Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Juan Cole on Mearsheimer & Walt

[This is a response to a correspondent who e-mailed me about Juan Cole's piece in Salon, "Breaking the Silence," in which Cole defends what he describes as the "brave paper" by Mearsheimer & Walt attacking the "Israel Lobby" and its alleged stranglehold on US policy in the Middle East. --Jeff Weintraub]
Subject: Juan Cole weighs in
Hi X,

Yes, indeed. I was hoping that he would avoid commenting on this controversy, since I was afraid he would say something appalling like this. Juan Cole is someone whom I admire in a lot of ways, and whose approach to a wide range of subjects I find intelligent and sensible and illuminating, even when I disagree. On the other hand, when it comes to issues related to Israel & "Zionism," the kindest thing to say is that his usual good judgment often deserts him.

Cole says that he has often been accused of being anti-semitic because of his writings on political issues. If this is true (and, unfortunately, I have no reason to doubt it), such charges are absurd and unfair. No one I know has ever made such a charge about Cole, even people who are apoplectic about some of his positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but if anyone did so, then I would have no hesitation in telling them they were flatly wrong.

When it comes to the question of bias against Israel & its supporters (as opposed to Jews per se), matters are more complex.

=> To Cole's credit, for a Middle East Studies type his position on Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict is more reasonable, fair, and level-headed than most. (Everything is relative, of course.) I am convinced that he genuinely favors Israel's survival and the agenda of real peace between Israel and the Arab world. In December 2004, in a long post on his "Informed Comment" website, Cole said at one point:
In my view, the Israelis should pay compensation to all the Palestinians, and the Arab states should pay compensation to the Sephardi Jews who lost their property, and the Palestinians should get to form their state, and then everyone would be square.
I'm convinced he means this sincerely, and I think it is right on target. And, incidentally, it demonstrates a sharper awareness of the situation of Jewish refugees from Arab countries & Iran than a lot of other people exhibit, including many supporters of Israel. (I also agreed with a lot of what he said in the rest of the discussion from which this passage comes, though definitely not all of it.)

Furthermore, Cole has consistently condemned the terrorist murder of civilians anywhere, including Israeli civilians (see here, for example). He has also consistently opposed academic and cultural "boycotts" aimed at Israel, including the British AUT's blacklist of Israeli academics last year, which he publicly rejected. Unfortunately, given the pervasive climate of out-of-control anti-Zionism in much of his professional milieu, these positions set him apart.

=> On the other hand, I'm afraid that at times Cole has been a bit too susceptible to genteel forms of the "Zionist conspiracy" thesis in explaining US Mideast policy (as I have noted here and elsewhere). (He has also, on occasion, made some truly absurd claims to the effect that "master narrative of Zionist historiography is dominant in the American academy" and has refused to concede that anti-Zionist perspectives predominate in Middle East Studies in the US, which is simply an obvious and undeniable fact.)

And so in this Salon piece he makes a fool of himself and embarrasses those of us who respect him, morally and intellectually, and would like to continue doing so.

=> Without getting into an extensive discussion of Cole's piece, here are some quick and offhand observations. Cole says at one point:
That a powerful pro-Israel lobby exists and plays a significant role in determining America's Middle East policies may be controversial here, but everywhere else in the world, it is taken as virtually axiomatic.
Well, in the first place, if this were all that M&W were arguing, then their position might be worth taking seriously, even if one disagreed with their overall argument. But their actual arguments are much more overstated and implausible than that. So framing the issue this way, as many defenders of M&W's "brave" manifesto have tended to do, is quite misleading and, in most cases, intellectually dishonest.

Second, it is of course true that in much of the world "it is taken as virtually axiomatic" that the Israel Lobby has an excessive role in shaping US policy in the Middle East , but part of the reason is that extremist and even irrational anti-Zionism (by which I mean systematic bias and hostility against Israel, shading off into obsessive hatred and demonization) is much more pervasive (almost) "everywhere else in the world." For example, no other country that I know of has ever had its national movement condemned as inherently racist by the UN General Assembly.

In western European intellectual and journalistic circles, anti-Zionism takes relatively genteel forms most of the time (though not always!). Much of the Muslim world, of course, is awash in outright anti-semitism reminiscent of Europe in the 1890s or even the 1930s. So what Cole is really pointing to here is the fact that, in the US, extremist anti-Zionism is much less pervasive and hegemonic than it is in much of the rest of the world, including parts of western Europe, and this partly counterbalances the predominant anti-Israel bias "everywhere else in the world." In fact, to the consternation of many people in Europe and elsewhere, many Americans actually support Israel and even sympathize with it. Cole and others have often found this situation frustrating, but especially given conditions "everywhere else in the world," I regard it as a Good Thing.
Predictably, most of paper's harshest critics have avoided engaging its key arguments.
This charge is ironic and a bit comic, because this is precisely what many defenders of (and apologists for) M&W's manifesto have done. Instead of engaging M&W's actual arguments, they rephrase or reformulate M&W's position to airbrush out the more obviously loony and objectionable claims, or else they try to change the subject entirely away from M&W's actual arguments, and instead focus on the question of whether M&W and other "brave" people who attack Israel & its supporters are being persecuted.

To his credit, Juan Cole actually does make some attempts to defend a few of M&W's actual arguments--though I have to add that even these attempts are a bit pathetic and embarrassing. The fact is that, whether or not one agrees with M&W's overall agenda (and even if one considers it "brave"), the actual analysis in this piece is fairly shoddy, unconvincing, and often transparently fallacious. Juan Cole is smart enough that he would normally see this himself, if M&W were writing on a different subject.

However, Cole does try to ignore or evade some of M&W's most central and inflammatory claims. For example, M&W claim that the "Israel Lobby" not only has a stranglehold on US policy toward Israel, but that it controls all US policy in the Middle East; they claim that the US alliance with Israel had been the "centrepiece" of all US policy in the Middle East (which led Lee Smith to ask, facetiously but correctly, whether they had ever heard of "A Place Called Saudi Arabia"); and they blame the 2003 Iraq war on the Jews, which is both absurd and outrageous. Does Juan Cole really believe that any of these claims is at all correct? I hope not. (And if he does think these claims have some elements of plausibility, I would prefer not to know.)
The charge of anti-Semitism (where what is really meant is any criticism of Israeli policy and/or the Israel lobby) is unacceptable and antidemocratic. [....] Dershowitz penned a quick response, which he elbowed onto the Web page of the Kennedy School at Harvard. [....] (In contrast, Harvard has not rushed to put up a response from, say, a pro-Palestinian academic.) [My understanding is that the option to put up a response on the KSG website is open to anyone else who wants to do so. --JW]
After clearly implying that Mearsheimer and Walt are driven by anti-Semitic motives, he attempts to impugn their scholarship.
As far as I am aware, no serious critic of M&W's manifesto has charged that their position is motivated by anti-semitism--and this definitely includes Dershowitz, whose critiques of M&W I have read through carefully. This charge by Cole is, in my opinion, simply incorrect.

Whether or not, in practice, M&W's piece winds up peddling anti-semitic themes and arguments (some of which have a long history in US political polemics, especially charges of what used to be called "dual loyalty") is a different question, analytically and substantively distinct from the first one. And, in this case, that is an entirely reasonable and appropriate question to raise, however one wants to answer it. Clearly--as I have emphasized here and elsewhere--M&W's main agenda is anti-Zionist rather than anti-semitic (and even their anti-Zionism is instrumental, since they really don't particularly care about Israelis, Palestinians, or other Arabs for their own sake--only how their actions and attitudes might affect what M&W see as US "national interests"). But in the process, M&W are not averse to using what another correspondent of mine (who was actually defending M&W on this particular point) described as "anti-semitic tropes." Are any of these present in M&W's piece? Well, is the Pope Catholic?
Dershowitz insists that, contra Mearsheimer and Walt's assertions, the mainstream American media offers full and critical coverage of Israel. This is a laughable contention to anyone who has compared American press coverage of Israel with that offered by the rest of the world.
Yes, there's no question that coverage of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict in the mainstream US press is less pervasively biased against Israel than press coverage in much of "the rest of the world." One good example of the difference would be the ways in which the US and western European press reported the imaginary "massacre" and "genocide" that supposedly took place in Jenin in April 2002, which proved to be a total fabrication. (E.g., see here and here and here.) If Juan Cole and others like him want to claim that western European press coverage was not hysterically biased against Israel in this instance, and that this was not just one manifestation of a larger pattern, then that would truly be "laughable."

(Yes, I know, many people--not just Europeans--do claim that. Well, I'm laughing.)
Above all, Dershowitz sets up the straw man that the authors claim that a central "cabal" of "Jews" tightly controls the U.S. press and the U.S. government and prevents them from criticizing Israel. Like other critics, including noted warmonger Max Boot, Dershowitz charges that Mearsheimer and Walt are conspiracy theorists who subscribe to what Dershowitz calls "a paranoid worldview" shared by the likes of David Duke and Pat Buchanan.
This charge -- with its obvious implications that Mearsheimer and Walt are anti-Semites in the Henry Ford/Protocols of the Elders of Zion tradition -- is refuted by every word they have written. In fact, Mearsheimer and Walt are at pains to make clear that there is no "cabal," and that the pro-Israel lobby is a lobby like any other (although more powerful and sacrosanct than most.)
Yes, Mearsheimer & Walt do include various pious disclaimers, euphemistic formulations, and pro-forma denials of what they really do argue. All these ploys are standard in political polemics and propaganda, as Juan Cole knows very well. Most of the time, the substance and implications of M&W's actual arguments contradict their pious disclaimers--and it's the actual arguments that are most important. Normally, Juan Cole would understand all this quite well. If he extended the same interpretive charity to, say, the statements of the Bush administration and its supporters that he extends to M&W, then they might start sounding reasonable, too.

=> What can I say? This piece by Juan Cole is disappointing--but, I'm afraid, not really surprising.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

[P.S. Along with Juan Cole's piece, Salon also carries a piece on this subject by Michelle Goldberg, "Is the 'Israel Lobby' distorting America's Mideast policies?" Unlike Cole, Goldberg does systematically engage Mearsheimer & Walt's arguments--with devastating results. What makes her criticisms especially telling is that in some ways Goldberg clearly wanted to be sympathetic to M&W's position, but they made that impossible by writing such a transparently weak, "clumsy," tendentious, and meretricious piece.
This is not just a case of brave academics telling taboo truths. In taking on such a sensitive, fraught subject, one might expect such eminent scholars to make their case airtight. Instead, they've blundered forth with an article that has several factual mistakes and baffling omissions, one that seems expressly designed to elicit exactly the reaction it has received. The power of the Israel lobby is something that deserves a full and fearless airing, but this paper could make such an airing less, not more likely. ]