Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A Critical Experiment in the Making

The Mearscheimer-Walt hypothesis – that the Israel lobby influences U.S. policy towards the Middle East more than any other causal factor (including rationally defensible assessments of “the national interest”) – is about to be tested. Let me explain:

In The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud distinguished illusions from delusions. Illusions are beliefs that are sustained not because they satisfy rational criteria for belief acceptance but because they express unconscious desires. Therefore illusions could be true beliefs, though they usually are not. Delusions are illusions maintained in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. Freud regarded belief in God as an illusion; someone’s belief that he or she is God would be a delusion.

Before the Iraq War, the neoconservative goal of transforming Middle Eastern countries into weak, investment friendly, Israel friendly states with governments similar to the one in the US was an illusion in Freud’s sense. Just as belief in God is defended by ingenious, though ultimately fatuous, arguments, so too were neoconservative proposals for remaking that part of the world. But the neoconservative position was vulnerable to real time confutation. This happened within months of the time the first phase of their project, the subjugation of Iraq, began. Some of them still blame the failure of the Iraq War on the Bush administration’s incompetence; some of them still think that the hapless General Petraeus will turn defeat into victory. But these are delusions in Freud’s sense. In 2003, the neocons and their fellow travelers – Dick Cheney, for example, and George W. Bush – were only fooling themselves, as Freud thought people do when they believe in God. In 2007, with four years worth of incontrovertible evidence attesting to their foolishness, they’ve gone beyond that, just as people do when they believe that they are God.

Strictly speaking, the neoconservative movement is not the same thing as the Israeli lobby, though there is as little political space between them as, say, between Bill and Hillary Clinton. For most purposes, the two are the same. Strictly speaking, neoconservatives are not the only ones affecting policy in the Bush administration. But they do run the Vice President’s office and, on all matters of interest to him, Cheney always gets his way. The Middle East is of great interest to Cheney. This is why, for all practical purposes, he is as much a part of the Israel lobby as a target of its machinations.

The most recent bout of neoconservative war mongering – target Iran -- might only be a bluff. Unlike the President, the Vice President and the neocons behind him are smart enough to think and act strategically. But evidence is mounting that Cheney and the neocons and the Israel lobby will get the war with Iran that they badly want. Seymour Hersh’s article in October 8 New Yorker supports this prediction; so too does the recent increase in Bush administration prattle about Iran’s role in fighting American troops in Iraq. In recent weeks, Fox News has, again, become the vanguard of the War Party. In short, the signs are ominous. We could well find ourselves again on the brink of a precipice.

Nixon and Kissinger sought a way out of the abject failure of their efforts to salvage Kennedy’s and Johnson’s war in Vietnam by extending hostilities into Cambodia (with thoroughly catastrophic consequences for the Cambodian people). Their desperate measure failed, of course. Cheney and Bush, knowing nothing and having learned nothing, seem primed to follow suit. Already they’re concocting (and changing) pretexts for war, just as they did before they set out to occupy Iraq. At first, it was Iran’s nuclear program that was the problem; now it’s the help Iran gives to the Iraqi insurgents who make roadside bombs (killing and maiming our troops). It’s also hinted (why not!), as it was in the early days of the Iraq War, that Al Qaeda will somehow be set back by a “preemptive” war against Iran. Whatever works – not that Cheney and Bush care much about public support. They are delusional, after all. Indeed, they may even believe that “history” will praise them for their vision and courage. And, if that isn’t enough, God is on the Decider’s side.

In reality, of course, the main beneficiary of the Iraq War has been the Iranian government. Cheney and Bush have turned Iran into a mighty regional power and, by putting the country at risk, they have strengthened nationalist and theocratic forces, empowereing the least democratic elements of Iran’s political class. In reality too, the Iranian government is eager to consolidate its gains. That’s why its spokesmen have made repeated offers to help the US establish stability in Iraq. [For a recent and conspicuous example, see The Financial Times (October 1) interview with Ali Larjani, Iran’s chief of Security. According to Larjani, if the US would just adopt a program for withdrawal (even of the weasely kind the Democrats have proposed), Iran would use its considerable influence to bolster the Iraqi government and to bring it back more fully under American control.] But reality is impotent in the face of delusion. When Iranians talk peace, Cheney and Bush prepare for war, remembering that the devil comes wrapped in sheep’s clothing!

Were the US to undertake sustained military action against Iran, even if only in the form of a (Bill) Clinton-style bombing campaign, the predictable consequences would be disastrous. The American position in Iraq would become incalculably worse, oil prices would go through the ceiling, relations with China and Russia would be set back years, and American interests at home and abroad would be in far greater jeopardy than they now are. The unpredictable consequences are worse still: they could include a full-scale regional war involving Israel and therefore nuclear weapons. That is only the most foreseeable of the unpredictable consequences.

Should it come to that, can we put it all down to Cheney’s and Bush’s delusions? Or perhaps to their delusions plus Bush’s concern with his “legacy” – as if he still has a chance not to go down in history as the worst President ever. Or perhaps, being at their wit’s end, Cheney and Bush just want to “go for broke.” No doubt, all of the above would enter into an explanation for the next war, should it come to pass. But Cheney and Bush can’t force the entire government – including the military and the intelligence establishment – into doing what is so clearly irrational and contrary to American interests on their own. They will need support – not from we the people, but from our political class. They will need the support of the people the Israel lobby controls. The executive branch is full of such people; Congress is even fuller. As they go, so goes the nation. If the US attacks Iran, it will be because Israel and therefore the Israel lobby wants it to happen.

