walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: March 12, 2010
Is This Lobby Different From All Others?

The American relationship with Israel is both a political and an intellectual challenge for some students of foreign affairs.  Convinced that US national interests would be best served by distancing ourselves from the Jewish state, scholars try to figure out why our country behaves in this seemingly self-defeating way.

The problem is particularly tough for hard core realists who believe that the behavior of every state is determined by the nature of the international system.  For these thinkers, domestic politics don’t matter; states do what they must. States are like billiard balls; they move when struck.  It doesn’t matter what the billiard ball thinks; it rolls where it’s pushed.

So what about the red, white and blue ball on the pool table that keeps cozying the blue and white ball with the Star of David no matter where you push it?  Why does it behave so strangely?

The scholars seek a theoretical explanation which can accommodate this peculiar case, but they are looking for a small explanation — one that reaffirms the general theory of billiard ball realism even as it explains the exceptional case of the United States.

The simplest, most elegant answer to this problem to say that the Israel lobby is different from all other lobbies.  It is the one and only exception to the rule that domestic politics don’t matter:  The Jews are so rich, so focused and so good at what they do that they have built a lobby that is unique in the world.

There are only two problems with this approach.  The first is that the idea of a uniquely powerful Jewish lobby is catnip for anti-Semites.  As I’ve repeatedly said, you don’t need to be an anti-Semite to hold this view, but this idea (that the Jews have a wealthy, well connected and ruthless power lobby that is like no other and that this cabal manipulates the political system the way that a puppeteer dangles marionettes) draws angry loners and anti-Semites like ants to a jelly jar.


Hint to the youth: Anytime a young intellectual is trapped in a nasty spot like this, squatting in a foxhole with anti-Semites and assorted tinfoil hatters, your first thought should be, “Where did I go wrong?”

The quest for truth leads us all on some strange journeys, but the ‘discovery’ that a Jewish conspiracy explains some otherwise inexplicable historical development is one of the great dead ends of all times. It provides a faux eureka moment, the illusion of earthshaking discovery just as you fall into the pit. August Bebel called anti-Semitism the ‘socialism of fools'; he could have gone further.  It’s the economics of fools, the sociology of fools, the theology of fools, the history of fools and, sadly, the geopolitics of fools as well.

But the second problem with this approach is that the Jewish conspiracy theory is as wrong in this case as it is in all the others.  I wrote about this in yesterday’s post; the power of the Israel lobby in American politics stems from its relationship to gentile public opinion.  The lobby facilitates a foreign policy that public opinion broadly supports; it has no special powers of its own and if gentile opinion about Israel were to change, policy would change whatever the lobby did.

For billiard ball realists, this is a problem.  It means that the Israel lobby isn’t a special case, but that domestic political forces are constantly engaged in shaping foreign policy.  This is, I think, messy but correct.  I’ve written a book that looks at how domestic political forces, through their competition and interaction, can over time respond to external forces and realities. The pressures and realities of international life make themselves felt within a society through the interplay of interests and ideas,and to understand how a particular society will respond to changing international conditions, it’s necessary to study the politics, the culture and the economy of the society in question.

Engaging in this type of inquiry is a lot more work than watching billiard balls click across the pool table, but it gets you out of the foxhole with all those creeps.

Rule to live by, folks: when your theory of how the world works starts sounding like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, it’s time to recheck those assumptions.

Nixon and Golda Meir

In any case, America’s treatment of Israel is not and never has been as exceptional as some think.  Like so much else in the American relationship with the Jewish national movement before and after Israel’s independence, our treatment of the Jewish state has reflected broad trends in America’s engagement with the world.  Rather than following an ‘exceptional’ policy toward Israel, Americans have applied the normal approaches of their foreign policy to the exceptional case of the Jewish people.  In American politics, the demand that Jews (or anybody else) should get special treatment usually falls on deaf ears.

Before World War Two Americans were frequently besieged by the members of ethnic groups struggling to establish independent states.  Poles, Czechs, Magyars, Armenians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Croats, the Irish and many other nationalities made their case to a sympathetic public.  The American response at this time was basically drawn from John Quincy Adams: we would be the friends and well wishers to the liberties of all, but the vindicators only of our own.  We sympathized with the Poles, we thought they ought to have a state, we thought their oppression was cynical and wrong, but we would no more go to war with Russia over Poland then than we would go to war with China for the Dalai Lama today.  Then as now (before we slammed immigration shut in 1924, it was much easier for refugees to immigrate to the US than it is today) we offered refuge and protection to political exiles on our shores.  They could agitate and organize for the cause of freedom at home and they could raise money.  At times, we turned a blind eye when money they raised was diverted from peaceful purposes — much to the frustration, for example, of the British — as Irish-Americans fueled resistance to British rule on the Emerald Isle.Lajos_Kossuth

If consulted, we would state our view and use our good offices on their behalf, but it was up to the peoples involved to make their state.  When they did so — for example when the Italians achieved unification 150 years ago — we cheered.  When they failed, as Kossuth (at right) did after the Revolution of 1848 in Hungary, we wept.  But we did not go to war.

