Revolution #207, July 8, 2010
From A World To Win News Service
Israel and the U.S.: who is whose tool?
28 June 2010. A World to Win News Service. The American international policy professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who are critical of U.S. support for Israeli settlement expansion and its attacks on Lebanon and Gaza, argue that "the unmatched power of the Israel lobby" distorts U.S. foreign policy. Many people outraged by these crimes have been influenced by their still widely circulated article "The Israel Lobby" that first appeared in The London Review of Books in 2006 (available at lrb.co.uk) and was later expanded into a book published in 21 countries.
Their work contains much useful information about the links between the U.S. and Israel. Yet their basic theory turns reality upside down. The truth is that Israel exists largely thanks to the U.S., because it plays an essential role in American domination in the Middle East and its current quest to "stabilize" an unjust and unacceptable situation for the people. In arguing that "American interests" would be better served by less uncritical support for Israel, Mearsheimer and Walt do not really confront the nature of the U.S.—a monopoly capitalist country whose wealth and power are inextricably linked to a global empire of exploitation and oppression. Nor do they thoroughly deal with the nature of Israel as a colonial settler state whose existence itself is no more defensible than the apartheid regime in South Africa.
This greatly weakens their critique of the U.S.-Israel nexus and reduces it to wishful thinking. That's especially dangerous at a time when the U.S. is trying to have it both ways, to do everything possible to support Israel's continued existence and aggression and at the same time try to appear as a friend to the Palestinians.
Despite their academic prominence, these two scholars have been the object of a Zionist hate campaign and an intellectual boycott, especially in the U.S. It is shameful that so many writers and public figures who explode in the face of any criticism of Israel have tried to silence Mearsheimer and Walt by pinning the label of anti-Semitism on them. But while these two consider themselves critical friends of Israel, it is true, as their attackers realize and they do not, that once you start to analyze Israel from the point of justice for all, the whole Zionist enterprise can be called into question.
In fact, their argument is essentially similar to the all-too-common idea among the masses of people in the world and the U.S. itself, that U.S. crimes in the greater Middle East and beyond can be explained by "Jewish pressure groups" rather than a system that basically can't work any other way.
The following reply to Mearsheimer and Walt was written in April by Stephen Maher, who describes himself as a graduate student at the American University School of International Service who has lived in the West Bank. We are reprinting it from his blog rationalmanifesto.blogspot.com and electronicintifada.org. While we do not share some important elements of his analysis, we welcome both his basic conclusion and his method of taking all the facts into account and testing ideas against reality.
Many of Israel's critics blame an "Israel lobby" for the near-total complicity of the U.S. in Israeli annexation, colonization and cleansing programs in the occupied West Bank. This complicity continues to the present, despite the "row" that erupted after the Israeli government humiliated U.S. Vice President Joe Biden by announcing the construction of 1,600 settlement units in occupied East Jerusalem while he was visiting the country. Indeed, despite the apparent outrage expressed by top White House officials, the administration has made clear that its criticism of Israel will remain purely symbolic. However, as we shall see, the lobby thesis does little to explain U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Years after Noam Chomsky, Stephen Zunes, Walter Russell Mead and many others published their critiques of the Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer "Israel lobby" thesis, many of the sharpest critics of Israel continue to attribute U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East to the influence of the lobby. Given the prevalence of the Israel lobby argument, and the latest diplomatic confrontation between the U.S. and Israel, it is important to revisit the flaws in the thesis, and properly attribute U.S. behavior to the large concentrations of domestic political and economic power that truly drive U.S. policy.
U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is similar to that which is carried out elsewhere in the world, in regions free of "the lobby's" proclaimed corrupting effects. The inflated level of support that the U.S. lends Israel is a rational response to the particular strategic importance of the Middle East, the chief energy-producing region of the world. By building Israel into what Noam Chomsky refers to as an "offshore U.S. military base," it is able to protect its dominance over much of the world's remaining energy resources, a major lever of global power. As we shall see, those blaming the lobby for U.S. policy once again misunderstand the U.S.'s strategic interests in the Middle East, and Israel's central role in advancing them.
Geopolitics and the U.S.-Israeli relationship
A central claim of the "Israel lobby" thesis is that the "lobby," however defined, overwhelmingly shapes U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Thus, if the argument were true, its proponents would have to demonstrate that there is something qualitatively unique about U.S. policy towards the Middle East compared with that in other regions of the world. Yet upon careful analysis, we find little difference between the purported distortions caused by the lobby and what is frequently referred to as the "national interest", governed by the same concentrations of domestic power that drive U.S. foreign policy elsewhere.
There are states all around the world that perform similar services to Washington as Israel, projecting U.S. power in their respective regions, whose crimes in advancing Washington's goals are overtly supported and shielded from international condemnation. Take for instance the 30 years of U.S. support for the horrors of the Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor. In addition to the use of rape and starvation as weapons, and a gruesome torture regime, Indonesian president Suharto slaughtered 150,000 persons out of a population of 650,000. These atrocities were fully supported by the U.S., including supplying the napalm and chemical weapons indiscriminately used by the Indonesian army, which was fully armed and trained by the U.S. As Bill Clinton said, Suharto was "our kind of guy."
