Al-Jazeerah, September 4, 2006
Date: August 28, 2006 Place: National Press Club,
Nihad Awad, Executive Director, Council on
American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)
John Mearsheimer, Political Science Professor
and Co-Director of International Security Policy Program, University of
Stephen Walt, International Relations
Professor, Harvard University
Corey Saylor, Government Affairs Director, CAIR
Good afternoon everyone.
Everyone was handed cards when they came in—more than
one, if you’d like. Please write your questions on that and pass them to the
edges. Someone will come down and pick them up, and we’ll try to group them
together by theme.
We would also like to extend our sincere thanks and
appreciation to Dr. Mohamed Nimer, CAIR’s research director, who is the
gentleman who organized this panel today.
We will hear some introductory remarks from the
executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Mr. Nihad
Awad. He’ll speak for about five minutes, and then each of the professors
will speak for about 20 minutes, and then we’ll start the question and
answer session. And if you’d like more information about this topic and
other topics on similar issues, we’d invite you to visit our website at
So without further ado, I’d like to introduce Mr.
Nihad Awad. He is the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic
Thank you, Corey. Good afternoon. My name’s Nihad Awad,
the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR.
CAIR is America’s largest Islamic civil liberties and advocacy group, with
32 offices across the United States and Canada. Our vision is to be a
leading advocate for justice and mutual understanding. CAIR’s mission is to
enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties,
empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and
mutual understanding. On behalf of CAIR, I would like to welcome you all to
today’s important and timely panel, with two distinguished professors and
experts on international affairs. With the recent war in the Middle East, we
believe that there’s no more timely and relevant discussion than the one we
have sponsored today with Professors Mearsheimer and Walt.
The tragic conflict that recently transpired in
Lebanon and continues in Gaza has become a catastrophe for innocent
civilians in the region and for America’s credibility. More than 1,000
civilians were killed on both sides, with the vast majority of deaths
occurring in Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese civilians were made
homeless, and that nation’s civilian infrastructure was devastated by a
systematic bombing campaign using American taxpayer-supplied weapons.
Even today, civilians, mainly children, are being
killed and injured by cluster bombs dropped on civilian areas in Lebanon in
an apparent violation of agreements with the United States. The report by
Human Rights Watch issued during the conflict stated, quote, "The Israeli
government claims it is taking all possible measures to minimize civilian
harm, but the cases documented here reveal a systematic failure by the IDF
to distinguish between combatants and civilians." The executive deputy
secretary-general of Amnesty International stated recently, "Israel’s
assertion that the attacks on infrastructure were lawful is manifestly
wrong. Many of the violations identified in our report are war crimes."
In order to understand the totality of America’s
foreign policy response to this conflict, we feel that it is important to
analyze the impact of the Israeli lobby on our political process and
response to the war. People all over the Muslim world, from Palestine and
Lebanon to Indonesia and Morocco, question why American government offers
unconditional support for Israel and its occupation and humiliation of its
neighbors. They ask why there is an automatic and uncritical defense of
Israel, even when it defies international law and American laws.
Our one-sided support for Israel is a liability in the
war on terror. It has turned much of the world, including our European
allies, against us. It is time for our Middle East policy to reflect views
held by the majority of Americans who desire a just and peaceful resolution
that preserves the rights, security and dignity of Christians, Muslims and
Jews living in the Middle East. Our polling indicates that nearly
two-thirds—63 percent of Americans—who were surveyed favor American
neutrality or disengagement from the Middle East conflict. We believe that
only through an honest dialogue on the influence of the strongest foreign
lobby our country has ever seen can we help to formulate a more just and
fair foreign policy for all people in the world.
America’s Middle East policy should be based on our
nation’s interests, not on those of a powerful domestic lobby for a foreign
government. It is possible for people in the Middle East and the larger
Muslim world to regain their respect for America and to view it as credible
when it calls for human rights and democracy for all people. It is also
possible to build a Middle East in which all people—Muslims, Christians and
Jews—coexist in an atmosphere of mutual respect. To achieve that noble goal,
we should have the courage to assess and change our policies toward the
region and to maintain that there should be one standard for defining
terrorism and the value of human life.
Before we begin the panel discussion, allow me to
recognize the pioneer in promoting America’s interests in the Middle East,
former Congressman Paul Findley, who served the nation for 22 years. For a
long time, Congressman Paul Findley supported our uncritical stance in favor
of Israel—that is, until he went to the region and saw with his own eyes the
level of suffering resulting from that policy. He ultimately wrote two
groundbreaking books on the subject: They Dare to Speak Out and Deliberate
Deception. Mr. Findley’s books were not popular when they were published,
especially They Dare to Speak Out, about 20-some years ago. It was an eye-
opener for me and millions of Americans who started to understand the
influence of the Israeli lobby on our foreign policy. I urge people to read
this book and communicate with their members of Congress. They should also
have the courage to make decisions on behalf of America and to serve
America’s interests first, and not Israel.
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much, Nihad. Our first speaker is
Professor Stephen Walt. He is International Affairs at Harvard University.
He got his Ph.D. in political science from the University of California at
Berkeley, previously on the faculties of both Princeton and the University
of Chicago. And with no further ado, sir.
Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here today,
and I want to thank CAIR for inviting us to present the results of our
research on the forces that shape U.S. Middle East policy. I think this is
an important subject for all Americans and for all of the countries in the
Middle East as well.
Our presentation is going to be in two parts. I’m
going to begin by summarizing the main arguments in our article on the
Israel lobby, and then John will apply those ideas to the recent war between
Israel and Lebanon, and show that you can’t really understand what happened
there if you don’t understand the political power of pro-Israel groups in
the United States.
Our bottom line, as many of you know, is that the
influence of the Israel lobby has led to policies that are not in the U.S.
national interest, not in the interests of other countries in the region
and, ultimately, not in Israel’s long-term interest as well. We’re going to
try and limit our remarks to about 25 minutes apiece so there is time for
comments and questions when we’re done.
All right. What’s our core argument? We make several
big arguments in our paper. First, we just document the level of support the
United States provides to Israel—about $3 billion a year in economic and
military assistance each year. That’s about $500 per year per Israeli
citizen, despite the fact that Israel is a relatively wealthy industrial
power. That aid is largely unconditional. It’s not linked to Israeli
behavior. It gets its aid when it builds settlements; it gets its aid when
it spies on us, when it sells American high technology to countries like
China, or when it attacks civilians in the West Bank, Lebanon or Gaza.
Israel also gets consistent diplomatic support from
the United States. Since 1982, for example, we have vetoed 33 U.N. Security
Council resolutions that were critical of Israel. That’s a total greater
than all of the vetoes by all of the other Security Council members put
And finally, we take Israel’s side in wartime, as John
is going to discuss in some detail. Moreover, over time we have tended to
favor Israel’s side whenever peace talks do occur. This led former U.S.
negotiator Aaron Miller to state, a few years back, that the United States
basically had acted as Israel’s lawyer during the Oslo process and, of
course, has been even more one-sided under President Bush.
The bottom line here is no other country gets the same
level of economic, military and diplomatic support. Now, that support is
usually justified by saying that Israel is a vital strategic asset or by
invoking various moral rationales. We argue in our paper that this level of
support can’t be fully explained by either strategic or moral arguments.
