I don’t think anyone would mistake me for a big fan of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main (as they put it) “pro-Israel” lobby in Washington. The only organization of that kind that I’ve ever given money to is Americans for Peace Now in Israel. And I have defended critics of AIPAC, including Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, the authors of The Israel Lobby, from charges of anti-Semitism. But I think Walt and Mearsheimer have been dead wrong in trying to blame the Israel lobby or the Israeli government for America’s invasion of Iraq. And now Walt is repeating the same nonsense.
Walt, who blogs for Foreign Policy’s website, recently revived the argument, claiming in a self-congratulatory column titled “I don’t mean to say I told you so, but…” that Tony Blair’s testimony last month before Britain’s Iraq War Commission confirmed that “the Israel lobby ... played a key role in the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.” I have read Blair’s testimony. I don’t find it to be proof of anything of the kind; and I don’t think Walt’s accompanying restatement of the argument is any more persuasive than the version he and Mearsheimer put forward in his book.
Walt says that Blair’s statement to the commission “reveals that concerns about Israel were part of the equation [that is, the decision to go to war] and that Israel officials were involved in those discussions.” Here is what Walt, citing a column in the New Statesman, quotes Blair as saying about his early April 2002 meeting in Crawford, Texas, with George W. Bush:
As I recall that discussion, it was less to do with specifics about what we were going to do on Iraq or, indeed, the Middle East, because the Israel issue was a big, big issue at the time. I think, in fact, I remember, actually, there may have been conversations that we had even with Israelis, the two of us, whilst we were there. So that was a major part of all this.
Now there are at least three problems with the inferences that Walt draws from this statement. First, even if we were to grant that Blair is saying that he and Bush were talking about Israel’s role in or importance to the Iraq invasion, this certainly does not show that the Israel lobby had anything to do with the decision to go to war. Nor, secondly, does it show that the Israeli government pressured the U.S. to go to war. The “conversations” could have easily consisted of the Bush administration informing Israelis of their plans.
But these are minor objections. The real problem is that Walt does not seem to have taken the trouble to have read the transcript of Blair’s testimony. If he had, he would have realized that Blair was not talking about how invading Iraq might benefit Israel, but about the conflict then occurring between Israel and the Palestinians. The second intifada had reached a new height with the Passover and Haifa suicide bombings and the beginning of the siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and Blair was concerned that the Bush administration was not actively pursuing the peace process. Blair wanted the administration to put the Arab-Israeli issue on a par with the threat of Iraq. The former prime minister makes this clear in other parts of his testimony. Here is an exchange between Blair and Sir Roderic Lyne:
Lyne: … Just one more point arising from Crawford, but not just from Crawford. You said you reminded us that the Arab-Israel problem was in a very hot state at Crawford. You said you may even have had some conversations with Israelis from there, and obviously it was something that was a large part of your conversations with President Bush. I think it is right to say, indeed, Jack Straw said it, that you were relentless in trying to persuade the Americans to make more and faster progress on the Middle East peace process. Ultimately, Jack Straw said it was a matter of huge frustration that we weren’t able to achieve something which you had been seeking so strongly …
Blair: … I believe that resolving the Middle East, this is what I work on now, is immensely important, and I think it was difficult, and this is something I have said before on several occasions, it was difficult to persuade President Bush, and, indeed, America actually, that this was such a fundamental question …
Lyne: But surely you must have said to him, “Look, this thing is only really going to have a chance of working well if we can make this progress down the Arab-Israel track before we get there”?
Blair: Well, I was certainly saying to him, “I think this is vital,” and I mean, this was, you could describe me as a broken record through that period …
The talks at Crawford led eventually to Bush agreeing to the “road map” for peace. In other words, he and Bush were not saying that they had to invade Iraq to assist or appease the Israelis. Nothing that Blair said in his testimony should have provided the slightest evidence that this was occurring. And it seems clear enough that the discussions Blair and Bush had with the Israelis were not about Iraq but about the peace process.
I am sorry to say that this kind of sloppy research and reasoning is typical of the way that Walt and Mearsheimer deal with the question of whether the Israel lobby influenced the decision to go to war. In their book, they claim that the U.S. would “almost certainly” not have gone to war without the influence of the Israel lobby. That’s a very strong claim, but they do not back it up either in the book or in Walt’s current blogging. Let me briefly deal with their logic here.
There are three ways in which the Israel lobby could have made itself indispensable to the decision to go to war: first, in White House-Pentagon deliberations; second, in significantly influencing the critical Congressional vote in October 2002; and third, in dramatically shaping public opinion. Their argument falls short on all these counts.
White House: To contend that the “Israel lobby” influenced the White House decision to invade—which had more or less been made by the spring of 2002 when Blair visited Crawford—Walt and Mearsheimer expand the “lobby” to include neoconservative intellectuals such as Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense. That’s a stretch in itself, because it suggests that all these intellectuals were so preoccupied with Israel that they based their own policy recommendations on that issue. This may have been true of some but certainly not of most neoconservatives. More important, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, neither of whom could be categorized, even by Walt and Mearsheimer’s absurdly broad standards, as part of an Israel lobby, took the lead in pressing for an invasion even, it seems, before September 11. And they would have been inclined to invade whether or not Wolfowitz had been at the Pentagon. So there is no basis for saying that the White House decision to invade Iraq was driven by neoconservative preoccupations with Israel’s security.
Congress: Walt cites my quoting of AIPAC head Howard Kohr’s boast that AIPAC had been “quietly lobbying” Congress to pass the war resolution in October 2002. I don’t doubt that AIPAC favored going to war, as did some leaders of other pro-Israel organizations. But AIPAC did not aggressively lobby for the war resolution the way it lobbied in 1981 against the AWACs surveillance plane sale to Saudi Arabia or recently for the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act. I have interviewed AIPAC people and members of other Jewish lobbying organizations on this question, and they say the same thing. It was not a make-or-break legislative priority. And there is very good circumstantial evidence to back this up. Some of AIPAC’s most dependable supporters on the Hill—such as Senators Daniel Inouye and Carl Levin and Representative Jerrold Nadler—opposed the resolution. So, yes, AIPAC probably did “quietly” make its preference known; but it can’t be credited or blamed for the outcome of the vote. And no other pro-Israel or Jewish lobby possesses comparable clout on the Hill.
Public Opinion: Did the Israel lobby have a sine qua non influence on public opinion in favor of the war? If so, one would expect that its influence would at least show up among Jewish Americans, who would be most likely to listen to their arguments. In a 2003 survey, the American Jewish Committee found that 54 percent of Jewish Americans disapproved of going to war with Iraq and only 43 percent approved. At the time, a majority of Americans approved of going to war. So, far from being a leader in pro-war sentiment, American Jews were lagging behind. That suggests that the pro-Israel lobby failed even to influence in any significant way Jewish opinion. In other words, there is no basis for accepting Walt and Mearsheimer’s contention that, without the Israel lobby, the U.S. would likely not have invaded Iraq. That’s not anti-Semitism, but it is nonsense. So is Walt’s use of Blair’s testimony to buttress their case.
John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace