by Gregory Starrett

One Monday late last March, I got back to my office after five days away and found e-mails from six different mailing lists and individual colleagues discussing, or linking to discussions of, or linking to the text of a London Review of Books article by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, two prominent American political scientists, on how “The Israel Lobby” in the United States distorts U.S. foreign policy. Journalists, academics, former government officials, and others have been busily taking notice of the piece, looking for their names or the names of their friends and mentors, (or for those of their bete noirs and whipping boys), and dutifully proclaiming either that it’s about time someone outside the ranks of the Left finally noticed AIPAC’s shenanigans, or squawking about the article’s myriad inaccuracies, basic unfairness, and blatant anti-Semitism.

As far as I can tell, there are three difficulties with Mearsheimer and Walt’s work. The first is that, as many have pointed out, even if it is all more or less true, there is nothing much new in it. There is no insight that has not already appeared in, say The Nation; no data that has not already made the rounds of Middle East academic blogs or the published work of Norman Finkelstein or Noam Chomsky; little original except that, suddenly, two well-known, “mainstream” academics in high-profile positions (Mearsheimer helps direct the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago; Walt is a dean at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government) have put the material together in such a way that Ivy-League worthies like Marvin Kalb and Dennis Ross are moved to snarky rejoinders they would never have felt necessary in response to, say, anything written on www.antiwar.com. Wounded policy players, offended think-tankers, and professional polemicists are generally responding by denying that there is such a thing as the Israel Lobby, or that they are not now, nor have they ever been part of the field of influence of the Israel Lobby, or cautioning that to claim that there even might be such a thing as the Israel Lobby is a prelude to genocide.

The second difficulty is that by discussing the complicated phenomenon of American support for Israel in terms of a sound bite like “The Israel Lobby,” Mearsheimer and Walt have opened their argument to purposeful misreading. Daniel Pipes, for example, quotes their piece: “The Lobby also monitors what professors write and teach. In September 2002, for example, Martin Kramer and Daniel Pipes, two passionately pro-Israel neoconservatives, established a website (Campus Watch) that posted dossiers on suspect academics. . . .” Pipes challenges them on the facts in his own blog: “I note specifically here that no ‘Lobby’ told me to start Campus Watch. Neither the Middle East Forum nor myself have ever taken orders from some mythical ‘Lobby,’ and specifically I decided to establish Campus Watch on my own, without direction from any outside source.” Pipes is not a stupid man (he has, after all, a Ph.D. from Harvard), so he surely grasps that Mearsheimer and Walt are not accusing him of acting on the behalf of The Lobby, but that they are accusing him of being part, through his actions, of The Lobby itself. While they begin their report by calling The Israel Lobby a loose collection of different individuals and organizations, as the work proceeds the Lobby seems to become less an observation of pattern within disparate processes (actual lobbying, publication, student activism both grassroots and astroturf, conference sponsorship, teaching endowments, research funding, Christian broadcasting, letter-writing campaigns, espionage, fundraising, etc.), and more like a coherent object. The suggestion of such coherence begins to sound like “conspiracy,” and Pipes and others are bright enough to pinch at the loose thread and pull.

The third difficulty is that by naming the Israel Lobby (in its manifold Jewish and Christian forms) as a prominent cause of the United States’ miserably failed Middle East policy, Mearsheimer and Walt minimize what are probably far more insidious forces that lurk not in ethnic primordialism, but in both the cash-gorged pusilanimity of elected officials and in the very concepts and categories of “realist” political thought. Why focus on The Israel Lobby instead of focusing on the structural features of American politics that generate poor policy as a matter of course by consistently privileging powerful private constituencies, whether ethnic, religious, or corporate? Why focus on the Israel Lobby rather than on the odd political-science fantasy that nation-states have coherent interests and that they compete with other nation-states with whose own coherent interests they come into conflict? Does the United States as such have interests of its own? Or is “it” an aggregate of conflicting, competing and sometimes interpenetrating interests? Are the interests of its political elites always consonant with those of its economic elites? With its intellectual or media elites? With its ethnic elites? With the mass and with the constituent class fragments of its population? To which of the country’s constituent interests would a rational “realist” foreign policy cater? Surely to the interests of its political classes and their allies who keep them in power. But this is to admit baldly that the vast majority of citizens and subjects of any state are not represented when the interests of “the nation” are calculated, allowing powerful miscreants to send so many thousands of working-class youths to their deaths in Iraq (or Chechnya) while their own children and grandchildren study finance and political science in funky Cambridge lofts and vacation in Aspen and Montego Bay. It is also to admit that whatever keeps elites in power is by definition in their interests, and therefore that whatever support The Israel Lobby provides to America’s political classes acts by definition to further “the national interest” of its rulers, who have the capacity, both practical and legal, to define the nature of national interest.

