Vol. 28 No. 7 · 6 April 2006

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The Israel Lobby

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s piece (LRB, 23 March) boils down to a simple argument, despite copious circumstantial detail and politically correct evasiveness. The ‘Israel Lobby’, spearheaded by AIPAC, is a coterie of Jews, neo-conservatives and Christian Zionists that dominates US foreign policy. It achieves this through the strategic activity of its leaders and its ability to deflect criticism with accusations of anti-semitism.

This argument rests on the belief that a small clique can achieve hegemony over an entity as complex as the US government. AIPAC commands great resources, but its reputation for untrammelled dominance is grossly overstated. There are plenty of countervailing centres of power, such as paleoconservatives, Arab and Islamic advocacy groups (e.g. CAIR) and the diplomatic establishment. A more powerful explanation for the influence of the ‘Lobby’ is that its values command genuine support among the American public. According to a February 2006 Gallup poll, 59 per cent of Americans express strong support for Israel. This figure includes 77 per cent of Republicans, but also half of all Democrats. Far from being the result of unschooled myths and stereotypes, support for Israel is higher among people who follow international events than among those who don’t (i.e. 66 per cent v. 59 per cent).

In addition, reducing American (and Western) conflict with Islam to the issue of Israel obscures more than it reveals. It fails to explain anti-Western Islamicist movements in places as far from Israel as Algeria and the Philippines. It refuses to examine instances when the US, on its own merits, trampled on Muslim self-esteem (in Iran from 1953 to 1979, in Lebanon in 1958), and when non-‘Lobby’ Americans may have had personal axes to grind in the Middle East (e.g. the Bush family in Iraq). Mearsheimer and Walt don’t consider the way that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf sheikhdoms justify their own autocratic privileges by bankrolling extremism against Israel, or the reasons young European Muslims respond to discrimination in their host societies with anger not at white Europeans, but at a country thousands of miles away. Could it be that vote-seeking European leftists and Saudi-funded Islamic clerics are amplifying the conflict in the Middle East into a transnational obsession? The violence following the publication of Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in late 2005 may be instructive in this regard: though touching a real nerve, it was widely recognised that particular groups and countries were prolonging the outrage for their own benefit. Josef Joffe argued in Foreign Policy last year that ‘far from creating tensions, Israel actually contains more antagonisms than it causes.’ The USA may very well be purchasing world stability at a bargain through its alliance with Israel.

Perhaps hardest to swallow is Mearsheimer and Walt’s moralising tone. They present themselves as hard-headed realists dispassionately guarding America’s national interest, which is surprisingly not compromised by nuclear weapons in North Korean or Iranian hands. They then catalogue Israel’s moral flaws, refusing to give equal time to Palestinian extremism, maximalism and truculence. We are left with the impression that Israel’s founding and post-1967 expansion were gratuitous sins, while the refusal of the Palestinians to compromise in the 1930s or their current cult of violence are (presumably) natural responses, fixed and unalterable. Having made this point, the authors presume to suggest that a more restrained US policy will be good for Israel. This is probably a display of monumental presumptuousness, but I’ll give the authors more credit than they give Israel and chalk it up to sheer myopia.

Adam Glantz
Herndon, Virginia

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt give a strikingly inaccurate account of Middle Eastern history. Arab resentment of America originates from a long pattern of British and French imperialism in the region. This resentment evolved into a more generalised anti-Westernism perpetuated and exploited by the USSR and Soviet allies like Nasser. The distrust of the West including America was further exacerbated by a feeling in the region that the United States often favoured pro-American dictators over more democratic leaders. Over the past two decades, anti-Western militancy in the Middle East has evolved from a Marxist movement into one built on a twisted religious extremism. At the same time, the Arab world has been afflicted with extreme anti-semitism reminiscent of Nazism. A lost war by Israel or a significant poison gas attack on Tel Aviv could easily translate into another holocaust. Finally, support for Israel does not seem quite so extensive when one considers the massive level of manpower America has deployed over the past six decades to defend Western Europe, South Korea and Japan.

