Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Thursday, April 27, 2006
This seems to be Steve Sailer week at Gideon's Blog. Anyhow, I never got around to commenting on that infamous academic paper denouncing the Israel lobby. Sailer, of course, has spent considerable ink defending the legitimacy of the paper (though not necessarily every claim contained in it). He's got another post on the topic here. From where I sit, I think Sailer - and Richard Cohen - are spot-in.

I thought the paper was not especially well-written or researched, a pretty shoddy piece of work all around. I also thought it was ludicrous to call it anti-Semitic, and that its central claim - that the Israel lobby has broad reach, enormous clout, uses charges of anti-Semitism to insulate itself from criticism, and has a demonstrable impact on American foreign policy - is unarguable. The biggest problem with the paper is not what it says but what it doesn't say, namely: that the Israel lobby, while one of the most significant foreign policy lobbies, is far from unique; the oil industry is one lobby that can go toe-to-toe with AIPAC, and the Saudis, while far less public in their propaganda efforts and (consequently) less broad in their reach, are not exactly absent from the corridors of power in Washington. The Cuban lobby unquestionably exerts more influence over America's policy toward Cuba than the Israel lobby does towards our policy in the Middle East, even though the Israel lobby is unquestionably more powerful, for the simple reason that the Middle East matters a whole lot more than Cuba does and, consequently, there are lots of lobbying groups in Washington acting to counter AIPAC (not explicitly, but in practical effect) where there is virtually no counter-balancing lobby on the question of the Cuban embargo.

The biggest problem with the Israel lobby is not that it is wrong (I generally agree with it, and note that AIPAC was *not* the major cheerleader for the Iraq War), nor that it has undue influence (it has a lot of influence, but I don't see why it's undue), but that it tries, with some success, to suppress open debate. This is bad for democracy and deserves the condemnation that Richard Cohen and Steve Sailer are directing its way.

I want to point out a couple of other things Sailer said, though, that I also agree with strongly.

First, Sailer is right that the more involved America gets in the Middle East, the less indulgent it can be towards Israel. The two low points for US-Israel relations were the Eisenhower and Carter Administrations. (I think the first Bush Administration was far more friendly to Israel than is generally supposed.) Eisenhower tilted away from Israel basically because the Arab world - Egypt especially - appeared to be up for grabs between the US and the Soviets, and the US had a strong interest in trying to win that particular proxy battle in the Cold War. For that reason, Eisenhower not only tilted against Israel but against Britain in France over Suez, with lasting negative impact on Franco-American relations. It didn't do any good of course; Nasser tilted towards the Soviets anyhow. Once the Cold War battle lines firmed up, America's relationship with Israel warmed up again.

The situation under Carter was similar in that Sadat had kicked out the Soviets and tilted towards the Americans. America again had a strong incentive to tilt away from Israel in the hopes of cementing a stronger position in the Arab world vis-a-vis the Soviets, and Carter leaned heavily on the Begin government in Israel both during Camp David and thereafter. Peace with Egypt was massively in Israel's interest, as even Begin could see. Whether an opportunity was missed by Israel to "solve" the Palestinian problem after Camp David is an open question. I'm inclined to think not because the PLO had to be decisively defeated as a precondition to pursuing either a two-state solution or (far better for Israel and for American interests) the "Jordan option." But what is clear is that Begin wasn't interested in looking for a solution. Israel had not yet realized that holding onto Judea, Samaria and Gaza was not in its interests, any more than France realized in 1945 that holding onto Algeria was not in its interests. So if an opportunity actually existed, which may be questioned, it was missed. In any event, it wasn't just Carter's combination of incompetence and nastiness that soured US-Israel relations during his Presidency; it was also the result of volatility within the Arab world that made it look like there was an opportunity for the United States to gain more influence there. Again, by the time Reagan took office the lines had hardened and US-Israel relations strengthened again.

