Walter Russell Mead has a new piece in which he reiterates the argument that he’s been making for some time: namely, that U.S. policy towards Israel is not the product of special interests or lobbies, and in fact has little to do with the political views of American Jews at all. Rather, argues Mead, the U.S.’s deference to Israel is simply an expression of the views of the U.S. Christian majority. The upshot — although Mead is understandably hesitant to say so explicitly — seems to be that there’s no point attempting to change U.S. policy towards Israel, since this policy is broadly rooted in the will of the American people. I’ve already suggested some of my problems with Mead’s thesis, but it’s worth spelling out more fully just where Mead goes wrong.
To begin with, his entire argument is built around a strawman. He attributes to AIPAC’s critics the view that “the Jews” control U.S. foreign policy, calling such critics “theorists of occult Jewish power” who spin conspiracy theories about the “allegedly awesome mindbending power of Jews in the media and the allegedly irresistible power of Jewish money.” He then goes on to note, quite rightly, both that the Israel lobby relies heavily on Christians (particularly evangelical Christian Zionists) and that the views of AIPAC and other lobby organizations skew well to the right of U.S. Jews as a whole.
The problem is that no mainstream critics of the lobby (and certainly not John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who are clearly the implicit if unmentioned targets here) ever claimed that the lobby was synonymous with “the Jews”. This latter notion was primarily attributed to them by attackers who were eager to conflate such criticism with the language of traditional anti-Semitism. But on the contrary, most critics of the lobby have always been explicit both about the role of Christian Zionists and about the dovish views of American Jews. In fact, these have been among the chief complaints about the lobby: that is relies on large numbers of people who espouse a messianic Greater Israel ideology that is certain to end in disaster, and that organizations like the Conference of Presidents and the ADL skew far to the right of the Jewish community that they claim to represent. Thus Mead’s strategy is to attribute to the lobby’s critics a view that few if any of them have ever espoused, to use this nonexistent view as evidence for their basic anti-Semitism, and then to patronizingly lecture them in support of precisely the view that they actually hold.
As noted, Mead is surely correct to note that U.S. policy toward Israel does not reflect the views of the American Jewish community as a whole. However, he then goes to the opposite extreme by denying that Jews have anything to do with the power of AIPAC and the lobby. He notes that Jews make up only a small part of the electorate and that polls show broadly positive attitudes toward Israel on the part of the U.S. Christian population; for him, this demonstrates that Christian support is the key factor (indeed, virtually the only one) accounting for U.S. deference to Israel. However, this argument has several major flaws.
First, it rests on a rather naive and uncritical view of how policy is made, as if U.S. foreign policy simply flowed unproblematically from the Will Of The American People. If this were actually the case, of course, our foreign policy would look very different (we wouldn’t be in Afghanistan, to take one obvious example). But this suggests that simply to point at poll findings as a sufficient explanation for U.S. policy is inadequate, and I doubt if Mead would resort to such a simplistic explanation to explain our policy towards any country other than Israel.
Second, it rests on a similarly naive and blinkered role of political power. Mead’s entire argument for the claim that Jewish power is irrelevant to the lobby is that “[l]ess than two percent of the US population is Jewish, and Jews aren’t exactly swing voters.” Again, Mead is surely too smart to sincerely believe that political power is purely synonymous with the number of votes that a group commands. I realize that discussions of Jewish money or Jewish media influence conjure up all sorts of unsavory associations, but it is simply impossible to have a serious discussion of these issues if one does not recognize the basic fact that Jews punch above our weight in terms of political, intellectual, and financial influence. Contributions from Jews account for an enormous chunk of the donations received by the Democratic party (the exact number is difficult to ascertain), and incidents like last year’s Jane Harman scandal demonstrate the ways that this influence can be manifested in practice. Thus to simply write American Jewry out of the story when it comes to explaining the lobby’s success is fallacious; the highly mobilized hardliners with the Jewish community have been absolutely critical to this success.
