Monday, April 03, 2006

Israel and Moral Blackmail - The Israel lobby is bringing out the big guns

The reaction to a pathbreaking – or, rather, taboo-busting – study of how and why Israel's interests came to be substituted for America's national interests in Washington policymaking circles, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," [.pdf] by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, has confirmed, in part, its thesis.

"The Lobby," as the authors call it, effectively works to control the debate over our Israel-centric policy in the Middle East by ensuring that there is no debate. Congress has been captured through their exemplary use of pressure tactics, and the editorial pages of the nation's newspapers and magazines are also dominated by the Israel-Firsters, where the same imbalance prevails. In a hint of what these two distinguished scholars had to go through to get their study published, they aver: "It is hard to imagine any mainstream media outlet in the United States publishing a piece like this one."

It turns out that, before turning to Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government – where Walt is academic dean (albeit not for long) – they attempted to get a version of their study published in an American magazine:

"John Mearsheimer says that the pro-Israel lobby is so powerful that he and co-author Stephen Walt would never have been able to place their report in a American-based scientific publication. 'I do not believe that we could have gotten it published in the United States,' Mearsheimer told the Forward. He said that the paper was originally commissioned in the fall of 2002 by one of America's leading magazines, 'but the publishers told us that it was virtually impossible to get the piece published in the United States.' Most scholars, policymakers and journalists know that 'the whole subject of the Israel lobby and American foreign policy is a third-rail issue,' he said. 'Publishers understand that if they publish a piece like ours it would cause them all sorts of problems.'"

Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books – which published a shortened version – tells the Guardian that the piece "was originally written for, but rejected by, the Atlantic Monthly and picked up by the LRB, when Wilmers 'became aware of its existence.'"

In an important sense, then, it appears that, like Palestine, the American literary and political scene is Israeli-occupied territory. As Mearsheimer and Walt point out, academia, too, suffers from the pro-Israel version of the Inquisition, suffering extensive efforts to "police" campuses for evidence of "anti-Israel" sentiments. As if to verify this charge, the authors have run smack up against the campus Thought Police, with Harvard University taking the unusual step of pulling its logo from their piece, altering and making a boilerplate disclaimer more prominent, and finally announcing that Walt would be resigning shortly from his post as academic dean.

This question of Walt's resignation has aroused some interest – especially since it was made shortly after major Harvard contributor Robert Belfer (who gave $7.5 million to the Kennedy School in 1997) expressed his displeasure. This concatenation of events has occasioned a denial by Walt, who says that his stepping down had nothing to do with the controversy surrounding his work. This echoes the official statement put out by Harvard, as well as an e-mail to me by Melodie Jackson, the Kennedy School's director of communications and public affairs:

"There is no connection between the conclusion of Professor Walt's term as academic dean and the discussion around his recent paper. As agreed a year ago, professor Walt's term as academic dean will expire at the end of this academic year and has absolutely no connection to the current conversation around his paper."

Well, then, that's that – right? Move along, nothing to see here. But not quite. As the Harvard Crimson reports:

"[Kennedy School Dean David T.] Ellwood said that he sent an e-mail to Kennedy School faculty members on Feb. 21 – before the uproar over the article – informing them that Walt would end his term as academic dean in June. Ellwood said he also asked professors for recommendations regarding the search for the next academic dean.

"When asked to provide the Feb. 21 e-mail to The Crimson, Kennedy School spokeswoman Melodie Jackson declined to do so. …

"Walt's term as academic dean will be one year shorter than that of his predecessor, Frederick Schauer, who held the post from 1997 to 2002. Though Ellwood's statement made reference to a 'normal three-year cycle' of academic deans, three-year terms have not been the norm for administrators who have held that post in recent years.

"Ellwood himself held the post for a year before joining the Clinton administration in 1993, and he returned to the school in 1995 to serve a two-year term as academic dean. Alan A. Altshuler held the post for two years during Ellwood's absence. And before that, Albert Carnesale was the school's academic dean for a decade."

It seems clear that Walt, loyal to Harvard, and understandably not wanting to widen the breach between himself and the university administration, is stretching the truth, to put it charitably. He says the decision to alter the disclaimer and remove the Harvard logo from his work was made to correct a misimpression that the study was the work of "two Harvard researchers," and that their work constituted an "official report." However, I can't find a single news story about this brouhaha that falsely reports Professor Mearsheimer as resident at Harvard: all correctly describe him as a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

Furthermore, it is difficult to define what would constitute an "official report." Universities publish all sorts of research on a wide variety of topics, written from any number of perspectives: the decision to publish implies that the university has held the work to a high academic standard and found it at least acceptable, if not exemplary. It never constitutes "official" agreement with the views expressed therein.

