Saturday, May 20, 2006

Michael Massing's curious apologetics for Mearsheimer & Walt (NYR)

Michael Massing has just published a piece in the New York Review, "The Storm Over the Israel Lobby" (Vol. 53, No.10 · dated June 8, 2006), dealing with Mearsheimer & Walt's recent polemic against the "Israel Lobby" and the controversy it has generated. (On this subject, see here and here and here.) One of my correspondents described Massing's piece as "odd," and indeed it is odd. I'm afraid that it is also a good illustration of the intellectual dishonesty that has marked many of the more self-consciously "responsible" and "mainstream" efforts to defend Mearsheimer & Walt's manifesto and to attack its critics.

=> Massing repeatedly describes critics of M&W's arguments as "hysterical," "scurrilous," and so on--but he is also forced to concede that most of their substantive criticisms are, in fact, valid.
It must be said, however, that "The Israel Lobby" has some serious shortcomings, and that these have contributed to the vehemence of the response. First, Mearsheimer and Walt have made some factual errors. [....] Mearsheimer and Walt have also used some quotes from David Ben-Gurion badly out of context. [....] This distortion of Ben-Gurion's statements comes in a section in which Mearsheimer and Walt lay out the "dwindling moral case" for supporting Israel. [....] This seems an unconvincing line of reasoning [....] [T]o minimize the violence against Israel is both dubious morally and vulnerable as an argument. The lack of a clearer and fuller account of Palestinian violence is a serious failing of the essay. Its tendency to emphasize Israel's offenses while largely overlooking those of its adversaries has troubled even many doves. [....] Benny Morris, whom Mearsheimer and Walt frequently cite, dismissed their work in The New Republic as "a travesty of the history that I have studied and written for the past two decades." [....] Another problem in Mearsheimer and Walt's essay is its thin documentation. In seeking to demonstrate the lobby's negative influence, they don't provide decisive evidence for their accusations. [....]
One of the most central and explosive claims made by M&W is that the so-called Israel Lobby played a "critical" role in manipulating the US into the 2003 Iraq war. Massing does not pretend that they have made even a half-plausible case for this contention.
Similarly, in advancing their claim that the Israel lobby pushed the US into the Iraq war, Mearsheimer and Walt offer several disparate bits of evidence [....] Maybe so, but there are many other contending explanations for the administration's action—ousting a regime seen as threatening to US interests, of which protection of Israel was one; overthrowing a tyrant who had brutally oppressed his people; projecting US power in the region with an eye to securing oil supplies in Saudi Arabia as well as Iraq; and setting off a process of democratization that, at least in neocon fancy, would transform the Middle East. In light of these other explanations, it would take a much fuller and richly sourced discussion than the one presented by the authors to make their case seem convincing.
And so on. As a assessment of Mearsheimer & Walt's substantive arguments, all this is actually pretty devastating.

=> But Massing then performs what I have come to recognize as a standard deceptive maneuver, which is to reframe M&W's position in a way that jettisons their most central and provocative claims and makes their arguments sound more plausible and common-sensical than they actually are. Critics of such common-sensical arguments then look pretty "hysterical." In other words, Massing suddenly shifts from the case that M&W actually made to the case that he, Massing, would have made instead:
Overall, the lack of firsthand research in "The Israel Lobby" gives it a secondhand feel. Mearsheimer and Walt provide little sense of how AIPAC and other lobbying groups work, how they seek to influence policy, and what people in government have to say about them. The authors seem to have concluded that in view of the sensitivity of the subject, few people would talk frankly about it. In fact, many people are fed up with the lobby and eager to explain why (though often not on the record). Federal campaign documents offer another important source of information that the authors have ignored. Through such sources, it's possible to show that, on their central point—the power of the Israel lobby and the negative effect it has had on US policy—Mearsheimer and Walt are entirely correct.
Massing then goes on to discuss "the power of the Israel lobby" and its effects on US policy toward Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. What Massing says is partly right, partly wrong, partly questionable. But unfortunately, this is not Mearsheimer & Walt's "central point." Their claim, which Massing had previously cited, is that "unwavering support for Israel" has been the "centerpiece" of US Middle East policy in general--and that the "stranglehold" of the "Israel Lobby" over the US government explains American Middle East policy as a whole, including such incidents as the 2003 Iraq war.

The alternative argument that Massing would prefer to emphasize is certainly less outrageous and extreme than the one M&W really made. But for Massing to pretend that his revised version of the argument is actually M&W's argument--and that their critics are therefore being absurd and "hysterical"--is not just misleading but dishonest. I know that's a harsh term, but I'm afraid it's the only one that's accurate.

Can't you do better than this, guys?

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub