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(DV) Ash: The Israel Lobby and Chomsky's Reply







The Israel Lobby and Chomsky’s Reply  
by Gabriel Ash
April 20, 2006

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Noam Chomsky responded to the paper by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (M&W), judging their thesis “not very convincing.”

I agree with Chomsky, but for different reasons. Chomsky disputes the inference from the evidence (of the Israel Lobby’s influence) to the conclusion (that the Lobby has the power to move U.S. foreign policy away from the U.S. national interest.) I contest the analytical framework of M&W, which includes the concept of “national interest,” and the separation between domestic politics and foreign policy. Chomsky’s critique, however, shows that he concedes too much of the conceptual framework of M&W. As a result, he is forced to reject too much of their specific claims. Paradoxically, getting rid of M&W’s conceptual baggage makes their actual claims more relevant.

Chomsky takes M&W to task for two failures. First, M&W misunderstand the goals and therefore the successes of U.S. policy. Second, and as a result, M&W fail to consider other dominant interests that gained from U.S. policies in the Middle East, for example the oil industry. Both accusations are to the point. Together they form a basic principle of analysis on which I agree with Chomsky: U.S. foreign policy is determined by domestic interests.

Chomsky then frames the debate as an attempt to weigh “the impact of several factors which (all agree) interact in determining state policy: in particular, (A) strategic-economic interests of concentrations of domestic power in the tight state-corporate linkage, and (B) the Lobby.”

The main problem is this: are (A) and (B) different factors at work, as Chomsky says, or alternative modes of explanations? One can contrast a leftist mode of explanation, one that analyzes the economic system of domination, to a rightist vision of history as a struggle between nations, races, or civilizations. In the leftist worldview, the state is the executor and protector of economic privilege, whereas in the rightist worldview the state is the embodiment and executor of the unified national identity. These two modes of explanations cannot be combined as “factors”. They are holistic and mutually exclusive worldviews. Both, of course, must take account of the same facts. Leftists must explain how nationality, ethnicity and religion manifest themselves as organizing principles of domination and resistance within economic systems. Nationalists must justify the existence of class differences within “unified” identities and separate “productive” from “parasitic”, and “organic” from “foreign” elements of society. But there is no coherent way to combine these visions of the world.

In so far as attacks on the Israel Lobby are motivated by and analyzed within a rightist mode of explanation, they should be rejected by the left outright. The issue is not one of weighing specific evidence. It is a political issue rooted in our deepest intuitions about the world and our sense of place in it. Ultimately, this is the problem with M&W. Their “realist” conception of the state as a “black box” is inherently in line with rightist state based nationalism. Their annoyance with the “Israel Lobby” seems motivated as much as anything by the theoretical difficulty of the “black box” model of the state to deal with capitalist globalization. They want to be imperialists in a simple world -- with the U.S. in one black box, Israel in another -- not in the world of globetrotting transnational elites we actually inhabit. 

Chomsky rejects M&W’s formulation of “the national interest,” substituting his own, i.e. the interest of the dominant “concentrations of domestic power.” In doing so, he correctly rejects M&W rightist framework. But his formulation is nonetheless based on the state as the fundamental unit of analysis. And that leads him to compare “the Lobby,” which is here a guest concept from that other dimension, with his own concept of the dominant “concentrations of domestic power.” This is an inherently impossible comparison between two concepts that do not belong to the same universe. Unsurprisingly, the mixing of conceptual frameworks leads to incoherence, and Chomsky concedes that, as soon as the Lobby becomes an important element in Washington “it's hard to distinguish ‘national interest’ (in the usual perverse sense of the phrase) from the effects of the Lobby.” 

The way out of this mess is to translate M&W’s concept into our own analytical framework before we do the comparison. That would mean collapsing the false distinction between the Lobby and “strategic-economic interests of concentrations of domestic power in the tight state-corporate linkage.” But we should also loosen the requirements of Chomsky’s “domestic” adjective. Instead, we should look at Washington as a complex web of interlocking and overlapping alliances of (transnational) capital and (domestic) state institutions. The Israel Lobby will then reappear as one such alliance among many. While U.S. capital emerges domestically, and while White Americans predominate in its circles, capital is global and many of the interests represented in Washington lost their “nationality” long ago. There is as little that is “American” in the interests of Citibank and Wal-Mart as in the interests represented by the Israel Lobby.

