Debating “The Lobby”

“A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That’s why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.”–Truman Capote, American novelist, short story writer, and playwright

As a professor of international affairs and a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, I felt obliged to actually read “The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” which was posted on a Harvard website. I’ve also read much of the negative press about this academic paper and its authors, professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.
Whether you believe the paper is repulsive or revelatory, its arguments are legitimate grounds for a rational discussion. Twenty years ago, 12 former U.S. officials voiced concerns about this very subject in a book entitled They Dare to Speak Out by veteran Congressman Paul Findley. At that time, people were not ready to engage in an unbiased discussion of the topic. It seems little has changed.
I learned first-hand about the Israeli lobby in the late 1980s, while I was a student at George Washington University. I conducted my own study of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for a class. Based on my research, I wrote a short paper on the effectiveness of AIPAC. I didn’t take any flack for the paper, because I suggested that other lobbyists could learn a thing or two from AIPAC.
Anyone who visits AIPAC’s website will see how effective and well organized these “pro-Israeli” advocates are. The site offers reports, summaries of issues, materials for congressional research and the like. Yes, many advocacy groups offer similar resources, but AIPAC would be the clear winner in almost any contest.
AIPAC is also the clear winner when it comes to drawing political “big wigs” to its conferences. The list includes Vice President Dick Cheney, over fifteen high ranking Senators and House members, as well our U.N. ambassador, the governor of Virginia and various military officials.
When it comes to the Middle East, U.S. lawmakers go out of their way to prioritize Israel’s security concerns, and many (like Hillary Clinton) travel to that country to express solidarity whenever Israel feels threatened. Does this reflect the strength of AIPAC? That’s difficult to prove. But when I was on Capitol Hill, its influence was very obvious.
Why the fuss over this paper?
Are Israeli lobbyists upset because they don’t exercise the kind of power claimed by Walt and Mearsheimer, or because they don’t want the public to know about this influence? Is the paper anti-Semitic? Or are some people too quick to label any critic of Israel an anti-Semite? Walt and Mearsheimer make this last point, and I’d like to see someone – anyone – prove them wrong.
The authors make it clear that “people may disagree with their conclusions.” They also note that “there is nothing improper about an American … attempting to sway U.S. policy towards Israel.” What concerns them, however, are Israeli efforts to steer U.S. foreign policy in directions that may not benefit our nation.
Using Cohen’s logic, the documentary “March of the Penguins” is nothing but right-wing religious propaganda. After all, it was endorsed by conservative Christians as a model of “family values.”
In the April 5 edition of The Washington Post, Eliot Cohen dismissed “The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign
Policy” as anti-Semitic by stating that it “has won David Duke’s endorsement as ‘a modern Declaration of
American Independence’ and a vindication of the ex-Klansman’s earlier work …”
Personally, I wouldn’t want Duke to endorse my recipe for meatloaf, but is it fair to label Walt and
Mearsheimer as anti-Semites because of him?
If we truly care about free speech, we must tolerate other points of view, even if we don’t agree with them. We should listen, weigh the facts and be aware of the criteria we are basing our decisions on before making up our minds. More importantly, we should not allow third parties to censor important discussions, or set the rules of engagement, before the debates have even begun.

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