18 March, 2009

The USA's Israel Lobby (slight return)

You have probably heard about this "Israel Lobby" controversy. What happened was that Stephen Walt and John J. Mearsheimer, two American International Relations academics, wrote an article about the USA's tendency to support the most hawkish elements in the Israeli body politic. They saw this as being thanks to the influence of a powerful pro-Israel lobby in the USA. They furthermore asserted that this support for the Israeli right was detrimental to US interests (and, ultimately, to those of Israel). The authors of this article were not the usual leftist types, but theorists from the Realist school of International Relations. Their article let to predictable outrage.

Recently, President Obama proposed to appoint some guy called Charles Freeman to chair the US National Intelligence Council. Last week, however, Freeman withdrew his candidacy, citing a campaign of vilification against him by this Israel Lobby.

There is an interesting article in the Guardian by Jonathan Freedland on this incident: "Discard the mythology of 'the Israel Lobby', the reality is bad enough". Freedland is asserting that the Israel Lobby is not responsible for the near unconditional support that the USA gives to Israel. He is, however, doing it from a leftist perspective, and like Mearsheimer and Walt he sees the American support for Israel as ultimately malign. He does not deny the existence of a US lobby in favour of Israel (it would be hard to claim that the likes of AIPAC do not exist), but sees US support for Israel as being driven not by it but by self-interest – the self-interest of the USA's power-elite.

Freedland's article is interesting, and is a useful summary of the kind of argument he and others have advanced. It does have its problems, however. He creates something of a straw man out of Mearsheimer and Walt's argument, claiming that they see this Israel Lobby as omnipotent, when clearly they do not. Ironically, like many pro-Israeli opponents of Mearsheimer and Walt, Freedland seems also to casually conflate their idea of a powerful pro-Israel lobby with anti-semitic ideas of a sinister cabal of Zion's elders ruling the world. I am also unconvinced by his assertion that Israeli leaders were against the invasion of Iraq; I recall numerous Israeli commentators writing in the pages of Ha'aretz before the invasion, more or less asserting that anyone opposing the invasion was clearly an enemy of Israel.

At some stage of the game I will probably write more on different explanations offered for the obvious closeness between the USA and Israel, before going on to offer my own synthesis of them.


FrFintonStack said...

I've always thought the "Israel Lobby" theory posits the tail wagging the dog.

ian said...

I don't think it's quite that... it's not like M&S imagine the Israeli ringing up the US President and giving him his orders. It's more that they reckon that US policy is largely determined by the actions of a large domestic US lobby. Kind of like the way people talk about Cuban Americans pushing US policy to Cuba in certain crazy directions, or the impact of various other lobbies on various other domestic and foreign policies.

Ken said...

Don't know much about Walt but you may be interested in Matt Yglesias taking on another of Walt's "conspiracy theories". This time the continuation of farm subsides in the US are simply down to the disproportionate influence of farm lobby.

Have you seen any polling data re popular American opinion on the US's relations with Israel.. or Cuba for that matter?


ian said...

I followed your link to that Iglesias article. I don't think I'll be reading anything else by him, starting off by calling someone a bigot simply because you disagree with him is a bit poor.

The level of general (US) public support for things like supporting Israel or subsidising (US) farmers is irrelevant to the lobby idea. One thing lobbies and interest groups do is try to mould public opinion.

Ken said...

I'm not sure what issue Yglesias has with Walt but I guess it goes beyond disagreeing with him on this one article.

Re lobbyists.. I think attempting to mould public opinion is somewhat more legitimate than for example trying to directly influence the way particular politicians vote through say "help" with campaign finance.

ian said...

Actually, influencing public opinion might be a by-product of infliuencing politicians.

I think the research on interest group activity suggests that if you want to actually achieve anything, trying to influence the public is a waste of time, and your best bet is to find a way of getting the politicians and insiders on your side.

Ray said...

Yglesias is being sarcastic when he calls Walt a bigot. I don't know if he _completely_ agrees with Walt, but he's broadly sympathetic to the idea.

ian said...

goddamn sarcasm.