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January 7, 2013 10:39 am

“The Real WMD” – The Walt-Mearsheimer Documents – A Retrospective

avatar by Yale Zussman

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John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Photo: Maarten Derkse.

Yes, I know, “WMD” usually stands for “weapons of mass destruction,” but in this case the letters refer to the Walt-Mearsheimer Documents, including an article that first appeared in the London Review of Books in 2006, and a full-length book published the following year with the title “The Israel Lobby.” The release of these documents caused a furor back then with lots of refutations. I read some of them at the time — not all — but with the passage of time it is possible to go back and see what has become of the ideas they espoused.

Although they were titled “The Israel Lobby,” the WMD were basically an investigation into why the United States has failed to follow the “correct” policy with regard to Israel, namely the policy Walt and Mearsheimer advocate. As self-styled realists, in the sense this term is used in the foreign policy community, they favor the US bullying Israel to concede to Arab demands, whatever they might be, so as to make it easier for the US to cozy up to the Arab oil producers. They claim this approach has never been tried and that there are only three reasons why the US might have pursued a different policy: strategic reasons, moral reasons, and domestic politics, i.e., “the Israel Lobby.”

The logic of their case requires that these three are the only possibilities, for, as Holmes once told Watson, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Unfortunately for them, they haven’t even identified all the possibilities. For starters, they assert that the absence of either a strategic or a moral case to support Israel is a fact when it is actually little more than their opinion. Once their views on strategic and moral issues are recognized as opinions, one need only consider that those charged with determining US policy toward Israel might have a different opinion, and their case collapses.

And there is a strong case to be made for the opposite opinions:

With regard to a US strategic interest in Israel, we have the value of intelligence supplied, both during the Cold War and since, Israel’s involvement in “Black September” to prevent a Syrian invasion of Jordan, Israeli military innovations including anti-missile systems like the “Iron Dome” demonstrated in the recent fighting in Gaza, training of American police forces in techniques for preventing terrorist attacks within the US, and the contribution of Israeli technology and start-up companies to the US economy. Israel may prove critical to preventing the capture by al-Qaeda of Syrian chemical and biological weapons as that country disintegrates. Meanwhile, the relationship between Israel and the United States is known in the oil-producing Arab states and appears to be more of an advantage than a disadvantage. And this is before recent large gas reserves in Israeli territorial waters come to market, thereby freeing our European allies of their dependence on both Russian and Arab sources. And all this from a country roughly the size of New Jersey.

A second American strategic interest in the Middle East that Walt and Mearsheimer acknowledge is preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, as in the case of Iran. They assert that there are three strategies that might work, military force, sanctions, and a grand bargain following on a diplomatic opening to Iran. Israel has advocated the use of force. George Bush initiated the strategy of relying on sanctions, which Barack Obama has since strengthened. Obama, apparently unaware that the Iranians had rejected several such efforts by Bush, undertook one of his “resets” with a diplomatic approach to the Iranians, an application of the “grand bargain” Walt and Mearsheimer favor. The result? The Iranians laugh at Obama even as they progress toward nuclear weapons status. There are stringent sanctions in place now, but the Iranians are too close to their goal for these to work. In the coming months, Walt and Mearsheimer will either have to revise their views on proliferation or admit that the Israelis were right about this from the start.

The moral case they make is based on the polemics of several Israeli “new historians,” people whose work bears the same relationship to history that the WMD do to foreign policy realism. The “new historians” are dedicated to a “higher truth,” even if it isn’t supported by the historical record, in which Israel is always the villain, mainly because the alternative is to admit that the real problem all along has been the Arab refusal to make peace, something they can’t blame on their political enemies in Israel.

How this has worked out can be illustrated by the WMD’s treatment of the Arab refugee issue. Walt and Mearsheimer accept the Arab claim that all the refugees were expelled and reject Israel’s counter-claim that many of them left in response to the urging of their leaders. The evidence for their position appears in Footnote 73 (in the book version) which includes “Arab commanders did instruct Palestinian civilians to evacuate their homes during the fighting.” So, as Israel has claimed all along, Arab leaders did call on their civilians to get out of the way.

