Analysts see ‘disaster’ in U.S. position

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The authors of a hotly debated study on the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington said yesterday that the Bush administration’s unquestioning support for Israel’s military action in Lebanon confirms their thesis that the power of the lobby hurts both U.S. and Israeli national interests.

“Backing Israel to the hilt in the recent war in Lebanon was a disaster for the Lebanese people, served none of our real strategic goals in the region and ended up hurting Israel as well,” said John Mearsheimer, political scientist and co-director of the University of Chicago’s international security program.

Mr. Mearsheimer and co-author Stephen M. Walt, an international affairs scholar and academic dean at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, showed no signs of backing away from their analysis of the U.S.-Israel lobby at a National Press Club briefing.

The event was sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the country’s largest Muslim civil rights group.

That analysis, published in the London Review of Books in March, was a lengthy attack on what the authors said was the distorting power of pro-Israel interest groups, think tanks, campaign donors and public officials to slant U.S. policy toward the Jewish state.

The article sparked a heated debate. Some praised the authors for taking on one of the country’s most powerful lobbies, while others condemned them for everything from sloppy scholarship to anti-Semitism.

Mr. Walt said the two authors never said that groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was involved in a conspiracy to drive support of Israel or to stifle debate in the United States, but that the ability of the Israel lobby to influence friends and punish adversaries on Middle East issues was “no secret inside the Beltway.”

“It wasn’t what we said” that sparked a firestorm, he said yesterday. “It was the fact that two card-carrying members of the American intellectual establishment finally pointed out the elephant in the room.”

Mr. Mearsheimer said the Bush administration’s strong backing of Israel’s tactics and strategy in the conflict against Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon harmed U.S. interests in several ways.

The inconclusive battle strengthened Hezbollah’s standing in Lebanon and throughout the Arab and Muslim world, he said. The shelling of Beirut and other cities heightened anti-Israel and anti-U.S. feelings, fostering recruitment for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Mr. Mearsheimer said the U.S. stance in the conflict strengthened Iran’s ties to Hezbollah, gave Iranians a new reason to meddle in Iraq and supplied Tehran with yet another incentive to expedite its nuclear program.

The University of Chicago scholar said in an interview before the briefing that the article had “broken a taboo,” but that it was too soon to tell whether it would have a lasting effect on U.S. foreign policy.

“If nothing else, I think there’s a lot of evidence that we have opened up a little space in this debate so that people can actually talk about the issue,” he said.

Mr. Walt said he and his colleague are preparing an article to address the criticisms raised about their earlier piece.

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