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John Mearsheimer - The lobby falters (March 2009)

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 London Review of Books     

Vol. 31 No. 6 26 March 2009

page 22 | 1487 words

 

 

The Lobby Falters

John Mearsheimer

 

Many people in Washington were surprised when the Obama administration tapped Charles Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council, the body that oversees the production of National Intelligence Estimates: Freeman had a distinguished 30-year career as a diplomat and Defense Department official, but he has publicly criticised Israeli policy and America’s special relationship with Israel, saying, for example, in a speech in 2005, that ‘as long as the United States continues unconditionally to provide the subsidies and political protection that make the Israeli occupation and the high-handed and self-defeating policies it engenders possible, there is little, if any, reason to hope that anything resembling the former peace process can be resurrected.’ Words like these are rarely spoken in public in Washington, and anyone who does use them is almost certain not to get a high-level government position. But Admiral Dennis Blair, the new director of national intelligence, greatly admires Freeman: just the sort of person, he thought, to revitalise the intelligence community, which had been very politicised in the Bush years.

 

Predictably alarmed, the Israel lobby launched a smear campaign against Freeman, hoping that he would either quit or be fired by Obama. The opening salvo came in a blog posting by Steven Rosen, a former official of Aipac, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, now under indictment for passing secrets to Israel. Freeman’s views of the Middle East, he said, ‘are what you would expect in the Saudi Foreign Ministry, with which he maintains an extremely close relationship’. Prominent pro-Israel journalists such as Jonathan Chait and Martin Peretz of the New Republic, and Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, quickly joined the fray and Freeman was hammered in publications that consistently defend Israel, such as the National Review, the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard.

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The real heat, however, came from Congress, where Aipac (which describes itself as ‘America’s Pro-Israel Lobby’) wields enormous power. All the Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee came out against Freeman, as did key Senate Democrats such as Joseph Lieberman and Charles Schumer. ‘I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him,’ Schumer said, ‘and I am glad they did the right thing.’ It was the same story in the House, where the charge was led by Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Steve Israel, who pushed Blair to initiate a formal investigation of Freeman’s finances. In the end, the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, declared the Freeman appointment ‘beyond the pale’. Freeman might have survived this onslaught had the White House stood by him. But Barack Obama’s pandering to the Israel lobby during the campaign and his silence during the Gaza War show that this is one opponent he is not willing to challenge. True to form, he remained silent and Freeman had little choice but to withdraw.

 

The lobby has since gone to great lengths to deny its role in Freeman’s resignation. The Aipac spokesman Josh Block said his organisation ‘took no position on this matter and did not lobby the Hill on it’. The Washington Post, whose editorial page is run by Fred Hiatt, a man staunchly committed to the special relationship, ran an editorial which claimed that blaming the lobby for Freeman’s resignation was something dreamed up by ‘Mr Freeman and like-minded conspiracy theorists’.

 

In fact, there is abundant evidence that Aipac and other hardline supporters of Israel were deeply involved in the campaign. Block admitted that he had spoken to reporters and bloggers about Freeman and provided them with information, always on the understanding that his comments would not be attributed to him or to Aipac. Jonathan Chait, who denied that Israel was at the root of the controversy before Freeman was toppled, wrote afterwards: ‘Of course I recognise that the Israel lobby is powerful and was a key element in the pushback against Freeman, and that it is not always a force for good.’ Daniel Pipes, who runs the Middle East Forum, where Steven Rosen now works, quickly sent out an email newsletter boasting about Rosen’s role in bringing Freeman down.

 

On 12 March, the day the Washington Post ran its editorial railing against anyone who suggested that the Israel lobby had helped topple Freeman, the paper also published a front-page story describing the central role that the lobby had played in the affair. There was also a comment piece by the veteran journalist David Broder, which opened with the words: ‘The Obama administration has just suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the lobbyists the president vowed to keep in their place.’

 

Freeman’s critics maintain that his views on Israel were not his only problem. He is said to have especially close – maybe even improper – ties to Saudi Arabia, where he previously served as American ambassador. The charge hasn’t stuck, however, because there is no evidence for it. Israel’s supporters also said that he had made insensitive remarks about what happened to the Chinese protesters at Tiananmen Square, but that charge, which his defenders contest, only came up because Freeman’s pro-Israel critics were looking for any argument they could muster to damage his reputation.

