Realism meets real life, continued

Mearsheimer & Walt don’t understand American politics

The row over the the notorious paper on the Israel lobby by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt rumbles on in the letters page of the London Review of Books – including a surprisingly temperate piece by Alan Dershowitz, making some amends for this earlier rant. Mearsheimer & Walt will reply in the next issue (4 May).

There’s a good post by Jacob Levy that makes the point that Mearsheimer and Walt have a na�ve idea of American society amd the struggle between interest groups. How can two very bright guys like the authors succeed in brutally competitive top-rank universities, located in in hard-bitten cities like Chicago and Boston, without apparently learning how politics actually works?

They are rated academics and I’m a foreign amateur, but here’s my pennyworth. You should distinguish between a lobby, a pressure group, and a political coalition. A paradigm lobby is the American Sugar Alliance or the RIAA: a body of fixers in Washington hired by a special interest to persuade the government to adopt a biased policy, by argument if possible and if not by legal forms of bribery and extortion. That’s the American way; what keeps politics half-way honest is competition between lobbies, which is why Tom DeLay’s “K Street project” has such a sinister whiff of corporatism. When a lobby is connected to a grassroots base you have a pressure group, like the NRA or AARP. Unlike the sugar people, these have members, T-shirts, bumper stickers, Internet trolls and even actual arguments as well as a Beltway office. When you bring together a network of lobbies, grassroots organisations, publicists, and pressure groups you have a coalition or movement, like the Christian Right or the pre-Civil War abolitionists. It’s pretty obvious that the pro-Israel camp is a coalition/movement not a lobby. It includes AIPAC, a true lobby; pressure groups like the ADL; a group of neocon publicists and policy wonks round Commentary and in think tanks; and franc-tireurs on their own. You can’t pay tenured scholars like Daniel Pipes and Alan Dershowitz to set up as academic vigilantes – supposing anyone would want to. And the dovish Jewish electorate as a whole, which still mostly votes and contributes Democratic regardless, is plainly not part of the movement, but its target for mobilisation.

Armed with such basic distinctions, you can ask some interesting questions about the dynamics and permanence of the coalition. Try this thought experiment. Peace Now comes to power in Israel – very unlikely but not impossible. AIPAC would presumably change its tune on settlements, like the Vicar of Bray. But would Perle, Feith, Podhoretz, or Dershowitz? A smaller move to the left in Israel is already opening up some cracks on Iran.

I think Mearsheimer and Walt ask the wrong question. They ask “How come the pro-Israel coalition consistently secures biased US policies against the national interest?” The coalition just has a different idea of the national interest – I’ll come back to this in another post. You don’t need to take a position on the merits to see that something very odd is going on. I would ask instead:

* how come US policy towards Israel is consistently more hawkish (pro-settlements, repression not negotiation) than the views not only of of median Americans but of median American Jews?

* how come US support for Israel has become steadily more unconditional since the latter’s creation, in inverse proportion to Israel’s actual vulnerability?

More skilful propaganda and lobbying than the other side, better smoke and mirrors, are part of the story, but can these really move policy on a central matter of state on such a large scale and so long a term? I don’t buy it; there must be deeper causes. My guess is that the second question holds the key to the first. It’s not that American Jews have become more numerous or politically active since 1948 – the melting-pot seethes away making them ever less different. One factor is surely the Republican decision to try to split the previously solidly Democratic Jewish vote and political contributions. This has led to a bidding war on support to Israel, absolutely the only card the Republicans have to play to appeal to this ethnic group. (A Mel Brooks campaign moment: “Jews for Genesis!” “Jews for Social Security privatisation!” “Jews against stem cell research!” “Jews for the flat tax”!) Imagine a bidding war for the black vote. New Orleans would be rebuilt by now.

The Republican play is not just tactical. The strange wooing of the Christian Right by a small but influential group of assimilated, ex-Marxist, Jewish intellectuals has psychological dimensions I don’t understand any more than M&W do. On both sides, there seem to be existential debts that can now only be paid by supporting Israel, right or wrong; tapping also into unending grief for the Shoah, the decisive impulse to Israel’s creation. This gives the movement the hysterical excesses we saw in the reaction to M&W, but also its deep emotional strength. Politics is about passions, not just calculations.

More in part II.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

15 thoughts on “Realism meets real life, continued”

  1. On, 2, I wouldn't discount the cumulative effect of decades of watching Palestinians in particular, and Arabs in general, act like rabid dogs.

  2. This is not a discussion thread on the conflict but on Mearsheimer & Walts's paper and my post. If commenters don't respect the boundaries, I'll ask Mark to shut down the discussion thread. Brett: your racist comment has no place in a civilised conversation.

  3. "Try this thought experiment. Peace Now comes to power in Israel – very unlikely but not impossible. AIPAC would presumably change its tune on settlements, like the Vicar of Bray."
    You lost me right there.

