Lobbies Influence

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Lobbies Influence, Not Make, US Foreign Policy

by Leon Hadar by Leon Hadar

For about two decades after World War II, a powerful coalition of US Congressmen, publishers, businessmen and military generals operating close to the highest levels of government in Washington tried to ensure that the United States would not recognize "Red China" and would continue backing Taiwan (the Republic of China) with its goal of ousting the communist regime in Beijing. The coalition included figures such as Republican Senator Richard Nixon, Henry Luce, the publisher of the Time and Life magazines, his wife Clare Boothe Luce and renowned author Pearl Buck (The Good Earth).

Indeed, the common perception in Washington was that the so-called "China Lobby" was politically invincible and that no US president would dare challenge it by taking steps to establish ties with the People’s Republic of China.

I was reminded of the "China Lobby" when I was attending an event in Washington last week where the main topic of discussion was a controversial study by two noted American political scientists who allege that the Israel Lobby exerts enormous influence on US foreign policy in the Middle East by tilting it in a pro-Israel direction.

The two scholars — Professors John Mearsheimer of University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard University — argue in their report, The Israel Lobby (which was published in a condensed version in the London Review of Books), that the powerful lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), as well individuals operating in the bureaucracy, think-tanks and editorial pages are responsible for the pro-Israeli slant of US policy-making and of the American media.

"No lobby has managed to divert US foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US and Israeli interests are essentially the same," Prof. Mearsheimer and Prof. Walt write. "The United States has a terrorism problem in good part," they add a few pages later, "because it is so closely allied with Israel, not the other way around."

The study ignited very strong reactions not only in the media and academic circles but also among many bloggers who criticize the authors for questioning the loyalty of American Jews who support Israel and for perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz called the study "paranoid and conspiratorial" while military historian Elliot Cohen described it as "anti-Semitic" in an op-ed article in the Washington Post.

Indeed, following some of this bashing of the two scholars, one would have to conclude that they had authored a sequel to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. This kind of criticism is unfair and, in a way, malicious. Criticizing Israel and/or those lobbying on its behalf in Washington should not be equated with "anti-Semitism" in the same way that criticism of "affirmative action" policies, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, or South Africa’s Aids policies should not be regarded as "racism."

Israel and its political lobby in the US are political entities that promote the specific interpretation of the political concept of Jewish nationalism (Zionism) that is not shared by most of the Jews who do not live in Israel and by more than 25 per cent of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish.

Whether an American citizen supports close ties with Israel depends on whether he or she perceives that to be in line with US interest and/or values and not on whether he or she is pro- or anti-Semitic.

In fact, some US political figures like Presidents Richard Nixon and Harry Truman, who shared some negative stereotypes of Jews, were still in favor of strong political US ties with Israel while many American Jews have been very critical of Israeli policies.

So if Prof. Mearsheimer and Prof. Walt have concluded that Israel is pursuing policies that run contrary to US interests and/or values, raising that as part of public discourse is as legitimate as if they two would be criticizing US ties to France or Japan. Similarly, the Israel Lobby should not be treated any differently than other domestic or foreign interests, including those of Saudi Arabia. In the same way, one has the right to challenge any critic of Israel or its lobby by challenging the criticism on its merit and not by applying "negative stereotypes" to the critic, that is by suggesting that he or she is an anti-Semite.

Unlike many of the critics of Prof. Mearsheimer and Prof. Walt, I have actually read their study and cannot find any flaw with their argument that the Israel Lobby in the form of Aipac, not unlike the old "China Lobby," is a very powerful player with enormous political and financial resources that exerts a lot of influence on the executive and legislative branches when it comes to US policy towards Israel and in the Middle East.

I also agree in general with their observation that there is a very influential pro-Israeli community in the US that includes many influential Jews and non-Jews (including many Christian evangelists). It seems to me that Israel and its supporters in America should be proud over their success in mobilizing so much support for that country.

That explains why so many foreign countries envy Israel and try to model their lobbying efforts in Washington after Aipac and its satellites. To put it differently, you cannot have it both ways. If Coca-Cola succeeds in becoming the most popular soft drink in America, it cannot then bash those who point to that fact by accusing them of exhibiting "anti-Coca-Colaism."

Moreover, the two authors are correct in pointing out the role of neoconservative ideologues and policy-makers, most of whom would describe themselves as supporters of Israel, in driving the US into the war in Iraq and the costly Imperial-Wilsonian project in the Middle East. Many of these neocons accept as an axiom that what is good for Israel is good for America and vice versa and that American hegemony in the Middle East would help protect Israel while Israel would help secure American hegemony there.

Prof. Mearsheimer and Prof. Walt, like many other analysts, disagree with that axiom and insist that American and Israeli interests are not always compatible. Interestingly enough, while there is a growing recognition in Washington that the invasion of Iraq and the entire neocon agenda of "democratizing" the Middle East have run contrary to US interests, many Israelis seem to be also reaching the same conclusion: this agenda harms long-term Israeli interests by destabilizing the Middle East.

There is no doubt that US support for Israel has been responsible for much of the Arab hostility towards Washington. Ending the alliance with Israel would certainly reduce some of the Arab hostility and, by extension, the costs of US intervention in the Middle East.

But it is the US intervention in the region in its totality — support for Israel AND the alliance with the pro-American Arab regimes — that is responsible for the current anti-American sentiment in the Arab world.

The Israel Lobby, like the Saudi Lobby or the Iraqis who lobbied for US invasion of their country, could be compared to what economists refer to as "rent seekers," that is, interest groups who profit from government policies, in this case US interventionist policies in the Middle East.

From this more balanced perspective, the Israel Lobby is no more responsible for current US policies in the Middle East than the China Lobby was responsible for US policies in East Asia in the 1950s and 1960s (which were then driven mostly by Cold War-era strategic considerations).

Powerful lobbies can only operate and thrive in the context of existing consensus in Washington over the US national interest. When that consensus changes, any lobby, even the most powerful one, loses its influence and its relevance.

US presidents have resisted the power of the Israel Lobby in the past when it came to crucial decisions like selling arms to pro-American Arab countries or to pressing Israel to make concessions as part of the peace process.

That President George W Bush and his top foreign policy aides (Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) have decided to adopt the neocon agenda has to do with their perception of US national interests and not the power of the Israel Lobby or, for that matter, American Jews (the majority of whom did not vote for Mr. Bush and were against the war in Iraq).

And if and when President Bush or another US president decides to change policies in the Middle East based on calculation of American interests — for example, by launching an opening to Iran — even the most powerful lobby in Washington would not be able to prevent him or her from doing that.

Leon Hadar [send him mail] is Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore and the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit his blog.

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