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John J. Mearsheimer & Stephan M. Walt: Foreign Affairs review says their book gives comfort to anti-Semites

Historians in the News




John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt claim that they want The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy "to foster a more clear-eyed and candid discussion of this subject." Unfortunately, that is not going to happen. "The Israel Lobby" will harden and freeze positions rather than open them up. It will delay rather than hasten the development of new U.S. policies in the Middle East. It will confuse the policy debate not just in the United States but throughout the world as well, while giving aid and comfort to anti-Semites wherever they are found. All of this is deeply contrary to the intentions of the authors; written in haste, the book will be repented at leisure.

That is not to say that The Israel Lobby is all bad. Mearsheimer and Walt were previously known as hard-core "realists" who minimized the importance of studying domestic politics and culture to understanding foreign policy. They seem to have abandoned such "structural realism" for what might be called "political realism": the view that the beliefs, values, and interests of various domestic actors shape their perception of the national interest and that the interaction between these domestic forces and international conditions holds the key to understanding policy. This political realism is a significantly richer and more fruitful (if more intellectually demanding and methodologically complex) approach than the structural realism that Mearsheimer, especially, advocated in the past.

One must also commend the two authors for their decision to focus on an important topic that has not received the attention it merits. The politics of U.S. policy in the Middle East is a subject that is not well understood. Pro-Israel organizations, political action committees (PACs), and individuals do play significant roles in the U.S. political process, and they do influence politicians and journalists. Given the importance of the Middle East in U.S. foreign policy and world affairs, these actors and their influence should be explored. Even if The Israel Lobby is in the end not as helpful as they hope, Mearsheimer and Walt have admirably and courageously helped to start a much-needed conversation on a controversial and combustible topic. There should be no taboos among students of U.S. foreign policy -- no questions that should not be asked, no issues that should be considered too hot to handle, no relationships or alliances, however deep or enduring, that should not be regularly and searchingly reviewed.

Walt and Mearsheimer's belief that the United States needs to find ways to bridge the gap between its current policies and the national aspirations of Palestinians and other Arabs is correct. But Mearsheimer and Walt have too simplistic and sunny a view of the United States' alternatives in the Middle East -- a fault they share with the "neoconservatives," who serve as the book's bêtes noires. Overcoming the challenges of U.S. policy in the Middle East will not be nearly as easy as Mearsheimer and Walt think, and the route they propose is unlikely to reach the destination they seek, even if some of their concerns about the United States' current stance in the region are legitimate.

The book's problems start very early and run very deep. Mearsheimer and Walt outline the case they plan to make on page 14: "The United States provides Israel with extraordinary material aid and diplomatic support, the lobby is the principal reason for that support, and this uncritical and unconditional support is not in the national interest." Note the slippage. The "extraordinary" support of the first clause quietly mutates into the "uncritical and unconditional" support of the last. "Extraordinary" is hardly the same thing as "uncritical and unconditional," but the authors proceed as if it were. They claim the clarity and authority of rigorous logic, but their methods are loose and rhetorical. This singularly unhappy marriage -- between the pretensions of serious political analysis and the standards of the casual op-ed -- both undercuts the case they wish to make and gives much of the book a disagreeably disingenuous tone....
Read entire article at Walter Russell Mead in Foreign Affairs (Nov-Dec.)

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