Gelb on Mearsheimer and Walt

The New York Times has just posted to the Web (ahead of its appearance in print on Sunday) a review by Leslie Gelb of the new book on the Israel Lobby by Mearsheimer and Walt. It’s worth a read for the calm and convincing way in which Gelb rebuts the book’s thesis, which is that the Israel lobby jeopardizes U.S. national security:

. . . I believe that the authors are mostly wrong, as well as dangerously misleading. But Mearsheimer and Walt are raising the very same fundamental, gut-check issues about American security and who controls policy that many Middle East experts talk about mostly in private. Former President Jimmy Carter made similar points, if rather hotly and self-righteously, in his recent book, “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid.” Mearsheimer and Walt, together with Carter and their phalanx of backers at universities and research institutes, have to be answered, not by calling them anti-Semites, but on the merits.

Mearsheimer and Walt live in the same foreign policy world I inhabit, and no one familiar with their extensive scholarship or their lives ever accused them of harboring anti-Semitic sentiments . . . until the appearance of their article last year. And such charges are not unusual in this little world. But as my mother often said, “They asked for trouble” — by the way they make their arguments, by their puzzlingly shoddy scholarship, by what they emphasize and de-emphasize, by what they leave out and by writing on this sensitive topic without doing extensive interviews with the lobbyists and the lobbied.

After dealing with all of the books major arguments, Gelb concludes that the issue of the Israeli lobby is a distraction from the real strategic problem in the Middle East:

America’s central strategic problem in the region — the main reason to worry about future terrorists, nuclear proliferation and energy supplies — is that we need our corrupt, inept and unpopular Arab allies because the likely alternative to them is far worse. There is no reliable and strong Arab moderate force in the Middle East at present. Washington’s long-term goal must be to help build one. Yet Mearsheimer and Walt offer us no counsel on how to do this.

It’s important to remember that the shah of Iran was overthrown not because he enjoyed good relations with Israel, which he did, but because a majority of his own people came to hate his regime and also his ties to the United States. There was no sustainable moderate center between the shah and the fanatical mullahs. And the lack of such a center is precisely what Washington needs to worry about now in places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

As it happens, America’s commitment to Israel rests far more on moral and historical grounds than on strict strategic ones. Israel does not harm American security interests to anywhere near the degree that Mearsheimer and Walt claim it does. And the major reality is that despite whatever difficulties the Israeli-American relationship might cause, the United States is helping to protect one of the few nations in the world that share American values and interests, a true democracy. This is the greatest strategic bond between the two countries. (And not to be overlooked is the fact that when push has come to shove, Israel has always defended itself.)

Read the whole thing here. For more on foreign lobbying’s influence on U.S. foreign policy, see here and here.