Michael Szanto

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt write: ‘The Lobby also monitors what professors write and teach. In September 2002, Martin Kramer and Daniel Pipes, two passionately pro-Israel neo-conservatives, established a website (Campus Watch) that posted dossiers on suspect academics and encouraged students to report remarks or behaviour that might be considered hostile to Israel.’ This account is inaccurate in several ways (e.g. Martin Kramer had no role in founding Campus Watch), but I write specifically to state that no ‘Lobby’ told me to start Campus Watch. Neither the Middle East Forum nor myself has ever taken orders from some mythical ‘Lobby’, and specifically I decided to establish Campus Watch on my own, without direction from any outside source. I challenge Mearsheimer and Walt to provide their information that connects this ‘Lobby’ to my decision to establish Campus Watch.

Daniel Pipes

Accusations of powerful Jews behind the scenes are part of the most dangerous traditions of modern anti-semitism. So it is with dismay that we read John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s ‘The Israel Lobby’. We have known and respected John Mearsheimer for over twenty years, which makes the essay all the more unsettling.

First, it is not true that the American relationship with Israel has been ‘the centrepiece of US Middle Eastern policy’. That centrepiece has been and remains access to oil for the United States and for the global economy. As it became apparent during the 1960s that Israel was not merely the only democracy in the region but also a supporter of the West in the Cold War, the American relationship intensified. At that point, support for Israel, which had been strongest among liberals who supported a Jewish state in the wake of the Holocaust, expanded to include the previously less than enthusiastic military and diplomatic foreign policy establishment, some of which was deeply hostile to Israel and suspicious of Jews, to put it mildly. This was not due to the efforts of the Jewish Lobby or the power of the five million Jews (in a country of almost 300 million). It was due to an assessment of American national interest made by an overwhelmingly non-Jewish political and military establishment long before Christian fundamentalism became a factor in the Republican Party. It coincided with increasingly close ties with the Saudi regime.

Second, it is not true that the United States went to war in Iraq because of the pressure of a Jewish Lobby. Even if the key decision makers were Jews, this would not prove the point about the Jewish Lobby. As it happens, the primary advisers and war planners for Bush were Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and Rice and the entirely non-Jewish military leadership, not the usual suspects now trotted out by those peddling stories about Jewish power behind the scenes. Whatever Israel or its supporters in the US may or may not have wanted, American and British leaders decided to go to war for reasons grounded in their own interpretation of their respective national interests. Saddam Hussein stunned and surprised his own military leaders three months before the US and Britain invaded by revealing to them that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction. There were many officials in London and Washington – or Berlin and Paris, for that matter – who would have been just as surprised.

One need not think the decision to go to war was the correct one to remember that it was not motivated by concerns about Israel’s national security. One need not agree that oil below the ground and dictatorship above it posed an immediate threat to recall that British and American (as well as other Western) leaders believed that Saddam with weapons of mass destruction in years to come would have posed a threat to the other Arab oil-producing states as much as to Israel. Mearsheimer and Walt’s realism ignores this conventional threat in the minds of American and British policymakers.

Third, while much opinion in the Arab and Islamic world has rejected the presence of a Jewish state in its midst, anti-Americanism, hatred of Europe (including Britain) and of liberal modernity in general would exist if Israel was not there. Mearsheimer and Walt stand in a long tradition of ‘realist’ political scientists known for naivety regarding the power and import of ideological fanaticism in international affairs. This naivety is the reason that radical Islam and the enduring crises of modernisation in the region that produced it receive hardly a word in their long attack.