The capital alliances that make Washington are heterogeneous. Some are clearly defined by an industry, such as healthcare of agribusiness. Others are defined ideologically around a mobilizing issue, such as the gun lobby and the religious right. Yet other are defined by nationality/identity, and of these the most powerful is clearly the Israel Lobby. Each alliance is specific in nature and qualitatively unique. Thus it is easy to show that the Israel Lobby is unique. But it is equally easy to show that the agribusiness lobby is unique. However, they all share one common characteristic -- they all serve a capitalist interest. That is a truism, for the simple reason that you cannot play the Washington game without capital. You cannot offer career opportunities; you cannot dispense campaign funding; you cannot share a meaningful rolodex. And without these, you’re not in the game.

Such a conception of the Israel lobby dissolves Chomsky’s other complaints.

1. Chomsky raises a major problem in any discussion of the Lobby. Practically everyone in Washington supports Israel. Either the Israel lobby involves everyone, or support for Israel serves so many interests that it is hard to evaluate who is actually behind it.

Thinking in terms of capital alliances, it is clear why all of Washington agrees on so many subjects. There are interests strongly shared by all capitalists, and there is also a common culture with shared beliefs and ideas that circulate together with the money. Beyond that there are interests shared strongly by a few and only loosely by the rest. And further out are the really divergent interests that are the object of intense struggles. The differential importance of various concerns to different segments is the stuff that makes alliances possible. Each alliance has a core that is fully committed to a set of policies, as well as looser associations -- core elements of other alliances -- that join in more sporadically.

The interlocking and overlapping nature of Washington makes analysis difficult, but not impossible. It is both possible and necessary to identify the different interests and the alliances they make. It is also possible to notice when they clash. Once so described, talk of the power of the Lobby to control Washington becomes incoherent. Nobody controls Washington. There are more or less powerful alliances, and they usually do not test their power by engaging in all out war against each other. There is always a background of cooperation. But it is equally incoherent to dismiss the power of the Israel Lobby just because others, such as energy corporations, also supported and gained from the U.S. support for Israel. This is like dismissing the power of Wall Street investment banks because agribusiness also supports “free trade.” When Cynthia McKinney was unseated by AIPAC, it was a service the Israel Lobby performed for Washington as a whole, getting rid of Representative who actually had the audacity to represent the poor people of her district. But it was her disrespect for Israel that got AIPAC to lead the charge. This is how cooperation works, and one must not be surprised that other segments of Washington would repay the favor and occasionally support Israel well beyond what their immediate interests dictate.

2. Chomsky notes that the Lobby only came to the fore after Israel became strategically important to the U.S., mostly as a means to combat Arab nationalism. Indeed, each powerful element in Washington derives a significant portion of its power from the very fact of being there and engaging in alliances with other elements. Wall Street wouldn’t be so powerful if it couldn’t rely occasionally on the U.S. army to collect debt. The Israel Lobby likewise draws its power from Washington, thanks to services performed in the past. But it is the wrong metaphor to imagine it as a kind of a light bulb, one that immediately goes dark when the power source is cut off. The logic of power is to accumulate and nowhere more so than under capitalism. The Israeli elite that served Washington in the last three decades was well compensated, and the same goes for the American intermediaries who facilitated the relations. In the process of serving the U.S., Israeli elites integrated their own wealth within the U.S. capital system and formed lasting alliances with segments of U.S. capital. They also created and endowed a series of institutions that are deeply involved in the culture of Washington. These alliances and institutions now stand on their own, and it would take a lot to disrupt them, even if Israel becomes as strategically useless as M&W claim it has.

