Stephen M. Walt

On Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Lobby: A response to Peter Beinart

On Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Lobby: A response to Peter Beinart

At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, one measure of the impact that our book on the Israel lobby has had is the lengths that some critics go in their attempts to discredit it. The latest entrant into this field is recovering Iraq hawk Peter Beinart, who earlier this week offered a new and truly goofy “refutation” of our argument about the lobby’s role in causing the Iraq war.

Beinart’s critique is straightforward. He says that Obama’s decision to escalate in Afghanistan “blows a hole” in our (alleged) claim that “America wages war in the Muslim world, in large measure, because of the Israel lobby.” We make no such argument, of course, but it seems that careful reading is not one of Beinart’s strengths. We did argue that the lobby played a critical role in the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, although we emphasized that it “did not cause the war by itself.” His “evidence” against his made-up charge is the fact that key organizations in the lobby such as AIPAC have been largely silent on Afghanistan, focusing instead on the familiar issues of Israel-Palestine and Iran. Yet Obama upped the ante in Afghanistan anyway.

Furthermore, a number of prominent neoconservatives have endorsed Obama’s Afghan surge, even though this step makes military action against Iran less likely, which, according to Beinart, would be “bad for Israel.” Thus, he reasons, the neoconservatives’ position on Afghanistan proves that they “aren’t warlike on Israel’s behalf, they are just warlike,” which Beinart thinks is more evidence that the lobby (and more generally, a concern for Israel) had little to do with the Iraq war.

There are many holes in this argument. Here are four.

First, whether the lobby and Israel played a critical role in causing the US to invade Iraq in March 2003 is an empirical question that revolves around the facts of the decision-making process that led to that war.  In our book, we presented abundant evidence of the neoconservatives’ key role in conceiving, advocating, and helping make the decision to invade Iraq, and we also showed that other key groups in the lobby — including AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs — supported it as well. Prominent individuals in the lobby such as Mortimer Zuckerman, David Harris, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, as well as “pro-Israel” pundits like Martin Indyk, Ken Pollock and Beinart himself, were cheerleaders for the war, even though the overall population of American Jews was less supportive of the war than the U.S. population as a whole. Whatever factors led Obama to put 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan are largely irrelevant for understanding what happened in the years and months before we invaded Iraq, let alone the lobby’s role in shaping other aspects of U.S. Middle East policy. On the latter point, I might note, Beinart admits it has “great power.”

Second, the logic behind Beinart’s discussion of how Afghanistan relates to Iraq makes no sense. He thinks that finding a case (Afghanistan) where the United States went to war or escalated an ongoing war that the lobby cared little about proves that we are wrong about Iraq, because it shows that you don’t need the lobby to make a war happen. But we never said the lobby’s influence was behind every war the United States has fought since Israel’s founding, or even every military action the United States has undertaken in the Middle East; such a claim would be absurd. Indeed, Beinart’s depiction sounds to me like an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, which attributes to Jewish organizations a sinister and all-powerful control over nearly every aspect of U.S. policy. Needless to say, we explicitly rejected this sort of argument in our book.

In fact, most groups in the lobby never had much interest in Afghanistan, so it’s hard to see what their lack of enthusiasm for Obama’s surge tells us about their influence on the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Saddam’s Iraq, on the other hand, had fired SCUD missiles at Israel in 1991, was giving money to the families of suicide bombers, and was suspected of seeking WMD. Thus, it is easy to understand why many groups in the lobby wanted the United States to invade Iraq, or why the Israeli government overcame its initial reservations and pushed for war once it understood that the Bush administration intended to deal with Iraq first and then train its gunsights on Iran.

Third, Beinart is of course correct to note that the neoconservatives tend to be enthusiastic about using military force and that they are therefore likely to favor some wars that have little to do with Israel’s security. He is also correct in observing that they have a Manichean view of international politics. But contrary to what Beinart implies, virtually all neoconservatives are also deeply committed Zionists who believe that the United States should use its military power to promote Israel’s interests, which they tend to see as indistinguishable from the interests of the United States. It is no accident that in 1998 the neoconservatives started pushing hard for war against Iraq, not against Afghanistan or North Korea. And after toppling Saddam, they hoped to use America’s formidable military might to go after Iran and Syria, Israel’s other main enemies in the Middle East. In short, one can be “warlike and hold “a Manichean worldview,” and still “be warlike on Israel’s behalf.” And the neoconservatives are clearly both.

Fourth, Beinart’s argument depends in good part on the fact that getting more deeply involved in Afghanistan makes it more difficult to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. This issue is much more important than Afghanistan to Israel and if the neocons care so deeply about Israel, then it ought to be more important to them. Yet the neoconservatives strongly support Obama’s surge (though they are also quite hawkish when it comes to Iran). To Beinart’s way of thinking, this must mean that an attachment to Israel isn’t very important to them after all; they are just overly fond of using military force.

That’s not what is going on here. Virtually all prominent neoconservatives are deeply and openly committed to Israel’s security — sometimes dramatically so — and there are two obvious reasons why they favor getting more deeply involved in Afghanistan, even it does make it more difficult to confront Iran. First, history shows that they are incompetent strategists who often advocate policies that they think will be good for Israel but in fact turn out to harm the Jewish state. The invasion of Iraq is an obvious case in point, as its main beneficiary turned out to be Iran. Second, the neoconservatives are happy to see the United States embroil itself with countries and groups in the Arab and Muslim world, because maintaining a constant state of tension between the United States and Islam is a good way to safeguard the “special relationship.”

In sum, neither the neoconservatives’ strong support for Obama’s recent decision on Afghanistan, nor the relative indifference of groups like AIPAC, tells us much about the lobby’s role in defending the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel or its influence on the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. 

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet the Press