Thursday, April 06, 2006

Response to Daniel Drezner on the Israel Lobby

Kudos to Daniel Drezner promoting further debate on the Israel Lobby issue. I will attempt to answer the responses to The Israel Lobby cited by Dan.

The first critic is Josef Joffe:
Would they all have to apply to the self-appointed guardians of the national interest for certification as true Americans? Do they have to be a Hancock or Huntington if they want to speak up? Let's say I am a Ukrainian-American. Am I automatically suspect because I plead for an American policy that would resist Russian pressure against Kiev? I certainly would want to be opposed on the basis of my analysis, and not of my presumed ethnic loyalties....
Joffe seems to be addressing two separate issues here. The "Do they have to be a Hancock or Huntington" comment asks whether your right to speak out on foreign policy issues is determined by the time of your ancestor's entry into the United States. (Presumably a "Hancock" means somebody whose ancestors came over early.)

That is a fair question. My take is that any American, regardless of the time of immigration, should have the same rights to support foreign policies. And in my reading of Mearsheimer/Walt I don’t see anything that suggests they disagree. Nowhere do they make the argument that members of the pro-Israel lobby should be "banned" from supporting Israel simply because they haven’t been in the United States as long as the Huntingtons.

The other issue is whether or not "hyphenated" Americans (such as a Ukrainian-American) have the right to advocate specific US policy directions with regards to the country their ancestors came from. And this, I believe, is a point worth discussing. It can be inferred from the M/W paper that excessive advocacy of US policy towards a "home" country can produce outcomes that are not favorable to the US as a whole.

But what exactly constitutes excessive? In my mind that's far from clear. For instance, if I’m a Norwegian-American and I advocate extensive US military support for Norway then I would say that is fine. But what if Norway is in a bloody war with Sweden, brutally occupying a large portion of it, causing severe grief for the native Swedish population? If the Norwegian-American influence is roughly equal to the Swedish-American influence the I still think we're fine.

But, for argument's sake, let’s say it’s not just a few Mid-Western Norwegian-Americans and I. Imagine that Norwegians occupy a special place of power in American society, both in terms of intellect and money. We’re 3.7% of the population, but 23% of the wealthiest 400 Americans. We count among us 45% of leading intellectuals, 30% of professors at major Universities, 21% of high-level civil servants, 40% of partners in leading law firms in New York and Washington, DC, 26% of the members of print broadcast media, 59% of writers, directors and producers of top-50 grossing movies. (Numbers from "Exceptionalism" via Matthew Yglesias.) Now, does it seem wise to allow Norwegians to support their native "Land of the Fjords" however they see fit? Should the US allow Norwegian-Americans in senior Defense Department positions, for instance?

In my view it would be very un-American to screen cabinet members based on ethnic/national background. And it would be even worse to prevent certain immigrant groups from acquiring wealth or prominence in media, academia or other important places in society. Maybe it would be prudent for a Norwegian-American member of Congress, say, to excuse himself from certain votes about aid to Scandinavia. But such restrictions might be difficult to enforce.

However, if I’m reading M/W correctly, they are not specifically advocating any extreme un-democratic measures to "keep Norwegians out" of positions of power. What they do advocate is a right to demand full transparency. Attempts by pro-Norwegian groups to intimidate pro-Swedes by calling them "racist" should not be tolerated.

That, to me, seems to be the central point of the paper: The Israel Lobby works in subtle, non-accountable ways that have produced a current state of affairs where any critic of contemporary Israeli policies towards Arabs or anybody else is immediately labeled "Anti-Semite". And this has consequences for work and social relations, especially in the media. Saying the "wrong thing" about Israel can kill a professional journalist or politician's career prospects. Matt Yglesias put it well:
Last but by no means least, I'm going to make one final point that requires me to constantly re-iterate that I'm Jewish, lest the anti-semitism police come after me. But (I'm Jewish) I (I'm Jewish) hold (I'm Jewish) to (I'm Jewish) the (I'm Jewish) radical (I'm Jewish) proposition (I'm Jewish) that (I'm Jewish) America's (I'm Jewish) policy (I'm Jewish) toward (I'm Jewish) Israel (I'm Jewish) should (I'm Jewish) be (I'm Jewish) primarily (I'm Jewish) concerned (I'm Jewish) with (I'm Jewish) the (I'm Jewish) interests (I'm Jewish) of (I'm Jewish) America (I'm Jewish) and (I'm Jewish) not (I'm Jewish) those (I'm Jewish) of (I'm Jewish) Israel (I'm Jewish). Insistence from Bush that Sharon deal with Arafat as long as Arafat was alive and in power very well might not have accomplished anything in terms of solving the conflict or protecting Israelis from terrorism, but it certainly would have advanced other US foreign policy goals.

