Friday, February 01, 2008
Let me see if I can get this straight. In Palestine, there is a state that was created out of the murder and ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of the original inhabitants, which is fuelled by racism and religious fanaticism, and which has consistently murdered Palestinians and imposed forms of segregation on them in lieu of a just settlement. If you criticise this from any prominent position, you're likely to be called an anti-Jewish racist - and there's no Israel Lobby? Conversely, there is in the United States a powerful coalition of energy interests and finance-capital, interlocked with a state which has been engaged in the serious business of empire for over a century. It has built a coalition of popular support involving hard right Christians, racist crackers and militaristic gun nuts, behind a hard-right administration. But if it attacks an oil-rich country in the Middle East, it needs the permission of a small country in the Levant? Only theory can resolve this dreary deadlock. Grey is the tree of life, but theory is plush and radiant in whatever colour.
For its critics, the Israel Lobby thesis is a 'conspiracy theory' whose terms are drawn from the lexicon of the hard right. Such is the case made by the Decentist Alan Johnson in a disreputable attack on Perry Anderson. Johnson is an ex-marxist, a liberal, and an 'antitotalitarian'. He edits Democratiya (the wags call it Decentiya - or, as it gets better with age, Dementiya), a quarterly online magazine which promotes the virtues of such inspiring figures as Tony Blair, Paul Berman, Joshua Muravchik and Kanan Makiya. He has a theory about Anderson that begs for the coherence of the average 'conspiracy theory'. Apparently, Anderson's support for the thesis, which is shared by a number of people on the Left - quite mistakenly in my view - is an indication of his unwillingness to get a life, move on, forget about the failures of communism and embrace the democratic revolution. In persisting with his scathing critique, without the accompanying socialist vision, Anderson has apparently gone all nihilistic. He don't believe in nothing no more. Anderson was never what you would call jolly, and he does appear to have resigned himself to capitalism for the rest of his natural existence - but what has this to do with the 'Israel Lobby'? Further, if Johnson wants to put Anderson's comments into some kind of intellectual context, it is neither charitable nor sensible to invoke Pat Buchanan when Johnson knows of a far more worthy intellectual inspiration - namely, the recent brick-sized book by two realist scholars in International Relations who decry the power of precisely such a Lobby. But the relevance of Buchanan is obviously that is widely regarded as an anti-semite. Johnson is not stupid enough to accuse Perry Anderson of anti-semitism. On the contrary, he asserts that "Anderson is no anti-semite". But he certainly implies that the 'Israel Lobby' thesis is anti-semitic. Is it?
You would have to be an ostrich to miss the peculiar influence and power of that community of organisations and individuals which supports Israel - particularly in the United States, but also in France, for example, where a spate of court cases erupted in 2002, with various respected figures accused of anti-semitism. The hysterical slanders, the concerted attacks on academic institutions, the attempts to regulate what future generations are permitted to think, are serious. This is not a marginal matter of energetic 'lobbying' for a potentially unpopular cause. It is about shoring up a consensus. For example, HR 3077 was not passed by the Senate, but it was passed unanimously by the House of Representatives in October 2003. What, you ask, is HR 3077? Well, following testimony to Congress by Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institute, in which Kurtz regaled horrified Congresspersons with tales of Edward Said's evil (based largely on what he had been told by his neoconservative pal Martin Kramer), a law was devised with the specific intention of forcing universities to take a more supportive view of US Middle East policy or risk losing federal funding. It was defeated in the Senate after a massive academic backlash. Clearly, that is not solely about defending the reputation of little Israel, but that fact is germane to my broader argument - the idea that you can separate the influence of pro-Israeli opinion and lobbying from broader US policy designs, particularly those of the hard right, is incoherent. But you get the point - these efforts to discipline expressible opinion are no small beer.
