Many of Israel’s critics blame an “Israel lobby” for the near-total complicity of the US in Israeli annexation, colonization and cleansing programs in the occupied West Bank. This complicity continues to the present, despite the “row” that erupted after the Israeli government humiliated US Vice President Joe Biden by announcing the construction of 1,600 settlement units in occupied East Jerusalem while he was visiting the country. Indeed, despite the apparent outrage expressed by top White House officials, the administration has made clear that its criticism of Israel will remain purely symbolic. However, as we shall see, the lobby thesis does little to explain US foreign policy in the Middle East.
Years after Noam Chomsky, Stephen Zunes, Walter Russell Mead and many others published their critiques of the Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer “Israel lobby” thesis, many of the sharpest critics of Israel continue to attribute US foreign policy in the Middle East to the influence of the lobby. Given the prevalence of the Israel lobby argument, and the latest diplomatic confrontation between the US and Israel, it is important to revisit the flaws in the thesis, and properly attribute US behavior to the large concentrations of domestic political and economic power that truly drive US policy.
US foreign policy in the Middle East is similar to that which is carried out elsewhere in the world, in regions free of “the lobby’s” proclaimed corrupting effects. The inflated level of support that the US lends Israel is a rational response to the particular strategic importance of the Middle East, the chief energy-producing region of the world. By building Israel into what Noam Chomsky refers to as an “offshore US military base,” it is able to protect its dominance over much of the world’s remaining energy resources, a major lever of global power. As we shall see, those blaming the lobby for US policy once again misunderstand US’s strategic interests in the Middle East, and Israel’s central role in advancing them.
Geopolitics and the US-Israeli relationship
A central claim of the “Israel lobby” thesis is that the “lobby,” however defined, overwhelmingly shapes US policy towards the Middle East. Thus, if the argument were true, its proponents would have to demonstrate that there is something qualitatively unique about US policy towards the Middle East compared with that in other regions of the world. Yet upon careful analysis, we find little difference between the purported distortions caused by the lobby and what is frequently referred to as the “national interest,” governed by the same concentrations of domestic power that drive US foreign policy elsewhere.
There are states all around the world that perform similar services to Washington as Israel, projecting US power in their respective regions, whose crimes in advancing Washington’s goals are overtly supported and shielded from international condemnation. Take for instance the 30 years of US support for the horrors of the Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor. In addition to the use of rape and starvation as weapons, and a gruesome torture regime, Indonesian president Suharto slaughtered 150,000 persons out of a population of 650,000. These atrocities were fully supported by the US, including supplying the napalm and chemical weapons indiscriminately used by the Indonesian army, which was fully armed and trained by the US. As Bill Clinton said, Suharto was “our kind of guy.”
Daniel Patrick Moynahan, US ambassador to the UN at the time of the Indonesian invasion, later wrote that “the Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook” to end the butchering of the East Timorese, a goal he carried out with “no inconsiderable success.” Yet this support was not due to the influence of an “Indonesia lobby.” Rather, planners had identified Indonesia as one of the three most strategically important regions in the world in 1958, as a result of its oil wealth and important role as a link between the Indian and Pacific oceans.
In some regions, as in Latin America where US clients like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, and terrorist armies like the Nicaraguan contras spent years murdering defenseless peasants demanding basic human rights, the threat is mostly one of “successful defiance;” that is, a country defying US orders and getting away with it. Should the US tolerate one such case, the logic goes, it will embolden resistance to its dictates elsewhere. The danger underlying such defiance — referred to as “the threat of a good example” by Oxfam — is that a country will implement a successful model for independent development, refusing US dictates and seeking to direct much-needed resources to serve the needs of the domestic population instead of wealthy foreign investors.
Such thinking is deeply institutionalized and exhibited by US policy worldwide, going back to the very beginnings of the modern imperial era after World War II. It was clear from early in the war that the US would emerge as the dominant world power in its aftermath, and so the State Department and Council on Foreign Relations began planning to create a post-war international order in which the US would “hold unquestioned power.” One way it planned to do so was gaining control of global energy resources, primarily those of Saudi Arabia, which were referred to at the time as “the greatest material prize in history” by the US State Department.