Dan then quotes Eliot Cohen’s Yes, It's Anti-Semitic article:
The authors dismiss or ignore past Arab threats to exterminate Israel, as well as the sewer of anti-Semitic literature that pollutes public discourse in the Arab world today. The most recent calls by Iran's fanatical -- and nuclear weapons-hungry -- president for Israel to be "wiped off the map" they brush aside as insignificant. There is nothing here about the millions of dollars that Saudi Arabia has poured into lobbying and academic institutions, or the wealth of Islamic studies programs on American campuses, though they note with suspicion some 130 Jewish studies programs on those campuses. West Bank settlements get attention; terrorist butchery of civilians on buses or in shopping malls does not. To dispute their view of Israel is not to differ about policy but to act as a foreign agent.
Cohen has a point about the lobbying done by Saudi Arabia in the US. Insofar as such lobbying is also not very transparent, it is probably not aligned with the interests of the majority of Americans. Personally, I think lobbying should be reformed in general to be made more transparent.

But I don’t see how this is a serious counter-argument to the thesis presented by M/W. First of all, the motivations of the Saudis are very different. They essentially lobby the US to ensure their own survival as heads of state. While that may not be a good thing from the point of view of Saudi citizens (who have to live under the kleptocracy) they are not geographically "expansionist" in the way that Israel is. Also, there is a rather large difference in raw scale here. The influence of Saudi residents in the US pales in comparison with the Israeli-American influence. And lastly, when was the last time you saw somebody be publicly labeled an "Anti-Arab racist" in a mainstream forum for being critical of the Saudi regime?

Having said all that, I think Saudi lobbying is essentially another part of the overall problem of hatred of the West in the Muslim world. So the "the Saudis do it too" argument is more an argument for clipping the wings of all undemocratic special-interest lobbies, rather than an argument for the benign nature of the Israel lobby's activities.

Then we have Alan Dershowitz:
First, quotations are wrenched out of context (for example, the authors distort a Ben-Gurion quote to make him appear to favor evacuation of Arabs by "brutal compulsion," when he actually said that, because an evacuation would require "brutal compulsion," it should not become "part of our programme").
Ok, this could be corrected by M/W including the full quote in their paper. I don’t see how that changes the basic tenets of their argument.
Second, facts are misstated (for example, that Israeli citizenship is based on "blood kinship," thus confusing Israel’s law of citizenship with its Law of Return; fully a quarter of Israel’s citizens are not Jewish).
Again, this may be poor wording but I don’t see how it changes any of the fundamental arguments.
And third, embarrassingly poor logic is employed (for example, whenever America and Israel act on a common interest, it must be the result of pressure from "the Lobby," and that "the mere existence of the Lobby" is proof that "support for Israel is not in the American national interest".
I don’t think this "poor logic" is pervasive in the paper. Mearsheimer/Walt point to several policies favored by Israel that have not been in the American interest. Their argument does not rest on solely on the "mere existence of the Lobby" as proof. One of many examples of diverging interests is this:
Backing Israel was not cheap, however, and it complicated America’s relations with the Arab world. For example, the decision to give $2.2 billion in emergency military aid during the October War triggered an Opec oil embargo that inflicted considerable damage on Western economies.
And this:
The relationship with Israel actually makes it harder for the US to deal with these states. Israel’s nuclear arsenal is one reason some of its neighbours want nuclear weapons, and threatening them with regime change merely increases that desire.
Bottom line, I don't think any of these three critics refute the central arguments that
  • the Israel lobby is real;
  • the Israel lobby often succeeds at changing US policy in the Middle East;
  • those changes are not always in the national interest of the United States;
  • the Israel lobby routinely intimidates and silences critics by calling them Anti-Semites;
  • there are moral issues here considering the effects on occupied Palestinians that stem from the disproporionate size of Israeli lobbying efforts vs. Arab/Palestinian lobbying.
UPDATE: frustré, one of Drezner's commenters, posted an excellent reply. Thank goodness there's somebody out there who both writes well (unlike me) and is not afraid to speak the truth:
I have been very disappointed in the reactions of otherwise smart people to this debate. The original article was sloppy, and its conclusions are questionable. But the most prominent responses -- Dershowitz, Cohen, etc. -- offer a crash course in common logical fallacies. A small sampling:

1) Guilt by association: Support for an argument from a dislikable person does not make the argument false. (David Duke also believes that the earth revolves around the sun, presumably.) Dershowitz's response paper on the Harvard website is a particularly sharp example of this logical fallacy, devoting many pages to showing how lots of bad/extreme people agree with the authors' claims. Death penalty opponents often make the same claim, asserting that since only "bad" countries (Iran, Syria) have capital punishment, then it must be wrong.