When we did go to war in Europe in 1917, our policy took another step.  While we would not go to war to achieve the independence of subject nationalities, when we won a war against those who oppressed them, we would use our weight at the conference table on their behalf.  The Americans at the Paris Conference after 1919 did what they could to ensure that as many nations as possible in Europe and the Middle East would have the right to self-determination.  The Americans did not always prevail, especially when the European powers worked together to protect their colonial interests and imperial ambitions in the former territories of the Ottoman Empire.  But self determination was the core of the policy and the Americans pushed it as far as they thought they could at the time.

What the Zionist movement asked from Americans at this time, and what it got, was pretty much what the other nationalities got:  Sympathy and good offices before World War One, American support at Versailles.  You could argue that this was exceptional treatment; unlike the other ethnic minorities, Jews did not have a large national terrain where they were in the majority.  Persecuted almost everywhere, they needed a state more than anybody else, but scattered across Europe and the Middle East it was harder to find one for them.  By supporting their claim to a national home in Palestine, Americans felt they were applying their general principles to the difficult and exceptional case of the Jews.

After World War Two the United States gradually expanded its concept of what ‘normal treatment’ was.  Reflecting on our mistake after World War One (we thought isolationism would keep us safe; it didn’t), and dealing with the Cold War, Americans redefined their basic policy toward friendly states.  We moved from a position of wishing everyone well but watching out for Number One to thinking that no man is an island.  The new doctrine that we gradually came up with was that if countries stuck by us and did their share to take care of themselves, we would stand by them no matter what it took.  In the decades after World War Two we went around the world signing up more and more countries into formal and informal alliance systems.  We did not ask too many questions about whether our new friends were ‘good guys’ as long as they were willing to play on our time.  Franco, Mobutu, Duvalier: we were not particularly picky in our choice of friends.  We worked with theocracies, thugocracies, kleptocracies, countries that oppressed their ethnic minorities, and even communists if they were willing to play ball (Yugoslavia, China after Nixon’s visit). Some of our allies (like Greece) hated some of our other allies (like Turkey).  We juggled eggs and managed the issue.

The change in America’s relationship with Israel in the decades after World War Two tracks the changes in America’s foreign policy more generally.  Indeed, the United States was significantly slower to accept responsibility for Israel’s security than it was in other cases around the world.  But once again, in the end the United States applied its general principles to Israel’s unique situation.  If Israel stayed generally ‘on side’ and did its part for its own security, the United States would offer help on something like the same basis that it supported other countries around the world.  Israel, surrounded by hostile states in a region that didn’t accept its existence, might need more help than other countries.  On the other hand, it fulfilled its part of the bargain much better than most.  That political complications and costs came with the alliance was true; but Israel was not unique in this way.  Just as the United States straddled the gaps between hostile countries elsewhere in its alliance system (not only Turkey and Greece but Britain and Argentina, Germany and France in the early days, Saudi Arabia and Iran through 1979, India and Pakistan today, and so forth), it would straddle the Arab-Israeli divide, working for peace and managing the conflicts.

This may or may not be the best way to manage US-Israeli relations.  Circumstances change and international relationships, even very close ones, must be constantly re-evaluated in the light of new facts.

The historical views I’m expressing here don’t mandate one and only one policy for the United States going forward but if you don’t get this stuff right you are unlikely to have as much impact in the American debate on this topic as you might wish.  The average American voter doesn’t think that people in love with bad Jewish conspiracy theories are good guides to sound thinking on the modern Middle East.

show comments
  • Robert L. Freedman

    As usual Walter with clarity hits the nail on the head. A lot of people who seemingly know something write about various issues, often at great length; few have the good judgment needed to be considered sound thinkers. Walter is one of the few.

  • Luke Lea

    Mead writes: “Israel, surrounded by hostile states in a region that didn’t accept its existence, might need more help than other countries. On the other hand, it fulfilled its part of the bargain much better than most. That political complications and costs came with the alliance was true; but Israel was not unique in this way.”

