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.
Second, these scholars contend that the influence within the Bush administration of the Israel lobby has been magnified by its "junior partner," the Christian Zionists. In theological terms, they are talking about premillennial dispensationalists -- people who believe that the success of the state of Israel is a welcome sign of the end times.
The views of dispensationalists are broadly disputed by serious, conservative Protestant scholars. I don't share those views. I can't imagine that the president or the secretary of state shares them -- but I would not know for sure because I never once heard such views advocated or mentioned in five years of policy discussions I participated in at the White House.
There is a temptation in some academic circles to search for that mysterious key that will unlock our whole understanding of American foreign policy. George Bush is captive to the Israelis, or maybe Dick Cheney is captive to the Saudi Arabians. The real problem is the Israeli lobby on the grassy knoll, or dispensationalists covering up the Da Vinci code.
But all this is a conspiracy against the obvious. Perhaps many Americans actually prefer Israel's flawed democracy to the aging autocrats and corrupt monarchies of the region. Perhaps they root for a reliable ally that is surrounded by nations still committed to its destruction. Perhaps many Americans recall that the Jews, just six decades ago, lost one-third of their number to genocide and believe that this persecuted people deserves a secure home and sanctuary. Perhaps Americans understand that anti-Semitism was the greatest source of evil in the 20th century and is not dead in this one.
Walt and Mearsheimer are careful to say they are not anti-Semitic or conspiracy-minded. But their main inference -- that Israel, the Israel lobby and Jewish neoconservatives called the shots for Bush, Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld -- is not only rubbish, it is dangerous rubbish. As "mainstream" scholars, Walt and Mearsheimer cannot avoid the historical pedigree of this kind of charge. Every generation has seen accusations that Jews have dual loyalties, promote war and secretly control political structures.
These academics may not follow their claims all the way to anti-Semitism. But this is the way it begins. This is the way it always begins.