- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Pandering to special interest groups is a time-honored American political tradition, especially in an election year. The practice is hard-wired into the U.S. system of government, which gives interest groups many different ways to pressure politicians into doing their bidding. Whether we are talking about the farm lobby, the NRA, the AARP, Big Pharma, Wall Street, or various ethnic lobbies, it’s inevitable that politicians running for office will say and do lots of stupid things to try to win influential groups over. Especially in a close election.
Which of course explains why Mitt Romney flew to Israel over the weekend, and proceeded to say a lot of silly things designed to show everyone what a good friend to Israel he will be if he is elected. He wasn’t trying to win over Israelis or make up for his various gaffes in London; his goal was to convince Israel’s supporters in America to vote for him and not for Barack Obama. Most American Jews lean left and will vote for Obama, but Romney would like to keep the percentage as low as he can, because it just might tip the balance in a critical swing state like Florida. Pandering on Israel might also alleviate evangelical Christian concerns about Romney’s Mormon faith and make stalwart "Christian Zionists" more inclined to turn out for him. Of course, Romney also wants to convince wealthy supporters of Israel to give lots of money to his campaign (and not Obama’s), which is why a flock of big U.S. donors, including gazillionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, accompanied Romney on his trip.
Once in Israel, Romney followed the script to the letter. He referred to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (something the U.S. government doesn’t do, because Jerusalem’s status is still supposed to be resolved via negotiation). He said that stopping Iran’s nuclear program was "America’s highest national security priority," which tells you that Romney has no idea how to rank-order national security threats. One of his aides, neoconservative Dan Senor, even gave Israel a green light to attack Iran, telling reporters that "If Israel has to take action on its own, the governor would respect that decision."
But this sort of pandering is a bipartisan activity, and it’s not like Barack Obama isn’t keeping up. The administration has been sending a steady stream of top advisors to Israel of late, including Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and last week Obama signed a $70 million military aid deal for Israel, in a public signing ceremony. His message: "Romney can fly around and give speeches, but I’m delivering real, tangible support."
The good news, such as it is, is that both Romney and Obama are probably lying. No matter how many times each of them talks about the "unshakeable commitment" to Israel, or even of their "love" for the country, they don’t really mean it. They are simply pandering to domestic politics, which is something that all American politicians do on a host of different issues. Of course, they will still have to shape their policies with the lobby’s clout in mind (as Obama’s humiliating retreat on the settlement issue demonstrates), but nobody should be under the illusion that they genuinely believe all the flattering stuff that they are forced to say.
Why do I say that? Well, consider what former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in a July 2000 interview, conducted as part of an oral history project conducted by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
"…Every president I worked for, at some point in his presidency, would get so pissed off at the Israelis that he couldn’t speak. It didn’t matter whether it was Jimmy Carter or Gerry Ford or Ronald Reagan or George Bush. Something would happen and they would just absolutely go screw themselves right into the ceiling they were so angry and they’d sort of rant and rave around the Oval Office. I think it was their frustration about knowing that there was so little they could do about it because of domestic politics and everything else that was so frustrating to them."
What was true of these presidents was also true of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and if Romney ends up getting elected, I’ll bet the same thing will happen to him too. He just won’t admit it publicly.
The obvious danger in this conspiracy of silence is that it prevents the foreign policy community from having an honest discussion about the whole Middle East situation, including the "special relationship." Although public discourse on this topic is more open and wide-ranging than it used to be, mostly because some journalists and academics are freer to write honestly about this topic, it is still nearly impossible for politicians or ambitious policy wonks to say what they really think. If you want to get elected, or if you want to work on a campaign and maybe serve in the U.S. government, you have to either 1) be fully committed to the "special relationship," 2) pretend to be committed by mouthing all the usual platitudes or 3) remain studiously silent about the whole subject. And I can’t think of any other diplomatic relationship that is such a minefield.
This situation wouldn’t be a problem if U.S. Middle East policy was filled with success stories or if Israel’s own actions were beyond reproach. But no country is perfect and all governments make mistakes. The problem is that politicians and policymakers can’t really have a completely open discussion of these issues here in the Land of the Free.
There’s also a tragic irony in all this. In his book Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami wrote that the two presidents who did the most to advance Arab-Israeli peace were Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush. Carter negotiated the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and Bush 41 led the 1991 Gulf War coalition and assembled the 1992 Madrid Peace Conference. According to Ben-Ami, Carter and Bush made progress on this difficult issue because each was willing "to confront Israel head one and overlook the sensibilities of her friends in America."
In other words, each was willing to do precisely what Romney is now telling you he won’t.
But what thanks did they get? In 1976, Carter received 71 percent of the Jewish vote and Gerald Ford got 27 percent, a typical result given the tendency for American Jews to favor the Democrats. In 1980, however, Carter got only 45 percent, the lowest percentage ever recorded for a Democratic candidate since World War II. Similarly, George H. W. Bush got 35 percent of the Jewish vote in 1988 (compared with 64 percent for Dukakis), but his share plummeted to only 11 percent in 1992. Their Middle East policies are not the only reason for these shifts, but these two elections are the main outliers over the past fifty years and the (false) perception that Carter and Bush were insufficiently supportive of Israel clearly cost both of them some support.
Which is what Romney is hoping for. The losers will be the American people, whose Middle East policy will continue to be dysfunctional, and Israel, which will continue down its present course towards becoming an apartheid state. And of course the Palestinians will continue to suffer the direct costs of this unhappy situation. But that’s democracy at work. If you don’t like it, then you’ll need to convince politicians that they will pay a price at the ballot box for this sort of mindless pandering. Until they do, it would be unrealistic to expect them to behave any differently.