Third, it rests on a simplistic and misleading reading of history. The allegedly deep, abiding, and everlasting love of the American people for Israel turns out on closer inspection to be far less than meets the eye. I suspect that most American Jews whose memories extend farther back than about 1950 would take issue with the notion that American culture is based around some inherent and eternal affection for Jews. Similarly, the attempt to portray some sort of proto-Zionism as a major force in American political culture “dating back to colonial times” requires a willful cherry-picking of the historical record. (A few months ago, Phil Weiss wrote a revealing investigation of Michael Oren’s attempts to portray Abraham Lincoln as a Zionist; following Oren’s footnote trail, Weiss found that the original sources suggest no such thing. It’s just one anecdote, but a revealing and perhaps symptomatic one.)
Mead writes that during the Cold War, “Americans gradually got into the habit of considering Israel one of our most valuable and reliable allies”. This formulation appears to be a euphemistic way of dealing with the fact that there is little evidence of Americans clamoring for an alliance with Israel prior to the 1967 war. In fact, strong support for Israel in the U.S. among Jews and non-Jews alike only came about post-1967, once the U.S. had already formed its strategic alliance with Israel. Far from the U.S.-Israel alliance springing from overwhelming popular sentiment, it would be more accurate (although still a bit simplistic) to argue on the contrary that the popular sentiment sprang out of the alliance.
Fourth, Mead’s argument overstates the importance of poll results. As I’ve written elsewhere, the fact that a majority of Americans claim to have “positive feelings” about Israel or to “support” Israel tells us very little about whether this support will manifest itself in any concrete action.
Thus Mead cites a poll finding that “53% of voters were more likely to vote for a candidate who was ‘pro-Israel’.” We should note, first, that this number is actually surprisingly low. Considering how broad the term “pro-Israel” is, it’s revealing that barely over half the voting population even considers “pro-Israel” views as a selling point in a candidate at all. But we should also note that this number tells us virtually nothing about how voters will actually behave. It suggests that a bare majority would prefer a candidate who is in some sense “pro-Israel,” all else being equal — but it says nothing about whether “pro-Israel” views are actually important enough for voters to prioritize them over other interests.
Finally, it’s worth noting that even if American public support for Israel were as overwhelming as Mead claims, this still would not by itself explain the extreme deference shown by the U.S. to its client even when Israel does things that cut against U.S. interests. To take a counterexample, think of the U.S. relationship with Britain in the 1950s. This was the very height of the Cold War special relationship; the two countries had shed enormous amounts of blood fighting alongside one another in two world wars, and the American public showed a level of goodwill toward the British that dwarfed that which they now show to Israel. (Even as late as 1997, a Harris poll showed that 63% of Americans considered the U.K. a “close ally,” compared with only 29% who felt the same about Israel.)
Yet this high level of public support for the special relationship did not prevent the U.S. from acting against the U.K. (not to mention Israel) during the 1956 Suez Crisis, when it felt that the U.K. was acting against its interests. This is one clear indication of how misleading it is to try to deduce U.S. foreign policy directly from broad indications of goodwill found in polling data. And it is a refutation of the claim that U.S. deference to Israel simply reflects standard practice between allies. Can anyone claim that a U.S. president would have the political fortitude to stand down Israel today the way that Eisenhower stood down the U.K. in 1956? The performance we’ve seen so far from the Obama administration indicates how far-fetched such a possibility is.
As I suggested at the beginning, the upshot of Mead’s piece is that critics of U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine are wasting their time trying to change it, since the American people’s deep-seated love for Israel makes this policy inevitable. We have seen the ways in which this argument fails to hold water. Yet I suspect that Mead’s real belief is not that changing our policies toward Israel/Palestine would be impossible, but that it would be undesirable; I suspect, in other words, that his arguments about U.S. public opinion are ultimately rooted in his own support for a continuation of the status quo. And I suspect, finally, that it is precisely the difficulty of making a tenable argument in support of this status quo that has caused him to fall back on the pose of the disinterested observer, and to rely on these fallacious arguments about the status quo’s inevitability.
UPDATE: Daniel Larison has a worthwhile reply to Mead that makes some similar points.