Scott Horton Interviews Stephen M. Walt
Stephen M. Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard University and co-author of the article and the book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy with professor John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, discusses once-and-present Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stubbornness in implementing the Oslo Accords, the newly released 2001 video which shows him bragging at his success, how the policies of the Likud Party and the American Israel Lobby are counter-productive for the long-term interests of the Israeli state, the one-state, two-state debate, the status of Muslim and Christian Arab-Israeli citizens within the borders of Israel proper, the seemingly endless and intractable conflict with Iran over their nuclear program and what the U.S. should be doing to resolve the conflict, the neoconservatives’ responsibility for the disaster in Iraq and how it strengthened Iran’s position in the region, the power of the Israel Lobby in Washington DC and prospects for change.
MP3 here. (41:49) Transcript below.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where he served as academic dean from 2002-2006. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, where he served as master of the social science collegiate division and deputy dean of social sciences.
He has been a resident associate of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, and he has also been a consultant for the Institute of Defense Analyses, the Center for Naval Analyses, and Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Professor Walt is the author of Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (W. W. Norton, 2005), and, with coauthor J.J. Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).
He presently serves as faculty chair of the international security program at the Belfer Center for Science and international affairs and as co-chair of the editorial board of the journal International Security. He is also a member of the editorial boards of Foreign Policy, Security Studies, International Relations, and Journal of Cold War Studies, and co-editor of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, published by Cornell University Press. He was elected as a fellow in the American academy of arts and sciences in May 2005.
Transcript — Scott Horton Interviews Stephen M. Walt, July 20, 2010
Scott Horton: All right everybody, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio. I’m Scott Horton. Appreciate y’all tuning in today. Our next guest on the show is Stephen M. Walt. He is a professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, previously taught at Princeton and the University of Chicago, was a resident associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. He’s the author of the book, Taming American Power: The Global Response to US Primacy, 2005, and co-author with John J. Mearsheimer of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, both the essay and the book all about it. Welcome to the show, how are you doing, Stephen?
Walt: I’m doing just fine. Nice to be here.
Horton: Well thank you very much for joining us. I really appreciate it. So, I guess let’s start with the video of Netanyahu that was released over the weekend. I’m sure you saw it and read the transcript and so forth, right?
Walt: I haven’t seen the video, but I have read about the remarks that were disseminated in it.
Horton: I wonder if you can kind of paint a portrait of what exactly the Oslo Accord was and at what stage they were — I guess what happened was Netanyahu became Prime Minister in ’96 and just set about a course to undo it, right?
Walt: The Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, and it was an agreement between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel, and essentially done independently, although the United States came in at the last minute. And the Palestinians recognized Israel’s right to exist, and the Israelis recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. And it set out a timetable that was supposed to lead to the creation of an independent Palestinian community. The Oslo Accords — worth noting — do not ever talk about a Palestinian state, although many people believe that’s where it was headed. In any case, those negotiations proceeded through the 1990s, but there were several events — mistakes on both sides, on the Israeli and Palestinian sides — that delayed the process. Of course the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin being an important setback, a tragic fact there. And then finally when Bibi Netanyahu was elected in ’96, he had never been a supporter of the Oslo Accords, and basically dug-in his heels as much as possible to try and prevent that from happening.
Horton: And then, well, I guess I want to finish off the video here before we get into the nuts and bolts of the process here, but basically he’s ridiculing the American people for their support for whatever it is he does. He mocks us.
Walt: Well, the video that’s come out is a conversation, I believe, in Israel, with a community there and basically explaining how he’s not going to allow a two-state solution to occur. But the part that is most incendiary is a series of statements where he basically says, “You don’t have to worry about American pressure. You know, that’s something we can deal with.” And I think the key point to understand is twofold. First of all, Netanyahu is basically right; it has been decades since the United States has been willing to put any kind of meaningful or long-lasting pressure on Israel, particularly over the occupation. And secondly, that this policy is not good for the United States, but has also been quite harmful to Israel as well, because many Israelis now realize that the occupation has been a disaster for them. Not allowing the creation of a Palestinian state is threatening Israel’s long-term future, so the fact that we’re unable to act like an honest broker is in fact not good for either country, and of course not good for the Palestinians either.