    Until 9/11 came along. Since then we have spent well in excess of a trillion dollars trying to win over the hearts and minds of a culture that hates us, in the deepest down way, because of the political dishonor, grievance and humiliation they feel at the hands of the West, whose poster child is Israel.

    Luckily for us, however, these people do believe in blood money. If they could be made whole — there dishonor removed, their grievance recompensed, their dignity re-established IN THEIR OWN AND THEIR NEIGHBORS EYES, then this blood feud between the three peoples of the book might be brought to an end.

    My back-of-the-envelope calculation is that it would take approximately a trillion dollars of aid and investment to satisfy the Palestinian people, enough to finance a Western standard of living for there children and grandchildren in a future Palestinian state or wherever they choose to live. They have indicated as much in past negotiations for those who have listened (and I know if I were a Palestinian I would not accept any less — would you?)

    But who is to pay all this money? Israel? She has neither the resources or the moral responsibility, having behaved about as well as is humanly possible in an impossible situation. What other people would have behaved half so well in a fight for their own physical self-preservation?

    How about the United States? Well, in the first place we have just shelled out a trillion dollars trying to protect Israel and secure Western interests in that part of the world. That is real money in anybody’s book. And, besides, why should Americans feel responsible for wrongs done to the Palestinian people? We didn’t drive the Jews out of Europe, which is what started this conflict in the first place. Nor did we promulgate the Balfour Declaration or employ our forces to get it enforced.

    Well, gee, who does that leave? Where can we find several hundred million people somewhere who are about as rich as we are but who DO share moral responsibility for the plight of the Palestinians? Of course it would help if they were also strategically dependent on the Middle East for there future economic and military security, in which case they might feel a certain sense of gratitude for the trillion dollars we are spending to help keep them safe.

    Damn, this world is a complicated place!

  • Jack

    Here is a link comparing the size of Israel to the Arab world.

    Here is another link that compares Israel demographics vs the Arab world.

    Bear in mind that in 1948 Israel started at essentially zero.

    Just to put things into perspective.

  • DW

    This is more of a comment on your Wed., 10 March post: How was the American Jewish (or gentile) pre-WW2 attitude towards Zionism influenced by the particular nature of that Zionism? Weren’t the attitudes and practices of the Ottoman and Mandatory Yishuv dominated by utopian, socialist, anti-religion, anti-Yiddish, anti-shtetl, anti-merchant sentiments? Most American Jews trace their lineage to pre-1924 immigrants who simply left “The World of Our Fathers” for better prospects; Zionists consciously rejected it.

  • Roy

    Reading Gordon Wood’s “Empire of Liberty”, which Walter commended, you get an interesting perspective on the early days of the Republic, when it seemed doubtful that the multitude of special interests of which the country was composed would ever be woven into a single national fabric. We have always been a country of special interests.

    Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, game theorist and government adviser, also makes the point in his new book, “The Predictioneer’s Game”, that when you look closely at all the factions and interest groups in the country, the concept of an overarching “national interest” becomes elusive; how exactly do you define a majority, when there are so many different interests competing for influence that might be united in any number of different blocs.

    I would add that, besides ethnic lobbies, there are medical lobbies, business lobbies, agricultural lobbies, reproductive health lobbies, religious lobbies, gun lobbies, tobacco lobbies, etc.

    An interest exercise is taking a look at some of the most strident critics of the Israel Lobby, (when they identify themselves by name), and seeing whether they themselves advocate for some interest group whose activities might properly be termed lobbying, on behalf of legislation that might not necessarily be considered “in the national interest”.

  • Norwegian Shooter

    “The problem is particularly tough for hard core realists who believe that the behavior of every state is determined by the nature of the international system. For these thinkers, domestic politics don’t matter; states do what they must. States are like billiard balls; they move when struck. It doesn’t matter what the billiard ball thinks; it rolls where it’s pushed.”

    What a strawman! Just who are these IR thinkers who say domestic politics don’t matter? I take back my earlier comment, you do need to look into what an IR realist really is.

  • Norwegian Shooter
  • Norwegian Shooter

    “The lobby facilitates a foreign policy that public opinion broadly supports”

    We keep coming back to this point. When the polling question doesn’t rely on “sympathy” or “favorability” of Israel in general; but asks about the policies of the Israeli government – which AIPAC encourages America to enable – there is overwhelming disapproval. Before Operation Cast Lead, only 21% of Americans said they wanted to take the side of Israel in the I-P conflict.

