Democrat running for president—drawing on a donor stream that is
heavily Jewish, very interested in Israel, and perceived as
hawkish—would have reacted as Obama did.

In their book’s introduction, Walt and Mearsheimer summarize the
consequences of this power. In an election year, American politicians
will differ radically on domestic issues, social issues, immigration,
China, Darfur, and virtually any other topic. But all will “go to
considerable lengths to express their deep personal commitment to one
foreign country—Israel—as well as their determination to maintain
unyielding support for the Jewish state.” The authors find this
remarkable and deserving of analysis, which they provided first in a
paper, posted last year on Harvard’s Kennedy School website and
published in the /London Review of Books/, and now expanded into a book.

This is not the first time a prominent American has taken on the
subject. George Ball, undersecretary of state in the Johnson and Kennedy
administrations and the government official most prescient about
Vietnam, a bona fide member of the Wall Street and Washington
establishments, called for the recalibration of America’s Israel policy
in a much noted /Foreign Affairs / essay in 1977, and at the end of his
life co-authored a book on the subject with his son. Eleven-term
congressman Paul Findley, defeated after a former AIPAC president called
him “a dangerous enemy of Israel,” wrote a book that became a
bestseller, and there are others. But no one with the combined skills
and eminence of Walt and Mearsheimer has before addressed the subject
systematically. These two are mandarins of American academia, having
reached the top of a field that attracts smart people. They have tenure,
job security, and professional autonomy most journalists lack. They have
the institutional prestige of Harvard and the University of Chicago
behind them. Most importantly, they bring first-rate skills of research,
synthesis, and argument to their task.

One might wish that their book had been different in some ways—more
literary, more discursive, more precise in some of its definitions,
deeper in some areas, more (my favorite, from blogger Tony Karon)
“dialectical.” But /The Israel Lobby/ is an extraordinary
accomplishment, completed with great speed—a dense, factually based
brief of an argument that is often made but rarely made well. In public
appearances discussing their book, Walt and Mearsheimer are tremendously
effective: measured, facts at their fingertips, speaking with the
fluency of men accustomed to addressing demanding audiences. Most of
all, while treating a subject where hyperbole is common, they are
moderate. They are respectful of Israel, admiring of its
accomplishments, and extremely aware that criticism of Israel or the
Israel lobby can turn ugly and demagogic. As might be expected of top
scholars in America, they are fully conscious of what Jews have suffered
in the past and how much anti-Semitism has been a moral blot on the West
as a whole. So while they have none of the excessive deference, guilt
feelings, and reluctance to engage so typical of the remaining WASP
elite, they are very well-modulated. Their detractors would have
preferred loose-tongued adversaries, Palestinians whose words are raw
with loss and resentment, a left wing anti-Zionist like Noam Chomsky, or
genuine anti-Semites. Instead, with Walt and Mearsheimer, they are
encountering something like the American establishment of a vanished era
at its calm, patriotic best.

It is obvious that /The Israel Lobby/, both the article and the book,
would be extremely unwelcome to those pleased with the status quo. Under
the current arrangement, the United States gives Israel $3-4 billion in
aid and grants a year—about $500 per Israeli and several orders of
magnitude more than aid to citizens of any other country. Israel is the
only American aid recipient not required to account for how the money is
spent. Washington uses its Security Council veto to shield Israel from
critical UN resolutions and periodically issues bland statements
lamenting the continued expansion of Israeli settlements on the
Palestinian land the Jewish state has occupied since 1967. When Israel
violates U.S. law, as it did in Lebanon by using American-made cluster
bombs against civilian targets, a low-level official may issue a mild
complaint. These fundamentals of the relationship go unchallenged by 95
percent of American politicians holding or running for national office.