Horton: Well, and this is a point you often make on your blog, which I guess I should have pointed out here, it’s at ForeignPolicy.com. You do point out often that the so-called pro-Israel policy — for example, [that promoted by] the neoconservative movement and the pro-Israel lobby in the United States — is the worst policy for Israel and has been for quite some time. Can you elaborate on that a little bit more?
Walt: Well, the main problem is that the attempt to create a Greater Israel, essentially to colonize the West Bank, has led to a situation now where Israel controls a very large number, you know, 4 to 5 million Palestinians. And over the long term, of course, this threatens Israel’s future as a Jewish state. If you either have one course or the other — either the Palestinians ultimately get a state of their own on the West Bank and in Gaza, or you’ll have a situation where virtually at least half and maybe a majority of the people under Israel’s control will not be Jewish and will, at the same time, not have any political rights, not have the right to vote. About 20 percent of Israel’s current population is Arab — that’s Israel prior to, within the â€˜67 boundaries — and they do have the right to vote, although they don’t exercise much political power at all. But a world in which Israel controls the West Bank in perpetuity is a world in which ultimately they have to either become a multi-ethnic, truly liberal democracy where everybody has the right to vote — in which case it would no longer be a predominantly Jewish state — or they have to continue to deny the Palestinians any political rights, in which case they become an apartheid state. And unfortunately, this sort of unconditional US support and uncritical US support has allowed that situation to continue, thereby threatening Israel’s long-term future.
Horton: Well, I believe you linked to another blogger last week and an article that he wrote saying, “It’s already too late, get over it. There’s already too many so-called settlements, I guess colonies, in the West Bank, and the army would fall apart before it was able to even get them out of there. And the Bantustans have already been created, the walls have been built, and it’s basically a done deal — there never will be a two-state solution. Eventually it will be not just de facto, but an outright single state, and the Jewish character of the state will be destroyed.
Walt: Yeah, I don’t think anybody actually knows at what point this becomes irreversible. As you say, there are certainly many people — including a few Israelis, some Palestinians, some Americans, Europeans — who think that the moment has already been passed, that we’ve sort of gone past the point of no return, and that the future over the next ten to twenty to thirty years will be a struggle for political rights within Israel itself, that the two-state solution is really no longer possible. I don’t believe that yet, but I do think we are very rapidly approaching that point of no return. And the question people ought to be thinking about is, “What does an American president do at that point?”
Right now, President Obama, or President Bush before him, could talk about how they were in favor of a two-state solution, and they say this over and over again. But at some point, if we continue in the current course, that won’t be possible. It’ll sound silly if you say you’re in favor of a two-state solution because everyone will know it’s totally unreachable. And the question then becomes, “What is American policy?” Are we going to support an apartheid state in which nearly half the population is denied political rights? Or are we going to support “one person, one vote” which is very consistent with America’s political traditions, the idea that everyone should be considered an equal citizen, regardless of their background, regardless of their religion? If you don’t want an American president to face that very awkward choice, then you ought to be pushing very hard for a two-state solution, if it is in fact still possible.
Horton: Well now, can you tell us a little bit about the rights of Israeli Arabs? You know, Arabs who are Muslims or Christians but are citizens of Israel and how their treatment differs from Jewish Israelis?
Walt: Well first of all, the state is explicitly founded as a Jewish state. In fact, though, it is considered by Israelis to be the state of the Jewish people, so in a sense you’ve already declared the Arab population to be second-class citizens. It would be as though the United States said, “We are a Protestant state” or “We are a Christian nation,” and anybody who wasn’t would have to walk around knowing that they somehow didn’t quite fit in. Israeli Arabs who have the right to vote — and they do, they have the right to form political parties — but for example– and they are about 20% of the population. I believe in the entire history of Israel, there has been one member of an Israeli cabinet who was Arab. Despite the fact that they’re 20% of the population, they don’t really have much political representation — they certainly don’t have 20% of the seats in the Knesset. Moreover, there are all sorts of structural inequalities in Israeli society.
