The postwar American strategy of containing the Soviet Union had an architect—George F. Kennan, the mysterious “Mr. X” who wrote the 1947 Foreign Affairs article that drew from the “Long Telegram,” which laid out a blueprint for American policy that prevailed until the end of Cold War. So does President Barack Obama’s new Middle East policy. The identity of the Obama Administration’s “Mr. X” may surprise some readers and anger others. It may be especially galling to pundits and thinkers on both the left and the right—Fareed Zakaria, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Richard Haass, among others—who have spent late nights dreaming of being crowned the new Kennan of the Middle East and must face up to the fact that one of their less-celebrated colleagues now wears the laurels.
But first, some background. In the wake of the Iraq war, the Arab Spring, and the interim agreement with Iran, the Middle East has become as disorienting as Europe seemed at the end of World War Two. In the midst of widespread regional upheaval, the Obama Administration has seemingly abandoned longtime allies, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, while embracing traditional adversaries, like Iran. Few can make sense of the United States’ refusal to maintain what it had previously defined as core national interests in the region for nearly half a century, like peace in the eastern Mediterranean—an objective forsaken by the decision not to intervene in the Syrian civil war.
Yet chaos also brings opportunity. Every graduate student in foreign policy, international relations, or political science today dreams of becoming the next “X” and authoring the next Long Telegram. Absent such a clear strategic blueprint, it’s been hard for most reporters and analysts to tell whether the White House has any discernible strategy in the Middle East or if, as The American Interest’s editor-in-chief Adam Garfinkle recently wrote, it’s “just distracted ad hocery.”
In fact, many observers across the political spectrum argue that there’s no coherent American Middle East policy at all. From the right, columnist Charles Krauthammer argues that Obama is simply presiding over a decline in American influence, while Democratic policymakers like Sen. Robert Menendez apparently can’t make heads or tails of the White House’s Iran policy. If sanctions got the Iranians to the negotiating table, Menendez and others ask, then why is the White House fighting against a further round of sanctions that would give Washington more leverage?
Because it’s part of the Administration’s grand strategy. As Obama explained to David Remnick in a recent New Yorker interview, the goal is to create a “geopolitical equilibrium” between Sunni “Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”
And so it turns out that the Kennan of Obama’s Middle East policy is Stephen Walt, the Harvard professor, who outlined the same idea Obama described to Remnick in a Nov. 21 post on FP.com in which he argued for a “realist, balance-of-power policy.” According to Walt, the specific question facing U.S. policymakers is how to achieve such a policy, when the United States has “‘special relationships’ with certain regional powers”—like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and, of course, Israel.
It is the focus on the impediment posed by these “special relationships” to realist balance-of-power policymaking that distinguishes Walt from virtually every other American in the realist school. Sure, former policymakers like Jim Baker have lamented the influence of Jewish Americans on American policymaking—but compared to Walt, Baker was a squish. It was Walt whose 2006 London Review of Books article “The Israel Lobby,” co-authored with University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, later expanded into a controversial book with the same title, first targeted the problem directly: The pro-Israel community needs to be cut down to size.
Unlike Kennan, a career diplomat, or Baker, a former secretary of state, Walt doesn’t have a formal role in government, or even any privileged access to this White House. But his ideas have nevertheless emerged at the core of a major shift in U.S. Middle East policy, which may come as a surprise to those who dismissed him as a fringe academic. The idea certainly isn’t pleasant for this columnist, who’s documented Walt’s dog-whistling blog posts meant to draw anti-Semites and anti-anti-Semites to his FP.com column, but it’s hard to dismiss his influence now. So, I tip my hat to the new George Kennan, for whether you love him or hate him, Stephen Walt has won the X sweepstakes.
Walt doesn’t really have a problem with Israel’s existence, per se. What he argues is that the Jewish state is not as great a friend as many of its partisans in Washington appear to believe. As Walt and Mearsheimer wrote in “The Israel Lobby,” Israel is actually a strategic burden for the United States: Walt believes that American support for Israel is one of the reasons for terrorist attacks on U.S. citizens and interests. By spying on the United States and making arms deals harmful to American interests, Israel has shown that it’s not a “loyal ally.” As for the moral case for supporting Israel, Walt and Mearsheimer wrote, “Israel’s past and present conduct offers no moral basis for privileging it over the Palestinians.”
