Mearsheimer and Walt Revisited


The appearance of an article in the London Review of Books early in 2006 by two mainstream academics calling attention to an “Israel Lobby” in the United States was definitely news. I was in Durban, South Africa, at the time, working on Overcoming Zionism, and the thought immediately flashed that the field of action had opened up quite a bit. There was nothing especially new or revelatory in what John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt [henceforth M/W] were writing; and there was quite a bit to cavil about in the way they were writing it. What was new, however, and important to realize, was that for the first time, ever, the most peculiar beast that is the Lobby had been put on display in the above-ground media. The truth that a long line of critics and investigators had been documenting since the 1940s, that Zionism comes equipped with a potent apparatus for dominating the ideological sphere, now included a new dimension: exposure. That is what happens if a pair of authors comes from the University of Chicago and Harvard’s Kennedy School; that is what it means to be “mainstream”: one gets the attention of the world, one cannot be shoved aside as a ranter, or nut-case, or anti-semite, but must be attended to.

This of course the minions of the Lobby set out to do, and their heavy guns went into action. Alan Dershowitz fired off a 45-page rebuttal with 157 footnotes, the chief thesis of which was that M/W had used corrupted sources and had written scholarly rubbish, i.e., they were not the distinguished academics they seemed to be, but, well, ranters and nut-cases. Eliot Cohen, of the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, added the inevitable signifier in an article in the Washington Post, titled, evocatively enough, “Yes, It’s Anti-Semitism,” which he defined as

obsessive and irrationally hostile beliefs about Jews; if one accuses them of disloyalty, subversion or treachery, of having occult powers and of participating in secret combinations that manipulate institutions and governments; if one systematically selects everything unfair, ugly or wrong about Jews as individuals or a group and equally systematically suppresses any exculpatory information -– why, yes, this paper is anti-Semitic. (April 5, 2006)

What Cohen omitted in his diatribe is that the onus of M/W’s work was not directed at Jews as such, but Jews of a certain kind: Power-Jews, and especially the genus known as “neoconservative,” which is to say, a breed of right-wing foreign policy intellectual advocating aggressively imperial behavior by the United States -– which is to say, someone like Eliot Cohen, who as a founder of the Project for the New American Century and, from 2007 to the end of the Bush administration, Counselor to the State Department, epitomized the breed as a leading drum beater for the invasion of Iraq.

Now, not all neocons have been Jews, but every last one of them is, or at least has to play the part of, a Zionist zealot. That in itself is a pretty remarkable phenomenon, to have the security apparatus of so great a power as the United States deeply influenced by a group whose identity is centered around the power and glory of a Jewish State in historic Palestine. Cohen was pretty much a second-echelon neocon, behind such heavy hitters as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle –- and alongside Christian Zionists like John Bolton and the powerful Congressional leader, Tom Delay. The top leaders of the foreign policy group that waged the post-2003 phase of the Iraq War that began in 1990, men like Cheney and Rumsfeld, were not ardently Zionist.1 But they knew to make use of people who were, because the Zionism of the neocons was a litmus test for the zealous and hard-expansionist timbre they intended for United States foreign policy – and also, needless to say, because they were quite comfortable with the actuality of the State of Israel as what they liked to call a “strategic asset.”

The complicated tangle of US-Israeli relations has gone through three phases: from the founding of the State in 1948 to 1967, as an uneasy and rather ambivalent connection largely subsumed into Cold War politics; from the Six-Day War in June 1967 to the inception of neoliberal foreign policy under Reagan (himself an ardent, though addled, Christian Zionist), a period during which Israel did indeed prove itself a strategic asset, chiefly by carrying out a great many underhanded operations for its patron; and the present period, which began with the installation of Christian Zionists in positions of authority under Reagan and extended rapidly with the movement of considerable numbers of Jewish Zionists into the middle to upper ranks of the same system. This “zionification” of the security apparatus was not in itself the cause of the Iraq war and associated initiatives. That lay, as ever, in the whole mass of geostrategic factors that concern an imperial power, with control over carbon-energy reserves playing the leading role. But the notion is not merely a descriptive label, either. Zionism is scarcely an intellectual construction alone, but the signifier of an aggressive and essentially neocolonial political practice and the enabler (chiefly through the racism it generates) of the brutal initiatives demanded by neoliberal foreign policy. And it has served to justify and organize a shocking level of interpenetration between the US and Israeli military and foreign policy systems.2