Horton: All right, I’m sorry. We’re going to have to hold the rest of that answer on the structural inequalities for when we get back from the break. Everyone, it’s Stephen Walt, Walt.ForeignPolicy.com. We’ll be right back after this.
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Horton: Alright y’all welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio. I’m Scott Horton, I’m talking with Stephen M. Walt. He writes at ForeignPolicy.com — that’s Walt.ForeignPolicy.com. He’s the co-author, of course, of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, and when we were so rudely interrupted by the commercials there, you were about to begin discussing the structural differences in how non-Jewish Israeli citizens are treated inside the state of Israel — I’m not talking about Gaza and the West Bank now, but in the rest of Israel there.
Walt: Right, and as I said, Israeli Arab citizens have the right to vote and participate in politics, but, as is often the case with minorities in other societies, they are treated essentially as second-class citizens. They are not allowed to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, with a couple of exceptions. And because service in the military is compulsory for most Israeli citizens and is a route to advancement — it’s a way in which you move up in Israeli society — that cuts off one obvious route to rising. The school systems are not equal for the Arab citizens and the Israeli citizens. The amount of money devoted to Arab villages, Arab communities, bus service, things like that, is unequal as well. There have been actually several Israeli commissions looking at this, have been quite critical of the performance of the Israeli state in dealing with its own Arab minority. Now, that’s still much, much better than the treatment that Palestinian Arabs get in the West Bank and in Gaza, obviously, where they have essentially no political rights whatsoever and certainly no voice over the policies of the government that is occupying those territories and controlling their lives.
Horton: Well, I wonder whether the truth here gets all just mixed up by our point of view. In a sense, Israel expanded beyond those borders in 1967. The West Bank and Gaza are part of Israel. It already is a one-state solution there, it’s just that the people in Gaza and the West Bank don’t have any rights, that’s all.
Walt: Well, and there are a number of people, including many Israelis, who argue essentially that point, that a one-state system of control exists in de facto. I think, again, that there is still a difference in the status between occupied territories and Israel proper (pre-1967 borders). And if there’s going to be any hope of a peaceful settlement, reconciliation any time soon, it will still be along the lines of a two-state solution. The only question is whether or not the two sides can be brought to that, and that brings us to the role of the United States, which is probably the only country with sufficient potential leverage to actually bring something like that about before it’s too late.
Horton: Well now, tell me this. What is — can you give us your nutshell history of the last year and a half of the Obama administration here? Because I’ve got to admit I’m thrown for kind of a loop. I mean if he was smart, he would have just done what George Bush and Bill Clinton did which is wait until the end of his presidency and then, you know, give it his attempt to half-measure something. But he came out on this big roll, with this big Cairo speech and said, “No, I’m determined. We’re going to get this done and we want a freeze on the rate of the growth of the colonies in the West Bank and all this.” And now it seems that he has completely and totally backed down.
Walt: Yeah, I think that’s a fair characterization of it. I believe President Obama understood two things when he became President. I think that he understood that the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a huge problem for the United States. It undermined our image throughout the Arab and Islamic world, was ultimately not good for Israel’s long-term future as well, and that trying to bring that to a close was the right thing to do. I think he genuinely believed that, and of course he was right. And so, somewhat encouraging, the first six months, that he appointed a respected mediator in George Mitchell. He said a number of the right things, culminating in the Cairo speech. And you got the impression that he really meant it.
I think, in retrospect, it now appears that he and the people advising him were very naive. And they were naive in the following sense: they, I think, believed that if they took a very firm line at the very beginning, the Israeli government, and in particular Prime Minister Netanyahu, would not want to do anything to annoy a very popular US President and that he would therefore go along. And they never asked themselves the question, “What are we going to do if Netanyahu digs his heels in and says â€˜No.’” I don’t think they even considered that option. And when that’s exactly what Netanyahu did, they suddenly realized they had a fight on their hands, and that was not a fight they were willing to face, particularly when they only had 60 votes in the Senate — they were trying to get health-care through. I think they began to realize that they could not buck the domestic political support, and in particular the power of various groups in the Israel lobby, and at that point it’s been one retreat after another, which is again not good for us, but I would argue not good for Israel either.
Horton: Well it seems like, from the very beginning, that he was willing to concede to them Iran policy: “Look just let me get some progress going on in the West Bank and Gaza, and I’ll go ahead and threaten Iran in whichever form is preferable to Likud.”
Walt: Well, again I think that oversimplifies it a little bit. I believe that when they came in, they wanted to open up to Iran. There were a number of gestures made in the first two months of the administration designed to indicate a greater willingness to negotiate with Iran, certainly –
Horton: That’s funny, I’d forgotten all about that.
Walt: Right, he sent this broadcast message. And remember that the Bush administration policy had been not to talk to Iran at all, have no contact whatsoever. And the Obama people, to their credit, they were willing to talk to them: “We’d like to see if we can work this out.” And I think they were hoping that the Iranian elections that happened last summer would go a different way, that they’d get a more flexible Iranian government, and of course they got the worst of all possible outcomes: a somewhat fraudulent election, domestic disturbances in Iran which had made the government even more rigid. So that was, I think, a bad break.
The problem is that ever since then they’ve reverted back to what you might call a sort of Bush-Light policy, which is attempting to basically ratchet up threats to Iran and repeatedly tell Iran, “Look, you give us what we want, which is the complete cessation of your nuclear program, and then we’ll talk about what you might want.”Â And that’s essentially been the US position ever since last summer, and I think unfortunately we’ve tried that for the past ten years, and we know it’s not going to work. So we’re now back in a position where people are beginning to talk about using military force again, even though many people recognize that’s not going to solve the problem and probably will make things a lot worse. So, in a sense, it’s mostly been a — ever since that first few months — a remarkably unimaginative, one might even call a brain-dead, policy, where we’re just repeating policies that have failed in the past.
Horton: Well you know, we’ve been covering the Iran nuclear issue on this show for years and years now, and I one time asked Gareth Porter, “Look, if everybody in the world, including everybody in Mossad and in Netanyahu’s office, knows that there’s not really any kind of nuclear weapons program in Iran, then why [are they] so paranoid about what’s going on at Natanz?” And Gareth said he thought that a big part of it was Aliyah, and people are leaving Israel, and they’re not coming to it, and the idea is not that Iran would strike first with atomic weapons at Israel and then get completely extinct at the hands of Israeli retaliation — it’s that people would be afraid to move there, and this population problem in Palestine that we’ve been referring to — from their point of view — would become that much worse. And so that’s really what all this is about, or a big part of it.
Walt: If that’s true or not, and it may be true, and I know there are some Israelis who think along those lines, the point is that that’s a completely self-fulfilling problem — the more you talk about it the more scared you might make people and the worse the problem becomes.
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Horton: All right, y’all, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio. I’m Scott Horton and I’m talking with Stephen M. Walt. You can find his blog at Walt.ForeignPolicy.com. Of course he’s the author of the famous book The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Â Now Stephen when we went out to break, I had asked you about the motivation or the reason for such Israeli paranoia about Iran’s nuclear program, and Gareth’s idea that it has to do with the willingness of the Diaspora to move to Israel.
Walt: I think the thing to point out is there are lots of different reasons why Israelis would not like Iran to have nuclear weapons capability. Some of it may be concern that people won’t want to come to Israel or may leave because they may be scared. Certainly there has got to be some residual fear that they might use a weapon. I think that is very unlikely, but certainly we would feel the same way if a country near us was developing a nuclear weapon. And also, of course, raising that issue is a way of distracting everyone from other things like the occupation as well. I don’t think there is anything nefarious about an Israeli government preferring that Iran not get a nuclear capability. The question is: “What do you do in order to try and discourage them from doing that, and how serious a threat is it really?”
