Blogs > Cliopatria > Israel Lobby--Response, II

May 6, 2006 7:43 pm

Israel Lobby--Response, II

As a follow-up to Manan's post below, Ralph noted that I might"have a hard time shaking the suspicion that Walt and Mearshimer's paper is 'shoddy scholarship' because it takes a position that you don't support." My positions on Middle Eastern policy are hardly a secret to Cliopatria readers, though, regardless of its message, there are three aspects of the W/M piece that, I believe, justify the claim of shoddy scholarship. None of these, I should note, are original to me.

1.) To quote Daniel Drezner, W+M did"piss-poor, monocausal social science." In another of his posts, Drezner has a good time with the following assertion from W/M:"[T]he mere existence of the Lobby suggests that unconditional support for Israel is not in the American national interest. If it was, one would not need an organized special interest group to bring it about." In a PoliSci 101 exam, a student who offered that thesis to describe how American politics works would get an F. Or, consider this good synopsis of the W/M definition of the"Lobby" from the Harvard Crimson:"In their piece, the authors savaged those on both the political Left and Right, calling groups as diverse as the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal editorial boards, and Sen. Hillary R. Clinton, D-N.Y., and World Bank President Paul D. Wolfowitz members of the 'Israel Lobby.'" The definition is so amorphous as to be meaningless--it's as if anyone in public life who at any time said anything favorable about Israel is part of the"Lobby."

2.) W+M were (to put it most kindly) sloppy researchers--producing a paper with factual errors, duplicitous quoting, obvious errors of omission. I don't like the tone of Alan Dershowitz's response to them, but he gets them dead to rights on two quotes where they selectively snipped, to reverse by 180 degrees the meaning of first Ben Gurion and then Golda Meir.

3.) The piece is characterized by needless exaggerations to make their point. Take two items from the letter to which Manan linked above."Although many claim that the Iraq war was all about oil, there is hardly any evidence to support that supposition, and much evidence of the lobby’s influence." It's clear that some prominent members of even a tightly defined Israel Lobby (Wolfowitz, Perle) were key Bush adm. policymakers supporting the war in Iraq. But if we know nothing else about this administration, it's that at most four people have called the shots in foreign affairs--Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice. Explaining the Iraq war through the activities of the"Israel Lobby" suggests an odd mindset for writing. Or this quote: US support for Israel can't be justified on moral/ideological grounds, because"Israel does not behave significantly better than most other states." Israel is an imperfect democracy, with its own human rights problems, issues of ethnic tensions and assimilation, gap between rich and poor, etc. But the idea that there's no significant difference between the behavior of a democratic state like Israel and Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or Syria is absurd. Neither of these arguments are essential to the W/M thesis, such as it is. But that the duo made them anyway suggests"shoddy scholarship."

On the substance of the W/M response, here's Jeff Weintraub.

"In substantive terms, M&W's letter is surprisingly thin. It does not actually offer any significant or convincing responses to the most serious criticisms of their analysis. Nor do M&W acknowledge any of the various factual errors and strained interpretations that even sympathetic reviewers have pointed out. They mostly just restate points from their original paper (including some of the standard pious disclaimers and pro forma clichés that they had included to deflect criticisms of their actual arguments), interspersed with complaints about the unfair ad hominem attacks to which they believe they have been subjected.

"Therefore, this piece by M&W doesn't merit extensive discussion. However, some of their closing remarks are worth noting, if only because they are so transparently misleading and self-serving:

We close with a final comment about the controversy surrounding our article. Although we are not surprised by the hostility directed at us, we are still disappointed that more attention has not been paid to the substance of the piece.

"I'm not sure whether M&W really believe this quite illusory account of the situation, but I suspect that they do--which is both funny and revealing. In fact, 'the substance' of their analysis has received a good deal of attention, and many of their specific claims have been subjected to systematic and often devastating criticism (the import of which seems to have passed them by). I think what M&W really mean here is that they are 'disappointed' that their most overstated and implausible claims, which seem to them self-evidently correct, have not been more widely and enthusiastically endorsed. Instead, many of their defenders have tended to downplay or ignore these claims--or to misrepresent M&W's arguments in order to sanitize them and make them sound more sensible and uncontroversial--and have tried to change the subject away from 'the substance' of M&W's actual arguments to attacks on M&W's critics for allegedly 'smearing' and persecuting them."

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Ralph E. Luker - 5/8/2006

Thanks for the recommendation, Sam. I've asked HNN's Rick Shenkman if he could get permission to republish the Benny Morris piece on HNN's mainpage. TNR's subscriber only policy keeps a lot of us non-subscribers from seeing some of its best articles.

Sam Wineburg - 5/8/2006

If you haven't read Benny Morris's excellent piece in this New Republic, I highly recommend it.

Robert KC Johnson - 5/7/2006

If I've mischaracterized W/M's argument, I apologize for having done so--but I'm very, very dubious that I have. (As I said in my post, I'm not making any claims to any originality in these three items.)

The entire M/W article is about US policy toward Middle East. I suppose, you're right, it's possible that this and only this statement doesn't apply to US policy toward the Middle East, but to US policy toward the entire world. But if so, in the context of their article, the statement makes no sense. I haven't seen any critique of M/W that has made this claim--nor, in either their responses or those of their defenders, has their been any challenge (that I've seen) to this characterization of their argument.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/6/2006

KC, Take a look at your treatment of M & W here (your point 3, characterizing their argument): "US support for Israel can't be justified on moral/ideological grounds, because 'Israel does not behave significantly better than most other states.' Israel is an imperfect democracy with its own human rights problems, issues of ethnic tension and assimilation, gap between rich and poor, etc. But the idea that there's no significant difference between the behavior of a democratic state like Israel, and Iran or Saudi Arabia, or Syria is absurd."
If you are going to berate M & W for misusing other people's words, then you have to be scrupulously accurate in your own use of _their_ words. M & W had said that there was no significant difference between the behavior of Israel and the behavior of most other states. It is _you_ who turns that into a contrast between the behavior of Israel and the behavior of its immediate neighbors. That misapplication of M & W's words may seem to serve your immediate ideological and rhetorical purposes, but it knocks the props out from under your argument about M & W's "shoddy" scholarship, because you do what you've accused them of having done.