Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Is Samantha Power a Closet Walt & Mearsheimer Disciple?

It doesn't make sense to me, but at the end of this post Paul Mirengoff asserts that Obama adviser and foreign policy guru Samantha Power "subscribe[s] to the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis that that the U.S.-Israel relationship is the product of Jewish power politics, rather than strategic interest."

He's not the only one saying this. Here's The American Thinker making a similar claim, as well as Anti-Liberal Zone.

Noah Pollak appears to be the source, linking to this May 2007 interview with Professor Power. I've bolded the part they think is important, but I include the entire question for context:
Q. Though some analysts see U.S. foreign policy woes as a recent phenomenon, you argue that recent foreign policy missteps by current U.S. leaders have exposed and exacerbated long-standing structural and conceptual problems in U.S. foreign policy. Please explain.

Power: It is tempting to see Iraq as the source of all our woes now, whereas I see Iraq as the symptom, in some measure, of a number of longstanding trends and defects in American foreign policy.

One example is the US historic predisposition to go it alone. Because we have long undervalued what international institutions have to offer, we believed that we could go into Iraq, and as soon as we declared the mission accomplished, we expected to be able to turn the problem over to others, regardless of how they had been treated in the run up to the invasion. This thinking is very flawed, but not all that new. In a uni-polar world, the Clinton Administration was able to get away with an instrumental relationship with international institutions, but that is harder with the rise of new powers who are willing to challenge the United States in international bodies. It is also harder now that the Iraq war itself has exposed so many US weaknesses.

In addition, we long saw international authorization as a luxury, something good for global public opinion, but not very relevant to US national security. But what we have seen, by revealing our indifference to international legitimacy both in the Iraq war and in the practices carried out in our counter-terrorism efforts – the disavowal of the Geneva conventions, prisoner abuse, extraordinary rendition, etc. – is that being seen to thumb our nose at international law actually has profound security ramifications, as more and more people seek to take up arms against U.S. citizens and interests.

Another longstanding foreign policy flaw is the degree to which special interests dictate the way in which the “national interest” as a whole is defined and pursued. Look at the degree to which Halliburton and several of the private security and contracting firms invested in the 2004 political campaigns and received very lucrative contracts in the aftermath of the U.S. takeover of Iraq. Also, America’s important historic relationship with Israel has often led foreign policy decision-makers to defer reflexively to Israeli security assessments, and to replicate Israeli tactics, which, as the war in Lebanon last summer demonstrated, can turn out to be counter-productive.

So greater regard for international institutions along with less automatic deference to special interests – especially when it comes to matters of life and death and war and peace – seem to be two take-aways from the war in Iraq.

This is not the W&M hypothesis. At worst, it's a very diluted form of their thesis, in that it argues that sometimes the US listens to pro-Israel special interests, and that sometimes leads to bad results. This, she says, is emblematic of a broader, systemic flaw in how the US conducts foreign policy -- we let special interests construct what the "national interest" is and it leads us away from where we ought to go (Contra Pollak, it is not arguing in any way that Israel was responsible for America's war in Iraq).

W&M, of course, argue that US foreign policy in the area is controlled by the "Israel Lobby", and more importantly, that this is a unique exception to the way foreign policy decision-making operates. Far from being emblematic of anything, the Israel Lobby, from W&M's Realist stance, represents a dangerous exception to the Laws of the International System, which dictate that nation's have fixed and concrete security interests and always pursue them. This exceptional quality is the key reason why W&M's thesis is so offensive -- it's essentially an argument about Jewish hyperpower. But that makes it qualitatively different from persons (like Power) who believe that many factors beyond bare security interests influence how foreign policy operates, and observes that special interests advocating for Israel are one of them.

It is, of course, possible that Power has written something more directly on point that affirms W&M's hypothesis. But I highly doubt it, seeing as they come from drastically different schools of thought on international relations. W&M's thesis operates from a premise that Power doesn't share -- namely, that domestic, moral, or transnational forces never exert meaningful influence on foreign policy. Power appears to believe the opposite -- that these factors are extremely important influences on foreign policy decision-making (for good and for ill).

UPDATE: I sent Paul an email and asked for clarification. He responded with another Power quote, that her version of a sound mid-east policy would require "'alienating a domestic constituency.' That's close enough to the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis for me."

