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Signs of the Times for Mon, 17 Apr 2006

Signs Editorial:

Jeff Blankfort
Eric Alterman's take on the Mearsheimer-Walt article on The Israel Lobby (below) seems to be the way that liberals and some on the left have chosen to respond to its damning evidence of the the lobby's pernicious influence on US Middle East policy. They begin by praising the authors for raising the issue and then attempt to discredit key elements of M-W's thesis by creating straw men and arguments that don't stand up to scrutiny. What is important is that the discussion about the role of the Israel Lobby is now a subject of a long-overdue public debate, and more important, exposure, and can no longer be bottled up.

In this case, Alterman accuses the authors of treating the American Jewish community as monolithic. Not so. They are referring to the organized Jewish community which indeed, in its support for the war on Iraq was virtually monolithic. The fact that a handful of the scores of Jewish organizations were aggressively so, while others were relatively passive, does not change that fact. Again, in calling for a US confrontation with Iran, while not specifying the nature of that confrontation, one has found in recent months the same unanimity on most of the web sites of the more than 50 organizations that make up the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations. Those Jews who are passionately against the war with Iraq, against attacking Iran, and who with equal passion call for justice for the Palestinians can not be found in that grouping and indeed represent a minority among the majority of American Jews who are not represented by the Conference of Presidents.

Secondly, while Alterman acknowledges the "power of oil to determine the course of US foreign policy, like most things, is not what it once was," he fails to acknowledge that, despite their recent windfall profits, the oil companies did not support the war in Iraq for the simple reason that flow of oil from the Gulf requires the stability that no longer can be guaranteed and is threatened even further by the prospect of a US attack on Iran. Somehow, the critics of Mearsheimer and Walt overlook the fact that George Bush Senior, his Secretary of State James Baker, both with closer ties to the oil industry than anyone in the current administration, as wells as former General Brent Scrowcroft, Bush Sr.'s National Security Advisor, publicly opposed the war from the outset.

AIPAC did lose a battle with the Reagan administration over the sale of AWACs observation planes to the Saudis, but only after Reagan's own heavy arm twisting. In the final agreement, however, it would be US pilots flying those planes and not Saudis. With regard to the Saudi purchases of US fighter aircraft, two things need to be understood. First, the purchases of those aircraft, for which the Saudis pay top dollar, are what has kept US aircraft plants functioning, and second, the Saudis don't have nearly enough pilots to fly those planes as was evident in the first US Gulf War. Moreover, since the US guarantees that Israel will maintain superiority over the combined military forces of the Arab armies, sales to Saudi Arabia are usually followed by additional "sales" to Israel of US aircraft which comes at the expense of US taxpayers, not those of Israel. Why do the Saudis buy so many planes? The most logical conclusion is that this is part of the deal in which the US allows the Saudi government to sell its oil under US protection. In other words, "protection money.". What most people do not know is that the Saudis picked up the tab for most of the first Gulf War after which they told Bush Sr. that they could not afford an order of fighters from McDonnell Douglas. Without that order, the McDonnell Douglas plant in St. Louis would be forced to close. Under the circumstances, Bush told the Saudis that they couldn't back out of the deal but that he would arrange a workable payment schedule. When this was announced there was a wild celebration at the McDonnell Douglas plant in St. Louis.

Thirdly, Alterman's comparison of AIPAC with the National Rifle Association and the pharmaceutical industry lobbies is also out of place since one is lobbying in behalf of a foreign country while the other two are domestic lobbies. While the NRA is one of the few lobbies that, like AIPAC, maintains a potent grassroots operation spread across the country, the issues pushed by both of them, unconditional support of Israel vs. the right of Americans to bear arms, cannot be compared in scale. When, in recent years, the Israel lobby has gone head to head with the pharmaceutical lobby over Israel's right to export generic versions of the pharmaceutical industry's products to the US, the Israel lobby triumphed, even as it did 20 years ago when the agricultural lobby was unsuccessful in blocking a free trade agreement with Israel under the Reagan administration.

Finally, in his last paragraph, Alterman seems to contradict himself. While writing that "the weaknesses [of the Mearsheimer-Walt paper] will hinder the authors' attempt to pierce the wall of ignorance and intimidation erected around such policy debates by the very institutions upon which it seeks to shed light," he acknowledges that AIPAC is pushing for a war on Iran and that it apparently going to get its wish. "God help us," he writes. "It seems to be working--again." Since there is no other lobby advocating for an attack on Iran, one would think that this would ultimately vindicate Mearsheimer and Walt's thesis. Should it come to pass, the entire world will end up paying a heavy price for having allowed the problem of the Israel Lobby to have been buried for so long.