What is less persuasive is the idea that the United States can't do what it wants with the Middle East because of Israel's local Greek Chorus. And that is what is at the heart of the 'Israel Lobby' thesis. Anderson offers one example, that of the failure to provide a state for Palestine, which (so the argument runs) the US could have enforced decades ago to no great strategic loss and some benefit. For Walt and Mearsheimer, there is hardly a mis-step in US Middle East policy whose origins do not lie in the fateful lobby - and practically every step has been a mis-step, in their view. And the pair may have felt vindicated when the very same retinue of neoconservatives and Zionists and reactionaries launched several jets of scalding projectile invective their way, while the ubiquitous 'Lobby' ensured their speeches were cancelled and their names irreparably associated with the word 'anti-Semite'. But still, their case is unpersuasive. One example given by Walt & Mearsheimer is when, in 2002, the Bush administration told Israel to stop re-invading the West Bank and withdraw immediately. "Now," they declared with a force that would never have come from the Clinton administration, "means now." Shortly, Colin Powell - who was sent to Israel to convey this message - was dumped on by every neocon crank in the land. Those furthest to the right in the US spectrum, including Tom Delay and others, harried Bush over his alleged 'betrayal' of Israel. Public rallies, senior flak, newspaper editorials - so much egg-throwing and booing from a disgruntled audience. But the Lobby, resourceful to the end, was also at work pressuring Congressmen and women to support an increased stipend for Israel - an increase that Powell was opposed to, and that he tried to pressure against, to no avail. President Bush thus "reluctantly" signed the legislation.
Part of the trouble with Mearsheimer and Walt is that, where they do not rely on impressionism, they assume what they are supposed to be proving. An obvious question here is exactly what was so "reluctant" about Bush's signature. It isn't as if he generally allows press flak, hostile commentary, public rallies, and even widespread Congressional opposition, to stop him doing what he wants. Just how committed was Bush to taking a more "even-handed" approach? The assumption is that the administration coolly and rationally considered US interests, realised that the 'war on terror' could lose some of its international support if Israel was permitted to ravage the West Bank - but somehow the Lobby carried far greater social power than the Bush administration, and "humiliated" him. This raises questions about what constitutes a 'rational' appreciation of American interests, about what social forces are actually involved, and about the role of ideology. Before considering that, however, it is worth pointing out that Israel was doing exactly what the US was doing in Afghanistan. Similarly, Israel did carry out some assassinations in 2003, but the CIA was already doing the same thing. The 'war on terror' was a gift to every power-system in the world, including Russia, which - though it doesn't have a vocal and efficacious lobby - won Bush's support during and after some bloody moments in Chechnya.
Walt and Mearsheimer's model presupposes the primacy of the state as a unit international relations. I don't just mean that they assume the state to be very important, and more important than other agencies: it is that the state is the global actor, whose essential purposes and drives are the same throughout history. The state, whether it is a Northern Italian city-state or a North American federation, is a power-maximising unit, which deploys such strategies as 'balance of power', and which embodies an elemental psychic drive to dominate. From this purview, ideologies and moralities are superfluous, cognitive scripts, at best enabling devices and at worst dangerous nonsense that tempts one to hubris or constrains one in a moment that demands boldness. Transnational networks are considered relatively unimportant, and where they are important it is usually as a derivative function of one state, or several. They can only carry out the functions of states or obstruct them. And class power is simply invisible. So, the structure of rationality that they assume for a state pursuing its 'national interests' is already a highly bowdlerised, reductionist one. They devote a short passage near the end of their book to defining US national interests: "The overriding goal of US foreign policy is to ensure the safety and prosperity of the American people." On such implausible premises is a whole provocative theory based. We might consider another way of looking at it. The American state, the US one I mean, is one with a deep overlap in personnel between the top Wall Street financial and legal firms. It is one in which the state apparatus is interpenetrated with high-tech manufacturing through the Department of Defense and other similar systems. It is one in which cash circulates from high-profile sectors of US capital, including energy, telecommunications, finance and so on. There are class interests involved here, and these aren't only expressed through various lobbies. But these class interests also contain schisms of their own, with sectional and regional divisons, and corresponding ideological ones. In a way, the US state is redolent of the Italian one after unification, with most of the population excluded, and divisions largely organised around differences within the ruling class rather than ideological programs.
If that's a roughly accurate depiction, then either Israel manages to hypnotise substantial sections of the ruling class, or they strongly identify Israel's long-term interests with their own, and value its continued domination in the Middle East more than the need to 'win over' a bunch of already subservient Arab states. And with that commitment comes an unwillingness to compromise Israel's effectiveness over its rivals, particularly when they are frequently also America's rivals. It also has, as its logical corollary, a commitment to allow Israel to manage its 'demographic' problem. After all, a post-Zionist state wouldn't be half as useful to the United States, since it would not be a military garrison state locked in perpetual enmity with those noisome Arab populations. And it also entails a much more sympathetic attitude to Israel's claims with respect to negotiations, settlements, expansion and so on, than might be the case from a disinterested perspective. It is true that not every shoe-maker or plant owner in America has a deep vested interest in keeping control of the Middle East in that way. But most sectors of American capital have an interest in long-term US hegemony, and the Middle Eastern oil bonanza is one of the greatest prizes in history, permanently threatened by the possible insurgency of local populations. Mearsheimer and Walt argue that the US has three 'national interests' in the Middle East - to frustrate the emergence of a regional hegemon, and ensure world market access to its oil; to stymy the development of weapons of mass destruction; and to reduce anti-American terrorism. It is conceivable that a US government would consider these to be serious priorities and really believe that they are for the benefit of the whole population. However, it is also conceivable that competing priorities - the very real benefits for the ruling class of pursuing policies that generate terrorism, WMD proliferation, and protectionism in the oil market as necessary corollaries - would take precedence. After all, Halliburton has more clout than the average voter, and the average voter can always be persuaded that the consequences of US policy are actually manifestations of Muslim irrationality or Arab fanaticism or something else of the kind.