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, U.S. ambassador to the UN at the time of the Indonesia invasion, later wrote that "the Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook" to end the butchering of the East Timorese, a goal he carried out with "no inconsiderable success." Yet this support was not due to the influence of an "Indonesia lobby." Rather, planners had identified Indonesia as one of the three most strategically important regions in the world in 1958, as a result of its oil wealth and important role as a link between the Indian and Pacific oceans.
In some regions, as in Latin America where U.S. clients like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, and terrorist armies like the Nicaraguan Contras, spent years murdering defenseless peasants demanding basic human rights, the threat is mostly one of "successful defiance"; that is, a country defying U.S. orders and getting away with it. Should the U.S. tolerate one such case, the logic goes, it will embolden resistance to its dictates elsewhere. The danger underlying such defiance—referred to as "the threat of a good example" by Oxfam—is that a country will implement a successful model for independent development, refusing U.S. dictates and seeking to direct much-needed resources to serve the needs of the domestic population instead of wealthy foreign investors.
Such thinking is deeply institutionalized and exhibited by U.S. policy worldwide, going back to the very beginnings of the modern imperial era after World War II. It was clear from early in the war that the U.S. would emerge as the dominant world power in its aftermath, and so the State Department and Council on Foreign Relations began planning to create a post-war international order in which the U.S. would "hold unquestioned power." One way it planned to do so was gaining control of global energy resources, primarily those of Saudi Arabia, which were referred to at the time as "the greatest material prize in history" by the U.S. State Department.
As Franklin Roosevelt's "oil czar" Harold Ickes advised, control of oil was the "key to postwar political arrangements" since a large supply of cheap energy is essential to fuel the world's industrial capitalist economies. This meant that with control of Middle Eastern oil, particularly the vast Saudi reserves, the U.S. could keep its hand on the spigot that would fuel the economies of Europe, Japan and much of the rest of the world. As U.S. planner George Kennan put it, this would give the United States "veto power" over the actions of others. Zbigniew Brzezinski has also more recently discussed the "critical leverage" the U.S. enjoys as a result of its stranglehold on energy supplies.
Thus in the Middle East it is not simply "successful defiance" that the U.S. fears, nor merely independent development. These worries are present as well, but there is an added dimension: should opposition threaten U.S. control of oil resources, a major source of U.S. global power is placed at risk. Under the Nixon administration, with the U.S. military tied down in Vietnam and direct intervention in the Middle East to defend vital strategic interests unlikely, military aid to pre-revolution Iran (acting as an American regional enforcer) skyrocketed. Amnesty International's conclusion in 1976 that "no country has a worse human rights record than Iran" was ignored, and U.S. support increased, not because of an "Iran lobby" in the U.S., but rather because such support was advancing U.S. interests.
Strategic concerns also led the U.S. to support other oppressive, reactionary regimes, including Saddam Hussein's worst atrocities. During the Anfal genocide against the Kurds, Iraqi forces used chemical weapons provided by the U.S. against Kurdish civilians, killed perhaps 100,000 persons, and destroyed roughly 80 percent of the villages in Iraqi Kurdistan, while the U.S. moved to block international condemnation of these atrocities. Again, supporting crimes that serve the "national interest" set by large corporations and ruling elites, and shielding them from international criticism, is the rule, not the exception.
It is no coincidence that the U.S.-Israel relationship crystallized after Israel destroyed the independent nationalist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser in a pre-emptive attack in 1967, permanently ending the role of Egypt as a center of opposition to U.S. imperialism. Since before World War II, Saudi Arabia had happily served as an "Arab facade," veiling the hand of the true ruling power on the Arabian peninsula, to borrow British colonial terminology. With Nasser's Arab nationalist rhetoric "turning the whole region against the House of Saud," the threat he posed to U.S. power was serious. In response, the State Department concluded that the "logical corollary" to U.S. opposition to Arab nationalism was "support for Israel" as the only reliable pro-U.S. force in the region. Israel's destruction and humiliation of Nasser's regime was thus a major boon for the U.S., and proved to Washington the value of a strong alliance with a powerful Israel.
This unique regional importance is one reason for the tremendous level of aid Israel receives, including more advanced weaponry than that provided to other U.S. clients. Providing Israel with the ability to use overwhelming force against any adversary to the established order has been a pivotal aspect of U.S. regional strategy. Importantly, Israel is also a reliable ally—there is little chance that the Israeli government will be overthrown and the weapons end up in the hands of anti-Western Islamic fundamentalists or independent nationalists as happened in Iran in 1979.
Today, with the increased independence of Europe, and the hungry economies of India and China growing at breakneck speed along with their demand for dwindling energy resources, control over what is left is more crucial than ever. In the September 2009 issue of the Asia-Africa Review, China's former Special Envoy to the Middle East Sun Bigan wrote that "the U.S. has always sought to control the faucet of global oil supplies," and suggested that since Washington would doubtless work to ensure that Iraqi oil remained under its control, China should look elsewhere in the region for an independent energy source. "Iran has bountiful energy resources," Bigan wrote, "and its oil gas reserves are the second biggest in the world, and all are basically under its own control" (emphasis added).
