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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.

Crunchy Frog:
When has Liberal (what passes for) Thought ever concerned itself with consistency? The next time will be the first.
11.21.2006 1:54pm
MS (mail):
I disagree with Mearsheimer and Walt, but I'm also skeptical of your criticism. AIPAC doesn't seek to influence the United States' domestic socioeconomic system or ideology, they seek directly to influence its foreign policy.

Why isn't it consistent, then, for a realist -- who thinks that the only foreign policy consideration should be America's best interests -- to argue than any international influence on U.S. foreign policy is dangerous?
11.21.2006 2:18pm
te:

The US is a democratic political system with extensive checks and balances and many competing interest groups.

This could only be written by someone with a purely theoretical understanding of how the US government works.
11.21.2006 2:28pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
AIPAC is a purely domestic group, not an "international" group. It's members, financing, and indeed ideology are wholly American.
11.21.2006 2:29pm
Ilya Somin:
Why isn't it consistent, then, for a realist -- who thinks that the only foreign policy consideration should be America's best interests -- to argue than any international influence on U.S. foreign policy is dangerous?

That's not the inconsistency I'm talking about. The contradiction is between M&W's theory of how international politics works - which claims that domestic politics does not influence foreign policy in any significant way - and their theory of how the Israel Lobby has supposedly hijacked US Middle East policy (which claims that domestic policy matters a great deal).
11.21.2006 2:33pm
Ilya Somin:
The US is a democratic political system with extensive checks and balances and many competing interest groups.


This could only be written by someone with a purely theoretical understanding of how the US government works.


Really? Which part is wrong? Do you deny that there are checks and balances such as bicameralism, an independent judiciary, etc? Or do you deny that there are numerous competing interest groups? You can't spit here in DC without hitting one of their offices.
11.21.2006 2:36pm
MS (mail):
DB,

Of course your right. But by their own account, they are concerned, at least in part, with best interests of Israel -- what else to make of a "Pro-Israel Lobby"? I think AIPAC is harmless because America's interests and Israel's substantially overlap, and because, as an idealist, I believe that some things are simply "right" and should be pursued.

But neither of these arguments should sway someone who thinks that the only question is "what is good for America?"
11.21.2006 2:39pm
Mitchell Freedman (mail) (www):
The Mearsheimer and Walt thesis has been attacked not merely from the right, but from the middle and left. Chomsky and Hitchens have both attacked the thesis for having the AIPAC tail wagging the dog of American elite foreign policy moves. The only people who have embraced the theory, and continue to do so, are those who have long concluded that the Israelis are supposedly in control of US foreign policy--and that is a much smaller set than may be assumed.
11.21.2006 2:43pm
wm13:
I think the author is a little wrong to lump the Reagan administration in with the other Republican administrations in not being dependent on Jewish support. Reagan as I recall did quite well--better than the current George Bush, I think--among Jewish voters in 1980. (Whether this was because of Reagan's support for Israel or simply because of Jewish distaste for opponent's open Christianity I can't say.)
11.21.2006 2:46pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
I think you have a fairly convincing argument against realism as a theory that ideology, etc., is irrelevant to foreign policy. I think it's a slightly less convincing argument that W&M would actually claim nations always maintain a perfect vision of how to pursue their own power. After all, I'm assuming W&M don't stand quite alongside A.J.P. Taylor. And even Taylor probably admitted that Germany made some mistakes?

Personally, I think the Iraq war is probably an overly attenuated extension of W&M's theory, perhaps interesting to ponder, but not really justified as an authoritative statement. The main argument, though, that American foreign policy is influenced by a pro-Israel lobby, seems harder to just dismiss.
11.21.2006 2:51pm
MS (mail):
Ilya,

Fair enough. But my first paragraph did, I think, address your point more directly. Couldn't domestic organizations that actually seek to influence foreign policy be categorically different from, say, the chambers of commerce?
11.21.2006 2:52pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
Might I say that it's obvious the pro-Israel lobby has some influence in the U.S.; the question is how much? Or would that be totally wrong?

I suppose one argument would be that the pro-Israel lobby simply is America, and can't be separated out. So maybe you can't talk about influence; America just is what it is. It could be, then, that the relative effectiveness of the Israel lobby vs. the Muslim/Arab lobby reflects nothing more than a preference by Americans, and that talking about lobbies is just silly and beside the point.

That may be true. I tend to think that lobbying and partisanship do have an influence, though, which can be rather disruptive. In the end, I'm not sure if it's worth discussing or not.
11.21.2006 3:17pm
Ilya Somin:
Couldn't domestic organizations that actually seek to influence foreign policy be categorically different from, say, the chambers of commerce?

Certainly. But not under the realist theory of international relations, which claims that domestic organizations are largely irrelevant to major foreign policy decisions.
11.21.2006 3:21pm
Ilya Somin:
Might I say that it's obvious the pro-Israel lobby has some influence in the U.S.; the question is how much?

I agree that they have some influence. Hardly anyone denies that they do. However, if you want to argue (as M&W do) that their influence has led to a vastly different US foreign policy from that which would exist otherwise, then that argument is inconsistent with realism.
11.21.2006 3:23pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
AIPAC lobbies for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. I used to know some people who worked there, adn they seemed to sincerely believe that this was in both party's best interest. For that matter, (and on the other hand), a lot of Israelis, especially on the left, think that Israel's dependence on/alliance with the U.S. has been bad for Israel. To a limited extent, they have a point; AIPAC has helped vastly increased American aid and support for Israel, but has also tied Israel's fate to support from America in a way that's not totally healthy. OTOH, this is arguably good for the U.S., as a regional superpower has become to some extent a client state with few other options.
11.21.2006 3:46pm
JoshL (mail):
The thing is, it's not limited to Israel. Read M&W: they simply don't feel that domestic politics are/should be related to foreign policy decisions. My favorite example of this is still the Emancipation Proclamation- a document largely targeted at channeling the domestic opinions in Britain away from support for the Confederacy.

The contradictory bit is, of course, why Chomsky and others opposed M&W on this article- because they believe that while U.S. foreign policy towards Israel works against American interests and moral interests, they understand that it's no conspiracy for domestic sentiment to affect foreign policy. Rather, they think that domestic sentiment needs to be changed.
11.21.2006 4:50pm
te:

Really? Which part is wrong?

With the exception of a handful of hot-button issues (e.g. certain taxes, abortion, gun ownership, etc.) the vast majority of voters do not have a clue about these issues. And, if the votors who elect the people in the government don't base any of their voting decisions on this, the bicameral structure etc doesn't mean anything.

C'mon - I bet that the percentage of votors who have even heard of AIPAC is well under 1%.

And this does not even touch on the issue of omnibus spending bills (which contain many of the expenditures that would account for one type of US "support" of Israel) that are cobbled together largely without review or consideration of the lawmakers - let alone the voter's. (Yes, there are sometimes exceptions as when the "bridge to nowhere" attracted sufficient fame to run into trouble.)
11.21.2006 5:34pm
dick thompson (mail):
tc,

How is AIPAC any different from Amnesty or HRW or the other institutions that try to affect our foreign policy. There are lobbying groups from almost all out foreign entanglements involved in trying to influence our foreign policy. Saudi Arabia, China, OPEC, the various soviet groups over the years, the groups that try to affect our AID disbursements. The only difference and the only reason you are so up in arms is that this is a Jewish group.
11.21.2006 6:03pm
te:
Dick


How is AIPAC any different from Amnesty or HRW or the other institutions that try to affect our foreign policy.

Didn't say it was different.

The only difference and the only reason you are so up in arms is that this is a Jewish group.

Up in arms??? Because this is a Jewish group??

Why don't you try reading what I wrote rather than trying to shoe horn every post into the work into your preceonceived categories. Jeesh.
11.21.2006 6:29pm
kdonovan:
Realists are not entirely clear and consistent about whether their theories are a description of the way the world actually does work, or recommendations of the way statesmen ought to behave. (Most seem to combine the two without distinction.) Some also speculate that the post Cold War United States is so powerful that the logic of realism doe snot constrain its actions in the short run (though they generally think that failing to act occriding to the logic of realism is a mistake even under these circumstances).
Kevin
11.21.2006 6:30pm
BobNSF (mail):

However, if you want to argue (as M&W do) that their influence has led to a vastly different US foreign policy from that which would exist otherwise, then that argument is inconsistent with realism.


And the proof of that realist approach is all the other countries with which we have a similar relationship. For example, uh... uhm... well...
11.21.2006 6:38pm
QED:
I am an American who is strongly supportive of Israel as are many millions of other Americans. It gives me, and other Americans, great comfort that the U.S. is supportive of Israel. This comfort, ipso facto enhances the interests of many Americans. Ergo, supporting Israel is, at least, in the interests of some (interested) Americans. QED.
11.21.2006 8:36pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
te,

im usually not one for message board spelling bees, but i find it ironic that you, in the midst of degrading the knowledge of the US electorate, actually mis-spelled the word "voter."
11.21.2006 11:41pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
pardon, that should sau "knowledge possessed by the US electorate"
11.21.2006 11:41pm
Ilya Somin:
C'mon - I bet that the percentage of votors who have even heard of AIPAC is well under 1%.

