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  1. The Weekend Interview
10 February 2024

John Mearsheimer: “The Israel lobby is as powerful as ever”

The American international relations scholar on the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, and power competition in the Middle East.

By John Mearsheimer

Gavin Jacobson: Let’s start with Ukraine. What do you make of the European Union’s €50bn aid package to Kyiv? Will that make a material difference to the war against Russia?

John Mearsheimer: No, I think that that money is basically designed to keep the Ukrainian government afloat. What the Ukrainians need are weapons, and that money from the EU is not designed to help them buy weapons. Money is not really the issue in terms of what’s happening on the battlefield. What the Ukrainians need are lots of weapons – artillery, tanks, shells – and the West just doesn’t have enough weaponry to give the Ukrainians to allow them to keep up with all the materiel that the Russians are building and supplying to their troops. There’s always been an imbalance in weaponry between Ukraine and Russia, and especially an imbalance in artillery, which matters greatly in a war of attrition. But that imbalance is growing with the passage of time. The root of the problem is not money, but the fact that the West doesn’t have the weaponry available to give to the Ukrainians now, or any time in the short term, or over the next years.

GJ: Can you comment on the rifts at the commanding heights of the Ukrainian government? Viewed from afar, do you think Volodymyr Zelensky will be able to hold things together?

JM: There’s no question that Zelensky has been badly weakened. And for purposes of continuing the fight on the front lines, it can’t help to have this titanic struggle taking place between the political leader and the commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny. How this is resolved is hard to say. I think it’s badly damaged Zelensky, and I think the Zaluzhny has also been hurt by this conflict. But for purposes of generating confidence in the West that Ukraine can hold on, providing a good reason for why we should continue to support Ukraine, this certainly doesn’t help. It doesn’t help with the troops on the front line, either. They want to believe that the political-military leadership in Kyiv is united and doing everything it can to facilitate victory on the battlefield. But Zelensky and Zaluzhny look like they’re more interested in winning the war against each other than they are winning the war against Russia.

GJ: What do you make of the Ukrainian government postponing the presidential elections?

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JM: It makes good sense not to have an election, in this particular case. The best possible situation would be one whereas Zelensky and Zaluzhny get along, and Zelensky remains in power, and the Ukrainian political and military leadership work together to maximise the prospects of holding the Russians off on the battlefield. If you have an election, that’s going to be contentious, there’s going to be a big fight between the Zelensky and whoever his opponent is – can you imagine a contest between Zelensky and Zaluzhny, or someone associated with Zaluzhny like ex-president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko? The poisonous atmosphere that would surround that election would be detrimental to what happens on the battlefield. All things considered, it would be best if Ukraine didn’t have an election. You saw this in the United States in both the First and Second World Wars – democratic principles tend to get crushed in major wars because the government is operating in an extreme emergency, and in a real emergency, you take steps which are antithetical to democracy. It’s regrettable, but it’s necessary, in most cases to win the war. From Ukraine’s point of view, it would be best not to have an election.

GJ: What do you make of the fact that Russia grew faster than all the G7 economies last year and the International Monetary Fund forecasts it will do so again in 2024? Doesn’t this suggest that Western sanctions imposed on Russia have been completely ineffectual?

JM: I am amazed at how ineffective the sanctions have been. I thought when the war broke out the sanctions would have a significant negative effect on the Russian economy. Almost everybody in the West believed that. This is why Western leaders thought that Ukraine could defeat Russia. The Ukrainians did well on the battlefield in 2022, and most Western leaders thought that this combined with devastating sanctions on the Russian economy would lead to a Ukrainian victory. But the sanctions have, if anything, backfired and done more damage to European economies to the Russian economy. And I don’t think that even Russian elites thought that they would end up in such a good position once the sanctions were imposed. The ineffectiveness of the sanctions, in addition to the fact that the balance of power has shifted on the battlefield since 2022, is why the Russians are prevailing and why it looks like they will win an ugly victory.

GJ: Turning to the Middle East, how do you interpret the use of American force in the Red Sea against the Houthis and other Iranian proxies?

JM: It’s futile. The Houthis, the Iranian-supported militias, and Hezbollah, are all striking at US and Israeli targets in support of Hamas. The US has responded by using military force, although not against Hezbollah, because it will leave that to the Israelis. The question is, who is going to win? Not the US. Almost everybody has said from the start that using military force against the Houthis is not going to stop them from attacking ships in the Red Sea, and they haven’t stopped, and are even threatening to cut critically important sea cables. And there are real limits to what American power can do against the Houthis, who will prove to be a tough fighting force. There’s no question that the US enjoys an awesome advantage in terms of raw military power. But as we’ve learned in places such as Vietnam and Afghanistan, that military preponderance doesn’t always guarantee victory. It’s certainly not going to guarantee victory in this case. So, American actions in the Red Sea amounts to a futile endeavour.

GJ: Why is the US unable to jettison the idea that overwhelming force is an effective way to enforce its will upon the world? And why can’t it seem to extricate itself from the Middle East, why does it find itself continually drawn back into the region?

JM: I have no explanation for why American leaders can’t comprehend the limits to what you can do with military force. As a good realist, I understand that a state wants to have the most powerful military force on the planet. But at the same time, it’s important to know that there are real limits to what you can do with that military force. There are circumstances where superior militaries can achieve quick and decisive victories, such as the first Gulf War in 1991, where the US easily routed the Iraqi army across the flat planes of the desert. But if you send the American military into a place like Afghanistan to take on the Taliban, you’re going to fail over time, even with all those arms at your disposal. Similarly, when you fight the Houthis, or you go up against these militias in Iraq and Syria, the US is not going to be able to use its awesome military power to defeat them and put an end to the fight. The enemy is going to live to fight another day. And every time you hit them, they’ll hit back at you. Israel is in a similar situation in Gaza. The IDF is, in terms of a raw military balance, far more powerful than Hamas. But the idea that it is going to eliminate Hamas and the terrorism problem once and for all is a fantasy. I was in the American military during the Vietnam War and there was no question that the US military was far more powerful than the North Vietnamese military, plus the Viet Cong, but we still lost. Sometimes powerful states lose war against much less powerful adversaries. It’s very hard to say why the American foreign policy establishment doesn’t get that?

The reason why we are so deeply involved in the Middle East is because the US and Israel are joined at the hip. The US doesn’t have a formal military commitment to protect Israel. But because of domestic politics here there’s no way that Washington can’t be deeply involved in that part of the world. A second reason is oil, the abundance of which made the Middle East so important during the Cold War, when the Soviets and the Americans competed for influence, and both had troops there and even fought proxy wars. But when the Cold War ended, we remained and the reason we remained was because of Israel.

Now, it’s crucial to understand that China and Russia are now deeply involved in the Middle East. Russia, of course, already has a presence in Syria, while China is building a blue-water navy to project power into the region. We’re going to see a security competition in the Middle East that involves the Chinese and the Russians on one side, and the Americans on the other. The US will be increasingly interested in the Middle East, not simply because of its commitment to Israel, but also because great power politics will be playing out in that part of the world. The Russians, the Chinese, and the Iranians are going to have a major naval exercise in the Middle East in March.

With respect to Israel and Gaza, the nightmare scenario is that it escalates into a war with Iran, where Tehran is backed by Beijing and Moscow. I think we’re a good distance from that. But as the Chinese and the Russians get more involved in the Middle East, and as you see this close relationship developed between them and Iran, you run the risk of escalation. This would be catastrophic.

GJ: You wrote The Israel Lobby with Stephen Walt in 2007. Has anything changed your assessment of what you argued in that work with respect to the relationship between the Israel lobby and US foreign policy?

JM: No, I think we got the story right. The lobby is as powerful as ever. The big difference between when we wrote the book and now is that the lobby’s activities are out in the open today in ways that they weren’t in 2007. I think few people knew much about the lobby back then. And very few people knew much about the lobby’s influence on American foreign policy, especially as it applies to the Middle East. And I think that we helped to expose that and now more people understand what’s going on. The lobby is now forced to operate much more out in the open. From the perspective of any lobby, it’s best if it can operate behind closed doors and wield significant influence that the public doesn’t see. But the Israel lobby can’t operate that way anymore. Since 7 October, there has been an abundance of evidence of lobby playing hardball with politicians and public figures who come out and criticise Israel; you see this on university campuses as well, where lobbyists are going to great lengths to discipline and punish anyone who dares to criticise Israel.

GJ: How dangerous is Iran?

JM: Not dangerous at all by itself. If you look at what’s happening today, it’s the Americans up against the Houthis and other Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. It’s the Israelis up against Hezbollah and Hamas. Where is Iran in this story? It’s sitting on the sidelines. The US has made it clear that they don’t intend to attack Iran, which makes Israel unhappy. But the last thing that Joe Biden wants to do is attack Iran. Iran, and the Iranians have made it clear that they have no interest in getting into a conflict with the US. So the Iranians are watching the Americans get sucked into a new quagmire. Tehran must be elated. The fact that the United States doesn’t seem to have a plausible exit strategy here, either diplomatically or militarily, while Iran has not been hurt at all by this conflict since 7 October.

