Betty McCollum deserves our thanks for standing up to a bully.
In April, a lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) tried to put the hammer to McCollum because of her refusal to vote in the House International Relations Committee for H.R. 4681, aka, the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006, a bill so extreme that even the Bush Administration, no friend of the new Hamas-led Palestinian government, opposes it; in the end, McCollum cast one of only two votes against the measure, which passed out of the committee on a tally of 36 to 2.
In response to this show of audacity on the part of McCollum, herself a staunch supporter of Israel, the AIPAC lobbyist in question castigated the St. Paul Congresswoman and threatened that her “support for terrorists will not be tolerated.” Adding insult to injury, the lobbyist claimed to be speaking in the name, among others, of McCollum’s Fourth District constituents, even though the lobbyist does not reside in the district.
In most instances, government officials subjected to this kind of abuse would probably try to sweep the whole incident under the rug. In this case, however, McCollum added to her earlier display of political courage by firing off a tough letter to AIPAC’s head letting him know that AIPAC representatives are not welcome in her office until she receives a formal written apology. As of this writing, none has been forthcoming.
This incident is instructive in several ways. The first, and most important one, is that a tactic routinely used by today’s special interest groups to get their way is intimidation, not reason. Whether working for the NRA, the AARP or AIPAC, many Washington lobbyists play hardball: “See it our way, or face the consequences.” AIPAC, in effect, gave McCollum only two choices: line up with the rightwing Israeli point of view (AIPAC invariably takes the hardline Likud side of issues) or line up with “terrorists,” the latter choice presumably suicidal politically and so not a real choice at all.
Second, this incident fits within a pattern of coercion effectively limiting American foreign policy choices in the Middle East to those which most align with conservative Israeli interests.
John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University have recently brought into the open the pervasive influence of what they call “the Israel Lobby” over U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. In an essay published in the _London Times Literary Supplement_ , Mearsheimer and Walt make a strong case that the role of AIPAC and like-minded organizations needs to be examined dispassionately from the perspective of American national interest. The essay, incidentally, was orginally commissioned, but then rejected on specious grounds by _The Atlantic Monthly_ .
In making their case with regard to the formidable influence exercised in Washington by the Israel Lobby, Mearsheimer and Walt point out that the lobby does not at all reflect the wishes or the views of most Jewish Americans. Mearsheimer and Walt say flatly that “The bulk of U.S. Jewry, on the other hand, is more favorably disposed to making concessions to the Palestinians, and a few groups – such as Jewish Voices for Peace – strongly advocate such steps.” Other groups out of step with the Israel Lobby are Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek and the Israel Policy Forum.
In focusing on the political clout of the Israel Lobby, Mearsheimer and Walt note first of all the impressive level of support the United States has given Israel – some $140 billion in 2003 dollars – making Israel the largest recipient of U.S. aid since the end of World War II. Each year the United States provides Israel with aid equivalent to $500 per-person when Israel has become as wealthy as Spain or South Korea.
Meanwhile, Israel gets its aid in a lump sum payment at the start of each year in order to earn interest on unspent amounts and, unlike other aid recipients, does not have to account for how it spends our money.
The United States has protected Israel at the United Nations, Mearsheimer and Walt note, vetoing 32 Security Council resolutions since 1982 on behalf of Israel – more vetoes than all the other Security Council members combined have issued during that time. Furthermore, the United States has blocked efforts to put Israel’s nuclear arsenal on the agenda of the International Atomic Energy Agency – the agency used to investigate Iraqi, Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions.
In return for this protection and generosity, Mearsheimer and Walt argue that Israel has become a strategic burden for the United States. Israeli bases could not be used to assist American forces in either the Gulf War or the current war in Iraq for fear of compromising our relations with Arab states. They also question the assertion that American and Israeli strategic interests are aligned in the fight against terrorism. They point out that U.S. support for Israel draws out Arab anger towards the United States. Extremists like Osama Bin Laden seek to punish Americans for their support of Israel.
And Mearsheimer and Walt note that the rogue states in the Middle East—Iraq, Syria, and Iran—are not direct threats to vital US interests other than to our commitment to the well-being of Israel. They conclude: “In short, treating Israel as America’s most important ally in the campaign against terrorism and assorted Middle East dictatorships both exaggerates Israel’s ability to help on these issues and ignores the ways that Israel’s policies make US efforts more difficult.”
