Last year, Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago published a paper accusing the "Israel Lobby" of having "unmatched power" and managing to "manipulate the American political system" into actions that undermine U.S. interests.
Supporters praised these scholars for "prying the lid off a debate that has been bottled up for decades" -- perhaps since Charles Lindbergh let down his side of the argument in the 1940s. Another reviewer commends them for "saying the unsayable." In this case, the unsayable was punished with a book advance of three-quarters of a million dollars and turned into 350 pages called "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy."
Accusations of disproportionate Jewish influence are as old as the pharaohs. The novelty here is the endorsement of respected, mainstream academics -- though both characterizations are increasingly disputed. Scholars, not columnists, will make those determinations. But I do have firsthand knowledge concerning two of Walt and Mearsheimer's accusations.
First, they have argued that the "Israeli government and pro-Israel groups" have shaped President Bush's "grand scheme for reordering the Middle East."
In fact, Israeli officials have been consistently skeptical about the main policy innovation of the Bush era: the democracy agenda. One senior Bush administration official recently told me, "The Israelis are generally convinced that Arab cultures are particularly resistant to democracy; that democracy is likely to lead to victories by the Muslim Brotherhood."
A friend recalls visiting a prominent Israeli general in 2003 and making the case for democracy promotion. "What is the alternative?" the American asked. "Propping up the next generation of Mubaraks, Assads and the House of Saud for the next 25 years?" The general responded: "Why not?"
President Bush's emphasis on democracy has been driven not by outside pressure but by a strategic insight. He is convinced that the status quo of tyranny, stagnation and extremism in the Middle East is not sustainable -- that the rage and ideologies it produces will cause increasing carnage in the world. The eventual solution to this problem, in his view, is the proliferation of hopeful, representative societies in the Middle East.
This argument is debatable. But it is at least as likely as Walt and Mearsheimer's naive belief that "the U.S. has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel" -- the equivalent of arguing that Britain had a Nazi problem in the 1930s because it was so closely allied with Czechoslovakia.