Thursday, April 06, 2006

Thoughts on "The Israel Lobby"

I've had some brief things to say elsewhere about the paper "The Israel Lobby," by Steve Walt and my soon-to-be-former colleague John Measheimer (henceforth M&W). Herewith a few more considered judgments.

1. As the Larry Summers affair should have taught us all:
a) Some pernicious stereotypes might be empirically correct.
b) Scholars must be free-- really free-- to reach empirical conclusions that bear out pernicious stereotypes.
c) But it's a tricky and delicate business; it requires not only serious consideration of rival explanations but also genuine scholarly expertise in the subject at hand.

Academic freedom does and should protect scholars who reach controversial conclusions. But scholars who know that they're going to further pernicious stereotypes, and know that they're going to take refuge in an academic freedom that op-ed columnists and full-time pundits don't enjoy, should really think three times about whether or not they're presenting scholarly conclusions and writing as experts.

Mearsheimer and Walt are among the country's leading scholars of security and of international power relations. That's pretty far afield from being specialists in Middle East policy. More importantly, it's very far afield from being specialists in interest group politics, or in the nexus between interest group politics and policy formation, or in the domestic political sources of foreign policy. (Indeed, they're committed to not being specialists in that last, which is part of the problem.) There are serious political scientists who specialize in all these things. There are political scientists who specialize, for example, in the study of the nexus between ethnic interest-group lobbying and foreign policy outcomes. Some of these think that AIPAC has very significant power, that it lives up to its reputation as one of the two or three most influential lobbies in Washington and the most influential foreign policy lobby. There's nothing anti-Semitic about reaching that conclusion. Some of them don't; they reach the conclusion that AIPAC "succeeds partly because it is pushing on an open door- it advocates policies that most Americans favor on the merits" (James Lindsay, "Getting Uncle Sam's Ear: Will Ethnic Lobbies Cramp America's Foreign Policy Style," The Brookings Review Winter 2002 Vol. 20 No.1 pp. 37-40). The most substantial study of the question found that

"U.S. governments, especially since 1973, have viewed assistance to Israel as being in the interests of American foreign policy in toto and in the Middle East [and so supported such assistance for their own reasons...] although AIPAC is a capable organization, its requests have merely tended to parallel the preferences of U.S. presidents, not determined them. When a president strongly wishes to go against the AIPAC's desired policy, he is readily able to do this and succeed." (Joseph Scolnick, review of Goldberg, Foreign Policy and Ethnic Interest Groups, and Organski, The $36 Billion Bargain, APSR 86(2):585-586)

I'm not competent to evaluate the dispute between those scholars of ethnic interest group effects on foreign policy who do and those who don't think that AIPAC can drive foreign policy. This may be a dispute between scholars who generally emphasize interest-group pluralism and those who generally stress state autonomy or presidential action; I don't know. And I'm certainly none the wiser for reading "The Israel Lobby," which doesn't come to terms with the dispute or even do much more than nod in the direction of this literature.

2. Social scientists seek to explain variation. U.S. support for Israel-- diplomatic, military, and financial-- had a point of inflection roughly 1970-73. It's not clear that the Jewish population of the U.S., or that population's level of commitment to Israel, or anything else having to do with "the Lobby" that is M&W's only explanatory variable changed much at that time. Jews, as Ongaski points out, had been in the U.S. all along, and had supported Israel all along, and you can't explain variation with a constant.

Even at the new, high, level of support, there has been variation that corresponds very well to particular U.S. presidencies and very poorly to any change in "the Lobby."

3. The core of the paper's difficulty has little to do with Israel or Jews and a great deal to do with its core purpose. M&W are committed to the neorealist view that powerful states act in their security interest. They're also, independently, committed to opposition to the Iraq War and to what they see as U.S. overreach in the Middle East; they think that the U.S. does not effectively pursue its security interests in the region. So there's a puzzle, an anomaly-- of their own making. If you are both committed to a predictive theory and committed to an interpretation of a particular case by which it falsifies your theory, then there's a puzzle for your views, but not yet a puzzle about the world.

They proceed to address this puzzle with a slippery-- I do not say sloppy-- ambiguity between explanatory and evaluative claims.

