Published on June 1st, 2011 | by Daniel Luban2
The Israel Lobby Debate Revisited
Jonathan Chait has a new piece (responding to M.J. Rosenberg) in which he attacks critics of the so-called “Israel lobby” for over-stating its power. The lobby has influence like any other, he suggests, but its unnamed “left-wing critics” claim that it “exerts not influence but total control over American foreign policy,” and “wields power…out of character with the power of other lobbies.”
As usual when Chait writes about this topic, he concedes the heart of the lobby critics’ argument in passing, while spending the vast majority of his piece attacking a strawman. I cannot speak for the lobby’s “left-wing critics” in general, but since their (our?) argument is so often caricatured — particularly by those (like Chait) who want to distance themselves from the critics while still maintaining their liberal bona fides — it may be helpful to spell out what the anti-lobby argument entails and what it doesn’t. As I see it, this argument contains two basic claims.
1) The lobby has a significant influence on U.S. foreign policy. Note that this does not imply that it is omnipotent, or unique, or qualitatively different from other special interest groups. It simply implies that the lobby skews (not dictates) U.S. policy in a markedly more pro-Israel direction than would be the case if the lobby didn’t exist. (Thus even though American public opinion leans “pro-Israel” in some vague sense, we can’t simply view U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East as an unproblematic emanation of the Will of the American People, as lobby apologists like Walter Russell Mead assert with willful naivete.)
2) The lobby has a pernicious influence on U.S. foreign policy. Once again, this does not imply that our foreign policy would magically become virtuous and wise in the absence of this influence. It simply implies our foreign policy is worse than it would otherwise be, either in moral terms, or in terms of U.S. strategic interests, or both.
Chait can’t argue against either of these propositions with a straight face, so he simply concedes them in a sentence before commencing his assault on the strawman. He closes by suggesting that the burden is on the lobby’s critics to prove to him that it exerts influence on Middle East policy that is different in kind from other special interest groups.
This is an irrelevant debate. The lobby’s critics don’t need to show that its influence is unique or total, only that it is significant and pernicious. It may well be that, say, the AARP or NRA or financial lobby exert comparable influence in their designated areas of policy.
But it is equally true that someone pushing for, say, financial reform would have no problem saying publicly that the financial lobby has a significant and pernicious effect on policy. More than that, most proponents of financial reform would recognize that it is essential to publicly highlight the ways that Wall Street skews policy, both in order to build support for reform and to adequately understand the forces standing in its way.
But make a comparable critique of the Israel lobby, and you will find that people suddenly get very, very alarmed — and not just the Michael Goldfarbs and Jennifer Rubins of the world, but also liberals like Chait himself. Such liberals ostensibly share these basic criticisms of the lobby but for some reason feel that one should never, ever talk about them publicly. If you do talk about them publicly, and suggest that the Israel lobby has as significant and pernicious effect on U.S. foreign policy in the Levant as the Wall Street lobby has on financial regulatory policy, you will quickly find yourself compared to Hitler or bin Laden or Father Coughlin and your position caricatured beyond recognition.
To avoid further unproductive debates on this subject, let me venture a suggestion for Chait and other liberals who are, if not quite pro-lobby, at least anti-anti-lobby. My position, and that of most of the other lobby critics to whom he refers, is simply that the lobby’s influence is significant and pernicious, and that recognizing this fact is essential for any attempt to positively influence U.S. policy in the Middle East. If you want to argue that the lobby’s influence is not significant, or not pernicious, or that we should simply avoid talking about the subject at all, then do so. Otherwise, save yourself the time.