Two academics from the Chicago University Political Science Department and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University shocked the tender sensibilities of the chattering classes when they published a damning study of how and to what extent “the Israel Lobby” influences U.S. foreign policy.
The paper has been dissected and criticized, often hysterically, by both left and right, and by both the mainstream and radical media. The hysteria is in itself telling, and I hope to address it in a separate article. But first, I wish to examine the Mearsheimer and Walt (M&W) argument in its own right. My purpose is to offer an antidote to the paralysis that befalls significant portions of the U.S. left whenever the Israel Lobby is mentioned. To do so, I will criticize M&W’s paper, but also reconstruct its argument within a coherent leftist framework. The M&W thesis is that,
[T]he overall thrust of U.S. policy in the [Middle East] region is due almost entirely to U.S. domestic politics, and especially to the activities of the “Israel Lobby.” . . . no lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest.
The paper summarizes the extraordinary level of monetary and diplomatic support the U.S. extended to Israel over the last few decades. M&W succinctly demolish the twin arguments that are frequently cited in order to justify and explain U.S. support for Israel, the ‘strategic ally’ argument and the moral argument. Why then does the U.S. support Israel? M&W answer by pointing at the Israel Lobby, which they define as “a convenient short-hand term for the loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to shape U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction.” The Lobby promotes support for Israel by “pressuring both Congress and the Executive branch to support Israel down the line,” and by striving “to ensure that public discourse about Israel portrays it in a positive light, by repeating myths about Israel and its founding and by publicizing Israel’s side in the policy debates of the day . . . to prevent critical commentary about Israel from getting a fair hearing in the political arena.” The authors then proceed to document the evidence of the Lobby’s power and its methods of exerting influence on Congress, the executive branch, the media, the think tank circuit, and academia.
I’ll state here my core agreement with the authors: the Israeli lobby is indeed powerful and influential; its influence is nefarious and damaging to Americans, Israelis, the people of the Middle East and the rest of the world (though not necessarily in that order.) The evidence supporting these statements is beyond dispute by any fair and open-minded person. The problem, however, is not with these conclusions, but with the way M&W frame their understanding of the Lobby’s role in American politics.
Consider endnote 1:
Indeed, 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 group to bring it about. But because Israel is a strategic and moral liability, it takes relentless political pressure to keep U.S. support intact.
Bizarre conclusions follow from this logic; for example, protecting the environment likewise becomes “not in the American national interest” because one needs “an organized special interest group to bring it about.” Obviously, something is amiss. To see what, let’s spell out the conception of politics that this remark reveals: there is such a thing as “the national interest,” an objective and non-contentious set of policy goals that benefit Americans. U.S. policies are set by a series of institutions that can be trusted with recognizing this unproblematic national interest, and they usually do so unless they are swayed by external pressure, such as the Israel Lobby.
Is there such a self-evident “national interest?” Obviously not. We wouldn’t need politics at all if the “national interest’ were so unproblematic. The “national interest” is not a given, but the end product of the political process. In theory, the national interest emerges from the public deliberations in and around the elected Congress, which weigh the different voices and interests. M&W seem to have this theory in mind when they accuse the Israel Lobby of stifling debate.
Their thesis therefore boils down to saying that the White House and Congress would have made different choices but for the existence of the Lobby. Amazingly, this “the-sky-is-blue” conclusion was among those assailed from the Left. Yet the truth of this conclusion should be obvious -- and to the left above all. You cannot believe that money buys influence and simultaneously maintain that the millions of dollars spent in Washington every year by the Israel Lobby are insignificant. Nor can one be an activist while believing that activism makes no difference. If the well-heeled Israel Lobby effort to promote war doesn’t make much of a difference, what chance do thousands of cash strapped antiwar activists have? To believe that the Lobby doesn’t have an impact is to believe that history is determined by forces outside of human control; that is not a position the left should endorse.
But while M&W findings of the Lobby’s power are true, their claim that the Lobby undermines the U.S. “national interest” is analytically poor. For if you take the Israel Lobby out of Washington, you will not find beneath it the untarnished “national interest” M&W expect. You will find other lobbies all the way down. The Lobby only “diverts U.S. foreign policy” from where other lobbies would have left it. A descriptive account of the way the national interest is formulated must take the power of the different groups to shape it as its starting point.