This brings us to the matter of ideological hegemony. Hegemonic appeals are necessarily universalist, not particularist. Israel doesn't appeal to America in public as "a friend and ally" simply because of shared interests - no, shared values are at stake here. As nebulous as appeals to values usually are, there is nothing mysterious about this appeal. Explicitly, Israel says 'we are a pro-American state, we have women in high-profile positions, we value different religions and cultures, we stand up for democracy against terrorism, and we believe in markets' etc. There is an illicit set of racist and militaristic assumptions attached to this, of course, but the explicit appeal is one that would have great force among intellectuals and educated opinion, particularly those processed through moribund social sciences programmes, with their only slightly updated Cold War orthodoxies. This is a point that Mearsheimer and Walt tacitly acknowledge when they refer to the neoconservative argument that Israel shares "liberal democratic values" with the United States. The 'national interest' is a field of contest, not something that can be deduced from a set of givens. Therefore hegemony matters, which is why there is such an effort to discipline opinion. This is what is so incongruous about Mearsheimer and Walt's contention that Israeli policies militate against "certain core US values", as if America's own policies didn't do the same wherever its influence was felt, whether in Panama or Somalia. State policy is almost always an affront to its declared 'values'. That is half the fun of it. If you can murder and repress in the name of humanitarianism and democracy, you know you're in control.
And if you think that Israel's propagandists could get as far as they have without being adopted by powerful US constituencies, then you have to explain how such a belligerent and forceful state turned out to be so pliable. As Daniel Lazare points out:
If "Israel has earned the respect of the American people," it is because the United States, devastated by its experience in Vietnam and humiliated by the embassy takeover in Tehran, watched with growing envy as Israel racked up stunning military victories in 1967 and 1973 and then sent specially outfitted jets streaking across the desert to bomb Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981 (a feat the White House would dearly like to emulate in Iran). The Israel Defense Forces were everything that aggressive imperial elements in Washington wanted America's traumatized military to be. Hence, in their bipartisan struggle to overcome "the Vietnam syndrome," the Republicans and Democrats set about remodeling themselves as overseas branches of Israel's hawkish Likud Party. Groups like AIPAC did not grow of their own accord. Instead, the war party in Washington encouraged them to grow to help it win its battles on Capitol Hill.
The American Right has latched onto Israel precisely because it helps them regulate discourse and win hegemonic battles. It facilitates the repackaging of an aggressive programme of imperial domination and extreme global violence as the defense of the ideals of democracy against - what do you know? - anti-Semites. Just as in the case of HR 3077, people who are primarily concerned with stifling internal left-wing dissent, and critical analysis of US policy, have used Israel as a crucial alibi in that struggle. And these lobbies and think-tanks, like the Hoover Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, are recipients of huge amounts of corporate cash. When it comes to corporate America, Israel can't compete in terms either of dollars or ideological reproduction. And this is a problem for Mearsheimer and Walt throughout their book. They list people and institutions as belonging to an 'Israel Lobby', even where their activity isn't really lobbying, even where they aren't funded by Israel, even where their motive has rather little to do with Israel. The neoconservatives support Israel, but the key institutions in which they work are auxiliaries of US capital, not of the Knesset. They are unable to explain anywhere why these pro-Israel neoconservatives have the weight that they do (and why being pro-Israel matters to US capital). This is because they have no conception of class power, a reductionist conception of the 'national interest' and a flimsy account of ideology.
