Thursday, April 27, 2006

Juan Cole's misplaced defense of Mearsheimer & Walt

Juan Cole announces (in his Informed Comment website) that he is circulating a petition in defense of John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt, authors of a recent manifesto attacking the "Israel Lobby" and its alleged stranglehold over US Mideast policy. (Cole has already written a defense of Mearsheimer & Walt and an attack on their critics, which I found unconvincing.) With all due respect, the basic premise of his petition is a red herring.
I've started a petition drive for college and university teachers to defend John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt from baseless charges of anti-Semitism.
The petition begins as follows:
We note with dismay that when eminent political scientists John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard published their “The Israel Lobby and American Foreign Policy” in the London Review of Books, they were subjected to a barrage of ad hominem attacks. In particular, they were smeared as “anti-Semites”. This epithet was hurled at them by the Anti-Defamation League, Eliot A. Cohen, Alan Dershowitz, Representative Eliot Engel, Richard L. Cravatts, and many others.
I am not familiar with the relevant statements of Representative Eliot Engel. [Update: Congressman Engel did, in fact, use that "epithet," but none of the others. --JW] However, I have read the critiques of Mearsheimer & Walt's "Israel Lobby" analysis by Eliot Cohen, Alan Dershowitz, and Richard L. Cravatts (included here). None of these critics--nor, for that matter, any serious critic I am aware of--has charged that Mearsheimer & Walt's arguments were motivated by anti-semitism. (This is the criterion that Cole himself spells out.) Nor has the Anti-Defamation League.

That is a different matter from asking whether, in practice, Mearsheimer & Walt's piece recycles arguments with anti-semitic overtones and implications, and does so in irresponsible and potentially pernicious ways. I think the answer happens to be yes, but at all events, that is a completely reasonable and legitimate question to ask in this case, and to declare by fiat that Mearsheimer & Walt's arguments are out of bounds to such criticisms makes no sense. (If we ask whether their arguments are marked by pervasive anti-Zionism, that is, by systematic bias and misrepresentation directed against Israel and its supporters, then that's an open-and-shut case.) Cole himself often criticizes arguments that he considers biased against Islam, Arabs, Muslims, or Palestinians without necessarily claiming that the people who make them are personally racists or anti-Islamic bigots. Are such criticisms inherently out of bounds, too?

I don't know what other critics Juan Cole has in mind when he speaks of "many others" (here are some serious critiques that I know about). But the three academic critics whom he mentions by name in his petition have all offered critiques that engaged Mearsheimer & Walt's actual arguments--something that many of their defenders have failed to do, as I noted here and here. One can agree or disagree with the substance or tone of their assessments. But Cole's accusation against them in his petition is simply inaccurate (or, to use his term, "baseless").

Of course, not all reactions to Mearsheimer & Walt's manifesto--negative or positive--have kept such distinctions carefully in mind. Let me emphasize that, based on everything I know about Mearsheimer & Walt, I am confident that there is no good reason to believe that their arguments are motivated by anti-semitism, and to make this charge is both unfair and a harmful distraction from the real issues. However, the claims that Cole is making here about serious criticisms of Mearsheimer & Walt's arguments equally unfair and harmfully misleading. Juan Cole should rewrite or withdraw his petition, and no serious person ought to sign it.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

[P.S. Several correspondents pointed out, to quote one of them: "Good, but IMO the most outrageous thing is that the petition is addressed to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Apparently, Juan believes that they are the Elders or will deliver it to them." I'm afraid they have a point. Does Juan Cole believe that people like Eliot Cohen, Alan Dershowitz, Richard Cravatts, et al. get their talking points from the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations? As another correspondent put it: "The Conference does important work, but what is Cole thinking in directing the petition there? That it's some sort of headquarters where opinions are coordinated?"]