Sunday, April 30, 2006

Ferment Over 'The Israel Lobby'

In a very worthwhile article by Phillip Weiss in The Nation, the author elaborates on the backdrop of Walt and Mearheimer's American heresy ("The Israel Lobby"), their personalities and the problems surrounding actually getting the paper published. A few excerpts:

The shock waves from the article continue to resonate. The initial response was outrage from Israel supporters, some likening the authors to neo-Nazis. The Anti-Defamation League called the paper "a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control." University of Chicago Professor Daniel Drezner called it "piss-poor, monocausal social science." Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz said the men had "destroyed their professional reputations." Even left-leaning critics dismissed the piece as inflammatory and wrong. As time passed (and the Ku Klux Klan remained dormant), a more rational debate began. The New York Times, having first downplayed the article, printed a long op-ed by historian Tony Judt saying that out of fear, the mainstream media were failing to face important ideas the article had put forward. And Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, praised it at the Middle East Institute for conveying "blinding flashes of the obvious," ideas "that were whispered in corners rather than said out loud at cocktail parties where someone else could hear you."

Given the paper's parentage, the ferment over it raises political questions. How did these ideas get to center stage? And what do they suggest about the character of the antiwar intelligentsia?

Let's begin with the personalities. The more forceful member of the duo (and the one who would talk to me), Mearsheimer, 58, is by nature an outsider. Though he spent ten years of his youth in the military, graduating from West Point, he wasn't much for tents and guns even as he latched on to David Halberstam's book The Best and the Brightest because it explained a horrible war. Out of pure intellectual curiosity Mearsheimer, who had become an officer in the Air Force, enrolled in graduate school classes at the University of Southern California. Today he is a realist powerhouse at the University of Chicago, publishing such titles as Conventional Deterrence. Like Mearsheimer, Walt, 50, grew up in privilege, but he is a courtly and soft-spoken achiever. Stanford, Berkeley and Princeton figured in his progress to Harvard. "I think Steve enjoyed moving into institutional roles," says one academic. "Steve likes a good argument, but unlike John he can be polite. John enjoys the image of the bomb thrower."

Mearsheimer was hawkish about Israel until the 1990s, when he began to read Israel's "New Historians," a group of Israeli scholars and journalists (among them Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim and Tom Segev) who showed that Israel's founders had been at times ruthless toward Palestinians. Mearsheimer's former student Michael Desch, a professor at Texas A&M, recalls the epiphany: "For a lot of us, who didn't know a lot about the Israel/Palestine conflict beyond the conventional wisdom and Leon Uris's Exodus, we saw a cold war ally; and the moral issue and the common democracy reinforced a strong pro-Israel bent." Then Desch rode to a conference with two left-wing Jewish academics familiar with the New Historians. "My initial reaction was the same as John's: This is crazy. [They argued that] the Israelis weren't the victims of the '48 war to destroy the country. Ben-Gurion had real doubts about partition. Jordan and Israel talked about dividing up the West Bank together. All those things were heretical. They seemed to be coming from way, way out in left field. Then we started reading [them], and it completely changed the way we looked at these things." Mearsheimer says he had been blinded by Uris's novel. "The New Historians' work was a great revelation to me. Not only do they provide an abundance of evidence to back up their stories about how Israel was really created, but their stories make perfect sense. There is no way that waves of European Jews moving into a land filled with Palestinians are going to create a Jewish state without breaking a lot of Palestinian heads.... It's just not possible."

Mearsheimer and Walt had plenty of ideological company. After 9/11, many other realists were questioning American policy in the Mideast. Stephen Van Evera, an international relations professor at MIT, began writing papers showing that the American failure to deal fairly with the Israel/Palestine conflict was fostering support for Al Qaeda across the Muslim world. Robert Pape, a professor down the hall from Mearsheimer at Chicago, published a book, Dying to Win, showing that suicide bombers were not religiously motivated but were acting pragmatically against occupiers.

The writer Anatol Lieven says he reluctantly took on the issue after 9/11 as a matter of "duty"--when the Carnegie Endowment, where he was a senior associate, asked him to. "I knew bloody well it would bring horrible unpopularity.... All my personal loyalties are the other way. I've literally dozens of Jewish friends; I have no Palestinian friends." Lieven says he was a regular at the Aspen Institute till he brought up the issue. "I got kicked out of Aspen.... In early 2002 they held a conference on relations with the Muslim world. For two days nobody mentioned Israel. Finally, I said, 'Look, this is a Soviet-style debate. Whatever you think about this issue, the entire Muslim world is shouting about it.' I have never been asked back." In 2004 Lieven published a book, America Right or Wrong, in which he argued that the United States had subordinated its interests to a tiny militarized state, Israel. Attacked as an anti-Semite, Lieven says he became a pariah among many colleagues at the Carnegie Endowment, which he left for the fledgling New America Foundation.

