Realism and the Mearsheimer-Walt Theory of the Israel Lobby:

In this recent article, Martin Kramer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy criticizes the famous John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argument against the the US-Israel alliance from the standpoint of their own "realist" theory of international relations. Kramer and other commentators, including the VC's own David Bernstein, have pointed out numerous flaws in the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis that US foreign policy in the Middle East has been hijacked by a powerful "Israel" lobby. But, to my knowledge, these critics have ignored a major contradiction between Mearsheimer and Walt's theory of the Israel lobby's role in US foreign policy and their broader realist explanation of international politics. The former explains US policy in the Middle East primarily as an extension of domestic politics; the latter claims that domestic politics generally doesn't matter as far as international relations is concerned.

The realist theory of international relations, of which Mearsheimer and Walt are among the leading academic advocates, claims that the structure of a state's domestic politics has little or no impact on its foreign policy, especially on vital security issues. All that matters is the size, relative power, and geographic location of states in the international system. All states, say realists, either act defensively to maximize their security (as Walt argued in previous scholarship), or possibly try to maximize their relative power (as Mearsheimer claimed in his previous work). Ideology, political structure, and other domestic political forces have little or no impact.

Thus, during the Cold War, realists (including both Mearsheimer and Walt) claimed that, so far as international relations was concerned, it didn't matter that the Soviet Union was a communist state. A Soviet government with a different socioeconomic system or ideology would have behaved much the same way (in foreign policy) as Lenin, Stalin, and their successors did. Today, they claim that Iranian and North Korean nuclear proliferation should not concern us much more than the possession of nuclear weapons by France, Britain, or Israel. The fact that the former are authoritarian or totalitarian states and the latter democracies will have little impact on the way they use their nukes (or don't use them). Early realist scholar A.J.P. Taylor, in his book The Origins of the Second World War, even went so far as to argue that Adolf Hitler and Nazi ideology had little impact on the course of German foreign policy in the 1930s; any other German government would have behaved similarly, given the same international situation.

The "Israel Lobby" thesis is utterly at odds with realist theory. If Mearsheimer and Walt are correct, then US foreign policy towards a vital region of the world has been "captured" by a powerful domestic lobby whose interests are at odds with U.S. national interests, as realists define them. It has led the US into a major unnecessary war (Iraq) and currently risks another, equally unneccessary conflict with Iran (a confrontation that Mearsheimer and Walt also attribute in large part to the influence of the Israel Lobby). Moreover, this "capture" is not, according to them, an anomaly of the Bush era. It stretches back some forty years, through multiple administrations of both parties, even through Republican administrations (such as those of Nixon, Ford, Bush 41, and Reagan) that had little or no dependence on Jewish political support. Mearsheimer and Walt even claim that "the Lobby’s influence has been bad for Israel," as well as the United States, preventing Israel from seizing allegedly desirable opportunities to make peace. If so, this implies that Israeli foreign policy too has been captured by a domestic political lobby.

If a key element of US (as well as Israeli) foreign policy could be so completely captured for so long by a domestic lobby, it turns out that domestic politics matters greatly to international relations and the realist theory must be rejected, or at least radically revised. The US is a democratic political system with extensive checks and balances and many competing interest groups. If American foreign policy can nonetheless be captured by a narrow clique with an agenda at odds with the realist view of the national interest, such capture is even more likely under other forms of government. For example, most dictatorships are dominated by a small group whose interests are often at odds with those of the nation as a whole. A self-interested or ideologically motivated dictator can hijack his country's foreign policy far more easily than any interest group can capture the foreign policy of a democracy. To take just one example, while it may not be in the national interest of Iran (as realists define it) to risk starting a regional nuclear war after acquiring the bomb, such a step may turn out to be in the interest of the ruling clerical oligarchy, at least as they themselves conceptualize that interest. If so, Iranian nuclear proliferation is a much more serious problem than realists would have us believe.

The bottom line: It is logically possible that the the realist theory of international relations is correct, and it is also possible that Mearsheimer and Walt are right about the Israel Lobby's influence on U.S. foreign policy. It is not, however, possible for both to be right simultaneously. On the other hand, it is possible for both to be wrong. This third option is actually my own view. But in this post, I limit myself to showing that there is a deep contradiction between realism and the theory that the Israel Lobby dominates US Middle East policy. Like Mearsheimer and Walt, many critics of US foreign policy unthinkingly embrace both theories simultaneously. Unfortunately for them, you can't have your realist cake and then proceed to eat it whenever the subject of Israel comes up.