Saturday, June 03, 2006

Mearsheimer and Walt: An Assessment of the Controversy

AIPAC, in particular its policy conference, is the main target of Massing's article

In the New York Review of Books, Michael Massing reviews the controversy ignited by Mearsheimer and Walt. It is clear that he has little sympathy for those who called these scholars antisemites and lumped them together with David Duke. At the same time, Massing does give some credit to certain charges levelled by Dershowitz and others about the factual inaccuracies in the paper. He is also generally positive about Benny Morris's critique of Mearsheimer and Walt. Nevertheless, he appears convinced that the fundamental thesis of the two is right: "The Lobby" as described by M&W exists and has the power that the scholars ascribe to it; furthermore, it has had a negative effect on American foreign policy. The main problem of the paper, in addition to its historical mistakes, is that the authors never establish the former claim (about the Lobby's influence) with real evidence:
Overall, the lack of firsthand research in "The Israel Lobby" gives it a secondhand feel. Mearsheimer and Walt provide little sense of how AIPAC and other lobbying groups work, how they seek to influence policy, and what people in government have to say about them. The authors seem to have concluded that in view of the sensitivity of the subject, few people would talk frankly about it. In fact, many people are fed up with the lobby and eager to explain why (though often not on the record). Federal campaign documents offer another important source of information that the authors have ignored. Through such sources, it's possible to show that, on their central point—the power of the Israel lobby and the negative effect it has had on US policy—Mearsheimer and Walt are entirely correct
From there, he proceeds to give that missing documentation. Massing presents a closer look at AIPAC, arguing that it is controlled by a small group of extremely wealthy men who
do not share the general interest of a large part of the Jewish community in promoting peace in the Middle East.
AIPAC is able to exert so much influence in the legislative branch primarily through its ability to direct campaign donations by members. Thus, Massing explains,
AIPAC itself is not a political action committee. Rather, by assessing voting records and public statements, it provides information to such committees, which donate money to candidates; AIPAC helps them to decide who Israel's friends are according to AIPAC's criteria.
Massing concludes that
The nasty campaign waged against John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt has itself provided an excellent example of the bullying tactics used by the lobby and its supporters. The wide attention their argument has received shows that, in this case, those efforts have not entirely succeeded. Despite its many flaws, their essay has performed a very useful service in forcing into the open a subject that has for too long remained taboo.
What Massing's piece amounts to is an attack on AIPAC and on the current state of affairs in Washington more generally. I have to say that I find his approach far less objectionable than Mearsheimer and Walt's, although I still take issue with some of his historical and political judgments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Having said that, it strikes me as unfair to dismiss as hysterical the critics of M&W who took the duo to task for coming very close to revealing yet another grand Jewish conspiracy. Their paper, as has been documented repeatedly on these pages, is full of mistruths and unsubstantiated charges marshalled to malign that mysterious entity which they chose to call "the Lobby." By casting their net as wide as they did, Mearsheimer and Walt seemed to be insinuating that Jews had diverted America from pursuing its true interests.

Furthermore, it is hard to ignore the question which we have asked again and again: what do M&W really want? Do they think that Israel should be left to the dogs? With a little more sympathy for American Jewish critics of M&W, Massing might have engaged that problem, which justifiable agitates many Jews in America, Israel, and the rest of the world.

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