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Walt, Mearsheimer, and "Cold Feet"

By Martin Kramer
December 10, 2007

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt appear at Princeton University tonight, to promote their book The Israel Lobby. I've held back while other critics have had their say, and many of them have done a splendid job. But I don't think anyone has understood the neat sleight of hand the authors performed in moving from article to book. The innovation in The Israel Lobby is their "cold feet" thesis about the Israeli genesis of the Iraq war.

But first, remember why pinning the Iraq war on the "Israel lobby" is so important to Mearsheimer and Walt. Their main argument isn't that the Palestinians are paying a terrible price for that support. In most quarters, that draws a simple shrug. Instead, the duo claim that Americans are paying the price for U.S. support for Israel. They paid it on 9/11, and they're paying it now in Iraq. The killers of 9/11 set out on their mission because of their rage against unconditional U.S. backing for Israel; and the pro-Israel lobby got America into the Iraq war because it served Israel's interests, not America's. America is bleeding so that Israel can avoid doing what it should have done years ago: give the Palestinians their state. And it's because Americans are dying that Israel shouldn't be indulged anymore.

Of the two arguments made by Walt and Mearsheimer, the 9/11 argument is the less effective. That's because very early on, Americans decided that Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, and the 15 of the 19 hijackers who were Saudis, weren't out to kill Americans over Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Al-Qaeda hates us for everything we do and represent--they're 200-proof hatred of America. Americans understood that instinctively, and it was confirmed by the 9/11 Commission Report. The report's narrative showed how the 9/11 plot developed precisely during the years when Bill Clinton fussed over Yasser Arafat. The report became a bestseller, and its impact has been profound.

So the Iraq argument is far more crucial to the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis, and it's also dearer to them. It's generally believed that their anger over the Iraq war drove them to write the book in the first place. They both opposed the war before it started, and they signed a prominent letter against it. Much to their chagrin, no one took much notice of their ironclad, realist arguments against going into Iraq. To the two professors, the United States had become an anomaly, a place where the national interest (as they saw it) wasn't driving foreign policy. They explained that anomaly by the distorting influence of the "powerful Israel lobby."

In their original article, Walt and Mearsheimer had a straightforward chain of causation for the Iraq war: Israel pushed the "Israel Lobby" (with a capital L), which pushed the neocons, which pushed the Bush administration into war. I immediately came back with a large body of evidence, proving that Israel wasn't much worried about Saddam, and instead wanted the United States to take care of Iran. Israeli cabinet ministers and officials went to Washington to stress Iran over Iraq, and these efforts even surfaced in prominent stories in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times--articles that Mearsheimer and Walt had missed entirely.

In the book, Mearsheimer and Walt admit that Israel was pushing for Iran over Iraq. And yes, they say, Israel only joined the Iraq bandwagon when the Bush administration seemed set on Iraq. But they haven't dismantled their thesis--far from it. Instead they've come up with the new and improved Mearsheimer-Walt thesis, and it goes like this: the Iraq war must still be blamed on Israel, because in the lead-up to the war, Israel and its lobby worked overtime to ensure that Bush didn't get "cold feet."

Believe it or not, this the new Mearsheimer-Walt twist: the "cold feet" thesis of Israel's responsibility for the Iraq war. For example, page 234: "Israeli leaders worried constantly in the months before the war that President Bush might decide not to go to war after all, and they did what they could to ensure Bush did not get cold feet." And this, page 261: "Top Israeli officials were doing everything in their power to make sure that the United States went after Saddam and did not get cold feet at the last moment."

Mearsheimer and Walt bring not a single footnote, in their copiously footnoted book, to substantiate this new and bizarre claim. You have to be pretty credulous to imagine that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld would waver "at the last moment" when they had Saddam squarely in their sights. You can read Bob Woodward forward and backward and find no evidence of wobble. Nor is there any evidence of Israeli worries that the Bush administration would waver on Iraq. Mearsheimer and Walt just made it up.

