Thursday, May 28, 2009

The “Israel Lobby” and American Politics

Robert Lieberman, at the new Perspectives on Politics, offers a powerful empirical political analysis of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer's controversial book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. See Robert Lieberman, "The “Israel Lobby” and American Politics." The article's behind a subscription firewall, but I can give readers some flavor here. There's a response from Mearsheimer and Walt as well, but I'll save that for a later post. Here's Lieberman:

Why does the United States support Israel so strongly when that support appears to violate American national interests? In their recent book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argue that Israel is of little strategic value to American interests and that the moral case for supporting Israel is weak at best. They then argue that this apparent distortion in American foreign policy is due to the extraordinary influence of pro-Israel groups and individuals—a collection of actors they dub the “Israel lobby”—in American domestic politics. Not surprisingly, this book and the article that preceded it have provoked a great deal of criticism, as well as a fair amount of praise, focused largely on the merits of the book’s foreign policy argument. Much less attention has been paid, however, to their core argument, which consists of a set of causal claims about American politics and policymaking. In this article I examine this argument and conclude that the case for an “Israel lobby” as the primary cause of American support for Israel, although it points to a number of interesting questions about the mechanisms of power in American politics, is weak at best.

I treat Mearsheimer and Walt’s work as an exercise in the study of American politics, in which they attempt to mount an argument about the reasons for a particular set of American policy choices and the possible influence of an interest group in guiding those choices in the context of American policymaking institutions. My focus is exclusively on this part of their argument, and not on their assessment of American foreign policy toward Israel and the Middle East. I ask three sets of questions about their argument. First, what, exactly, are their causal claims? By what mechanisms do they suggest that pro-Israel individuals and organizations influence policy outcomes? What are their hypotheses about the forces that shape American policy toward the Middle East? Second, what does political science have to say about these mechanisms? Many of the political processes that Mearsheimer and Walt discuss have, of course, been the subject of extensive research by scholars of American politics. What guidance can the discipline’s state-of-the-art knowledge about policymaking in the American political system give us in evaluating their argument? And finally, what kind of evidence would be necessary to substantiate their hypotheses? Do Mearsheimer and Walt provide such evidence? What might systematic empirical tests of their claims look like?

How does their argument hold up when subjected to this kind of critical scrutiny? Not well. Their causal claims about American politics are often illogical or impossibly vague, are almost never supported by dispositive evidence, and frequently contradict well-established research findings in American politics. I begin by describing their argument in some detail in order to expose the argument’s theoretical underpinnings and discern the causal hypotheses that they explore. I then zero in on these causal claims and examine Mearsheimer and Walt’s treatment of them—the logic by which they submit these hypotheses to critical tests, the evidence they use to test them, and alternative approaches that might illuminate the problems they address. My primary purpose is to unpack and evaluate Mearsheimer and Walt’s claims about influence on American policymaking and not to propose and test a fully fledged alternative argument about the links between the activities of pro-Israel individuals and organizations and American foreign policy. To the extent that there are conventional standards for making causal inferences from empirical observations about influence in American politics, Mearsheimer and Walt generally fail to meet them. I note, however, that their argument involves claims not only about the lobby’s direct influence on policy outcomes but also about its ability to shape the policy agenda through the stifling of open debate and discourse in the United States about Israel and American policy toward Israel. These more subtle mechanisms of power are considerably harder to observe and there is no consensus among scholars of American politics about how to demonstrate their effects. Nevertheless, they offer a provocative and suggestive account of political influence that merits careful attention.
Notice how Lieberman finds that the arguments in The Israel Lobby are "almost never supported by dispositive evidence."

Frankly, I was shaking my head reading the book, especially chapter 3, "A Dwindling Moral Case." Mearsheimer and Walt mean a "dwindling moral case" for U.S. support for Israel, but reading the book it's hard not to see the authors as arguing the "dwindling moral case" for the existence of Israel. And that's why Lieberman's piece is so valuable. Mearsheimer and Walt are political scientists. But their work has been the focus of intense criticism outside of academe. One thing that Lieberman indicates is that Mearsheimer and Walt really do single out Jews as at the center of The Israel Lobby, at the expense of alternative interest-group actors likely to have just as important an influence on U.S. Middle East Policy.