It is undeniable that the Mearsheimer-Walt study was singled out for special treatment: out of all the "working papers" published by Harvard, only this one now lacks the university's logo. Only this one has special language appended to it putting the reader on notice that neither Harvard nor the University of Chicago "take positions on the scholarship of individual faculty." Ouch! If that isn't a slap in the face – impugning their scholarship – then I don't know what is. (Go here to see the difference between the treatment afforded the Mearsheimer-Walt "working paper" and others recently published.)

The controversy has certainly been as instructive as it's been ugly. Not only has the Lobby revealed itself by such a visible and vocal baring of its very pointed teeth, but we have also seen some remarkable alliances forged in its defense. Who would have thought that Christopher Hitchens would be on the same side of the barricades as Noam Chomsky? Not since the days of the Hitler-Stalin pact have we seen such a mind-blowing convergence.

Like that previous rapprochement, however, when you think about it, it makes perfect sense: after all, these two do have something in common – a monomaniacal focus on the military and political supremacy of the U.S. Chomsky sees it as a bad thing, while Hitchens sees it as a positive development, yet they come together in averring that the omnipotent warlords of Washington could not possibly have been captured by a foreign lobby. The former sees the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis as a diversion away from his anti-capitalist message and the "war for oil" spiel we are so used to hearing, while the latter derides as "smelly" the very idea that Israel had anything to do with us going to war against Iraq. Both go all the way back to the days of Dwight Eisenhower to chronicle incidents of U.S.-Israel disharmony. The problem with this argument is that the study says the consolidation of the Lobby's power was achieved much later, after the 1973 war. But ideologues have a habit of ignoring bothersome details.

While complimenting Mearsheimer and Walt for taking what he admits is a "courageous stand," Chomsky says he doesn't find their argument "very convincing." He attributes the causes of our Middle East policy of "regime change" and perpetual war to "strategic-economic interests of concentrations of domestic power in the tight state-corporate linkage," rather than the machinations of the Lobby. The proof? Haven't the oil companies made "profits beyond the dreams of avarice?" What more do we need to know?

Oh, and don't forget how Israel performed a great "service" for the evil American capitalists by "smashing secular Arab nationalism, which threatened to divert resources to domestic needs." Leaving aside the oddity of a professed "anarchist" like Chomsky pining for the "independent nationalism" of the "secular" Arab leaders, killers like Nasser and the Mesopotamian Ba'athists, the big problem for Chomsky and his co-thinkers on the Left is that their reasoning is dizzyingly circular. They ascribe everything to the machinations of a "corporate" cabal, but their case is stated in terms of the broadest generalities, leaving the details to the imagination.

It is the lack of details, however, that is most telling. Because wars are started not by abstract "forces" nor by ideological constructs floating in mid-air, but by individuals – not corporate entities, but specific government officials, their advisers and employees. One could say that, in the abstract, the "stovepiping" of false information about Iraq's alleged WMD was the result of late capitalism's moral corruption and the "class interests" of Scooter Libby, but most people would find such a formulation baffling – and it is certainly inadequate.

The question of how and why we were lied into war is a matter of fact, not ideology. Abstract "forces" had nothing to do with it: specific individuals carried out specific acts. The misinformation that was deliberately planted was produced not by decaying capitalism, but by the decayed moral sense of certain government officials. And I'd be very surprised if the Niger uranium forgeries were fabricated by capitalists in top hats.

The confluence of views on this matter between Chomsky and the War Party – not only Hitchens, but Martin Peretz, whose magazine, The New Republic, has long been the house organ of the Lobby – is, as the Marxists used to say, no accident. Peretz, too, wants to know why Mearsheimer and Walt give a free pass to Big Oil, not to mention the supposedly powerful Saudi lobby. What I want to know is where was the Saudi lobby when the U.S. decided to invade and occupy Iraq? Apparently they went missing in action. As for attributing the genesis of the war to oil companies, is the editor of The New Republic confessing, in public, that in all those long years of agitation for war with Iraq, his magazine was merely the instrument of "strategic-economic interests of concentrations of domestic power in the tight state-corporate linkage," as the Chomskyite jargon would phrase it?