With respect to the strategic argument, Israel may
have been a useful ally during the Cold War. It’s possible to make a pretty
good argument on that basis. But the Soviet Union is now gone, the Cold War
is over, and we don’t face any great power rivals.
Today, Israel is said to be a key ally in the war on
terror and in our efforts to combat rogue states like Syria and Iran. But
there are several big problems with this line of argument.
First, it has the causal logic backwards. We don’t
back Israel because we have a common threat from terrorism; rather, we have
a common threat from terrorism because we have been so closely tied to
Israel. That’s not—again, let me be very clear here: That’s not the only
reason. I am not saying that our unconditional support for Israel is the
only source of anti-American terrorism, but it is a very important one. This
was clearly stated in the 9/11 commission report. This was the conclusion
reached by separate studies by the U.S. State Department and by the
Pentagon’s Defense Science Board in the last couple of years. Numerous
surveys of Arab public opinion confirm their strong resentment at
unconditional American support for Israel, and if you go to our enemy bin
Laden and look at his statements, it’s quite clear that our support for
Israel has been an issue for him for quite some time. Again, not the only
source of anti-American extremism, but it is an important one.
Second, although the United States does have some
differences with other countries in the region, Israel turns out to be the
main bone of contention between us and them. For example, last year,
President Bush said we didn’t want Iran to get nuclear weapons, not because
it threatened to attack the United States, but, "because it would threaten
our ally Israel." There are a lot of good reasons why the United States
doesn’t want countries in that region to get weapons of mass destruction,
but we shouldn’t overstate that particular danger. Remember, those states
could not use any WMD without being destroyed in retaliation, and that also
means that threatening to use them wouldn’t be very credible either.
Finally, Israel’s own nuclear arsenal is one reason why other countries in
that area want them, and it makes it harder for us to put pressure on states
that are trying to get them.
Third, and perhaps most important, Israel isn’t much
of a strategic asset for dealing with those problems. For example, it could
not participate in the 1990-1991 Gulf War or the more recent 2000 Gulf
War—in fact, in both cases, the United States had to divert military assets
to protecting Israel. The bottom line here is that unconditional support for
Israel makes winning the war on terrorism harder, not easier. There isn’t a
compelling strategic rationale for the current level of U.S. aid.
Now what about the moral arguments? There are a set of
different moral arguments justifying American support for Israel, because
it’s said to be vulnerable, surrounded by enemies, because it’s the only
democracy in the Middle East, or because it is said to have acted much
better than its adversaries have. These arguments sound convincing, but if
you look at them carefully, again, they can’t explain why the United States
gives it so much support and so unconditionally.
Let me emphasize that John and I both believe there is
a strong moral case for Israel’s existence, based on the long history of
anti- Semitism and the tragic experience of the Holocaust. And we also
believe the United States should help protect Israel if its survival were in
jeopardy. But Israel’s existence is, fortunately, not in jeopardy. It’s the
dominant military power in the Middle East; it has several hundred nuclear
weapons of its own. It is not going to be erased from the pages of history,
no matter what some Islamic radicals or what Iran’s president might say. And
let me be very clear about this: John and I think this is a good thing.
Israel does have some security problems, but the taproot of those problems
is its failure to achieve a just peace with the Palestinians. Israeli
defense forces are not all-powerful, but Hezbollah, Hamas or Iran couldn’t
conquer Israel today or in the foreseeable future.
What about the rest of the moral case? It’s true that
Israel is a democracy, but that doesn’t explain why we give it so much aid
and so unconditionally. There are lots of democracies in the world, but none
of them gets the kind of support that Israel does. And there are some
aspects of Israeli democracy that are at odds with core U.S. values. The
United States is a liberal democracy, a melting pot where all ethnic and
religious groups are supposed to have equal status. Israel, on the other
hand, was explicitly founded as a Jewish state. Its non-Jewish population is
treated as a second-class citizenry. It also denies political rights to the
several million Palestinians it has under its control. So Israel is a
vibrant democracy, but only for part of its people. And my point, by the
way, is not to single out Israel for criticism or to say that Israeli
democracy is in some way wrong—simply to point out that its democratic
character cannot explain why we give it so much help.
Finally, one cannot justify U.S. support by claiming
that Israel has behaved better than the Palestinians. I’m not going to go
into the details here, but a fair-minded look at the historical record shows
that both sides have been guilty of terrorism, of wartime atrocities, and a
great deal of brutal behavior. To be clear, we think Palestinian terrorism
is wrong and that it has been counterproductive.
But the Zionists also used terrorism in their own
struggle to gain a state, and Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian subjects
today is morally indefensible. And you don’t have to take my word for it.
Just ask respected human rights organizations like Save the Children, Human
Rights Watch, Amnesty International or the Israeli group B’Tselem. And
plenty of Israelis, including former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic
security organization, would agree with that.
Now once again, we are not saying that Israel has
acted worse than other countries have. But neither has it acted any better,
and one cannot explain U.S. support on this basis. So how are we to explain
it? The answer is the political influence of the Israel lobby.
We define the lobby as a loose coalition of
individuals and groups who work to shape U.S. policy in a pro-Israel
direction. It is not a centralized movement with a single headquarters.
There are lots of differences within different organizations in it. It is
not synonymous with American Jews, because many American Jews don’t care
that much about Israel. Others don’t support the lobby’s positions. And some
of the groups that work powerfully on Israel’s behalf, like Christian
Zionists, are not Jewish. It is not a cabal, a conspiracy, and there’s
nothing improper or illegitimate about its activities. It’s just a good
old-fashioned American special interest group, and those interest groups are
a central part of American political life.
So how does it work, and why is it so powerful? Well,
again, in the United States, given the way our government is organized,
small groups with a very focused agenda often wield lots of political power
because they care a lot, because they work 24/7 and because they hold
crucial swing votes. If the rest of the population is largely indifferent,
those with a single focus can get their way despite being relatively small
in number. Think of the power of the farm lobby, even though farmers are
less than 2 percent of the American population. Think of the National Rifle
Association. Think about other ethnic lobbies, such as Cuban-Americans.
Second, the Israel lobby is particularly well funded
and effective. AIPAC’s annual budget is almost $50 million. They have a
large, full-time staff, regional offices around the country. They’re very
good at steering campaign contributions to political candidates, either to
reward people who are pro-Israel or to penalize people who are regarded as
suspect. Groups and individuals in the lobby write articles, letters and Op-Eds,
defending the U.S.-Israel relationship. Representatives of these groups talk
directly to legislators, help draft legislation, meet with other government
officials and, in general, work overtime to shape the public discourse in
the United States so that Israel is viewed favorably by most Americans.
Now, this turns out to be easy to do because most
mainstream media are strongly pro-Israel. For example, it’s hard to think of
any prominent pundit or commentator who’s strongly critical of Israel or
strong pro-Arab. But it’s easy to think of lots of commentators who are
Finally, groups from the lobby are quick to attack and
smear anyone who criticizes Israel, Israel’s policies or criticizes U.S.
support. And other pro-Israel groups organized boycotts and blacklists
against media organizations that might report something negative about
Israel. They put pressure on universities to marginalize anyone who’s
critical. And finally, as most of you know if you’re in Washington, most of
the major District of Columbia-based think tanks, like the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy, the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage
Foundation, Brookings Institute, all tilt in Israel’s direction. There are
other smaller and more specialized groups that are even more extreme in that
For all of these reasons, the Israel lobby is quite
powerful, and this is no secret. AIPAC was ranked number two in the National
Journal’s survey of lobbies in March 2005—tied with the AARP, by the way.