Power, the differential resources available to different social groups, plays a defining and fundamental role in all institutions charged with identifying “the national interest” -- Congress, the executive, the judiciary, the media, academia, think tanks, etc. Differences in power determine which arguments are introduced and which are excluded. Differences in power determine the social, economic, political and ethnic background of the people who make the decisions, and differences in power determine the amount of evidence that would be available to back each argument. Interest groups do not distort politics. They make politics. The “national interest” emerges from the struggle and cooperation between different groups and coalitions, each trying to define it in self-serving ways.
M&W’s effort to portray the Lobby as an unacceptable “politicization” of a supposedly apolitical national interest implies that the power of the Israel Lobby is a freak aberration, fundamentally different from usual Washington business.
Comparing Apples and Lobbies
But perhaps the Israel Lobby is indeed a freak aberration? To see that it isn’t, let’s compare it to the healthcare lobby, following the same criteria M&W used. The healthcare lobby is powerful. It has confronted and prevailed over the executive branch (Clinton’s reform, for example.) It regularly prevails in Congress so that healthcare legislation protects its profits (for example, in the recent drug benefits legislation, Congress prohibited Medicare from negotiating price discounts with medical providers.) The Healthcare lobby influences U.S. foreign and trade policy (notably on patents and re-importations.) The power of the lobby is heavily felt in academia, where money from drug companies influences which diseases will be prioritized in research and occasionally which results will be published. The mainstream media often frames the debate in ways that serves healthcare rather than consumer interests (ex. ‘socialized medicine,’ ‘choice vs. rationing.’) In short, the power of the healthcare lobby is felt in very much the same way as the power of the Israel lobby.
We can estimate the total direct costs borne by Americans thanks to successful lobbying by the healthcare industry. The Healthcare lobby is the prime culprit behind the unfortunate fact that the U.S. spends on healthcare about twice as much per capita as other developed nations. Spending on healthcare grew from 5.2% of GDP in 1960 to 16% in 2004. Let us conservatively assume that adopting a less industry-friendly healthcare model would have reduced spending by only 20% (i.e. still leaving costs far above their level in other countries.) A quick calculation shows that from 1960 to 2004 the healthcare lobby separated Americans from a cool $6.3 trillion (in 2004 dollars.) These are only direct costs. The full social effects of poor healthcare are not counted. Compare that to the cost of aid to Israel, put by M&W at $140 billion (2003 dollars). According to these numbers, it will take close to 45 Israel lobbies to inflict on American pockets the amount of damage caused by one healthcare lobby.
Admittedly, M&W present an unnecessarily low estimate. Economist Thomas Stauffer estimated the full cost of U.S. support of Israel, including all the costs associated with the centrality of Israel to U.S. foreign policy between 1973 and 2002, at $2.6 trillion. Even though this number includes incidental costs and does not take into account other U.S. foreign policy interests in the Middle East, it is still less than half of the conservative estimate of the direct costs that can be attributed to the influence of the healthcare lobby.
Money isn’t everything. M&W note that the Israel centered policy of the U.S. government costs American lives. But so does the healthcare lobby. Life expectancy in the U.S. is about two years short in comparison to very similar countries such as Canada, Britain and France. If we assume that organizing healthcare differently would add only six months to U.S. average life expectancy, the number of Americans dying every year would decrease by close to 100,000. That is by far more deaths than all U.S. casualties of military conflict and terrorism together.
The healthcare lobby seems a lot more damaging to Americans that the Israel lobby. It stands to reason that it is also more powerful. Whereas the Israel Lobby benefits from promoting policies with complex results that are far from most Americans’ immediate concerns, the healthcare lobby has the more difficult task of pushing through policies that directly and visibly affect every American household. M&W claim that the Israel Lobby is “set apart” by its “extraordinary effectiveness” is therefore erroneous. The Israel lobby is a powerful lobby that inflicts great damage on both Americans and non-Americans. But it is neither unique, nor the most powerful, nor the most damaging.
Two connected factors, however, do differentiate the Israel Lobby. Although M&W do not explicitly addresses them, they serve as unexamined assumptions. The two are: the separation between foreign and domestic policy, and the difference between commercial and national/ethnic interests. Taking a closer look at these two issues will reveal that although both are important to understanding the Israel Lobby, neither justifies treating it as a unique aberration.
National vs. Commercial Lobbies
Clearly, what distinguishes the Israeli Lobby from the healthcare lobby is that the latter is an association of commercial interests seeking to protect and increase their wealth. On the face of it, a lobby such as the Israel Lobby is not defined by commercial interests. Its interests are defined by an ethnic identity, Jewish, and a relation to a foreign government, Israel. The Israel Lobby is not the only such lobby. There is the Cuban Lobby, the Turkish Lobby, the Iranian royalists, the Irish Lobby and so on. But certainly today, the Israel Lobby is the most successful and powerful ethnic lobby in the U.S. M&W do not dwell on this defining characteristic of the Lobby. They are probably afraid to touch it. The Israel Lobby defines itself in relation to a Jewish national collective, yet any collective reference to Jews falls immediately beyond the pale, into the twilights of anti-Semitism and prejudice. By merely wanting to discuss the Lobby, M&W find themselves in the unfortunate position of those given the order, “don’t think about elephants!”
But that cannot do. The proverbial elephant is in the room. We need to think through the fact that the Israel Lobby defines itself through ethnicity/nationality. Does it make the Israel Lobby different, more powerful, more vulnerable, more legitimate, less legitimate? On a more basic level, is it even accurate?
When oil executives claim their goal is to protect the affordability of oil, we do not rush to call them a consumer group. When drug companies express concern for the future of medical innovation, we do not label them the “Science Lobby.” Likewise, should we believe the Israel Lobby when it claims to promote Jewish and Israeli interests? M&W do note that, “in a 2004 survey, for example, roughly 36 percent of Jewish-Americans said they were either “not very” or “not at all” emotionally attached to Israel.” But one could go further. Although the Lobby employs and encourages grassroots activism, its power comes mostly from a tiny elite. AIPAC’s core business is advising wealthy constituents where to invest their political money. “The loose association of individuals and organizations” M&W examine is mostly composed of extremely wealthy individuals, corporations and the non-profit organizations they fund to the tune of millions of dollars a year.
M&W also note that, “Ironically, Israel itself would probably be better off if the Lobby were less powerful and U.S. policy were more evenhanded.” Unfortunately, that does not lead them to question their framework. If the Lobby is bad for Israel, and bad for America, and not so good for American Jews, who is it good for, who does it work for? We have here a strange lobby, apparently without a constituency, a lobby that mobilizes quite extraordinary resources to the benefit of nobody -- less an Israel Lobby, more a Nihilist Lobby.
The problem vanishes once we note that the failure of lobbies to advance the broad constituencies they claim to represent is not a peculiarity of the Israel Lobby but a salient characteristic of elite groups, commercial as well as ethnic. The oil lobby doesn’t really help consumers afford oil; the healthcare lobby doesn’t care about patients; the banking lobby doesn’t fight to keep consumer interest rates low; and the Cuban lobby doesn’t do squat to improve life in Cuba.
The distinction between “national” and “commercial” lobbies therefore is not very helpful in understanding the lobbies’ pursuits. Lobbies that operate in Washington are inherently associations of wealth and privilege; their major concern, whatever banner they raise, is maintaining and expanding their own privilege. Instead of accepting ethnic lobbies at face value as reflecting “foreign” national interests, we need to consider the Israel Lobby in terms of elite structures that are often fully or partially trans-national. Here it is pertinent to pay attention to the class structure of Israeli society and to the role of Israeli state institutions in the distribution of economic power. Respectively, one must look at the commercial ties and capitalist cross-ownership that bind together Israeli and American interests. And one must allow for a certain porosity, paying attention both to the significant amount of shared goals and cooperation between elements within the Israel Lobby and elite elements outside of it, and to occasional friction and competition inside the Lobby itself, including conflicts between Jewish American and Israeli interests. In short, one must look at the Lobby through the prism of internal ruling class dynamics, the constant jockeying for power that is the life of all ruling classes. And one must do so in the globalized, multi- and trans-national context that is the condition of the capitalist ruling class of today.
