Israel Lobby Paper Wins David Duke’s Praise

A paper by two leading international relations scholars, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, on the “Israel Lobby” makes David Duke feel vindicated and is being praised by Arab terrorists.

A paper recently co-authored by the academic dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government about the allegedly far-reaching influence of an “Israel lobby” is winning praise from white supremacist David Duke. The Palestine Liberation Organization mission to Washington is distributing the paper, which also is being hailed by a senior member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization. But the paper, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” by the Kennedy School’s Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, is meeting with a more critical reception from many of those it names as part of the lobby. The 83-page “working paper” claims a network of journalists, think tanks, lobbyists, and largely Jewish officials have seized the foreign policy debate and manipulated America to invade Iraq. Included in this network, the authors say, are the editors of the New York Times, the scholars at the Brookings Institution, students at Columbia, “pro-Israel” senior officials in the executive branch, and “neoconservative gentiles” including columnist George Will.

Duke, a former Louisiana state legislator and one-time Ku Klux Klan leader, called the paper “a great step forward,” but he said he was “surprised” that the Kennedy School would publish the report.

Scott Johnson believes the “essay is shoddy almost beyond belief. Among the authorities it relies on are Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein. If it were a student term paper, it might be spared a failing grade in recognition of the effort that went into it. Among other things, its tendentious, highly selective use of evidence marks it as the work of zealots rather than scholars.” Michael J. Totten adds, “I find it a little hard to believe Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s ‘The Israel Lobby’ was written while sober.”

That’s too harsh by a long shot; Walt and Mearsheimer have scholarly credentials that are beyond reproach. Still, public policy analysis, as opposed to quantitative international relations, lends itself to the criticism of being biased by the author’s ideology. Both men were big opponents of the Iraq War and have a tendency to see “neocons” where none exist.

Here’s the Executive Summary:

U.S. foreign policy shapes events in every corner of the globe. Nowhere is this truer than in the Middle East, a region of recurring instability and enormous strategic importance. Most recently, the Bush Administration’s attempt to transform the region into a community of democracies has helped produce a resilient insurency in Iraq, a sharp rise in world oil prices, and terrorist bombings in Madrid, London, and Amman. With so much at stake for so many, all countries need to understand the forces that drive U.S. Middle East policy.

The causal relationship here is dubious at best. Al Qaeda and related Islamist terrorists had staged numerous acts of terrorist violence around the world before President Bush even came to power. Are we really to believe that everything bad that has happened in the Middle East and elsewhere since 2003 has been a direct result of the war in Iraq?

The U.S. national interest should be the primary object of American foreign policy. For the past several decades, however, and especially since the Six Day War in 1967, the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering U.S. support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracy throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized U.S. security.

While, as a fellow Realist, I agree that “The U.S. national interest should be the primary object of American foreign policy,” actually translating that into policy is difficult, indeed. Certainly, all presidents have argued that they were doing just that. I disagreed with Bill Clinton when he asserted it as a rationale for various humanitarian interventions in the 1990s but many reasonable leaders on both sides of the aisle agreed. Similarly, while it is certainly debatable whether the Iraq War has been in our interest, there was strong bipartisan agreement in early 2003 that it was.

This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the United States been willing to set aside its own security in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries is based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperativs. As we show below, however, neither of those explanations can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the United States povides to Israel.

Instead, the overall thrust of U.S. policy in the region is due almost entirely to U.S. domestic politics, and especially to the activities of the “Israel Lobby.” Other special interest groups have managed to skew U.S. foreign policy in directions they favored, but no lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially identical.

While I actually agree that our Middle East policy has been too Israel-centric and that we have backed some unconscionable policies on their behalf, there has nonetheless been a bipartisan consensus going back to Harry Truman that a strong Israel was in America’s best interests. Yes, there is little question that domestic political considerations–i.e., the Jewish vote and the strong support for Israel on the part of evengelical Christians–have influenced that consensus. Indeed, diaspora politics influences foreign policy towards numerous countries, most notably Cuba.

But we are mostly pro-Israel in Middle Eastern disputes for the same reason we are pro-British in European ones: shared interests. Whatever one’s qualms about Israeli policy, and I have many, they are undoubtedly more aligned with U.S. interests than those of their regional counterparts. That we would support the most democratic, economically developed, and America friendly country in the region is hardly remarkable.