My argument would be that the United States would obviously like it if Iran never got nuclear weapons. We don’t know, by the way, if they are actively trying to do so now or not. We know they are trying to control the full fuel cycle, but whether they turn that into a weapons program is another question. The real issue is whether or not you are willing to go to war to prevent that from happening, and there, I think, it would be an enormous mistake. And what we ought to be trying is a much more creative set of diplomatic approaches to persuade Iran that it is in Iran’s best interests not to ever take it’s nuclear capacity and actually weaponize it. And what that ultimately gets linked to is a larger effort at creating some kind of nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, which would then bring the Israeli nuclear arsenal into play in those negotiations as, I think, another issue as well. The main problem is that our policy towards Iran in the last ten years or so has been very unimaginative, and it’s not surprising that we haven’t gotten anywhere.
Horton: Well, it was the goal of the hawks, was it not, in the Bush administration at least, to try to marginalize the moderates, to try to get Iran to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and break their Safeguards Agreement in the way that the North Koreans did? That’s what John Bolton said. It’s on YouTube.
Walt: I’m not surprised to hear that Ambassador Bolton might have said something like that. I think that early in the Bush administration, certainly about the time that we were going into Iraq, there was a pretty ambitious idea that we were really going to transform the entire region. And first we’d knock off Saddam Hussein, and then we’d turn on Iran or Syria and either threaten them into doing what we wanted or actually engage in more regime change as well. And that particular dream, I think, died in the sands of Iraq.
But it is quite clear that some of the same groups and the same people who dreamed up the idea of going into Iraq in the first place, way back in the late 1990s, are now the loudest voices calling for a very hard line, including the possible use of military force against Iran. I think if you pay attention over the next six months or so, you’re going to see a very similar kind of campaign being waged to try and persuade people that diplomacy is never going to work, that Iran simply has to be toppled and that the United States has to be willing to use military force to either destroy their nuclear facilities or possibly do more. Now, they don’t have George Bush in the White House. They don’t have Dick Cheney in the Vice President’s office. And that’s going to make it, I think, a harder sell. But there are people in the Obama administration who’ve been sympathetic to that kind of argument in the past. And it remains to be seen how President Obama and the rest of his government will respond as this campaign begins to ratchet itself up.
Horton: Well, you know, you base what you say on all these facts that you refer to and stuff about, well, you know, “they’re mastering the fuel cycle, but it remains to be seen whether they’re trying to make nuclear weapons or not,” that kind of thing, and yet that’s not really how the discussion about this issue goes on in the media. Even when the NIE came out in 2007 and it kind of stopped the war party in their tracks, at least for TV purposes, it only lasted two or three months, and we were right back to the Iranians are making nuclear weapons again.
Walt: Right. Well there’s an enormous amount of disinformation that goes on there and none of us know for 100% certainty what Iran is doing. The question you want to ask yourself is, first of all, what’s the most promising strategy for persuading Iran not to go down the nuclear weapons road? Not to ever test them, develop them, build a big arsenal, etc. And there may be ways to do that, none of which we really have explored, I think, very carefully. But the main point I’d make there is if you’re trying to persuade someone not to get nuclear weapons, continually threatening them, including threatening them with regime change, is not the way to do it. The only way to persuade them to not go down the nuclear road is if they feel reasonably secure, feel like the United States isn’t going to come after them.
The second thing, of course, is, if they were to go down that road, you have to ask yourself, is a preventive war the best way to deal with that or is reliance on deterrence, the same way we relied upon it against the Soviet Union and others in the past, recognizing, among other things, that Israel itself has several hundred nuclear weapons and an Iranian leader could never order an attack on Israel or any other close US ally without endangering his entire country and his own life? I don’t think deterrence is an ideal strategy, but I think it’s a better strategy than preventive war.
Horton: All right, well, I know I’m on the fringe on this, but what about just giving them a security guarantee and making friends? Like when Dick Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton in the 1990s, and he committed the treason of going overseas to criticize his own government and said, “Bill Clinton and these unreasonable sanctions, this has got to end; I’m trying to do business here.” What if we were just friends with the Iranians? “No hard feelings.”