And it was also ranked second in the 1997 survey by Forbes magazine.
Bill Clinton said AIPAC was "better than anyone else
lobbying in this town." Newt Gingrich said it was "the most effective
general interest group across the entire planet." Former Senator Fritz
Hollings said as he was leaving office, "You can’t have an Israel policy
other than what AIPAC gives you around here." And it’s no surprise,
therefore, that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently said, "Thank God
we have AIPAC, the greatest supporter and friend we have in the whole
Now, these comments raise an interesting question. Why
was our article so controversial if we were just saying what everybody
Now finally, we argued that the lobby had a powerful
and negative effect on U.S.-Middle East policy. And we just have to imagine
what the world and what U.S. policy might be like if the lobby were less
influential. If the lobby were less powerful, the United States would have
used its leverage over the last 30 years to discourage the settlements
policy or prevent it completely. Every American president since Lyndon
Johnson has opposed the settlements and declared them an obstacle to peace.
But no president was willing to pay the political price to stop them.
Instead, we subsidized them, and many Israelis, of course, now understand
this was a tragic mistake. They radicalized the Palestinian population,
encouraged the growth of Islamic extremism, cost billions of dollars and
thousands of lives and undermined Israel’s image around the world. So the
lobby’s influence undermined Israel’s security as well as our own.
If the lobby were less influential, the United States
would have adopted a more independent policy toward the peace process
instead of acting, again, as Israel’s lawyer. Now, people in the lobby
routinely blame the failure of the peace process entirely on Yasser Arafat,
even though it’s clear, of course, that the United States, Israel and the
Palestinians all deserve a share of the blame for the failure of the Oslo
But if Arafat was the problem, why hasn’t the United
States done anything to support Mahmoud Abbas? He was elected in a
democratic election. He has recognized Israel, rejected terror and called
for a negotiated settlement. Given all our problems in the Middle East, and
especially our deteriorating image in the Arab and Islamic world, you’d
think we would have jumped on this opportunity to try and accomplish
something. What do we do instead? We give Abbas nothing. We endorse further
Israeli encroachments on the West Bank instead. And what’s the result? The
election of Hamas—leaving everybody, including Israel, worse off.
If the lobby were less influential, the United States
would have been much less likely to have invaded Iraq in 2003. This war was
conceived by neoconservatives—many of them connected in the lobby—encouraged
by many Israeli leaders and endorsed openly by groups like AIPAC.
Now, I want to emphasize here the lobby’s influence is
not the only reason why the United States went to war in Iraq. Indeed, the
lobby could not get either Clinton or Bush to go to war by themselves, even
though the neoconservatives were pushing for it from the late 1990s onward.
So we don’t argue that they were singularly responsible. The key additional
factor was September 11th, which turned Cheney and Bush in favor of war. So
without 9/11, you don’t get a war in Iraq either.
But remember, neoconservatives, like Paul Wolfowitz in
the Pentagon, were quick to link Saddam Hussein to September 11th, even
though there was no connection, and key groups in the lobby pushed very hard
to make the case for war. So we argue that the Israel lobby was a necessary,
though not sufficient, condition for the Iraq war. Without the lobby, the
war would have been much less likely.
And finally, if the lobby were weaker, U.S. policy
towards Iran would have been more flexible and possibly more effective. For
the past decade or more, a number of prominent American experts have called
for a more flexible policy towards Iran, but they get nowhere because AIPAC
has pushed for a hard-line approach. Iran has made several overtures to us
over the past decade getting no response. They actually helped us after
September 11th, and we rewarded them by putting them in the axis of evil and
calling for regime change. They sent a back-channel message in 2003 which
included a somewhat veiled offer to end support for Hezbollah, possibly
recognize Israel. We rejected because key groups in the lobby were adamantly
opposed to any opening. What result? The Iranian hard-liners get stronger,
Ahmadinejad gets elected, Iran’s nuclear ambitions get reinforced.
Again, the point I want to underscore here is that in
all of these cases our policy has been bad for the United States and bad for
Israel as well. Now I want to highlight two things I didn’t say, that we
didn’t say in our article. We did not say that the Israel lobby was
all-powerful. Let me repeat this. This is not some secret cabal that
controls our foreign policy. And there are countervailing forces out there,
though they are much weaker, and the lobby doesn’t get its way on every
single issue. But nobody who’s worked on these issues in Washington would
deny that it’s a very effective set of individuals and organizations. And I
would argue they get their way now more than they used to.
Second, we didn’t accuse and don’t accuse anyone of
being disloyal to the United States. Rather, we recognize that all of us
have many commitments and affinities to our country, to our religion, to our
families, sometimes to our employers. It’s entirely permissible for those
different commitments and attachments to manifest themselves in politics.
That’s perfectly okay here in the United States. People like Paul Wolfowitz
or Doug Feith and people who work for AIPAC advocate policies they think are
good for Israel and the United States alike. We don’t think there’s anything
wrong with that. But we also don’t think there’s anything wrong for others
to point out these individuals do have attachments that shape how they think
about the Middle East and how they think about American policy in that
region. And we see nothing wrong with saying that the views they think are
in our best interests might not be in America’s best interest of that of
Now, before I sum up, I want to make just a couple of
quick comments about the public reaction to our article. When we wrote it,
John and I knew it was likely to be controversial. We were disappointed that
much of the reaction consisted of attacks on our characters or on extraneous
issues rather than on a serious discussion of our main arguments. As I said
before, we really didn’t say anything that was all that controversial, that
wasn’t common knowledge inside the Beltway. And if you’ve looked carefully
at our paper, you’ll note that most of our analysis relies on
"controversial" sources like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The
Wall Street Journal, Ha’aretz and Forward. As I noted, again, Washington
insiders in both parties are well aware of the influence that the lobby has.
And so it wasn’t what we said, it was rather that two card-carrying members
of the mainstream foreign policy establishment with rather impeccable, even
boring, middle-of-the road credentials and absolutely no trace of an
anti-Semitic history, attitudes or behavior finally pointed out the elephant
in the room.
So what happened? Well, there were the predictable
accusations that we were anti-Semites and various attempts to smear us by
associating us with people like David Duke. People who offered these charges
gave no evidence to back them up, of course, for the simple reason that
there isn’t any evidence. There was lots of attention on very extraneous
issues, such as whether the Kennedy School, where I work, had asked me to
step down from my position as academic dean. For the record, it didn’t. When
people did discuss the substance, they tended to misrepresent our arguments
or erroneously accused us of various factual errors.
Now, John and I have already dealt with some of those
charges in a letter to the London Review. We are now preparing a lengthy
response to our critics that will show the various factual criticisms are
without foundation. And it’s also worth noting that most of these criticisms
dealt with secondary issues anyway, not with the main arguments in our book.
The most peculiar claim, to us, was the claim that we
were sloppy, that somehow the paper’s very sloppy. What you want to ask
yourself is, does this seem at all likely? John and I have between us
written six books and countless articles. People have disagreed with us
throughout our careers, but no one has ever said before that our work was
sloppy. Is it credible to think that the two of us would tackle a third-rail
issue like this one and suddenly decide to be careless and cavalier in what
we did? I might add the piece was vetted by a number of other scholars in
the field. We sent drafts around to lots of people to get comments before we
published it to make sure that there were no meaningful errors in it at all.
Now finally, if you then look at the people who aren’t
connected to the lobby and they take a careful look—the ones who have taken
a look at our claims, they tend to agree with us. Michael Massing wrote an
essay in The New York Review of Books where he repeated, unfortunately, some
of the bogus charges against the paper. But his bottom line is quite clear,
and I quote it: Quote, "On their central point, the power of the Israel
lobby and the negative effect it has had on U.S. foreign policy, Mearsheimer
and Walt are entirely correct." Similarly, L. Carl Brown, a distinguished
professor emeritus at Princeton, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs that our
paper was neither sloppy nor anti-Semitic. Instead, he called it a
hard-headed analysis that just might set in motion a useful paradigm shift
in U.S.-Middle East policy. Now, needless to say, we are pleased that the
conversation is starting to focus on substance.
Our country faces very serious problems in the Middle
East, in Iraq, with Iran and Saudi Arabia and the tragic conflict between
Israel and the Palestinians. And we are not going to deal with any of these
problems effectively if we cannot discuss these issues openly and honestly
and if we can’t discuss all of the factors that influence our policy in the
Now meanwhile, outside the Beltway and back in the
Middle East, there is a growing conflict between Israel and the
Israeli forces were once again reoccupying Gaza. Hamas
captured an Israeli soldier and was launching rockets. And at this point,
Hezbollah ambushed an Israeli patrol near the Israeli-Lebanese border which
gave Israel the pretext to launch to preplanned campaign to eliminate or
gravely weaken Hezbollah.
As John will now explain, this tragic and unnecessary
war provides additional evidence for how the Israel lobby is shaping U.S.
policy and harming the United States, Israel and Israel’s neighbors.
I’d just like to step in and remind everybody again
you have the cards for questions. Please write down your questions, pass
them to the aisles and we’ll have people come around and collect them.
Professor John Mearsheimer is a professor at the
University of Chicago. He graduated from West Point in 1970 and has written
extensively about security issues and international politics.
Thank you, Corey. Thank you, Steve, for your excellent
presentation and introduction.
I will proceed by describing the extensive support
that the United States provided Israel during the recent Lebanon war. Next,
I will attempt to show that this support did not make good strategic sense
for the United States and, also, that there was no compelling moral
rationale for it. In fact, the opposite is the case. I will then argue that
the main reason that the United States supported Israel was the lobby.
Finally, I will consider two alternative arguments that Israelis and their
supporters in this country sometimes employ to explain America’s
unconditional support for Israel during the Lebanon conflict. Specifically,
I’ll examine the claim that U.S. policy reflects American public’s deep
commitment to Israel as well as the claim that Israel was acting as
America’s client state in its war with Hezbollah. In short, I will argue
that this administration’s policy in Lebanon was not in America’s national
I might add that I do not think it was in Israel’s
national interest either. Israel would have been much better off if the
United States had given it a red light instead of a green light when it
proposed its plan to attack Lebanon. That way, Israel would have been forced
to come up with a smarter response and would have avoided the debacle that
ensued in Lebanon.
American support for Israel and Lebanon started when
the Bush administration gave Israel the okay to try to smash Hezbollah at an
opportune moment. It now seems clear that Israel had been planning to strike
at Hezbollah for months before the July 12th kidnapping and that key Israeli
had briefed the administration about their intentions. The available
evidence indicates that the Bush administration enthusiastically endorsed
Israel’s plans for war in Lebanon.
Once the war began and Israel came in for severe
criticism from all around the world, the Bush administration provided Israel
with diplomatic protection. It vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution
that criticized Israel, and it worked assiduously for about a month to
prevent the U.N. from imposing a cease-fire so that Israel could try to
finish the job with Hezbollah.
Only when it became apparent that the IDF was not
going to win a decisive victory did the Bush administration and Israel
accept the need for a cease-fire. During the ensuing negotiations, which
resulted in Resolution 1701, the United States went to great lengths to
protect Israel’s interests. In fact, as the resolution was being finalized,
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called President Bush on August 11th and
thanked him for "safeguarding Israel’s interests in the Security Council."
The president also frequently defended Israel’s
actions in public and never offered a word of criticism. John Bolton, the
U.S. ambassador to the U.N., defended Israel at every turn during the
Finally, the administration provided Israel with
intelligence during the conflict. And when Israel started running out of
smart bombs, the president quickly agreed to send replacements. It was no
surprise that Shai Feldman, an Israeli scholar, said, "There is huge, huge
appreciation here for the president."
Congress has long been the place where Israel finds
its strongest support in America. And its behavior during the Lebanon
conflict confirmed that situation. Democrats and Republicans competed to
show that their party, not the rival one, was Israel’s best friend. One
Jewish activist said that he thought that, "It’s a good thing to have
members of Congress outdo their colleagues by showing their pro-Israeli
credentials are stronger than the next guy’s."
In the end, there was virtually no daylight between
the two parties regarding Israel, which is quite remarkable when you think
of the sharp differences between the two parties on most other important
foreign policy issues, like Iraq, for example.
In terms of concrete action, the House of
Representatives passed a strongly worded resolution supporting Israeli
policy in Lebanon. The vote was 410-8. The Senate unanimously passed a
similar resolution which was sponsored by 62 senators, including the leaders
of both parties. A number of prominent Democrats, including the parties’
leaders in both the House and the Senate, tried to prevent Iraq’s prime
minister from addressing Congress because he had dared to criticize Israeli
policy in Lebanon. Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic Party, went
so far as to say the Iraqi prime minister is an anti-Semite.
Potential presidential candidates for 2008, like
Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Joe Biden and Newt Gingrich, were falling all
over themselves to express their support for Israel. The only exception to
that rule was Senator Chuck Hagel, who expressed mild reservation about what
Israel and the United States were doing in Lebanon. One can be sure that he
stands zero chance of becoming the next president of the United States.
The mainstream media also stood firmly behind Israel.
Editor and Publisher, a distinguished journal which covers the newspaper
industry, surveyed dozens of newspapers about a week after the war began and
found that "almost none of them have condemned the Israeli attack on
civilian areas and the infrastructure of Lebanon."
The 24-hour cable news stations were filled with
reports and commentary which portrayed Israel as a beleaguered combatant
that could do no wrong.
Perhaps the situation in the mainstream media is best
summed up by these words from an article in The Independent, a British
newspaper. Quote: "There are two sides to every conflict unless you rely on
the U.S. media for information about the battle in Lebanon." Viewers have
been fed a diet of partisan coverage which treats Israel as the good guys
and their Hezbollah enemy as the incarnation of evil. Not only is there next
to no debate; the debate itself is considered unnecessary and suspect.
What makes America’s overwhelming support for Israel
so remarkable is that the United States was the only country that
enthusiastically supported Israel’s actions in Lebanon. In fact, almost
every other country in the world, as well as the U.N. leadership, criticized
Israeli policy and, I might add, Washington’s unyielding support of Israel.
This situation raises the obvious question: Why was
the United States so out of step with the rest of the world? One possible
answer is that supporting Israel made eminently good strategic sense for the
United States. However, that’s not the case. The war in Lebanon undermined
America’s position in the Middle East.