The neocons came to stand for the ultra-aggressive and unilateral foreign policy stance taken by the Second Bush administration. As this bore the poisoned fruits of the last eight years, a serious counter-reaction emerged within the foreign policy elites, deriving from the so-called “realist” school of foreign policy. Realists believe in multilateralism, playing by the rules, and, above all, eschewing ideologically driven policy in favor of hard-headed assessment of national interest. The neocons are of course their bêtes noires, and consequently Zionism, or at least, its manifestation in the Lobby, becomes their target as well. The Realists have their own ideologues, who staff the mainstream universities. After all, a “main stream” is by definition close to the center of the world. As such it is accorded a greater degree of reality by those who command that center. Just so is the view from places like Harvard and the University of Chicago considered more real than what plebeian schools afford. Thus M/W are members of the “realist” foreign policy establishment; and The Israel Lobby was a polemic whose goal was the restoration of Realist foreign policy over the zionified Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld interlopers.3

The furor over the long article and the need to sharpen it against the attacks of the neocon/Zionist gang led M/W to undertake a massive expansion of their argument. The result, under the title of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, appeared in the autumn of 2007.4 Significantly it provoked less outrage than the London Review of Books essay. Moreover, the authors, especially Mearsheimer, have been active on the lecture circuit, and to good effect.5 It may be said, then, that M/W have played a beneficial role in bringing about awareness of the brooding and toxic structure in the midst of American society they call the Israel Lobby, and from the standpoint of those who recognize that Israel has committed grave offenses enabled by United States support, the world is a better place for their work.

But is that the end of it? Has the ground been prepared by M/W to actually rid us of this Lobby, as against inhibiting it by calling attention to its excesses? The answer is, No; and the reason is not some oversight but is ingrained in their basic orientation toward the object of criticism. Or perhaps we should say, objects, because there are three: the “Lobby” itself; the State of Israel it serves; and the United States of America, in which it functions. The common denominator to M/W’s treatment of these three entities is an excess of respect –- or from the other side, a deficit of that ruthlessness which Marx called for: the “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” criticism which fears neither the powers that be nor the unsettling effects of its own conclusions.6

As for the Lobby, M/W are at pains to tell the reader that lobbying is quite normal and indeed a foundation of our kind of governance, which is, in their view, a market-place of interest groups. What is wrong with the Israel Lobby is that it has too much influence, which can be remedied by building countervailing influences, for example, campaign finance reform, better scholarship or politicians who will stand up to it, or creating counter-lobbies. M/W are aware that the Lobby is an amorphous beast, with no sharp lines, and that it fades off into the gray areas of civil society, albeit with peaks in its range, like AIPAC or the Anti-Defamation League. They will in the course of their book usefully tell us quite a lot about the nefarious practices of the various main branches of the Lobby. But they will go no further, for nothing is basically wrong: “The Israel lobby... is a manifestation of the political engagement of a subset of American citizens, and so its activities are widely and correctly seen as a legitimate form of political activity” (144, italics added).