    You still have not addressed Larison’s complete undercutting of your assumptions. Here and here.

  • Dave123

    “only 21% of Americans said they wanted to take the side of Israel in the I-P conflict.”

    And only 3% wanted to take the side of the Palestinians.

    Twice as many Americans felt Israel was doing its part for peace than felt the Palestinians were .

  • Kasper Hauser

    i always blame the Lithuanians.

  • TheLastBrainLeft

    I’m not sure what “wrong” the Israelis committed against the Palestinians, Luke. These people had the chance to form their own homeland (one which would be unique in history as there was never, EVER such a thing) in 1948, but they chose genocide over compromise. They then actively participated in 4 wars of aggression provoked by Israel’s Arab neighbors over the next 25 years, all four of which the Arabs lost. Since the end of the last war the Palestinian people have committed themselves wholeheartedly to terrorism against civilians of both Jewish and Muslim alike.

    So tell me, how exactly have the Palestinians been mistreated by Israel, given how the Palestinians have acted since 1948? If the Arabs hate our support of Israel, why do they continue to sell us their oil? The answers are obvious. They have not and they don’t care. Support for Israel is not the reason Middle Eastern Muslims hate us. It’s a reaction to it.

  • kcom

    Devastating reply, Dave123.

    Apparently Norwegian Shooter just shot himself in the foot.

  • Bozoer Rebbe

    Norwegian Shooter,

    Your presence here is telling. Have you researched the supposed attitudes of Americans towards other conflicts? You seem to have a particular interest in the question of American support for Israel. Why is that? I’d expect a Norwegian to be more concerned with American attitudes towards Norway.

  • Tatterdemalian

    Politics has never been guided by secret organizations. It can only be guided by popular leaders, which by definition can’t cloak their activities in secrecy. In any country that permits freedom of speech, even the people the leaders go to for advice can’t be kept secret, even by the supreme leaders of the most powerful countries on Earth; President Obama’s connections to Rev. Wright and Bill Ayers were thoroughly scrutinized far in advance of his election, for example. “Shadow” organizations simply can’t control such a nation without being forced out into the light.

    What can actually be done is something entirely different in nature: create and harness the power of mass movements, to force large numbers of people to move in a certain direction at the will of popular leaders or feared terrorists (and, in the case of the latter, getting the mass to move in the direction they actually want it to move instead of the direction of “KILL THOSE BASTARDS” is a trick in itself). This is why AGW bothers me, just as an example… it’s clearly not any kind of conspiracy, as the believers repeatedly point out. All the (pre-screened) data is clearly available, and the leaders are subject to great scrutiny (by others who share the same unscientific beliefs). No tiny cabal of whackos could possibly mess with the science, so any suspicion is completely unwarranted (unless it’s not a tiny cabal of whackos, but a widely held faith exerting mass pressure on the scientific community to create a crisis where there actually is none).

    Conspiracies are capable of terrible things, the 9-11 attacks being the biggest example yet. But it’s not the conspiracies that are the real danger, it’s the mass movements that spawn them. And I simply don’t see any coordinated efforts by Israel to do anything more than survive on the land where the British dumped all the Holocaust refugees, in a world that seems to want every single Jew exterminated.

  • Tatterdemalian

    Oh, and before people start chiming in that they don’t want every single Jew exterminated, I personally don’t see any difference between exterminating the Jews because they’re “an evil conspiracy” and exterminating the Jews as a necessary sacrifice to retain one’s own “international law” or “moral high ground.” The elimination of Israel will necessarily involve mountains of dead Jews, so if you support that, you’re no better than the Nazis.

  • pat gig

    There’s something else. Just as our civil laws have there origins in English legal philosophy and therefore have kept us in a special relationship with England, our religious philosophy has it’s roots in Jewish religious philosohpy. They were and are us.

  • jimb

    I wonder if our masters of statecraft recall Disraeli’s dictum: England has no friends or enemies, only interests. It would clarify the matter if we could define what the US interest truly is in the middle east. The existence of Israel vel non cannot be the key.

  • richardb

    Israel has been a strategic asset to the US since the 1967 war. Its value as an intelligence asset, R&D, plus overwhelming military power have served the US well as it secured the stability of the Middle East. Things have obviously changed in recent years to the detriment of our relationship. I wonder if the change started with the revelations of Israel selling significant technology to China? We found that they sold technology derived from the F-16 to China. Then the Harpy unmanned vehicle was sold to China. The US military was angered by this resulting in temporary arms embargos to the Jewish state. All of this happened in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
    Obama having been a member of the Rev. Wright anti-jewish church obviously had no affection to Israel to begin with. But change had already begun before his election.