For example,
Lieberman dissects Mearsheimer and Walt's contention that The Israel Lobby enjoys inordinate influence in presidential elections:

Here the contention is that Jewish voters are decisive in presidential election—that the outcome of the election hangs, at least in part, on their vote choices and, presumably, that these vote choices depend on the stances or records of the candidates toward Israel. If, in fact, Jewish (or pro-Israel) voters ever cast the decisive votes in presidential elections, then it might be reasonable to expect more pro-Israel policies from the ensuing administrations than from administrations in which Jewish voters were not decisive—assuming, that is, that it is reasonable to equate “Jewish” and “pro-Israel” votes. Once again, the argument slides from a broader claim about the Israel lobby to more particular claims about Jewish voters; they do not discuss the potential electoral influence of evangelical “Christian Zionists” as a factor in pro-Israel electoral pressure, although such voters have received a great deal of attention in recent years as a powerful and decisive force in American politics.9 They also seem, once again, to ignore their own precaution against assuming that pro-Israel policies are of high importance to all American Jews.
Lieberman's argument is way more complicated than this. He subjects the electoral arguments in The Israel Lobby to empirical analysis. And he digs down into a number of issues specific to congressional policymaking as well. He finds the book wanting, and bad.

Lieberman also addresses Mearsheimer and Walt's thesis that the lobby attacks "Anyone who criticizes Israeli actions or says that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over U.S. Middle East policy stands a good chance of being labeled an anti-Semite." But as Lieberman indicates, there's little empirical support for the claim, other than a few high profile examples (Jimmy Carter, Francis Fukuyama):

In most of these high-profile cases, as they also point out, the tactic was singularly unsuccessful as a means of silencing its intended targets (195–96). More to the point, however, they offer very little in the way of systematic empirical analysis that shows a causal connection between this threat and the behavior of would-be critics of Israel or American policy toward Israel.
After additional testing, Lieberman concludes:

It is quite clear that the book’s argument does not support Mearsheimer and Walt’s central contention, that the existence and activities of an Israel lobby are the primary causes of American policy in the Middle East. The claim is supported neither by logic nor evidence nor even a rudimentary understanding of how the American policymaking system works. Several questions remain, however. If the unified Israel lobby of Mearsheimer and Walt’s analysis is not the prime mover in shaping American foreign policy toward the Middle East, what alternative explanations might account for these policy outcomes?
I'll update with more on this debate later.

But before I close, I want to remind readers of the backlash I received from some trolling Israel-bashers at my earlier post, "
William Robinson, UCSB Sociology Professor, Compares Israel to the Nazis."

Especially interesting was this cat called "Infensus Mentis." He writes the blog, "Crimes of Zion." A typical post there is like this one, "
AIPAC Caught Meddling in U.S. Foreign Policy - Yet Again."

This guy's method is to launch preemptive attacks of distortion and slander, and then to shortcut any criticism of his slurs by bewailing, "
Don't worry, I know, I know - I'm an "anti-Semite", right?"

Unfortunately, the flawed work of Mearsheimer and Walt pumps-up such anti-Semitic folks with an outlandish sense of moral righteosness. It's pretty awful, really.


Rusty Walker said...

One of the great injustices of the world today is the Islamic fundamentalist notion that that tiny, powerful and successful country should be destroyed. The Obama Administration, through empty rhetoric and no action, is allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons, while he apologizes and extends hands to these American flag burning thugs. Any serious student of history knows what the Jews have had to deal with while they lovingly raised their children with morals, ethics, and education, became successful wherever they were, and faced ridicule and persecution. The bleeding heart, empathetic left loves an underdog, they are forgetting the true underdog: Israel. The Jews deserve America's backing.

AmPowerBlog said...

Great comments, Rusty!

Thanks for visiting!

Tapline said...

Douglas, Outstanding Post....I however have a much different slant on our love affair with Israel.....Wrong????it might be, but we are still,(no matter how many people, including the president) do not think so..We are a Christian Nation.....and The Jews are, whether we like it or not are God's Chosen People and we know it. I for one would not want to suffer God's wrath, by turning my back on that Nation....nieve (sp) maybe.....but...stay well....

AmPowerBlog said...

Thanks Tapper!

dave in boca said...

As a US State Dept Arabist in the '70's, I was an "Israel Basher" of the first order, and much later became good friends with Chas Freeman, US Amb. to Saudi during the First Gulf War [I see the two GW's like episodes in a Hundred Years War]. Although I do know and am aware of the Israeli Lobby's strength [after leaving State, I was John Anderson's MidEast Advisor in the "80 Campaign & discovered most of JA's funding was from "Jewish" organizations], I am now glad the Lobby helped excise the Carter wart from the US govt's nether regions. Carter was a serial eff-up and now hates Israel because between Teddy K. & John A., their lobby spearheaded his loss to Reagan, whom they saw as more compliant & pro-Israel in the fundamental sense of pro-democratic.

