Friday, February 14, 2014
Walt and Mearsheimer's victory
It took a few years, but it is hard not to conclude that the noxious doctrine first advanced back in 2006 by two American professors of an all-powerful Israel lobby, controlling and misguiding American foreign policy, has now been accepted by much of the foreign policy establishment and more importantly, by the White House itself.
Professors Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago have never relented in their attacks on the "Israel lobby," which started as a long paper in the London Review of Books, and was then published as a more comprehensive treatment of the subject in a book with the same name. The initial paper was well received by a predicable audience -- anti-Zionists in academia and on the broader Left, Arab and Palestinian groups, and neo-Nazis and other fringe groups on the Right. But it was also harshly and justifiably attacked in many quarters for shoddy scholarship, and the authors' tendentious tone, resulting in a screed that appeared to have been written with blinders on to screen out any evidence that might conflict with the authors' predetermined point of view about the pro-Israel crowd causing U.S. foreign policy to go off the rails, and thereby ignore the arguments of "realists" for adhering to important American strategic interests overseas (which of course mean abandoning Israel for the Arabs).
Not quite eight years after the initial article was published, we have a spectacle today where the leading pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, appears to have given up the fight for new sanctions legislation to pressure Iran. That effort, which at one point attracted a bipartisan group of 59 senators (43 Republicans and 16 Democrats), resulted in a bill that toughened sanctions with Iran if the current second stage of negotiations between the so-called P5+1 and Iran did not produce a final agreement on that nation's nuclear weapons program, or if Iran ignored what has already been agreed to in the preliminary deal between the two sides.
The momentum for the new sanctions bill collapsed when U.S. President Barack Obama made clear he would veto such a bill (for which an override would require 67 senators) and the supposedly pro-Israel leadership among Democrats in the Senate and the House immediately did the president's bidding, making clear that what mattered to them, above all else, was loyalty to the president of their party -- Israel and America be damned. As Caroline Glick laid out this week, an Iran with a nuclear weapon or weapons would be a disaster not just for Israel but also the United States. But Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, an administration lackey of the first order, understood his marching orders -- there was to be no vote in the Senate, since Obama did not want to be forced to veto the sanctions legislation and did no want to put Democratic senators and House members in a position of having to choose in an election year.
Of course, it was more than that, since the president had other issues with the legislation: a desire to continue to humiliate AIPAC, accomplished when the group announced it was standing down and was not going to push for the bill's adoption, and also annoyance with the substance of the bill -- since the president at this point seems to have switched sides and was now seeking a strategic alliance with Iran, a redrawing of the Middle East to reflects Iran's new role.
Toying with AIPAC has become a sport for the Obama administration. Seemingly trapped by its red line on the need for a military response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government in Syria last year, the president asked AIPAC to lobby on Capitol Hill, for what was clearly a hopeless effort to get congressional support for limited strikes against Syria. While AIPAC's top people were getting the cold shoulder in their effort from most members of Congress, the president was busy selling out AIPAC by quickly agreeing to a Russian compromise to remove Syria's chemical weapons (a process that of course has resulted in far less than advertised on that front).
AIPAC, in retrospect, went to the mats for a president who seemed anxious to have them look weak in case the lobbying effort failed, and look ridiculous when the deal with Russia was announced. While some have argued that pulling back on the Iran sanctions bill this week was a strategic play by AIPAC (don't take on the president in an effort you can't win), the eagerness to please the president on the Syria vote was an enormous mistake since in that case, they were ready to get their heads handed to them for following the president's direction. AIPAC has seemed terrified of Obama from the get-go, when its leaders downplayed any evidence that Obama had a far different background than other candidates for the White House when it came to Israel, and issues of national security in his first campaign for the White House.
With the administration's missteps in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, the strategic repositioning with Iran took on even greater importance for Obama. As Reid has played puppet to Obama, the president appears to be channeling his own inner muse -- namely Walt, who is, of course, overjoyed by the shift away from Israel in U.S. policymaking.
The president's lip service to all options remaining on the table to prevent Iran from securing nuclear weapons, has as much resonance at this point as arguing that the frigid weather in most of the United States this winter is just more evidence of global warming. The president would be more likely to order airstrikes against Great Britain at this point than Iran.
While the president has chosen sides, Walt is celebrating the collapse of AIPAC along with his buddies, the lobbyists for the National Iranian American Council, a group that has long done the bidding of the Iranian mullahs and whose lead lobbyist, Trita Parsi, is crowing about the victory of the so-called pro-diplomacy group, otherwise known as those who would like to see a nuclear Iran and the relaxation of all remaining sanctions against that country.
Walt is now being feted as the George Kennan our time, a tribute that reflects his new authority and prominence, more than the wisdom of his counsel. Lee Smith describes Walt's new ascension:
"As Obama explained to David Remnick in a recent New Yorker interview, the goal is to create a 'geopolitical equilibrium' between Sunni 'Gulf states and Iran in which there's competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.'
"And so it turns out that the Kennan of Obama's Middle East policy is Stephen Walt, the Harvard professor, who outlined the same idea Obama described to Remnick in a Nov. 21 post on FP.com in which he argued for a 'realist, balance-of-power policy.' According to Walt, the specific question facing U.S. policymakers is how to achieve such a policy, when the United States has 'special relationships' with certain regional powers -- like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and, of course, Israel. It is the focus on the impediment posed by these 'special relationships' to realist balance-of-power policymaking that distinguishes Walt from virtually every other American in the realist school."
As Smith makes clear, Walt believes the new balance of power arrangements can not work unless Israel is taken down, and de-emphasized in the strategic equation. And for that to occur, the Israel lobby has to be knocked off its power pedestal in Washington, and onto its heels.
While the president's record in foreign policy is not one he can write home about, on the question of bringing AIPAC down to size, he has triumphed. The group lives off its commitment to bipartisanship, and fears being viewed as captive to one or the other political party. In the current Iran stare-down, Obama called in his Democratic troops, and some Democrats (Reid, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz) came running. Others simply decided that they did not like such a face-off, and backtracked from their previous support of the new sanctions bill. AIPAC saw the handwriting on the wall and stepped down. Now, just three weeks out from its giant annual policy conference, it is unclear if AIPAC has even come up with an agenda for its citizen lobbyists when they visit Capitol Hill offices on the third day of the conference. Maybe they can tell senators and House members to support the annual foreign aid bill, an indication of how low the bar has been set for members of Congress to demonstrate to AIPAC that they are "pro-Israel."
A year from now, the chances are good that Iran will have joined the nuclear club. Certainly the interim deal will not stop Iran, and all the Iranian public pronouncements the last few weeks suggest that the mullahs are chuckling at how easily they have played an all too willing to surrender president, anxious for a deal, any deal. Those in Congress who understand the risks of the president's strategic giveaway to Iran and of a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran, such as Senator Mark Kirk and Senator Robert Menendez, may rue the day that their erstwhile allies in AIPAC were discouraged from fighting a real fight that mattered, because rocking the bipartisan boat looked too risky.