To be more specific, the United States has three major
strategic concerns in that critically important region. The first is
terrorism, which is mainly about neutralizing al Qaeda, although the United
States is also committed to dealing with Hamas and Hezbollah. The second
concern is so-called rogue states, like Iran and Syria, which not only
support terrorism but, in the case of Iran, seems determined to acquire
nuclear weapons. The third concern is the war in Iraq, which the United
States is in danger of losing.
The Bush administration’s support for Israel in the
recent Lebanon war complicates Washington’s ability to deal with all three
of these problems.
Events in Lebanon have complicated America’s terrorism
problem in two ways. First, it has reinforced anti-Americanism in the Arab
and Islamic world, which surely will help al Qaeda find new recruits who
want to attack the United States and its allies. This increased hostility
towards America will also generate public support for those terrorists in
the Middle East and elsewhere.
Second, the conflict has increased Hezbollah’s
standing inside and outside of Lebanon. Although Hezbollah does not directly
threaten the United States, Washington has an interest in weakening its
influence in the region. However, by supporting Israel’s offensive in
Lebanon, it helped make Hezbollah stronger, not weaker.
The conflict in Lebanon has also made it more
difficult to deal with Iran and Syria. While there is no question that both
countries support Hezbollah, the United States has a powerful interest in
weakening or breaking those linkages, as well as breaking the linkage
between Iran and Syria.
Instead, the Bush administration has blindly supported
Israel and has treated Hezbollah, Iran and Syria as part of a seamless web
of evil. The result: One, Iran and Syria are more likely to continue arming
and supporting Hezbollah; two, Iran and Syria have even more reason to keep
the United States pinned down in Iraq so that it cannot attack either of
them; three, Iran has more reason than ever to acquire nuclear weapons so
that it can deter an Israeli or U.S. attack on its homeland.
It’s also worth noting that the IDF’s lackluster
performance in Lebanon makes clear that it will not be of much value in
helping the United States deal with this threat environment, which its
actions helped create and continue to fuel. As Steve said, Israel is not a
strategic asset for dealing with terrorist threats or rogue states.
As noted, U.S. policy during the Lebanon war has given
Iran and Syria more reason to do what they can to make life miserable for
the United States in Iraq. However, it also angered Iraqis themselves,
especially Iraqi Shias, who feel a powerful sense of allegiance to Hezbollah
because it represents the Shias of southern Lebanon.
The United States is obviously in deep trouble in
Iraq, and it cannot afford to further alienate the local population. But
that is what the Bush administration’s policy in Lebanon did.
Finally, the policy was strategically foolish because
it endangers friendly regimes in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and runs the
risk of causing a civil war in Lebanon and undoing the Cedar Revolution,
which President Bush did so much to make happen.
American policy also angers our allies in Europe and
raises doubts about whether the United States is a reliable ally for dealing
with the terrorist and proliferation threats in the Middle East, which is
much closer to Europe than is the United States.
In sum, backing Israel to the hilt in its war with
Lebanon was not in America’s strategic interest. It is hard to disagree with
Aaron Miller’s observation that "there is a danger in a policy in which
there is no daylight whatsoever between the government of Israel and the
government of the United States."
One might concede that support for Israel had
significant strategic costs, but argue that it was nevertheless the correct
policy for moral reasons. Israel, so the argument goes, has the right to
defend itself, and it did so in a way that conformed to the laws of war.
Let me address this line of argument. To start,
there’s no question that Israel has the right to defend itself. Hardly
anyone contests that point, and Steve and I certainly do not. The critical
issue here is whether Israel’s actions were consistent with the laws of war.
That’s the question on the table.
The answer is no. The Israeli campaign against Lebanon
had two components. The first was to destroy Hezbollah as a fighting force.
Special attention was paid to eliminating the thousands of missiles and
rockets that it possessed.
The second component was a classic punishment
campaign. Here the aim was to inflict massive pain on Lebanon’s civilian
population by destroying infrastructure and killing civilians. One might
think that Israel only initiated its punishment campaign in response to
Hezbollah’s attacks on Israeli civilians, but that would be wrong.
Remember how the war started. It began on July 12th,
when Hezbollah fighters killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two more
near the border between Israel and Lebanon. Israel responded by bombing
Lebanon, which in turn led Hezbollah to launch rockets and missiles at towns
and cities in northern Israel.
Thus, although Hezbollah precipitated the conflict,
Israel initiated the deadly counter population exchanges. Israeli leaders
made it clear from the start that all of Lebanon would pay a severe price in
the war. For example, General Dan Halutz, the Israeli chief of staff, said
at the beginning of the conflict that he intended, "to turn back the clock
in Lebanon by 20 years." He was also quoted at one point as saying that,
"Nothing is safe in Lebanon." And he was true to his word.
Consider Amnesty International’s assessment of what
the IDF wrought in Lebanon. I’m going to read from the report. "During more
than four weeks of ground and aerial bombardment of Lebanon by the Israeli
armed forces, the country’s infrastructure suffered destruction on a
catastrophic scale. Israeli forces pounded buildings into the ground,
reduced entire neighborhoods to rubble, and turned villages and towns into
ghost towns as their inhabitants fled the bombardments.
"Main roads, bridges and petrol stations were blown to
bits. Entire families were killed in air strikes on their homes or in their
vehicles while fleeing the aerial assaults on their villages. Scores lay
buried beneath the rubble of their houses for weeks as the Red Cross and
other rescue workers were prevented from accessing the areas by continuing
"The hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who fled the
bombardment now face the danger of unexploded munitions as they head home.
The Israeli air force launched more than 7,000 air attacks on about 7,000
targets in Lebanon between 12 July and 14 August, while the navy conducted
an additional 2,500 bombardments.
"The attacks, although widespread, particularly
concentrated on certain areas. In addition to the human toll"—here’s the
human toll—"an estimated 1,183 fatalities, about one-third of whom were
children, 4,054 people injured, and 970,000 Lebanese people displaced.
"The civilian infrastructure was severely damaged. The
Lebanese government estimates that 31 vital points, such as airports, ports,
water and sewage treatment plants, electrical facilities, have been
completely or partially destroyed, as have around 80 bridges and 94 roads.
More than 25 fuel stations and around 900 commercial enterprises were hit.
The number of residential properties, offices and shops completely destroyed
exceeds 30,000. Two government hospitals were completely destroyed in
Israeli attacks, and three others were seriously damaged." I could go on,
but I won’t.
Amnesty International is hardly alone in its
assessment of the damage the IDF inflicted in Lebanon. William Arkin, an
American security expert and a self-proclaimed "fan of air power" wrote in
The Washington Post,"In carrying out its punishment campaign, Israel has
left behind a shocking level of destruction outside the direct battle zone.
I hesitate to use the words 'laid to waste’ and 'moonscape’ in describing
the condition in urban Lebanon, because the same kinds of words are thrown
around so promiscuously in describing U.S. air strikes. But what Israel has
wrought is far more ruinous than anything the U.S. military, specifically
the U.S. Air Force, has undertaken in the era of precision warfare."
It seems intuitively clear that Israel’s destructive
campaign in Lebanon violated the laws of war. But that’s not enough. It’s
important to understand the specifics of the case. The bedrock distinction
that underpins the laws of war, as well as just-war theory, is between
civilian and military targets.
