Monday, September 17, 2007

When "realists" attack

Do not answer fools according to their folly, lest you be a fool yourself. Answer fools according to their folly, lest they be wise in their own eyes.
- Proverbs 26
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PRE-POSTSCRIPT: An interesting sidelight on this issue from Jeff Robbins (a former Clinton administration UN rep) at the Wall Street Journal. Pay particular attention to his encounters with the anti-Israel lobby, the extensive and lucrative business it does here, and its claims about the "pro-Israel media" - claims both laughable and disturbing.
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No better motto could be imagined to introduce the continuing scandal of Walt and Mearsheimer's attack on the "Israel lobby" and their new book on same. They, their book, their publishers, and their schools (Harvard and Chicago) are a disgrace. Answering them is a necessity, yet fraught with danger - it gives them the attention they crave, but don't deserve.

For a start, former Secretary of State George Schultz has responded with this short piece, which is in turn a selection from a longer preface to a new book on the ongoing saga of conspiracy theories about Jews and politics that always mutate but never seem to die. (Apparently, they're too useful.)

Schultz is one of the most important living American diplomats and one of the most important Secretaries of State ever. (And there's more to Schultz than you think.) He brings that weight and his direct experience on the side of reason in helping dispel a pernicious myth. Groups that advocate on behalf of Israel could only have the impact they have because of the strong pre-existing support for Israel in Congress and the general public. Otherwise, they would be like what Walt and Mearsheimer portray: a semi-secret cabal having a questionable influence on America's foreign policy counter to its best interests. But their influence on that policy would also be all the weaker.

Dissecting the argument and the book. The real beef that Walt and Mearsheimer and people like them have is with American voters and political culture in general. They're aggrieved that not all of American foreign policy is up for sale to oil-producing countries, and this striking fact is what stimulates the irrational obsession that otherwise lives in the darker corners of modern politics. The book itself has been examined and critiqued, following earlier criticism of the authors' original notorious "working paper" and article in the London Review of Books. See here, here, here, and here. And here's a handy summary suitable for talking points.

Careful examination of the book reveals a situation similar to that found with Jimmy Carter's recent book: selective misuse of documents, frequent inversions of reality, careful omission of crucial facts and developments that undercut their argument, and a general failure to talk with the very people they're writing about, who would have also undercut their argument. They make full use of discredited mythology concerning the Iraq war and the Palestinians. Moving from the obvious (Jewish and non-Jewish Americans advocate for Israel) to the libelously malicious in spinning a fantasy of an evil conspiracy, Walt and Mearsheimer emerge with arguments that bear disturbing similarities to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the rantings of Henry Ford.

The real danger. Typical of conspiracists like Walt and Mearsheimer is the phenomenon of psychological projection.

The fascinating thing is that this sinister characterization does fit someone: not the so-called "Israel lobby," which operates in the full light of publicity and mainly through Congress, but what might be called the "oil lobby" or the "Middle East petro-dictatorship lobby." Unlike Israel's supporters, it is semi-secret, interacts almost exclusively with the Executive branch, generally stays out of the spotlight, and usually avoids public or Congressional examination. Behind it lie six decades of "Arabism," "oil realism," and so on, including influential and moneyed investment groups.* This is the other half of the problem, one that Schultz is too polite to mention and is rarely discussed at all, and it's what should be the focus of scrutiny.

Apart from funding the politically-correct academic pseudo-discipline of "Middle East studies," the most sinister part of this lobby is its Saudi component and its spin-off front groups like CAIR. The consequence has been a gradual takeover of world and American Islam by Saudi-funded and Saudi-inspired religious extremists. When a catastrophe like the 9/11 attacks happen, media attention temporarily turns to these groups. But it doesn't take long for this lurid light to get turned away on to something else, like another one of those Britney crises, or maybe a Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction.

The Arabists: The rise and fall of a bad idea. The origins of these groups and their influence (in the US) go back the 1940s. Ever since the Lebanese civil war and the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in the 1970s, they and their ideas have suffered one blow after another: first the the Iran-Iraq war, then the almost-fatal blow of Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, followed by the relentless post-1990 rise of radical Islamist groups in precisely the Sunni countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan) that are supposedly our "allies" and "friends."

The oil-driven "Arabist" idea and the policies based on it now lie in ruins. This is the real background to "when 'realists' attack." The perversion of classical foreign policy realism by the need for oil (on our part) and the need for oil revenue (on the part of oil-producing countries) has led American policy into a dead end. It's probably been the biggest foreign policy scam of the last century. Walt and Mearsheimer and people like them can't take this truth. So they idle away their hours in Cambridge and elsewhere with poisonous fantasies.

The curse of Midas. There's a final irony to this worth mentioning. Oil revenue was supposed to make the backwards petro-nations rich, able to leap into modernization at a single bound with enormous pools of capital that countries not blessed with abundant oil did not have. Except that it failed to work out as planned: as economists have learned, when a country becomes dependent on nothing more than a natural resource monopoly for its revenue, and all that revenue is controlled by the government, it has a strong tendency to become a corrupt, stagnant backwater. Far from becoming modern, a petro-government turns into a dictatorship and tries to buy off its population with oil wealth. This is the well-documented predicament of the Arab oil countries and the Arab-Iranian world in general. While the larger Muslim world does not suffer as much from this condition, the ability of governments like Saudi Arabia to promote radical Islamic doctrine is enabled by that flow of oil dollars.

OTOH, a country like Israel, with limited natural resources, has had, like Hong Kong and Singapore, to make the most of its human resources. For a society to be modern doesn't require wealth to showered on it, unearned, from an oil well. It requires a modern society and modern social and political practices. A modern society's wealth is its people, not what's in the ground.** Having just returned from Israel, I can testify from first-hand experiences that the same miracle that happened in those Far Eastern city-states has happened in Israel. Not having oil or other significant natural resources has been a blessing for all those places.†

Dependency on oil revenue, from the Persian Gulf to Venezuela, has produced little more than wasted decades, squandered wealth, political stagnation and oppression, and radical religious and political reaction. These countries now have little to show for it.

Allies, friends, and ... ? As for who's an ally of America, and who's not, consider the result of this recent Harris poll. Americans were asked to rank countries in terms of closeness as allies, and they responded with this revealing list, in rank order: Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Israel, followed by Japan, Italy, South Korea, and Germany. These are all democracies with whom we share values, history, and extensive commercial, cultural, and human ties. For a great democratic power like the United States, that says it all: allies like this arise from what you are, not just something you buy or sell.

So-called "experts" like Walt and Mearsheimer don't understand this, but ordinary voters do.
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* These actually have far more political influence than the oil companies, which have more limited impact in Washington than many people think. The goal of these consulting and investment groups, which operate in all wealthy, oil-consuming countries, is to recapture the oil money flowing into the oil-producing countries by selling those countries large public works projects, military systems, etc. They also sell political influence in a fairly crass, if discreet, way.

** An interesting implication is that the main division in the globalizing world is not between those have and those who don't have, but between those who know and those who don't know.

† There's a lot of business now between Israel and Asia, especially China. Tel Aviv has a significant flow of Chinese and Indians doing just that. Even stranger, some of them speak Hebrew.

People often think that such benefits should be immediate, instant-gratification things, like finding oil in your backyard. Real blessings are not easy-come, easy-go: they're are difficult things that take longer to come to fruition, but are unassailable.

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