  4. "Try this thought experiment. Peace Now comes to power in Israel – very unlikely but not impossible. AIPAC would presumably change its tune on settlements"
    James, I think this is naive. Peace Now, and its American counterpart, Americans for Peace Now (peacenow.org), have been supportive of **Government Policy** such as the disengagement plan and further withdraws from West Bank settlements. Additionally, they have been very supportive of government statements regarding ending illegal outposts set up in the West Bank. AIPAC has been opposed. While this opposition is not outright, as this is politically difficult, they have subtley discouraged support for such policies. I beleive a large part of this is because AIPAC is primarily funded, not by the Israeli government, but by American donors. This puts AIPAC between the traditional lobby and the pressure group, needing to mobilize its base of right-wing (often only on this issue) American Jews who are willing to contribute money.
    Finally, I would ask another, possibly more important question: how come US policy towards Israel is consistently more hawkish than the views of median ISRAELIs. This is particularly in regards to settlements, and 'median Israelis' can even be replaced, in many ways, with 'the median Israeli government.'

  5. Govts aren't usually in the business of deciding what the median voter in their partners think and taking their diplomatic positions on that and not who's in office, are they? And is the "median govt" statement really true for the Clinton admin? For Bush pere?

  6. "[H]ow come US support for Israel has become steadily more unconditional since the latter's creation, in inverse proportion to Israel's actual vulnerability?"
    Depending on what you mean by "more unconditional": perhaps as it becomes more apparent that America will never literally have to send American troops to save Israel, it becomes easier to to talk as if we would do that, or something like that, if we had to. That is, talk becomes cheaper.

  7. "How come US policy towards Israel is consistently more hawkish (pro-settlements, repression not negotiation) than the views not only of of median Americans but of median American Jews?"
    Surely this is because hawkish Americans/American Jews are far more intense in their beliefs than dovish ones–no?
    "How come US support for Israel has become steadily more unconditional since the latter's creation, in inverse proportion to Israel's actual vulnerability?"
    First of all, Israel's actual vulnerability has only declined in one dimension–vulnerability to conventional military attack by its neighbors. Along other dimensions–threats from non-neighboring enemies, terrorist groups, non-conventional weapons, demographic erosion, demoralization, economic decline–the picture is far more mixed, and the argument can certainly be made that Israel's peril today is as great as it's ever been, or at least that it hasn't substantially subsided.
    As for American support for Israeli hawkishness, could you explain why anyone would expect it to correlate *positively* with Israeli vulnerability? I could understand the US encouraging flexibility in a *weak* ally, and standing behind a *strong* one. And I could understand the US position being driven by considerations unrelated to the ally's strength or weakness. But I don't see why the US would want to encourage its allies to make concessions to their enemies–in effect weakening themselves, while encouraging intransigence in its weaker allies–in effect, prodding them to jeopardize their own survival.

  8. I'm stunned, James; As I suppose I was intended to be… Stunned into silence.
    Though I will agree that the ethnic identity of the people blowing themselves up in Israeli daycare centers is an accident of history, nothing more. A concession I wouldn't make concerning their religion.
    Locutor, looking at the history of the thing, I'm inclined to think the dog started out vicious, and that's why it keeps getting kicked.

  9. No, I think being vicious comes naturally to everybody, and the Palestinians aren't being taught to NOT be vicious. But it's a cultural matter, not genetic.
    And I don't see how the Stern gang is supposed to be having a cumulative effect on US public opinion, the way Palestinian suicide bombers do. Though if you're pointing out that Palestinians are malign geniuses who invented the notion of violence de novo, that seems obvious.
    The thing I find truly interesting is this presumption that the Palestinians are trapped, TRAPPED, in those refugee camps by the Israelis.
    As though the camps are internal to Israel, without borders on other states.
    As though arab nations in the middle east, who care so deeply about the plight of the Palestinians, can do nothing for them.
    As if Israel's security fence surrounds the Palestinians.
    The reality is rather different: The Palestinians are kept on Israel's borders, and continually encouraged to be violent, as a form of deniable warfare against Israel by other middle east nations. Rather like maintaining a pack of wild dogs along the fence between you and your neighbor, with the intent that they do him harm.
    The Palestinians are the human equivalent of a pack of rabid dogs, but its other arabs who are responsible for crafting their state.
    When Israel treats the Palestinians better than their fellow arabs do, why do you blame Israel for their plight?
    I think it must be a varient on this "Only westerners have moral agency, everybody else is just blamelessly reactive to us" meme.

  10. Brett Bellmore wrote, As if Israel's security fence surrounds the Palestinians.
    It certainly surrounds some of their land.

  11. Brett Belmore wrote, "When Israel treats the Palestinians better than their fellow arabs do, why do you blame Israel for their plight?"
    Because they're in violation of the Geneva Conventions regarding occupied territories.
    "I think it must be a varient on this 'Only westerners have moral agency, everybody else is just blamelessly reactive to us' meme."
    No, it's the "given the levels of US aid to Israel, we Americans are in large part responsible for Israeli crimes" meme.

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