There is no question that states have the right to
defend themselves by attacking each other’s military assets. However, they
are not supposed to directly attack civilian targets in another state
unless, of course, they morph into military targets in the course of the
Furthermore, when attacking an adversary’s military
targets, states must make a determined effort to minimize collateral damage.
This is where the well-known concept of proportionality comes into play. It
says that when states strike at military targets, they must make sure that
there is not excessive collateral damage, given the particular value of the
In short, states cannot attack enemy civilian targets
on purpose, and they must take great care to avoid collateral damage when
hitting military targets. Israel failed to observe either of these
distinctions. There’s no question that Israel purposely attacked a wide
array of civilian targets in Lebanon.
The description of the devastation from the Amnesty
International report makes this clear. Remember, it concluded that
Lebanon’s, "infrastructure suffered destruction on a catastrophic scale."
That report also says at another point that Israel’s bombing campaign
resulted in "massive destruction of civilian infrastructure."
In a separate study of Israel’s offensive in Lebanon,
Human Rights Watch—this is not Amnesty International, but Human Rights
Watch—concluded that "Israel has violated one of the most fundamental tenets
of the laws of war—the duty to carry out attacks on only military targets."
It’s also clear that Israel did not take care to avoid
collateral damage in striking targets that it considered military in nature.
Indeed, Human Rights Watch concluded that despite Israel’s claims that it
was "taking all possible measures to minimize civilian harm." In fact, there
was "a systematic failure by the IDF to distinguish between combatants and
Israel and its supporters invariably respond to this
charge with the claim that Israel may have killed a large number of innocent
civilians, but that was only because Hezbollah was using them as human
shields. The Human Rights Watch study that I just referenced, however,
directly contradicts that claim.
To quote from the report, "Human Rights Watch found no
cases—no cases—in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to
protect them from the retaliatory IDF attacks." In none of the cases of
civilian deaths documented in this report is there evidence to suggest that
Hezbollah forces or weapons were in or near the area that the IDF targeted
during or just prior to the attack.
Regarding the issue of proportionality, the report
also declares that "The IDF consistently tolerated a high level of civilian
casualties for questionable military gain. At least one Israeli leader made
no bones about the fact that Israel was violating the proportionality
principle. Dan Gillerman, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said
early in the war, "To those countries who claim that we are using
disproportionate force, I have only this to say. You are damn right we are."
In sum, it is impossible to make the case that the
United States supported Israel during the Lebanon war because it was the
morally correct policy choice. If morality was the issue, the Bush
administration would have condemned Israel’s action in Lebanon from the
The principal reason, of course, that the United
States backed Israeli policy in Lebanon, while the rest of the world
criticized it, is the Israel lobby. AIPAC and other organizations in the
lobby worked overtime from start to finish to make sure that there was no
daylight between American and Israeli policy.
Four days after the war began, Nathan Gutman wrote in
The Jerusalem Post: "The American Jewish community has been demonstrating
wall-to-wall support for Israel as it fights on two fronts. Pro-Israel
organizations raised money for the Jewish state, took out advertisements in
newspapers, closely monitored the media and met with legislators and staff
on Capitol Hill, policymakers in the Bush administration and influential
media figures. They left no stone unturned."
There are numerous examples of the major organizations
at work. Here are three of them: first, there was an effort to temper the
House resolution supporting Israel by supporting language urging, "all sides
to protect life and infrastructure." Congressman Nancy Pelosi, the House
minority leader, and Senator John Warner, among others, favored that change
in language. One would think that such language would be unobjectionable, if
not welcome, but AIPAC, which was the main driving force behind the
resolution to begin with, objected. And John Boehner, the House majority
leader, kept the proposed language out. The resolution still passed 410 to
Second, Chris Van Hollen, a Democratic congressman
from Maryland, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on July
30th urging her, "to call for an immediate cease-fire to be followed by a
rapid deployment of an international force in southern Lebanon." He also
wrote that "the Israeli response has now gone beyond the destruction of
Hezbollah’s military assets. It has caused huge damage to Lebanon’s civilian
infrastructure, resulted in the large loss of civilian life and produced
over 750,000 refugees. Hezbollah is undeniably the culprit, but it is the
Lebanese people, not Hezbollah, who are increasingly the victims of the
violence. As a result, the Israeli bombing campaign supported by the United
States has transformed Lebanese anger at Hezbollah into growing hostility
toward Israel and the United States."
The lobby was furious with Van Hollen and quickly
moved to tell the congressman in no uncertain terms that he should never
have written the letter. Van Hollen met with various representatives from
major Jewish organizations, who explained to him the basic facts of life in
American politics. The congressman apologized saying: "I am sorry if my
strong criticism of the Bush administration’s failures has been interpreted
as a criticism of Israel’s conduct in the current crisis. That certainly was
not my intention." He emphasized that he would continue to be an advocate
for Israel and he was talking to Jewish leaders about the possibility of
traveling to Israel within a few weeks.
Still, the leader of the Jewish Community Relations
Council of Washington told him that "he needs to continue to reach out to
the Jewish community to reassure the Jewish community he is going to be
there for Israel." The ADL’s regional director for Washington said that as
far as he was concerned, Van Hollen’s response "doesn’t undo the damage of
the first letter."
The third example: Early in the war, President Bush
urged Israel to be careful not to topple the democratically elected
government in Lebanon, which the president had helped put in power. The
lobby took issue with Bush and sent him the message that it considered his
rhetoric unacceptable. For example, the Jewish newspaper Forward reported on
July 14th that "the Bush administration is being criticized by some Israeli
and Jewish communal officials for calling on Jerusalem not to undermine the
democratically elected Lebanese government."
Abraham Foxman, the head of the ADL said:"The
administrations in Western countries want to shore up the Lebanese
government, but it is a misguided policy to do so—and the same holds for Abu
Mazen. They feel it’s better than a vacuum, but you should not support
what’s meaningless, and we knew from the beginning that Abu Mazen would go
nowhere and that the Lebanese government would be ineffective." Not
surprisingly, Bush stopped talking about the need to protect the government
Lest you think that I’m making this up, it’s worth
noting that the key organizations in the lobby have been quite open and
candid in discussing their influence on U.S. policy during the Lebanon war.
Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that they have boasted of it. For
example, AIPAC’s president, Howard Friedman, wrote a letter to friends and
supporters of his organization on July 30th, which he began by saying, "Look
what we’ve done." He then wrote: "Only one nation in the world came out and
flatly declared, let Israel finish the job. That nation is the United States
of America. And the reason it had such a clear, unambiguous view of the
situation is you and the rest of American Jewry." It is hardly surprising,
therefore, that Prime Minister Ehud Olmer recently said: "Thank God we have
AIPAC—the greatest supporter and friend we have in the whole world."
Organizations like AIPAC were not the only players in
the lobby who were hard at work during the recent conflict. Journalists like
Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol made the case, to use Kristol’s
words that Israel’s war is, quote, unquote, "our war." The Christian
Zionists also rallied behind Israel. The recently formed Christians United
for Israel held a two-day Washington-Israel summit here in the capital in
mid July. It attracted 3,500 people and participants were encouraged to
express their support for Israel by sending a loud and clear message to
their senators and representatives.
