Hillary appeared on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story earlier this week to discuss the role of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in U.S. presidential elections, click here or on the picture above. The other panelists were John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago international relations scholar and co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, and Larry Greenfield of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the oldest “think tank” associated with the Israel lobby.
One of the more consequential exchanges in the program occurs early on. Asked why American presidents and presidential candidates come with such regularity to AIPAC, Hillary notes that there are, of course, highly valued “tactical” benefits to doing so—raising money, getting votes (especially in potentially decisive swing states like Florida and Ohio), etc. But there is also an important strategic context: AIPAC provides a forum for presidential candidates (including incumbents running for reelection) to show that they “believe in U.S. exceptionalism” and “U.S. preeminence”; that they believe the United States “is still very much the ‘indispensable nation’ in the world”; and that it still “has decisive influence in the Middle East” and “is not going to let that influence in the Middle East go”. In short, it is a well-established and friendly forum for presidential aspirants to demonstrate their commitment that the United States should “continue to dominate and be a hegemonic influence in the Middle East.”
We, of course, argue that this post-Cold War “imperial turn” in America’s Middle East policy—manifested in its invasion and occupation of Iraq, in its posture toward the Islamic Republic of Iran, in the Arab-Israeli arena, and in many other ways—has been grossly counter-productive for the United States’ strategic position in the region (as well as lethally destructive for many people living there). But, in the Inside Story segment, it is striking how readily Larry Greenfield agrees with Hillary’s assessment of why presidential candidates flock to AIPAC’s annual policy conference. Asked what AIPAC wants to hear from candidates, he opens his response by noting that is wants to hear a clear expression of “the strategic drivers that Hillary mentioned”, including “the strong role of America in the Middle East, its alliance with Israel, and its strategic relationship with democracies [sic!].”
The connection between America’s post-Cold War quest “to dominate and be a hegemonic influence in the Middle East” and AIPAC’s elevated influence in American politics over the past two decades is crucially important, but rarely noted in public discussions of U.S. policymaking. Hillary notes that, for almost the first 40 years of Israel’s existence, no American presidential candidate went to AIPAC. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, the first President Bush—none of them went to AIPAC. While there has long been a measure of pro-Israel influence, the Israel lobby’s “real hold on politics doesn’t really happen until the end of the Cold War and the defeat of the Iraqi military inside the Middle East…the defeat of the last remaining Arab military, [the last] strong Arab party, and the defeat of the Soviet Union.” These developments
“leave the United States and Israel unconstrained and focused on [for the United States, being] a global superpower, the world’s one and only global superpower, and for Israel to be predominant in the Middle East. That’s when you have this mix happen, this push from the politics inside the United States to support this U.S. policy to be the world’s only unchallenged superpower and for Israel to have this unconstrained strategy to deploy force anywhere it wants, at anytime and in any degree necessary, according to its own preferences, in the Middle East. That doesn’t happen until after the Cold War.”
John Mearsheimer, who has been courageously outspoken on the issue for some time, points out how Israel, far from being a strategic asset for the United States, has become a clear “strategic liability.” He is right. But the United States sticks with this strategic liability not just because of the power of the Israel lobby. The United States sticks with it as part of a larger—and deeply dysfunctional—quest to subordinate the Middle East as part of a post-Cold War American empire. Through this warped prism, Washington sees Israeli military dominance in the region as a useful adjunct of its own strategy. That is what the United States has to give up to develop a truly effective policy toward the Islamic Republic and toward the Middle East more generally.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett