Saying the unsayable

The links between the Israel lobby and US foreign policy are a Washington taboo. But a controversial

The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy

John J Mearsheimer & Stephen M Walt Allen Lane the Penguin Press, 484pp, £25

You have to have lived in America a long time before you realise that political correctness - far from ridding the country of -isms such as racism, sexism and anti-Semitism - has merely driven them underground. Words that are completely unacceptable in public, for example, are used every minute of every day in living rooms and bars across the country. It took me quite a while, too, to realise that coded words and phrases have also insinuated themselves into the national vocabulary to replace the unacceptable: that "single-parent mothers on welfare" really means "blacks", or that when Republicans lash into Democrats for their supposed reliance on "Hollywood" for election funds, what they really mean is "Jews". Americans, though few outsiders comprehend this, instinctively understand these many hidden codes that disguise intolerance supposed not to exist.

I was thinking about this when I picked up John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's important new book, while simultaneously watching the most crucial debate so far of Republican candidates for next year's presidential elections. The no-hoper who refuses to conform so much that he is fast becoming my hero - 72-year-old Representative Ron Paul, a trained obstetrician who has continued to deliver babies while being a far-right, libertarian congressman - suddenly broke away from the sanitised scripts of the others and launched into words I've never heard any politician of either party use in public: "Why leave the troops in the region?" he responded dramatically when pressed about Iraq. "It was the fact that we had troops in Saudi Arabia [that] was one of the three reasons given for the attack on 9/11." Amidst the resulting Republican booing, he went on: "The American people didn't go in. A few people advising this administration, called the neoconservatives, hijacked our foreign policy. They're responsible, not the American people."

This was pretty revolutionary stuff, but even when he was saying the unsayable - that US foreign policy was really to blame for 9/11 - he was still resorting to coded language. You can be sure that his constituents back in their homes and bars in Lake Jackson in Texas, though, knew exactly what he was saying: that US troops were being killed in the Middle East to protect Israel, and that this policy and the invasion of Iraq had been cooked up by Jews. That really was unsayable: Americans love to tut-tut that anti-Semitism is on the rise again in Europe, but very few want to acknowledge that it is also alive and well in the US, except that is has been driven underground.

We should, then, welcome the publication of this book in the hope that it will finally open a vital discourse that has been stifled for 35 years. Mearsheimer and Walt say that Israel became the centrepiece of US foreign policy after the Six Day War in 1967 - a more accurate date would be 1973, when major military assistance began - but what is indisputable is that the whole subject of what the authors call "the unmatched power of the Israel lobby" in the US, and its most prominent cheerleaders such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, has been virtually taboo since then.

Did they hijack US foreign policy in order to synchronise it perfectly with the needs of Israel, culminating in the Iraq catastrophe? "Bush and Sharon Nearly Identical On Mideast Policy," a Washington Post headline proclaimed just a month before the invasion. This discussion might seem old hat elsewhere in the world, but in the US the issue has largely been driven underground until now; even to mention the existence of the Israel lobby is to risk being labelled anti-Semitic ("Andrew Stephen should be exterminated with extreme prejudice," an American reader wrote to the former NS editor after I had made some mild observations about a strong Jewish presence in the Bush administration early in 2001).

It's a cliché of present-day bigotry that only blacks can call themselves niggers or Jews make jokes about Jews, so I will leave it to a veteran Israeli commentator and a former member of the Bush administration to say the unsayable for me. Akiva Eldar, of Ha'aretz, says that the likes of Feith and Perle are "walking a fine line between their loyalty to American governments . . . and Israeli interests"; while Colonel Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, says he has put this book on his students' curriculum because it contains "a lot of blinding flashes of the obvious but, that said, blinding flashes of the obvious that people whispered in corners rather than said out loud at cocktail parties where someone could hear you".

It is a major symbolic step forward that, following the publication of Jimmy Carter's Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid last year, a mainstream American publisher in New York should dare to pay an advance of $750,000 to two academics - albeit distinguished ones from the University of Chicago and Harvard respectively - to write a book that represents such a huge political and commercial risk for them. It is almost impossible to convey the degree of sensitivities and touchiness that the subject evokes - among both Jews and gentiles - throughout the US.

