The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Testing the Walt / Mearsheimer Thesis

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July 28, 2006

This month’s Foreign Policy has a forum on the Israel Lobby, building on Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s very much discussed article in the LRB on the power of the “Israel Lobby” in producing a narrow-interest based but sub-strategically optimal US Foreign Policy in the Middle East.

As I walked from the office with my mailbox back to my office, pondering the nice glossy cover on my copy of FP, I pondered the issues in the debate in the contemporary context– Lebanon.

Is the US supporting Israel in its attacks on Hezballah in Lebanon in a manner detrimental to US National Interest? Interesting question. The W/M Thesis would suggest yes.

Is it so?

The first issue is support– how much backing is the US giving Israel?

At the Rome Conference, the US was clearly espousing a position counter to all the rest of the attendees. Everyone wanted an immediate cease fire, but as the IHT reported:

[S]everal participants said it was U.S. pressure that kept the conference from calling for an immediate halt to the hostilities.

Here, it seemed, the US was giving Israel what it wanted– more time to pursue its military campaign against Hezbollah over the opposition of everyone else. Rice got what she wanted, a statement calling for “working toward” a cease-fire instead of simply calling for an immediate cease-fire.

But, Rice’s State Department was careful to keep Israel in-line, the WaPo says:

In a rare reprimand of Israel, the State Department Friday vehemently rejected Israel’s claim that the Rome conference had given the green light to continue its punishing bombardment of Lebanon. “Any such statement is outrageous,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters traveling with Rice.

“The United States is sparing no effort to bring a durable and lasting end to this conflict,” said Ereli.

The State Department was responding to Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon’s comment that the international conference held in Rome Wednesday effectively gave permission for Israel to pursue Hezbollah weapons and guerrillas in Lebanon.

This, though, may be the exception that proves the rule. So the US boxed Israel’s corner in Rome. The real question for W/M, though, lies not in the US supporting Israel, but was this move harmful or helpful to US National Interest?

Clearly, some argue that the Bush Administration is doing long-term damage to US interests in the region, consistent with the W/M thesis:

The escalation in the region is not in the interest of the U.S. It strengthens anti-Americanism worldwide and fuels radicalism in the Arab and Muslim world. It also reverses hard-earned gains in the region, such as fledgling democracies in Palestine and Lebanon. The U.S. does not have to abandon Israel to defend its other interests in the region. All it has to do is use its enormous leverage to ensure that Israel’s policies are moderate and prudent and safeguard both Israeli and American interests.

The problem is that the US (like any state) has multiple interests in the region, one of which is that:

“We want a Lebanon free of militias and foreign interference,” Mr. Bush said.

The NYT lays out the issue quite clearly:

Certainly, she won the diplomatic battle in Rome: she squeezed out of world leaders extra time for Israel’s military campaign against Hezbollah, arguing for a “sustainable” cease-fire including political elements rather than an immediate cease-fire. In the vision of Ms. Rice, who came here from Rome for a meeting with Asian leaders, that would shift the balance of power in the Middle East. The Lebanese government could finally assert its authority over its country. Syria and Iran, backers of Hezbollah, would see their influence diminish.

“I say to the Lebanese people, no one wants to see the spilling of Lebanese blood,” Ms. Rice said. “But I also don’t want to see the spilling of Lebanese blood three months from now because we allowed the situation to go back to the status quo ante.”

While many diplomats have called for an immediate cease-fire, they support the American package as the only way to cobble together a peace plan that shores up the government of Lebanon and leads to the disarmament of Hezbollah.

The Bush administration contends that such a package has more of a chance of working if Israeli forces are able militarily to degrade Hezbollah. But the path of sacrificing civilian lives now in hopes of a greater peace later holds potential peril — not only for the civilians caught between Hezbollah and Israel, but also politically, for Israel and the United States. Israel’s bombing campaign could strengthen Hezbollah, as Mr. Siniora suggested in an anguished speech to the Rome meeting.

“What fruit, other than one of pain, frustration, financial ruin and fanaticism can stem from this rubble?” he said.

For the United States, the path makes some sense, since the avenue of direct talks with Hezbollah or its backers, Iran and Syria, isn’t one administration officials are willing to take yet. But it risks further damage to America’s image internationally, and particularly in the Arab world.

The Bush Administration sees Lebanon as another nascent Middle Eastern Democracy threatened by militias and foreign influence– Hezbollah, as influenced by Syria and Iran. Iran is quite possibly green-lighting Hezbollah’s actions in response to its nuclear negotiations with the US and Europe. If Israel can eliminate, or at least vastly degrade, Hezbollah’s capability, then such an action fulfils two long-term US interests. First, it helps the Lebanese government consolidate its democratic revolution, furthering US policy there. Second, it vastly reduces Hezbollah itself, a rather potent terrorist organization. Third, it eliminates a one of Iran’s levers, reducing its ability to threaten regional stability as a way to upset negotiations over its nuclear program.

So who is right?

Both? Neither? It Depends…

Much of this depends on how one values and prioritizes US National Interests. As realists, Walt and Mearsheimer fall in the camp that you can objectively and discreetly rank national interests. In theory (and hindsight), perhaps– but in the messiness of the real world, its both much more complicated than that and fraught with risk. The Bush Administration thinks it knows what the US interests are, and in fact, if you put any stock in Democracy, they are elected to set US interests. Either way, as the NYT piece points out, the Bush Administration is taking a risk– some pain and suffering now will create the conditions for longer term stability more conducive to US interests in the long run–assuming that Israel can in fact defeat Hezbollah. The other side of that risk is of course that the pain and suffering now does more damage to the US in global public opinion and inspiring new terrorist attacks than the reduction (if any) in Hezbollah’s capability. Both cases are plausible, and quite powerful.

Here’s the rub: As realists, Walt and Mearsheimer shouldn’t really care about global public opinion or the image of the US in the Arab world. To a card carrying realist–especially Mearsheimer–all that matters is military capability.

From that perspective, US backing for Israel in Rome makes a lot of sense– disarm a capable foe, deprive another foe of a military proxy, and all you suffer is some collateral damage and a drop in the polls. For a realist, shouldn’t that be a winning scenario?

UPDATE: Or, maybe its just “Condi’s War.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.