Walt: Well I think that should be our long-term objective. I think if we’re realistic about it, given the history of US-Iranian relations and all of the bad blood and misunderstanding going back now decades, it’s naÃ¯ve to think you can turn that around in a month or six months or even a year. What we ought to be doing, though, is looking for opportunities to do that and certainly not doing anything that will make that harder to do down the road. There are actually many issues, including counterterrorism, including al-Qaeda, including stabilizing Afghanistan, where the United States and Iran have very similar interests. And, again, I don’t think anyone should be naÃ¯ve about how easy it will be to unwind that spiral of hostility and suspicion, but I do think it’s possible, and the problem is we’re not being very creative in finding ways to do that. We’re actually making things worse progressively.
Horton: Well it seems like the case could be made that, look, the Iranians have been our best allies in fighting the Iraq war since 2003. That’s a pretty good plus in their book, isn’t it? Or have we been helping them fight it?
Walt: I think that again that oversimplifies it a little bit. Iran has probably done some things that undermine our effort in Iraq and has done some things to help as well. They have not exploited it as much as they might have. They certainly were very helpful to the United States back in 2001, 2002, after 9/11, both condemning the attack but also giving us active help when we went into Afghanistan after the Taliban and after al-Qaeda. And there were actually, I think, several opportunities there where we might have built upon those gestures of friendship. I might add that this is before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current president, was even elected. And I think a good case can be made that he might never have been elected had we responded differently back in that early period.
Now it’s going to be even tougher to unwind things, but the way to do that is not by continuing to threaten them with regime change, being only willing to talk with them in the most sort of narrow way, and ultimately I think it would depend on, as you were suggesting, providing some sort of assurances to Iran that we’re no longer trying to overthrow their government, we’re not actively engaged in, you know, efforts to sabotage things inside Iran, and that we’re eager to sort of move past the bad relations of the past and build something more constructive. That’s going to require some movement on their part, too.
Horton: Right. Okay now, hold on just one second. Is it okay if I push it and try to keep you one more segment here, Stephen?
Walt: Okay, one more.
Horton: Okay, excellent. Everybody, it’s Stephen M. Walt. That’s Walt.ForeignPolicy.com, and down at your local bookstore; it’s The Israel Lobby.
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Horton: All right, y’all, we’re wrapping up Antiwar Radio for the day. I’m Scott Horton. Check out LRN.fm and Antiwar.com/radio and also Walt.ForeignPolicy.com, that’s the blog of our guest, Stephen M. Walt. He’s a professor of international affairs at Harvard. He’s the coauthor of the book and the essay, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy with John J. Mearshimer. And now we’re talking about Iran, and these hard breaks are pretty inconvenient sometimes, but you were saying that, well, I guess first of all it was oversimplification for me to say that the Iranians have been our best allies in Iraq this whole time. But then again it’s not that much of an oversimplification, considering that our war has been to install the Da’wa Party and the Supreme Islamic Council and Moqtada al-Sadr in power — at least we’ve been fighting for them if they haven’t been fighting for us there, huh?
Walt: Well, again, I think actually what it shows is what a boneheaded decision it was to go into Iraq in the first place. Certainly the goal of the United States was not to install a series of leaders who were very sympathetic to Iran. I mean, our policy up until then had been to be very hostile to both Iraq and Iran, and certainly, when George Bush ordered the troops in, he was not doing that because he thought he was going to do Tehran a big favor. I think one of the ways in which we see what a mistake that war was is the fact that we ended up improving the strategic position of the other main adversary we had in the region, and that was again because the people who dreamed that up didn’t understand the regional politics very well, were very cavalier in how easy it would be to knock off Saddam and put in place a pro-American government, and that’s, of course, you know, not what happened. But I don’t think one could argue that we did it in order to help the Iranians.
Horton: Oh no, I just meant, you know, in effect.
Walt: Well in effect, yes. But again it wasn’t our goal.
