For famed political scientists Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer, Barack Obama’s Afghanistan surge is bad news. It is bad news because they opposed Obama’s decision, believing that escalating the Afghan war is folly. But more interestingly, it is bad news because Obama’s decision blows a hole in the thesis that made them famous: that America wages war in the Muslim world, in large measure, because of the Israel lobby.
The neocons aren’t warlike on Israel’s behalf; they’re just plain warlike.
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• Watch the Top 7 Moments from Sunday TalkWalt and Mearsheimer, you’ll remember, gained national attention in 2006 when they published a paper arguing that the “Israel lobby” wields enormous power over American foreign policy. Part of their argument was undoubtedly true: AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations do wield great power in Washington, especially in Congress, which reflexively sides with Israel in most disputes. But Walt and Mearsheimer also suggested something else: that sympathy for Israel was a major reason America invaded Iraq. “Pressure from Israel and the lobby was not the only factor behind the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in March 2003,” they wrote, “but it was a critical element.” It was that claim that made their argument so explosive. After all, if the Israel lobby keeps the U.S. from pressuring Israel to change its policies versus the Palestinians, that’s a problem. But if the Israel lobby lures the U.S. into wars that get thousands of Americans needlessly killed, that’s an out-and-out catastrophe.
Walt and Mearsheimer’s evidence for their claim wasn’t particularly strong. All they really proved was that the Israeli government—and pro-Israel organizations in the United States—backed the Iraq war. That’s a long way from proving that Jerusalem and its American allies played a “critical” role in causing the war. But nonetheless, their argument caught on. To entirely disprove it, you’d have needed the foreign-policy equivalent of a placebo. You’d have needed to show that the U.S. would have gone to war even if the Israel lobby had not cared one way or the other.
Now we have that placebo: Afghanistan. This time, the Israel lobby is on the sidelines. AIPAC’s Web site doesn’t even mention the Afghan war, and Israeli political leaders have been mostly silent on the issue. In fact, the Israel lobby has reason to be downright skeptical of an Afghanistan surge. What pro-Israel groups like AIPAC really care about is economic pressure, and perhaps military action, against Iran. Doubling down in Afghanistan makes that harder. After all, the more invested the U.S. military becomes in victory over the Taliban, the more fiercely American commanders will resist air strikes against Iran, since they know that Iran could easily retaliate across its almost 1,000-mile border with Afghanistan, killing U.S. troops and foiling U.S. plans.
So if the Israel lobby played a major role in luring America into the Iraq war, you’d expect its absence from the Afghan debate to have made a difference. But it hasn’t. It’s not just that the Obama administration decided to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan without any pressure from Jerusalem. It’s that virtually all the prominent “neoconservatives” who allegedly backed the Iraq war out of concern for Israel backed the Afghan surge too, even though this time, Israel and its lobbyists took no position.
Neoconservatives backed the surge because although they are Zionists, Zionism is not their foreign-policy ideology; Manicheanism is. What distinguishes neoconservatives from liberals is their belief that conflict is inherent in international affairs. What distinguishes neoconservatives from realists is their belief that international conflict is, above all, ideological: that it pits “free” nations (which they sometimes define in slippery ways) against tyrannical ones. Foreign policy, in other words, is a ceaseless battle between good countries (which have governments like ours) and bad ones (which don’t). This Manicheanism leads neocons to unstintingly back Israel over its Arab and Iranian adversaries. But it also leads them to back democracies like Poland and Georgia in their conflicts with Russia, and democracies like India, Japan, and Taiwan in their rivalries with China. Before the 9/11 attacks, in fact, neocons like William Kristol spent as much time warning that the U.S. needed to get tough with China as they did warning that America needed to get tough with Iraq.
Now that same Manichean worldview has led the neocons to support an Afghan surge. The irony is that in so doing, they’re making U.S. military action against Iran less likely because even if the neocons think America can double down in one war while simultaneously launching another, America’s military leaders know that we probably cannot. In other words, Walt and Mearsheimer are wrong: The neocons aren’t warlike on Israel’s behalf; they’re just plain warlike. And in this case, their refusal to choose some wars over others means that military action may not be on the table when the Israel lobby wants it most. Who knew the neocons were so anti-Israel?
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is a professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.