Not only is that not even close to the W&M thesis, it borders on being a truism. Americans (including Jewish Americans) have differences on what we want our mid-east policy to be. For example, I suspect Paul and I differ significantly. One of us is going to be alienated by whatever proposal ends up being adopted. If it's now controversial to point that out, we've got a serious problem on our hands.

Of course, to reiterate again, Walt & Mearsheimer's thesis is not about who opposes their ideal vision of mid-east policy. It's about their perception that the Israel Lobby possesses extreme control over US foreign policy that leads us to do things their predictive model says shouldn't happen. When we collapse every policy that deviates from the Commentary Magazine line as "subscribing to the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis", we're exploding their argument way beyond its actual scope.


PG said...

While I think Pollak's reading from that interview that Power believes "the U.S.-Israel relationship is the product of Jewish power politics" is so far off as to be almost in bad faith, I do have a devil's advocate objection. You say, "Contra Pollak, it is not arguing in any way that Israel was responsible for America's war in Iraq."

Certainly Power is not arguing that "Jewish power politics" are responsible for the Iraq war, and the fact that she never mentions Jewish people at all is one of the things that gives Pollak's reading a bad odor. Does he think Israel always = Jews and vice versa?

However, "foreign policy decision-makers to defer reflexively to Israeli security assessments" could be plausibly read as a reference to something like this news from December 2003: "Israeli intelligence overplayed the threat posed by Iraq and reinforced the U.S. and British assessment that Saddam Hussein had large amounts of weapons of mass destruction, a retired Israeli general said Thursday."

To the extent one believes that Bush actually cared about intelligence and wouldn't have gone into Iraq regardless of what the CIA, Brits, Israelis or anyone else said, this would give Israel some responsibility for the U.S. decision to invade.

Anonymous said...

Can I add an outsider's view on this please? In so doing I acknowledge the vilification that is likely to result.

The first step is to take out all of the breast-beating and faux rationalisations. Let's just forget all of the Judeo-Christian politicking for a moment. If it looks like a chicken, clucks like a chicken, lays eggs like a chicken, and flies like a chicken then it probably is a chicken...

It is a matter of perception, rather than rationale on this side of the fence. It does not matter why the US undertook this action or that, the result and outcome is the the visible end.

So, when the US uses over 40% of its total external aid budget to support one nation a large number of people (rightly or wrongly) start adding up the '1's in a way that makes much more than '2'.

In the same way, when the US makes it very clear (as has been done for over 50 years now) that any resolution placed before the UN Security Council critical of Israel will be VETO'd then the '1's start getting added again.

One could look at the differing responses to Israel's nuclear weapons programme and the "WMD" justification for invading Iraq.

How is about Carter's response to the construction of new settlements on the West Bank during his abortive Camp David meeting with Begin and Sadat.

The list goes on but the real point is not any one or specific action, it is the cumulative perception that is created.

That perception, which can immediately be dismissed as "wrong" on the grounds of good intentions, should not be overlooked. As I started "If it looks like a chicken..."

PG said...


To fill in the gap, the full quote in the context of the question is:

Q: Let me give you a thought experiment here, and it is the following: without addressing the Palestine - Israel problem, let's say you were an advisor to the President of the United States, how would you respond to current events there? Would you advise him to put a structure in place to monitor that situation, at least if one party or another [starts] looking like they might be moving toward genocide?

A:I don't think that in any of the cases, a shortage of information is the problem. I actually think in the Palestine - Israel situation, there's an abundance of information. What we don't need is some kind of early warning mechanism there, what we need is a willingness to put something on the line in helping the situation. Putting something on the line might mean alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import; it may more crucially mean sacrificing -- or investing, I think, more than sacrificing -- billions of dollars, not in servicing Israel's military, but actually investing in the new state of Palestine, in investing the billions of dollars it would probably take, also, to support what will have to be a mammoth protection force, not of the old Rwanda kind, but a meaningful military presence. Because it seems to me at this stage (and this is true of actual genocides as well, and not just major human rights abuses, which were seen there), you have to go in as if you're serious, you have to put something on the line.

