Thursday, March 30, 2006

Does U.S. policy towards Israel give a whole new meaning to most-favored nation status?

In his Farewell Address, co-written with Alexander Hamilton, George Washington wrote this prescriptive statement about foreign policy:
So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.
This statement has been the anchor of U.S. foreign policy throughout its history not so much by conscious reference to the words of George Washington but by the prescription is a description of how a rational self-interested government will behave. Arguably, self-interest has not always led the U.S. in an admirable or honorable path - numerous alignments of convenience with foreign dictators come to mind. But in general it is hard to argue that it is not right for a country to pursue a policy which aims to ensure its own survival and promote the welfare of its citizens. And that that is exactly what the U.S. has done throughout its history.

It would appear that since the Truman administration, U.S. foreign policy towards Israel is more of an "infatuation" with a "favorite nation." This seeming departure from a pragmatic approach has been hard explain. And it feeds a theory spun in coffee shops and shisha bars throughout the Middle East; that theory being that the Jews run America. What else, these theorists say, can explain the apparent exceptionalism of U.S. policy toward Israel?

That question is addressed by a recent article, The Israel Lobby, in the London Review of Books written by John Mearsheimer (Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago) and Stephen Walt (Professor of International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard). (Link via Dad and a colleague at work.) See also Tikun Olam's review of Mearsheimer & Walt.

By appearances these three authors have taken a serious run at understanding U.S. policy towards Israel. I shall have to find the time to read both articles with care.

John Palmer (at The EclectEcon) has a roundup of the critiques of Mearsheimer and Walt. I reserve judgment until I have had a chance to read M&W (and their critics). If the charges of the critics hold true - "a new document that rivals the Protocols for anti-semitism" ... "method of analysis presumes Israel's guilt" ... "clearly does not meet the academic standards of a Kennedy School research paper" ... "an article that is redeemed from complete dullness and mediocrity only by being slightly but unmistakably smelly" - the exceptionalism question will still remain.


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