Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Loose Coalition of Arguments

Stephen Walt makes an interesting two-step in defending his claims regarding the "Israel Lobby's" influence in getting America to go to war in Iraq. First, he dilutes the hypothesis so much that it ceases to have virtually any normative punch, but becomes descriptively banal. Then, having established that banality, he dresses it back up as something shocking, disturbing, and pernicious, for which we should be thankful to have bold truthsayers like Walt pulling back the curtain.

The first thing Walt does is blur together necessary and sufficient conditions. He asks us to consider what Andrew Sullivan calls a "powerful counter-factual":
What if Bush and Cheney had independently dreamed up the idea of invading Iraq after 9/11, but the plan was openly questioned by Israel, AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents, and the ADL, on the grounds that it might lead to a quagmire and maybe even strengthen Iran? What if these groups had openly opposed the war, or just quietly pushed for an genuine debate on different options, or simply remained on the sidelines and let members of Congress know that they had their doubts? What if their counsels of restraint had been reinforced by similarly prudent advice from respected think-tanks like the Saban Center at Brookings, the American Enterprise Institute or the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP)? What if staunchly pro-Israel pundits like Charles Krauthammer, Max Boot, Kenneth Pollack, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Thomas Friedman, among others, had spent 2002 raising questions about the wisdom of an attack, or arguing as passionately against the war as they did in favor of it? It's possible that Bush & Co. still might have been able to stampede the country to war, but surely it would have been much harder.

In other words, if a large quantity of important beltway players supporting the Iraq War had taken the opposite stance, the push for war would have been considerably more difficult. Ladies and gentleman, consider my mind officially blown. It never occurred to me that major reversals in political support would have political consequences. Of course, one can tell the same story about, inter alia, the Evangelical right, or the congressional Republican leadership. Nobody disputes that "neoconservatives" (who are not synonymous with "the Israel Lobby" -- particularly given the expansive definition Walt provides that I'll discuss below) were in favor of the war in Iraq. What's supposed to be controversial is that they were essentially sufficient to get America to go to war. A claim that they were a necessary part of the pro-war coalition is utterly banal. If important elements of the pro-war coalition were not, in fact, pro-war, the pro-war position would suffer. Yes, duh. Can I get a book deal now?

Now let's go to Walt's, shall we say, expansive definition of the Israel Lobby. It isn't just formal lobbying organizations like AIPAC. Nope, it is
a "loose coalition" of individuals and groups that actively works to promote and defend the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel (i.e., the policy of generous and unconditional U.S. support). Having a favorable view of Israel or generally pro-Israel attitude doesn't make someone part of the Israel lobby; to qualify, a person or group has to devote a significant portion of time, effort or money to promoting that "special relationship."

You may note that this definition is amorphous to the point of incoherency. A "special relationship" isn't the same thing as a policy of "unconditional U.S. support". Many of the folks he characterizes as unquestionably part of The Lobby would, I think, hotly dispute that they are in favor of "unconditional support" for Israel. To "devote a significant portion of time, effort or money" to promote this vague vision is a standard begging for scholarly manipulation.

Indeed, as best I can tell, this standard is just double-speak for "people who publicly advocate views on Israel Stephen Walt disagrees with". It hardly restricts itself to uncritical allies of Israel -- elsewhere in the piece Walt completely gives up the ghost by characterizing J Street and Americans for Peace Now as part of The Lobby under this definition. Now, I speak as a staunch supporter of J Street when I point out that there is no conceivable world in which it is uniformly uncritical of Israel. That is, bluntly, a bizarre claim. If everyone to the right of Jewish Voice for Peace (which is, literally, where Walt places the border) who speaks out on Israel is part of the Israel Lobby, the term encompasses nearly the totality of the American Jewish community. A community which, we might point out, was disproportionately opposed to the Iraq War.

Third, even conceding that it makes sense to speak of the Israel Lobby in Walt's broad, messy brushstrokes, he still falls into a trap we've seen before: that folks who hold a particular set of views on Israel (that Walt finds distasteful) can't possibly hold any other policy positions. Everything that they say, do, or advocate for has to stem, ultimately, from determinations of Israel's best interest. And that's clearly false (and offensive). The absolute most generous interpretation of Walt's evidence is establishing a correlation between Israel Lobby views and support for the Iraq War. But this doesn't imply any sort of causation, and as Andrew Sullivan himself noted, in 2003 he'd have qualified as part of the Israel Lobby under Walt's definition, yet his support had nothing to do with Israel in all "but a peripheral sense." At most, Sullivan writes, "Israel was one factor, if one of the least prominent ones, in their [the neo-conservatives] case."

And Walt's essentially concedes this. Turning back to the testimony of Tony Blair which sparked this debate in the first place, he writes:
I made it clear in my post that Blair's comments were not a "smoking gun" that proved we were right, and I neither suggested nor implied that Blair's testimony demonstrated that Bush went to war at Israel's urging or to accommodate the Israel lobby. I merely noted that Blair had said that concerns about Israel were part of the discussion, and that Israeli officials were consulted as part of the conversation. Indeed, after summarizing Blair's testimony, I wrote:
Notice that Blair is not saying that Israel dreamed up the idea of attacking Iraq or that Bush was bent on war solely to benefit Israel or even to appease the Israel lobby here at home. But Blair is acknowledging that concerns about Israel were part of the equation, and that the Israeli government was being actively consulted in the planning for the war."

Yeah, that's pretty peripheral if you ask me. Indeed, to characterize this as even remotely mendacious is absurd. "Concerns about Israel were part of the equation"! You're kidding me! You're telling me that, in determining whether to take a relatively major foreign policy operation (say, invading a country), we including in our deliberations considerations about how the shockwaves would affect regional entities particularly vulnerable to the reverberations? How irresponsible! Clearly, the only patriotic approach is to adopt an appropriate, devil-may-care attitude to how launching a war would affect other countries in the region.

So what are we left with. It's hard to say, mostly because the inconsistent definition Walt provides for the Israel Lobby defies cohesive analysis. But at worst, we have (1) Actors who take certain views on Israel that Walt finds disagreeable (2) were part of a pro-war political coalition, which would (naturally) suffer if they weren't part of it (which is somewhat implicit in the notion of a coalition) (3) whose support for the war seems to have stemmed from policy stances entirely independent of their views on Israel but (4) may have acted to insure that Israeli concerns were "part of the equation" in the deliberations over war.



Pooper Scooper said...

I'd never encountered the phrase "descriptively banal" in American English before your post. I'd like to know what it means. You mean something like "the way in which that hypothesis describes x" is banal. When would an adjective like banal apply to the way a hypothesis describes something? Your obviously making some sort of very sophisticated claim ontological about the status of the relation between this hypothesis and its content that i'm not quite grasping...either that or you just meant: "he succeeds in making a controversial hypothesis seem banal?"

David Schraub said...

What it is describing is banal. The rhetoric is all shock, shock, shock, the phenomenon itself rather uninteresting.

Rhetorically shocking, descriptively banal.