John Mearsheimer & Stephen Walt: Their book as controversial as their original article on Israel
It’s not every day that a book is discredited by the simple act of its publication. But that’s precisely what will happen with the release this week of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, an expanded version of the now-notorious London Review of Books essay by professors-turned-provocateurs John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard‘s Kennedy School of Government.
In the original essay, it may remembered, the authors leveled the sensational charge that Israel’s supporters in the United States, when not manipulating American foreign policy to Israel’s advantage and wrenching the country into the Iraq war, posed a terrible threat to American democracy. Lurking behind every curtain, the “Israel Lobby“ was guilty not only of “silencing skeptics” – presumably like Mearsheimer and Walt – but also of stifling debate about Israel in Congress and thereby subverting the “entire process of democratic deliberation.” Truly, this was a force to be reckoned with.
So, one can’t help but wonder: How is it that this all-effecting lobby, with infinite powers of intimidation at its disposal, has nonetheless failed to prevent the publication of a nearly 500-page tome that purports to expose its sinister doings? To those with a less conspiratorial cast of mind than the authors, the answer seems fairly obvious. There is not now nor has there ever been an omnipotent “Israel Lobby.” Of course, there are pro-Israel lobbying groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). And yes, these groups do influence American foreign policy. In this respect, they are no different than the Saudi lobby, which has bent American policy to the benefit of a famously corrupt and terrorism-sponsoring monarchy, though neither Mearsheimer nor Walt shows any interest in the subject.
What AIPAC demonstrably is not is an author and arbitrator of American foreign policy. Indeed, that would be an impossible role to play for an organization whose supporters run the ideological gamut from Howard Dean and Barack Obama to John Bolton and Dick Cheney. To suggest that AIPAC sets foreign policy is thus no more plausible than the authors’ initial claim, eerily reminiscent of classic anti-Semitism and noticeably stricken from their new book, that AIPAC is a “de facto agent for a foreign government.”
But grant the authors this much: Strong, if by no means unwavering, support Israel has for several decades been a feature of American foreign policy. However, unless one is prepared to believe that the nearly 60 percent of Americans, whom polls show sympathize with the Jewish state over her Arab neighbors, are witless pawns of scheming lobbyists, the notion that American foreign policy has been shanghaied into serving Israel first sounds like so much wild-eyed paranoia. An unfriendly observer might even suggest that to the extent that Mearsheimer and Walt are defying a broad American consensus in favor of supporting Israel, it is they who are the real enemies of “democratic deliberation.” In a society that rightly values dissent, that would be grossly unfair. It would also be a more accurate reading of political reality than anything you are likely to find in The Israel Lobby.
For all the flaws of its argument, the book is not so easily dismissed. As academics in two of the country’s more esteemed universities, Mearsheimer and Walt naturally benefit from the prestige of their profession and lend credibility to the consortium of cranks who have long singled out Israel and her supporters as a malign influence on American policymaking. Raving about the “Zionist Occupied Government,” David Duke – a declared fan of The Israel Lobby, as it happens – could easily be dismissed as a demented bigot. Ex-Congressman Paul Findley and ex-Ambassador Andrew Kilgore, who saw the hand of the “Jewish lobby” behind their career disappointments, could be pegged as embittered politicians with axes to grind. Pat Buchanan, in laying the first Gulf War to the charge of “the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States,” could be seen with equal justice as a marginal figure with no significant constituency. In The Israel Lobby, the preoccupations of this political fringe have been culled from the ideological wilderness and repackaged as reputable scholarship. Conspiracy-mongering has gone mainstream.
In this sense, Mearsheimer and Walt are merely ambassadors for conventional academic wisdom. Best known for its association with Middle East Studies departments, hysteria about Israel and her supporters (Jewish and otherwise) has become a stock theme in academia. DePaul University’s Norman Finkelstein, for instance, has made a dubious career of calumniating “American Jewish elites” for forging a lasting alliance with Israel – an unforgivable offense for a man who considers early Zionist settlers “racists” and the nation they created an “apartheid” state. Similarly, the dean of academic radicalism, Noam Chomsky, has long reviled both Israel and all those who dare to speak in her defense, even devoting a book, Fateful Triangle, to attacking Israel’s supporters. (In the book’s foreword, the late Edward Said praised Chomsky for depicting the PLO and Arabs generally as the victims of a “profoundly inhuman, cynical and deliberately cruel” Israel.) More recently, their ranks have been joined by British historian Tony Judt. In 2005, Judt wrote in the Nation that to “say that Israel and its lobbyists have an excessive and disastrous influence on the policies of the world's superpower is a statement of fact,” a claim that nicely illustrated Judt’s ignorance of both politics and rhetoric.
To appreciate how Mearsheimer and Walt conceived their argument in The Israel Lobby, and to get a sense of their scholarly standards, consider this: Their text contains no interviews with members of the “Israel Lobby,” the government, or the national media that the lobby is alleged to have in its pocket. Instead, it draws for its substance on, among other secondary sources, the polemics of Norman Finkelstein, Chomsky’s Fateful Triangle, and Tony Judt’s essay in the Nation. An undergraduate history major would properly be flunked for submitting such a hack job. It says nothing good about the worlds of publishing and academia that Mearsheimer and Walt got a book contract instead.
Ultimately, the fact that the “Israel Lobby” is mostly fiction should upset no one more than the authors themselves. At least if there were a group capable of silencing all disagreement, they might have been spared a great deal of embarrassment.
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