Unfortunately, imposition of a solution on unwilling parties is dreadful. It's a terrible thing to do, it's fundamentally undemocratic. But, sadly, we don't just have a democracy here either, we have a liberal democracy. There are certain sets of principles that guide our policy, or that are meant to, anyway. It's essential that some set of principles becomes the benchmark, rather than a deference to [leaders] who are fundamentally politically destined to destroy the lives of their own people. And by that I mean what Tom Freidman has called "Sharafat." I do think in that sense, both political leaders have been dreadfully irresponsible. And, unfortunately, it does require external intervention, which, very much like the Rwanda scenario, that thought experiment, if we had intervened early.... Any intervention is going to come under fierce criticism. But we have to think about lesser evils, especially when the human stakes are becoming ever more pronounced.

I think what Paul quoted can be fairly read as a reference to pro-Israel Jews (and also to their supporters on the Christian right, who probably have more political power as a voting bloc, cf. the Rise of Huckabee). What his quote leaves out, of course, is that Power sees the unwillingness to alienate the Judeo-Christians ;-) as less important than the fact that we are cheap mofos. In other words, Power is OK with our continuing to provide the same monetary support to Israel, but that means we'd have to scrounge up new money to build a sound Palestinian state, and yeah, cheap mofos.


But what is the sum total of these actions? Is it that the U.S. has a special relationship and sympathy with Israel? (which is what Power actually says)

Or is it that the U.S. is forced by the existence of the domestic Jewish lobby's brute power of money and position (as opposed to soft power of moral suasion or even ability to guilt the government about its inaction in the Holocaust) to support Israel? (which is more the W&M idea)

I think it is appropriate for the U.S. to take sides in a region with the nations that seem most similar to it. Part of the U.S.'s difficulty in dealing in South Asia until the 1990s was that Pakistan was less of a liberal democracy but more capitalistic and opposed to Communism, whereas India was a stronger liberal democracy but one that overtly tried to follow Soviet "five-year plan" economic models. There is nowadays a greater sympathy with India due to its economic liberalization, whereas the current allying with Pakistan didn't really happen until 9/11 and proximity to Afghanistan made it a necessity. That's why Musharraf's crackdown on dissent, including on the Pakistani Supreme Court, put the U.S. in such an agonized position: on the one hand, repression bad!; on the other, losing an ally against the Taliban, also bad. If we didn't care whether nations were liberal democracies or not, there would be no agonizing. We would take the more Reaganesque view that repressing one's own people was all right as long as it was not a Communist repression. (Or nowadays an Islamic repression.)

It does make sense for the U.S. to feel more sympathy with a capitalistic liberal democracy than with an economically-backwards dictatorship. This is as true in the Middle East as in South Asia.

Anonymous said...

"Is it that the U.S. has a special relationship and sympathy with Israel?

That certainly is true. But hold the thought for a moment...

"...is it that the U.S. is forced by the existence of the domestic Jewish lobby's ... power ... to support Israel? (which is more the W&M idea)"

I have cut that statement down because I want to put a slightly different idea in its place.

The power of the "domestic Jewish lobby" is not just "money and position". Far more important than those is the number of votes and the location of those votes. To campaign against Israel would certainly guarantee the loss of New York, New Jersey, likely California, and probably a number of other states that you could pinpoint far more accurately than can I.

PG, a question for you -

Could any candidate win the Presidency if he alienated the Jewish vote?

(That would certainly be the consequence of taking any meaningful action "against" Israel, even if it was just the proverbial kiwi slap on the wrist with a wet bus ticket.)

So, the continuing US policy toward Israel becomes a matter of political realities. It is the consequence of factors. I do not think the policy is "right". Nor can I say that it is "wrong".

Now I go back to the start of my first comment.

It is how the outside world perceives US foreign policy that is the crux of my original point. It is not how that policy is arrived at, nor the justification of it. It is the perception of that policy, its application and its impact.

To take an example far removed from the Middle East, why was the US supplying Suharto and his armies with arms and money when at the same time Indonesia was undertaking a "scorched earth invasion" in East Timor? Rationale - Indonesia stood against communism in the region, there were concerns about the stability of Singapore and Malaysia, and Indonesia was a "useful friend" compared with the loss of a few thousand refugees in an island few had ever heard of...

David Schraub said...

If a President literally just gave Israel a weak slap on the wrist for doing something unambiguously bad (expanding settlements, for example), then sure, I think they could, would, and have won re-election.

The problem with your premise is that the type of break the international community wants to see between the US and Israel is not only significantly stronger than a slap on the wrist (the examples you used would probably mean abandoning the Negroponte Doctrine, for instance), but strike most American voters as legitimately bad policy shifts -- strategically and normatively. At the point, it becomes impossible to answer your question because I can (and do) argue that the types of policy moves that would "prove" to the world that the US is out from under Israel's thumb are all moves that Americans aren't supporting for perfectly rational, normative reasons.

