Monday, February 18, 2008

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Reviewing the reviews of The Israel Lobby

I have a subscriber-only essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week that takes a critical look at the public critiques of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Longtime readers of the blog will not be surprised to learn that I have a mixed take:

Does the public understand how political science works? Or are political scientists the ones who need re-educating? Those questions have been running through my mind in light of the drubbing that John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt received in the American news media for their 2007 book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007). Pick your periodical — The Economist, Foreign Affairs, The Nation, National Review, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World — and you'll find a reviewer trashing the book.

From a political-science perspective, what's interesting about those reviews is that they are largely grounded in methodological critiques — which rarely break into the public sphere. What's disturbing is that the methodologies used in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy are hardly unique to Mearsheimer and Walt. Are the indictments of their book overblown, or do they expose the methodological flaws of the discipline in general?....

There is no doubt that Mearsheimer and Walt have captured a disproportionate meas-ure of criticism because they have targeted a high-profile dimension of American foreign policy. The public reviews of their work have been scathing, and some of them have been unfair. Nevertheless, in terms of methodology, The Israel Lobby has earned much of its criticism. Some of the criticism, however, applies not just to Mearsheimer and Walt, but to the discipline as a whole.

Space constraints prevented this section of the essay from appearing in the final version, so it seems worth putting it here:
What [Mearsheimer and Walt] do not do, however, is systematically compare Israel to similarly-situated countries in order to determine if the U.S.-Israeli relationship really is unique. An alternative, strategic explanation for the bilateral relationship would posit that Israel falls into a small set of countries: longstanding allies bordering one or multiple enduring rivals. The category of states that meet this criteria throughout the time period analyzed by Walt and Mearsheimer is relatively small: South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, and Pakistan.

Compared to these countries, the U.S. relationship with Israel does not look anomalous. All of these countries have been designated as major non-NATO allies (except for Turkey, a NATO member). Mearsheimer and Walt acknowledge that Turkey receives its aid in a similar manner to Israel; the New York Times recently revealed that Pakistan has received favorable terms as well. In the past decade the United States orchestrated IMF bailouts of South Korea and Turkey that dwarf annual aid flows. Sizable numbers of U.S. troops help to guard the demilitarized zone against North Korea, and the United States Navy takes an active interest in the Taiwan Straits. All four countries have prospered economically in recent years, and they have all frustrated the Bush administration in policy disputes. Despite this, the United States has demonstrated a willingness to expend blood and treasure to provide security for all of these countries – despite the wide variance in the strength of each country’s “lobby” in the United States.

On a related topic, Kevin Drum has an excellent post about conducting research on the web that political scientists and non-political scientists alike should read.

posted by Dan on 02.18.08 at 08:33 AM


I don't have a lot to say about Mearsheimer and Walt, but I wonder how useful Dan's "systematic comparison" really is. Frankly, it looks like a comparison of horses, ants and lizards that observes the presence of legs on all these creatures and concludes therefore that they are essentially the same kind of animal.

To observe only one difference obscured by Dan's comaprison, both the Clinton and Bush administrations felt able to convey strong public disapproval of actual or threatened steps taken by one of the governments he names that jeopardized important American interests -- for example, the proposal to declare Taiwan formally independent of China. In Congress as well, vigorous criticism of these governments (for example over Cyprus, or the proposed trade agreement with South Korea -- and, of course, Pakistan's ambivalent position toward Islamist terrorism) is not considered out of the ordinary.

Neither is true where Israel is concerned. This isn't a statement of criticism, of anyone. It's merely an observation of fact. Israeli settlements and their expansion on the West Bank are simply not routine objects of American criticism from either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, though they are manifestly unhelpful as far as our country's interests are concerned. Congressional criticism of any aspect of Israeli government policy, in fact, is unusual.