To be sure, the Israeli right (and increasingly too, the Israeli center and center-left) and the neocons are of one mind. But, after Iraq, the neocons no longer have the clout they once did. They still have the Vice President’s office and Joe Lieberman and Fox News and The Weekly Standard but nobody in “the mainstream” takes any of them seriously anymore. Disgracefully servile as they may be, mainstream – aka “liberal -- media are at least not delusional. Neither are most Republicans and nearly all Democrats. If Cheney and Bush do manage to concoct a war against Iran in the face of so much opposition, if they succeed in doing something so plainly wrong-headed, the only plausible explanation is that what Israel wants Israel gets – thanks to the effectiveness of the Israel lobby.

The lobby used to be a taboo subject. It has become less so recently thanks to two best-selling books: Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (Simon & Schuster, 2006) and John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s scrupulously documented and carefully argued The Israel Lobby (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007). Both books have been smeared by the usual suspects, though Carter’s reproaches towards Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank are so tepid and incontrovertible that it takes considerable ingenuity to find something to dispute. Perhaps this is why so many of Carter’s critics criticized his book without reading it (or so one must infer based on the criticisms they advance). Mearsheimer and Walt’s book is different. At least some of its claims are disputable.

For one thing, their explanation of the lobby’s influence is arguably too “mainstream” insofar as it relies uncritically on standard accounts of interest group politics. [Mearscheimer’s and Walt’s reliance on the explanatory strategies of mainstream political science effectively allows them to formulate their explanations in ways that cannot reasonably give rise to spurious charges of anti-Semitism. However, for the legions of American Zionists, both Jewish and Christian, who defend Israel with the mindless zeal with which Stalinists once defended the Soviet Union, this is evidently of no account!] Mearscheimer and Walt also rely too much on second-hand, journalistic accounts, and too little on primary sources. [This last reproach is forgivable inasmuch as it will take years before primary sources become accessible.]

But it is their explanandum, their object of explanation, that is most debatable. They may have overdrawn and therefore misrepresented the phenomenon they invoke the Israel lobby to explain. This is far too vast a question to examine here. I will therefore only venture the opinion that they do correctly describe the vicissitudes of American policy towards Israel/Palestine, and that they are right in their assessment of the role the Israel lobby has come to play in determining American policy in this domain. But I am more wary of their contention that the Israel lobby exercises similar powers over the entirety of American Middle East policy. I am especially wary of their account of the lobby’s role in instigating the Iraq War. Israel had little fear of Saddam Hussein’s military or its non-existent “weapons of mass destruction”; not even the Israeli right claimed that Iraq posed an “existential threat” to Israel. Of course, Israelis did prefer that the American, not the Iraqi, army control Iraq; and they would certainly have been pleased had a stable and successful pro-U.S. government been installed there. Therefore, once the war was in the works, Israel and therefore the Israel lobby supported it. They made the neoconservative vision their own. But it is far from clear how much effect the lobby, as opposed to influential neoconservatives in the Bush administration, had. Had the lobby opposed the war, would it still have happened? It is impossible to say. Would the war not have happened, but for their support? This is what Mearscheimer and Walt believe. However on this too, the jury is out.

But a critical test of the Mearscheimer-Walt hypothesis, or at least of the part of it that concerns Iran, will take place over the next few months. Rightly or (almost certainly) wrongly, the Israeli government – and most Israelis – do consider Iran an “existential threat.” As Mearscheimer and Walt maintain, the lobby’s main interest all along has been to overthrow the Iranian theocracy and replace it with a government as friendly to Israel’s as in the days of the Shah. For Israel and its lobby, even when Iraq was the focus of attention, Iran, along with Syria, was the ultimate target. It is clear that the lobby is now working overtime, through its contacts in the media and in the administration, to make a war happen. Given how utterly and transparently contrary to US interests a war with Iran would be, and inasmuch as no one outside neoconservative circles wants a war – certainly not anyone in the military or the intelligence establishment and not even in the saner regions of the Bush administration – this will be a test of the lobby’s might. Thus the jury may not stay out on the Mearscheimer-Walt hypothesis for long; it may not be necessary to wait for archives to open or for Bush administration functionaries to publish their books. A critical experiment is in the making; decisive evidence may come in sooner than we think.

Whatever happens, one thing is overwhelmingly clear already: the leadership of the Democratic Party will do the lobby’s bidding. So will the “electable” candidates. At last week’s “debate,” when Mike Gravel accused Hillary Clinton of voting yet again for war – this time by supporting the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment to authorize the use of force against Iran – she could only respond with one of her contrived belly laughs (as if in an attempt to achieve one of those “here we go again” moments Ronald Reagan found so useful). Barack Obama is not much better, though at least he had the decency not to cast a vote. John Edwards did criticize the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment. But he has never renounced his shameful pandering on Iran at the Herzilya Conference earlier this year. To this day, he will not rule out a “military option.”

There is still a chance that sanity will prevail. But Cheney and Bush have proven themselves time and again immune from rational persuasion and indifferent to public opinion. However they are weak and isolated, and cannot go it alone. For them and the neocons behind them to get the war they want, they need the help, or at least the neutrality, of key sectors of the political class. This is why the best chance, maybe the only chance, of stopping Cheney and Bush is a vigorous Democratic display of opposition to more military adventures. That’s exactly what we’re not getting, and not likely to get. Clinton may be beyond hope, but perhaps Obama and Edwards are not. Now is the time to pressure them unstintingly; to force them to prove Mearscheimer and Walt wrong. The future of the neocons’ delusion is not yet settled. There is still time to act – to force the more “progressive” Democrats to act like progressives, to use the power they have. As long as they remain abjectly in the thrall of the Israel lobby, the prospects for avoiding disaster are dim. Then indeed -- here we go again.

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