Walt and Mearsheimer’s goal was to ignite a conversation about the
lobby—which they define expansively as an amorphous array of
individuals, think tanks, and congressional lobbying groups that
advocate Israeli perspectives—and its consequences, which they believe
are damaging to America’s core strategic interests in the Middle East.
They support Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, and while they
readily summarize Israeli blemishes, drawing on Israeli sources and the
arguments of the country’s revisionist “new historians,” they are fully
aware that no modern state has been built without injustices. They seek
a more normal United States relationship with Israel, rather like we
have with France or Spain, and an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement
that can start to drain the poison out of American relations with the
Arab world. At least in a preliminary sense, they have started a
discussion. The initial working paper on the Kennedy School website was
downloaded 275,000 times, throwing Israel’s most ferocious partisans
into a panic. Deploying a McCarthyite tactic, the /New York Sun/ quickly
sought to link the authors to white supremacist David Duke. / The New
Republic/ published a basketful of hostile pieces. Several pro-Israel
congressmen initiated an embarrassing effort—ignored by the
institution’s president—to get the Naval War College to cancel scheduled
lectures by the two. In a column about “the Mearsheimer-Walt fiasco,”
neoconservative writer Daniel Pipes summed up his dilemma: it would have
been better, Pipes said, to have ignored the essay by “two obscure
academics” so that it disappeared “down the memory hole” instead of
becoming “the monument that it now is.” Pipes was wrong about this.
Hostile reaction to the piece hadn’t inspired a quarter of a million
downloads. With the United States mired in a quagmire in Iraq,
increasingly detested in the Muslim world, and wedded to an Israel
policy that, beyond America’s borders, seems bizarre to friend and foe
alike, Walt and Mearsheimer had touched a topic that was crying out for
serious analysis. And the book could do more than the article. Arguments
could be filled out, footnotes could be easily read. The 2006 Lebanon
War—which saw the American Congress endorse the Israeli bombardment by
the kind of margin that would satisfy Nicolae Ceausescu, while seeming
genuinely puzzled that moderate Arab leaders did not join their applause
—was analyzed as a test case. A book could continue the discussion and
deepen it. But the book’s enemies (how odd that a book could have
enemies, but there is no better word for it) had time to prepare their
ideological trenches, and within a month or two of publication, one
could see the shape of the defense.

By the end of October, two months after / The Israel Lobby/ appeared in
stores, there had not been a single positive review in the mass-market
media. For a long time it seemed that no editor dared trust the subject
to a gentile, causing blogger Philip Weiss to ask cheekily, “Do the
goyim get to register an Opinion Re Walt/Mearsheimer?” By then, the
/Wall Street Journal/ editorial page, the /New York Sun/, and /The New
Republic/ between them must have printed 25 attacks on Walt and
Mearsheimer, virtually all of them designed to portray the authors as
beyond the pale of rational discourse. Anti-Semitism was not a credible
charge. The authors make clear that the lobby isn’t representative of
the views of all or even most American Jews, and they support an Israel
within recognized boundaries. Their recommendation that the United
States treat Israel like a normal country is hard to demonize. Ditto
their repeated assertions that lobbying is a perfectly normal part of
the American system and that conflicted or divided loyalties have become
commonplace in the modern world. But what many did was to discuss the
book in a context of anti-Semitism, to convey the impression that /The
Israel Lobby/ was a deeply anti-Semitic book without explicitly saying
so. Thus Jeffrey Goldberg, in a 6,000-word / New Republic/ piece,
introduced Walt and Mearsheimer after a detour through Osama bin Laden,
Father Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh, and, of course, David Duke. He
eventually called the book “the most sustained attack … against the
political enfranchisement of American Jews since the era of Father
Coughlin.” Samuel G. Freedman in the /Washington Post/ opened his
discussion of the book by invoking the New Testament concept of original
sin, whose burden one can escape only through acceptance of Jesus
Christ. A passage from Romans, Freedman claims, framed the book’s
argument—“if unintentionally.” When was the last time the /Washington
Post/ introduced a serious foreign affairs book with Bible talk that had
no bearing on the work in question?

One of several /Wall Street Journal/ attacks on the work claimed, “it is
apparently the authors’ position that ... [in the face of Arab lobbying
efforts] American Jews are obliged to stay silent.” This statement is
more than a misrepresentation of Walt and Mearsheimer’s argument, it is
a flat-out lie. Did the editors who assigned and published the piece
know this? Was discrediting the book so important that normal American
journalistic standards had to be waived? Another track of the
demonization campaign was the repeated effort to cancel the authors’
appearances or to demand that opposing speakers be invited to “rebut”
their noxious views, a format hardly typical for authors on book tours.
Unfortunately, these initiatives sometimes succeeded, as when the
Chicago Council for Global Affairs cancelled an event at a venue where
the two professors had spoken many times before. Some efforts to
marginalize the book were more like parody, as when Congressman Elliot
Engel complained that Professor Mearsheimer had been invited to
participate in a Columbia University forum on academic freedom. It would
be naïve to think that the campaign waged against the authors had no
impact. It managed to muddy the debate about the book. Even on some of
the wonkier Washington blogs, where there was manifest interest in
contending with the book’s arguments, the focus got shifted to whether
/The Israel Lobby/ was anti-Semitic. As one frustrated commenter on Ezra
Klein’s blog wrote, “[P]art of the theory is that the power of the
‘lobby’ is to effectively remove certain topics from the debate. And the
closest we come to debating those topics is a meta-discussion of whether
debating those topics is appropriate or some evidence of
anti-semitism/self hating Jewry.” Klein rued that “marginalizing the
authors as anti-semitic is more effective than arguing back their