Perhaps the least persuasive of all examples is that of Iraq. Although, Mearsheimer and Walt concede that the US had powerful motives to invade Iraq, they insist that the Israel Lobby was the element without which it would not have happened. It is undoubtedly true that supporters of Israel were also strong supporters of the invasion of Iraq. It is true that Israel has also regarded Iraq as an enemy. It is true that Israeli interests were involved here. It is true that pro-Israel organisations 'lobbied' or simply vocalised hard on behalf of war with Iraq. Yet, if this is supposed to trump - not merely complement - US 'national interests', it is necessary for Mearsheimer and Walt to minimise the benefits of war. Their dismissal of the reasoning that holds control of the oil spigot to be a key goal is roughly as follows: if they wanted oil, they could have invaded Saudi Arabia, and anyway the oil companies would rather have traded with Saddam than overthrow him. This part of the argument is dealt with in a rather perfunctory fashion, but it demands considerably more attention than they are prepared to allot it. For example, it would appear as if the authors did not realise that Saudi Arabia is already subordinate. There is no need for an invasion force to trundle across the Nejd. Actually, one of the problems that Iraq solved was to enable America's troops to move out of Saudi Arabia, where their presence caused some trouble. Saddam Hussein represented, by contrast, the last outpost of Arab nationalism. Successfully conquering Iraq and installing a pro-American client state with a thin veneer of democratic rule, which must have looked incredibly easy after the initial cake-walk in Afghanistan, would have decisively altered the regional balance of power in America's interests. It would also have provided a model for further expansion. The aggressive right-wingers who contrived this policy explained their rationale: in the absence of a serious superpower rival, there was a brief window in which the US could powerfully assert itself as the next century's sole power, demonstrate its ability to fight and win multiple wars, and secure its dominance for the long-term.
And why so glib in the dismissal of oil interests? After all, most leading figures in the administration have long experience in the energy sector up to and including the President. Neoconservatives had argued for some time that the US should take control of Iraq's oil and break up OPEC. Many of the energy companies that have so handsomely funded the GOP were primary beneficiaries of the invasion. Nor were high oil prices bad for them - actually, they're making record profits. The Bush cabinet agreed in April 2001 that "'Iraq remains a destabilizing influence to the flow of oil to international markets from the Middle East' and because this is an unacceptable risk to the US 'military intervention' is necessary". The Times reported in 2002 that: West Sees Glittering Prizes Ahead in Giant Oil Fields. The Ministry of Oil immediately secured upon taking Baghdad. Several US oil companies were immediately involved in negotiations over the future of Iraq's oil industry, and former Shell CEO Philip Carroll was appointed to manage the process of privatisation. When the US oil companies argued that privatization would actually be seriously damaging to US interests and potentially freeze out foreign energy companies, the State Department devised a plan to keep it nationalised with US access assured. It doesn't seem as if the oil industry was a marginalised opponent of Bush's strategy, and the sole basis for this claim by Walt and Mearsheimer is a quote from a column by the pro-war liberal Peter Beinart, who was busy trying to persuade liberal opinion that war with Iraq was anything but a right-wing obsession and an imperialist venture.
Mearsheimer and Walt's book and the whole uproar about the 'Israel Lobby' is a long overdue challenge to a stifling taboo, but it challenges it in the most inefficient way. The authors frequently rely on the impressionistic statements of others (as in "Sharon didn't look like the subordinate today...") to dramatise and pad out what might otherwise be a slender and somewhat messy polemic. The 'Lobby' paradigm cannot begin to cope with the evidence, and as a result demands a very narrow perspective. Of course, contrary to the whining of the pro-Israel commentators, it is not an anti-Semitic book. It lacks even the spurious coherence that an anti-Semitic tract would evince. Nor is it an anti-Israel book, and in general it maintains that the 'Lobby' is unwittingly damaging Israel by tying it into a damaging long-term conflict with Palestine, where settlement would be more profitable in the long-run. The book is essentially a reaction to the shrill efforts to buttress a pro-Israel consensus, and protect it from growing criticism. It is also a reaction to an increasingly extreme and adventurist US policy, and the paucity of serious opposition within the US political class. Theirs is a moderate and reformist account of US foreign policy, which reduces its manifest brutality - there's a disavowed moral revulsion here, dressed up as an appeal to the 'national interest' - to the deviant influence of an atypically powerful interest group. Nothing fundamental need change. We need simply become aware of the 'Lobby', confront it, and cease answering to its siren call. This is a problem with the 'Israel Lobby' thesis that pro-war apologists for Israel, such as Johnson, are not in a position to consider. They share too many of its premises to be effective critics, which is one reason why they cut such a strident figure. The other reason, of course, is that they're part of the Lobby.