Horton: I mean Bush at some point said, “Look, I prefer Abdul Aziz al-Hakim to Moqtada al-Sadr,” because that was his choice. You know? And Abdul Aziz al-Hakim had been in exile in Iran for 30 years.
Walt: Right. And again, it’s because we ended up in a situation where we didn’t have any good choices and have been forced to try and make the best of it ever since. I think the larger point, though, is that the United States is going to have to find ways to start dealing with Iran as it is and try and hope that the democratic impulses that do exist — and I think are actually quite powerful within Iran — ultimately do come to the fore.
There’s actually quite an interesting book recently published by Stephen Kinzer, who’s an award-winning journalist formerly with the New York Times, arguing that over the longer term — not, again, in the next six months or so, but over the longer term — the United States should be trying to build very constructive and positive relations with both Iran and also with Turkey because these are countries in the Muslim world that do have strong democratic traditions, have been pursuing democracy now for a century or so, unlike some other countries in that part of the world, and therefore we have to start thinking much more creatively about how to get past all of the differences between ourselves and Iran and move in a much more constructive direction going forward. And again, if I faulted the Obama administration on this one, as I said before, it’s primarily because after some initial gestures they have fallen back on a set of approaches towards Iran that have never worked in the past and are unlikely to work in the future.
Horton: Now, when you talk about Iraq and all of this, the neoconservative movement, it all comes back to the Israel lobby. I don’t know if you’d agree with this, but Andrew Cockburn said that he defined the neoconservative movement not so much as former leftists and Democrats who became right-wingers so much as, “This is where the Israel lobby crosses with the military industrial complex.” And basically Lockheed and Northrop Grumman and all those companies needed to hire some intellectuals to come up with excuses for selling their weapons and so they made this kind of mob marriage with the neocons back in the ’70s, and so we have this immense power behind this neoconservative movement. It seems like a lot of the positions that you’re taking and explaining in a very reasonable fashion here on this show today are mostly not even really part of the discussion in DC, at least as far as I can tell. It seems like Bill Kristol gets to decide the terms of every debate.
Walt: I don’t want to overstate Mr. Kristol’s power, but he’s obviously a very influential figure. And the most disturbing thing about the sort of role of neoconservatives is the complete lack of accountability. You would think that the architects of the Iraq War — and neoconservatives really were; they were the first people to talk repeatedly about the need to go to war in Iraq, and this began in the mid to late 1990s. These were the guys who dreamed up this whole idea. And you would think that, given the results of Iraq — a costly, protracted, disastrous war for the United States — you would think that no one would be taking them very seriously at all. But in fact — because there is in fact very little accountability in the sort of inside-the-beltway establishment, they are continuing to be on talk shows and have their journals of opinion and op-ed columns and, you know, forming new organizations, having founded old committees and projects and groups to try and advocate for war with Iraq — we now see the same people, same tactics, being used to try and push the United States into a war with Iran. As I said, you know, a half hour or so ago, they don’t have quite as sympathetic an environment, and certainly the 9/11 attacks certainly helped the cause, although they had to do an awful lot of distortion to exploit that, but nonetheless they’re trying to do the same things now, and it’s really remarkable, given the track record that they’ve had so far.
Horton: Well, a major part of this is brought to kind of the forefront with the new Emergency Committee for Israel. One of the prime members of it with Bill Kristol is Gary Bauer from the right-wing side, the religious right, I guess, the Jerry Falwell-Pat Robertson-John Hagee style of right-wing Protestantism. And I wonder if you could give us any kind of ballpark estimate as to how many millions of people count as that part of the Israel lobby?
Walt: I actually think it’s a much smaller number than people believe. You often hear the number, you know, sort of, 40 million people in the Evangelical movement, but the vast majority of them do not place the same priority on a sort of hard line pro-Israel position. Some of them do, and they have some political weight. They certainly help within the Republican Party, for example. I think in terms of our policy vis-Ã -vis Israel, still groups like AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents, and some others have more clout on Capitol Hill, have more influence in Washington. Think tanks like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, American Enterprise Institute, now the Saban Center at Brookings, I think have more influence within Washington circles than the sort of Gary Bauer Christian Zionist groups.