The barrage also had an intimidation effect, a sort of “shock and awe”
for the political journalism set. What humble book-review editor could
fail to be impressed by the sheer volume of rhetoric painting the book
as disreputable or avoid wondering what bombs might explode under his
own career if he asked former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft
or Palestinian-American professor Rashid Khalidi to review the book.
Television producers took note as well. While Mearsheimer managed an
amiable ten minutes on “The Colbert Report,” the authors got nowhere
near the regular public-affairs discussion shows. Scholars and writers
got the message: if men as esteemed in their field as Walt and
Mearsheimer were subject to the Coughlin/Duke treatment and had their
appearances cancelled, surely those less cushioned by tenure and
eminence had good cause to keep silent. This probably explained the
sheer ferocity of the campaign against /The Israel Lobby/. Not all the
negative reviews were as egregious as those cited above. But those that
tried to address the substance of the book tended to land weak blows.
Les Gelb’s critique in the / New York Times/ was representative. His
central point was that if the Israel lobby—actually, he incorrectly
claimed that Walt and Mearsheimer called it a “Jewish lobby” —was indeed
so powerful, why has every American president over the past 40 years
“privately favored” the return of the Palestinian territories and the
establishment of a Palestinian state, and why has Washington
consistently “expressed displeasure” at Israel’s settlement expansion?
This is precisely the question to which Walt and Mearsheimer provide an
answer. If, as is indeed the case, most American presidents have
“privately” sought Israeli withdrawal, and since Israel is
extraordinarily dependent on American largesse, why has the United
States never seriously put pressure on Israel to stop the settlements
and give back the land? How did Israel manage to move 400,000 settlers
into the West Bank in 40 years, often using American funds, if this was
contrary to the wishes of every president? Gelb goes on to acknowledge
that Walt and Mearsheimer were prescient in their opposition to Bush’s
Iraq folly, but asserts that the Israel lobby had nothing do with the
decision to go to war. Bush and Cheney needed no lobbying on this point,
and they don’t about Iran either.

This last area is easily the most disputed point between Walt and
Mearsheimer and those reviewers who sought to answer their book rather
than smear it. The Israel lobby, the two assert, helped drive the United
States into Baghdad. It couldn’t have done it by itself—that required
9/11 and Bush and Cheney. But, argue Mearsheimer and Walt, “absent the
lobby’s influence, there almost certainly would not have been a war. The
lobby was a necessary but not sufficient condition for a war that is a
strategic disaster for the United States.” This is a powerful polemical
charge, if only because tens of millions of Americans who could care
less who has sovereignty over the West Bank recognize that the Iraq War
has been a painful failure on every level. But is it true? /The
Economist/ says the argument about Iraq “doesn’t quite stand up,” but
might make sense if “neoconservatives and the Israel lobby were the same
thing.” Leonard Fein, who writes on the dovish Americans for Peace Now
website, called the charge “monstrous” and accused the authors of
treating the lobby and neoconservatives “as if the two are
interchangeable.” Are they? On one aspect of the argument, the
historical record is clear. The two authors do valuable service by
documenting the near hysterical “attack Iraq now” recommendations made
by various Israeli politicians to American audiences during the run-up
to the war. Benjamin Netanyahu, whom the U.S. Congress customarily
treats with the kind of deference it might reserve for a Lincoln
returned from the dead, warned senators and congressmen that Saddam was
developing nukes that could be delivered in suitcases and satchels, and
Shimon Peres told Americans that Saddam was as dangerous as bin Laden.
The lobbying was so blatant that some political consultants warned
Israel to cool it, lest Americans come to believe that the war in Iraq
was waged “to protect Israel rather than to protect America.” AIPAC,
too, pushed for the invasion. It is clear that the Israel lobby, as
everyone understands it, was part of the rush-to-war atmosphere that
swept the capital in 2002.