In doing so, they miss (or conceal) the real story. Israel did worry in the lead-up to the war--not about "cold feet," but about the "long pause." A year before the Iraq war, Natan Sharansky, then an Israeli cabinet minister, went on the record with this quote (missed by Mearsheimer and Walt): "We and the Americans have different priorities. For us, Iran comes first and then Iraq. The Americans see Iraq, then a long pause, and only then Iran." It never occurred to Israelis that Bush would get "cold feet" on Iraq, but they fretted endlessly over just how long the "long pause" would last, and they had good reason.

For example, four months before the war, Ariel Sharon told the London Times (November 5, 2002) that Iran should be put under pressure "the day after" action against Iraq. Mearsheimer and Walt bring the quote. But they incredibly omit what followed on the very same day: British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw shot back at Sharon on the BBC. "I profoundly disagree with him," Straw said, "and I think it would be the gravest possible error to think in that way." The London Timesreported the spat the next day ("Straw and Sharon 'Deeply Disagree'"), adding that both British and U.S. senior diplomats were "dismissive of Sharon's call." The paper went on to quote "a senior American" who spoke these words: "The President understands the nuances. You can't paint Iran as totally black in the same way as you do Iraq.… I would have a hard time buying the idea that after victory in Iraq, the U.S. is going to turn its sights on Iran."

So the Israelis had good cause to worry. Walt and Mearsheimer write (p. 261) that the Israelis "were convinced that Bush would deal with Iran after he finished with Iraq." No they weren't, because they knew Britain would oppose it, along with plenty of "senior Americans." Precisely because they weren't convinced, they kept coming back to it. And they were right to worry, because in the end, the United States accommodated the Brits. There would be no Iran follow-up. Why? Because Tony Blair did Bush an immense favor in Europe, and the British sent thousands of troops to Iraq. Bush's feet were snug and warm--nailing Saddam had 80 percent public support in America--but Blair felt the chill at home. To keep him on board, Bush gave him to understand that there wouldn't be an Iran sequel, at least not on Blair's watch.

Not only wasn't the Iraq war Israel's first choice; the war's aftermath was a defeat for Israel's own openly declared priorities. Israel is now living with the consequences of that defeat. Here we are in the last days of 2007, and the United States is still in the midst of the "long pause." Maybe it should be renamed: the latest U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has turned it into lame-duck menopause. So much for the manipulative power of the "Israel lobby." The Iraq war and its aftermath prove exactly the opposite of what Mearsheimer and Walt claim they prove. They're evidence not of Israel's influence, but of the limits of Israel's leverage when it comes up against other major U.S. interests and alliances.

In sum, the Iraq war thesis of Mearsheimer and Walt is make-believe, and it doesn't get better from the article to the book--in fact, it's worse. Almost every reviewer has questioned it on some grounds, although not one has identified the "cold feet" thesis. But that's what I propose to call it, and it deserves to be known for what it is: a conspiracy theory, pure and simple.

Frankly I'm astonished when even skeptical reviewers of the book preface their criticisms by saying that the authors have done us some sort of service by opening the discussion. Can you imagine them saying the same thing about a book on intelligent design? That the details are preposterous, but the basic proposition deserves to be discussed seriously by serious people? Yet here we have a thesis, insisting that U.S. foreign policy is run by Zionist intelligent design, and Mearsheimer and Walt have made it a perfectly legitimate subject for academic discussion and tony dinner party conversation. If you say otherwise, you're accused of "stifling debate."

In the real world, Mearsheimer and Walt, far from being stifled, have become media staples, and tonight they'll have yet another podium, at Princeton. The respondent will be Princeton professor Robert O. Keohane, another much-ballyhooed theory-maker who's already hailed the bravery of the duo. "It is bad for political science if some important forces and pressures are systematically concealed," he's said. I think it's a lot worse for political science if some big-name theorists systematically ignore evidence and make it up. If I were a Princeton student thinking of entering a field led by this crowd, it might give me... well, cold feet.

Martin Kramer is Adelson Institute senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, Wexler-Fromer fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Olin Institute senior fellow at Harvard University.



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