How, then, can we explain U.S. support for Israel, “if neither strategic nor moral arguments can account for America’s support”? The issue, explain Walt and Mearsheimer, is Israel’s backers, who include not just some, but hardly all, Jewish Americans, but also many Christian evangelicals, as well as a large pro-Israel chorus in the American press and the Washington think-tank community (a list that includes two of my own employers, the Weekly Standard and the Hudson Institute).
But the flagship of the Israel lobby, according to Walt and Mearsheimer, is AIPAC. “The bottom line,” they wrote, eight years ago now, “is that AIPAC, a de facto agent for a foreign government, has a stranglehold on Congress, with the result that U.S. policy towards Israel is not debated there, even though that policy has important consequences for the entire world.”
AIPAC’s focus the last several years has been on halting Iran’s march toward the bomb. Accordingly, AIPAC has been at the forefront of lobbying for sanctions on Iran, while Obama opposed sanctions. Yet Congress forced sanctions on the White House, and now the Senate, led by Menendez and Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, wants more sanctions, even though Obama promised in his State of the Union address last week to veto any further sanctions legislation that crosses his desk. And yet the Senate is steadily approaching a veto-proof majority. The only way to stop them, as Obama sees it, is by crushing the pro-sanctions—i.e., pro-Israel—community, which is the true impediment to making a new Middle East, where America’s limited but real interests can be pursued according to traditional balance-of-power techniques.
Maybe Obama understood even in his first term that historical reconciliation with a state sponsor of terror that publicly threatened to wipe the Zionist regime off the map could only happen over the dead body of AIPAC. But it wasn’t until his second term that Obama tested the waters that Walt suggested by nominating Chuck Hagel as defense secretary. By pushing Hagel, who prided himself on his open antipathy to the pro-Israel community in Congress, Obama played on the dual loyalties of the community—on one hand, there was the half that held fast to the U.S.-Israel relationship, and on the other were those whose chief loyalty was neither to the United States nor to Israel, but rather to the Democratic party. When AIPAC disdained fighting Obama’s nominee, it showed him the pro-Israel crowd wasn’t as tough as it let on.
The president truly loves Israel, his supporters explained to their Democratic constituents; he feels it in his kishkes. Maybe. In any case, he showed the pro-Israel community the back of his hand. When the president had decided to strike Syrian regime targets after Bashar al-Assad had violated his red line by using chemical weapons, AIPAC was eager to lobby on behalf of the president—who then hung AIPAC out to dry. Again, the point of these moves on Obama’s part was not to express any personal prejudice or dislike for American Jews, a group that voted overwhelmingly for him in both 2008 and 2012. Rather, it was to smash the power of the pro-Israel lobby in America, which Walt had identified as Washington’s real nemesis.
As the New York Times reported this week, AIPAC has found its influence newly blunted. The group’s confusion in the face of this onslaught is both poignant and sad. Three weeks ago, the Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo reported that AIPAC sent out a letter that “urged its members” to call the office of Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to “respectfully ask” why she was blocking a House resolution backing new sanctions on Iran. Last week, as Kredo reported in a follow-up, “AIPAC’s Southeastern states director Mark Kleinman issued a second letter, this one defending Wasserman Schultz.” As one pro-Israel activist told Kredo, “One of these letters shows their incompetence; we’re just not sure which one it is.” Other observers were yet more concerned. As AIPAC’s former Director of Foreign Policy Issues Steven Rosen told Kredo, “At the center of AIPAC is bipartisanship. And the day it breaks with either of two parties is the day it ceases to exist—and they’re pretty close.”
Which is just how Stephen Walt, Obama’s X, imagined it. Now let’s see how our new policy in the Middle East turns out for us and for the people who live there.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).