I'm far too much of a Hamiltonian in foreign policy to agree with Sailer's implicit Jeffersonianism when he says, "the American Republic could afford favoring Israel, but the American Empire cannot." But I agree with the substance of the point anyhow: when American interests require more attention to Arab sensitivities, Israel suffers, and the Iraq War unquestionably increased the degree to which American interests require more attention to Arab sensitivities. Tony Blair certainly understood this, which is why he said, before the war, that "the road to Baghdad goes through Jerusalem."

The second point of Sailer's I wanted to agree with is psychological: that many of the most ferocious neo-cons are "Israeli-wannabes" rather than more prosaically friends of Israel. That rings very, very true, and there's a good novel to be written by a thirty-something Philip Roth wannabe about right-wing baby boomer generation Jews and their psychological relationship with the Jewish State. (Heck, if I had any get-up-and go with my writing, I'd be that thirty-something Philip Roth wannabe.) To the general baby-boomer inferiority complex (remember Bush's "will we grow up before we grow old" from his 2000 convention acceptance speech) about not having been around to fight Franco, or Hitler, or Bull Connor, for some (more right-wing) American Jews one can add the inferiority complex of knowing that one had missed out on being a part of building the State of Israel, the great Jewish romantic calling of the 20th century. From personal experience, I suspect this is a not-insignificant psychological factor in the neo-con mind. Israel, as a psychological factor rather than an actual foreign country, is an elephant in the room with respect to the Iraq War. Sailer understands this nuance. He shouldn't be pilloried for that, but praised.

I want to be clear about something. I haven't changed at all in my enthusiastic support for the Jewish State and my belief that it is right and proper for America to be a great friend to Israel. But I have also changed less than might be apparent to the casual observer in my beliefs about what being a great friend entails. Being a great friend means standing by Israel when she needs us. It does not mean solving her problems for her (which we can't do) nor does it mean confusing our interests with hers (which will only get us more problems, and tempt us to solve those problems by punishing Israel). To prove that I haven't changed as much as it might seem, I'm going to quote from something I wrote (pre-blog) to friends and family (all Democrats) explaining why I was voting for Bush in 2000. (Since this was pre-blog, I can't prove I wrote it five and a half years ago, so you'll just have to trust me.)

In particular because of the current situation there [Note: this was written shortly before the new intifadeh, or Oslo War, erupted], I’m especially focused on the two candidates’ likely impact on American policy towards Israel. The Clinton Administration’s approach, I believe, has been a total disaster for the Israeli people and for the Palestinians. A real peace with the Palestinians can only come about when the Israelis and Palestinians come to agree that peace, on specific proposed terms, is in both sides’ interest. They will only come to this conclusion if they get there on their own. This does not mean that America or any other power, friendly or hostile, cannot influence the situation. But no outsider can deliver peace to the region, or secure it once signed. . . .

[Clinton's] approach to the peace negotiations in the Middle East has been to embrace Israel warmly (once it was led by someone with whom he agreed) and cajole Israel to make concessions in the interests of getting a deal on paper. He implied that Israel could securely make these concessions because they have the United States as a friend. Clinton has used the same approach on the Palestinians, but less effectively.

The result has been a dangerous psychological dependency on the United States in Israel’s Labor leadership. Too many Israeli leaders already half wished they lived in the U.S., and allowed this wish to delude themselves into believing that they lived in the U.S. But Clinton has made the problem much worse by encouraging these leaders to behave as if they were mere extensions of the U.S. This may have led them to take unwise risks because they felt that there was little downside to failure: the United States would always back them up.