It is partially as a result of this independence that Israel's strategic importance to the U.S. has increased significantly in recent times, particularly since the Shah's cruel, U.S.-supported dictatorship in Iran was overthrown in 1979. With the Shah gone, Israel alone had to terrorize the region into complying with U.S. orders, and ensure that Saudi Arabia's vast oil resources remain under U.S. control. The increased importance of Israel to U.S. policy was illustrated clearly as its regional strategy shifted to "dual containment" during the Clinton years, with Israel countering both Iraq and Iran.
With Iran developing technology that could eventually allow it to produce what are referred to in the February 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review as "anti-access weapons" or weapons of mass destruction that prevent the U.S. from being able to freely use force in any region of the world, this is a crucial moment in Washington's struggle to seize control of Iran. This confrontation, stemming from the desire of the U.S. to control its oil and destroy a base of independent nationalism, makes U.S. support for Israel strategically crucial.
The "Israel lobby" and U.S. pressure
If we adopt "the lobby" hypothesis, we would predict that the U.S. would bend to Israel's will when the interests of the two states diverge, acting against its "national interest." Yet if U.S. policies in the Middle East were damaging its "national interest," as proponents of the lobby argument claim, that must mean that such policies have been a failure. This leads one to ask: a failure for whom? Not for U.S. elites, who have secured control of the major global energy resources while successfully crushing opposition movements, nor for the defense establishment, and most certainly not for the energy corporations. In fact, not only is U.S. policy towards the Middle East similar to that towards other regions of the world, but it has been a profitable, strategic success.
Indeed, the U.S.'s policy towards Israel and the Palestinians is not to achieve an end to the occupation, nor to bring about respect for Palestinian rights—in fact, it is the actor primarily responsible for preventing these outcomes. To the U.S., Israel's "Operation Defensive Shield" in 2002 had sufficiently punished the Palestinians and their compliant U.S.-backed leadership for their intransigence at Camp David. While the Palestinian Authority was already acting as Israel's "subcontractor" and "collaborator" in suppressing resistance to Israeli occupation, in the paraphrased words of former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's deliberate destruction of Palestinian institutions provided the opportunity to rebuild them, and ensure an even greater degree of U.S. control.
The settlement and annexation programs help guarantee Israeli control over the most valuable Palestinian land and water resources, ensuring Israel will remain a dominant society not easily pressured by its neighbors. To help achieve these goals, the U.S. shields Israeli expansion behind a "peace process" in hopes that given enough time the Palestinians will concede more and more of what was once theirs. The primary concern is to present the appearance that the U.S. and Israel are ardently crusading for peace, battling against those who oppose this noble objective. Though it is true that people across the region are appalled and outraged by Israeli crimes, such anger is a small consideration next to the strategic gain of maintaining a strong, dependent ally in the heart of the Middle East.
The reconstitution of an even more tightly controlled Palestinian Authority, with General Keith Dayton directly supervising the Palestinian security forces, enabled the U.S. to meet these goals while more effectively suppressing resistance to the occupation. Likewise, redeploying Israeli soldiers outside of Gaza allowed Sharon a free hand to continue the annexation of the West Bank while being heralded internationally as a "great man of peace."
The treatment of Israel by the mainstream U.S. media is also standard for all U.S. allies. Coverage in the corporate press is predictably skewed in favor of official U.S. allies and against official enemies, a well-documented phenomenon. Thus, proponents of the lobby thesis are missing the forest for the trees. What they see as the special treatment of Israel by the mainstream press is actually just the normal functioning of the U.S. media and intellectual establishment, apologizing for and defending crimes of official allies while demonizing official enemies.
Of course, this is not to argue that there are not organizations in the U.S., like the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and AIPAC [the lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee] that seek to marginalize dissent from Israeli policy in every forum possible. Rather, I am pointing out that the power of these groups pales in comparison to other, far more powerful, interests and concerns. While the AJC or ADL may mobilize for the firing of a professor critical of Israel, for example, that argument is amplified by the elite-owned and controlled press because doing so serves their interests. Likewise, AIPAC can urge unwavering support for Israel on the part of the U.S. government, but without the assent of other far more powerful interests, like the energy corporations and defense establishment, AIPAC's efforts would amount to little. U.S. policy, like that of other states, is rationally planned to serve the interests of the ruling class.
Israel could not sustain its aggressive, expansionist policies without U.S. military aid and diplomatic support. If the Obama administration wanted to, it could pressure Israel to comply with international law and resolutions, join the international consensus, and enact a two-state solution. While the "Israel lobby" thesis conveniently explains his failure to do so and absolves U.S. policy-makers of responsibility for their ongoing support of Israeli apartheid, violence and annexation, it simply does not stand up under closer scrutiny.
A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (aworldtowin.org), a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.
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