The Arc of a Covenant: Jews and US foreign affairs - review

Shining light on past US policy to make way for the future

 DRUZE YOUTHS hold up Syrian flags and a banner demanding an end to Israel’s so-called occupation, near Mount Hermon. Mead criticizes radicals in the 1960s and 1970s for starting to view Israel as a colonial power. (photo credit: REUTERS)
DRUZE YOUTHS hold up Syrian flags and a banner demanding an end to Israel’s so-called occupation, near Mount Hermon. Mead criticizes radicals in the 1960s and 1970s for starting to view Israel as a colonial power.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

According to Walter Russell Mead, the claim, which animates but is not limited to antisemites, that “the Jewish lobby” dictates American foreign policy, is demonstrably false. Before World War II, Mead points out, most Jews in the US, with and without deep pockets, opposed the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. 

American Jews are now sharply divided over Israel’s occupation of lands acquired in the 1967 war, settlements and Palestinian rights. Along with some successes, AIPAC, the preeminent Jewish lobby, failed to stop the Reagan administration from selling advanced AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia or prevent the Obama administration from signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear weapons agreement with Iran.

To control foreign policy in a democracy, Mead maintains, leaders need substantial public support. For more than a century, Zionists’ influence in the US has depended heavily on their ability to attract gentiles to their cause.

Zionist influence in the US depends on attracting gentiles to their cause

A professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College, Mead is also a fellow of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank; a member of the Council on Foreign Relations; co-founder of the New America Foundation; and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. His books include Power, Terror, Peace and War: America’s Grand Strategy in a World at Risk; Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World; and Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition.

American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative] (credit: REUTERS)American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative] (credit: REUTERS)

In his book The Arc of a Covenant, Mead provides a wide-ranging analysis of attitudes toward Jews throughout American history but focused principally on the years following the founding of Zionism, the immigration of two million Jews to the US, the British government’s Balfour Declaration and the relationship between the US and Israel. An almost universal endorsement of liberalism, democracy and individual freedom, he argues, inclined the vast majority of Americans to believe that Jews could be proud of their national identity and fully integrated into the society and culture of the US.

The approach of political leaders to Israel, and to foreign policy, in general, Mead maintains, has involved a balance between “idealists’” desire to spread (or impose) a liberal order and human rights on the rest of the world and “realists’” assessment of the “magical thinking” that even a superpower possesses “the power, the wisdom, or the will” to do so. Policy makers, Mead adds, are acutely aware that “for a foreign policy to succeed, it must also succeed politically at home.”

To illuminate these dynamics, Mead traces the dramatic shift of pro-Israeli sentiment from the political Left to the Right in the US. Sensitized by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and ’70s, he notes, a new, more radical generation, alert to the defects of nationalism, began to view Israel as a colonial power, oppressing people of color. While the “providential nationalism” of the Jewish state attracted politically active – and equally providential – evangelical Christians, who believed it demonstrated the truth of biblical prophecies.

Mead’s assessments of American policies and policymakers are candid, provocative and, at times, over the top. “If ‘the Jews’ ran America, immigration would not have been restricted [in the 1920, ’30s and ’40s],” he writes, and “Israel would likely not exist.” President Harry S. Truman was “one of the most effective foreign policy leaders in American history.” Because Soviet-aligned governments in Eastern Europe provided the votes to pass key UN resolutions, and Czechoslovakia sent weapons to Jewish forces, despite a US-imposed arms embargo on both sides (a de-facto intervention in favor of the Arabs who continued to receive weapons from Great Britain) that turned the tide in the War of Independence, Mead declares that Joseph Stalin played a “much more important role” than Truman in the establishment of the State of Israel.

A “radical centrist,” closer to realists than to idealists, Mead faults US presidents since Jimmy Carter, especially the Democrats, for treating a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians as if it were “the Holy Grail,” the “ultimate trophy whose acquisition would secure their place in history,” even though it actually is what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin – an object whose actual importance is “dwarfed by the events they set in motion.” And for refusing to acknowledge that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “one more dreary, intractable ethno-nationalist conflict.”

Mead also chastises these presidents for failing to understand “the most important thing about Israel”: the Jewish state was “founded on a reasonable and historically justified skepticism,” reinforced by the Holocaust, “about the ability of liberal order to protect Jews.”

“Policy advice has a short shelf life,” Mead emphasizes. His support for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example, subsequently gave way to serious reservations. And, it is worth noting, the prediction in The Arc of a Covenant – that the surge in oil production and fracking makes the US less tied to developments in the Middle East and Vladimir Putin’s Russia “a less formidable adversary” – has already been rendered obsolete by the war in Ukraine.

That said, Mead’s reluctance to present alternatives to the many policies he criticizes (including president Barack Obama’s “unceremonious dumping” of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the “shortsighted and destructive Libyan intervention” in 2011) is regrettable. After all, as he indicates, “shining a useful light on the relationship between the ways Americans think about the world and the approaches they develop to act in it... is an essential step in developing new concepts for American strategy in a new era.”

And so, who wouldn’t welcome policy advice, however tentative, by this thoughtful and well-informed scholar about the role of the US in a conflict that is – or just seems to be – intractable? 

The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. 

The Arc of a CovenantBy Walter Russell Mead Alfred A. Knopf 654 pages; $35