The American relationship with Israel is both a political and an intellectual challenge for some students of foreign affairs. Convinced that US national interests would be best served by distancing ourselves from the Jewish state, scholars try to figure out why our country behaves in this seemingly self-defeating way.
The problem is particularly tough for hard core realists who believe that the behavior of every state is determined by the nature of the international system. For these thinkers, domestic politics don’t matter; states do what they must. States are like billiard balls; they move when struck. It doesn’t matter what the billiard ball thinks; it rolls where it’s pushed.
So what about the red, white and blue ball on the pool table that keeps cozying the blue and white ball with the Star of David no matter where you push it? Why does it behave so strangely?
The scholars seek a theoretical explanation which can accommodate this peculiar case, but they are looking for a small explanation — one that reaffirms the general theory of billiard ball realism even as it explains the exceptional case of the United States.
The simplest, most elegant answer to this problem to say that the Israel lobby is different from all other lobbies. It is the one and only exception to the rule that domestic politics don’t matter: The Jews are so rich, so focused and so good at what they do that they have built a lobby that is unique in the world.
There are only two problems with this approach. The first is that the idea of a uniquely powerful Jewish lobby is catnip for anti-Semites. As I’ve repeatedly said, you don’t need to be an anti-Semite to hold this view, but this idea (that the Jews have a wealthy, well connected and ruthless power lobby that is like no other and that this cabal manipulates the political system the way that a puppeteer dangles marionettes) draws angry loners and anti-Semites like ants to a jelly jar.
Hint to the youth: Anytime a young intellectual is trapped in a nasty spot like this, squatting in a foxhole with anti-Semites and assorted tinfoil hatters, your first thought should be, “Where did I go wrong?”
The quest for truth leads us all on some strange journeys, but the ‘discovery’ that a Jewish conspiracy explains some otherwise inexplicable historical development is one of the great dead ends of all times. It provides a faux eureka moment, the illusion of earthshaking discovery just as you fall into the pit. August Bebel called anti-Semitism the ‘socialism of fools’; he could have gone further. It’s the economics of fools, the sociology of fools, the theology of fools, the history of fools and, sadly, the geopolitics of fools as well.
But the second problem with this approach is that the Jewish conspiracy theory is as wrong in this case as it is in all the others. I wrote about this in yesterday’s post; the power of the Israel lobby in American politics stems from its relationship to gentile public opinion. The lobby facilitates a foreign policy that public opinion broadly supports; it has no special powers of its own and if gentile opinion about Israel were to change, policy would change whatever the lobby did.
For billiard ball realists, this is a problem. It means that the Israel lobby isn’t a special case, but that domestic political forces are constantly engaged in shaping foreign policy. This is, I think, messy but correct. I’ve written a book that looks at how domestic political forces, through their competition and interaction, can over time respond to external forces and realities. The pressures and realities of international life make themselves felt within a society through the interplay of interests and ideas,and to understand how a particular society will respond to changing international conditions, it’s necessary to study the politics, the culture and the economy of the society in question.
Engaging in this type of inquiry is a lot more work than watching billiard balls click across the pool table, but it gets you out of the foxhole with all those creeps.
Rule to live by, folks: when your theory of how the world works starts sounding like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, it’s time to recheck those assumptions.
In any case, America’s treatment of Israel is not and never has been as exceptional as some think. Like so much else in the American relationship with the Jewish national movement before and after Israel’s independence, our treatment of the Jewish state has reflected broad trends in America’s engagement with the world. Rather than following an ‘exceptional’ policy toward Israel, Americans have applied the normal approaches of their foreign policy to the exceptional case of the Jewish people. In American politics, the demand that Jews (or anybody else) should get special treatment usually falls on deaf ears.