Since I have myself written about political ignorance extensively, that's hardly news to me. However, my post said nothing about AIPAC being constrained by voters, but rather by the separation of powers and the by actions of other interest groups, many of which (e.g. - oil companies) want the US to have good relations with Arab states.
11.21.2006 11:45pm
professays (mail):
The Israel Lobby certainly exists in the US. It determines American policy in the Middle East. It is an evident fact as the only who benefits from such a policy are Jews and their state and there are no other logical explanations.
11.22.2006 5:18am
brachiator (mail) (www):

... the only who benefits from such a policy are Jews and their state...

Let's not confuse "the Jews" with Israel, please. The first is a relatively heterogeneous ethnic/cultural group, while the second is a sovereign state. Israel may claim to be "the" "Jewish" state, but not all "Jews" lend their allegiance or support to it. Nor are all supporters and beneficiaries of Israel and its policies "Jews."
11.22.2006 12:39pm
luagha:
However, people with guns who have the stated desire to kill all the pig-monkey-Jews persistently refuse to make the distinction above no matter how many times it is politely explained to them.
11.22.2006 12:58pm
r78:

However, my post said nothing about AIPAC being constrained by voters, but rather by the separation of powers and the by actions of other interest groups

Uh, you also mentioned democratic system and bicameralism?

If the voters don't have a clue about this issue then they don't base votes on it so the democratic system isn't a check or balance. Same for "bicameralism".
11.22.2006 1:29pm
r78:
MikeBus,

There is a difference between ignorance and giving a hoot about proofreading posts.

Also, Alanis Morisette does not supply the correct definition of irony.
11.22.2006 1:31pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
I just scratch my head when I read these discussions. Clearly, ethnic affinities strongly influence U.S. foreign policy. Greek-Americans played a part in U.S. preference for Greece over Turkey for a long time. Irish hatred of Britain certainly played a part in U.S. sympathy for questionable IRA fundraising activities in the U.S. At one time, Jews in the U.S. were so overwhelmingly on the side of Israel as to make U.S. policy in the Middle East quite lopsided.

But there are other reasons for these actions besides simply ethnic affinity. U.S. support for Israel after World War II was driven by factors such as guilt about the Holocaust, sympathy for plucky underdogs, and the increasingly pro-Soviet tone of many of Israel's enemies.

Times change, too. My impression is that Jewish support for Israel, no matter what, is largely gone in the U.S., with a significant fraction of American Jews inclined to take the side of a totalitarian bunch of terrorists simply because it makes them "progressive." (Sadly, progressives, who used to sound genuinely concerned about the rights of women, abolition of torture, and disestablishment of religion, have allowed a higher priority--hatred of the U.S. and thus defense of theocratic thugs--to take precedence.)

I'm one of those Gentile Americans who supports Israel with some misgivings about their tactics. Realistically, for all Israel's faults in how it has dealt with the Palestinians, there is a notion of respect for law and human rights in Israel, however imperfectly it is sometimes implemented, that is simply incomprehensible to any of Israel's immediate neighbors.

Israel has the same enemies as the U.S.--Islamofascism (and even supposedly "secular" Islam, as evidenced by the Palestinian National Authority, is pretty fascist) and its related ideologies. This doesn't mean that Israeli interests and U.S. interests are joined at the hip, but it does mean that every suicide bomber that the Israelis kill is one less that I have to worry about attacking U.S. interests.
11.22.2006 1:41pm
o' connuh j.:
It is an evident fact as the only who benefits from such a policy are Jews and their state and there are no other logical explanations.


Saudis "benefit" from American indulgence and largesse too. As does Egypt. They must all be Jews.
11.22.2006 1:43pm
o' connuh j.:
(There is no other logical explanation.)
11.22.2006 1:44pm
Guest107:
Small distinction between Walt and Mearsheimer- Walt's "Balance of Threat" theory leaves much more room for the perception of threat than Mearsheimer's "Offensive Realism" (Compare Walt's "Origins of Alliances" with Mearsheimer's "The Tragedy of Great Power Politics"). Mearsheimer would argue that states balance power, while Walt would argue states balance threats. A much better case can be made that Walt's theory can encompass the "Israel Lobby" by arguing that we are aligning based on more ideological grounds (because we see the Arabs to be a lot more "scary" that the Israelis).
Furthermore, even if realism can't explain the US foreign policy to isreal. Mearsheimer and Walt would probably just take a page out of Ken Waltz's book, and just argue that realism will not be able to predict everything. Ultimately, if realism has not been abandoned as a viable theory of international relations because the United States and Great Britian failed to go to war during the power transition between Great Britian and the US, there's really no way not being able to predict US-Israel foreign policy will either.
11.22.2006 5:30pm