Fourth, American Jewish citizens have a right to express their views without being charged with placing the interests of Israel ahead of those of the US. Mearsheimer and Walt’s attack appears eight years after the terrorist war against the West declared by Osama Bin Laden; six years after Ehud Barak offered a compromise plan to end the conflict and occupation of the West Bank, and Yassir Arafat responded with a terrorist campaign of his own; after countless terrorist attacks all over the world by al-Qaida and its sympathisers, including the London Underground bombings; after repeated acts of terrorist barbarism in Iraq by radical Islamists; after the declaration by the Iranian president that Israel should be wiped out and that the Holocaust was a myth; and, most recently, after the world’s first electoral victory with a solid majority won by an openly anti-semitic terrorist organisation, Hamas. Mearsheimer and Walt further ignore that all of this happened also after Israel withdrew from Lebanon, offered the Barak plan, retaliated to the terrorist campaign as any state – including Britain or the United States – would, accepted the principle of a Palestinian state and thus agreed to withdraw from over 90 per cent of the West Bank, and then withdrew completely from Gaza. If the Palestinians had responded to these offers of a compromise peace, they would perhaps have had a functioning state before radical Islam came to dominate their politics. It was radical Islamist and secular Palestinian militants, not the Jewish Lobby, that destroyed prospects for a compromise settlement.

If the US concluded that it no longer had a vital interest in the continued survival of the only democracy in the Middle East, those now attacking Western modernity might conclude that the Americans could be convinced that the defence of Europe – and Britain – was also not in the American interest.

Jeffrey Herf & Andrei Markovits
University of Maryland & University of Michigan

Perhaps you know, perhaps you don’t, that the longer, unedited version of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s essay posted on Harvard and Chicago University websites is being distributed by the PLO in Washington, and is being hailed by AbdulMoneim Abul-Fotouh, a senior member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and by David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader. He had this to say about it: ‘I have read about the report and read one summary already, and I am surprised how excellent it is. It is quite satisfying to see a body in the premier American University essentially come out and validate every major point I have been making since before the war even started.’ He added that ‘the task before us is to wrest control of America’s foreign policy and critical junctures of media from the Jewish extremist neo-cons that seek to lead us into what they expectantly call World War Four.’ I don’t want to be in such company, and neither should you. Please cancel my subscription.

Michael Taylor
Old Malton, North Yorkshire

She had a habit

Jenny Diski suggests that the ‘devoted, domestically driven’ Martha Freud’s ‘fixed and unfaltering smile’ may have been the result of a heavy cocaine habit (LRB, 23 March). But what could it possibly say about Freud’s desire that he ended up with this particular woman? ‘In the 53 years of our marriage there was not a single angry word between us,’ she said. This suggests some quite other form of marital anaesthetisation.

Chris Oakley
London NW3

Red Science

In his discussion of J.D. Bernal (LRB, 9 March) Eric Hobsbawm writes: ‘In 1945-46 the wartime insider once again became the Communist outsider and potential traitor, though the establishment had more trouble in getting used to the transition than George Orwell, who lost no time in denouncing Bernal’s Stalinism and “slovenly style".’ Since Hobsbawm goes on to say that Bernal ruled himself out of any further connection with ‘the establishment’, it is hard to see how that ‘establishment’ can have had ‘more’ trouble than Orwell did. Hobsbawm must be referring to Orwell’s unsigned editorial on behalf of Polemic, the magazine edited by Humphrey Slater, Bertrand Russell and A.J. Ayer. This publication of the independent left had been attacked in the Communist Modern Quarterly in December 1945, for the interesting offence of ‘trying to break down the difference between right and wrong’. The same issue of the MQ contained an essay by Bernal, replete with Stalinist euphemisms, which illustrated those differences in what might be termed a dogmatic way. Orwell responded to both MQ and Bernal in May 1946, and drew a connection between their politics and the ‘pompous and slovenly’ style with which Bernal in particular gave himself away.

Bernal had been invited to contribute to the first two issues of Polemic and was further invited to respond on this occasion. When invited by Orwell to contribute a talk for the Indian Service of the BBC in 1942, he accepted and then declined. With Polemic, he simply declined. In his own hard-to-read sentence, Hobsbawm conveys the impression that Orwell’s ‘denouncing’ of Bernal came from nowhere, whereas the facts of the case are the opposite, as he must know from having read and quoted the Polemic editorial. It seems we are not quite out of the Stalinist wood, or langue de bois if you prefer.

