Dog wags tail (against the Israel lobby theory)

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Mondoweiss recently posted an email exchange with Ambassador Charles Freeman in which he insists that the argument I made in a recent article published by The Electronic Intifada failed in its attempt to demonstrate that the "Israel Lobby" is not the primary driver of US policy toward the Middle East.

In that article, I show that the Lobby thesis of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer is inadequate to explain US policy in the region by relying on two lines of argumentation: a) US policy in the Middle East fits with its imperial policies elsewhere in the world, in regions free of the proclaimed distortions of the lobby, and b) Israel has served the strategic interests of the US very well, and has been a crucial part of making its Middle East policy a profitable, strategic success.

In addressing a), Freeman curiously asserts that "Washington has never had to exercise a veto or pay a similar political price to protect any of [it’s other allies] from condemnation or sanctions by the international community," despite the facts I presented showing the exact opposite. I showed how the US systematically shields its allies from international condemnation, citing the examples of Saddam Hussein’s genocide against the Kurds and the brutal Indonesian invasion and thirty-year occupation of East Timor, both of which the US worked vehemently in international forums to shield from condemnation. 

It is true that a review of US vetoes in the UN reveals that Israel is the leading beneficiary of their use. But it hardly stops there. Another frequent beneficiary of such shielding was the South African apartheid regime, on whose behalf the US vetoed numerous resolutions condemning the government for attacks and violence, or criticizing its Apartheid nature. One could also look at US efforts to block the UN from criticizing Iraqi use of chemical and conventional weapons against Iranian population centers after his invasion in 1980, or the protection of Turkey’s slaughter of the Kurds as examples of diplomatic shielding of crimes of allied states, and the list does not stop there. 

As with other proponents of the Lobby thesis, Freeman points to the tremendous level of support provided by the US to Israel as evidence of the Lobby’s nefarious influence. As I addressed in my article, and briefly explore below, the exceptional level of support Israel receives is a rational response to the particular strategic importance of the Middle East, and the reliability of Israel in advancing US interests. One of the most important sources of US global power is its control of energy resources; a loss of this control would result in significant damage to US hegemony. Thus what happens in the Middle East has global implications for the US empire. The overwhelming firepower provided to Israel, which is aggressively used against any who challenge the established order, has played a central role in maintaining US control of the region, providing security for US-backed oil dictatorships as well as keeping a check on them.

Though the interests of the two states are not identical, when they do diverge Israel is forced into line and US interests prevail. This was evident in the severe military sanctions applied to Israel by the Bush administration in 2004/5, as well as successful pressure from the Clinton administration to call off an arms deal with the Chinese in 2000, just to pick two. 

Just recently, despite Obama’s unwillingness to move beyond mere words in his condemnations of Israel, Haaretz reports that "the fear of the diplomatic crisis with the United States caused the [Israeli Jerusalem Planning] system to act ‘hysterically,’ and even plans with no potential to cause national harm were postponed." The chairman of the planning committee stopped "even signing off on orders that have already been approved," and "upcoming meetings have been cancelled." "When they ask about the reason for the freeze on committee activity," architects and contractors are "told it is because of U.S. President Barack Obama." All this, without even the hint of sanctions.

As I mentioned, if one wants to claim that the influence of the Lobby causes the US to uniquely act against its interests in the Middle East, this uniqueness must be demonstrated. Unless this is done, the Lobby thesis cannot be seriously considered. This need is particularly acute once one considers the immensely greater power of such interests as the defense establishment and state-linked multinational corporations, whose contributions to political campaigns, not to mention institutionalized power within the executive branch, dwarfs that of the Lobby. The vast political influence of these groups could shut the Israel lobby down easily if they so chose, but they permit it to exist and often even amplify its voice. Do they fail to understand their interests, or are they, too, part of the Israel lobby?
The most explosive and eye-catching of Freeman’s claims is his statement that "Israel is useless for the purposes of strategic logistics or power projection." To support this assertion, he writes that "none of Israel’s neighbors will facilitate overflight for military aircraft transiting Israeli territory, let alone taking off from there." Yet he does not engage (or mention) the evidence I presented, which explored in detail the vital role Israel has played in maintaining American hegemony in the region, terrorizing the Middle East into compliance with the imperial will through its overwhelming military strength (including nuclear weapons).

Israel’s overwhelming military dominance ensures devastating punishment for those who refuse to accept that "what we say goes," in the words of George H. W. Bush. For instance, Israel did not ask permission to overfly Lebanon before its savage attacks in 1978, 1982, 1996, or 2006, nor for its numerous attacks against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Nor do such logistical concerns have any effect on the threat Israel poses to Iran, a confrontation which has the US imperial desire to control energy resources at its heart, as I explained in EI.

Freeman’s claim that Israel is "worse than irrelevant" for controlling Middle Eastern energy supplies rings somewhat hollow when we take a careful look at the facts. Apart from crushing opposition movements and threats to the established order (as in its confrontation of Arab Nationalism and Iran), Israel is and has been a constant threat to US foes in the region, and is both a source of security for and a check on America’s large, oil-producing clients. It thus serves an important role in projecting US power throughout the heart of the Middle East, the most strategically vital region on Earth. Having a reliable client that is the dominant military hegemon, and the only nuclear power in the region, overseeing the "greatest material prize in history" is, I would say, very relevant.
The example Freeman briefly points to in support of his claim that the US relationship with Israel has "frequently jeopardized [US control of oil] supplies, not contributed to securing them"  is the 1973 oil shock. Indeed, it was more intense than the 1967 oil embargo, because it was accompanied by production cuts (since oil is a fungible commodity, an embargo is meaningless without cuts in production as well). In truth, the Saudi monarchy collaborated with the US on the embargo to the fullest extent possible, even secretly continuing to ensure supplies of oil to the US Navy in the Mediterranean and its forces in Vietnam.

