- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Several friends and associates have asked me how it feels to have our book on the Israel lobby plugged by Osama bin Laden. While it is usually gratifying to get kudos for your work, that is certainly not the case in this instance, given what bin Laden has done in the past and given what he stands for. I just wish we had captured him long ago, making it impossible for him to issue any statements to the world.
I do have a few additional comments on the matter, however. To start, Bin Laden’s announcement that there is a powerful “Israel lobby” in the United States is not exactly a news flash. If he had not cited us, he could just have easily quoted the late Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) who wrote in his memoirs that “I was never put under greater pressure than by the Israeli lobby … it’s the most influential crowd in Congress by far.” Or he could have cited former Senator Ernest (“Fritz”) Hollings (D-SC), who said that “you can’t have an Israel policy other than what AIPAC gives you around here.” He might have invoked notorious terrorist sympathizer Newt Gingrich (R-GA), who called AIPAC “the most effective general interest group … across the entire planet,” or even former Senate Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO) who told AIPAC’s annual conference that “without your constant support … the U.S.-Israeli relationship would not be.” Heck, bin Laden could even have brought up Alan Dershowitz, who once wrote that “my generation of Jews … became part of what is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fundraising effort in the history of democracy.” In short, he didn’t need our book to tell people there’s an Israel lobby with a powerful influence on U.S. Middle East policy.
It is also important to ask why bin Laden called attention to U.S. support for Israel, and to the lobby’s role in generating that support. He did this because he understands — along with plenty of other people — that the combination of unconditional U.S. support for Israel and Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians is a source of great resentment in the Arab and Islamic world. This is hardly an original insight on his part either. The 9/11 Commission reported “it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … is [a] dominant staple of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world.” imilarly, the State Department’s Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World found that “citizens in these countries are genuinely distressed at the plight of the Palestinians and at the role they perceive the United States to be playing.” Not only is Bin Laden personally motivated by this issue — as his own family and prior statements attest — he knows it is a good way to attract support.
Third, my co-author and I have a very different idea of how to deal with this situation than bin Laden does. He recruits people to engage in despicable acts of violence against innocents, in the grandiose (and vain) hope of toppling all of the states in the region (not just Israel). He’s perfectly happy to kill Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, and just about anyone else if it will advance that goal. By contrast, Professor Mearsheimer and I reject his aims and abhor his chosen means. We believe the United States should defend Israel’s existence, and we said so repeatedly in our book. (My guess is that bin Laden missed those parts). We also think the United States should oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and control of Gaza and treat Israel the same way it treats other democracies. Why? Because ending the occupation and having a normal relationship with Israel would be better for us, better for Israel, and better for our other friends in the region. In short, we want the United States to pursue a smarter and more ethical policy in the Middle East. Needless to say, that’s a far cry from bin Laden’s murderous agenda.
Ironically, bin Laden’s “endorsement” of our book could even be a self-defeating gesture. If enough people were to read our book and U.S. policy were to evolve in the manner we recommend, bin Laden’s call to arms would fall on deaf ears and he’d become even more irrelevant than he is today. Furthermore, any would-be imitators who might subsequently emerge would find an even less receptive audience.
And if Juan Cole is right and bin Laden’s statement was a sign of weakness, so much the better.