Christopher Hitchens
Washington DC


It is difficult to believe that Tariq Ali would knowingly harm the cause of liberty in Burma, but that is what he does by choosing to use the regime’s name for the country, Myanmar, in his Diary (LRB, 9 March). That Amnesty International and the UN also do is, of course, to their disgrace.

Basil Morley
Skerray, Sutherland

Behind the Sandwall

Zakaria Fatih’s criticism of Jeremy Harding’s review of my book on Western Sahara repeats several of the contortions integral to the Moroccan government line on the conflict (Letters, 23 March). The Sahrawi struggle for self-determination began several years before Algeria started supporting Polisario. Indeed, Polisario (and its precursor) began life struggling against Spanish occupation of the territory, only turning on Morocco after the 1975 invasion. Algeria has supported Polisario and the Sahrawi refugee community diplomatically and materially but holds little sway in the bulk of Western Sahara, which Morocco occupies. Yet it is precisely in the areas nominally under Rabat’s control that opposition to Morocco is currently at its most intense, with a civil uprising that began in May last year. My visits to the Western Sahara and interviews with civil rights activists there have convinced me that the Sahrawis under Moroccan rule are autonomous political actors. Some of them are closely aligned to Polisario, but many are critical of the movement. However, as far as I can tell, the majority support the demand for self-determination. The issue is not whether the territory belongs to Polisario, but that it belongs to the Sahrawis: their claim to it continues to be frustrated by indifference and partisan interests on the UN Security Council. Morocco has never been able publicly to concede that there is Sahrawi opposition to its rule. Thus, resistance in the occupied territory is ascribed to Polisario, while Polisario has been depicted variously as imported Cuban and Vietnamese fighters, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, allies of Ahmed Jibril’s PFLP General Command, an opportunity for al-Qaida to gain a foothold in the Sahel – in other words, any bogeyman Europe and the US might buy.

Toby Shelley
London SE1

Arthur Cravan’s Newsround

Arthur Cravan, whose many lives, both real and rumoured, were discussed by Charles Nicholl (LRB, 9 March), makes an appearance in the Autobiography of William Carlos Williams.

Once Mina invited me to meet John Craven [another alias, or an inaccuracy on Williams’s part?]. I was a bit late and the small room was already crowded – by Frenchmen mostly. I remember, of course, Marcel Duchamp. At the end of the room was a French girl, of say eighteen or less, attended by some older woman. She lay reclining upon a divan, her legs straight out before her, surrounded by young men who had each a portion of her body in his possession which he caressed attentively, apparently unconscious of any rival …

I looked and turned to Mina. But she was engrossed with Craven. I was introduced to the man after a drink or two and in the end wandered wearily home as was my wont.

Later Mina married Craven and went to Central America with him where he bought and rebuilt a seagoing craft of some sort. One evening, having triumphantly finished his job, he got into it to try it out in the bay before supper. He never returned. Pregnant on the shore, she watched the small ship move steadily away into the distance. For years she thought to see him again – that was how long ago? What? Thirty-five years. He was reputed to be a son of Oscar Wilde and had been a capable boxer and boxed in fact with Jack Johnson once in Spain.

Judging by other references to Mina Loy in the Autobiography, it is doubtful that Williams heard this account of Cravan’s disappearance from Mina herself; he was more likely recycling the buzz about the incident making the rounds of friends and admirers she still had in New York, of whom Williams was one, along with Bob Brown, who fictionalised Cravan in You Gotta Live. Considering the other inaccuracies in his retelling of the story, Williams obviously cannot be cited in evidence of how Cravan actually vanished.

