Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Walt and Mearsheimer: Kissinger's disciples?

In a recent post, I called Stephen M Walt and John J Mearsheimer "Kissinger's acolytes". As BenSix pointed out, this is somewhat hyperbolic. So, what is the relationship? Click the title of this post to read my response.

Kissinger is not a hero in Walt and Mearsheimer's narrative. They mention him only in passing in the first published version of their Israel Lobby text, their Kennedy School of Government working paper or the Middle East Policy journal article based on this, and do not mention him in the LRB version. But they do note in the book version when Kissinger went to Moscow in 1973 to discuss Middle East peace with Leonid Brezhnev, and, according to Walt and Mearsheimer, went against Nixon's instructions to defend Israel to the Soviet Union. Given Walt and Mearsheimer's apparent animus towards Kissinger, how can I claim that they are made from his mould?

First, a little about Kissinger's views on Israel. Then, how he is related to Mearsheimer and Walt. Finally, what this might mean.

Kissinger's general approach to geopolitics was, and remains, a sense of how best to pursue America's interests (understood, really, as the interests of American business) in a world of large and small power rivalries. He was a "realist" in the sense that he sought a good understanding of the "real" dynamics of geopolitics, and that he pursued alliances and conflicts on the basis of that "reality-based" analysis rather than on the basis of high principle.

In this vein, Kissinger pursued a policy of unconditional military and diplomatic assistance to the brutal and corrupt Iranian Pahlavi monarchy, based on the premise that it acted as a bulwark against Soviet expansion in the region, despite the fact that this undermined America's moral credibility in the region. Saudi Arabia and Israel and to a lesser extent Jordan were the other states in the region which Kissinger drew America closer to. Kissinger even courted Syria in 1976.

This was the "Nixon Doctrine" of 1969, "developed in reaction to the Vietnam quagmire, the US would project its power abroad through regional proxies rather than American troops". In other words, "realist" geopolitical considerations rather than the Israel lobby forged the US-Israel alliance of the 1970s, and this alliance was balanced by other alliances with Arab and Islamic states that were, formally at least, pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist.

Kissinger frequently acted to put the brakes on Israeli hawkishness too. Such Kissinger's effort to stop Israel striking the first blow in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. "Don't preempt", as the text of his message to Golda Meir. He then put enormous pressure on Israel to spare the Egyptian Third Army, hoping to use his intercession to turn Sadat's Eygpt away from the Soviet sphere of influence as a result of this debt, "even threatening to support a UN resolution to force the Israelis to pull back to their October 22 positions if they did not allow non-military supplies to reach the army. In a phone call with Israeli ambassador Simcha Dinitz, Kissinger told the ambassador that the destruction of the Egyptian Third Army "is an option that does not exist." His analysis of the war at the time was not uncritically pro-Israel:
Our position is that... the conditions that produced this war were clearly intolerable to the Arab nations and that in the process of negotiations it will be necessary to make substantial concessions. The problem will be to relate the Arab concern for the sovereignty over the territories to the Israeli concern for secure boundaries. We believe that the process of negotiations between the parties is an essential component of this.
Similarly, later in the decade, under Gerald Ford, when "both [Ford] and Kissinger ordered that weapons shipments to Israel be stopped, hoping to force Israel to accede to Ford’s wishes during a set of peace negotiations", to quote Walt and Mearsheimer supporter James Abourezk. In these incidents, it is clear that Nixon's priority was neither Israel's interests nor satisfying the Israel lobby, but America's geopolitical interests, and he was equally willing to support the other side - e.g. Sadat - to pursue that.

In this, despite Kissinger's Jewish ethnic background and Nixon's Judeophobia, Nixon and Kissinger fit together well because their priorities were the same. As David Verbateen writes, "Nixon, like Eisenhower, was indifferent if not antagonistic to Jewish voters and their causes. As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted in his memoirs:
The President was convinced that most leaders of the Jewish community had opposed him throughout his political career. The small percentage of Jews who voted for him, he would joke, had to be so crazy that they would probably stick with him even if he turned on Israel. He delighted in telling associates and visitors that the "Jewish lobby" had no effect on him"
Walt and Mearsheimer share Kissinger's fundamentally "realist" foreign policy analysis. They also take their cue from Kissinger in claiming that the Israel lobby skews American policy, a claim Kissinger makes to Arab audiences:
Interestingly, in this period, Kissinger helped to propagate in Arab capitals the notion that Jewish campaign donors were behind US assistance to Israel. During a December 17, 1975 meeting with Saadoun Hammadi, then foreign minister of Iraq, he said: “[Our backing for Israel] originated in American domestic politics…. So it was not an American design to get a bastion of imperialism in the area. It was much less complicated. And I would say that until 1973 the Jewish community had enormous influence.”
More fundamentally, Walt and Mearsheimer's argument against the Israel lobby is predicated on the idea that support for Israel is against America's national interest. That is, they do not start from a moral problem with Israel's policies in Palestine, but from a sense of America's national interest which ultimately, like Nixon's, only makes sense when understood as the interests of American business.

