Stephen M. Walt

Bush, Blair, and Iraq (Round II): A reply to John Judis

John Judis at The New Republic has taken issue with a post of mine from last week, in which I suggested that former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s testimony to Britain’s Iraq War investigation was consistent with the interpretation that John Mearsheimer and I advanced in our book on the Israel lobby. To his credit, Judis ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

John Judis at The New Republic has taken issue with a post of mine from last week, in which I suggested that former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s testimony to Britain’s Iraq War investigation was consistent with the interpretation that John Mearsheimer and I advanced in our book on the Israel lobby. To his credit, Judis is mostly interested in evidence and he doesn’t stoop to the same level of character assassination that some of our critics do. He does accuse me of not having read the Blair transcript, which is not true; at the same time, it appears he has not read our book or my post very carefully.

First, I made it clear in my post that Blair’s comments were not a "smoking gun" that proved we were right, and I neither suggested nor implied that Blair’s testimony demonstrated that Bush went to war at Israel’s urging or to accommodate the Israel lobby. I merely noted that Blair had said that concerns about Israel were part of the discussion, and that Israeli officials were consulted as part of the conversation. Indeed, after summarizing Blair’s testimony, I wrote:

Notice that Blair is not saying that Israel dreamed up the idea of attacking Iraq or that Bush was bent on war solely to benefit Israel or even to appease the Israel lobby here at home. But Blair is acknowledging that concerns about Israel were part of the equation, and that the Israeli government was being actively consulted in the planning for the war."

In short, Judis is attacking me for claims I did not make.  He suggests that perhaps the Bush administration was just informing Israel of its plans, which is certainly possible, but we have other evidence-including several Israeli accounts-suggesting that Israeli intelligence was also providing Washington with information that reinforced the case for war.  (See here, pp. 235-36). 

Second, given that a number of critics had taken issue with our analysis of the Iraq war, the bulk of my post recounted the evidence that a) prominent "pro-Israel" groups and individuals backed the decision to go to war and used their influence to sell the war on Capitol Hill and to the public at large, and b) Israeli officials aided this effort, even though some were initially skeptical about going after Iraq because they wanted the United States focus on Iran instead.  Judis does not challenge the evidence I presented; he merely asserts that support from AIPAC and other "pro-Israel" groups had hardly any influence on the decision to invade Iraq.

As I wrote in my post, "reasonable people can disagree about how important their influence was, of course, but at a minimum, the activities of these groups and individuals reinforced the Bush administration’s resolve and made it less likely that other politicians or commentators would conduct a serious debate about the wisdom of the invasion." Judis ignores this caveat, and apparently believes that the extensive efforts to sell the war by advocates inside and outside the Bush administration were completely irrelevant to the final decision.

But consider the following counter-factual. What if Bush and Cheney had independently dreamed up the idea of invading Iraq after 9/11, but the plan was openly questioned by Israel, AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents, and the ADL, on the grounds that it might lead to a quagmire and maybe even strengthen Iran? What if these groups had openly opposed the war, or just quietly pushed for an genuine debate on different options, or simply remained on the sidelines and let members of Congress know that they had their doubts? What if their counsels of restraint had been reinforced by similarly prudent advice from respected think-tanks like the Saban Center at Brookings, the American Enterprise Institute or the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP)? What if staunchly pro-Israel pundits like Charles Krauthammer, Max Boot, Kenneth Pollack, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Thomas Friedman, among others, had spent 2002 raising questions about the wisdom of an attack, or arguing as passionately against the war as they did in favor of it? It’s possible that Bush & Co. still might have been able to stampede the country to war, but surely it would have been much harder. 

In reality, of course, all of these groups and individuals were part of the pro-war chorus, yet Judis seems to think their advocacy was just whistling in the wind. Again, reasonable people can disagree about just how important the lobby’s activities were; what is beyond dispute is which direction they were pushing.

Third, the real differences between Judis and us is how one defines the "lobby" and how one interprets the role of the neoconservatives. He concedes that the neoconservatives were the primary architects of the war, and he presumably understands that the war would not have occurred absent their influence. But like some of our other critics, Judis wants to define the "lobby" narrowly. Specifically, he wants to confine it to formal organizations like AIPAC that engage in actual "lobbying" activities and exclude the neoconservatives completely. He also wants to exclude academics and commentators who have strong attachments to Israel and who consistently defend the U.S.-Israel "special relationship." Employing this narrow definition enables Judis to argue that the "lobby" had little to do with the war. 

Unfortunately, that definition also ignores the obvious fact that most special interest groups have variety of different components, and that these different components work to shape public policy in a number of distinct ways. Interest groups in America do not simply "lobby" politicians directly; they also try to shape public discourse, seek to get sympathetic individuals appointed to key positions in the executive branch (while trying to bar those with whom they disagree), and seek to discredit or marginalize opposing views in the public domian. Anyone familiar with the scholarly research on interest groups knows that this is how the American system of government works, and not just when it comes to Middle East policy.

For this reason, we employ a broader definition, which is more consistent with common sense and with the scholarly literature on interest groups. We defined the "Israel lobby" as a "loose coalition" of individuals and groups that actively works to promote and defend the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel (i.e., the policy of generous and unconditional U.S. support). Having a favorable view of Israel or generally pro-Israel attitude doesn’t make someone part of the Israel lobby; to qualify, a person or group has to devote a significant portion of time, effort or money to promoting that "special relationship."

