Saturday, November 10, 2007
Blogging about a Mearsheimer and Walt lecture a couple of weeks after the fact is a little odd, I know. The atmosphere surrounding this controversial and vaguely filial scholarly pairing usually elicits rapid fire rejoinders (think Alan Dershowitz on the Kennedy School website), easy labels, and point-by-point refutations. In my case, I’ve delayed posting my reaction to the talk Amos and I took in recently at Boalt Hall, Berkeley’s law school, not only because I’m busy, but because I’m rather uncomfortable with the blitz-style polemics one hears from some of M&W’s opponents.
Emotion, not dispassionate, scholarly curiosity, sells these professors’ book -- and prolongs their fifteen minutes of fame. And, frankly, I didn’t walk out of their talk very emotional. (Though the cry of, “Don’t taze me,” from an unruly audience member who was escorted out by the police, and the dark epiphany of a committed Darwinist during Q&A insured that I wasn’t unfazed). Much of what was said was reasonable, and, when young Walt spoke, well reasoned. That the pro-Israel lobby in Washington is a singularly efficacious interest group, with an enormous budget, and access to the inner circles of the Bush administration, isn’t something worth debating. These are the people who were eating at now disgraced – once wildly successful – lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s D.C. restaurant, and, sometimes, from his trough. As a case study in the sociology of the Beltway, The Israel Lobby, will probably read well. Then again, Mearsheimer did accuse the “Lobby” of driving former Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee from office. As Walter Russell Mead points out in an excellent review of the book in Foreign Affairs, these guys tend to display a surprisingly naïve view of the American political system. Chafee was a moderate Republican from the northeast in the age of Karl Rove and Tom Delay, the men who've polarized politics. The evaporating congressional Center pushed him out, not the machinations of pro-Israel hawks!
That particular accusation is one that sexes up, even if it doesn’t strengthen M&W’s message. Moreover, it’s symptomatic of a larger attempt at inflating their story. They’re on much shakier ground as they move from their description and analysis of the “Israel Lobby,” broadly construed, to greater claims about the history of US foreign policy and contemporary international relations – this despite the fact that the two are eminently qualified to discuss those matters. One of their weakest claims has always been that the Israel Lobby got us (Americans) into Iraq. From what I understand, this is a claim that was toned down considerably along the way from article to book, but I still left their lecture utterly confused. The state of Israel and the Lobby – notice the conflation – were “two of the main driving forces” behind the war, they told the crowd in Berkeley. Their evidence? The Israeli population was gung-ho, with polls bearing out their support for the invasion. And the Lobby? Well, they brag – a lot. M&W place an inordinate weight on the boasts of AIPAC, et al., who claim to have had the ear of key neocons in Bush’s inner circle, (this being a major criticism of Mead).
Thankfully, in my opinion, the whims of the Israeli populace, in search of their psychological reprieve, and the puffed-up ambitions of a few Washington lobbyists aren’t enough to produce the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history. This country is having a hell of a time facing up to the debacle of Iraq. With so many culpable, it’s shocking how few are owning up. Those responsible are not just those who cheered on, nor only those who gave the Administration a pass out of political cowardice, but all those who lay down because they thought it would be easy. The most disheartening thing about M&W’s book is that it offers all these people amnesty, the comfort of a villain with real agency. AIPAC took us to war, not the Hillary Clinton’s of the world or the average American. We didn’t do it! Cindy Sheehan’s cry of, “My son died in Iraq for Israel” gets an academic imprimatur.
Finally, and here I’m indebted to a real political scientist, Asaf, M&W came off a bit disingenuous in their claim to be undermining with this book years of work that advanced “realist” theories of international relations. For Mearsheimer, this was something of a punch line: our book discredits us! In a way, the profs provide here an answer to the question, “Why this issue?” They didn’t take it on out of malice. They have no axe to grind. The absurdity of the matter is self-evident. According to realist orthodoxy, as I understand it, states operate rationally, and the United States, in the case of its relationship with Israel, has long been acting like an entirely irrational player in the world system. I don’t think M&W risk losing many realist diehards with this book. On the contrary, this is what Greek rhetoricians called auxesis – amplification. In a world of rational relationships this irrational alliance has no place. The most important challenge of M&W’s serious critics thus won’t be stubbornly making “the case for Israel,” but making anew the case American-Israeli cooperation in a brave, scary new world.