This is hardly surprising given Mearsheimer is a graduate of West Point who served as a US Air Force officer, and a member of the foreign policy establishment. As far as I can tell, prior to the London Review of Books in 2006 and one 2004 letter in for the New Republic, he has never published in any outlet to the left of the New York Times; typically, he published in The National Interest which, of course, is published by the Nixon Center.

Basically, as they regularly say, Walt and Mearsheimer are foreign policy realists, and as such are members of the same conservative foreign policy mainstream as Kissinger. The fact that this mainstream is sharply contrasted to another form of conservatism, "neo-conservatism", does not make it any closer to the ideals of the liberal left - in fact, quite the opposite. Thus Walt might be telling the left what it wants to hear when he attacks the likes of William Kristol, but they need to close their ears when he uses the same article to postively evaluate Kissinger.

Given this, why is it that Mearsheimer and Walt are so well-circulated on the left? Do the liberal and socialist bloggers and commentators who quote them approvingly know about their positions on issues other than Israel? Do they know, for example, about Mearsheimer's strong support for Germany, Ukraine and India developing a nuclear arsenal? What do they think about his qualified approval for the late Samuel Huntingdon, bete noir of the anti-Bush left: "although [Mearsheimer and Walt] often disagreed with Huntington, [Meirsheimer has said that] 'some of his own writings contain similar warnings about the distorting influence that ethnic groups could have on US foreign policy'." How many of them would agree with Mearsheimer's (in my view correct) regular insistence that the US needs to act in a more hostile way towards China, which he sees as a major threat to US interests?

Further reading: The Israel Lobby and the "National Interest" by John Spritzler - a left-wing anti-Zionist critique of libertarian and conspirationist Israel lobby analyses; Ami Isseroff on Walt and Mearsheimer and Kissinger; Hitchens on Mearsheimer and Walt; Lee Smith on the Saudi Lobby; Muravchik vs Walt; Hitchens on the case against Kissinger; Hitchens on Kissinger declassified; Nick Cohen on Obama and the Falklands.


BenSix said...

Some fair points here. I can't reply on behalf of the "Left" but for my somehow even less significant self.

You're correct that Walt and Mearsheimer's judgements are "predicated on the idea that support for Israel is against America's national interest". I think conflating this with "business" is a little clumsy, though: I haven't read the book, but their LRB essay also claims that the union is a "source of anti-American terrorism"; that Israel "does not behave like a loyal ally", and that there's no "compelling moral imperative".

This (aside from varying sympathies towards "realism" and "idealism") is the crux of our disagreement, I think...

Thus Walt might be telling the left what it wants to hear when he attacks the likes of William Kristol, but they need to close their ears when he uses the same article to postively evaluate Kissinger.

Given this, why is it that Mearsheimer and Walt are so well-circulated on the left?

Because his attacks on Kristol et al are excellent! If somebody gives you something of use, should you reject it, just 'cos their other offerings are less worthwhile? (I'm not sure that represents a "positive evaluation", by the way: Kissinger's used to suggest that realists aren't strangers to the corridors of power.)

bob said...

On the conflation of the national interest with the business interest: yes, I have over-stated my case. W&M (and Kissinger) have a conception of America's interest which is broader than the interests of American business, which includes the security of American people (as in the terrorism issue) and which includes the idea of America as a military power (as in the loyal ally issue). From a critical political perspective, such as that which the leftist supporters of W&M claim to hold, the idea of national interest (and certainly as articulated by members of the political classes, which W&M are) is at least suspicious.

(Incidentally, without going back to re-read the LRB essay, your quotes are interesting. Israel "does not behave like a loyal ally" - do they hold other American allies to high standards of loyalty? I don't actually know, for example, what their view is on America's alliance with Pakistan, say, which has not been that loyal over the years.

And there's no "compelling moral imperative" - but they do not actually make a moral argument against supporting Israel, just a strategic argument.)

On the left's use of W&M: fair enough, you use what's useful. But I find it interesting that there is no caveating of this from the anti-Zionists who promote W&M. If Kissinger said something that fitted in with an anti-Zionist worldview, would they start using him as an authority without some indication that he is not an all-round good guy? The attitude of the anti-Zionist left strikes me as completely uncritical, and this to me is worrying.

bob said...

I just had a quick browse through Mondoweiss, as an examplar anti-Zionist site, and found pages and pages of references to W&M without, as far as I can tell from a quick scan, any caveats or cautions. The same with the appalling Palestine ThinkTank

I notice that MondoWeiss (along with several other anti-Zionist commentators) lines up behind Mearsheimer in applauding General Petraeus because they have misinterpreted him as giving credence to the W&M conspiracy theory. Again odd how these crudaders against America's war in Iraq, so scornful of the surge, now suddenly see him as a good guy because they think they hear him giving voice to their conspriracy theories.

bob said...