In other words, there is a broad consensus among the US electorate normatively in favor of policy decisions that the rest of the world thinks are too pro-Israel. The question is whether we then conclude that a) American voters and politicians are exercising independent agency to determine what they think our policy towards Israel should be, and that determination differs from what the rest of the world thinks (the standard thesis), or b) American politicians (and voters?) are cowed by the power of the Israel Lobby and are making decisions irrespective of their "true" views as to what they think our regional policy should be (the W&M thesis). So long as I can legitimately argue "a", the question doesn't get us anywhere.

PG said...

"It is how the outside world perceives US foreign policy that is the crux of my original point. It is not how that policy is arrived at, nor the justification of it. It is the perception of that policy, its application and its impact."

I understand about the problem of perception, but to the extent that the perception itself is filtered through some degree of anti-Semitism, I'm inclined to tell the perception to go home and grow up. Seriously, if the only reason that, say, a South Korean can come up with as to why the U.S. supports Israel is, "Jews are a monolithic voting bloc and American politicians fear alienating them even when doing so is in America's interest," then that South Korean is an idiot.

For your example of Indonesia, what was the perception outside the U.S. of why the U.S. was supporting Suharto? Did foreigners believe that it was because of the powerful anti-Timorese sentiment in the U.S.; or did they know it was because the U.S. had committed to any anti-Communist government, no matter how vile?

I don't think foreigners are as stupid as you're implying.

Anonymous said...

"In so doing I acknowledge the vilification that is likely to result.

I was right, wasn't I?

"...I understand about the problem of perception, but to the extent that the perception itself is filtered through some degree of anti-Semitism..."

By whom, PG? Are you implying that the rest of the world is anti-Semitic? Come off it, that is no more than trite generalisation without any foundation. It also shows exactly why trying to debate with an American any topic that fringes on the Levant is futile. As soon as the argument starts, the anti-Semite label gets dragged out... as I knew it would. You should have prefaced your comment with "Is Samantha Power a closet anti-Semite?".

And that is why I referred to the Indonesia/Timor example. I was tempted to throw Rwanda in there, with Albright's refusal to debate genocide and Rwanda on the same day. I chose Indonesia because Rwanda is second only to the Levant in terms of sore points...

And I note with some satisfaction that my points came through loud and clear in the "context quote" you made earlier.

"...what was the perception outside the U.S. of why the U.S. was supporting Suharto? Did foreigners believe that it was because of the powerful anti-Timorese sentiment in the U.S.; or did they know it was because the U.S. had committed to any anti-Communist government, no matter how vile?"

No, it was "The Great Champion of Democracy and Freedom" turning its back (and here is the parallel with Rwanda) and supporting the Indonesian government's contention that it was "an internal problem".

It is the continuing perception; the water that erodes the rock. It is not one event. It is the cumulative perception of many successive events.

I do not believe that the US can isolate itself from the rest of the world, any more than the rest of the world can protect itself from the intentions of the US. I do not believe that the US can be the self-appointed Sheriff and Defender of the Faith any more than can Islam.

Perhaps there might be benefit in re-examining the basic principles of "global leadership".

And that is a point that comes out in response to the very next question to Samantha Power...

"I think that ... the nexus of realism and idealism, is very important. Know how the system works. Unfortunately, it is the system we inherit. ... ultimately, when the lives of citizens abroad are under siege, and mainstream concern about these issues [is lacking]... " (why did she not finish that sentence?)

and -

"...knowing a place well, can give you such insight, not only about why the human stakes do matter, but also about what might be done in service of prevention or suppression [of genocide], if it comes to that. It takes knowing the place to know the way out of that scene."

David Schraub said...

I don't think anyone here has responded to you with "vilification", beyond telling you that you're, well, wrong. Which even Jews (or people defending Jews) have the right to do. And I've noticed that whenever someone tries to dismiss an argument that goes against America's pro-Israel policy, the advocate immediately huffs about how we're "playing the anti-Semitism" card and that's so unfair.