The thesis put forward by Mearsheimer and Walt, briefly, is that Israel has become a "strategic liability" for the US and that ending the special relationship - the one the British delude themselves they, rather than Israel, have with Washington - would benefit not only the US, but the rest of the world, including Israel itself. They are proponents of the "offensive realism" school of foreign policy thinking, which (put simply) argues that the more powerful a major power becomes, the more aggressively it will act in what ultimately becomes a relentless quest for hegemony. Mearsheimer, a former military man, has argued in works such as The Tragedy of Great Power Politics that the US should encourage countries such as Germany, India and the Ukraine to develop nuclear programmes to hinder the rise of hypernationalism elsewhere.

The genesis of this book is highly revealing in itself. The authors were first commissioned to write a long, scholarly article on the Israel lobby by Atlantic magazine in 2002, but editors sat on the manuscript for months before deciding not to publish it. The article ended up in the London Review of Books in March 2006, and the authors then wrote a longer, 42-page version (plus an additional 40 pages of footnotes), which was posted on the website of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Furious denouncements followed. Dr Eliot Cohen, a prominent neocon who was appointed by Condoleezza Rice as her adviser in the state department as recently as last March, accused Mearsheimer and Walt in a prominent comment piece in the Washington Post (headlined "Yes, It's Anti-Semitic") of having "obsessive and irrationally hostile beliefs about Jews" whom he said they accused of "disloyalty, subversion or treachery, of having occult powers and of participating in secret combinations that manipulate institutions and governments".

The ubiquitous academic showman Alan Dershowitz, meanwhile, law professor at Harvard and author of The Case for Israel, likened Mearsheimer and Walt's writings to "contemporary variations on old themes such as those promulgated in the notorious czarist forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in the Nazi and America First literature of the 1930s and early 1940s, and in the propaganda pamphlets of the Soviet Union". Harvard soon caved in under such pressures, removing the Kennedy School's logo from the web pages carrying Mearsheimer and Walt's study; Walt stepped down as academic dean at the Kennedy School.

Reading any of the articles or the book itself - 484 pages with 127 of them footnotes and indexes - it is hard to understand what has inspired such extravagant venom. The authors go to some trouble to explain that they are writing about an "Israel" and not a "Jewish" lobby, and that a significant proportion of members consist of the so-called "Christian Right", or "Christian Zionists". They write, too, that the lobby is a "loose coalition of individuals and organisations"; it is "not a single, unified movement with a central leadership, and it is certainly not a cabal or conspiracy that 'controls' US foreign policy . . . it is engaged in good old-fashioned interest-group politics, which is as American as apple-pie".

They point out, though, how the special relationship has worked. Israeli leaders have addressed Congress six times since 1976, far more than those of any other country and have also been, by far, the recipient of the most US foreign aid during that period.

Mearsheimer and Walt estimate that Israel currently receives $3bn a year from the US, three-quarters of it for military purposes, or $4.3bn if you accept the estimate of former congressman Lee Hamilton, the highly respected Democrat who was co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission. They add that Israel is unique in that it receives all its aid in one lump sum at the beginning of each fiscal year and, unlike other countries, does not have to account for how it spends it - details too complicated to go into here but which Hank Gaffney, former chief nuclear planner at the Pentagon, describes as "absolute bosh" and "bullshit". Mearsheimer and Walt then point out that the second and third largest recipients of US aid are now Egypt and Jordan, which is "at least partly intended to benefit Israel as well . . . as a reward for good behaviour".

Phew. The j'accuse statistics run thick and fast, with the book emerging as a curious combination of academic scholarship and journalistic polemic, reading rather like a prosecutor reeling off an endless series of misdoings. I can dismiss the overheated rhetoric of Cohen and Dershowitz, but not the reaction of people like Gaffney - neither an Arabist nor a Zionist - when he describes the book as a "rant" and says "they haven't done their homework and [have got] an enormous amount wrong". Indeed, the authors concede that they are not Middle East experts, and it shows. They repeatedly single out for criticism Martin Indyk, for example, an Australian-turned-American who was Clinton's ambassador to Israel; he is actually a remarkably level-headed and moderate representative of the Israel lobby, about as far from being a neocon extremist as a member could be.