Just as the environmental movement or the "arms control community" is not confined to a single group, the "pro-Israel" interest group in the United States is not limited just to formal organizations that spend their time lobbying on Capitol Hill. It also includes think tanks like WINEP, watchdog groups like CAMERA and the ADL, and more dovish organizations like J Street and Americans for Peace Now. It also includes Christian Zionist organization like Christians United For Israel, but not organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, because the latter does not endorse the "special relationship" (i.e., it does not favor uncritical or unconditional U.S. support). We use the phrase "Israel lobby" as a convenient shorthand term for this loose coalition, just as one might refer to the "farm lobby," "gun lobby" or other ethnic lobbies, many of whom have a number of different components as well.

As we made clear in our book, the various individuals or groups that make up the lobby do not agree on every issue. For example, some support a two-state solution while others favor a "greater Israel," but all agree on the importance of preserving the special relationship. And the lobby includes unaffiliated individuals who "actively work" (to varying degrees) to maintain that special relationship, and who use their influence to push the United States to pursue policies that they think will benefit Israel. Just as it would not make sense to exclude a journalist like Nicholas Kristof from the "Save Darfur" movement, or to omit Al Gore from the "loose coalition" that favors vigorous action to halt climate change, one should not exclude any individuals or groups who "actively work" to promote the special relationship between the United States and Israel, even if they have no formal connection to organizations that literally lobby in Washington like AIPAC or J Street.

By this commonsense definition, the neoconservatives are clearly part of the lobby (or if you prefer, the "pro-Israel community"), whether or not they belong to groups like AIPAC, the ADL, the Zionist Organization of America, Christians United for Israel, or whatever. Both the scholarly and popular literature on neoconservatism makes it clear that a strong commitment to Israel is a central part of the movement’s world-view, and prominent neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz, William Kristol, James Woolsey, and Max Boot have said so explicitly.  Does Judis really believe that these individuals and others like Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, Douglas Feith, "Scooter" Libby, Robert Kagan, or Charles Krauthammer, are not part of the "loose coalition" that actively works to promote the special relationship? Has he been paying attention to the policies they have promoted over the past two decades? As we show at length in our book, the whole idea of invading Iraq originated with them, and prominent neoconservatives like Wolfowitz, Feith, and Libby played central roles in pushing this policy within the Bush administration. 

If the neoconservatives are rightly regarded as a part of the lobby — and they should be — and if they conceived the idea of invading Iraq and played the central role in persuading key politicians and the public at large to support it — and they did — then our interpretation of the Iraq War’s origins is correct. Having examined the evidence, we concluded that the lobby played a major role in driving the decision for war. We emphasized that the lobby wasn’t solely responsible — a point I reiterated in my post and Judis fails to mention — but its influence was a key cause. Remove the neoconservatives from the picture, silence groups like AIPAC and the Presidents Conference as well as pro-war pundits like Kenneth Pollack, and it’s hard to imagine the United States invading Iraq. Remember, the uniformed military was not pushing for war, and nor was the State Department or the intelligence community. Nor were Halliburton or the oil companies the driving force behind the war, despite what some of our left-wing critics seem to think. 

To be sure, the Iraq war probably would not have happened without 9/11 (another point we made in the book), but let us not forget that invading Iraq was a strange response to that tragedy. After all, bin Laden was either in Afghanistan or Pakistan, not Iraq, there was no credible evidence linking Saddam to al Qaeda, and the invasion of Iraq was a massive diversion of resources away from the real war on terror. Yet neoconservatives like Wolfowitz were calling for an attack on Iraq within days of 9/11, even though Iraq had nothing to do with the events of that fateful day and even though the perpetrators of that attack were hundreds of miles from Iraq.

Bush and Cheney were obviously key players in the decision — another point I emphasized in my post — but they didn’t dream up the idea of invading Iraq by themselves. As Robert Kagan noted after the war began, but before it went south, the neoconservatives had a ready-made solution to the post-9/11 situation, one that they had been pushing since the mid-1990s. The events of 9/11 provided an ideal opportunity for the neoconservatives to sell their idea about invading Iraq, and once it began to take hold in Washington, the other organizations in the lobby and Israel itself then lent their influence to the campaign for war.

One final caveat: our definition does not imply that anyone who backed the Iraq war is ipso facto part of the "Israel lobby." There are plenty of people who eventually supported the war because they were convinced Saddam Hussein was evil, that he had or was seeking WMD, or that he might threaten U.S. interests elsewhere in the region. Plenty of these people have no special attachment to Israel and do not "actively work" to promote the U.S.-Israeli relationship; indeed, some of them have even been openly critical of some of Israel’s actions.  These individuals are obviously not part of the "Israel lobby," and we never said nor implied that the only people who eventually favored war were members of the Israel lobby. The neoconservatives in the lobby conceived the war and played the most important roles in selling it to Bush and Cheney, but they didn’t do it all by themselves.

Nonetheless, the bottom line is that the United States would not be in Iraq today were it not for the influence of the Israel lobby-a loose coalition of groups and individuals that includes the neoconservatives-and no amount of dust-kicking can obscure that fact. To make matters worse, the neoconservatives and the most influential "pro-Israel" groups do not appear to have learned much from the debacle in Iraq. Almost all of the pro-Israel groups and individuals who pushed for war against Iraq are now in the vanguard of the campaign for taking military action against Iran, and for essentially the same reasons that they favored invading Iraq. If the United States does strike Iran and the war goes badly, one can be sure that these same groups and individuals will once again work overtime to deny any responsibility. I wonder what Judis will say then.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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