The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine

Jews and American foreign affairs

Shining light on past US policy to make way for the future

- The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

According to Walter Russell Mead, the claim, which animates but is not limited to antisemite­s, that “the Jewish lobby” dictates American foreign policy, is demonstrab­ly false. Before World War II, Mead points out, most Jews in the US, with and without deep pockets, opposed the establishm­ent of a Jewish state in Palestine.

American Jews are now sharply divided over Israel’s occupation of lands acquired in the 1967 war, settlement­s and Palestinia­n rights. Along with some successes, AIPAC, the preeminent Jewish lobby, failed to stop the Reagan administra­tion from selling advanced AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia or prevent the Obama administra­tion from signing the Joint Comprehens­ive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear weapons agreement with Iran.

To control foreign policy in a democracy, Mead maintains, leaders need substantia­l public support. For more than a century, Zionists’ influence in the US has depended heavily on their ability to attract gentiles to their cause.

A professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College, Mead is also a fellow of the Hudson Institute, a conservati­ve think tank; a member of the Council on Foreign Relations; co-founder of the New America Foundation; and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. His books include Power, Terror, Peace and War: America’s Grand Strategy in a World at Risk; Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World; and Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition.

In his book The Arc of a Covenant,

Mead provides a wide-ranging analysis of attitudes toward Jews throughout American history but focused principall­y on the years following the founding of Zionism, the immigratio­n of two million Jews to the US, the British government’s Balfour Declaratio­n and the relationsh­ip between the US and Israel. An almost universal endorsemen­t of liberalism, democracy and individual freedom, he argues, inclined the vast majority of Americans to believe that Jews could be proud of their national identity and fully integrated into the society and culture of the US.

The approach of political leaders to Israel, and to foreign policy, in general, Mead maintains, has involved a balance between “idealists’” desire to spread (or impose) a liberal order and human rights on the rest of the world and “realists’” assessment of the “magical thinking” that even a superpower possesses “the power, the wisdom, or the will” to do so. Policy makers, Mead adds, are acutely aware that “for a foreign policy to succeed, it must also succeed politicall­y at home.”

To illuminate these dynamics, Mead traces the dramatic shift of pro-Israeli sentiment from the political Left to the Right in the US. Sensitized by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and ’70s, he notes, a new, more radical generation, alert to the defects of nationalis­m, began to view Israel as a colonial power, oppressing people of color. While the “providenti­al nationalis­m” of the Jewish state attracted politicall­y active – and equally providenti­al – evangelica­l Christians, who believed it demonstrat­ed the truth of biblical prophecies.

Mead’s assessment­s of American policies and policymake­rs are candid, provocativ­e and, at times, over the top. “If ‘the Jews’ ran America, immigratio­n would not have been restricted [in the 1920, ’30s and ’40s],” he writes, and “Israel would likely not exist.” President Harry S. Truman was “one of the most effective foreign policy leaders in American history.” Because Soviet-aligned government­s in Eastern Europe provided the votes to pass key UN resolution­s, and Czechoslov­akia sent weapons to Jewish forces, despite a US-imposed arms embargo on both sides (a de-facto interventi­on in favor of the Arabs who continued to receive weapons from Great Britain) that turned the tide in the War of Independen­ce, Mead declares that Joseph Stalin played a “much more important role” than Truman in the establishm­ent of the State of Israel.

A “radical centrist,” closer to realists than to idealists, Mead faults US presidents since Jimmy Carter, especially the Democrats, for treating a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinia­ns as if it were “the Holy Grail,” the “ultimate trophy whose acquisitio­n would secure their place in history,” even though it actually is what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin – an object whose actual importance is “dwarfed by the events they set in motion.” And for refusing to acknowledg­e that the Israeli-Palestinia­n conflict is “one more dreary, intractabl­e ethno-nationalis­t conflict.”

Mead also chastises these presidents for failing to understand “the most important thing about Israel”: the Jewish state was “founded on a reasonable and historical­ly justified skepticism,” reinforced by the Holocaust, “about the ability of liberal order to protect Jews.”

“Policy advice has a short shelf life,” Mead emphasizes. His support for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example, subsequent­ly gave way to serious reservatio­ns. And, it is worth noting, the prediction in The Arc of a Covenant – that the surge in oil production and fracking makes the US less tied to developmen­ts in the Middle East and Vladimir Putin’s Russia “a less formidable adversary” – has already been rendered obsolete by the war in Ukraine.

That said, Mead’s reluctance to present alternativ­es to the many policies he criticizes (including president Barack Obama’s “unceremoni­ous dumping” of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the “shortsight­ed and destructiv­e Libyan interventi­on” in 2011) is regrettabl­e. After all, as he indicates, “shining a useful light on the relationsh­ip between the ways Americans think about the world and the approaches they develop to act in it... is an essential step in developing new concepts for American strategy in a new era.”

And so, who wouldn’t welcome policy advice, however tentative, by this thoughtful and well-informed scholar about the role of the US in a conflict that is – or just seems to be – intractabl­e?

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 ?? (Reuters) ?? DRUZE YOUTHS hold up Syrian flags and a banner demanding an end to Israel’s so-called occupation, near Mount Hermon. Mead criticizes radicals in the 1960s and 1970s for starting to view Israel as a colonial power.
(Reuters) DRUZE YOUTHS hold up Syrian flags and a banner demanding an end to Israel’s so-called occupation, near Mount Hermon. Mead criticizes radicals in the 1960s and 1970s for starting to view Israel as a colonial power.

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