If the notion of “national interests” is a neat conceptual camouflage for political processes that are incoherent at best and self-serving at worst, then statements about the Israel Lobby’s hijacking of American interests lend themselves quite handily to the sorts of public propaganda Julius Streicker mobilized in the 1930s about German national interests and their enemies. They distract us. For even if we admit that Mearsheimer and Walt are largely correct about The Israel Lobby’s self-interested activities and doleful effects (Finkelstein’s ruthlessly methodical destruction of Alan Dershowitz in Beyond Chutzpah is both far better as critique and far more useful as an antidote to American ignorance on the issues), to what can we attribute America’s overwhelming receptivity to the Lobby’s persuasion? Why does Israel seem so necessary to our national imagination, either as a locus of our problems in the Middle East or as a token of their resolution?

For Americans, Israel is, in Levi-Straussian terms, good to think. It is an idea rather than a real place. Structurally, the Zionist myth represents a balance between ancient and modern, between democracy and tradition. It represents—despite the injustices upon which its history and current politics rests—the triumph of justice and national independence and self-sufficiency against oppression and genocide. Such myths represent important kinds of truth that are independent of their correspondence to empirical reality. On a cognitive level, Israel also represents conflict in the Middle East as consisting of ethno-religious struggles rather than economic or political or social struggles. It represents—in its very appearance, independent of any argument that “Israel Lobbyists” might deploy–conflicts as being inter-national, inter-group, and inter-confessional, masking internal complexities, eliding class and gender and regional inequalities and conflicts both within the Israeli polity and within the polities of their partners and their enemies. It also elides or misrepresents the substantial confluences of interest and desire that exist between residents of different national states. Framed in such a way, conflict resolution becomes by necessity a matter of international negotiation between elites rather than a question of how the internal organization of societies distribute tangible and symbolic resources, how they structure the interests of negotiating power elites, or how, conversely, the field of international negotiations between those elites shapes the lives and fates of those—the majority of any population–who have smaller shares of influence.

Israel’s political function for American elites is complex, and derives in part from its ability to focus our attention on cartography. Conflicts are localized and imagined as bounded, ancient, and emotionally driven. International systems of investment, migration, and resource extraction, on the other hand, enter discourse as matters of economic logic rather than essentially political or moral issues. In this context the world’s dependence on fossil fuels is a far more significant threat to our long-term interests, and a far more productive source of political corruption and poor long-term planning than The Israel Lobby. Aside from the truly frightening long-term questions of what forms conflict will take both within and between societies as the world’s oil supplies disappear, there are short-term difficulties as well. Americans are forced to compromise our democratic principles either in cozying up to oil’s politically debauched merchants (the Saudi royal family) or in overthrowing elected leaders (Iran’s Muhammad Mossadegh) in order to secure supplies for ourselves and our allies. If we seek ways out by encouraging alternative industrial-scale energy sources like nuclear power, we are forced into the moral hypocrisy of forgiving Pakistan’s nuclear misdeeds but chastising Iran for hers because of the complicated politics of empire. Leaders in both Israel and the United States once thought that the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s was in their best interests, as it would weaken both parties and prevent either from emerging as a regional power. The U.S. believed supporting Afghanistan’s mujahidin against the Soviet Union was in its best interests. But the Iran-Iraq war was both the crucible of Saddam’s development and deployment of noxious unconventional weapons systems and research, and an opportunity for the leaders of the Islamic Republic to consolidate their own power.

If, in addition, Osama bin Laden’s emergence as a leader of an international Islamist militant network was one result of Afghanistan’s unhappy role as a death spasm of the Cold War, it’s not at all clear whose interests have been served. The most recent invasion of Iraq, although given intellectual charter by some Israel Lobbyists, was a war of opportunity attributable to the intersection of the cold strategic logic of the Vice President and his colleagues in the oil industry, and the President’s private psychodramas of filial loyalty, Oedipal conflict, personal salvation, and messianic Babbitism. The political fantasies laid out by now-disgraced “Lobby” stalwarts like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and Elliot Abrams may have helped rationalize the war to leaders and sell it to the public, but probably had little to do with its origin. And little to do with either American or Israeli interests, given concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran, which is reacting predictably to the spectacle of its neighbor wriggling in the talons of same great powers that helped destroyed Tehran’s democracy half a century ago.

