Tuesday, July 15, 2008

American support for Israeli policy

Last year John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt caused controversy with the publication of their book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. They argued that groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have hijacked the foreign policy of the United States to the detriment of Americans' best interests, and included a lengthy study of US support for Israel's attempt to defeat Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 to advance their case.

Certainly, if you visit southern Lebanon today - driving past the billboards of bearded Iranian ayatollahs and soft-focus portraits of youthful 'martyrs' attached to street lamps - you will probably agree that Israel's invasion of the area two years ago has had the opposite effect to that intended. The roads have been patched up, farms repaired, and life has returned to normal. Far from being weaker, Hezbollah, which fixed the damage, is stronger than ever.

I have no doubt that Israel runs an impressive lobbying operation - I once benefited from a trip funded by the Israeli foreign office where I was able to meet many key Israeli politicians - but the question on why such lobbying strikes a chord, especially in the US is an interesting one. This month's Foreign Affairs contains a thoughtful article by Walter Russell Mead on the ideological origins and evolution of American support for an independent Jewish state, which is well worth reading in full. It starts with a striking quote from founding father John Adams, who hoped that "Once restored to an independent government and no longer persecuted they [the Jews] would soon wear away some of the asperities and peculiarities of their character and possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians".

The article is a gentle rebuttal of Mearsheimer and Walt's thesis, arguing that though liberal and conservative Americans have been sympathetic to Israel for completely different social and religious reasons, the combined weight of their votea has underpinned the benevolent US policy towards the state of Israel. He concludes that "In the future, as in the past, US policy toward the Middle East will, for better or worse, continue to be shaped primarily by the will of the American majority, not the machinations of any minority, however wealthy or engaged in the political process some of its members may be."

Maybe. George Crile's Charlie Wilson's War gives a vivid practical illustration of how baser economic considerations trump ideology in such democratic calculations. Crile describes how the Texan Congressman Wilson's enthusiasm for various foreign regimes was shaped by their decisions over arms procurement that could impact jobs on the General Dynamics plant in Texas that manufactured F-16 fighter jets. Israel was a notable purchaser of these. Mearsheimer and Walt explain the complex financial arrangements by which the United States supports Israel financially and in kind, so that US aid to Israel ultimately ends up keeping US workers in the defence industry in jobs. Mead's article does not touch on this, and how it might affect the US democratic process.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

you have summed up the argument beutifully. The addition of your observation in the last paragraph or two seems to clinch it in favor of the Mirsheimer team.