  • nora

    NS the table as a whole confirms what Mead says. The ratio of the Israel supporters to Palestinian supporters is way higher for the US than in any other contry, so there definitely is correlation between public opinion and policy.

    What I find interesting is that percentage of support for Israel in Muslim countries is higher than in most European countries.

  • Assistant Village Idiot

    The most common description for obscuring the data that of the 79 people of 100 who did not want us to take Israel’s side, 76 of them wanted us to take neither side, is deception. I would also accept blind prejudice as a second possibility for that position. Of those 76, most Americans want a fairly simple concept of justice and evenhandedness. They don’t follow the conflict closely, they don’t wish anyone any harm, they want everyone to play nice. To translate this into any suggestion that a large number of Americans “don’t support” our policy toward Israel is absurd. They support it mildly; they wonder if Israel goes to far; they think the Palestinians are insane but perhaps would be okay if we could give them something; they wish the problem weren’t there. Those are hardly strong negatives.

    In general, the best argument for America’s support of Israel is the amazing illogic of her critics.

  • Worm’s Eye View

    Luke Lea … if the Europeans were crazy enough to announce that they were giving the Palestinians a trillion dollars, then “Palestinians” would start coming out of the woodwork with their hands out. Actually, something like that may have already happened.

  • Luke Lea


    “I’m not sure what “wrong” the Israelis committed against the Palestinians, Luke.”

    Sorry, I was misunderstood. I saying that the Europeans wronged the Palestinians, indirectly, by driving the Jews our of Europe and giving them part of Palestine, which Britain, France, and Russia (primarily) decided to do during WWI.

    As for a trillion dollars, it would be cheap at twice the price. Documenting who is and is not a Palestinian is a doable thing; there are approximately 10 million.

  • Luke Lea

    I guess I should add we are not talking about a trillion dollars all in one lump sum, but a program of aid and investment lasting over many years whose continuance no doubt would depend upon the Palestinians honoring the terms of any final settlement they have negotiated with the Israelis.

    There are something like 600 million people living in Europe with a per capita GDP near that in the U.S.

  • Peter Burman

    Please add a Facebook button so I can post your articles on my Facebook page. You’re writing is brilliant and I would like to share it with my Facebook friends.

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  • AST

    I take the view expressed by Bob Dylan in his song, “Neighborhood Bully.” To wit: Israel has earned its statehood and turned the desert into a land of milk and honey, despite having to defend itself from angry, cowardly and largely feckless neighbors.

    If Palestinians had any sense, they’d be seeking to become Israeli citizens and learn the secrets that have enabled Israel to build prosperity out of next to nothing. If the Israelis were to leave tomorrow and turn everything over to them, the Palestinians would return the country to poverty overnight and continue begging from the U.N. with their “leaders” embezzling the proceeds. The ones with initiative and entrepreneurial ability seem to have emigrated to the West long ago to pursue opportunity and safety.

  • submandave

    Reading this I had what you called a “eureka moment” concerning the US/Israel relationship, but not one akin to those to which you refered. The US/Israel relationship is not particularly unique as viewed from the US perspective as it is when viewed from the international perspective. That is to say, the US treats Israel much like it does any other democratic ally with which it shares some cultural and ethnic ties. However, the US does treat Israel special and much better in comparison to how many other nations do. As such, it not so much that we treat Israel better or with greater deference than we should, but that in the balance so many other nations treat them like scrubs and scoundrels.

  • Norwegian Shooter

    Dave123 and kcom,

    I provided the link so I knew what the Palestinian percentage was. WRM’s claim is that there is overwhelming support for Israel in the US, not that Americans like Israelis more than Palestinians. How does 21% taking the side of Israel mean anything but modest minority support for Israel?

    Also, the American media, Congress and the White House all do show overwhelming support for Israel, so most of the “sympathy” and “favorable views” of Israel are manufactured. See the other two links I provided and try to refute Larison’s points.


    I’m an American, just of Norwegian heritage. The question is American support of Israel, thus that’s what I’m focusing on. You?

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  • Jessica

    This analysis is terrific, but it misses one important fact. American Christians sing every Christmas about Jesus being the King of Israel. They do not sing about anyone being the king of Poland, Pakistan, etc. As a result, many American Christians have fond feelings towards Israel … and that does produce a uniquely warm relationship.

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