The Lobby: Mearsheimer and Walt’s conspiracy theory – Robert Fine

 John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (LRB 23 March 2006) demonstrate that old jokes are not always the best ones. The old joke in question is conspiracy theory and the conspiracy is the ‘Israel lobby’ or, as they put it, ‘the Lobby’. The Lobby is credited with ‘unmatched power’ to determine American foreign policy. In its narrow remit it is deemed responsible for US military, economic and political support for Israel. More broadly, it is deemed the ‘critical factor’ behind the Iraqi war. And today, we are told, its pressure for regime change in Syria and Iran is pushing the US into a dangerous military adventure against those countries too.

Beware of denials, is a lesson Freud and most of us learn at an early age. When your mother says ‘I am not angry’ and her face is turning incandescent red, it usually means that her fury had passed all illocutionary bounds. When an unwanted voice on the telephone says ‘I am not trying to sell you anything’, it usually means that he has some wildly expensive kitchen units or plastic windows up his sleeve. In this piece there are classic examples of denial. ‘There is nothing improper about American Jews and their Christian allies attempting to sway US policy’ means that there is everything improper. ‘The Lobby’s activities are not a conspiracy of the sort depicted in tracts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ means they are a conspiracy of this type. ‘This is not meant to suggest that “the Lobby” is a unified movement with a central leadership’ means that the Lobby is a wilful, undifferentiated, conspiratorial subject.

The slippage from the way Mearsheimer and Walt introduce the concept of the Lobby to the way they use the concept in practice is a lesson in how not to write. They say: ‘We use ‘the Lobby’ as shorthand for the loose coalition of individuals and organisations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israeli direction’. Then before we know it, we read sentences like the following: ‘the Lobby doesn’t want an open debate’; ‘the Lobby’s perspective prevails in the mainstream media’; ‘the Lobby moved to take back the campuses from voices critical of Israel’; ‘the Lobby monitors what professors write and teach’; ‘the Lobby and its friends portray France as the most anti-Semitic country in Europe’; ‘Israel and the Lobby swing into action to stop Colin Powell persuading all sides to stop fighting and start negotiating’; ‘thanks to the Lobby, the United States has become the de facto enabler of Israeli expansion’; the Lobby designates as anti-Semitic any criticism of Israel and any reference to its own power. And so on.

Their argument runs along the classic lines of conspiracy theory. There is the initial explanandum: the ‘unwavering’ material, diplomatic and military support the US grants to a foreign country, Israel. Two possible explanations for this policy are considered and rejected: one is the foreign country’s strategic value to the US; the other is compelling moral imperatives to support this country’s existence. Israel, Mearsheimer and Walt argue, may have been a strategic asset to the US during the Cold War but even then it was at a high cost and now it has become a major burden. They maintain, for example, that ‘the US has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel’. Morally, they argue that Israel may have been born out of the tragic history of the Jewish people but its ethnic exclusivism, its militarism and its crimes against the Palestinians have annulled any obligation on the part of the US to help Israel today. In any event, we are told, Israel’s existence is not in jeopardy.

Disposal of these two explanations paves the way for the Only True Explanation which explains why the US has been willing to sacrifice its own security to the interests of another state. It is the Lobby. They characterise it as the de facto agent for a foreign government. They maintain it makes Israel virtually immune to criticism in Washington. They say it quashes debate in the public sphere through the power of its money, its control of the media, its policing of academia and not least its exploitation of the charge of anti-Semitism against anyone who criticises Israel’s actions or the Lobby’s own influence. They argue that, thanks to the Lobby, the US has come into line with Israeli positions rather than Israel come into line with US interests. The lobby, we are told, took on the President of the United States and triumphed. Sharon wrapped Bush ‘round his little finger’. The demonic tail is wagging the gullible dog.

