John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's 82-page paper "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" has entered the canon of contemporary political culture in the United States. So much, positive and negative, has been written about the March 2006 essay that the phrase "the Mearsheimer-Walt argument" is now shorthand for the idea that pro-Israel advocates exert a heavy — and malign — influence upon the formulation of U.S. Middle East policy. To veteran students of Middle East affairs, this idea is hardly new, of course. But the fact that two top international relations scholars affiliated with the University of Chicago and Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, respectively, have espoused this analysis has lent it unprecedented currency. Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish a book-length version of the professors' argument in late 2007. Along with President Jimmy Carter's volume Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, "The Israel Lobby" (as the paper is commonly known) has opened up a debate that many members of the lobby have long sought to suppress.
Like Carter, Mearsheimer and Walt have faced ugly and unsubstantiated allegations of racism for drawing attention to the imbalance in U.S. Middle East policy and the lobby's clout. Walt's Harvard colleague, Alan Dershowitz, labeled them "bigots" and "liars," and the Anti-Defamation League accused them of promulgating "a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control." Reams of angry newsprint later, these kneejerk cries of anti-Semitism have not registered and for good reason. Plainly, a lobby that is universally recognized by Washington insiders — and even promotes itself — as one of the few most powerful in the country is influential. Saying so cannot be inherently anti-Semitic.
The related allegation of sloppy research is also silly. In December 2006, Mearsheimer and Walt released a point-by-point rebuttal, perhaps not coincidentally also 82 pages long, of the charges of poor scholarship leveled by Benny Morris, Martin Kramer and others. Almost every charge was a misreading of the original paper. Nor is "The Israel Lobby" "piss-poor, monocausal social science," as political scientist and blogger Daniel Drezner would have it. On the contrary, the text is full of caveats and qualifiers.
The essential flaw in the Mearsheimer-Walt argument is not, as many critics have said, the authors' exaggeration of the pro-Israel lobby's power, for although the authors do this in some instances, the thrust of their argument remains sound. It is not even their inattention to the other factors that have historically defined the U.S. interest in the Middle East for the bipartisan foreign policy establishment. Rather, the most serious fault lies in the professors' conclusion — soothing in this day and age — that U.S. Middle East policy would become "more temperate" were the influence of the Israel lobby to be curtailed. This conclusion is undercut by the remarkable continuities in U.S. Middle East policy since the Truman administration, including in times when the pro-Israel lobby was weak. And other factors — chiefly the drive for hegemony in the Persian Gulf — have also embroiled the United States in plenty of trouble.
The Cold War prism
Mearsheimer and Walt issue a broad indictment of their subject. "No lobby," they write, "has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially identical." Has the lobby's influence always explained U.S. support for Israel? This question is crucial because it helps to define the extent to which that influence explains U.S. policy toward Israel today.
From the day in 1948 that President Harry Truman announced his support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, Israel has held a special place in the hearts and minds of many Americans, Jewish and otherwise. The fledgling state was more European than Middle Eastern in orientation, providing common cultural ground. The mythos surrounding the creation of Israel and the sympathy generated by the horrifying tragedy of the Holocaust played major roles in shaping popular American sympathy in the 1960s and 1970s, when the "special relationship" between Israel and the United States was cemented. Christians, including many African-Americans, responded warmly to the narrative wherein a plucky people, fleeing horrific persecution and age-old prejudice, made the desert bloom in the Holy Land and stoutly defended their new polity against all comers.
On the official level, Israel found its early sources of support elsewhere, while working tirelessly to build support in the United States. After Israel's decisive victory over neighboring Arab states in 1967, the United States committed itself more and more to what might be called "the Israel track." The reason, however, was neither a domestic lobby nor a sentimental soft spot among policymakers for the Jewish state. The reason was that policymakers saw the Middle East through the prism of the Cold War.
Concern about Soviet backing for Egypt had led Lyndon Johnson, while a congressman, to oppose President Dwight Eisenhower's determination to force Israel to pull out of the Sinai and away from the Suez Canal in 1956, without some move toward changing the status quo. The outcome of the 1967 war, entailing the humiliation of Soviet-allied Egypt and Syria, strengthened President Johnson's conviction that Israel was a useful Cold War asset. After the war, an anonymous State Department official told the press: "Israel has probably done more for the United States in the Middle East in relation to money and effort than any of our so-called allies elsewhere around the globe since the end of the Second World War. In the Far East we can get almost no one to help us in Vietnam. Here the Israelis won the war singlehandedly, have taken us off the hook and have served our interests as well as theirs.” Aspiring chief executive Richard Nixon — also not known for philo-Semitism — supported Israel vigorously on the 1968 campaign trail, pursuant to a visit to Israel the previous June, when he met wounded Egyptian soldiers in an Israeli hospital. There he wrote down an Egyptian tank commander's complaint: "Russia is to blame. They furnished the arms. We did the dying."