Which leaders did they think the Israelis were talking about, the captain of the local soccer team (that’s “football” for you intellectuals outside North America)? That the leaders who encouraged the Arabs to leave were military is apparent from this quote that appeared in the Jordanian newspaper, Ad Diffaa on September 6, 1954, “(they told us) get out so we can get in. So we got out, but they did not get in.” Meanwhile, the evidence is very clear that in several places, especially Haifa, local Jewish leaders did what they could to encourage their Arab neighbors to stay put. These efforts generally didn’t succeed, but that is a far cry from expelling the Arabs. Walt and Mearsheimer had the facts, but that didn’t prevent them from misrepresenting the reality.

By contrast, the WMD make no mention of Mizrachi Jews who actually were expelled from the Arab countries where their ancestors had lived since before those countries were conquered by the Muslims. They generally left with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. The WMD don’t mention the Mizrachim, whose life histories give them great insight into the Muslim mind, even in a section of their book addressing the attitudes of Israeli Jews toward Arabs. Failure to consider that there might be a difference on this issue between Mizrachim, other Sephardim, and Ashkenazim is a sign of researchers who don’t know what they’re doing, or who know that the reality is very different from the point they are trying to make.

As just noted, a policy-maker might be better informed about the facts and/or nuances of the issues than Walt and Mearsheimer and thus have a different opinion on the strategic and/or moral case for supporting Israel. But that’s not all. There are at least two other reasons a policy-maker might reject their preferred policy. Since that brings us to either six or seven possibilities, depending on whether one counts a different strategic opinion and a different moral opinion as one or two, and the WMD only address two of these six or seven, their conclusion that only domestic politics can account for the failure of American policy-makers to see the wisdom of the Walt-Mearsheimer policy is logically unfounded.

Another reason a policy-maker might reject the Walt-Mearsheimer policy is a commitment to the rule of international law. The Arab effort to destroy Israel, even without their claimed right to exterminate its Jewish citizens, is a challenge to the legitimacy of the global legal system first established by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. It is also a rejection of the UN system, designed to enable all states, whether popular or not, to live in peace with one another. Anything that advances this effort can be regarded rightfully as a challenge to the principle of the rule of law.

No matter how awful Israel might be, and the facts demonstrate that the most awful thing about it is the neighborhood where it is located, it is entitled to the protections of the international legal system, much as any citizen is entitled to the legal protections provided in her community. Allegations of Israeli violations of international law are mainly a smoke-screen to obscure the core reality that the assault on Israel is itself a massive violation of those laws.

The Arab campaign against Israel, whether militarily or through various efforts to denigrate, condemn, or delegitimize that state, is a clear challenge to the central idea of the rule of international law. Islamists make no bones about rejecting any law not based on Shariah, such as the Westphalian system, so while they are prepared to use it to serve their interests, they reject the idea that they are bound by it. A policy-maker committed to the rule of law could not participate in such an effort and would have to reject the Walt-Mearsheimer policy on that basis alone.

But there is one more candidate for why policy-makers might reject Walt and Mearsheimer’s advice: Contrary to what they claim, their policy has been tried and it proved to be a dismal failure. In politics, nothing succeeds like success, and nothing fails like failure.

This is where the WMD’s failure to understand, or misrepresentation of, the history of the conflict plays a dramatic role. President Eisenhower did exactly what Walt and Mearsheimer advocate in the wake of the Suez Crisis; he pressured Israel to withdraw from the Sinai without peace and without any commitment from Egypt to end the state of war. Eisenhower hoped thereby to win favor with Nasser and keep him from taking Egypt into the Soviet orbit, but Nasser apparently didn’t get the memo and cast his lot with the Soviets anyway. Israel was bullied, and withdrew. Eisenhower realized he had made a mistake before the end of his administration. How big a mistake wasn’t clear until 1967 when the Walt-Mearshemer policy contributed to causing the Six Day War. Most Middle Eastern policy-makers learned their lesson from Suez, and after 1967 this policy was not tried again, at least until the Obama presidency.