Yet anybody who has lived in Washington as long as I have knows that the Israel lobby can be extraordinarily ruthless and unpleasant, and I'm not just talking about the deranged letter-writers and threat-merchants. Take the example of my good friend Tim Tyler, who was the US Navy's Israel desk officer during the 1973 Yom Kippur War as a young naval officer, before he joined the Pentagon's secretive Defence Security Assistance Agency, where he performed various important roles including that of chief of the Middle East South Asia Division.

He then worked at Nato as a defence planner with special expertise in Pershing II and cruise-missile deployment, before returning to the Pentagon to be "deputy director plans", when he was directly involved in international sales of major weapons systems.

He has recently retired, and is thus free to speak to me for publication. He tells a chilling story, however. In the 1980s he recommended that the Pentagon stop funding the development of Israel's own multibillion dollar Lavi jet fighter, but offer them America's own F-16s instead. His recommendation, much to the fury of the Israelis, worked its way up the Pentagon hierarchy and was eventually accepted. I will let him recount the sequel in his own words:

"Through all of this I remained friends with Marvin Klemow [negotiator for the Israelis] and one holiday I was at his house for a party. It was a good party, and the only slight hiccup was the rather brusque manner of an Israeli colonel who was there - but I thought nothing of it. Then Marv pulled me aside. He said something along the lines of, 'You won't believe this, but I just got chewed out for inviting you to this party.' I asked him why, and he told me that he had just been informed that I was on the [Israeli] embassy's anti-Semite list because I didn't support the Lavi programme. We were both flabbergasted. But, sadly, I was never invited back to Marv's house."

The story of another friend is no less chilling. Former Senator Chuck Percy is now nearly 88 and far from well, but until 1985 was a vigorous and moderate Republican senator who was chairman of the all-powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He started to ruin his career, though, when he refused to sign a letter sponsored by AIPAC - the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the best-known and most powerful individual lobby - which had been drawn up to protest against President Ford's proposed "reassessment" of Middle East policy. Then he said publicly that Yasser Arafat was more moderate than some other Palestinian leaders and - despite having a generally pro- Israeli record - began to be perceived by AIPAC from then on as an enemy.

The final blow, in fact, came when he supported the sale of Awacs aircraft to Saudi Arabia. Huge sums of money duly poured in from AIPAC supporters all over the country to support Percy's Democratic opponent in the 1984 elections, and despite huge popularity in his native Illinois, Percy narrowly lost - and never returned to politics. Mearsheimer and Walt quote Tom Dine, then executive director of AIPAC, saying after Percy's defeat: "All the Jews in America, from coast to coast, gathered to oust Percy. And the American politicians - those who hold public positions now, and those who aspire - got the message."

They certainly did, and some of the handful of politicians who have dared to defy AIPAC have got the Percy treatment, too. Mearsheimer and Walt say, of next year's presidential elections, "on one subject, we can be . . . confident that the candidates will speak with one voice." Indeed so, after reading this book; both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama attended this year's AIPAC conference in DC, giving media briefings in rooms 25 yards apart afterwards, while Benjamin Netanyahu was also briefing frantically away behind closed doors a few steps from them.

Perhaps it is hard, for those of us who are not Jewish, to understand the passion and intensity with which America's Israel lobby pursue their goals. It would have been helpful if Mearsheimer and Walt had tried, dispassionately, to explore why they are so often driven, sometimes to the excesses I have described. But the authors are too busy with their prosecutorial charge-sheet to pause and wonder. We read all too much about AIPAC, but next to nothing about the Project for the New American Century - a genuinely sinister group that included the now-discredited neocons but also, more crucially, non-Jewish fanatics such as Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and John Bolton. In my opinion it, far more than the likes of AIPAC, was responsible for the foreign-policy calamities - culminating in the Iraq tragedy - that have occurred under George W Bush.

We should be grateful to Mearsheimer and Walt, nonetheless, for embarking on their near-impossible task and bringing out into the open a rancorous issue that desperately needs to be addressed by all concerned. The passions and anger - and, indeed, anti-Semitism - are such that writing a detached and lucid book on this subject is probably impossible. Heaven knows what Mearsheimer and Walt have been through, but we should all now hope that it has been worth it and that their book marks the beginning of a new and more open era when it comes to this most painful of subjects.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How the Americans misled Blair over Iraq