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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Realist fantasies?

I finally got around to reading "The Israel Lobby," a controversial piece published in the London Review of Books, March 23, 2006, by John Mearsheimer of University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard.

The article has been much-discussed and raises all sorts of interesting empirical claims and substantive arguments. Mearsheimer and Walt, recall, authored a much-read article in advance of the Iraq war arguing that the looming military confrontation was unnecessary -- and likely a bad idea.

Since they are realists who believe that most states behave according to realist logic most of the time, the Iraq war poses something of a puzzle. Why did the US go to war? Their answer: it served the purposes of the Israeli lobby. Domestic interests, acting virtually as foreign agents, took the US into war against Iraq.

Despite this remarkable claim, and others, I am most interested in the authors' great emphasis on public debate.

Controlling the public debate is one of "the Lobby's" central strategic purposes, according to Mearsheimer and Walt.
it strives to ensure that public discourse portrays Israel in a positive light, by repeating myths about its founding and by promoting its point of view in policy debates. The goal is to prevent critical comments from getting a fair hearing in the political arena.
The Lobby uses its influence to control debate in Congress as well.
The Lobby doesn’t want an open debate, of course, because that might lead Americans to question the level of support they provide. Accordingly, pro-Israel organisations work hard to influence the institutions that do most to shape popular opinion.
The authors provide some evidence that the Lobby manages to dominate think tanks and media outlets and is working to stifle open debate on college campuses.

Here's the punchline -- and remember they're supposed to be hard-nosed realists, not "fantasy theorists" interested in public deliberation:
the Lobby’s campaign to quash debate about Israel is unhealthy for democracy. Silencing sceptics by organising blacklists and boycotts – or by suggesting that critics are anti-semites – violates the principle of open debate on which democracy depends. The inability of Congress to conduct a genuine debate on these important issues paralyses the entire process of democratic deliberation. Israel’s backers should be free to make their case and to challenge those who disagree with them, but efforts to stifle debate by intimidation must be roundly condemned....

Although the Lobby remains a powerful force, the adverse effects of its influence are increasingly difficult to hide. Powerful states can maintain flawed policies for quite some time, but reality cannot be ignored for ever. What is needed is a candid discussion of the Lobby’s influence and a more open debate about US interests in this vital region. Israel’s well-being is one of those interests, but its continued occupation of the West Bank and its broader regional agenda are not. Open debate will expose the limits of the strategic and moral case for one-sided US support and could move the US to a position more consistent with its own national interest, with the interests of the other states in the region, and with Israel’s long-term interests as well.
A more complete version of this article is available at a Harvard website, as is a critique penned by Alan Dershowitz.

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