But they’re not trivial, and they certainly do broaden the base of groups that want the United States to back Israel no matter what it does and in particular want the United States to oppose any kind of two-state solution. In the case of Christian Zionists, it’s based on their interpretation of Old Testament prophecy. And I’ve never thought the Old Testament was a particularly good guide to American foreign policy, whatever its merits as a religious document might be.
Horton: Well, now, in your book, Professor Mearshimer and yourself — and again, it’s The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy — in here you make it very clear that it’s perfectly legitimate for people to be lobbyists and for Americans to be lobbyists in favor of other countries that they like and what have you, and that sounds fair enough to me, as long as we have a democracy and all that. But it seems like, as you guys — really it’s the subject of your book: the balance of power is pretty out of whack when this tiny little country really has just an absolutely inordinate amount of influence over our government — and on issues where it seems pretty apparent, like when we’re talking about Iran here, that this isn’t in the interest of anybody in America, never mind Israel.
Walt: I think that that’s right. I mean, certainly, as you just said, it’s completely legitimate for Americans to have strong attachments to other countries, whatever that country might be, whether it’s Poland or Israel or Pakistan or India or Greece, whatever. We’re a melting pot society and lots of people have ties in lots of different places and they can manifest those ties and attachments in our political system. It is, however, a bad thing if the influence becomes so great that you really can’t even have a discussion about it, if it almost becomes reflexive and if politicians and others are scared or intimidated from voicing any questions or raising any doubts about it. But secondly, it’s also just not good for either the United States or for these other countries.
We’re now in a position where you can’t even have an honest discussion about it. If President Obama says anything critical about Prime Minister Netanyahu, he immediately gets a storm of criticism and lots of phone calls, things like that. And it’s not good if the United States cannot tell its friends, its allies, when they are making mistakes. You know, we all make mistakes, and you want your friends to be able to help you correct them when you do, and we’re now in a situation where even when Israel is doing something that’s not good for us but also not good for itself, American politicians can’t even say that, because, again, these groups and the lobby wield such power within our political system.
Horton: Well, and as anybody who saw when first the article and then the book came out, you suffered the brunt of this criticism and every kind of accusation about your character that could be made — you know, congratulations to you for bearing through that and standing by your positions there. So, is there any progress being made? I mean it seems like, geez, well, like you said before, it seems like the neocons really overplayed their hand with Iraq, that would have discredited them. Are we ever going to get to the point where it’s not “anti-Semitic,” quote unquote, to say, “Hey, America’s interests are different than Israel’s and we ought to take care of ourselves. They can take care of themselves fine, especially with all the weapons we already bought them.”
Walt: Well, I think there’s some good news here. There is, I think, a more open discussion on this subject than there was back when we wrote our original article. I think that we helped kicked that door a little bit open. I think the advent of the internet has made a big difference in sort of opening up the discussion. And I do think the accusation that anyone who is critical of Israeli policy, things that they’re doing, or thinks the United States should have a more normal relationship with Israel rather than this very odd special relationship we have — the accusation that those people are always just reflexively anti-Semitic no longer has quite the same power that it did, and that’s a good thing.
Anti-Semitism itself is a very bad thing, and it ought to be condemned, but not honest discussion, not honest criticism of policy. I think that that accusation is losing some of its power to intimidate. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the influence of these groups is still pretty profound; politicians are still very scared of them. President Obama, I think, understood that he couldn’t take it on and not get into real trouble in fundraising and in other ways as well, and that means that American policy hasn’t shifted yet. So we’re getting a more open discussion but we’ve still got a ways to go before we have a policy that would be better for the country and for our friend.
Horton: All right, everybody. That is Stephen M. Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He writes the blog at Walt.ForeignPolicy.com, and of course is the coauthor of the article and the book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, with John J. Mearshimer. Thank you so much for your time on the show today. I really appreciate it.
Walt: My pleasure.