Finally, this explanation is extended to explain all manner of other phenomena beyond the initial explanandum. The Lobby, we are told, was the critical factor behind the US decision to impose sanctions on Iran and Lybia, to go war on Iraq and overthrow Saddam, and now to take on Israel’s other enemies such as Syria and Iran. While the US does the fighting, dying and paying, they write, Israel is the beneficiary. The Lobby’s influence increases the danger of terrorism, fuels Islamic radicalism, raises the spectre of further wars in Syria and Iran, makes impossible any resolution of Palestinian suffering, undercuts US prestige abroad and its efforts to limit nuclear proliferation, and erodes democracy within the US. All for Israel. What is needed is ‘candid discussion of the Lobby’s influence’, a return to reality and the advancement once more of US interests.

Slippage from criticism of American foreign policy to wild eyed conspiracy theory punctuates this whole narrative. The question of why Israel should have these maniacal aims and why the Lobby should echo them is simply not addressed. It would seem that this article has no merit beyond that of translating into one academically authenticated product all the conspiratorial clichés of a demonic power exercising its evil behind the scenes. Originality – zero; evidential base – very weak (despite 211 footnotes in the original article); theoretical framework – immediately disposable. However, it is significant that such a piece is given the credibility of the Kennedy Centre at Harvard and extensive front page treatment by the London Review of Books, one of the leading voices of the British intelligentsia. It raises a question of what poverty of thought is allowing conspiracy theory to make a come-back in intellectual life. The background of one of these authors, drawn from a rather speedy survey of his websites, may throw some light on this.

Professor Mearsheimer is a leading representative of neo-realism within the field of International Relations and a public critic of the war in Iraq. The basis of his criticism lies in the theory of ‘offensive realism’ he has postulated. It is that great powers do recognise or should recognise that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony by behaving aggressively and eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power. He believes that great powers do seek or should seek regional rather than global hegemony, that is, hegemony within their own back yard, since global hegemony is not feasible despite current illusions about the US, and that they should act in other regions only as ‘offshore balancers’ to prevent other states (say China today) from becoming regional hegemons. He sees great powers as rational actors within an anarchic system in which all great powers have military capability and states can never be certain about the intentions of other states. If then the US does not act rationally, according to the tenets of this theory, there must be something else that explains its foolish state behaviour. In this case it is the Lobby. It’s a bit like the planet that you cannot see with any telescope but you know it must be there because of a wobble in another planet.

He has described Iraq as an ‘unnecessary war’ since Saddam was already ‘in a box’ and posed no threat to US interests. He refers back to the founder of realism, Hans Morgenthau, as his inspiration and cites Morgenthau’s opposition on realist grounds to the war in Vietnam in the 1960s as a precedent for his opposition to the Iraq war. His prescription: pull troops out of Europe even though he believes peace in Western Europe was possible only thanks to American military presence; keep troops in Asia to contain the rise of China; give up the pretension of the US to play the peace-keeper around the globe, including the Middle East; act as ‘offshore balancer’, not world policeman. He paints the picture of a battle between the realists and neo-conservatism in which the realists are the real representatives of American power and interest while the neo-cons are in the thrall of self-delusion and the Lobby. Realism constitutes for him the prudent, patriotic, liberal alternative to the failing Bush doctrine of military power over diplomacy and its blind faith in the domino effect that democracy imposed in Iraq will lead to democracy everywhere in the Middle East.

What I suppose is most worrying abut this whole business is that this highly esteemed exemplar of American liberalism (and Professor of Political Science at Chicago) seems to have sunk low enough to explain the evils of the world through such well-worn and thinly veiled archetypes of Jewish conspiracy. Here in Britain we can only wonder why the LRB gave this article so much prominence. There is something defiant in its gesture, doubtless born out of the frustration many of us feel with the incapacity of the Israeli state to reconcile with the Palestinians over whom they wield so much power. Yet Mearsheimer’s offensive realism has little in common with the politics of most LRB critics of the Israeli occupation. All we might learn is how an excess of enthusiasm for the anti-Israeli cause can pave the road from radical criticism to dangerous conspiratorial nonsense.

Robert Fine
Professor of Sociology
Warwick University

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