Of all the commentary on this subject – and there has been a lot – the most rational, aside from Daniel Levy's, is to be found in a Financial Times editorial:

"Reflexes that ordinarily spring automatically to the defence of open debate and free enquiry shut down – at least among much of America's political elite – once the subject turns to Israel, and above all the pro-Israel lobby's role in shaping US foreign policy.

"Even though policy toward the Middle East is arguably the single biggest determinant of America's reputation in the world, any attempt to rethink this from first principles is politically risky.

"Examining the specific role of organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, commonly considered to be the most effective lobby group in the US apart from the National Rifle Association, is something to be undertaken with caution."

The Lobby has nothing to worry about from the Noam Chomskys of this world. No amount of evidence can prove the Chomskyite case that abstract economic forces somehow unleashed the U.S. military on the people of Iraq, and are now threatening Iran with more of the same. In this way, the real culprits are let off the hook, while popular ire is directed at a conjuration of shadows.

Any attempt to cut through this smokescreen is met with an organized campaign of calumny, exemplified by the smears aimed at Mearsheimer and Walt. Alan Dershowitz screeches that the Harvard paper is the equivalent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and virtually every news story about the matter mentions neo-Nazi David Duke in the same breath as the academic dean of the Kennedy School and his co-author, the foremost advocate of foreign policy "realism." The Financial Times rightly diagnoses the problem:

"Only a UK publication, the London Review of Books, was prepared to carry their critique, in the same way that it was Prospect, a British monthly journal, that four years ago published a path-breaking study of the Israel lobby by the American analyst, Michael Lind.

"Moral blackmail – the fear that any criticism of Israeli policy and US support for it will lead to charges of anti-Semitism – is a powerful disincentive to publish dissenting views. It is also leading to the silencing of policy debate on American university campuses, partly as the result of targeted campaigns against the dissenters."

I emphasize the phrase "moral blackmail" because it aptly characterizes what the foreign policy community and the people of the United States are being subjected to. As we awaken from the fever-dream induced by war propaganda and recover our senses, we look around at the disaster unfolding in the Middle East and ask: How did we get here? The Lobby is right to feel endangered by this question: several administration figures, including Douglas Feith, a former top Pentagon official, are being investigated for having unusually "close" relations with the government of Israel. The Larry Franklin spy case is not being prosecuted – against a veritable tsunami of criticism, including from the judge – for nothing.

As we learn more about the activities of Scooter Libby, and more indictments come down, the key role of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration as the sparkplugs who ignited this war will become as plain as the wart on Ahmed Chalabi's nose. To Hitchens and the rest of the neocon fellow travelers, this is merely "code" for "the Jews." This is the sort of moral blackmail that has always ended all discussion of this vitally important topic – but not anymore.

It is ridiculous to identify the neocons as somehow representative of Jewish opinion on matters of foreign policy: not only is this demonstrably false, but it is also indicative of real anti-Semitism. David Duke inveighs against "the Jewish neocons," and the Lobby echoes his rhetoric, albeit from the opposite perspective. Both argue that we ought to dispense with the "code words" and call a spade a spade. But this is nonsense: as Mearsheimer and Walt point out, the distortion of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East by the Lobby is no more in Israel's interest than it is in America's. Aside from that, the majority of American Jews are against this war, no doubt in greater proportion than the rest of the population.

The problem isn't "the Jews" – it's the Lobby. Until it is reined in by public awareness, and the appropriate legislation – which might start, for example, by requiring AIPAC to register as a foreign agent, like all the other lobbyists for foreign governments – the danger of a prolonged and widened war in the Middle East will continue unabated. Aside from that, however, what is needed is further investigation by Congress into the "faulty" intelligence that lured us into the Iraqi quagmire: I'd bet the ranch that a lot of it came directly from Tel Aviv to Washington.

I might add this dollop from the Financial Times editorial:

"Judgment of the precise value of the Walt-Mearsheimer paper has been swept aside by a wave of condemnation. Their scholarship has been derided and their motives impugned, while Harvard has energetically disassociated itself from their views. Mr Walt's position as academic dean of the Kennedy School is in doubt."

No one is buying Harvard's denials, least of all the Lobby. They glory in their power: note how the New York Sun, a house organ of the Israel-Firsters, was gloating all last week over the troubles inflicted on the authors of the Harvard study. The Lobby means business: like the Mafia, which likes to make an example of recalcitrants who fail to pay protection money, they want people to take notice of their ruthlessness. Fear prevents debate – and a real debate is what the Lobby can least afford.