Really? One would have a hard time persuading Grant Smith of that. Smith has been laboring in obscurity for a decade to uncover the dark side of the Lobby. So far his work has culminated in the 2008 volume, America’s Defense Line, the subtitle of which is “The Justice Department’s battle to register the Israel Lobby as agents of a foreign government”;7 and the sense of the book can be given if we insert the word “losing” before the word “battle.” Smith has written an excellent book documenting AIPAC’s long campaign to circumvent the federal Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), thereby setting itself up as beyond the law and the clandestine agent of a foreign government -– that is, for those who recognize that Israel and the United States are in fact different countries, a recognition that the Lobby works hard to obliterate. I said this was an excellent book, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Just read the lead blurb by John Mearsheimer himself: “a fascinating -– and disturbing account.” Yes, and one that knocks M/W’s assertion of legitimacy for the Lobby into a cocked hat. To be sure, Smith’s work appeared after The Israel Lobby. However, the evasion of FARA was well known before that; Smith essentially puts historical meat on the bones of an argument that was valid in the 1950s and still is valid today. James Petras has emphasized the need to register the Lobby as an agent of a foreign power,8 and I note it as well in Overcoming Zionism. But M/W mention it not at all in their “definitive” work on the Lobby; the problem simply does not exist in their view of things.9 This allows them to make vague claims, for example, that “Any notion that Jewish Americans are disloyal citizens is wrong” (147), which they would never dare assert if it were recognized that AIPAC was in fact an agent of a foreign power and was operating outside the law.10

The legitimacy of the Lobby is tightly tied to the legitimacy of the State it supports, which M/W affirm again and again. “We are not challenging Israel’s right to exist or questioning the legitimacy of the Jewish state... We believe the history of the Jewish people and the norm of national self-determination provide ample justification for a Jewish state” (12). And again: “the authors of this book are ‘pro-Israel,’ in the sense that we support its right to exist, admire its many achievements, want its citizens to enjoy secure and prosperous lives, and believe that the United States should come to Israel’s aid if its survival is in danger. But we are obviously not part of the Israel lobby” (112).

All right. But this sort of basic attitude does make a ruthless criticism of the Lobby – and of course, the Israeli state -– quite impossible. Indeed, it suggests that M/W have a little Dershowitz installed in their brain, that is, have a bit of the Lobby as part of them even though they are not part of the Lobby, forcing them to hedge their critique lest they be assaulted by the Zionist thought police. Or maybe they sincerely believe what they say. In any case, the questions to our authors fly thick and fast:

**What achievement is it that you admire so much about Israel: its ethnic cleansing of Palestine; its unilateral nuclear arsenal; its destruction of the USS Liberty during the six-day war of 1967; its entombment of Gaza; its treatment of Holocaust survivors –- the worst in the world?11

**If the presence of Jewish Americans motivates your extravagant promise to ensure Israel’s security, why doesn’t the presence of Irish-Americans (many more of them than Jews) justify a similar pledge to Ireland? If you say it’s the threat to Israel posed by hostile Arabs, would it not be better to admit the rational core of the Arab complaint and take all measures to resolve it, which would entail treating all sides equally and therefore neutralizing the Israel lobbies in the United States and forcing them to obey the law, i.e., FARA?

**You do say that Israel needs to be treated like any other country, which is a wonderful idea for which you should be saluted -– but if you are serious about this, does it not require abandoning, along with the special aid packages, the tax breaks, etc., all kinds of exceptionalist reasoning like the above security pledge, or indeed, the automatic acceptance of legitimacy you give to the Jewish State?

**Does any state have automatic legitimacy? Did apartheid South Africa, and are not Israel’s offenses at least as grave (Bishop Tutu among many others thinks they’re worse)? And anyhow, what enables you to say that the Jewish people had authentic national rights to a state in Palestine? The dominant national fraction of Jews –- the Ashkenazim, who in fact conquered Palestine -– has no organic connection to its land, or to anywhere in the Mid East. They (and I am one of them) are Jews only in the choice of religion, and for these people to come in and take over Palestine is no national return but simple robbery -– with all the dreadful consequences that ensue.