Totten also makes the excellent point that domestic political considerations–i.e., energy prices–have had an even stronger influence on our relationship with the rest of the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, than with Israel. Indeed, it is safe to say that the United States would not have a relationship with the rest of the region were it not for the politics of oil.

The essay is available in PDF form here and an earlier variant of it, for the London Review of Books, is available in HTML format here.

As an aside, I should point out that the mere fact David Duke agrees with something does not make it wrong. Walt and Mearsheimer are not anti-Semites hoping for the destruction of Israel; they are American patriots frustrated by a longstanding trend in U.S. foreign policy that they find destructive. They are hardly alone among serious students of the Middle East, whether in academe or the diplomatic corps.

Update: Dan Drezner had some insightful commentary on the essay Friday. Notably, he points out that,

There are sins of omission as well as commission. Walt and Mearsheimer assert that Israel has been a “strategic burden.” They do a good job of cataloging why that’s the case — but omit important examples of Israel being useful, such as the 1981 Osirik bombing. They also go into depth on the Bush administration’s policy towards the Palestinian Authority, but never mention the arms shipment that Arafat lied to Bush about as a causal factor behind Bush’s decision to freeze out Arafat.

And, especially, this:

After finishing the article, I began to wonder whether the paper is simple a massive exercise in explaining away a data point that realism can’t cover. Most realists opposed the Iraq War, and Mearsheimer and Walt were no exception. They can and should take some normative satisfaction in being proven right by what happened after the invasion. However, I suspect as positive social scientists they are bothered by the fact that the U.S. invaded Iraq anyway when realism would have predicted otherwise.

Quite right.

Update 2: Martin Kramer has an excellent rebutal of Walt’s general thesis (based on things Walt wrote sans Mearsheimer before this piece came out) albeit with a bit too much name calling for my tastes. His intro expands on arguments I made in my original post:

Fortunately we do not live in Stephen Walt’s world, where shared values with others are meaningless, and cerebral mandarins make foreign policy by fiat. We live in a real world, where real people respond to other real people who share history and values, and where foreign policy is the result of a tumultuous interaction of interests, ideas, and emotions. Walt would have the United States make its foreign policy like Syria and Egypt do. It’s not going to happen.

He goes on to argue that the United States actually tried doing it Walt’s way from 1948-1973, with no good results. He also implies that Walt’s prescription amounts to appeasement and would have similar consequences.

And is it not actually better for the United States to signal the Arabs that until they change, Israel will remain America’s favorite son? Would this not be doubly so in Walt’s preferred scenario of “offshore balancing,” in which America would drop its active democratizing altogether? What lever would remain to encourage progressive change in the Arab world, if the United States were to back away from the one democratic, modern, and pluralistic society in the Middle East—the most persuasive and proximate argument made to the Arabs, for the empowering and overpowering might of Western democracy and Western modernity? Would the atrophy of such an Israel not fill the ranks of extremists, much as the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia to Hitler did?

A fair point. While I am not unsympathetic to the argument that we have weakened our position with the Arab world by our close ties with Israel, I tend to agree with Kramer that having pursued a different course would not necessarily have meant good relations with the Arabs. Our values are simply too divergent.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    Notice it was two NY Dem Senators who took the lead to bash the DPW ports deal. No doubt they were trolling for the very large pro-Israel vote in NY. Oops, I must be an anti-semite to notice that.

  2. RJN says:

    I saw the essay, and was surprised that anything so true to the facts would come out of the “new feminist” Harvard. Perhaps all is not lost.

  3. Stevely says:

    Walt and Mearsheimer don’t sound very patriotic.

  4. I believe that you are strongly understating the case when you say that

    “Totten also makes the excellent point that domestic political considerationsâ??i.e., energy pricesâ??have had an even stronger influence on our relationship with the rest of the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, than with Israel.”

    Steve Emerson’s “American House of Saud” and Bob Baer’s “Sleeping With The Devil” immediately come to mind as documents on the deep and powerful influence the oil sheiks have had an continue to have.

    And, as Lee Smith pointed out at Michael Totten’s, we’ll just ignore the minor influence the oil companies have had on US politics for the last 70 years or so…

    …there is certainly a powerful pro-Israel lobby in this country. But to suggest that it operates in a field free of opposing interests is ludicrous, and you give the authors far too much credit for scholarship for this reason alone.