Jeff Goldstein has found another purported example of the perfidy of the “Democratic party and liberals” at Harvard. The political scientists in the audience will be amused by the punchline: it’s the work of the conservative University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer. Whether someone who voted for Bush in 2000 counts as a liberal or a Democrat is, I would submit, contestable. (I don’t know about the politics of his co-author Stephen Walt–my IR scholar co-blogger says he has voted for candidates of both parties. He’s certainly not a public man of the left.) Almost as remarkable as the fact that he quite clearly knows nothing about the scholars in question but is willing to link uncritically to marginally literate screeds by Randite crackpots accusing them of “Jewhatred” is the way he refers to their working paper as a “Harvard paper,” as if the institution sort of produces ideas that scholars receive like radio transmitters. Hmm, let’s apply this logic further–I’m appalled about this “Harvard book“: clearly the campus is overrun with Straussian male chauvinists! No wonder Larry Summers found poorly-supported just-so tautologies about female inferiority so convincing! And…no, really, this is too stupid.
Having said that, though, once you strip away the silly right-wing identity politics frame, Goldstein has a point: the Mearsheimer/Walt claim (the full version is in PDF form here) that American policy toward Israel is the result of an exceptionally powerful “Israeli lobby” is, in fact, not very persuasive. The bulk of the paper, indeed, is not about supplying evidence for their central argument. W/M establish what is, from a neorealist perspective, an anomaly: American policy toward Israel is more supportive than would expect based on neorealist conceptions of national self-interest. This is probably right, although the extent of the gap is debatable. They then go on to dismiss the moral case for supporting Israel; I find this less persuasive, you may find it more, but at any rate it’s neither here not there as far as the empirical case is concerned; what matters is not whether I or they find the case convincing, but whether people with decision-making authority in the American state find it convincing and whether it’s at least arguable. (I don’t disagree that Israeli policy is currently contrary to some liberal “American values”; it is also true that the US would have failed the “American values” test rather more resoundingly less than 50 years ago, and the relevant metric is to compare with other countries rather than against an ideal liberal democracy.) And then they conclude with a summary of the effects of what they see as excessive American support for Israel. But the key middle section–where they actually try to establish the key proposition–is skimpy and unconvincing, filled with dubious inferences and slippery causal relationships. To take an example of the at times almost comically tendentious nature of their empirical analysis, consider this paragraph:
Thanks in part to the influence Jewish voters have on presidential elections, the Lobby also has significant leverage over the executive branch. Although they make up fewer than 3 per cent of the population, they make large campaign donations to candidates from both parties. The Washington Post once estimated that Democratic presidential candidates ‘depend on Jewish supporters to supply as much as 60 per cent of the money’. And because Jewish voters have high turn-out rates and are concentrated in key states like California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania, presidential candidates go to great lengths not to antagonise them.
First of all, of course, for several cycles CA, NY and IL have hardly been “key states”; they haven’t been remotely in play, and it would be pretty odd to for Republicans craft messages with a disproportinate eye toward small minorities in states they have no chance of winning. Pennsylvania’s population of religious Jews is a whopping 2%. And then you have to remember that neorealist foreign policy would not predict hostility toward Israel, but less marginal support, narrowing the policy terrain. And, of course, Jews have far from monolithic positions towards Israel. So basically we’re left with an enormous amount of leverage over the executive branch derived from the effects of differences within a narrow policy range within a segment of a small minority within a single swing state. Er, let’s just say I consider the question open.
And there’s an even bigger problem when it comes to the Iraq War. Iraq is an even clearer empirical anomaly from a neorealist perspective, but it is (to put it mildly) far from clear that installing a Shiite state with very tenuous coercive capacity in Iraq is in the interests of the Israeli state. The M/W attempts to explain the alleged “Israel Lobby” influence on the Iraq war come down to little more that inferences drawn from the fact many administration proponents of the war are also supporters of Israel. But when it comes to evidence that Israeli interests were a key factor in the decision, that’s awfully watery broth, and one I would think a neorealist would be particularly skeptical of.
Since I’m not committed to neorealist explanations, I think a lot more explanatory leverage can be derived from noting that many important American state actors conceive of American interests differently than neorealists do and that they also believe the moral case for supporting Israel is more tenable than M/W do. Admittedly, measuring interest group power is a nettlesome problem, and assertions of interest group influence are almost impossible to prove or disprove, but I just don’t find the case at all persuasive. While I think it’s a disgraceful smear to imply that these serious scholars are anti-Semites, I do think they’re straining to provide a simple explanation for some outcomes that their theoretical framework can’t really account for. The well-organized and funded Israeli lobby may explain some policy choices at the margin, but there’s little evidence that it’s a central variable.
As a final note, another reason I don’t think that creating an “Israeli lobby” bogeyman is particularly helpful is that is obscures what neorealism can help us think about: the difficult choices that we face in the middle east. Unlike the ice-cream-castles-in-the-air vision of too many neocons, the realists grasp the obvious point that the democratization of despotic regimes whose populations are even more hostile to Israel than the current governing elites will produce very difficult dilemmas in which American interests, Israeli interests, and democratization are in serious tension with one another. Pretending that all of these interests are inherently aligned is useless, but weakly-supported intimations about a nearly-omnipotent “Israeli lobby” are also diversions from the real issues involved.