Perhaps it is their need to deny the role their policy played in starting the Six Day War that leads Walt and Mearsheimer to misrepresent how that war actually started. The WMD claim that Israel was itching for war and regarded it as an opportunity to seize territory. They have President Johnson working to restrain Israel from aggression rather than trying desperately to fulfill the commitment given to Israel by Eisenhower that the Arabs would not be allowed to block Israeli commerce through the Strait of Tiran. They have Johnson “changing his mind,” for unknown reasons, about restraining Israel rather than acknowledging that his effort to assemble a convoy to run the Egyptian blockade had failed. They cite military estimates that Israel would win an easy victory as proof that Israel wanted war.

As it happens, I was present at one of their book-selling presentations when a member of the audience got up to make the point about Eisenhower and the Suez Crisis. Professor Walt spent several minutes talking, without actually saying anything of substance, before simply declaring that his policy was right. He couldn’t acknowledge that Eisenhower’s experience following Suez proves that his policy is wrong without admitting that the WMD are much ado about nothing.

What the WMD don’t mention is that the estimates of easy victory were based on Israel striking first, and Israel was giving Johnson time to try to fulfill the American commitment. Rather than a country yearning for war, the record is clear that Israel’s leaders were fearful of what that war might bring. Meanwhile, against the possibility that the Arabs would strike first, the rabbinate was busy consecrating most Israeli parks to serve as cemeteries for the tens or hundreds of thousands of dead, mainly civilians, that might result, out of a population of around three million. The Arabs, whether together or separately, could have attacked at any time, so the reality is the polar opposite of the claims in the WMD. Did their “thorough research” turn up any of this? If not, then it wasn’t thorough. If it did, then well, I’ll leave the reader to his own conclusions.

So what of the argument about the role of the Lobby? Walt and Mearsheimer go to great lengths to dissect the Lobby and their effort turns up the amazing fact that it is like all other lobbies except in two areas: it is not monolithic and it is effective. What’s wrong with that, for them, is that it is effective in demonstrating that the Walt-Mearsheimer policy has a track record of failure.

The WMD deny that there is a pro-Palestinian Lobby, or at least an effective one, and that Big Oil lobbies on behalf of the Arabs. What they don’t address is that there is a very extensive anti-Israel lobby, which is not the same as a pro-Palestinian lobby, including Big Oil and groups like the Turkish Coalition of American, particularly influential now that President Obama has adopted Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan as his foreign policy mentor, and the National Iranian American Council, which answers to the Ayatollahs and their call for “wiping Israel off the map.” There is also the labyrinth of groups controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose goal is the destruction of Western civilization from within, and which, thanks to Pres. Obama, has now gained access to the levers of power in Washington. Most of these groups have their own objectives not directly related to the Israel-Palestine issue, but they do pursue it.

Included in the anti-Israel Lobby is an extensive network of academics funded by oil money, both domestic and international, and journalists whose efforts to denigrate Israel in the public domain were amply assisted by the WMD. Nor do Walt and Mearsheimer acknowledge the role of our European allies in lobbying against Israel to mollify the growing and increasingly violent colonies Muslims have established in their countries.

Obviously, Walt and Mearsheimer have no interest in exploring the motivations of the people within this effort, where anti-Semitism often reacts synergistically with pecuniary motives to provide a powerful incentive. Walt and Mearsheimer claim not to be anti-Semites; are they doing this for the money?

That the lobby is anti-Israel rather than pro-Palestinian is very important. A pro-Palestinian lobby would promote the best interests of Palestinian people and would be pushing for political normalization so they can get on with their lives as soon as possible. That means reaching a settlement with Israel and settling the refugees in permanent homes. Since the absolute best such a lobby could achieve would be a settlement the Arabs could have had in 1967, or even 1949, the implication is that all Palestinian suffering is a result of bad choices made by their own leaders rather than anything Israel has done. Ironically, such a lobby is something Palestinian leaders, who would have to accept the blame for the fate of their people, could not countenance, and this may be why there is no pro-Palestinian lobby.

