Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Tony Judt on Mearsheimer & Walt

[This is a quick reaction to Tony Judt's New York Times op-ed on Mearsheimer & Walt's "Israel Lobby" manifesto and the controversy surrounding it, "A Lobby, Not a Conspiracy" (4/19/2006), which was also posted on the Engage website. I sent this message to David Hirsh and Shalom Lappin at Engage and cc'd several other people, including Tony Judt. --Jeff Weintraub]

Hi David & Shalom,

I just noticed Tony Judt's piece posted (at Richard Kuper's request) on the Engage website. (A good idea, incidentally.)

One quick reaction. Tony Judt, who in general I admire as a scholar & intellectual (despite some disagreements), is of course exceptionally intelligent and well informed. And he was publishing this piece in the New York Times rather than a western European newspaper, so he knew that he couldn't take for granted that his readership would be predisposed to be viscerally hostile to Israel, and he had to phrase certain arguments carefully and tactfully. For these and other reasons, his defense of M&W is a lot less crude, intellectually dishonest, and transparently silly than, say, Mazower's piece in the Financial Times.

However, I can't help noticing that Judt, like a lot of other defenders of M&W, avoids facing up to their actual arguments. Instead, he rephrases these to sound more bland and non-controversial (at least, to an audience already predisposed to anti-Zionist presumptions). To put it another way, he foregrounds the arguments he would have liked them to make (and which he wishes were made every day in the New York Times, as they are in, say, the Guardian) as opposed to the arguments that M&W actually do make (which are a lot more overstated, implausible, and inflammatory) ... and then tries to change the subject to address what he sees as the really crucial questions, which are why anti-Zionist perspectives and sentiments are (lamentably) not as pervasive and hegemonic in American political and intellectual life as they are in Europe, why people like M&W are being unfairly oppressed and intimidated, und so weiter ....

In this and other ways, Judt's piece is (unintentionally) illuminating, even in those parts where (in my opinion) it happens to be incorrect, riddled with evasions and non-sequiturs, etc.

Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Incidentally, Judt says at one point ...

So what, you may ask, if Europeans debate this subject with such enthusiasm? Isn't Europe a hotbed of anti-Zionists [...] who will always relish the chance to attack Israel and her American friend?
Well, yes ... anti-Zionism is pervasive and taken-for-granted in Europe, to a much greater extent than in the US, and this does significantly help explain the different receptions of the M&W piece in the US & Europe.

But now let me fill in that ellipsis:
a hotbed of anti-Zionists (read anti-Semites)

No, they're not all anti-semites. But so what? This is a typical red herring.
But it was David Aaronovitch, a Times of London columnist who, in the course of criticizing Mearsheimer and Walt, nonetheless conceded that "I sympathize with their desire for redress, since there has been a cock-eyed failure in the U.S. to understand the plight of the Palestinians."And it was the German writer Christoph Bertram, a longstanding friend of America in a country where every public figure takes extraordinary care to tread carefully in such matters, who wrote in Die Zeit that "it is rare to find scholars with the desire and the courage to break taboos."
Yes, they did say that. But I've read their pieces, and I have to ask, so what? And how is citing these statements at all relevant to M&W's actual arguments (which people like Aaronovitch & Hitchens & Dershowitz & many other critics actually engage, whether or not you agree or disagree with their criticisms)?

(For example, as Judt acknowledges, M&W do not care a bit about "the plight of the Palestinians," and consider that such concerns are irrelevant to serious "realist" foreign-policy discussions--unless Arab anger about this "plight" has some instrumental significance for US "national interests". If they thought Israel were a strategic asset, then they would be impatiently contemptuous about any complaints concerning the "plight of the Palestinians".)

As for breaking "taboos" ... Michelle Goldberg's piece in Salon got it right ... as in this passage that I quoted in my post on Juan Cole on Mearsheimer & Walt ...
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.

[P.S. A friend with extensive knowledge of Israeli politics and society offered this comment:
Tony Judt's point, which he gets from Israeli observers, that the Israeli lobby in the US does disservice to both Israel and the US is well taken. In fact, I remember Rabin attacking AIPAC and promising to rein it in. It was always a right-wing body and when Israeli politics moved to the left, it was out of line.

I responded: Sure. I know that, and this point has some merit (though I'd hate to imagine Israel's situation if AIPAC hadn't existed at all).