Well guess what? Aside from the fact that nobody here called you anti-Semitic, there is a lot of anti-Semitism in the world, and an ingrained anti-Semitic mindset that pervades the global perception of the Jew and Jewish institutions. I am amazed that you view the suggestion that anti-Semitism exists and is influential in global behavior as some wild, bizarre assertion -- as if it wasn't backed up by, I don't know, 3000 years of historical experience? Given history, I'm very comfortable asserting that anti-Semitic mentalities are a possible player in international perceptions about Jewish institutions. And -- sniffing about my card playing proclivities notwithstanding -- I don't apologize for forcing people into critical account of how anti-Semitism remains a force in my life and the life of all Jews. You're Whitewashing.

Also, your response to PG's comment flies past her actual question: what did other countries think was the reason why we abandoned East Timor. They didn't think we did it because we wanted to be "The Great Champion of Democracy and Freedom" turning its back." Perhaps they thought it was because we were making a statement about sovereignty and "internal problems" -- though I doubt it, given Vietnam. Regardless, unlike with Israel, they didn't think they were doing it because a global conspiracy of Indonesians was controlling American policy so as to act outside of our own interests.

Anonymous said...

David, pg did say that the "the perception itself is filtered through some degree of anti-Semitism...". Am I not allowed to pick up on that?

As a response to pg's question, this - "...turning its back (and here is the parallel with Rwanda) and supporting the Indonesian government's contention that it was "an internal problem"..." - must have been far to subtle.

To put it again, the US has (over my lifetime) done exactly the same as every other major global power and interpreted events to suit their particular and specific interests, rather than consider the interests of those in need of help.

I really feel sorry for the Jews. They have suffered 3000 years of anti-Semitism. They are universally considered a second class race. They are universally pilloried and spat upon. Perhaps that is why Auckland's greatest ever Mayor and who held that position for some 18 years, Sir Dove-Meyer Robinson, was Jewish. Perhaps that is why at least three of NZ's greatest business families -the Nathan family, the Meyers, and the Ehrenfrieds - are Jewish. There is a mild touch of sarcasm to the opening sentences of this para. It goes with my response to PG. He/she does no good by swinging their point on accusations of anti-Semitism. It is the empty block of a person who can find no other logical argument.

I am not anti-Semite. Any person who comes to my door is welcome and welcomed. The only condition is that they show me the same respect as I give them.

David Schraub said...

Yes PG said that. And the point is, it was a perfectly plausible argument to make on the subject of foreign attitudes towards Israel (and remains so notwithstanding sometimes Jews are not being brutally massacred. Mayor of Auckland! Lord, we have arrived at the Promised Land!). It is perfectly reasonable to argue -- particularly if you think that the US has an overall just policy towards Israel -- that foreign opposition to it is tinted by anti-Semitism. There's really no reason to dismiss it out of hand, as you're doing, just because some New Zealand Jews have gotten wealthy.

Anonymous said...

Good gracious David, but you are fast on the draw.

I don't mind being "wrong" at all. It merely engenders the suspicion that the person telling me that is also "wrong". Are you telling me that the external - global - perception of US foreign policy does not exist? Are you telling me that my interpretation of that perception is wrong?

Two brief matters -

First, what I hear from Samantha Power is that the US needs to modify its approach to foreign policy. That change, as I hear it (and strongly agree), needs to be based on knowledge and understanding rather than personal sympathies and internal politics.

Second, if you want to blame the Ancient Egyptians for all the woes of modern Jewry then go for it. Perhaps my personal difficulty with the argument (and the flashing of the anti-Semite card) is that I do not believe anyone can be the "chosen people of God", but that belief is based on the fact that I am atheist and nothing else. Certainly that belief does not in any way colour or change the last paragraph of my previous comment.

I do not believe that criticism of Israel or the US for supporting Israel is anti-Semitic, any more than my criticism of the NZ nation is anti-Maori, or criticising the UK is anti-Celt, or criticising the US is anti-Puritan.

David Schraub said...

I don't dispute the perception exists, I do dispute the why it exists -- namely, I think much more of it is based off of latent anti-Semitism than you do.

If you think Ancient Egypt is exhaustive of anti-Semitic stereotyping, you're woefully undereducated on the topic. We've got Christian theological anti-Semitism, Enlightenment Universalism anti-Semitism, Spanish "pure blood" anti-Semitism, modern-day Islamic anti-Semitism...I could go on. Plus, I vaguely remember some major non-Egyptian anti-Semitic action in recent history -- Holo...Hologram? I don't remember. But it was really famous.