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Walt and Mearsheimer’s “Realism”

In the voluminous debate surrounding the Walt-Mearsheimer Israel Lobby book, there has been little engagement with the authors’ arguments purely from the perspective of foreign policy strategy. The authors believe that America would be wise to abandon the security architecture that has defined its policy in the Middle East for roughly the past forty years—that is, a dissolution of the alliance with Israel in exchange for policies tilted more favorably to the Arab states. They write, for example, that “Pro-Israel forces surely believe that they are promoting policies that serve the American as well as the Israel national interest. We disagree. Most of the policies they advocate are not in America’s or Israel’s interests and both countries would be better off if the United States adopted a different approach.”

This idea is presented as a novel one, but actually, it resembles the contours of American policy in the pre-1967 and -1973 war era. This was an era in which American indifference to Israel’s security, instead of producing harmony and goodwill in the region, encouraged war—not the kind of small skirmishes we see today between Israel and terrorist groups, but full-scale state vs. state conflicts. In the absence of a powerful foreign patron who guaranteed Israeli security, the Arab states were convinced that they could destroy the Jewish state, or at least that there wouldn’t be serious drawbacks in attempting to do so. Thus there were major wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, and the latter sparked one of the most problematic Middle East-related crises America has ever confronted, in the form of the Arab oil embargo.

Since the solidification of America’s alliance with Israel in the 1970’s, there has not been a single war between Israel and an Arab state—only “sub-conventional” conflicts with terror groups, such as the one we saw last summer in Lebanon, which have been far less destabilizing to the region. American military and diplomatic support have sent an unmistakable message to the Arab states: Stop launching wars to destroy Israel—they won’t work.

Fine, a skeptic might say—the U.S.-Israel alliance has promoted a certain kind of stability. But wouldn’t the U.S. derive other important benefits from a pro-Arab stance? Walt and Mearsheimer clearly believe this, but I don’t think there’s any evidence for the idea. Many western countries, France being the most prominent among them, have adopted, as central pillars of their foreign policies, favoritism toward the Arabs at the expense of Israel. These relationships, however, have been marked above all not just by their utter fruitlessness for the western states, but by the Arab betrayal of those states.

In pursuit of advantageous relationships with the Arab-Muslim world, France befriended (among others) three of the Middle East’s most consequential figures: Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Yasir Arafat. Along with arms sales and the provision of nuclear reactors, Jacques Chirac and other French leaders made a point of maintaining an extravagant friendship with the Iraqi dictator; Khomeini, after his expulsion from Iran in 1977, was provided a compound in suburban Paris from which to foment the Iranian revolution (and was flown to Tehran to assume power in 1979 in an Air France jet); and in ways large and small France promoted Arafat and the PLO (and even Black September) against Israel for decades.

It is no exaggeration to say that France’s Middle East politics are exemplary of the kind of foreign policy Walt and Mearsheimer claim will best serve American interests. But what, after all, did France gain for all its legendary favoritism toward the Arab world? Absolutely nothing—except, I suppose, revenue from arms sales during the Iran-Iraq war (overtly to Saddam Hussein and covertly to Khomeini). France, as with so many Western countries, has found it difficult to convince Middle East thugs to return its affections.

The same goes for the United States: after helping the mujahideen drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, the U.S. gained the strange benefit of becoming its erstwhile allies’ next target. And the American-Saudi alliance, while providing the benefit of a certain level of oil security, carries with it immense costs in the form of Saudi Arabia’s project to export Islamic radicalism.

At its core, The Israel Lobby relies on a bizarre rendering of realist foreign policy, one that promotes an ahistoric theory of how stability is achieved in the Levant, and an equally ahistoric prediction of American benefits derived from alignment with the Middle East’s catalogue of gangsters, dictators, and Islamists. Walt and Mearsheimer advertise themselves above all as foreign policy scholars—but that, too, remains in serious doubt.

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