James Mishalani
University of Washington

Rimbaud, Verlaine, the Fish and the House

The Hotel Splendide sign at 25 Mornington Crescent is a bit of a mystery but it seems unlikely to be the hotel mentioned by Rimbaud, as Gary Lachman speculates (Letters, 23 March). The address is not listed as a hotel in any directory, and the 1874 Camden and Kentish Town directory lists it as the Excise Branch of the Inland Revenue. The sign does not appear in a photograph taken in 1906. A possible answer is that it was a film set. The building appeared in The Gentle Gunman (1952) as a flat used by an IRA gunman.

Lesley Marshall
Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, London WC1

Don’t get mad, get even

Malcolm Bull claimed that John Rawls takes it to be ‘legitimate to possess strategic nuclear weapons and threaten to use them against civilian populations, committing who knows how many forms of genocide in the process’ (LRB, 9 February). There are multiple questions of possible moral legitimacy here: at least those relating to bare possession, to a foreign policy overtly threatening nuclear force against civilian populations, and to the exploding of bombs that cause genocide. For Rawls, even the legitimacy of bare possession is doubly conditioned, requiring both the existence of outlaw states posing a credible serious threat, and moral standing on the part of the possessor. Rawls would condemn as criminal an imperialist state attempting to dominate others through an aggressive foreign policy predicated on threatened nuclear force. A state’s engaging in such a policy would count against it being held that its possession of nukes was legitimate. It is, in addition, obvious that for Rawls the burden of argument in favour of any deployment of nuclear weapons is extraordinarily high.

As his reply to my earlier letter makes clear (Letters, 23 March), Bull is relying on the paragraph in the introduction to The Law of Peoples in which Rawls claims that given the existence of outlaw states it is reasonable for liberal and decent regimes to retain nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Rawls goes directly on to state that this stance on legitimate possession doesn’t decide in advance ‘the great moral question of whether, and in what circumstances, nuclear weapons can be used at all’. This shows that, on Rawls’s view, the legitimate possession of nuclear weapons gives no clearly entailed right to deploy and explode them, even in dire circumstances. That question, which Rawls takes to be a difficult one, simply isn’t decided by Rawlsian just war theory. So, plainly, Rawls doesn’t take there to be an entailed broad right to use nuclear weapons against civilians, let alone in ways that are likely or certain to be genocidal. It is of course possible to mount a rhetorically strident defence of grave wrongs using the language of just war theory in its Rawlsian vein. But that fact doesn’t impugn the theory or the thinker. Perhaps Rawls is too impressed with the Nazi case, and perhaps he’s a naive liberal, but he is, to my mind, not even implicitly a defender of genocide.

Evan Riley
University of Pittsburgh

On First Shooting Partridge

As a sometime bird hunter and full-time Texan, I appreciate Russell Seitz’s downplaying of my fellow hunters’ armaments (Letters, 23 March). But I don’t think any survey would bear out his argument that gun-toting bird-hunting Texans ‘make do, for both sport and safety’s sake, with diminutive 28-bores and the pin-head shot that spared Worthington’s life’. In fact, the 12-bore with small shot is probably the most commonly used gun for hunting birds in general, with the shot increasing in size and the shell increasing in length and power as one goes after larger and higher-flying waterfowl. One of the most recent fads is the rediscovered 10-bore with long, powerful shells for hunting geese at higher altitudes. That Cheney was hunting with a 28-bore gun and less powerful shot suggests that he hunts with a more ‘sporting’ gauge than many.

James Hannah
Doha, Qatar and East Texas

Opacity Quotient

Damian Grant wonders ‘what, in the name of Google, an eigenvector is’ (Letters, 23 March), which prompted me to wonder if he would have written his letter had he instead been wondering what, say, ottava rima is. Every time Grant switches on a light or sits behind the wheel of a car he is using hundreds of thousands of eigenvectors patiently worked out by wiser people for his benefit. If he had taken the trouble to type ‘eigenvector’ into Google, the eigenvector-ranked pages it would have found would have offered him a detailed explanation.

Adrian Bowyer
University of Bath

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