But the critics do have a point: AIPAC and similar groups played a
comparatively minor part in the frenzy. But what of the
neoconservatives, who had openly pushed for war against Saddam since the
late 1990s and who held several key posts in the Bush administration?
For Walt and Mearsheimer, neoconservatives are an integral part of the
lobby, and indeed, for their argument to make sense, the lobby has to be
defined broadly. Of course there is AIPAC, which exists to influence
Congress, and its myriad associated groups that raise money for
candidates. The recent emergence of Christian Zionism as an electoral
force is an important addition, adding ethnic and social diversity and
increased political weight to the lobby. This is a sociologically and
psychologically rich area, which the authors don’t explore as deeply as
they might. What currents in American Protestantism suddenly made Israel
so compelling? It is interesting to learn, for example, that in 1979,
Menachem Begin gave Jerry Falwell a private jet as a gift and soon after
bestowed upon him the Jabotinsky Medal for “outstanding achievement.”
(Other recipients include Elie Wiesel and Leon Uris.) But such facts,
intriguing as they are, don’t entirely speak for themselves. And
whatever enhanced political clout Christian Zionism brought to the
lobby, it did not include access and influence to inner decision-making
sanctums of the Pentagon and White House or the ability to start a war.
That required the neoconservatives. The path that took the United States
from 9/11 to Iraq has yet to be precisely documented, but it is
generally accepted that Bush, Cheney, and other key policymakers became
converts to neoconservative views after the attack, if they weren’t
already sympathetic. This is important because neoconservatism has a
broad gravitational pull that more focused lobbying groups, no matter
how effective, can never match.

It is one thing to motivate a senator or congressman to vote for
“pro-Israel” legislation—and AIPAC does that well. The recent
Kyl-Lieberman bill labeling Iran’s military “terrorist” was reportedly
first drafted by AIPAC, and an AIPAC aide’s boast that he could have the
signatures of 70 senators on a napkin within 24 hours was altogether
believable. But that kind of lobbying has obvious limitations. How many
of those 70 senators would vote the lobby’s way while discretely rolling
their eyes, disliking the pressure they are subjected to but willing to
go along because it is the course of least resistance? People don’t
start wars for such reasons.

Neoconservatism is something far more than advocacy of the interests of
a foreign country. It is a full-blown ideological system, which shapes
the way people interpret events and view their own society and its
relation to the world. Yes, its foreign-policy views are strongly
pro-Israel. The main shapers of neoconservatism would readily argue that
their foreign-policy positions were good for Israel, while those they
opposed imperiled the Jewish state. No one who has spent time with major
neocons would doubt the centrality of Israel to their worldview or their
attachment to the no-compromise-with-Arabs parts of the Israeli
political spectrum. But such attitudes come embedded in a larger set of
viewpoints, which are now fairly disseminated among the American elite.
While it is one thing for a lawmaker to accommodate the Israel lobby
over something like the Kyl-Lieberman bill, it is quite another for an
executive-branch policymaker to see the world through a neocon
perspective, to have fully internalized slogans like “moral clarity” and
“Islamofascism” and “the lessons of appeasement” and elevated them as
lodestars. Neoconservatives did play a crucial role in preparing the
Iraq War—in the press, in generating dubious intelligence conclusions
and piping them into the executive branch, and in framing an argument
that George Bush would be “surrendering” to terror if he didn’t attack
Iraq. It was a performance that more conventional lobbying organizations
like AIPAC or the Zionist Organization of America couldn’t match in
their wildest dreams. Walt and Mearsheimer don’t go into this history
deeply. (In /The Assassin’s Gate, New Yorker/ writer and author George
Packer gives one of the most nuanced portraits of the attitudes of the
Bush administration’s intellectuals, exploring the difficult to pin down
matter of how intellectuals’ attitudes seep into policy choices.) But in
view of their convictions and pivotal positions inside the executive
branch and ability to shape policy at the very top, to say that
neoconservatives “overlap” with the Israel lobby hardly does them
justice: the faction might more properly be described as, to borrow the
well-known phrase, the highest stage of the Israel lobby.

