Critics of Israel lobby draw fire
By David Walter
Princetonian Staff Writer
Two international relations theorists came to campus last night for a hotly contested debate about their book, which outlines the damages they believe pro-Israel lobbying has done to American foreign policy.
John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," spoke in Dodds Auditorium, which overflowed with attendees anxious to hear the scholars discuss their controversial arguments. The discussion — which frequently drew strong reactions from the audience — was moderated by Wilson School professor Robert Keohane, himself a prominent international relations scholar.
Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, began the talk by explaining that when discussing U.S. policy toward Israel, "we're talking about special relations."
"Israel is the largest recipient of economic and military aid from the United States," he said. "It enjoys consistent diplomatic support in the United States, which almost always takes its side in regional disputes. Israel is almost never criticized by anyone who aspires to high office in the United States. The question is: Why?"
"Israel may have been a strategic asset during the Cold War, but the Cold War is now over," Walt said.
The U.S. government's "unconditional support for Israel," Mearsheimer said, contributes to the threat of terrorism and prevents America from seeking diplomatic solutions with nations such as Iran and Syria. The professors called for a shift in America's policy on Israel, saying that it should be treated "as a normal country."
Keohane, in response to the authors' presentation, said he believed Mearsheimer and Walt's ideas were presented "in good faith" but also called their book "a flawed work of political science."
Keohane referenced what he saw as numerous "inconsistencies with realities" in their thesis, noting that Syria recently participated in Middle East peace talks despite opposition from some pro-Israel groups and observing that Israel-Palestinian policies in Europe were consistent with those in America despite the lack of a strong pro-Israel base on the continen
Israel and the Iraq War
A major point of contention during the discussion was the role of neoconservative policymakers in the Bush administration and their links with pro-Israel lobbyists. Mearsheimer and Walt said that neocons played a significant role in the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, a move the two argued was also seen at the time as being in Israel's best interest.
"There's no question that the neoconservatives were the main driving forces behind the war, supported by key organizations in the lobby like AIPAC," Mearsheimer said.
Keohane disputed the link between AIPAC and the decision to go to war in Iraq. He cited nine other reasons for the invasion, including concerns over weapons of mass destruction and a desire to promote democracy.
The mention of AIPAC's role in the lead up to the Iraq war set off a spirited exchange.
"It's hard to find other organizations or institutions that were pushing the war," Mearsheimer said. "If it wasn't the neoconservatives, and it wasn't the leaders of the lobby, and it wasn't Israel, then who was it?"
"Two people: One is the president, and the other is the vice president," Keohane said to applause.
Walt jumped in. "The problem," he said, "is that neither the president nor the vice president was pushing for the war in the first eight months of the term." More people applauded.
Keohane added that Sept. 11, 2001, changed the situation amid supportive shouts from the audience.
Mearsheimer responded that "Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11."
Mearsheimer and Walt's views have weathered sharp criticism from mainstream reviewers and academics alike since the September publication of their book.
In a New York Times review of the book, Leslie Gelb, who was assistant secretary of state under the Carter administration, called its arguments "dangerously misleading" and their methods "puzzlingly shoddy." The Economist pointed out that while the authors did a "fair job" of explaining how lobbying groups "help to shape, and sometimes stifle, American thinking," they were on "much thinner ice" when linking Israel's supporters with America's invasion of Iraq.
Mearsheimer defended himself against similar charges during the discussion last night by noting that "American Jews were 10 percent more likely to oppose the Iraq War. In no way are we describing this as a Jewish war."
In an open letter sent to the event's organizers on Monday, Wilson School professor Aaron Friedberg cast aspersions on the book's academic merit. "[T]his is not a work of objective academic analysis but rather a one-sided and tendentious polemic," he wrote, also questioning the broader implications of the authors' portrayal of a large, unduly influential Israel lobby in the United States.
"Much attention has been paid to the question of whether the authors or their work are in any sense anti-Semitic. I do not believe that this is relevant," he said. "Whether out of ignorance or a desire to court controversy, the authors have chosen to make use of language and imagery similar to that deployed in the past by avowed anti-Semites."
Walt and Mearsheimer repeatedly denied having any ulterior motives and refuted charges of anti-Semitism, saying that they "don't question Israel's legitimacy or its right to exist."
They also stressed that the lobbying groups are legitimate organizations acting in what they believe to be both countries' best interests. Their argument, they said, was not that the groups shouldn't exist, but that so far pro-Israel lobbying groups have had a negative effect on U.S. foreign policy and national interests.
The event was sponsored by the Princeton Institute of International Regional Studies, the Wilson School, the Program in Near Eastern Studies and the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.