Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Leslie Gelb on Mearsheimer and Walt

I wonder what Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations thought he was doing. His review of Mearsheimer and Walt's The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy begins by comparing the lobby's influence over U.S. policy in the Middle East to Cuban groups' influence over our Cuban policy. Actually, Gelb is not comparing the Israeli lobby to the Cuban lobby--he's comparing the claims made by Mearsheimer and Walt to Fidel Castro's contention that the U.S. can't really be a democracy because a small number of Cuban expatriates shapes our policy toward Havana. Trouble is, Castro has a valid point, and Leslie Gelb, of all people, knows it.

I remember attending a lecture a few years ago at Washington University in which Gelb said that the only people who get what they want out of the Cuban embargo are the exiles and Castro, who benefits tremendously from playing off the United States and keeping his country relatively isolated from the world's financial and cultural superpower. Gelb made it quite clear that he does not support the embargo and does not consider it in the U.S. national interest. (I've Googled around and checked Nexis for other examples of Gelb saying this. The Emerging Markets Debt Report of January 16, 1996 summarizes some of Gelb's reactions after returning from a trip to Cuba:"Pressured by anti Castro Cubans in the United States, President Clinton is highly unlikely to soften the U.S. stance toward Cuba in the runup to the Nov. 1996 U.S. presidential elections, Gelb points out. But, for reasons of its own, the Castro administration isn't particularly eager to see sanctions lifted now, either. ... Gelb advocates gradually lifting the embargo, to avoid shocking the Cuban economy, and calls for increased diplomacy via U.S. Cuban military contacts and a strengthening of the trend to encourage U.S. NGOs to operate in Cuba.")

Does anyone think we would have still have an embargo on Cuba in the year 2007 were it not for the politically powerful Cuban lobby? We trade with nominally Communist China and with our old foes in Vietnam, after all. And the Europeans certainly seem to reap benefits from their trade with Cuba, benefits that we could be reaping as well. (To be sure, the Cuban exile community is not the only factor: the sugar and citrus industries also have reasons for wanting to restrict trade with Cuba. But sugar and citrus would also like to restrict trade with other Latin American countries, and we don't have outright embargoes against any of them.)

Other points in Gelb's review similarly prove the opposite of what he's trying to argue. He writes, for example,
"The main source of anti-Americanism and anti-American terrorism is America’s deep ties with highly unpopular regimes in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, not to mention the war in Iraq," which I happen to believe is true. But why do we have those "deep ties"? In large part, as Gelb himself writes, we have them because of influential foreign lobbies: he criticizes Mearsheimer and Walt for "minimiz[ing] the lobbying influence of the Saudis and the oil companies, the other major forces on Middle East policy" and writes, "if Mearsheimer and Walt had asked policy participants over the years, they would have been told that the Saudis are the single most potent regional voice in American policy toward the gulf." All true. But it doesn't follow that if the Saudis have tremendous, and probably detrimental, influence on American foreign policy in the Middle East, the Israelis must not have similar influence. The Saudi and Israeli lobbies disagree on much--though certainly not everything--but the one does not negate the other. As Gelb concedes, "Most unbiased students of the matter would probably agree that the lobby is the single most influential force on American policy toward Israel."

Gelb also brings up the Cold War-era China Lobby, which again is an example--particularly, one would think, to someone coming from Gelb's point of view--of a foreign lobby that influenced U.S. policy for the worse. I am sure Gelb would not say that Nixon made a mistake by going to China. The Israeli lobby is not unexampled in terms of its policy influence and political clout; but the examples Gelb cites of other, similarly influential lobbies all tend to support the case Mearsheimer and Walt have been making. Yes, the Israel lobby is only doing what foreign-interest lobbies always do. But is what they do congruent with America's national interests? Gelb hardly tries to answer that question. For him, the cause is primarily moral: "As it happens, America’s commitment to Israel rests far more on moral and historical grounds than on strict strategic ones."

Gelb cites Clifford Clark's argument that "The United States and the world had a moral obligation to support a Jewish state because everyone had stood by and done nothing during the Holocaust." Allowing for the historical uniqueness of the Shoa, one would still be compelled by the logic of that argument to say that by the same token we should support the cause of Armenia, perhaps even in the future the cause of Darfur, since there too a great moral evil is taking place and America and the world are doing very little. Yet we have no national interest in Darfur and precious little in Armenia. A moral case can be made for intervention anywhere and everywhere; indeed, the neocons have predicated so much of their case for war against Iraq and intervention in the greater Middle East on such moral grounds: the plight of the Kurds, for example, and now the prospect of ethno-religious cleansing of the Sunnis once we leave Iraq. And as the Iraq episode illustrates, moralistic interventions that are not in the national interest turn out to be counterproductive for the very people they're meant to save, and they do nothing to enhance America's security--quite the opposite.

In saying all of this, I don't want to give the impression that I have no empathy for the Cubans who were expropriated and persecuted by Castro; for the nationalist Chinese who, whatever their faults, at least were anti-Communists; or for the Israelis, who have every right to defend their country and their lives. All of these groups have sound reasons for attempting to influence American policies. And of these three, Israel is the most capable of succeeding in its objectives with or without American subvention and military support: Israel has won every war she has fought and possesses a nuclear arsenal. It would be a false statement to claim that Israel would be destroyed, that there would be a second Holocaust, without American support. Israel's survival is not dependent on the success of the Israel lobby. If it were, the moral issue might trump questions of narrow national interest.

Instead, as Mearsheimer and Walt argue, the Israel lobby and the more-Likudnik-than-Netanyahu neocons here in the United States have been pushing policies that are ultimately detrimental to Israel and that run counter to America's interests. Leslie Gelb seems to be aware of this--he certainly presents evidence to that effect--but he can't bring himself to say it.

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