The mere existence of the Lobby suggests that unconditional support for Israel is not in the American national interest. If it was, one would not need an organized special interest to bring it about.

This is, I think, the worst paragraph of political science I've read in many years. The best, most-justified policies don't automatically spring into being at the end of the policy-making process. An all-things-considered judgment that X is the best policy is essentially irrelevant to one's ability to predict whether or not X will be adopted. Political and policy-making actors aren't, indeed couldn't possibly be, such purely disinterested promoters of the public good that they could promote it all the time without any organized support-- even assuming that they all agreed with each other, and with M&W, about what the public good consisted of. They often need organizational and material support from interest groups even to do [what they take to be] the right thing. Free-trading Representatives still know how vulnerable they are to the organized power of protectionist lobbies, and feel safer when the pro-trade lobbies are able to rally effectively and protect them; without that protection, some of them choose keeping their seat over their principles. (And the electoral process selects for those who will make that choice.) From the fact that a policy needed a lobby to support it, one can infer nothing about the policy's justifiability.

Moreover, from the facts that a lobby exists and that its preferred policies have been adopted, one can infer very close to nothing about whether the lobby was needed. Lobbies have a professional interest in convincing donors and would-be donors that "But for us, all would be lost"-- even if it's untrue. No one has any particular interest in debunking the claim. While individual donors of huge sums may be pretty sophisticated about the political process and about the claim's truth, and pretty straightforwardly instrumental rather than symbolic in their approach to contributions, the millions of small contributors to direct-mail campaigns are pretty certainly not. A lobby could be entirely superfluous, or entirely ineffective, and still survive off the contributions of highly-motivated but relatively uninformed small donors indefinitely. Unlike the view that the best security policy magically springs into being, the view that lobbies only exist when they're needed isn't even a necessary thought for M&W's neorealism.

Something very similar holds true for the paper's treatment of moral considerations. In short: from the authors' view that support for Israel is not, in the final accounting, morally demanded, they infer that moral considerations or beliefs are irrelevant to understanding why the United States support Israel. The structure of the paper is:

Why does the United States provide [so much] support to Israel?
1. Such support is not [in our view] genuinely strategically warranted.
2. Such support is not [in our view] genuinely morally demanded.
3. Such support must be explained by the presence of actors who place the interests of Israel ahead of the interests of the United States.

The mistake is astonishingly elementary, but it pervades the whole paper. The snarky way to put it is: M&W treat their say-so about strategic and moral considerations as if it was naturally entitled to such overwhelming political deference that the fact that the polity hasn't accepted their say-so is deeply anomalous. The probably-fairer way to put it is: M&W proceed as if the political system has some very strong natural tendency to reach true beliefs and justified policies about strategy and morality-- such a strong tendency that, if it fails in some case, there must be an unusual explanation, such as an unusually intense and effective Lobby that includes people willing to deliberately place the interests of a foreign power over that of their own country, and that includes powerful politicians, media figures, and so on who can make their preferred policies come about.

M&W profess to treat strategic considerations, moral considerations, and The Lobby as alternative explanations of U.S. support. For those to really be comparable itsmes, they'd have to be something like "relevant actors' beliefs about strategic considerations," "relevant actors' beliefs about moral considerations," and "lobbying/ interest group influence." But beliefs don't show up. M&W's discussion of whether Israel is a morally nice place or not is neither here nor there in understanding what brings U.S. support about. "Israel discriminates against its Arab citizens" and "The Lobby" are answers to questions of completely different sorts-- one evaluative, one explanatory.

M&W's rejoinder could be: "Well, since we're right about strategic and moral considerations, if other people's beliefs about those considerations lead them to support Israel, then their beliefs are wrong. Such widespread belief in false propositions is itself anomalous and must be explained by the activities of The Lobby." Now, however, I think the implausibility of the account becomes more apparent. Politics is often marked by good-faith disagreement about hard questions. And it's often marked by people getting things wrong. One doesn't need a Lobby to explain political actors believing and acting on false propositions about morality or prudence.