 

Why does the lobby care so much about one appointment to an important, but not top leadership position? Here’s one reason: Freeman would have been responsible for the production of National Intelligence Estimates. Israel and its American supporters were outraged when the National Intelligence Council concluded in November 2007 that Iran was not building nuclear weapons, and they have worked assiduously to undermine that report ever since. The lobby wants to make sure that the next estimate of Iran’s nuclear capabilities reaches the opposite conclusion, and that would have been much less likely to happen with Freeman in charge. Better to have someone vetted by Aipac running the show.

 

An even more important reason for the lobby to drive Freeman out of his job is the weakness of the case for America’s present policy towards Israel, which makes it imperative to silence or marginalise anyone who criticises the special relationship. If Freeman hadn’t been punished, others would see that one could talk critically about Israel and still have a successful career in Washington. And once you get an open and free-wheeling discussion about Israel, the special relationship will be in serious trouble.

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One of the most remarkable aspects of the Freeman affair was that the mainstream media paid it little attention – the New York Times, for example, did not run a single story dealing with Freeman until the day after he stepped down – while a fierce battle over the appointment took place in the blogosphere. Freeman’s opponents used the internet to their advantage; that is where Rosen launched the campaign. But something happened there that would never have happened in the mainstream media: the lobby faced real opposition. Indeed, a vigorous, well-informed and highly regarded array of bloggers defended Freeman at every turn and would probably have carried the day had Congress not tipped the scales against them. In short, the internet enabled a serious debate in the United States about an issue involving Israel. The lobby has never had much trouble keeping the New York Times and the Washington Post in line, but it has few ways to silence critics on the internet.

 

When pro-Israel forces clashed with a major political figure in the past, that person usually backed off. Jimmy Carter, who was smeared by the lobby after he published Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, was the first prominent American to stand his ground and fight back. The lobby has been unable to silence him, and it is not for lack of trying. Freeman is following in Carter’s footsteps, but with sharper elbows. After stepping down, he issued a blistering denunciation of ‘unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country’ whose aim is ‘to prevent any view other than its own from being aired’. ‘There is,’ he continued, ‘a special irony in having been accused of improper regard for the opinions of foreign governments and societies by a group so clearly intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government.’

 

Freeman’s remarkable statement has shot all around the world and been read by countless individuals. This isn’t good for the lobby, which would have preferred to kill Freeman’s appointment without leaving any fingerprints. But Freeman will continue to speak out about Israel and the lobby, and maybe some of his natural allies inside the Beltway will eventually join him. Slowly but steadily, space is being opened up in the United States to talk honestly about Israel.

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Letters

 

Vol. 31 No. 8 30 April 2009

 

From Abraham Foxman

 

The conspiracy theories about the pro-Israel community in America that are in full flower in John Mearsheimer’s ‘The Lobby Falters’ have three main characteristics (LRB, 26 March). First, they exaggerate the influence of the lobby. In the Charles Freeman affair, as in many other issues to do with the Middle East, the lobby’s perspective carried the day not because of its own unique power but because broader elements in American society shared that perspective. Charles Freeman’s views on Israel – blaming Israel for problems in the region as well as for the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States – are beyond mainstream American views, not only in Congress but in the media and in the country at large. Mearsheimer sets up a straw man in his claim that there is no diversity of thinking on Middle Eastern issues: in fact there is a lot of diversity. Freeman had nothing to do with diversity: he represented extremism.

 

A second characteristic of the conspiracy mongers is to present the legitimate actions of Israel’s supporters as somehow illegitimate or sinister. The lobby’s concern that Freeman blames Israel for every problem that arises is seen by Mearsheimer as stifling all criticism of Israel. Anxiety that Freeman would be in charge of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear programme is not legitimate, according to Mearsheimer, but instead an endeavour by the Israel lobby to control the intelligence community. The reality is much simpler than Mearsheimer suggests: supporters of Israel, as American citizens, are exercising their right to express views supportive of a strong US-Israel relationship. And the American people essentially share in that goal.