Before World War Two Americans were frequently besieged by the members of ethnic groups struggling to establish independent states. Poles, Czechs, Magyars, Armenians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Croats, the Irish and many other nationalities made their case to a sympathetic public. The American response at this time was basically drawn from John Quincy Adams: we would be the friends and well wishers to the liberties of all, but the vindicators only of our own. We sympathized with the Poles, we thought they ought to have a state, we thought their oppression was cynical and wrong, but we would no more go to war with Russia over Poland then than we would go to war with China for the Dalai Lama today. Then as now (before we slammed immigration shut in 1924, it was much easier for refugees to immigrate to the US than it is today) we offered refuge and protection to political exiles on our shores. They could agitate and organize for the cause of freedom at home and they could raise money. At times, we turned a blind eye when money they raised was diverted from peaceful purposes — much to the frustration, for example, of the British — as Irish-Americans fueled resistance to British rule on the Emerald Isle.
If consulted, we would state our view and use our good offices on their behalf, but it was up to the peoples involved to make their state. When they did so — for example when the Italians achieved unification 150 years ago — we cheered. When they failed, as Kossuth (at right) did after the Revolution of 1848 in Hungary, we wept. But we did not go to war.
When we did go to war in Europe in 1917, our policy took another step. While we would not go to war to achieve the independence of subject nationalities, when we won a war against those who oppressed them, we would use our weight at the conference table on their behalf. The Americans at the Paris Conference after 1919 did what they could to ensure that as many nations as possible in Europe and the Middle East would have the right to self-determination. The Americans did not always prevail, especially when the European powers worked together to protect their colonial interests and imperial ambitions in the former territories of the Ottoman Empire. But self determination was the core of the policy and the Americans pushed it as far as they thought they could at the time.
What the Zionist movement asked from Americans at this time, and what it got, was pretty much what the other nationalities got: Sympathy and good offices before World War One, American support at Versailles. You could argue that this was exceptional treatment; unlike the other ethnic minorities, Jews did not have a large national terrain where they were in the majority. Persecuted almost everywhere, they needed a state more than anybody else, but scattered across Europe and the Middle East it was harder to find one for them. By supporting their claim to a national home in Palestine, Americans felt they were applying their general principles to the difficult and exceptional case of the Jews.
After World War Two the United States gradually expanded its concept of what ‘normal treatment’ was. Reflecting on our mistake after World War One (we thought isolationism would keep us safe; it didn’t), and dealing with the Cold War, Americans redefined their basic policy toward friendly states. We moved from a position of wishing everyone well but watching out for Number One to thinking that no man is an island. The new doctrine that we gradually came up with was that if countries stuck by us and did their share to take care of themselves, we would stand by them no matter what it took. In the decades after World War Two we went around the world signing up more and more countries into formal and informal alliance systems. We did not ask too many questions about whether our new friends were ‘good guys’ as long as they were willing to play on our time. Franco, Mobutu, Duvalier: we were not particularly picky in our choice of friends. We worked with theocracies, thugocracies, kleptocracies, countries that oppressed their ethnic minorities, and even communists if they were willing to play ball (Yugoslavia, China after Nixon’s visit). Some of our allies (like Greece) hated some of our other allies (like Turkey). We juggled eggs and managed the issue.
The change in America’s relationship with Israel in the decades after World War Two tracks the changes in America’s foreign policy more generally. Indeed, the United States was significantly slower to accept responsibility for Israel’s security than it was in other cases around the world. But once again, in the end the United States applied its general principles to Israel’s unique situation. If Israel stayed generally ‘on side’ and did its part for its own security, the United States would offer help on something like the same basis that it supported other countries around the world. Israel, surrounded by hostile states in a region that didn’t accept its existence, might need more help than other countries. On the other hand, it fulfilled its part of the bargain much better than most. That political complications and costs came with the alliance was true; but Israel was not unique in this way. Just as the United States straddled the gaps between hostile countries elsewhere in its alliance system (not only Turkey and Greece but Britain and Argentina, Germany and France in the early days, Saudi Arabia and Iran through 1979, India and Pakistan today, and so forth), it would straddle the Arab-Israeli divide, working for peace and managing the conflicts.
This may or may not be the best way to manage US-Israeli relations. Circumstances change and international relationships, even very close ones, must be constantly re-evaluated in the light of new facts.
The historical views I’m expressing here don’t mandate one and only one policy for the United States going forward but if you don’t get this stuff right you are unlikely to have as much impact in the American debate on this topic as you might wish. The average American voter doesn’t think that people in love with bad Jewish conspiracy theories are good guides to sound thinking on the modern Middle East.