That does not mean that nationality and ethnicity do not matter. Nationalism (and racism) are powerful mobilizing ideologies. A nationally defined lobby can rely on popular support based on the emotional appeal of national identity, a resource purely commercial lobbies lack. Ethnicity and nationality are major social organizing principles that interact with economic interests in complex ways. Economic interests rely on ethnic identities and actively shape them as they seek to organize labor and capital through them (American slavery is perhaps the exemplary case.) It does matter, of course, that the Israel lobby defines itself in national terms. It matters in terms of rhetoric, methods, appeal, constraints, and ultimately power. Rather, what should be rejected is the description of the Lobby as simply the expression of Jewish/Israeli national identity. Instead, we need to think of the Lobby through the interplay between the powerful mobilizing ideology of nationalism and the constitution and replication of political and economic elites. We need to look at the ways the Lobby both harnesses Jewish identity and seeks to actively reshape it in ways that solidify its institutional and economic power.
This is undoubtedly an unpleasant subject that politically correct researchers should strenuously avoid. It is today an article of secular faith that identities are too explosive to be handled by the layperson, and should not be “insulted” by too close a look under their hood. Discussing the Prophet Mohammed should thus be the exclusive domain of Muslims, whereas only flag waving Jews should be allowed to comment on the twin sacred pillars of the contemporary Jewish faith -- the State of Israel and the Holocaust. But one cannot hope making sense of American foreign policy without deconstructing the Lobby’s representational claims, examining the ways it has actively reshaped American Jewish identity and exposing the economic interests, in both Israel and the U.S., both Jewish and non-Jewish, its lobbying is currently serving.
Domestic vs. Foreign Policy
M&W note the inherent similarity between the Israeli Lobby and “the Farm Lobby, steel and textile workers,” thus situating it among clearly domestic lobbies (inherently, all lobbies are and cannot but be “domestic.”) But when it comes to their conclusion, they limit the unique effectiveness of the Israel Lobby to foreign policy only. I believe M&W seek to maintain a false distinction between a domestic sphere in which interest clashes over legitimate policy differences, and a “national” sphere unified by a coherent and self-evident foreign policy. The problem is that, first, there is no such separation, and second, it is very doubtful whether there should be one.
The shaping of foreign policy by domestic interests is not the exception but the norm. Whether it is United Fruit Company, whose legacy includes the term “Banana Republic”, Standard Oil’s deals in Arabia, leading all the way to George Bush’s and James Baker’s contemporary business alliances, or the banking interests that dominate U.S. interventions in the IMF and the World Bank, U.S. foreign policy always serves domestic interests. This is and has always been the case. In the words of President Coolidge, “the business of America is business.” Thus, the power of the Israel Lobby to affect foreign rather than domestic policy does not make it in any way special.
But what would a truly autonomous foreign policy, as M&W seem to advocate, be like? How would the “national interest” be determined once insulated from politics? While they do not say so explicitly, their argument implies that “foreign policy” should be the domain of experts and bureaucrats, a civil service that would run bodies such as the CIA and the state department, and be protected from the world of politics dominated by lobbies and “special interests.”
There is perhaps a clue here to the polemic origins of this paper in the internal turf war that has been raging in Washington between career civil servants and political appointees, mostly neo-conservatives, since the beginning of Bush’s reign. In truth, the neo-conservatives have been making a lot of bad things worse, and flushing them out would certainly be a very substantial improvement. I’m all for that. But the restoration of the career civil servants would not, as M&W uncritically believe, separate foreign policy from politics. It will merely shift political power over foreign policy to other domestic interests. We know it because this is how things were before George Bush came to the White House and decided to wreck the U.S. civil service.
M&W thus imply a very common refrain: that the solution to corruption is the rule of experts, technocracy. That ought to be rejected. We should want neither corruption nor technocracy, but democracy.
Let me end by restating the common ground. The Israel Lobby is powerful. The Israel Lobby is nefarious. The Israel Lobby should be attacked and denounced, and its influence should be reduced and hopefully eliminated. But the reasons to fight the Israel Lobby is not that it annoys career diplomats and policy experts; although it does. Nor should we fight the Israel Lobby because it is unique and different from all the other ruling class formations that dominate Washington; it is not. The only reason we need in order to fight the Israel Lobby is that it advances policies that put the profits of the few above the lives and happiness of millions.
Gabriel Ash is an activist and writer who writes because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword and sometimes not. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles by Gabriel Ash
Neoconservative Demise are Somewhat Premature
* Dear Ayatollah
* Settlements: A User’s Guide
* A Victory for Israeli Democracy
* Don’t Get Mad, Get Going!
* Pink Delusions