If The Israel Lobby’s world views fall on already receptive ears in this country, it is in part the resurgent Christian fundamentalist revulsion toward Islam as such—intensified by well-publicized subway bombings, kidnappings of peace activists and missionaries, hostage beheadings, and calls for the execution of Christian converts—that has prepared the ground both for right-wing politics and for Democratic political opportunism (viz. the disgraceful performance of liberal politicians who racialized the threat of a Dubai-owned company administering American sea ports). The self-centered eschatological Israelophilia of some evangelical churches is a noisy but probably relatively minor issue in comparison to the alienation of mainstream Christian and Jewish denominations from the possibility of finding moral common ground with Muslims, who are becoming tarred by the actions and rhetoric of would-be leaders in Baghdad and Birmingham who have turned themselves into reactionary stereotypes. It is possible to argue that these stereotypes are all too easily disseminated by a biased press at the behest of The Israel Lobby, but the sad fact is that many of the most negative incidents—including the 911 attacks–have been developed specifically for media consumption by their perpetrators. For many Christians, Muslims are doomed to hell regardless of what they do with respect to Israel. They are either violent enemies bent on the revival of a world-encompassing Caliphate (for those who wish to eradicate them), or tragic, duped souls to be pitied and saved (for those who wish to convert them). In either case, they are peculiarly deluded human beings because they fail to recognize Christian America’s excellence either in secular or in spiritual terms.

Our receptivity to “pro-Israel” messages has other cultural roots as well, including a collective and well-deserved guilt over the long history of Euro-American anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust, and the American historical tradition of identifying with Israel—again, the idea rather than the reality–as God’s chosen people. That both sixteenth century European religious dissenters and twentieth century European Jews had left behind the corruption and oppression of Europe for new lands is a striking parallel that resonates well with many Americans in a way that sympathy for the Palestinians does not. It might be argued that Americans who owe their land and its resources to the slaughter and displacement of indigenous peoples are in as poor a moral position to lecture Israelis about the humane treatment of minority populations as are Europeans, who not only slaughtered and deported their own Jews over hundreds of years, but whose ugly history of colonialism in the Middle East paved the way for Israel and currently saddles their own countries with still unaddressed legacies of racism, both structural and cultural.

Finally, American perceptions of and policy toward the Middle East are characterized by an easy and reflexive anti-Arab racism with roots in our history and repudiation of slavery (a denigration of dark skin coupled, ironically, with an American cultural imaginary in which Arabs—whether in Sudan or in the Gulf–are still inveterate slavers, both evil and historically backward); in our frontier ideology of settlement and rugged self-reliance (so consonant with the Zionist myth); and in the longstanding literary and media depictions of Orientalism, which help us to write off the concerns of Arabs and Muslims. Unlike Jews since the middle of the twentieth century, and Italians, Poles, and Irish before them, Arabs and Muslims have not been accorded the status of “white people” in the United States, and are left vulnerable to sometimes open and socially approved discrimination, insult, vandalism, harassment, and threat of violence. Internationally, these predispositions help us attribute Middle Eastern poverty or political repression to personality flaws endemic to the region (corruption, zealotry, tribalism, sexism) rather than to structural or historical factors.

Using The Israel Lobby as an alibi for bad foreign policy decisions is cheap and easy. It’s also quite misleading, however obnoxious, inconvenient, intellectually stultifying and sometimes illegal the activities of various “pro-Israel” political forces might be in the United States. It might be interesting to look at the function of The Israel Lobby argument as a rhetorical instrument for “realist” political scientists at prestigious institutions seeking to reconfigure the structure of foreign policy influence in a political context in which both the realist (WMDs) and the idealist (Democracy for the Middle East) arguments for the Iraq war have foundered. In any case, one of the last things we need scholars like Mearsheimer and Walt to do is to further the idea that scholarship should be about identifying the topography of “pro” or “anti” national forces rather than asking ourselves what it means for political activities or intellectual endeavors to be labeled or analyzed as “pro” or “anti.” The irony is that Israelis are not made more secure by any of these activities. Despite, and perhaps partially because of nearly unchallenged American support Israel remains a pariah state in the eyes of many of its neighbors, feeling constantly on the defensive, overmilitarized, economically dependent on foreign aid and remittances, politically dependent on the United States, threatened by multiple internally squabbling insurgencies within its zone of control, incapable of addressing its intra-national ethnic and class problems, and no more capable than France, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, the United States, or North Korea of successfully defining what actions further its own “national interests,” apart from what actions will intimidate or co-opt its populations into allowing its small circle of leaders to remain in place.

When American music legend Eydie Gorme gave voice in 1963 to Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s hit song, “Blame it on the Bossa Nova,” she sang as a character describing a night of passionate romance resulting in marriage and pregnancy (not necessarily in that order). She attributed her surrender to the driving, magical beat of the Bossa Nova rather than to the moon or the stars above, or even to what Walt Whitman, a far more honest poet, called “the procreant urge of the world,” the driving, magical beat of her own libido. The idea that American policy toward the Middle East or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is driven uniquely by the Israel Lobby’s tune and not by the American elite’s own fear, ignorance, greed, rational calculation, religious conviction, implicit cultural assumptions, sloppy thinking, or explicit political science is a charming conceit. But it is as accurate and as helpful as blaming dance music for getting yourself knocked up. Let’s blame our foreign policy failures on our elected officials this time, not on the Jews.