April 20, 2006

 Realism meets real life, continued

The row over the the notorious paper on the Israel lobby by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt rumbles on in the letters page of the London Review of Books - including a surprisingly temperate piece by Alan Dershowitz, making some amends for this earlier rant. Mearsheimer & Walt will reply in the next issue (4 May).

There's a good post by Jacob Levy that makes the point that Mearsheimer and Walt have a nave idea of American society amd the struggle between interest groups. How can two very bright guys like the authors succeed in brutally competitive top-rank universities, located in in hard-bitten cities like Chicago and Boston, without apparently learning how politics actually works?

They are rated academics and I'm a foreign amateur, but here's my pennyworth. You should distinguish between a lobby, a pressure group, and a political coalition. A paradigm lobby is the American Sugar Alliance or the RIAA: a body of fixers in Washington hired by a special interest to persuade the government to adopt a biased policy, by argument if possible and if not by legal forms of bribery and extortion. That's the American way; what keeps politics half-way honest is competition between lobbies, which is why Tom DeLay's "K Street project" has such a sinister whiff of corporatism. When a lobby is connected to a grassroots base you have a pressure group, like the NRA or AARP. Unlike the sugar people, these have members, T-shirts, bumper stickers, Internet trolls and even actual arguments as well as a Beltway office. When you bring together a network of lobbies, grassroots organisations, publicists, and pressure groups you have a coalition or movement, like the Christian Right or the pre-Civil War abolitionists. It's pretty obvious that the pro-Israel camp is a coalition/movement not a lobby. It includes AIPAC, a true lobby; pressure groups like the ADL; a group of neocon publicists and policy wonks round Commentary and in think tanks; and franc-tireurs on their own. You can't pay tenured scholars like Daniel Pipes and Alan Dershowitz to set up as academic vigilantes - supposing anyone would want to. And the dovish Jewish electorate as a whole, which still mostly votes and contributes Democratic regardless, is plainly not part of the movement, but its target for mobilisation.

Armed with such basic distinctions, you can ask some interesting questions about the dynamics and permanence of the coalition. Try this thought experiment. Peace Now comes to power in Israel - very unlikely but not impossible. AIPAC would presumably change its tune on settlements, like the Vicar of Bray. But would Perle, Feith, Podhoretz, or Dershowitz? A smaller move to the left in Israel is already opening up some cracks on Iran.

I think Mearsheimer and Walt ask the wrong question. They ask "How come the pro-Israel coalition consistently secures biased US policies against the national interest?" The coalition just has a different idea of the national interest - I'll come back to this in another post. You don't need to take a position on the merits to see that something very odd is going on. I would ask instead:
* how come US policy towards Israel is consistently more hawkish (pro-settlements, repression not negotiation) than the views not only of of median Americans but of median American Jews?
* how come US support for Israel has become steadily more unconditional since the latter's creation, in inverse proportion to Israel's actual vulnerability?

More skilful propaganda and lobbying than the other side, better smoke and mirrors, are part of the story, but can these really move policy on a central matter of state on such a large scale and so long a term? I don't buy it; there must be deeper causes. My guess is that the second question holds the key to the first. It's not that American Jews have become more numerous or politically active since 1948 - the melting-pot seethes away making them ever less different. One factor is surely the Republican decision to try to split the previously solidly Democratic Jewish vote and political contributions. This has led to a bidding war on support to Israel, absolutely the only card the Republicans have to play to appeal to this ethnic group. (A Mel Brooks campaign moment: "Jews for Genesis!" "Jews for Social Security privatisation!" "Jews against stem cell research!" "Jews for the flat tax"!) Imagine a bidding war for the black vote. New Orleans would be rebuilt by now.

The Republican play is not just tactical. The strange wooing of the Christian Right by a small but influential group of assimilated, ex-Marxist, Jewish intellectuals has psychological dimensions I don't understand any more than M&W do. On both sides, there seem to be existential debts that can now only be paid by supporting Israel, right or wrong; tapping also into unending grief for the Shoah, the decisive impulse to Israel's creation. This gives the movement the hysterical excesses we saw in the reaction to M&W, but also its deep emotional strength. Politics is about passions, not just calculations.
More in part II.

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