As an Amoco Strategic Planner, I got invited by Shimon Peres to a three-hour "lunch" on the Dead Sea & I was strongly rebuked the next day by the Israeli Oil Minister Chacal, who doubled as the Police Minister & had bugged Peres's hotel room on the Dead Sea Riviera!!! I was escorted by the head of Shin Bet because the Israelis were mad about getting their own oil & gas from Amoco in the middle of the biggest oil patch on Earth.

It took a long time for me to understand the essential difference between a democracy, untidy as it is, like Israel, and the brutal misogynist oligarchies in the Islamic crescent surrounding the small island of semi-sanity called Israel.

9/11 sealed the deal for me, and since then I regard well-meaning guys like Chas Freeman as a "Fifth Columnist" in a campaign to justify the unjustifiable aggressive nature of "The Straight Path." War & Aggression are built in the DNA of Islam, and my long stays in both India & Pakistan also convinced my of the almost unviable nature of "Islamic Democracy." The Indian elections last week again proved that a sloppy democracy is better than a clan-dominated praetorian Islamic hodge-podge like Pakistan.

Mutatis mutandis, the same holds true for the "Fertile Crescent."

AmPowerBlog said...

Man, that's some inside baseball, Dave! Thanks bro!

LFC said...

Re Dave in Boca's comments:
1)The main factors in Carter's loss to Reagan were the economy and the hostage crisis having persuaded voters (wrongly or rightly) that Carter was weak and incompetent. Plus Volcker's raising of interest rates to combat inflation made the short-term economic situation much worse, further hurting Carter. The Israel Lobby might have opposed Carter but his defeat would have occurred even if the Lobby had never existed.
2)"war and aggression are built into the DNA of Islam" -- I think if you look at the various versions of Islam and how they are expressed politically, this kind of blanket statement is completely without foundation. That DD lets it pass on his blog without comment or reaction speaks volumes about DD, none of it favorable.

LFC said...

I just read the abstract of the Lieberman article. Why is it, DD, that you don't mention the last part of the abstract? I would urge people to read the abstract and/or article for themselves.

courtneyme109 said...

Little Satan's new ambassador Dr Oren says that academia is driving a wicked wedge into the idea of Little Satan being a real, legit nation state.

"Since the mid-1970s, Israel’s enemies have waged an increasingly successful campaign of delegitimizing Israel in world forums, intellectual and academic circles, and the press. The campaign has sought to depict Israel as a racist, colonialist state that proffers extraordinary rights to its Jewish citizens and denies fundamental freedoms to the Arabs.

These accusations have found their way into standard textbooks on the Middle East and have become part of the daily discourse at the United Nations and other influential international organizations.

Most recently, Israel has been depicted as an apartheid state, effectively comparing the Jewish State to South Africa under its former white supremacist regime.
Many of Israel’s counterterrorism efforts are branded as war crimes, and Israeli generals are indicted by foreign courts."

Mearsheimer and Walt's "Little Satan Posse" book has also been literally shot to pieces since it came out (indeed Harvard withdrew their logo from it) and critics have taken it down a notch or two.

None of that seems to matter to Little Satan hating members of academia or their myriad fanboys.

dave in boca said...

LDC seems to have misunderstood the way US elections are based on media---Carter of course was a menace to the US economy & with the Panama Canal giveaway & Camp David kabuki theater, also a meddlesome danger to our national security. The end of the Cold War might never have happened had not the USSR rightly perceived Jimmy's gimpy weakness & pushed into Afghanistan [where my good friend "Spike" Dubs, the US Ambassador, was murdered by Soviet Military Intelligence assassins, all on Carter's watch and without a bleat from this terminal lamb of a POTUS].

Israel rightly saw JEC as a menace to their own security and sicced lapdog Teddy Kennedy to attack him on the Left and John Anderson on the Right just to let the national media know that the Lobby didn't like him. I said "spearheaded," which means was at the head of the phalanx of non-Republican forces that thought [and remain convinced] that this wooly-headed freak is anything but a limp wrist waiting to be slapped.

As for the DNA of Islam, I suggest he/she peruse the 114 Suras of the Koran, assembled a century after Mohammed's death, and not recognize an aggressive military culture embedded within many if not most of the Suras.