Against the record of consistent failure (no successes in somewhere between a dozen and twenty tries, depending on how you count them) of initiatives that start with the notion that Israel should offer concrete concessions to entice the Arabs to negotiate — the Walt-Mearsheimer policy differs from similar strategies only in that it seeks to achieve this by bullying Israel — there is an alternative approach that has succeeded both times it has been tried. That approach begins with the Arab side acknowledging that Jews are entitled to the same collective and individual rights Arabs claim for themselves, including having their own state, and offering to resolve the conflict on that basis. It worked with Egypt under Sadat. It worked with Jordan and King Hussein.

The reason this strategy works is that it starts by recognizing what the real problem is: the Arab — or is it Muslim? — obsession with destroying Israel and murdering its people. Simple logic makes clear that the target of such an obsession cannot achieve peace by offering substantive concessions; the other side will settle for nothing less than everything

The $64 trillion question is whether the Palestinians can adopt such a strategy and thus bring their suffering, and the conflict, to an end. It seems pretty clear that they won’t consider it as long as the rest of the world, rooted on by the likes of Walt and Mearsheimer, encourages them not to do so.

As long as the Arab side is committed to destroying Israel, American support for Israel will be the right thing to do. That is for strategic, moral, and legal reasons. It also reflects what experience with this conflict teaches.

Any strategy, like that proposed in the WMD, that starts by demanding concrete concessions from Israel can only encourage the Arabs in their belief that ultimately the world will allow them to commit the crimes of politicide and genocide. Israel has resisted the bullying, as President Obama found out during the last four years, and thereby protected him from being the president on whose watch the entire edifice of international law comes crashing down. Obama has tried the policies advocated by Walt and Mearsheimer on both Israel and Iran and has nothing to show for it. Maybe he has learned the lesson an older generation learned in 1967, everyone, it seems, except for Walt and Mearsheimer.

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  • Yale Zussman

    Given your first paragraph, most of the rest of your posting makes little sense, certainly as viewed through the WMD prism. Let me remind you that Walt and Mearsheimer advocate bullying Israel to comply with Arab demands, whatever they might be, and those demands amount to the destruction of the state and genocide of its Jewish population. Unless you are prepared to acknowledge that this result is OK with you, you, too, must reject the Walt-Mearsheimer policy.

    What makes Israel deserve special treatment is precisely the nature of the Arab demands; no other individual country faces this kind of threat. Most American leaders understand this, and that is why the Walt-Mearsheimer policy generally didn’t get a hearing until the Obama Administration. The same threat awaits the rest of the West, and the rest of the world for that matter, but it is far less immediate than for Israel.

    Let me address some of your points:

    Economic aid to Israel was phased out years ago at Israel’s request, so complaining about it now reveals ignorance of what is actually happening. Military aid remains necessary to balance the trillions we send to the Muslim states for oil. Without the military means to resist, the question of whether Israel should be bullied into submitting to Arab demands would be moot.

    Please look up the word “hegemon” in the dictionary; if Israel were a hegemon, the Muslim Brotherhood would not be coming to power in all of Israel’s neighbors.

    Your point about terror as payback for support for Israel is also simply wrong. If you were right, then the pro-Arab states in Europe would not be suffering any terror, but their problem with this is greater than ours.

    Muslim terror against the West is part of a centuries-old pattern of religiously-based aggression by Muslims against non-Muslims.
    (Incidentally, all of the chronic wars on the planet are along the borders of the Muslim world.) We have terror today rather than a regular armed invasion because the West is so much more powerful than the Muslims. If that weren’t the case, you would see Muslim armies marching to conquer western lands, much as they did each time their military might permitted it. If that is what you want, then have the integrity to admit it. If not, then perhaps you should think through the issues again. Preserving our civilization rates rather highly in my scale of values.

  • RPB

    Should the US be Israel’s ally? Absolutely yes. Should the US help Israel if faced with a real, existential threat? Certainly. Should the US sell Israel arms? Most definitely. Should it partner with them on Anti-Terrorist campaigns? Probably. Is it useful to be allied with the most powerful country in a volatile, but important area of the world? Yes.