GJ: What do you make of Britain’s role alongside the US in the Red Sea?

JM: The British will do almost anything the Americans want them to do. The Americans often find that their allies don’t always want to go along with their various schemes. But there’s one exception to that – Britain. This didn’t used to be the case. The Americans desperately wanted the British to join the fight in Vietnam, and the British declined. But I think if we were to have a Vietnam War today, and the American government were to ask the British to get involved, they would enthusiastically jump into the fight. Such loyalty does not make good strategic sense. Especially when you look at the withering away of the British military. It’s not like British military power is growing; it seems to be headed in the other direction. And in that situation, you would expect the British to cut back on their commitments to these various escapades that the Americans involve them in. But that’s not happening. Quite the contrary.

GJ: What ways, if any, would a Trump presidency alter US foreign policy in the Middle East?

JM: I find it hard to believe that Trump’s approach to the Middle East would be different from Biden’s approach, certainly on the US-Israel relationship. Trump is rhetorically more hard line than Biden on Iran, but not by that much, and Trump is not foolish enough to start a war against Iran. Trump is not a war monger. Trump brags that he’s the only president in recent times who didn’t start a war on his watch, and that’s true. I think the one place where there might be significant change in US foreign policy is Europe. I think that Trump would like to pull out of Europe, he would like to put an end to Nato. And he certainly would like to work more closely with Putin to end the Ukraine war. He wanted to change US policy in the region during his first term between 2017 and 2021. I think given his druthers, he would have pulled out of Europe and put it into NATO. But the foreign policy establishment, the so-called “blob”, beat him back.

If he wins again, Trump will be determined to overcome the blob this time. He believes that he now has a foreign policy team that he can put in place that will help him accomplish his goals in ways that were impossible the first time around.

On East Asia, I don’t think you’ll see a significant change from Biden. When he came into office in 2021, Biden followed in Trump’s footsteps with respect to Asia. Trump fundamentally changed US policy in East Asia – he abandoned engagement with China and pursued a containment policy. Biden stiffened that policy, and in some respects was tougher on China than Trump was during the early part of his administration. That has changed as the Biden administration tries to reduce the tensions between Beijing and Washington so as to make sure the US doesn’t end up in a fight in East Asia, while it’s pinned down in Ukraine and the Middle East.

GJ: How worried are you about Joe Biden’s memory?

JM: There are obviously good reasons to wonder about whether Joe Biden has the mental faculties now that are required for the most demanding and consequential job in the world. I’m 76 years old and I think about this issue all the time because there’s no way you don’t lose some speed off the fast ball when you get into your late 70s. My memory, which used to be fantastic, has eroded to some extent and I’m just not as sharp as I used to be. I actually think that Donald Trump, who is a year older than I am, has lost a little speed of the fastball, but compared to Biden is essentially running at capacity. And what we’re really talking about here is Joe Biden’s health over the next five years because if he wins the election in November – and the election will be a close one, I think – then his second term will start in January 2025 and end in 2029 and it’s very hard to imagine him doing the job for that long. The problem is, he is going to be the Democratic nominee and I don’t think anything is going to change that.

GJ: Do you agree with the UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps that we are moving “moving from a postwar to a prewar world”? What is the likelihood of a large-scale conflict?

JM: I believe those comments are made in the context of a possible war between Russia and the West, and the principal operating assumption underpinning that argument is that Putin is on the march and is set to conquer all of Ukraine, then attack countries in Eastern Europe and eventually threaten western Europe, leading us into a Third World War. The point is that it’s better to support Ukraine to the hilt now and prevent Putin from winning in Ukraine, because in the end that will prevent him from conquering Europe.

This is a ludicrous argument. Putin has made it clear that he does not intend to conquer all of Ukraine, and he has never indicated that he was interested in conquering any other country in eastern Europe, much less western Europe. He also doesn’t have the military capability to conquer eastern Europe – the Russian army is not the second coming of the Wehrmacht.  Even though in Ukraine the balance of power has shifted in Russia’s favour since 2022 the Russians are having a tough time rolling the Ukrainians back. The idea that Russia is going to conquer more territory makes no sense.

The reason that Shapps and others are making this argument, are projecting a scenario of World War III, is because they want to maintain support for Ukraine. This is good old fashioned threat inflation, which the US and Britain have historically been very adept at. By inflating the Russian threat you can encourage the various body politics in the West to back the Ukrainians to the hilt.

[See also: Lionel Barber on Tucker Carlson’s Putin interview]

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