Were one to insist on looking at this in an academic way, one could fairly point out that the four countries Dan names are all much larger than Israel is; relations with all of them necessarily involve some issues that do not arise in American relations with a much smaller country like Israel. This distinction, however, doesn't do much to support Dan's argument, inasmuch as it suggests ways in which each of the other four countries are more important to the United States than Israel is, not less. Once again, I'm not commenting so much about Walt and Mearsheimer, or about whether American policy toward the Jewish state is correct. All I'm saying is that to conclude Israel's position in American foreign policy and public discussion of it is not anomalous one needs to overlook an awful lot of things.

posted by: Zathras on 02.18.08 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

Taiwan used to, and Turkey does, have big lobby efforts in Washington. The difference, of course, is that the Israeli lobby is mostly grasroots by US citizens, and the Taiwanese and Turkey lobby were bought and paid for. I'm not sure if that is better or worse.

South Korea has a huge emigrant community but for complicated reasons they tend not to lobby for the South Korean government.

Pakistan also has an active lobbying effort, but given that Pakistan is the 2nd most hated country in the US, that can only do so much.

I'd also include Egypt in that list, since even it is not a non-NATO ally, a large bulk of the money going there is a result of the situation in Isreal.

And what about Armenia? No US military ties, but a huge amount of money going into there as a result of ethnic politics.

I'd be curious to know how much of the book talks about the Irish and German lobbyies in the 19th century. The Irish lobby was small, isolated, and very effective is stopping US-UK ties. The German lobby was huge (50% of American are a German descent) but was unable to stop the US from entering WW1.

posted by: charlie on 02.18.08 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

Perhaps "bought and paid for" is an overly negative picture of the China Lobby--former missionaries played some role on both sides of the issue (Luce, Hersey). And ideological wars also played a part.

If we're going to expand the field of consideration, the WASPs constituted their own lobby--look at the flow of ideas and people (millionairesses) across the Atlantic in the 19th century. Now the special relationship is only a beam in Blair's eye.

But a question--why have the Canadians never had a lobby?

posted by: Bill Harshaw on 02.18.08 at 08:33 AM [permalink]


posted by: Edgar on 02.18.08 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

I have a fairly pessimistic view of the Israeli lobby, but that aside, I've read through much of the published and blogged discussions and no one tries to grab the epistemic elephant, realism. Is their book consistent with any school of realism that Walt and Mersheimer subscribe (defensive and offensive, respectively)? I think not. Their argument really makes the international system and states secondary to the main causes occurring, the construction of interests within the US through lobbying, electioneering, editorializing, punditing, and various other activities of creating pressure and constructing the discourse. In fact, their weight that they put on discourse seems kind of silly, even self contradictory (as Rodger Payne pointed out last year at ISA, though on a different debate they were having, the Iraq War). Their defense -- which seems difficult to take -- might be that they're adding concepts to realism to increase explanation (as Waltz pointed out, structural realism only explains structural tendencies, not foreign policy) or they're creating a new constructivist realism. The first is ridiculous; the second is unlikely (as Walt and Mersheimer have really avoided constructing anything constructivist). So -- besides all of the other issues constantly raised -- we're left with a very fundamental IR question.

posted by: Matt on 02.18.08 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

The argument that the Walt/Mearsheimer thesis is not consistent with realism is a canard. Structural realists argue that states that don't act consistent with structural incentives will be punished for it. W/M argue that the US has unduly supported Israel, defying systemic pressures to do otherwise. As a consequence, Mearsheimer and Walt argue, the US has paid a heavy price in Iraq and its efforts to combat jihadi terrorism.

posted by: anon on 02.18.08 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

Which 'enduring rival' does Israel border?

posted by: Mitchell Young on 02.18.08 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

It not a canard in so far as it speaks to explanations. If structural realism is to have any validity, it needs to locate causes within the structure of the international system, not within the actor as liberals do. If the major, most powerful actors in the world is doing things not because of the international system but because of internal politics, then realism lacks a good explanation of what is going on.

posted by: Matt on 02.18.08 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

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