There can be no doubt that one reason for such compliance on the part of the Saud – the most important US ally in the world – was the overwhelming power of the Israeli military. Not only does such military power pose an implicit threat to the Saudi regime, but it is also an essential provider of security for the regime against potential rivals – both internalluy and externally – who may seek to take greater advantage of widespread public anger.
Had the Saudis not used the "oil weapon" against the US in ’67 and ’73 (widely seen even at the time as Israel’s patron), widespread anger would have put the continued rule of the monarchy at risk. As in 1967, faced with little alternative, the Saudis enacted an embargo while doing their best to manage and minimize its effects in constant coordination with US officials. Subsequently, the oil wealth that was accumulated from the increased oil prices was used like an executive branch discretionary fund, which financed imperial activities all over the world. 

The pressure that the population of Saudi Arabia was able to put on the regime in the case of the oil embargoes also helps explain another of Israel’s values as an ally — its reliability. Unlike in the Arab states, there is no chance of a coup or revolution there that would produce a government that would resist US objectives, as happened in Iran in 1979. The US can safely transfer the most advanced weaponry to Israel, without fear of it falling into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists or independent nationalists.

Freeman’s assertions that "the US has no bases or troop presence in Israel," and that "Israeli bases are not for US use" can be dismissed as irrelevant, since the main purpose of maintaining Israel as a client is precisely to avoid the need to use US forces directly. Instead, planes provided by the US "gratis," as Freeman says, are flown by Israeli pilots, dropping US bombs and enforcing regional order and "stability" — in other words, US control. Thus, contrary to the view of Freeman and other proponents of the Lobby thesis, the armaments, material support, and economic benefits supplied Israel by the United States guarantee it this regional primacy, and are a central part of its regional strategy.

Unfortunately, not all the criticism published has been as civilized or honest as that offered by Charles Freeman. The intellectually vacant rant that Idrees Ahmad posted both here and on Pulse is one example which caught my eye. In his piece, he refuses to engage the arguments I advance, but says I "purloined" the work of others, "misused sources," and "constructed a slipshod argument." Since he offers no challenge to my argument, the third of these charges can be dismissed immediately. If I have indeed constructed a "slipshod argument," it is up to Mr. Ahmad to demonstrate it. Instead, in the true fashion of great heroes of rhetorical debate like Allan Dershowitz, he proceeds instead to smear me, making one baseless accusation after the next and grossly distorting what I wrote.

Since I don’t want to dignify such a cheap smear by elevating it to the same level as Mr. Freeman’s respectful critique, I will keep my response to Mr. Ahmad brief. His accusation that I misused sources is based on the charges that a) Ahmad claims both Zbigniew Brzezinski and George Kennan oppose the Iraq war and b) in the same Brzezinski article I used a quote from ("Hegemonic Quicksand," The National Interest, Winter 2003/4), Brzezinski expresses that US and Israeli interests are not always congruent.

Obviously, the reason I cite Kennan’s term "veto power" and Brzezinski’s phrase "critical leverage" is to show that there is a consensus among strategic planners, including the most liberal, that the control of Middle Eastern energy resources is strategically beneficial. Whether or not those particular individuals support military action in Iraq as a strategy for securing long-term US strategic control of oil, or wish to use other, more indirect means is not in any way relevant. The important point is that there is broad acknowledgment that control of oil gives the US huge strategic leverage, a point not contradicted at all by Brzezinski’s article nor by anything Kennan ever wrote.

Ahmad’s second point is even more absurd, since a central component of my argument is that we can measure the effects of the Lobby by the outcome of instances when the interests of the US and Israel diverge. I argue that in such cases Israel (which Brzezinski refers to in the same article as "America’s favorite client") is brought to heel by the US, thus negating the notion that the "tail wags the dog," that is, that the Israel lobby forces the US government to be a slave to Israeli interests at the expense of its own.

As if Ahmad’s outrageous and totally unsupported smears against me weren’t enough, he also attacks The Electronic Intifada for even publishing my article, which he labels an "attack on Walt and Mearsheimer." Anyone who has read my article, I would hope, would find it to be a respectful critique, not an "attack." The whole purpose of intellectual engagement should be to discuss and debate competing hypotheses, and promote the healthy discussion and debate that are surely a healthy part of any democracy. It is this that makes Ahmad’s insistence that EI should not even present the sensible and well-researched argument I am making, and that I should be silenced, particularly shocking and dangerous. It is my hope that if Ahmed cannot refrain from smearing me, that he at least will refrain from doing so to the dedicated editors of the Electronic Intifada, who work tirelessly in the fight for Palestinian rights and provide an invaluable service to us all.

Stephen Maher is an MA candidate at American University School of International Service who has lived in the West Bank, and is currently writing his masters’ thesis, "The New Nakba: Oslo and the End of Palestine," on the Israel-Palestine conflict. His work has appeared in Extra!, The Electronic Intifada, ZNet and other publications. His blog is 

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