2) Non-sequitur: Pointing out that Walt and Measheimer failed to mention other lobbies (Cuban, Saudi, etc.) or the sins of other groups (Iran, the Palestinians) in no way disputes the paper's argument that the Israeli lobby is powerful and that supporting Israel is not in our best interests. Likewise, just because I neglect to detail the (plentiful) logical flaws of Walt and Mearsheimer's article here doesn't mean my arguments against its critics are invalid. Changing the subject merely evades the original argument; it does not defeat it.

3) Straw man: Nowhere in the original article can I find accusations of "occult powers," "disloyalty, subversion, or treachery," or evidence of the authors "selecting everything that is unfair, ugly, or wrong about Jews" (Cohen, Washington Post, 5 April). These would be easy arguments to defeat, but they are not contained in the original article. In fact, the authors explicitly refuse to generalize about Jews as a group, noting that "not all Jewish-Americans are part of the Lobby, because Israel is not a salient issue for many of them" and that the Israel lobby "also includes prominent Christian evangelicals."

4) Ad hominem: The basic charge of anti-Semitism proves nothing (and, I should note, is impossible to prove). Even if the authors were anti-Semitic, it does not make their argument wrong. Name-calling is a cheap tactic, not an argument. Calling me "anti-New York" doesn't disprove my argument that the Knicks suck.

5) False choice: Questioning U.S. support for Israel is not tantamount to concluding that the U.S. "no longer ha[s] a vital interest in the continued survival of the only democracy in the Middle East" (letter, London Review of Books, 6 April). The choice is not (necessarily) between supporting Israel unconditionally and condemning it to death. The authors argue that Israel would do just fine on its own; where is the contrary evidence?

6) Reductive reasoning: Dershowitz claims that the existence of terrorism in Europe and elsewhere proves that U.S. support for Israel is not the cause of its "terrorism problem." This presumes that if one terrorist act was unrelated to Israel, then they must all be unrelated. But there is no reason to believe this -- the presence of another motive in one case does not refute the existence of anti-Israeli motives in other cases.

7) Unpleasant implication: Ruth Wisse writes in the Wall Street Journal (22 March) that the authors' argument "heaps scorn on American judgment and values." This may upset people but it does nothing to disprove the argument itself. Just because one does not like the implications of an argument does not mean it is false (see: Evolution vs. Creationism).

8) Appeal to authority: We all love Dan, but being Mearsheimer's colleague at Chicago does not strengthen his argument that the paper is "piss-poor, monocausal social science." Cohen's appeal to a phony authority here is especially awkward considering that Mearsheimer, as Chicago's preeminent IR scholar, probably had some influence over Drezner's recent tenure denial. Is there a personal motive here? I have no idea -- I don't know how Mearsheimer voted, nor do I have any reason to doubt Drezner's objectivity. But anyone citing Drezner as an authority must address this potential credibility problem.

9) Hasty generalization: neither Walt nor Mearsheimer have ever written a word about the Israeli lobby over the course of their lengthy careers, and all of a sudden they are anti-Semites? No. One data point does not demonstrate a trend.

Of course, just because these critics have employed logical fallacies does not mean their arguments are wrong, either. But it does mean that Walt and Mearsheimer's critics have not made a strong case, despite apparent presumptions to the contrary.

Sadly, for all the heated replies the article has generated, I have seen none that engage the central claim of the authors, which is that the current level of support for Israel is not in the U.S. national interest. A few, but only a few, contest the argument that U.S. politicians are deterred from altering policy toward Israel in large part due to the political influence of domestic pro-Israeli actors. Most simply scream "anti-Semitism," which is a lazy scholar's way of dodging these central questions.

It is unfortunate that instead of engaging the debate, Cohen et. al chose to smear the authors with hysterical charges that only trigger emotional responses and inhibit a reasoned discussion. They lend support to Walt and Mearsheimer's assertion that those who raise the issue are met immediately with accusations of bigotry. Dershowitz and others are famous for their diatribes, but I expected better of Eliot Cohen. Shame on him for helping to muddy the waters.

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