Lara Friedman has a post over at Zion Square on the role of AIPAC in hyping a potential war with Iran, arguing that pro-Israel groups should hesitate about proving Walt and Mearsheimer correct. The two professors argued in their book, The Israel Lobby, that pro-Israel groups like AIPAC were, among other things, responsible for pushing the U.S. into the Iraq War, and Friedman notes that they were wrong in that contention but that their argument then might apply now. I have spent a lot of time dealing with Walt and Mearsheimer’s theories (I wrote a long, and what I think is a definitive, rebuttal of the argument that lobbying drives U.S. policy on Israel in Security Studies in April 2011) and I certainly agree that they were wrong on Iraq, and that the current potential contretemps with Iran has more AIPAC involvement, but I would focus on a different aspect than Friedman does.
Walt and Mearsheimer argue that the pro-Israel lobby was a critical force in driving the Iraq War because there were many neo-cons both in and out of government devoted to Israel who argued that invading Iraq was critical to winning the war on terror and because Israeli officials who were not part of the government at that time penned op-eds urging the U.S. to take out Saddam. Walt and Mearsheimer are essentially arguing that pro-Israel folks who were cheerleading for the Iraq War had an ulterior motive, and that ultimately their primary concern was Israel’s safety and security, so whatever their arguments were in public, they should be somewhat discounted based on what we think we know about their true motivations and statuses as leading lights of the Israel lobby.
Irrespective of whether this view of history is correct (and I think it’s entirely absurd), the situation now with Iran is very different because AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups are making no secret about their motivation – they loudly and publicly have been telling anyone who will listen that Iran presents an existential threat to Israel’s existence. This is not some shadowy lobbying effort behind the scenes, but a very public p.r. campaign. It doesn’t get much clearer than Bibi Netanyahu telling the AIPAC conference that Israel reserves the right to protect itself and can’t afford to wait much longer. This type of rhetoric from the Israeli government or from AIPAC spokesmen was very hard to find in the run-up to the Iraq War, which is why Walt and Mearsheimer’s arguments about Iraq sound like conspiracy-mongering. If the U.S. ends up attacking Iran, nobody will question that Israel or pro-Israel groups pushed for it because they have not been pretending to do otherwise.
So contra Friedman, I don’t think that Israeli pressure to bomb Iran will prove Walt and Mearsheimer right. Their theory about the Iraq War rests on an argument that pro-Israel groups exerted pressure behind the scenes while masking their true motives. That is clearly not what is going on here, and pro-Israel lobbying groups have every much right to lobby for their pet causes as any other group does. If there is a war with Iran and AIPAC gets blamed, then it will have to deal with the consequences, but unlike with Iraq it’s feelings this time are crystal clear and nobody needs to absurdly trace an alleged web of nefarious neo-con connections to divine the group’s true motivations.