The lobby that dare not speak its name

Daniel Drezner has excerpted his essay on The Israel Lobby from the Chronicle of Higher Education. The full article is subscriber-only, but the snippets are meaty enough:

There is no doubt that Mearsheimer and Walt have captured a disproportionate meas-ure of criticism because they have targeted a high-profile dimension of American foreign policy. The public reviews of their work have been scathing, and some of them have been unfair. Nevertheless, in terms of methodology, The Israel Lobby has earned much of its criticism. Some of the criticism, however, applies not just to Mearsheimer and Walt, but to the discipline as a whole.

A number of readers have urged me to read the book, either to critique it or to endorse it. Foreign policy is not my area, so it's pretty low down the huge pile of books sitting unread on my shelves. But I have read most of the reviews, and what strikes me is how much of the objection seems to be to the simple fact of acknowledging that there is an Israel lobby.

I was at a conference a few years back, and in the course of a spirited and entirely friendly discussion on differences between European and American foreign policy, someone asked why their Israel policy should be so different. The answer seemed obvious to me, and without thinking particularly hard about it, I said "Europe doesn't have many Jewish people any more." Several people around the table cringed, and so did I as soon as I heard myself.

But it is hardly controversial to state that ethnic groups press the interests of their groups with the government. In no other area of US foreign policy is it controversial simply to say that politicians tend to vote their ethnicity, and more importantly, the ethnicity of their constituents. No Arab-American I have ever met is either surprised or offended when you note that the Michigan delegation in Congress is the only substantial geographical opponent to America's Israel policy; indeed, they wish they had this power in other states. Irish Americans don't accuse you of conspiracy-mongering when you note the way the late Senator Moynihan happily handed out vastly disproportionate numbers of visas to the Irish. I'm not sure why, in a group of people who are presumptively not anti-semitic, it is socially frightening to point out that regions with lots of Arabs and few Jewish people will tend to be more hostile to Israel than regions with lots of Jewish people and few Arabs--particularly when Jewish people are so central to American intellectual, cultural, and economic life. I don't think there's anything wrong with this, though I also don't think that there's any reason your fellow citizens should take particular cognizance of your desires unless you can prove they benefit the nation as a whole.

I do understand why this special taboo exists; no one persecutes Arabs on the grounds that they are running a secret conspiracy to rule the world. To some extent I'm sympathetic to it, much as I understand why research into race and IQ has been left largely to wingnuts with not-so-hidden agendas. But it worries me, because that response seems to have dominated more interesting critiques, such as the one offered by Daniel Drezner:

What [Mearsheimer and Walt] do not do, however, is systematically compare Israel to similarly-situated countries in order to determine if the U.S.-Israeli relationship really is unique. An alternative, strategic explanation for the bilateral relationship would posit that Israel falls into a small set of countries: longstanding allies bordering one or multiple enduring rivals. The category of states that meet this criteria throughout the time period analyzed by Walt and Mearsheimer is relatively small: South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, and Pakistan.

Compared to these countries, the U.S. relationship with Israel does not look anomalous. All of these countries have been designated as major non-NATO allies (except for Turkey, a NATO member). Mearsheimer and Walt acknowledge that Turkey receives its aid in a similar manner to Israel; the New York Times recently revealed that Pakistan has received favorable terms as well. In the past decade the United States orchestrated IMF bailouts of South Korea and Turkey that dwarf annual aid flows. Sizable numbers of U.S. troops help to guard the demilitarized zone against North Korea, and the United States Navy takes an active interest in the Taiwan Straits. All four countries have prospered economically in recent years, and they have all frustrated the Bush administration in policy disputes. Despite this, the United States has demonstrated a willingness to expend blood and treasure to provide security for all of these countries – despite the wide variance in the strength of each country’s “lobby” in the United States.

I'm not sure how well this works--we give Israel an awful lot of money, and to some extent it seems to me that the regional rivalries are the product, rather than the cause, of our Israel policy. On the other hand, I'm no expert, and Dan is, so I'm probably wrong. But at any rate, it's a much more provocative thought than most of the writing I read on this book--and that's the bit that got cut out of his essay for lack of space.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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