I think if you look at the various versions of Islam and how they are expressed politically, this kind of blanket statement is completely without foundation Hmmm.... Sounds like what a victim of academicide would say if he/she hadn't actually lived in Islamic societies [as well as Lebanon] as I have. Nice Ivory Tower BS, LFC.

The political expressions of Islamic countries, even "slightly" Islamic ones like Indonesia where I have been many times, rarely can sustain democracy except episodically. Most are either praetorian states like Egypt, Syria, Pakistan or theocratic monarchies or mini-monarchies.

LDC should try living in an Islamic state. Turkey might approach democracy, but in my dozen visits to that country I found that the countryside was barely developed politically and still ran on religious codes with a military Ataturk police state supervising.

LFC said...

You're confusing two separate (albeit not completely unrelated) issues:
1)the connection between Islam and war/aggression;
2)the connection between Islam and democracy.
My point had to do with (1) not (2).
(And by the way, I have lived in a Muslim country. I lived in Bangladesh when it was E. Pakistan and returned for a visit in more recent years. Perhaps I've missed something, but I don't believe that Bangladesh, since its creation in 1971, has attacked a neighboring country.)

dave in boca said...

Maybe LFC doesn't understand that most of the wars in the Middle East have little or nothing to do with Israel. Were he more acquainted with Islamic history, he'd know that the number of civil wars among clans and the endless border wars between Persia & the Ottoman Empire were internecine wars. Just like the ones between Saudi Arabia and Yemen that spawned 9/11, as Osama bin Ladin is a Yemeni-origin recidivist who has irredentist designs on the parts of Yemen SA "stole" in 1930, and 11 of the 15 Saudi visa-carrying 9/11 perps were of Yemeni ethnic origin.

Of course Bangladesh didn't have any wars because it was surrounded by non-Muslim countries STRONGER than itself, and it did have a bloody war with "West" Pakistan if LFC cared to look it up.

And try reading the Koran, which tells you just what an aggressive misogynist religion will do---basically LFC should go back and try reading history. Islam is a warlike religion unless the surrounding countries and culture are stronger.

Most Arab armies are at war with their own people, which LFC might discover if he travelled in the OIC & Arab League countries.

Military & theocratic warrior states with no democracy, QED.

Dave said...

The ignorance of the Bible that exists today is astounding to me.

I hate to break it to the Jew-haters of the world, Arab or otherwise, but Israel as a nation is here to stay.

It's ultimate fate was written down several thousand years ago, when it was foretold that the nation granted to the world's smallest minority by God himself was going to reform for a third time, and once re-established, the Jewish people would never lose it again.


Its all there in black and white.


Infensus Mentis said...

"Frankly, I was shaking my head reading the book, especially chapter 3, "A Dwindling Moral Case." Mearsheimer and Walt mean a "dwindling moral case" for U.S. support for Israel, but reading the book it's hard not to see the authors as arguing the "dwindling moral case" for the existence of Israel. And that's why Lieberman's piece is so valuable. Mearsheimer and Walt are political scientists. But their work has been the focus of intense criticism outside of academe. One thing that Lieberman indicates is that Mearsheimer and Walt really do single out Jews as at the center of The Israel Lobby, at the expense of alternative interest-group actors likely to have just as important an influence on U.S. Middle East Policy."

"Single out Jews" is exactly what Walt and Mearsheimer don't do in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which I've read and which I own a copy of, but those who take offense at criticism of Israel or Israeli policy will see anti-Semitism at every turn. This is why Robinson finds it 'hard' to believe that Walt and Mearsheimer don't want Israel wiped off the map.

The authors define the Lobby broadly as a "loose coalition of individuals and organisations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction." The Lobby is correctly described by the authors as consisting of both Jews and gentiles, and they stress this point, yet Robinson claims that Jews are 'singled out' without providing a quote from the book - which he claims to have read - to illustrate his point.

Walt and Mearsheimer are actually supporters of Israel, and this is made clear to anyone who reads the book. As American patriots and objective scholars, they are merely pointing out the fact that unconditional support for Israel is in many cases not in America's best interests. But neocons like Robinson whose tolerance threshold for criticism of Israel is zero will see right past that into an ugly abyss of "anti-Semitism", created wholly in the dark, pre-conditioned recesses of their own silly, Zionist minds.

See the list of links below this blog for some decent articles about the Israel lobby. And before you go whining about me linking back to my own blog Robinson, just remember that I've heard that one before when you lost the debate bigtime in this thread. Someone has to balance out the bias here at this neoconservative sh*thole.