The executive director of another group, the Christian
Friends of Israel, offered the rather un-Christian insight that, quote,
"This was certainly an unprovoked attack and Israel has every right to go in
and pound them." There are also a number of individuals with deep
attachments to Israel in key policymaking positions inside the Bush
administration. I’ve already mentioned John Bolton. More importantly, the
two most influential advisors on Middle East affairs in the White House are
both fervent supporters of Israel. Consider Elliot Abrams, the senior
director at the National Security Council, whose devotion to Israel is well
established. Not surprisingly, The New York Times reported during the war
that he, quote, "has pushed the administration to throw its support behind
The other key figure is David Wurmser, who is Vice
President Cheney’s advisor on the Middle East. Wurmser, who makes no bones
about his deep commitment to Israel, is one of the main authors of the
famous Clean Break study written in 1996 for incoming Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu. It advocated that Israel end the Oslo peace process and
use military force to topple regimes across the Middle East.
In sum, it is clear that the lobby played a critical
role in shaping U.S. policy toward Israel and the broader Middle East during
the recent war between Israel and Lebanon. Nevertheless, it did so in ways
that were neither in America nor the Israeli national interest.
Now, one might argue that Washington’s unyielding
support for Israeli policy is not the result of the lobby’s influence, as we
claim, but is due to the fact that the American people are deeply committed
to Israel. In other words, Israel gets unconditional support because the
U.S. public demands it. This line of argument is not convincing for two
First, it is clear that American citizens are more
favorably disposed toward Israel than are citizens in other democracies, but
this is hardly surprising since the lobby is so successful at controlling
the discourse about Israel in the United States. If there was an open and
freewheeling debate about the Jewish state, public opinion here would almost
certainly be more in line with European and Asian public opinion on Israel.
Second, despite the one-sided discourse about Israel
in the United States, public opinion is still surprisingly clear eyed when
it comes to dealing with Israel. In fact, Americans have a much more
critical view of Israeli policy than government officials do. And they are
certainly much more hard-nosed in how they think about dealing with Israel.
Thus, it is hard to argue that the policies of the Bush administration and
the behavior of Congress reflect public attitudes about Israel.
To elaborate, let’s look at some representative survey
data on four critical issues related to the recent war in Lebanon. On the
question of who is to blame for starting the conflict, in an ABC
News/Washington Post poll conducted on August 3-6, 2006, 46 percent of the
respondents said that Israel and Hezbollah were equally to blame—that’s 46
percent. Another 7 percent blamed Israel alone.
On the question of whether Israel has gone too far in
its attacks, a USA Today/Gallop Poll conducted on July 21-23, 2006, found
that 38 percent of the respondents said that they disapproved of the
military action Israel has taken in Lebanon.
On whether the United States should support Israel or
remain neutral, in a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted on July 21-25,
2006, 40 percent of the respondents said the United States should not
publicly support either Israel or Hezbollah, but should say and do nothing.
Seven percent favored criticizing Israel and another 14 percent were unsure
what to do; 39 percent favored supporting Israel. On whether the United
States and Israel should agree to an immediate cease-fire, a July 19th,
2005, CNN poll found that 43 percent of the respondents said that Israel
should agree to a cease-fire as soon as possible.
In short, there’s a marked asymmetry between how
Americans think about Israel and the recent conflict in Israel and what the
U.S. government has done. Thus, one cannot argue that the actions of the
Bush administration and Congress during the 33-day war were largely a
reflection of American public opinion.
The second alternative explanation which one sometimes
hears is that the United States is in fact the driving force behind the war
in Lebanon and Israel is merely its client state. Israel, in other words, is
a loyal ally doing the Bush administration’s dirty work. There are two
reasons to doubt this claim.
First, if this claim was true, Israel’s bombing
offensive would have been confined to southern Lebanon and great care would
have been taken to protect and strengthen the Lebanese government. After
all, President Bush made it clear at the start of the crisis that he did not
want to endanger the government in Beirut, which he had worked so hard to
install. More generally, the United States almost certainly would not have
sought to set Lebanon back 20 years, as called for by Israel’s chief of
Second, there’s actually little evidence that the Bush
administration planned the offensive and then pushed Israel to execute it.
In fact, the available evidence suggests that Israel had planned the Lebanon
campaign in the months before the events of July 12th, which it used as a
pretext for launching it. Israel undoubtedly briefed the United States about
the plan and got Bush’s endorsement. But giving Israel the green light is
not the same as using Israel as a client state.
In conclusion, neither of the alternative explanations
can account for American policy during the recent war in Lebanon, nor can
one find the compelling strategic or moral rationale that explains why the
United States provided Israel with unyielding support while the rest of the
world criticized Israeli behavior in Lebanon. In fact, the lobby was the
main driving force behind U.S. Middle East policy, as it has been since the
late 1960s. The war in Lebanon has been a disaster for the Lebanese people,
as well as a major strategic setback for the United States and for Israel.
The lobby played a key role in enabling Israel’s counterproductive response
by preventing the United States from exercising independent influence.
In this case, as in so many others, the lobby’s
influence has been harmful to U.S. interests, but also harmful to Israel as
well. Until the lobby begins to favor a different approach or until its
influence is weakened, U.S. policy in the region will continue to be
hamstrung to everyone’s detriment.
Thank you very much. We have about 15 to 20 minutes
for questions, so we’ll get started right off the bat.
First question: How can elected officials be convinced
to support a balanced Mideast policy when they do not gain benefits from
standing on principle? And I’d remind our panelists that we’ve been asked to
come to the podium and answer questions.
I think this is a very difficult question, and it’s a
very difficult challenge because the institutions that are currently arrayed
to encourage support for Israel are quite powerful and quite well funded.
And if you’re a congressman whose constituents don’t care one way or the
other, but a few of your constituents care a lot and you know that there’s a
lot of PAC money that will go to any of your opponents, you have trouble. So
I think, at least as a first step, the thing we want to have is a more open
conversation about this. That’s the main reason why John and I have been
doing this work. We want to try and get a conversation so that politicians
who do unconditionally support Israel down the line start facing questions
from their constituents as to why they’re doing that. Until they perceive a
political price for policies that aren’t in the American national interest,
they’re likely to keep doing this. One way—and in fact, I think probably the
best way to try and instill that is to try and educate the American people
more broadly, educate members of the media more broadly, and again, try and
foster a climate where we can have an open and serious conversation about
Our second question: What about the U.S. Arms Export
and Control Act and the Neutrality Act that bars—excuse me, I’m trying to
read someone else’s handwriting—that bars Americans and the Israeli army
from attacking friendly nations?
The problem with legislation like that is that when
you talk about what is a friendly nation or what is an enemy nation, it’s
very easy to find spin doctors who can define any particular nation as
either a friend or a foe depending on the particular circumstances. So there
are real limits to what you’re going to be able to do and a result of formal
I think the real key to making American policy smarter
is to create a situation where American leaders are more or less independent
of pressures from organizations in the lobby and can do what they think is
in the best interest of the United States. And if that situation obtains, I
think in most cases American leaders will do the smart thing for the United
States, and I think in most cases—certainly not all cases—that will redound
to the benefit not only of Israel but other states in the region.
I think—and I think Steve made this point clear in his
presentation—that if the United States had been free of the lobby’s
influence for most of the past three decades, we would have pushed politics
in the region in ways that would have created a more peaceful environment.