As Franklin Roosevelt’s “oil czar” Harold Ickes advised, control of oil was the “key to postwar political arrangements” since a large supply of cheap energy is essential to fuel the world’s industrial capitalist economies. This meant that with control of Middle Eastern oil, particularly the vast Saudi reserves, the US could keep its hand on the spigot that would fuel the economies of Europe, Japan and much of the rest of the world. As US planner George Kennan put it, this would give the United States “veto power” over the actions of others. Zbigniew Brzezinski has also more recently discussed the “critical leverage” the US enjoys as a result of its stranglehold on energy supplies.
Thus in the Middle East it is not simply “successful defiance” that the US fears, nor merely independent development. These worries are present as well, but there is an added dimension: should opposition threaten US control of oil resources, a major source of US global power is placed at risk. Under the Nixon Administration, with the US military tied down in Vietnam and direct intervention in the Middle East to defend vital strategic interests unlikely, military aid to pre-revolution Iran (acting as an American regional enforcer) skyrocketed. Amnesty International’s conclusion in 1976 that “no country has a worse human rights record than Iran” was ignored, and US support increased, not because of an “Iran lobby” in the US, but rather because such support was advancing US interests.
Strategic concerns also led the US to support other oppressive, reactionary regimes, including Saddam Hussein’s worst atrocities. During the Anfal genocide against the Kurds, Iraqi forces used chemical weapons provided by the US against Kurdish civilians, killed perhaps 100,000 persons, and destroyed roughly 80 percent of the villages in Iraqi Kurdistan, while the US moved to block international condemnation of these atrocities. Again, supporting crimes that serve the “national interest” set by large corporations and ruling elites, and shielding them from international criticism is the rule, not the exception.
It is no coincidence that the US-Israel relationship crystallized after Israel destroyed the independent nationalist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser in a preemptive attack in 1967, permanently ending the role of Egypt as a center of opposition to US imperialism. Since before World War II, Saudi Arabia had happily served as an “Arab facade,” veiling the hand of the true ruling power on the Arabian peninsula, to borrow British colonial terminology. With Nasser’s Arab nationalist rhetoric “turning the whole region against the House of Saud,” the threat he posed to US power was serious. In response, the State Department concluded that the “logical corollary” to US opposition to Arab nationalism was “support for Israel” as the only reliable pro-US force in the region. Israel’s destruction and humiliation of Nasser’s regime was thus a major boon for the US, and proved to Washington the value of a strong alliance with a powerful Israel.
This unique regional importance is one reason for the tremendous level of aid Israel receives, including more advanced weaponry than that provided to other US clients. Providing Israel with the ability to use overwhelming force against any adversary to the established order has been a pivotal aspect of US regional strategy. Importantly, Israel is also a reliable ally — there is little chance that the Israeli government will be overthrown, and the weapons end up in the hands of anti-Western Islamic fundamentalists or independent nationalists as happened in Iran in 1979.
Today, with the increased independence of Europe, and the hungry economies of India and China growing at breakneck speed along with their demand for dwindling energy resources, control over what is left is more crucial than ever. In the September 2009 issue of the Asia-Africa Review, China’s former Special Envoy to the Middle East Sun Bigan wrote that “the US has always sought to control the faucet of global oil supplies,” and suggested that since Washington would doubtless work to ensure that Iraqi oil remained under its control, China should look elsewhere in the region for an independent energy source. “Iran has bountiful energy resources,” Bigan wrote, “and its oil gas reserves are the second biggest in the world, and all are basically under its own control” (emphasis added).
It is partially as a result of this independence that Israel’s strategic importance to the US has increased significantly in recent times, particularly since the Shah’s cruel, US-supported dictatorship in Iran was overthrown in 1979. With the Shah gone, Israel alone had to terrorize the region into complying with US orders, and ensure that Saudi Arabia’s vast oil resources remain under US control. The increased importance of Israel to US policy was illustrated clearly as its regional strategy shifted to “dual containment” during the Clinton years, with Israel countering both Iraq and Iran.
With Iran developing technology that could eventually allow it to produce what are referred to in the February 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review as “anti-access weapons,” or weapons of mass destruction that prevent the US from being able to freely use force in any region of the world, this is a crucial moment in Washington’s struggle to seize control of Iran. This confrontation, stemming from the desire of the US to control its oil and destroy a base of independent nationalism, makes US support for Israel strategically crucial.