Furthermore, most strategic goals can be achieved in more than one way. Israel helps the U.S. control the Middle East by simply being a constant irritant that weakens Arab governments and renders them dependent on Washington. But is it the only way for Washington to insert itself in the Middle East? The Israel Lobby does not need to “coerce” Washington to do its biding; it is enough that it can propose and promote choices of strategies that are consistent with its interests, and block strategies that are not. This is the core of the furor over M&W. M&W do not propose a less imperialist U.S. foreign policy. They merely suggest that the U.S. could achieve its imperialist goals in the Middle East at a lower cost by using an alternative strategy. I am not sure M&W are right. Perhaps the road through Israel is indeed the cheapest and safest for U.S. imperialism. But they could be right. M&W are, after all, leading defense intellectuals whose so-called “offensive realism” is a naked justification for unbridled U.S. imperialism. It should be clear that M&W neither need nor deserve the support of the left for their imperial stratagems. Their paper was explicitly targeted to the world of defense intellectuals and civil servants. But it is wrong to assume that Israel is necessary today for U.S. imperialist goals because it was so in the past or even because it is useful in the present. (Indeed, one way to think of the value of the Iraq War from a neo-conservative perspective is precisely as an attempt by a segment of the elites to commit the U.S. to a specific strategic path at the very moment when other paths could have been at least equally tempting.)

3. Chomsky faults M&W for the failure to notice that the U.S. has adopted similar foreign policies in the past in other areas of the world despite the lack of a relevant lobby. This is a relevant critique of M&W and all those who believe American imperialism is an Israeli import. But once we firmly locate the Lobby within the system of alliances that constitute Washington, it becomes a non-issue. First, it is simply not correct to describe the level of integration between the U.S. and Israel as in any way similar to any other relation the U.S. has with a similar ally. Chomsky himself has written extensively about the so-called “special relation.” The key question is not the basic American policy as such, but the capitalist integration of elites. It is precisely because there is no Indonesian or Chilean lobby that the relations between these countries and the U.S. are different, even if the basic contours of U.S. policy, i.e. support for the ruthless suppression of native nationalism, has been the same. The Lobby is not the cause of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. In many ways it is the result. But that result has altered Washington in ways no other imperialist intervention did.

A final question must be asked: practically speaking, what does it matter?

Chomsky cites Stephen Zunes approvingly to the effect that “there are far more powerful interests that have a stake in what happens in the Persian Gulf region than does AIPAC.” The practical implication of this statement is that it is wrong for anti-imperialists activists to pay too much attention to the Israel lobby. It’s a waste of resources and a diversion from the real target -- U.S. imperialism.

The problem is that Zunes and Chomsky are again confusing their own leftist framework with the right wing framework they oppose. It is wrong to focus on identity as such, including the national/ethnic identity of Jews/Israelis who are key figures in the imperialist machinery. It is wrong to see the world as fundamentally a clash of tribal identities. But is in not wrong to strategically focus on the Israel Lobby. The “Israel Lobby” shouldn’t be an alternative framework that competes with  “U.S. imperialism” as an explanation to world events. The Israel Lobby should rather be a shorthand designation for a segment of the elites that fully participates in making U.S. imperialism happen.

To insist on ignoring the Lobby it is to help it maintain a “safe zone” for U.S. imperialism to hide within. This is indeed one of the many useful services the Lobby provides for the larger Washington power system. The Israel Lobby is today a major purveyor of racist and pro-war propaganda, which is shielded from public criticism by its association with Israel and the sword of fighting anti-Semitism. To ignore it is to create a safe zone for racism and war at the heart of the U.S. public sphere. 

The Israel Lobby is an important and active component of U.S. imperialism. To insist that one must only focus on “U.S. imperialism” is to limit the struggle to abstractions. It is as if one were to say, “don’t mind Nike, it is just a shoe company. Focus your energies on global capitalism.” It is just as counterproductive to insist on fighting U.S. imperialism while giving a free pass to one of its major manifestations.

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: g.a.evildoer@gmail.com

Other Articles by Gabriel Ash

* Why Oppose the Israel Lobby? Comments on Mearsheimer and Walt
* News of Neoconservative Demise are Somewhat Premature
* Bravo Abbas! Bravo Hamas!
* Rev. Jackson -- Pissing on the Graves of Civil Rights Heroes
* Imagine All the People, Living Like Mindless Lambs
* Mourning in America
* Oh!-sama
* Diagnosing Benny Morris
When at a Loss, Escalate

* Dear Ayatollah
* Settlements: A User’s Guide
* A Victory for Israeli Democracy
* Don’t Get Mad, Get Going!
* Pink Delusions