Small lies, big lies, and the Israel lobby

To those of us for whom the claim that the Israel lobby is all-powerful is neither a well established truism nor an ugly piece of anti-Semitism, the evidence presented in support of this claim matters a great deal. Surely Washington has more lobbies than a derelict dog has fleas. And, lobbying is a constitutionally protected activity, like the right to free speech and the right to vote. Hence, the pivotal question is whether the Israel lobby is significantly more powerful than others, and whether it is able to check-mate the usually pro-Arab oil companies, the arms manufacturers, and the other relevant lobbies that affect our foreign policy.

There are quite a few who have taken for granted the veracity of claims that the Israel lobby is all-powerful on the grounds that a new book making this case has been written by two highly regarded scholars; John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt of the University of Chicago and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, respectively. In fact, the quantitative data they cite amount to (at best) a very thin reed on which to hang such a mighty claim. I will donate my house to anyone who can find a half respectable social science publication that would publish what these two present as evidence.

The authors write:

In 1997, Fortune Magazine asked members of Congress and their staffs to list the most powerful lobbies in Washington. AIPAC was ranked second behind the American Association of Retired People, but ahead of the AFL-CIO and the National Rifle Association. A National Journal study in March of 2005 reached a similar conclusion, placing AIPAC in second place (tied with AARP) in the Washington 'muscle rankings'.

In fact, the Fortune survey was not made of Congress members and their staffs, but of 2,165 "Washington insiders" (chosen by two panels whose membership has not been disclosed), a group that includes an unknown number of congressional members and staffers, among an unknown number of others. More importantly, in both surveys roughly six out of every seven persons asked, i.e.most of those asked, did not respond. The authors' claim that members of Congress and their staffs ranked the Israel lobby higher than many others is based on 15% of those who were surveyed. No respectable social scientist (and many unrespectable ones) would dare to suggest that they have a sense of what any given group holds on the basis of the responses from such a small minority.

Moreover, social science has numerous procedures to correct for such a deficit of responses. One can return to the same group and elicit more answers, draw another sample, or study the differences between those who did and did not respond--and adjust the conclusions accordingly. None of these methods were employed here.

The number of people who responded is so small that an additional vote or two, or a change of mind by one or two respondents, would have significantly altered the results of the survey. The total number of the National Journal responses--which did survey only law makers--is 73. (Congress, the last time I checked, had 535 members and at least 17,000 staff members). The National Federation of Independent Business was ranked first and the National Rifle Association second--with nine and eight votes, respectively! In third place, ranked as the most powerful by seven members, was the US Chamber of Commerce. The AARP and AIPAC were each given the nod by five members. The oil companies and the arms manufacturers were not on the list of those to be ranked. I wonder if any student at GWU could get away with a term paper that held that such small numbers support a generalization about any given population or the ranking of a set of groups.

Some will say that all of this is nothing other than typical social science hair splitting. But, these data go to the heart of the matter. Is the Israel lobby just one among a whole slew of lobbies, each pulling Washington its own way? Is it one of the more effective ones? Or can it trump all the others? What the data show is surprisingly little. The book stands much more on accusatory anecdotes than, as the authors' claim, on evidence.

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Micro-blogging: To see the kind of virulent anti-Semitism that rages in Europe, go to Google video, scroll all the way down, click on UK and use the search bar.

Amitai Etzioni is University Professor at The George Washington University, and the author of Security First: For A Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy (Yale University Press, 2007).
www.securityfirstbook.com