Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer laid out the ostensible thesis of %%AMAZON=0374177724 The Israel Lobby%% last year in an article of the same name published in the London Review of Books. They wrote that, “For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centerpiece of US Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel.”
This is false. Washington’s relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in which we protect the world’s largest known reserves of oil to ensure the stability of global markets, has since the mid-1930s been the US’s vital regional interest and arguably the most important American interest save homeland security. This fact may be easily impressed upon the intellect of any American who has been in a car, but Walt and Mearsheimer are less interested in the strategic realities of US Middle East policy than in painting in broad strokes the background to events of the last few years. In effect, the authors of The Israel Lobby are trying to explain why the world has gone crazy.
Both scholars are products of the realist school of International Relations theory, which holds that states are self-interested rational actors. With The Israel Lobby, they want to show why the US government went off the rails, especially regarding the invasion of Iraq. From Walt and Mearsheimer’s point of view, Saddam Hussein’s regime had been contained and posed no immediate threat to the US, and war against an Arab nationalist dictator was a distraction from the war on Islamist terror. Since realism holds that states are rational actors – and even Saddam, though cruel, was not irrational – the only explanation for the US’s patently irrational decision to depose him is that some non-state actor must have gummed up the machinery.
Once Walt and Mearsheimer are able to identify the cause for American irrationality – not the Jewish state, but the lobby for the Jewish state – they walk their thesis backward in time to the ’67 war when, in their account, this deeply irrational relationship began. But here is one sticking point among many that Walt and Mearsheimer cannot account for: If realism holds that states act rationally in pursuit of their own interests, then how did Washington get away with acting irrationally for forty years? Either Washington has not acted irrationally, or Walt and Mearsheimer’s realist model is irrational, or both.
The notion that states are rational actors is grounded in yet another convention – that there is something called an international system and it is based on respect for state sovereignty. Scholars and IR theorists often derive this principle from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 when treaties concluding the thirty and eighty years wars enshrined ideas like the equality between states, the right to self-determination and non-intervention. Though wars set state interests against each other, the so-called Westphalian system itself is relatively immune to internal challenges to its logic. Indeed, the creation of new states in the aftermath of the First and Second World Wars enhanced the notion of state sovereignty even if many of these newfangled political institutions, like Iraq, did not have the cohesive identity that held together European nation-states. The genuine threat to the international order, as the paranoid worldview contends, comes from non-state actors, like the pope, communism, anarchism and, of course, international Jewry.
Consider the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document that only makes sense in the context of the international order of state sovereignty. The charge that the Jews killed Christ is ahistorical; that is, in the Christian scheme of things it is an accusation applicable at all times, or at least until the resurrection. However, the belief that Jews have dual loyalties arises at a particular historical moment – when political sovereignty is invested in the idea of the state. By definition, a Jew cannot be either loyal or disloyal to, say, the Catholic Church; a Jew can only betray a political body defined primarily by something other than religious belief, like the European nation-state.
Islam, a political order and a revealed religion, accounted for this issue by relegating both Jews and Christians to the status of second-class citizens, dhimmis: Obviously the infidels do not owe their chief loyalty to the commander of the faithful so they will be accorded very limited power or none at all. It is only under the international system that the question arises: What would happen if Jews got power? With loyalty only to the narrow interests of their tribe, Jews would make sure everything turned out well for Jews across the world, no matter how much blood and treasure it costs anyone else as the rational order of states comes crashing down around us all – all except for the Jews.
The key difference between most anti-Semitic tracts of the pre-Holocaust period and The Israel Lobby is Israel itself; after all, Zionism, arises under the same auspices as the Protocols – the international system of state sovereignty. Theodor Herzl believed that once the Jews had a state of their own and the Jews could take their place among nations, the Jewish problem would go away and Jews would become like everyone else. However, as The Israel Lobby shows, the irrational obsession with Israel as the root of all problems in the Middle East and US policy there, the willful misrepresentation of Israeli policies, and holding the Jewish state to standards in war and peace that not even the United States cares to observe, never mind, say, the Islamic Republic of Iran – Herzl on this count at least was wrong. A Jewish state has done nothing to curtail anti-Semitism.
Hence, Zionism’s great achievement partakes of the assumption that anti-Semitism will always exist. It gave Jews, for the first time in two thousand years, political and military power as a defense against those who rant about the “International Jew,” “Jewish influence,” the “Jewish Lobby” and their concomitants solutions to “the Jewish Question.” Hitler, it is true, is different from the Iranian president who advocates a “World Without Zionism,” but that is because the Jews have a state and an army to protect themselves and not because Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has neither Panzer tanks nor the Luftwaffe at his disposal.
It is curious that Walt and Mearsheimer maintain that the US would have a good relationship with a state like the Islamic Republic of Iran were it not for the Israel lobby and the narrow self-interest of this non-state actor. What makes their belief so odd is not just Tehran’s genocidal rhetoric, or that the Iranians have been clear about their intentions towards American interests and allies in the region – US hegemony in the Persian Gulf, threats against the Sunni Arab powers as well as Israel – nor even the fact that Iran has effectively been at war with the US since the ’79 revolution. No, rather it is that IRI’s project for the Middle East is a direct assault on the theoretical conceit on which Walt and Mearsheimer have built their careers.
In Iraq, Iranian assets are determined to tear Iraq to pieces; in Lebanon, Iran’s client Hezbollah has created a state within a state; and in Gaza, the Iranian-funded Hamas has established an Islamic emirate that for now at least puts an end to any ideas about a Palestinian state. Iran is making a very cogent argument through force of arms and oil receipts that the international system of state sovereignty does not suit its rational self-interest. Why are Walt and Mearsheimer blind to the Iranian project for the Middle East? Because of the Israel lobby. The idea of Jewish power has made them irrational.
Lee Smith is a Washington, DC-based writer and visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute. He’s a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard on Middle East issues.