But the United States can do nothing to back up Israel now, because the threat it faces is not a foreign army but potential civil war. Israel’s own army will be of little use against stone-throwing teenagers. What good is the United States going to do? The biggest threats to Israel now are the combination of its own inflated expectations, which are leading to a kind of despair as the promised peace unravels, and the threat that the conflict will be internationalized. Clinton’s embrace has contributed to the expectations, and therefore to the despair. Clinton has also contributed to the risk of internationalizing the conflict. His support for a strong world court of justice raises the risk that Israel will be officially charged with war crimes – I think this is now likely, and I have no idea how the U.S. will be able to ignore such a finding. Clinton has also actively supported the idea of some kind of UN presence in Jerusalem, which would be a disaster. His pressure to get a final peace settlement has led to the Islamization of the conflict, because Jerusalem and its mosques are now front-and-center.

It has also led to a dangerous rise in expectations among the Palestinians, a conviction that America is "in-play." Clinton’s warm embrace led some Palestinians to believe that he was going to go to bat for them against Israel in negotiations. When he didn’t, many Palestinians returned to their former conviction that America was not an "honest broker" but was biased towards the Israelis. As many Palestinians already believed this, Clinton has weakened Arafat’s own position internally by pushing him hard towards coming to Camp David, which is now seen as an act of selling out on Arafat’s part, particularly as Israel moves towards unilateral actions to protect their security in the wake of Palestinian violence.

In sum, I think Clinton has been a disaster. But Clinton is not running. Al Gore has a lengthy pro-Israel record. His VP choice is an Orthodox Jew who has been a consistent hawk on foreign policy, the leading Senate Democrat to support the Gulf War. By contrast, George Bush is an oil man from an oil state. He has actively courted Arab American votes. And his father’s administration was not known for being filled with Israel-lovers. The obvious choice on the issue is Gore.

Well, it isn’t quite as obvious as it seems. First of all, I think President Bush deserves a re-evaluation. As Vice President, he was the leader in efforts to help Jews escape from Ethiopia. He also led the effort to get the UN to rescind the Zionism-is-racism declaration. He built a U.S.-led coalition of European and Arab armies that defeated an Arab Nationalist leader on the battlefield. One can certainly quibble with how we got into the mess in the first place and to whether the war should have continued to Baghdad. But the management of the alliance and the war itself were an unarguable triumph. And the result was to significantly improve Israel’s strategic position. To the extent that peace with the Palestinians seemed genuinely possible in the early 1990s, President Bush had a lot to do with making that possible. . . .

Second, after the experience with Clinton, I seriously question whether having a "friend" of Israel in the White House is the best thing for Israel. . . .

What we know about Bush is that he’s a consensus-building kind of guy with a strong foreign policy team. He has plenty of neo-conservative advisors who are generally pro-Israel. . . . My hopeful side says that because of his pedigree and his outreach to American Arabs, Bush could work better with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to make sure that the renewed intifadah does not spiral out of control into a regional conflict. My fearful side worries that Bush will be more influenced by these countries than inclined to influence them, and that American policy will tilt against Israel, subtly shifting the balance of power in the region and leaving Israel with no choice but to make concessions she does not think it wise to make.

In the end, I don’t think Israel needs to worry that Bush will be a threat to her existence. All those threats are internal, and America can do little about them. And I think it would do Israel a lot of good to have someone in the White House who isn’t going to hold their hands – and it would do the Palestinians a lot of good as well; Clinton raised expectations there as much as he did in Israel. . . . The most important signal to send to Arafat is that the Jews aren’t going anywhere; if he wants another round of violence, the Jews can wait him out. But Israel cannot forget that the Palestinians aren’t going anywhere either; Israel cannot elect its own adversary. An American Administration that remembered Israel’s importance but didn’t try to solve its problems for it might have a valuable sobering effect in both Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Sorry for such a long quote. I quoted at length to point out that one can be a cheerleader for a strong US-Israel relationship without falling into the trap of thinking our interests are identical or even that it serves Israel's interests for America to behave as if our situation is similar to Israel's. And to point out that I understood this in 2000, back when I was a McCainiac, a regular subscriber to The Weekly Standard, and someone who had kind (and ignorant) words for Ahmad Chalabi.