But I'm afraid this has nothing to do with the actual arguments made by M&W. This is precisely an example of the kind of sensible and plausible argument that Judt would have liked them to make, and which he and other defenders of M&W try to pretend they have made, as opposed to the arguments they actually did make--which are, in fact, much more overstated, implausible, and inflammatory (and which do, frankly, draw on a lot of standard anti-Zionist and even anti-semitic themes in American politics, despite the fact that no serious critic believes that M&W's argument was motivated by anti-semitism).

Yes, in various ways the positions represented by AIPAC sometimes do a disservice to both the US & Israel. But if people with perspectives like M&W's had exercised exclusive control over US foreign policy for the past 6 decades, and had not been counterbalanced by other forces (including political groups like AIPAC), then Israel would probably never have come into existence, and would almost certainly not have survived through the next half-century (which doesn't matter one way or another to people like M&W, but matters to me, whether they think this concern is "realist" or not). But be that as it may ...

No, I admire your effort to put in a good word for Judt, but you can't get him off the hook that way. Judt could have come out and said something like this: "Yes, M&W's argument is an appalling, irresponsible, and pernicious piece of shit, and they deserve all the criticism they've gotten and more, and it's disgraceful the way that people in western Europe and in 'realist' and anti-Zionist circles in the US have rushed to praise them as 'brave' and have vilified their critics instead of facing up to the actual arguments that M&W have made and their pernicious implications. However, there are serious questions to be raised about the role of the 'Israel Lobby' in US politics and foreign policy, and other people have raised these more intelligently, plausibly, and responsibly than M&W. We should forget about trying to defend M&W, whose piece is indefensible, and take these other substantive arguments more seriously." If Judt had said that, then this would have been a serious argument, worth taking seriously. So why didn't he? (I have my guesses ...)

My friend replied: Yes, you are right; I was only highlighting one point in Judt's article; a point which doesn't examine the MW argument or Judt's own view of MW. ]
[Shalom Lappin offered this response, reproduced here with his permission:
Hi Jeff,
Thanks for your note. There is something bizarre about the entire discussion that has emerged over the M&W piece. They advance a claim to the effect that the pro-Israel "Lobby" has played a decisive role in shaping American foreign policy in the Middle East since the early 1970's. They also argue that the policy which the "Lobby" has succeeded in forcing upon the US seriously undermines its national interest. In normal scholarly practise, one would expect such a claim to be supported by convincing documentary evidence. So for, example, one would want to see substantial factual motivation for their assertion that the Israel Lobby (I will assume the quotes and leave them out from now on) was largely responsible for leading America into the second Gulf war. In fact, they provide no such evidence beyond newspaper quotes, a few public statements by Israeli leaders, and citations from publications with a clear political agenda.
Which lobbying organization applied the pressure required to persuade the Bush administration to go to war against Iraq in 2003. Was it AIPAC? If so, how did they achieve this result? Did they work through congressional representatives and senators whose election campaigns they contribute to? Alternatively, was it the Israeli government (not itself a lobby, but the beneficiary of the Lobby) that coerced America into the war? Again, what methods did they use, and where is the evidence for this?
Many defenders of W&M point out, with perfect justice, that there are strong pro-Israel lobby organizations and it is entirely legitimate to study their impact on American policy making, precisely as it is reasonable to subject other lobby groups to scientific analysis. But this is precisely what W&M don't do. They do not focus on the workings of particular organizations or public figures, nor do they explore the mechanisms through which the elements of the Lobby influence policy decisions. Instead they homogenize all opinion supportive of Israel in any way into a virtual entity, the Israel Lobby, and advance far reaching hypotheses about its role in American foreign policy without supplying the sort of detailed argumentation that we would require from any undergraduate submitting a paper on such a topic. They also do not consider obvious counter arguments to their central thesis. In particular, one could plausibly maintain that while pro-Israel lobby groups may reinforce American policy making patterns, in most cases American governments act in accordance with what they understand to be their national interests as they understand them at the time, however misguided (or not) this may be. In order to render their account worthy of serious consideration, W&M would have to dispose of this obvious default hypothesis before they could get started. But they make no real attempt to deal with it.
The defenders of W&M have generally focussed on the negative reaction that the piece has provoked and praised W&M's "courage" in publishing their unpopular views. They have not, as far as I have seen, sought to provide the sort of support for these views which would render them credible. Judt's piece is a softly spoken version of this "defence", which is very much the norm here in Britain among advocates for the article. Such responses, and the fact that the LRB would be so eager to publish such a weak and shoddy piece in the first place, are a tribute to the gullibility, bigotry, and lack of intellectual integrity that infect so much of public discourse in Britain (and Europe generally) these days.
Regards, Shalom ]
[See also Jere Riemer on Judt's defense of M&W ... with some further thoughts of my own. --JW]