Israel in Washington

Last week I had the great pleasure of visiting Boston and Washington DC.

During this academic junket research-related visit, sparkling conversation was had with some of the liveliest minds on foreign policy in the US, including the established heavy-hitters Andrew Bacevich and Edward Luttwak, as well as some of the sharpest younger thinkers around including the hawkish idealist and internationalist David Adesnik, the sardonically skeptical Dan Nexon from the Duck, and one of the most astute observers of Afghanistan-Pakistan, Christine Fair.

The subject of Israel ran like a razor-sharp wire through all of the conversation. It just seems to come up. The names above span the spectrum on the issue. Israel surfaces in so many different guises, whether strategic liability, focal point of American idealism, a destructive influence in domestic politics, and as the battlefield which wrecks academic careers.

As an outsider, it was always clear that Israel was a tender subject in US politics, and that the subject is so radioactive that blogging about it is usually a bad idea. But I hadn’t realised just how central it has become in linked power struggles from campuses to domestic politics to foreign policy. At least in this company, it makes Americans deeply uncomfortable and distressed to talk about, more than outsiders realise.

Depending on who you listen to, Israel has an outsized influence to the point where its own envoys lecture and browbeat American diplomats on what they can and can’t do. Its shadow over US statecraft is so long that even a modest expansion of settlements can take up everybody’s time in DC for a week, for example, and a President promising change, transformation and a new order still vetoes UN resolutions denouncing illegal settlements (opposition to which is also formal US policy). Its occupations and wars play a non-trivial role in breeding Islamist fury. A formidable coalition of American Christian evangelicals, Jews, idealists and hard-nosed realists imposes significant costs on US public figures who question the relationship. American Jews who dissent are sometimes even labelled ‘self-loathing’, as though opposing the policies of a specific state and America’s patronage of it amounts to existential self-hatred.

Alternatively, there is a whole other case to be made. It is a state whose power is easily exaggerated and caricatured. Israel gets a lot of what it wants on some central big issues, but after all, Tel Aviv has unsuccessfully opposed a range of arms deals between the US and Arab majority states. And just which lobbies are we supposed to compare this to? Cuba? Saudi Arabia? The NRA? There isn’t that much evidence that criticising Israel is a decisive political career-wrecker. Criticism of Israel is widespread from universities to liberal (and some rightist) media outlets, titles denouncing the Israeli-American relationship can be found in any mainstream bookstore. And didn’t the US not so long ago support Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as its client, one of the most consistently anti-Israel states in the Gulf? But clouding all of this is also the raw issue of motivation.

The debate is corrupted because fighters on both sides are quick to accuse one another of bad faith, demagogy and innuendo. You are a Zionist, he is an Anti-Semite, she is a fifth-columnist for (insert diabolical non-American force here), lets call the whole thing off. Thus Walt and Mearsheimer are accused not only of ‘piss poor’ social science but insidious and anti-Semitic conspiracy-theory mongering, though there wasn’t much that seemed anti-Semitic in their book, unless we redefine that term in very loose ways. On the other side of the coin, despite his long record of sophisticated engagement with Arab-Islamic civilisation and history, and his own criticisms of Israeli occupation, those too obsessed with the problem of alien allegiances and sinister power figures accuse Paul Wolfowitz of being narrowly Israel’s agent in Washington.

Its a debate that not only focuses on America’s strategic interests and identity, but restages and recasts some other old themes in its politics, about the problem of unAmerican influence, the fear of enemies as well as opponents at home, the bringing down of republican institutions and liberty by dangerous entanglements abroad, and America’s place in the history of the Jewish diaspora. Not easy to sort this one out when it touches deep historical nerves.

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