Yet another on this path was the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama, a neoconservative-turned-realist. In 2004 he attended Charles Krauthammer's speech at the American Enterprise Institute about spreading democracy and was shocked by the many positive effects Krauthammer saw in the Iraq War. Fukuyama attacked this militaristic thinking in an article in The National Interest. He wrote with sympathy of the Palestinians and said the neoconservatives confused American and Israeli interests. "Are we like Israel, locked in a remorseless struggle with a large part of the Arab and Muslim world, with few avenues open to us for dealing with them other than an iron fist?... I believe that there are real problems in transposing one situation to the other." Krauthammer responded in personal terms, all but accusing Fukuyama of anti-Semitism. "The remarkable thing about the debate was how oblique Frank's reference to the issue was and how batshit Krauthammer and the other neoconservatives went," says Mike Desch. "It is important to them to keep this a third rail in American politics. They understood that even an elliptical reference would open the door, and they immediately all jumped on Frank to make the point, 'Don't go there.'" It seems to have worked. The soft-spoken Fukuyama left out the critique of the neocon identification with Israel in his recent book, America at the Crossroads.

Something in Mearsheimer's spirit would seem to be fulfilled in upsetting people by expressing ideas that he deeply believes. "When you write about this subject and you're critical of Israeli policy or critical of the US-Israel relationship, you are invariably going to be called an anti-Semite," he says. When I said he had autonomy as a professor to enjoy "free discourse" in this country, he said, "What free discourse in the United States? What free discourse are you talking about?" Mearsheimer's friend Van Evera criticizes him for allowing his legitimate anger over being shut out of the discourse to affect the tone of the article. But Mearsheimer was expressing his sharp personality; and doesn't passion give life to an argument?

The authors have gotten support from hundreds of e-mails, three-quarters of which congratulate them, Mearsheimer says. Foreign-service officers in Washington who are frightened by the neoconservative program are said to be excitedly passing the article around. The European left has also welcomed the paper, saying that these issues must be discussed. And even in Israel the article has had a respectful reading, with a writer in Ha'aretz saying it was a "wake-up call" to Americans about the relationship.


Mearsheimer and Walt at times were simplistic and shrill. But it may have required such rhetoric to break through the cinder block and get attention for their ideas. Democracy depends on free exchange, and free exchange means not always having to be careful. Lieven says we have seen in another system the phenomenon of intellectuals strenuously denouncing an article that could not even be published in their own country: the Soviet Union. "If somebody like me, an absolute down-the-line centrist on this issue--my position on Israel/Palestine is identical to that of the Blair government--has so much difficulty publishing, it's a sign of how extremely limited and ethically rotten the media debate is in this country."

Not quite sure about the "centrist position of the Blair-government though...

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At 6:43 PM, Blogger Dr Victorino de la Vega said...

Anotol Lieven’s book is an insightful exploration of 21st century American nationalism.
Lieven quotes extensively from an October 2000 Steve Walt research paper: “Keeping the World Off Balance: Self Restraint and US Foreign Policy”.
Basically, Walt and Lieven both argue that (contemporary) American nationalism is similar in many ways to Wilhelmine German nationalism, notably because of its “unsatisfied” anti-status quo, expansionist and militarist nature…

To me, the fanatical Hegelian assertiveness of the ideologues behind both Pan-Germanism and American Nationalism constitutes another equally worrying similarity.

At 9:34 PM, Blogger Sophia said...

Everything that has happened since the Walt and Mearsheimer paper appeared confirms their central thesis about the lobby.

At 10:08 PM, Blogger Wolfie said...

Excellent observation Sophia.

At 8:01 PM, Blogger jeffepops said...

Re: Sophia's comment, and Wolfie's assent --

What is the "everything" that you claim has happened, and how does that relate to the Walt-Mearsheimer paper's "central thesis" (have you read the paper, and do you know what it's central thesis is?)

What reaction by those who disagree with the W-M paper would be acceptable to you? It seems to me that it's like the old right wing argument in support of unconstitutional police search and seizure - " if you aren't doing anything wrong, you shouldn't have a problem with it."

By your standards, no group should ever respond or protest to what they perceive to be an injustice or false accusation, lest their protests simply "prove" that the accusation is accurate.

I look forward to your detailed and well reasoned response.


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