Notice that I haven't been engaging M&W's substantive views about American Jews or Israel; indeed, I've been accepting them arguendo. That is, the charge I make against them can't be conflated with a charge of anti-Semitism-- and isn't refuted by the claim by Mersheimer's former student Robert Pape that M&W are "philo-Semites of the first order," whatever that might mean. M&W have been getting unearned mileage out of the predictable rhetorical move that any criticism of their paper constitutes an attempt to paint them as anti-Semites and shut down debtae, thereby proving their argument, which is why it's important to establish that my critique of their paper doesn't turn on the substance of their evaluation of Israel.

My point is that their substantive evaluation of the US' Middle East policy can't do the work that the paper demands of it, namely the creation of an empirical and explanatory question to which The Lobby is the only answer left standing. Indeed this is related to the problem of non-engagement with the ethnic-interest-group literature. If AIPAC suceeds only when its preferences parallel those of Presidents, then it's Presidents' beliefs about moral and strategic consideration, not M&W's beliefs, that is the appropriate alternative explanation of policy.

"The truth of a proposition has little or nothing to do with its psychodynamics. 'The truth will prevail' is merely a pious wish; history doesn't show it.'" So quoth Ralph Schultz in Heinlein's Methuselah's Children, summarizing the point nicely. That a given set of political processes fails to generate policies that track M&W's understanding of the truth about difficult strategic and moral questions is not anomalous and does not raise the kind of question to which The Lobby is a necessary answer, even if M&W are correct about the truth about those difficult strategic and moral questions. Moral truth isn't a part of social scientific explanation; relevant actors' beliefs about moral truth are such a part, but are absent from the paper. The same is true for strategic truths and beliefs about strategy.

Now, it happens that I also disagree with much-- not all-- what what M&W have to say about those strategic and moral questions; and I think they argue for their views pretty badly even when I agree with them. But others have made the relevant criticisms of those arguments already. (Update: See, e.g., this devastating response to M&W's strange history of the conflict from Benny Morris, a historian cited by M&W, and on his account distorted by them.) What I want to stress is: the paper faces a puzzle only of the authors' own creation, an anomaly only of the disjuncture between the neorealist article of faith that the best strategic policies will be adopted regardless of domestic politics and M&W's substantive views of (especially) the Iraq War. If strategically optimal or morally correct policies don't just happen, then the puzzle disappears, and we're left with a conceptual mess of a paper that purports to knock down justifications for a set of policy outcomes in order to bolster an allegedly-rival explanation for them. But justifications and explanations are not, in fact, rivals.


Compare Anne-Marie Slaughter, who knows much more about the relevant debates than I do.

At the same time, their analysis is strongly, and in my view wrongly, colored by two assumptions. First is their deep opposition to the war in Iraq; they came out in favor of continued deterrence of Saddam early, and with the luxury of hindsight, probably rightly. But because they passionately opposed the war from the beginning, they find it hard to imagine any reasons to support the war other than the Israel Lobby. Yet George Packer, whose superb book The Assassins' Gate is a must read, notes that Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, and David Wurmser, all strong "pro-Likud Americans," ended up in high positions in the Bush administration and pushed for war in Iraq. He writes:

"Does this mean that a pro-Likud cabal insinuated its way into the high councils of the U.S. government and took hold of the apparatus of American foreign policy to serve Israeli interests? . . . For Feith and Wurmser, the security of Israel was probably the prime mover. But for others, such as Wolfowitz, Iraq stood for different things -- an unfinished war, Arab tyranny, weapons proliferation, a strategic threat to oil, American weakness, Democratic fecklessness -- and regime change there became the foreign policy jackpot." Just because Walt and Mearsheimer discount each one of these factors does not mean that they were equally discounted in Washington, leaving only Israel's security as an argument for war.

Second, Walt and Mearsheimer are realists, which means that they assess the strategic value of states solely in terms of their relative power, regardless of regime type. In English, that means that Israel's status as the only stable, mature democracy in the Middle East is irrelevant in assessing America's strategic interest. We liberals, on the other hand, essentially think that regime type trumps virtually every other measure of power. That does not mean that we should support Israel automatically or uncritically, but it does provide a powerful reason for why supporting Israel -- and above all Israel's continued existince as a liberal democracy, which may often require taking a tougher line with the Israeli government that we have been prepared to do in recent years -- is very much in America's strategic interest.