    But the point is, that they do not deserve any special treatment of special military aid. Our peculiarly extraordinary support from Israel has cost the US substantially more than it has gained.

    Its interesting that you fail to note any of Mearsheimer/Walt claims about the very large amount of money that flows to Israel from the US. These billions of dollars are used to aid what can be termed as the most powerful military in the Middle East and also the most vibrant economy. Why is this necessary to support a military hegemon?

    You also fail to address the claims they make that terrorism against the United States can, in part, be directly linked to US support of Israel. The terror groups themselves, in their many public messages, decry the United States specifically for their support of Israel. The call the US a puppet of Israel, a Zionist Arab killer, etc. Sure, Israel has proven adept at training US police forces in counter terrorism, but would that be necessary if the US were not extremely active in supporting Israel? And again, why is it necessary to even risk the possibility that support for Israel drives terror attacks on the US when viewed in through the prism that the Israelis likely do not need this support to function/exist/continue to dominate the Middle East.

    Also, you fail to address the massive costs the US has dealt with as a direct result of its support for Israel. The Arab Oil embargo of the 70s alone probably dwarfs all benefits the US has received from Israel. Outside of terrorism and direct costs due to embargoes of Arab/Persian states, the US has lost enormous amounts of diplomatic clout due to its support of Israel during its heavy-handed crackdown on Palestinian areas. (Mearsheimer states that more than 3 times the number of Palestinians have died and 5 times more Palestinian children).

    Any rational analysis of the issue would point to the great excess of costs relative to benefits in our continued support for Israel. Is it not also in the US interests to be granted access to cheap, abundant energy? Why would we not “cozy up” to Arabs when viewed in that light?

    • ricardo

      RPB – while Yale Zuss has responded well to your notions, one fact omitted from his reply is that the US has financial/military obligations to Israel that were committed to in negotiations to encourage Israel to cede the Sinai back Egypt. That cession vitally reduced Israel’s defensive depth, and perhaps more significantly, cost her all the Sinai oil which Egypt now is free to harvest. Our military aid was intended to be a durable offset of these huge sacrifices. Of course this military aid to Israel is substantially offset by our financial & military aid to Egypt, so even that assistance, so frequently cited by those hostile to Israel, is not nearly as significant as it would seem when examined out of context, as it nearly always is.
      We help Israel because she needs it, she deserves it, because we committed to it to encourage the seemingly pyrrhic peace with Egypt, and because we are trying to improve the character of the world by our targeted assistance. Why we help Egypt & other countries largely operating in moralities rooted in the 12’th century is something far less justifiable, but we do. Why single out the good guy?

  • Neptune

    The key is definition for that pair. They defined the concept of “Israel Lobby”,p.14:

    We use “the Lobbyʺ as a convenient short”hand term for the loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to shape U.S. foreign policy in a pro”Israel direction. Our use of this term is not meant to suggest that ʺthe Lobbyʺ is a unified movement with a central leadership, or that individuals within it do not disagree on certain issues

    The core of the Lobby is comprised of American Jews who make a significant effort in their daily lives to bend U.S. foreign policy so that it advances Israel’s interests. Their activities go beyond merely voting for candidates who are pro”Israel to include letter”writing, financial contributions, and supporting pro”Israel organizations. But not all Jewish”Americans are part of the Lobby, because Israel is not a salient issue for many of them. In a 2004 survey, for example, roughly 36 percent of Jewish”Americans said they were either “not very” or “not at all” emotionally attached to Israel.


    This definition declaims as disloyal any Jew who does more than vote. Consider a “Vatican Lobby”, wherein any Catholic who did more than vote for anti-abortion/pro-“letting them die in suffering” candidates was included. The amount of tax money going to the foreign nation known as the Vatican is far, far more than $3 billion per annum. What if Catholics were asked whether they served the US or Rome?

    The clincher is Prof. Mearsheimer’s encomium for Gilad Atzmon’s book, THE WANDERING WHO. Any wishing to learn of that should Google the heinous book.

  • Antisemetism takes many forms. WMD is a pseudo intellectual form…nothing more.