This is not to say for one second that we would have produced nirvana in the
area. Steve and I are both realists. We understand that international
politics is a nasty and dangerous business. But on the other hand, I think
if the United States had been more independent in its foreign policy over
the past few decades, we could have gone a long way towards making the
Middle East more stable than it is today, which, again, is not to say we
would have made it paradise on earth.
Our next question: What, in your opinion, was the
turning point for which AIPAC really began controlling U.S. foreign policy?
Was it under Reagan?
First of all, I’d object to the premise of the
question. I don’t think AIPAC controls foreign policy. I think again, as I
said in my remarks, I think there’s a very profound influence particularly
on key issues in the Middle East. But I think it’s a mistake to view this as
some kind of either secret cabal that controls our foreign policy or that
gets its way on absolutely every issue. Then, if you—now to answer the
spirit of the question, not the exact wording of the question, I think if
you look historically, AIPAC begins to have substantially more influence
after the Six-Day War, when American support for Israel begins to increase,
and then it really takes off, I think, in the 1980s, partly because of just
internal reforms within the organization—it gets more effective; it does
better jobs with fundraising and things like that; also, because it’s
becoming very adroit at selling this strategic ally argument, which, again,
at the height of the Cold War and especially in the Reagan era, you could
make a reasonably plausible case. But by the time the 1990s roll around and
the Cold War comes to an end, it’s sufficiently well institutionalized,
sufficiently effective, and, I might add, there have been enough
sufficiently well-publicized cases of congressmen having their careers ended
because they advocated a position that AIPAC didn’t particularly like. Then
at that point, it really begins to have a very profound influence on
American foreign policy.
Next question: You said that the U. S. gave Israel a
green light to smash Hezbollah. Do you have hard evidence that the war was
There have been a bevy of articles that have been
produced which quote prominent Israeli strategists, civilian strategists,
and government insiders who make it clear that Israel feared Hezbollah’s
missile threat. And by the way, I think this is perfectly understandable. I
think if anyone of us was an Israeli, we would have deeply concerned about
Hezbollah’s missile threat. So Israel was looking at this missile threat,
and it decided that using military force against it made sense. I find it
hard to believe that people as experienced in warfare as the Israelis could
have been foolish enough to believe that air power alone could have taken
out the Hezbollah missiles, much less Hezbollah.
But for some reason, they came to that conclusion,
that with air power alone, Israel could lance the boil. They came up with a
plan, and they briefed it to the United States in the weeks and months
before July 12th.
And it was made clear to the United States that all
that was needed was a pretext to launch this air campaign to deal with the
missile threat. And the Israelis and the Americans and virtually everybody
else understood that there was enough back and forth between Hezbollah and
Israel taking place over time that an event that would eventually come up
that the Israelis could use as a cover for launching this offensive.
You want to remember, I pointed out to you that it was
not Hezbollah that first started bombing cities in northern Israel; it was
the Israelis who first started bombing civilian infrastructure in Lebanon,
because the Israelis were loaded for bear, so to speak, when the event
happened on July 12th. So I think from everything we know that’s in the
public record at this point in time, it seems quite clear that Israel had
planned this event—this offensive before July 12th.
The next question is split up, with one for each of
the professors. Why did Professor Walt single out Wolfowitz and Feith for
blame and not their non-Jewish boss Rumsfeld? And then, the question to
Professor Mearsheimer: What would have been an acceptable response by Israel
to a raid on its territory and missiles hitting its cities?
I singled out Wolfowitz and Feith because I think they
were critical members in driving the case for war, moreso than Secretary of
Defense Rumsfeld. I could have mentioned non-Jewish people like John Bolton
as well, who I think is a very strong supporter of Israel and is a big
advocate of going to war as well. So this wasn’t a statement about being
Jewish one way or the other. It was a statement of what you were supporting
in terms of how to deal with Iraq.
I didn’t mention, but I explicitly mentioned to Cheney
and Bush on the other side, that in the first nine months of the Bush
administration, it’s clear from, again, what we’ve been able to read in the
public record, that Wolfowitz was pushing for the United States to take
action against Iraq, but he was unable to persuade Bush that it was a good
idea and unable to persuade Cheney it was a good idea. There are even some
reports—I don’t know how accurate they are—that Bush was starting to get
annoyed by this; that, you know, Wolfowitz kept bringing this up all the
time, and he eventually gets told to stop because it’s getting on the
president’s nerves. But the point is, after September 11th, then the
political stars realign a little bit, and Bush and Cheney come on board.
Which is why, again, we say the lobby was a necessary condition for getting
the war. Absent its pressure, you wouldn’t have had it. They’d been pushing
it for a long time. But absent 9/11, you wouldn’t have gotten the war in
Iraq either. That was critical to shaping the political calculations.
The question was what do I think would have been an
appropriate alternative response by Israel.
First of all, I think that Israel probably should have
used some military force against Hezbollah in response to what happened on
July 12th. I think it should have been much more selective and much more
limited, in large part because using mass massive military force was
counterproductive. It just didn’t make good strategic sense. And again, I do
not understand why the Israelis themselves, given all their experience
fighting in the Middle East, didn’t understand this.
But I think that using massive military force the way
they did between July 12th and August 14th was a major mistake. It should
have been a much more limited attack, and they certainly should have ramped
down their rhetoric. It was very foolish to say that the principal goal here
is to destroy Hezbollah, and we’re going to do that, and all we need is for
the Unites States to give us another week or two to do that. Heck, the
Israelis were in Lebanon for 18 years, between 1982 and 2000, and they
couldn’t defeat Hezbollah. Why in God’s name did they think that they could
defeat Hezbollah from the air in three or four weeks? This was just not
going to happen.
So they should have had very limited goals,
rhetorically. They should have given Hezbollah a sharp rap, and that should
have been the end of it.
And this’ll be the question that we use to wrap up our
session. How can American Muslims, Arab-Americans, and people of other
faiths take back our foreign policy and make it more balanced?
Boy, now you’re expecting me to be a real miracle
You know, I guess I am a big believer still in the
basic roots of American democracy. And I believe that although very powerful
countries like the United States can do things that are foolish for quite
some time without paying an enormous price because we’re big and powerful,
ultimately the costs of those policies do get recognized. We’re seeing the
costs of one of our follies every day in Iraq now—costly for us, costly for
the Iraqi people, dangerous for all countries in the region. So eventually,
reality does start to impose itself on our consciousness.
I think what all Americans of different faiths and
different political backgrounds can do is demand a little bit more of your
elected representatives, ask them harder questions, inform yourselves about
different things that are happening in the world, don’t take one side as
gospel immediately, and in particular do everything you can to encourage an
open and sober debate. Don’t let people who have views you might disagree
with get marginalized or smeared. Recognize that one of the great strengths
of democracy is the fact that we can argue about issues. I think the more
that that tends to happen in the United States, the more we’re going to see
American foreign policy on this and on many other issues revert to something
that’s more consistent with our broader national interests.
Thank you very much.
Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the Council on
American-Islamic Relations, I would like to thank you all very much. We have
two particular groups to thank, and that is our panelists for being willing
to come down to Washington today to speak with us. But equally, thank you
very much because while what they have to say is very important, it’s also
very important that people be out there listening. We appreciate it. If you
would like to learn more about the organization, please visit us at cair.com.