The “Israel lobby” and US Pressure
If we adopt “the lobby” hypothesis, we would predict that the US would bend to Israel’s will when the interests of the two states diverge, acting against its “national interest.” Yet if US policies in the Middle East were damaging its “national interest,” as proponents of the lobby argument claim, that must mean that such policies have been a failure. This leads one to ask: a failure for whom? Not for US elites, who have secured control of the major global energy resources while successfully crushing opposition movements, nor for the defense establishment, and most certainly not for the energy corporations. In fact, not only is US policy towards the Middle East similar to that towards other regions of the world, but it has been a profitable, strategic success.
Indeed, the US’s policy towards Israel and the Palestinians is not to achieve an end to the occupation, nor to bring about respect for Palestinian rights — in fact, it is the actor primarily responsible for preventing these outcomes. To the US, Israel’s “Operation Defensive Shield” in 2002 had sufficiently punished the Palestinians and their compliant US-backed leadership for their intransigence at Camp David. While the Palestinian Authority was already acting as Israel’s “subcontractor” and “collaborator” in suppressing resistance to Israeli occupation, in the paraphrased words of former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s deliberate destruction of Palestinian institutions provided the opportunity to rebuild them, and ensure an even greater degree of US control.
The settlement and annexation programs help guarantee Israeli control over the most valuable Palestinian land and water resources, ensuring Israel will remain a dominant society not easily pressured by its neighbors. To help achieve these goals, the US shields Israeli expansion behind a “peace process” in hopes that given enough time the Palestinians will concede more and more of what was once theirs. The primary concern is to present the appearance that the US and Israel are ardently crusading for peace, battling against those who oppose this noble objective. Though it is true that people across the region are appalled and outraged by Israeli crimes, such anger is a small consideration next to the strategic gain of maintaining a strong, dependent ally in the heart of the Middle East.
The reconstitution of an even more tightly-controlled Palestinian Authority, with General Keith Dayton directly supervising the Palestinian security forces, enabled the US to meet these goals while more effectively suppressing resistance to the occupation. Likewise, redeploying Israeli soldiers outside of Gaza allowed Sharon a free hand to continue the annexation of the West Bank while being heralded internationally as a “great man of peace.”
The treatment of Israel by the mainstream US media is also standard for all US allies. Coverage in the corporate press is predictably skewed in favor of official US allies and against official enemies, a well-documented phenomenon. Thus, proponents of the lobby thesis are missing the forest for the trees. What they see as the special treatment of Israel by the mainstream press is actually just the normal functioning of the US media and intellectual establishment, apologizing for and defending crimes of official allies while demonizing official enemies.
Of course, this is not to argue that there are not organizations in the US, like the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and AIPAC, that seek to marginalize dissent from Israeli policy in every forum possible. Rather, I am pointing out that the power of these groups pales in comparison to other, far more powerful, interests and concerns. While the AJC or ADL may mobilize for the firing of a professor critical of Israel, for example, that argument is amplified by the elite-owned and controlled press because doing so serves their interests. Likewise, AIPAC can urge unwavering support for Israel on the part of the US government, but without the assent of other far more powerful interests, like the energy corporations and defense establishment, AIPAC’s efforts would amount to little. US policy, like that of other states, is rationally planned to serve the interests of the ruling class.
Israel could not sustain its aggressive, expansionist policies without US military aid and diplomatic support. If the Obama Administration wanted to, it could pressure Israel to comply with international law and resolutions, join the international consensus, and enact a two-state solution. While the “Israel lobby” thesis conveniently explains his failure to do so and absolves US policy-makers of responsibility for their ongoing support of Israeli apartheid, violence and annexation, it simply does not stand up under closer scrutiny.
Stephen Maher is an MA candidate at American University School of International Service who has lived in the West Bank, and is currently writing his masters’ thesis, “The New Nakba: Oslo and the End of Palestine,” on the Israel-Palestine conflict. His work has appeared in Extra!, The Electronic Intifada, ZNet and other publications. His blog is www.rationalmanifesto.blogspot.com.