Gosh, just found something at the Palestine Chronicle, an anti-Zionist outlet that often crosses the line (e.g. publishes Gilad Atzmon). It's an article by David Green, veteran leftist anti-Zionist, and it makes mostly the same points I do, altho he is coming from a very different place.

Opposing Israel Lobby is Not Same as Supporting Palestinian Rights.

"Of the several Jewish-oriented pro-Palestinian websites and blogs to achieve some notoriety over the past several years, that of journalist Philip Weiss seems to have found a secure niche and a loyal following. I commend Weiss for providing a news service that covers the suffering and heroism of the Palestinians, and a forum for many serious voices and views.

Nevertheless, I find profoundly disturbing the conventional and often condescending perspectives that seem to dominate this blog: The Lobby, according to Mearsheimer/Walt and Jeffrey Blankfort; the “dual loyalty” of prominent Jewish-American supporters of Israel, according to Weiss; and one-state and boycott, divestment, sanctions as strategy and tactics for the Palestinian rights movement. This analysis marginalizes leftist principles and, more important, pragmatic political action. I’m not referring to leftist doctrine, but rather a cogent leftist analysis that is dismissed by those who profess to a doctrinaire “realism.”

A political program based on the premise that the Lobby determines U.S. foreign policy “against our vital national interests” starts off badly and gets worse. It is misguided not only in the assertion that Israel’s interests have undermined U.S. interests, but in the realist manner in which “national interests” are understood from the perspective of economic elites rather than the population at large.

Our “national interests,” a realist euphemism for hegemony, have indeed shaped the Palestinians’ plight in relation to both the U.S. and Israel. Lobby-mongers claim that the Palestinians’ salvation will be U.S. assertion of its “true” interests, but they fail to define, clarify, or abandon the term. For four decades, our “national interests,” as defined from Carter to Obama, have been identical with the neoliberal agenda, to the detriment not only of Palestinians but the popular will in every Arab nation. “Stability,” enforced by U.S.-supported authoritarian Arab regimes that inevitably provoke resistance and “instability,” is always preferred by American elites to the threat of a good example, which may result in what our leaders well understand—in terms of “national interests” and hegemony—to be the wrong kind of stability: that based on self-determination and popular support.

[continued next comment]

bob said...


"Also misguided is Weiss’s persistent claim that recognizing and exposing the “dual loyalty” of influential Jewish-Americans is somehow key for an effective analysis and counter to the Lobby, conflicting interests, etc. Weiss repeatedly implies that we need to have some sort of an epiphany in order to sort out our guys from Israel’s guys and get on with the promotion of “U.S. interests.” But American politicians and pundits are loyal to themselves, their wealth and status, their class of people, and the neoliberal world order so long as it benefits them—which it has, to say the least. The problem, both for non-collaborationist Palestinians and non-ruling class Americans, is the whole notion of state loyalty in contrast to solidarity and self-determination, as the basis for a Palestinian liberation movement.[...]

In any event, the notion of “dual loyalty,” like the power of the Lobby to undermine “U.S. interests,” is no more than a realist and liberal distraction from understanding the consistent source of U.S. support for Israel since 1967, and challenging it. Those accused of “dual loyalty,” such as Jeffrey Goldberg and Robert Kaplan, see Israel as an extension of American power in the clash of civilizations.

These over-estimations of the Lobby and “dual loyalty” lead to complicated and convoluted discussions of, for example, whether Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory over George H.W. Bush was due to the Lobby’s opposition to Bush’s challenges to Israeli settlements; and the effect of this episode on the policies of George W. Bush. But there isn’t a shred of evidence that this was the case. All one has to do is look at the election map, the electoral college totals, and the states in question to dismiss this notion out of hand. Moreover, there is no attempt—in this case or any other—to verify the motivations of the significant numbers of Jewish voters who are alleged to have voted on the basis of their support for Israel. But instead of being discredited on the basis of blatant disregard for the rules of evidence and logic, people like Jeffrey Blankfort and Mearsheimer/Walt are seen by Weiss as courageous truth-tellers about the influence of the Lobby.

In Blankfort’s pamphlet “The Israel Lobby and the Left: Uneasy Questions,” published by the If Americans Knew website, he accurately recalls the egregious lack of support on the left for the Palestinians up through the 1980s. He does not, however, acknowledge heightened awareness over the past decade or more, resulting from the failure of Oslo, the 2nd Intifada, 9/11, the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the rise of the internet. The 2008-09 Israeli massacres in Gaza have only accelerated these changes. But Blankfort continues to beat the drum of the Lobby, and to settle old scores. It’s dated, inaccurate, counter-productive, and outrageous; and it’s delivered with a condescending and bullying tone in order to compensate for the huge problems with the argument.[...]