 

Finally, the conspiratorialists start with the assumption that no one could freely and rationally support the state of Israel. Therefore, if there is support it must be due to the lobby’s sinister influence. In fact, there are many good reasons why America supports Israel: the two countries share the same values, strategies and interests, including the common fight against Islamic extremists and the common desire for peace.

 

Abraham Foxman

Anti-Defamation League, New York

 

From Louis Harovitz

 

What if Aipac ceased to exist? What if there were a levelling of the playing field in the US media? What if Charles Freeman had become chair of the National Intelligence Council? What if the NIC continued to report that Iran is not making progress on its nuclear projects? What if there were more debate about the special relationship between the US and Israel? What if the US’s tilt towards Israel were reduced? All these changes would benefit the Palestinians. But only marginally. And none would speed the end of the conflict.

 

John Mearsheimer seems to believe that Israel’s intransigence is the stumbling block. He thinks that Israel would be less intransigent if the changes I’ve listed were to take place. But he’s wrong. Peace agreements have always, throughout history, reflected the relative power of the belligerents. Some agreements are fair. Some are tolerable. But no one should expect Israel to be the first nation in history to give away what it has fought long and hard to win.

 

Peace will ensue when each side is ready to acknowledge the other’s minimum requirements, not their minimum demands. Before this can happen, each side must achieve sufficient internal consensus on its bargaining position. This hasn’t happened yet on either side. The rocket firings and the invasion of Gaza are just the latest evidence that both sides are playing hardball. Outsiders will not hasten the arrival of peace. Level playing fields haven’t helped the victims in Darfur, Zimbabwe, Eritrea/Ethiopia – all of them conflicts in which the casualties and misery dwarf those in the Palestine/Israel conflict.

 

Louis Harovitz

New York

 

Vol. 31 No. 9 14 May 2009

 

From Jonathan Bell

 

I was surprised to open the issue of the LRB following the one containing John Mearsheimer’s reflections on the unfortunate resignation of Charles Freeman from the National Intelligence Council and to find not a single peep of protest (LRB, 26 March). Mearsheimer’s article had a provocative enough heading – ‘The Lobby Falters’ – but no one seemingly could be bothered to write in and say faltered be damned, when Freeman after all had gone, which was just what the lobby had wanted to happen.

 

Another month went by, and I found a letter not claiming in so many triumphal words that the lobby had claimed a very worthwhile scalp, but rather that Mearsheimer was simply coming out as a conspiracy theorist yet once more in attributing to the lobby more influence than it actually has (Letters, 30 April). I had always myself thought that conspiracy theorists attributed influence not to the bodies and individuals who constitute the Israel lobby without making any secret of the fact, but to organisations that operate covertly; but never mind. The author of the letter, Abraham Foxman, gives as his address a body called the Anti-Defamation League, of which I’ll admit I had not heard, though I discover from its website it’s been going since 1913. I read there that its laudable aim has always been ‘to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all’. If, in the person of Foxman, it is now protesting against Mearsheimer’s filling in of the details of the concerted campaign by the lobby that helped to ensure Freeman’s withdrawal, that implies that what Mearsheimer wrote and the LRB published was anti-semitic, which is a wholly dishonourable charge that no power on earth, it seems, is capable of preventing being brought whenever the actions of the state of Israel are criticised.

 

Mearsheimer was above all regretting that the removal of Freeman from his public post meant the loss of someone who held views in respect of the Middle East that broke the mould where successive American administrations are concerned. President Obama has done nothing to date to suggest that his administration is going to behave any more evenhandedly there than its predecessors, unless the far more moderate attitude he has been showing towards Iran and its nuclear ambitions is a hint that we need to give him time before he feels confident enough to take on opponents such as the lobby. I find it remarkable that Foxman, who makes such a big thing about the Israel lobby representing not just its own narrow interests but what he chooses to call ‘mainstream American views’, which appear to be identical with his own, and who celebrates the ‘diversity of thinking on Middle Eastern issues’ to be found in this country, should at the same time see it as intolerable that someone like Charles Freeman, who has spoken out robustly for one valuable strand at least of that diversity, should be granted a public position in which he might be able to make his influence count for more than he can once reduced in rank to private citizen.

 

Jonathan Bell

Boston

 

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