The liberal media by Eric Alterman

AIPAC's Complaint

[from the May 1, 2006 issue]

The University of Chicago's John Mearsheimer is among America's most admired political scientists. Stephen Walt is the academic dean and a chaired professor at Harvard's Kennedy School. Neither man has ever made any remotely racist or anti-Semitic utterance in the public sphere. And yet because they recently published an essay in The London Review of Books and (with full scholarly apparatus) on the Kennedy School website that critically and--this is key--unsentimentally examines the role of the "Israel lobby" in the making of US foreign policy, these two scholars have been subjected to a relentless barrage of vituperative insults in which the accusation "anti-Semite" is merely the beginning. Just a few of the most colorful: "Crackpot" (Martin Peretz); "Could have been written by Pat Buchanan, by David Duke, Noam Chomsky, and some of the less intelligent members of Hamas" (Alan Dershowitz); "As scholarly as...Welch and McCarthy--and just as nutty" (Max Boot); "puts The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to shame" (Josef Joffe); "resembles nothing so much as Wilhelm Marr's 1879 pamphlet The Victory of Judaism Over Germandom" (Ruth Wisse); "dishonest so-called intellectuals...entitled to their stupidity" (New York Representative Eliot Engel).

One is tempted to point out that the authors themselves predicted the likelihood of such a reception, and by provoking it they have proved their point. They note--relying on research by yours truly--that pro-Israel voices dominate punditocracy discourse and add that the lobby almost always plays the "anti-Semite" card to stifle debate about Israel's behavior in general and its own actions in particular. Machers at official Jewish organizations--accurately characterized in the paper as far more belligerent than the Jewish community generally--have suggested in circulated e-mails that Israel supporters might want to threaten the Kennedy School's funding. The school's administration has distanced itself from the controversy by removing its imprimatur from the paper and posting Dershowitz's attack on it at the same web address. If any young scholars--without the protective armor that Walt and Mearsheimer's reputations afford, to say nothing of tenured professorships--are considering research into a similar topic, well, they won't need a weatherman to know which way this (idiot) wind blows.

One is also tempted to infer that what scares the character assassins into such self-revealing fits of ferocity is the fear that the authors have revealed the unhappy truths they'd rather suppress. We have an ex-New York Times executive editor admitting that he favored Israel in the paper's coverage, and it's not even Abe Rosenthal. They quote the longtime editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal saying, "Shamir, Sharon, Bibi--whatever those guys want is pretty much fine by me." They quote former AIPAC officials bragging about Jewish power and influence in Congress and the executive branch and supplement this with a variety of US officials complaining of the power of this network to get what it wants, regardless of the merits of a given argument. The authors also focus a laser beam on the lobby's take-no-prisoners attitude toward any politician who departs from the lobby's line--up to and including Howard Dean's innocuous pronouncement that the United States should play an "even-handed role" in the Middle East. Finally, they demonstrate that while it contains the word "American" in its name, AIPAC does Israel's bidding, pure and simple.

Still, nothing--particularly when it comes to Jews--is that simple. For authors whose work I have long admired--I've known Walt a long time, though casually, and not long ago I was the commentator on a paper Mearsheimer offered at the Council on Foreign Relations--their paper has surprising weaknesses. Perhaps because they are relatively new to the topic, the authors treat the "pro-Israel" American Jewish community as virtually monolithic. Yet while much of its power and influence rest with AIPAC and the neocons--who together with many others did do everything they could to drag America into this catastrophic war--it also contains many passionate opponents of just these tendencies. These are Jews who identify as both Jewish and pro-Israel but do so on the basis of a fundamentally different vision from the one that animates the likes of Peretz, Podhoretz, Perle and AIPAC's armies of the right.

Second, the authors offer up the lobby as virtually the only determinant of US Middle East policy, as if the oil states, oil companies and the vast wealth they represent count for bubkes. That's just silly. The power of oil to determine the course of US foreign policy, like most things, is not what it once was. But neither is it chopped liver. And while things have probably progressed to the point where the AIPAC team can best the Saudis and their minions most of the time, it's still a fight and sometimes requires retreat and compromise. Why the authors treat this factor so dismissively is a mystery. (It may, however, have something to do with the authors' acceptance of a narrative of Middle East history in which Israel plays no useful strategic role for the United States--another mystery to this reader and Realist sympathizer.)

Third, while it's fair to call AIPAC obnoxious and even anti-democratic, the same can often be said about, say, the NRA, Big Pharma and other powerful lobbies. The authors note this but often seem to forget it. This has the effect of making the Jews who read the paper feel unfairly singled out, and inspires much emotionally driven mishigas in reaction.

Do these problems justify the inference that the authors are anti-Semitic? Of course not. Raising the issue purely on the basis of intellectual disagreement is shameful--and actually helpful to genuine anti-Semites, as it diminishes the accusation's potency. While much of the paper is compelling, its weaknesses will hinder the authors' attempt to pierce the wall of ignorance and intimidation erected around such policy debates by the very institutions upon which it seeks to shed light. This is a damn shame, as AIPAC and its minions are pushing for an attack, possibly nuclear, on Iran, and, God help us, it seems to be working--again.

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