These questions may seem disaggregated and to lack internal connection, But that is only true to the degree one adopts the “realist” position embraced by M/W and the leading institutions of academic political science. According to this view, the world consists of a collection of nation-states, and “reality” is grounded in the various interests of said states. Interests, in turn, get interpreted either in vulgar-materialist terms or those of an abstract idealism, the latter quite serviceable for propaganda purposes. Thus M/W define America’s interests: the goal of our “foreign policy is to ensure the safety and the prosperity of the American people” (337) -– a shockingly banal notion, this, and more appropriate for a high school civics text than for a serious engagement with the US-Israeli relations. Such a model also forces us in the direction of regarding Israel as a normal state, defined as an abstract “interest-driven” entity that can accordingly be reasoned with. From this standpoint, further, the notion of a “lobby” as the instrument of interest-driven politics emerges.

But Israel is not a normal nation-state driven by material interest, though such considerations enter into and shape its activity as well. It is a much weirder formation than that -– a state involved like any other with an economy and class structure, but also with a very peculiar “identity,” an internal configuration that organizes all the facets of political/economic being into a coherent whole and the terms of which must be met if the “polis” is to function in the world. All states have identities, and all identities are the expression of their history and also the maker of history; thus identities evolve and are transformed as well as transformative. What sets Zionist Israel apart is the peculiarity of its identity and of the history of the Jews, whose existence has been shaped for millennia by being “a people apart.” For complex reasons I take up in Overcoming Zionism,12 this devolves into the bizarre behavioral qualities of the Jewish state and of the lobbies that defend it. All of this is a closed book to our political “scientists,” whose own professional identity is shaped by severe historical myopia.

Zionist nationalism is abnormal in that it does not derive from a coherent historical relationship to a commonly inhabited territory, but from a mythological relation to a notion developed in ancient texts and hewn by the actual conquest of Palestine, a land inhabited by an “other” people. Israeli nationalism is very strong, therefore, but defined chiefly by violence and usurpation -– as well as by endless contradiction with other elements of Jewish identity, especially those of victimhood and supposed ethical superiority. The result is the “bad conscience” whose truculence and vindictiveness play so large a role in the workings of the Israel Lobby, which shares with the state itself the qualities of vindictiveness, perversity and mounting nihilism -– all, again, beyond the ken of the model employed in The Israel Lobby.

Further, M/W’s interest-group model keeps at bay a real understanding of the centrality of control over hydrocarbon resources in the region. Their refusal to take this phenomenon seriously -– they essentially argue that because we lack a vigorous oil lobby, control over oil cannot be very important -– is perhaps the weakest part of the book. It is connected with the absence of a class-based notion of imperialism, as the necessary perspective for examining the relation between the United States and Israel in a historically dynamic way.

Zionism has known from the days of Herzl that its inherent weakness and internal contradictions required the external prop of an imperial patron – first Britain, and then, in a much more profound relationship, the United States. The United States and Israel, though very definitely distinct and often at odds, are, in a way, made for each other, and this is manifest in the patterning of their cultural identities -– note, for example, the prevalence of Christian Zionism in the United States, far beyond that seen in any other country. It is impossible to imagine, for example, so intense and complex a relationship developing between Israel and, say, China. The common Judaeo-Christian line is an important part of the story; it emerges in both the United States and Israel as driven by Old Testament leanings and settler-colonial exterminist impulses (a bond also connecting South Africa to the picture).

Israel would fold absent the immense backing of the US; hence, the prime goal of Zionism has been to so control America that this backing would be reliably insured. Ergo, the Lobby, in all its forms. As we have seen in the early days of the Obama administration (viz., the retraction of Charles Freeman’s appointment to head the National Intelligence Council), the Zionists remain firmly in control, albeit at the cost of crippling American democracy.

On the American side, the crisis of accumulation that gave rise to neoliberalism became aggravated by the looming of Peak Oil. It is no surprise that a major initiative within US imperialism under Cheney’s leadership would then emerge, centering upon a hyper-aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East, and that for this mutation the injection of neocon-Zionist “DNA” into the counsels of the security apparatus would be required.