Why then does the United States so obediently allow itself to follow where Israel leads?
Mearsheimer and Walt point to the extraordinary skills and success of what they call the “Israel Lobby” in domestic American politics, even though the majority of American Jews are more flexible and tolerant in their opinions than the lobby would like.
AIPAC is rated second behind the AARP and ahead of the AFL-CIO and the NRA in a list of the most powerful Washington lobbies. The Israel Lobby has also recruited Christian Evangelicals like Gary Bauer, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay who think that pressuring Israel is contrary to God’s will.
The Israel Lobby, according to Mearsheimer and Walt, employs two tactics in its efforts to secure support for Israel: first, to make supporting Israel the “smart” choice for both Republican and Democratic politicians; and, second, to ensure that public discussion about Israel always portrays the country in a positive light.
As to the first tactic, Mearsheimer and Walt conclude that “The bottom line is that AIPAC, which is a de facto agent for a foreign government, has a stranglehold on the U.S. Congress.”
As to the second tactic, journalist Eric Alterman has found 61 noted American columnists and commentators who can be counted on to support Israel reflexively and only five who consistently advocate pro-Arab positions. Noted publications like _The Wall Street Journal_ and _The New York Times_ have a pronounced editorial bias when Israeli interests are under consideration. Key Washington think tanks like AEI and Brookings are considered to be stridently pro-Israel in their thinking.
In academia, AIPAC has tripled its budget for monitoring University activities and to train young advocates for Israel in order to “vastly expand the number of students involved on campus … in the national pro-Israel effort.”
Mearsheimer and Walt point out that a powerful rhetorical tactic used against critics of Israel’s policies is accusation of anti-semitism.
The objective of the Israel Lobby, according to Mearsheimer and Walt, has been to “convince American leaders to back Israel’s continued repression of the Palestinians and to take aim at Israel’s primary regional adversaries: Iran, Iraq and Syria.”
It is widely recognized now that the neo-conservatives who made the case for war against Saddam Hussein—his possession of weapons of mass destruction and the democratic forces in Iraq just waiting to be liberated by the Americans—were friends, allies or members of the Israel Lobby. From Michael Ledeen (he of the Iran-Contra scandal) to Richard Perle to William Kristol to Ahmed Chalabi, from Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz in the Pentagon to Scooter Libby in the White House, the arguments for pre-emptive war came from those closest to Israel.
It is also worth noting that the same links between Israel and American policy over a war of choice to take out Saddam Hussein had previously appeared in the Iran-Contra scandal of the second Reagan Administration. In Iran-Contra, the plan to weaken Saddam Hussein by selling Israeli Hawk missiles to the Iranians was suggested to Oliver North by Ledeen, now of the AEI. Israeli connections put North in touch with allegedly friendly Iranians. The old Hawks sold to Iran were replaced in Israel with more modern versions.
Ledeen, by the way, was “hanging out” in Rome at the very time the forged documents supposedly proving that Saddam Hussein sought to buy uranium in Africa surfaced and were given to American intelligence.
As we look into the future, what would AIPAC have us do next in the Middle East? The drumbeat for military strikes, perhaps even war, against Iran is already audible. For example, Ledeen is at this moment an important force in the Coalition for Democracy in Iran, an organization which advocates overthrowing the Iranian government. But while the advantages to Israel of having the United States subdue Iran with militarily force are self-evident, the strategic advantages for the United States are less obvious.
In retrospect, the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein and its messy aftermath have not been our finest hour, though we have removed an intractable enemy of Israel from power. What might be the long-term consequences of an American pre-emptive war against another Muslim nation? The question deserves study and reflection and wise judgment.
There may indeed be many good reasons for the United States to go out of its way in support of Israel, but the decisions as to how we should spend our money and where to sacrifice our soldiers should be made with a view to protecting American national interests at home and around the entire world and not as the result of shrill, fear-based, one-policy-option-only lobbying efforts.
In standing up for free and open debate, Betty McCollum deserves thanks from all those who love America. Her actions do not in any constitute support for terrorism. In fact, a better name for them is democracy. In the days and years ahead, we’re going to need more of the kind of courage she has demonstrated if we are to find our way out of the quagmire we have stumbled into in the Middle East.