Friday, September 14, 2007

The Israel Lobby

I have to admit that I missed the initial furor over the Walt and Mearsheimer article about the Israel lobby, but I did catch the Lee Smith review of the book.

Smith's main argument is that W&M's assertion of the irrationality of US support is predicated upon a view that states are rational actors. Smith takes issue with this:

But here is one sticking point among many that Walt and Mearsheimer cannot account for: If realism holds that states act rationally in pursuit of their own interests, then how did Washington get away with acting irrationally for forty years? Either Washington has not acted irrationally, or Walt and Mearsheimer’s realist model is irrational, or both.

This is a slippery argument at best and a much simpler critique is available: W&M's weighting of what constitutes "rational" behavior is wrong.

First and foremost, the US unconditionally supports democratic, largely free-market states. Period. I can't think of a counter-example. The promotion of the spread of free capitalism is the US's revolutionary creed, and we promote it with as much zeal as the Soviet Union promoted the spread of Leninist Communism. That Israel and Turkey are the only states in the Middle East that exhibit the proper characteristics, they're going to get support.

W&M argue that US military support for Israel is unnecessary, given Israel's current military dominance. This is silly. After 30 years of overt but poorly-planned attempts to destroy Israel outright, its neighbors finally took a long view. They're willing to be patient and let terrorism take its toll before striking. I have no doubt that any of Israel's neighbors would gleefully pounce with their superior numbers if given a decent chance. For all of Israel's technical prowess, the numbers game is against them and will be for the foreseeable future. US guaranty of security is what secures Israel's fragile peace with its neighbors.

Finally, W&M assert that Israel is useless as a strategic ally. This is true for Arab-on-Arab security situations but that isn't the main foreign policy goal of the US. That goal is to ensure that the West maintains access to the Persian Gulf and receives an uninterrupted supply of oil. Here, Lee Smith has it right:

[W&M] wrote that, “For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centerpiece of US Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel.”

This is false. Washington’s relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in which we protect the world’s largest known reserves of oil to ensure the stability of global markets, has since the mid-1930s been the US’s vital regional interest and arguably the most important American interest save homeland security. This fact may be easily impressed upon the intellect of any American who has been in a car, but Walt and Mearsheimer are less interested in the strategic realities of US Middle East policy than in painting in broad strokes the background to events of the last few years.

Similarly, the most compelling rationale for support of Israel is that it's the strategic toehold we can always count on if--or when--the oil situation finally goes sideways. In this respect, I wonder if the Iraqi occupation has Israel worried. If the US can count on secure, permanent basing at the head of the Gulf, it no longer needs Israel. Of course, such basing is far from assured today.

Having said all that, W&M are dead-on that Israel often acts against US interests, especially when it comes to the West Bank settlements. But this is not grounds for jettisoning our strategic support for Israel. Rather, it requires diplomatic pressure around the edges of the relationship to push Israel to the table, while continuing our aggressive support. In the 80's, the US called a similar policy towards South Africa "constructive engagement." The US resisted calls to impose economic punishment on that country and worked to soften the government's hard-line apartheid policies. It worked.

A similar approach to Israel will work for similar reasons, given enough patience. Bushco is anything but patient and has neglected its duties in this area. That has to change. But the implicit W&M prescription--abandoning our support for Israel--would be disastrous.

1 comment:

MedInformaticsMD said...

For my opinions on these issues and a surprise reply from a Big Man on Campus, see my emails to Michael Smerconish, a radio talk show host who's started a furor in Philadelphia over his support of the Walt/Mearsheimer work.

I spoke of the need for increased sensitivity to the angry responses from the Jewish community to Walt and Mearsheimer, responses based on 2,000 years of persecution often started through polemical writings.

My emails were CC'd to Walt and Mearsheimer.

Note the puerile response from someone not on the mailing list, Michael Desch, Professor and Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security Decision-making at TAMU.

Walt and Mearsheimer must have forwarded to him, but don't have the balls to reply themselves.


Email thread is at this link.