Thus the present bloc, now running its course, emerged. That it is running down we owe in some degree to the efforts of Mearsheimer and Walt, who took it upon themselves to articulate the intra-ruling-class critique of the neocon-Zionist bloc. They could have kept quiet but chose to speak, and history will thank them. The differences outlined here are from one perspective defects to be overcome; from another, they are conditions for wider acceptance than more radical models have received. In matters of this kind we need the full range of criticism.

Israel’s continuing degeneration has pushed Mearsheimer at least in a more radical direction. No more do we hear of Israel’s shining “achievements.” Here he is, at the beginning of 2009 in response to Gaza:

There is also little chance that people around the world who follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will soon forget the appalling punishment that Israel is meting out in Gaza. The destruction is just too obvious to miss, and too many people –- especially in the Arab and Islamic world –- care about the Palestinians’ fate. Moreover, discourse about this longstanding conflict has undergone a sea change in the West in recent years, and many of us who were once wholly sympathetic to Israel now see that the Israelis are the victimizers and the Palestinians are the victims. What is happening in Gaza will accelerate that changing picture of the conflict and long be seen as a dark stain on Israel’s reputation.13

Can advocacy of a One-State solution be far behind?


1. George W. Bush is something of a special, yet revealing, case -- a born-again Christian who, so to speak, converted to Zionism under the influence of Ariel Sharon after he came to power.

2. As a saying current in Washington circles puts it: Israel has declined becoming the fifty-first state because that would only give it two Senators.

3. This notion needs qualification. After all, Dershowitz (Harvard Law School -- the Felix Frankfurter Professor, no less) and Cohen (Johns Hopkins School of International Studies) are just as ensconced in the upper reaches of academia as Mearsheimer and Walt. This is another way of saying that just as a rabid Zionism has come to inhabit the upper reaches of the State, so does it find a secure place in the Academy as well.

4. Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Its 357 pages of text and more than a 100 of endnotes in fine print are encyclopedic, and must have required a small army of assistants toiling over Lexis/Nexis.

5. After an appearance by Mearsheimer last year before the Yale Political Union (a collective of all the political groups on campus), the proposition, “Resolved, the State of Israel should be treated no differently from any other country by the United States,” passed by a large majority.

6. From the letter to Arnold Ruge, in Robert Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1978), 13.

7. Washington D.C., Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy, Inc.

8. Petras offers a much harsher view than that of M/W; see James Petras, The Power of Israel in the United States (Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2006).

9. On p. 118, in their historical passage on AIPAC, M/W observe that AIPAC’s founder, I.L. “Si” Kenan “was head of the American Zionist Council in 1951, which was a registered foreign lobbying group. Kenan reorganized it as a US lobbying organization -- the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs -- in 1953-54, and the new organization was renamed AIPAC in 1959.” Nothing disturbing about that. The dates here are highly significant, though the work exploring their significance has yet to be written. 1953 was the year in which Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed, terroristically winding up the Show Trial of the Century concerning the loyalty of American Jews. The Rosenberg Case was the watershed of a profound turn away from the tradition of Jewish left-radicalism and toward the conservative position essential for the functioning of the Zionist lobbies.

10. The matter of espionage by American Jews on behalf of Israel is relevant here, for example, Jonathan Pollard, or the espionage case of two AIPAC officials, Keith Weissman and Steven Rosen, which is grinding on as of this writing. Whatever the outcome, M/W are certainly not entitled to say that it is a priori “wrong” to question their loyalty.

11. Ines Ehrlich, “Shoah survivors forced back to Germany due to Israel's lack of restitution laws. Documentary [on Israel’s Channel 2] shows Israel worst place for Holocaust survivors to live throughout Western world. Hundreds protest outside Knesset, demand government help survivors with financial difficulties.” Israel News, April 16, 2007.,7340,L-3388445,00.html

12. London: Pluto Press, 2007. See especially Chapters 1, 2, 7 and 8.

13. The American Conservative January 26, 2009.