Thursday, August 31, 2006

"Walt & Mearsheimer Rock. Fight the Israel Lobby" (Dana Milbank)

As I mentioned in a recent post, ever since Mearsheimer & Walt published their shoddy and outrageous tract denouncing the "Israel Lobby" and its alleged stranglehold on US foreign policy back in March 2006, they have largely refused to discuss or debate or even be interviewed about their arguments in any forum where they might be heard by English-speaking listeners who could offer informed criticism and debate. (For some reminders and details of what their "Israel Lobby" manifesto was about, see here and here and here.)

A few days ago, they did agree to talk about their arguments publicly, but in a 'safe' forum--not an academic or scholarly setting or one where they might have to face critical questions, but at an August 28 propaganda event sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR.)

Before leaving for an interview with al-Jazeera, Mearsheimer accepted a button proclaiming "Walt & Mearsheimer Rock. Fight the Israel Lobby."

"I like it," he said, beaming.

Unfortunately for them, one of the people in the audience was Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, who is not a formal expert on international relations or the Middle East (come to think of it, Mearsheimer & Walt aren't Middle East experts either)), but who is a knowledgeable and acute political journalist who knows something about US politics. His conclusion was that their arguments sounded careless and often unconvincing at best--and sometimes involved dodgy use of alleged evidence--and also that Mearsheimer & Walt don't always give the impression of having such a solid grasp of the workings of the US government as they might like to believe.

"Whatever motivated the performance," Milbank observes, "the result wasn't exactly scholarly." The vignette quoted above comes at the end of Milbank's Washington Post article about the event. The rest of his assessment can be read below.

--Jeff Weintraub

P.S. If you want to buy the "Walt & Mearsheimer Rock. Fight the Israel Lobby" button, "it turns out that there is an entire line of Walt-Mearsheimer/Israel Lobby merchandise, courtesy of Carol Moore--the very same person who gave Mearsheimer his button at the D.C. event." (Thanks to Stuart Elliott for the tip.)
Washington Post
Tuesday, August 29, 2006 (Page A2)
Pronouncing Blame on the Israel Lobby

It was quite a boner.

University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer was in town yesterday to elaborate on his view that American Jewish groups are responsible for the war in Iraq, the destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure and many other bad things. As evidence, he cited the influence pro-Israel groups have on "John Boner, the House majority leader."

Actually, Professor, it's "BAY-ner." But Mearsheimer quickly dispensed with Boehner (R-Ohio) and moved on to Jewish groups' nefarious sway over Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who Mearsheimer called " Von Hollen."

Such gaffes would be trivial -- if Mearsheimer weren't claiming to be an authority on Washington and how power is wielded here. But Mearsheimer, with co-author Stephen Walt of Harvard's Kennedy School, set off a furious debate this spring when they argued that "the Israel lobby" is exerting undue influence in Washington; opponents called them anti-Semitic.

Yesterday, at the invitation of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), they held a forum at the National Press Club to expand on their allegations about the Israel lobby. Blurring the line between academics and activism, they accepted a button proclaiming "Fight the Israel Lobby" and won cheers from the Muslim group for their denunciation of Israel and its friends in the United States.

Whatever motivated the performance, the result wasn't exactly scholarly.

Walt singled out two Jews who worked at the Pentagon for their pro-Israel views. "People like Paul Wolfowitz or Doug Feith . . . advocate policies they think are good for Israel and the United States alike," he said. "We don't think there's anything wrong with that, but we also don't think there's anything wrong for others to point out that these individuals do have attachments that shape how they think about the Middle East."

"Attachments" sounds much better than "dual loyalties." But why single out Wolfowitz and Feith and not their non-Jewish boss, Donald Rumsfeld?

"I could have mentioned non-Jewish people like John Bolton," Walt allowed when the question was put to him.

Picking up on the "attachments" lingo, Mearsheimer did mention Bolton but cited two Jews, Elliott Abrams and David Wurmser, as "the two most influential advisers on Middle East affairs in the White House. Both, he said, are " fervent supporters of Israel." Never mind that others in the White House, such as national security adviser Stephen Hadley, Vice President Cheney and President Bush, have been just as fervent despite the lack of "attachments."

This line of argument could be considered a precarious one for two blue-eyed men with Germanic surnames. And, indeed, Walt seemed defensive about the charges of anti-Semitism. He cautioned that the Israel lobby "is not a cabal," that it is "not synonymous with American Jews" and that "there is nothing improper or illegitimate about its activities."

But Mearsheimer made no such distinctions as he used "Jewish activists," "major Jewish organizations" and the "Israel lobby" interchangeably. Clenching the lectern so tightly his knuckles whitened, Mearsheimer accused Israel of using the kidnapping of its soldiers by Hezbollah as a convenient excuse to attack Lebanon.

"Israel had been planning to strike at Hezbollah for months," he asserted. "Key Israelis had briefed the administration about their intentions."

A questioner asked if he had any "hard evidence" for this accusation. Mearsheimer cited the "public record" and "Israeli civilian strategists," then repeated the allegation that Israel was seeking "a cover for launching this offensive."

As evidence that the American public does not agree with the Israel lobby, the political scientist cited a USA Today-Gallup poll showing that 38 percent of Americans disapproved of Israel's military campaign. He neglected to mention that 50 percent approved, and that Americans blamed Hezbollah, Iran, Syria and Lebanon far more than Israel for the conflict.

Walt kicked off the session with a warning that we face a "threat from terrorism because we have been so closely tied to Israel." This produced chuckles in the audience. Walt allowed that this was "not the only reason" for our problems, but he did blame Israel supporters for the hands-off position the Bush administration took during the Lebanon fighting.

"The answer is the political influence of the Israel lobby," Walt said. He also hypothesized that if not for the Israel lobby, the Iraq war "would have been much less likely."

Up next, Mearsheimer ridiculed U.S. leaders for "falling all over themselves to express support for Israel." And he drew groans from the crowd when he spoke about a lawmaker who, after questioning Israel's policy, "met with various representatives from major Jewish organizations, who explained to him the basic facts of life in American politics."

When the two professors finished, they were besieged by autograph- and photo-seekers and Arab television correspondents. Walt could be heard telling one that if an American criticizes Israel, "it might have some economic consequences for your business."

Before leaving for an interview with al-Jazeera, Mearsheimer accepted a button proclaiming "Walt & Mearsheimer Rock. Fight the Israel Lobby."

"I like it," he said, beaming.