Today, the Charles Koch Institute, a think tank funded by one of the conservative movement’s most generous donors, will host a conference featuring some of the academy’s most virulent foes of Israel.
Charles and David Koch, scions of the Koch Industries fortune, have always leaned libertarian in their political giving and nonprofit work. The two brothers have supported criminal-justice reform and other free-market initiatives in education and labor. In foreign policy, the Kochs have stayed away from the uglier fringes that blame Israel and its supporters for hijacking U.S. foreign policy. That is, until now.
The institute’s conference scheduled for Wednesday will feature separate panels with Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, co-authors of the 2006 book “The Israel Lobby.”
While Walt and Mearsheimer are hardly household names, they are known in U.S. policy circles. Their book prompted Abe Foxman, who was then national director of the Anti-Defamation League, to write a response, “The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.”
The institute’s decision to host a conference that features Walt, Mearsheimer and a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas Freeman, is in keeping with a general realignment of U.S. politics in 2016. Under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, conservatives have embraced Israel and accused their partisan foes of not supporting the Jewish State, but this year has brought a shift. This week for example, the conservative website Breitbart featured a story that accused Weekly Standard editor William Kristol of being a “renegade Jew.”
The shift is also important for what it says about the Kochs. This week, the National Review reported how the Koch brothers were shutting down many of their political operations to focus more on policy. The institute’s conference is one indication of the kind of policy that will receive greater Koch investment.
In recent years Walt and Mearsheimer have gotten a cold shoulder from the right, but have been embraced by the anti-war movement. For example they were the featured speakers at a 2011 conference sponsored by Code Pink and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. It was called Move Over Aipac, a reference to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
This made sense. Walt and Mearsheimer have doubled down against the pro-Israel lobby. In 2011 Mearsheimer blurbed a book from the notorious Holocaust denier Gilad Atzmon. During the Iran deal debate last summer, Walt tweeted his praise for an article that asserted the opponents of the Iran agreement were puppets of Israel’s prime minister.
Freeman, another panelist at Wednesday’s conference, has a similar record. In 2009 many Republicans led a campaign to stop his nomination to be the chairman of the National Intelligence Council in part because of his extreme views on Americans who support the Jewish State. In 2012, Freeman delivered a speech in Moscow on the topic, where he said, “In some countries, like the United States, Israel can rely upon a ‘fifth column’ of activist sympathizers to amplify its messages.”
Will Ruger, vice president of research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute, pushed back on the idea that his think tank was providing a “platform” to Walt, Mearsheimer and Freeman. “They are all very respected members of the foreign policy community and the academy,” he said.
When asked whether he endorsed Freeman’s view of American supporters of Israel, Ruger backed off: “We’re not endorsing anything or everything these people have said; we are trying to have a broad conversation about foreign policy.” But he stressed that Freeman was a former ambassador and assistant secretary of defense and that he wrote the entry for diplomacy for the Encyclopedia Britannica. “His voice as a practitioner is relevant to a foreign policy conversation,” he said.
“We went out of our way to invite a broad, diverse set of panelists for this conference,” Ruger said, pointing out that the institute had also invited two prominent advisers to Hillary Clinton, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Michele Flournoy, who both served in the Obama administration at senior levels. Neither Slaughter nor Flournoy could make it, but Kathleen Hicks, who served as a senior Pentagon official during Obama’s first term, will appear on a panel at the conference with Mearsheimer.
But the ideological diversity for the Charles Koch Institute has its limits. When asked whether the institute invited any neoconservatives to the conference, Ruger said, “Since I don’t want to assign labels to people, I don’t want to say.” He added, “We are trying to get away from labels, and we’re trying to focus on ideas.” The same cannot be said for Freeman, Mearsheimer or Walt.
(c) 2016, Bloomberg View · Eli Lake