Stephen M. Walt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Balancing American Power in the Post-9/11 World: Conversation with Stephen M. Walt, Academic Dean and Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Kennedy School, Harvard University; November 15, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Domestic Influences on U.S. Foreign Policy

One of the themes that emerges in your book as you look at the various ways that actors balance is the notion that because we are an open, liberal democracy, weaker states, whether allies or not, can penetrate our political system and greatly impact the choices we make about our policy, for example, in a particular region. I was intrigued to note that this theme actually emerged in your very first book, and in your new book you, in a very authoritative way, comment on the role of AIPAC, the Israeli lobby, in influencing U.S. policy. You make clear that these are loyal Americans using the American system. But what are the consequences for that? And in what ways should we think about this problem?

Well, it should be, in the first instance, thought of as just a normal feature of American politics. We are a system of government that's based on interest groups, whether it's sugar beet farmers who are trying to get protection so that they can sell more sugar in the United States, or textile manufacturers, or teacher's unions, or whoever. So, this is a very normal feature. Anybody who wants to shape American policy organizes to do so and then starts using the various tools of a democracy. You write letters, you make campaign contributions, you go to talk to congressional officials, you try to get your people placed in the executive branch so that they can influence policy directly, you try to shape who gets elected and who doesn't get elected. It's a very familiar story and there's nothing special about any of the ethnic lobbies that have tried to shape American foreign policy in the past.

That said, the question most or all Americans should ask is whether or not that influence is in the American national interest. What you see, in my view, is a number of cases where the very powerful impact of some foreign policy oriented lobbies has led the United States to adopt policies that were not in its interest. I use three examples in the book. One is the Israel lobby, the other is the emerging Indian American lobby, and finally in the Armenian-American lobby as well, mostly to show how under certain conditions relatively small groups of people, once they are well organized and once they're focused on a single issue, can have a very big impact.

I regard the impact of the Israel lobby as the most important because American policy towards Israel and towards the Middle East, and American policy with respect to the Israel/Palestine conflict has such powerful repercussions in helping generate anti-American terrorism in the region, in helping undermine our stance with lots of other countries as well, and perhaps most tragically in my view, also leading the United States to undertake a number of policies which have not been in Israel's long-run interest, where in a sense we have acted as the "enabler."

What I would like to see is that the current taboo against being able to even talk about this openly and rationally in American politics begins to dissipate. Right now, this has become a subject that you can barely talk about without people immediately trying to silence you, immediately trying to discredit you in various ways, such that no American politicians will touch this, which is quite remarkable when you consider how much Americans argue about every other controversial political issue. To me, this is a national security priority for us and we ought to be having an open debate on it, not one where only one side is being heard from. That's not what the whole book is about, that's just one part of it, but ...

But it's a piece of it, and it's important because of the importance of domestic politics in the making of U.S. foreign policy. In fact, as you discussed it, it reminded me of some of the things that have been written about the way the conservatives in domestic politics on issues like welfare, abortion, and so on, over years developed think tanks and individuals who then became very influential in national policy and you're suggesting that this has been true in national security ...

In some areas of national security ...

Yes. Not entirely. But in fact, as you just said, it may not necessarily be in Israel's long-term interest if the policies are mistaken and they're not open to the kind of vigorous debate that our democracy depends on.

The great irony in that, just to push a little bit forward, is that of course, there is a much wider ranging, and heated, and lively, and interesting debate within Israel itself over what Israel's policies are.

Yeah, yeah. Just go to Haaretz every day.

Which I do repeatedly, but not just Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post has a different perspective than Haaretz and other Israeli newspapers. They're all over the map. They say lots of things back and forth, completely lively, highly admirable democratic debate going on there, and you come back across the United States and the range of opinion in most mainstream publications runs from sort of A to A minus. We just don't have the same kind of debate there, which is unfortunate given how active our role is and how important it is to our long-term interests, and I believe also important ultimately to Israel's future.

Next page: Conclusions

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