Moreover, as an ideological movement, neoconservatism has a reach that
more focused pro-Israel advocacy could never duplicate. Does one call
Donald Rumsfeld a neoconservative? Few do. While obviously quite
capable, he isn’t known as an intellectual, isn’t Jewish (though of
course not all neocons are Jewish), isn’t an ex-liberal or leftist. He
is usually described as a Republican “nationalist,” though he pretty
much delegated Iraq policy to men—Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, and
others—who fit most classical definitions of “neoconservative.” But
there are connections: in the 1980s Rumsfeld was enlisted by Midge
Decter to chair the neoconservative Committee for the Free World, so
certainly the neocon cast of mind was not unfamiliar to him. In short,
just as the boundaries of the Israel lobby are blurry, so are those of
neoconservatism. The revival of terms like “fellow traveler” would
probably be helpful.

The most striking aspect of the reception of /The Israel Lobby/ was the
distance between the reviews in the U.S. and those abroad. In England,
reviewers for the major papers (including the Murdoch-owned /Times/)
treated the book’s argument as self-evidently true. Geoffrey Wheatcroft,
author of a prize-winning book on Zionism, noted in /The Guardian/ that
it must be obvious to a 12 year old that the Israel alliance, “far from
advancing American interests, gravely damages them and has hindered
every American endeavour in Arab countries or the whole Muslim world.”
Israel’s most influential paper, /Ha’aretz/, ran a review by Daniel
Levy, who was involved in the last serious round of Israeli-Palestinian
negotiations. He told his readers that Walt and Mearsheimer’s most
shrill detractors either had “not read the book, are emotionally
incapable of dealing with harsh criticism of something they hold so
close, or are intentionally avoiding substantive debate on the issue.”
Like others, Levy draws a line between the neocons and the Israel lobby
proper and explains the Iraq War as a sort of perfect storm: Bush and
Cheney, 9/11, many neoconservatives in the executive branch, and for the
first time a Republican administration with Christian Zionists as a
substantial part of its electoral base. He regrets that mainstream parts
of the lobby have been co-opted by the neocons and closes with a plea
for moderate Israelis to take American politics seriously and devote as
much attention to forming American alliances as the Israeli Right does.
This is very welcome advice, for Americans as well, because, as Walt and
Mearsheimer stress (and Levy helpfully repeats), it is not Israel per se
but Israel as an occupier that constitutes a major strategic liability
for the United States. But it should be noted that casual newspaper
readers in Israel, in Britain, and soon in the rest of Europe, where the
book is being translated into seven languages, are being treated to far
more nuanced and serious discussion of /The Israel Lobby/ than Americans
have been.

At least there has been the blogosphere. One wouldn’t know it from the
major American newspapers or magazine reviews, but a fresh breeze is
beginning to blow. /The Israel Lobby/ did receive more attention on the
serious blogs than any other book this year. M.J. Rosenberg, the
director of policy analysis for Israel Policy Forum and a prominent
“two-state solution” advocate, describes the influence of the book as
enormous: “Capitol Hill staffers are talking about the book, everybody
is arguing about it, people are intrigued. … it has opened up
discussion.” Despite, or perhaps because of, ferocious attacks in /The
New Republic/ and the /Wall Street Journal/, /The Israel Lobby/ made it
onto the /New York Times/ bestseller list. It remained there only a
couple of weeks, soon displaced by Alan Greenspan’s memoir and Laura
Ingraham’s latest. But the book’s influence is still early in its
trajectory. International sales will be large, there will be paperback
editions, and the book will be assigned in course readings. /The Israel
Lobby/ will be around a long time, perhaps longer than AIPAC itself.
Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery has already compared the work to
/Uncle Tom’s Cabin/, Philip Weiss to Rachel Carson’s /Silent Spring/. To
build upon Tony Karon’s analogy that glasnost is breaking out in the
American Jewish community, and that younger Jews are questioning Israel
like never before, /The Gulag Archipelago/ didn’t receive good reviews
in Russia when it came out either.

Walt and Mearsheimer haven’t written the last word on American-Israeli
relations. Other books, more psychologically probing and more
discursive, are in the works or waiting to be written. But in clearing
the first path since the pivotal date of 9/11, these two authors have
done their country a great service.
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