Five years ago today, Walt and Mearsheimer gave Americans the vocabulary to discuss a central issue
What stood out from the first page was the tone—measured but firm, uncompromising but not strident. Every assertion seemed precisely weighed, put forth without exaggeration, flamboyance, or polemical excess. Also striking was the absence of gratuitous deference towards the opponent. There was no pulling of punches, no telltale signs of anxiety about the consequences of an argument taken too far, or indeed made at all. Such was my first reaction to reading John Mearsheimer’s and Steve Walt’s Israel Lobby paper, posted five years ago today on the website of Harvard’s Kennedy School, and published in shorter form in the London Review of Books. It had arrived at the opening of business one morning in an email from Michael Desch, then a professor at Texas A&M’s George H. W. Bush School of Government. I sent it across the hall to my colleague Kara Hopkins, a woman a generation my junior, somewhat less engaged than I by the Middle East, and certainly less persuaded that a coterie of neocons had gotten George W. Bush on a leash and were leading him this way and that. Three minutes later I walked into her office, where she had the paper up on her screen. “This is exactly what I believe,” said Kara, words that I had never heard from her before on any subject, much less this one.
American Christians who are neither ignorant nor bigots have a difficult time finding the right words to discuss Israel and its special relationship to the United States. Anyone with knowledge of European history knows of the connection between discourses about Jewish power and anti-Semitism. Inevitably this history has intruded on American discussions of Israel and its lobby. Save a handful of exceptions, mainstream dissent from the special relationship with Israel has taken the form of the dry aside or the understated sentence or two published amidst a lot of other stuff, almost as if the author hoped it would not be noticed. Occasionally public figures at the end of their careers made remarks that more resembled outbursts, the parting shot of the seventy- five year old senator or aging general. But more often than not, ever sensitive to the perils of anti-semitism, Americans let their fears of contributing to injustice shut off necessary debates. People rolled their eyes or took refuge in wry remarks: “What’s the matter with the rest of them?” said a friend upon seeing a Washington Post story about the 360 members of Congress who had showed up to pay homage at one of AIPAC’s annual gatherings.
The reasons differed for every individual, and were composite. There was the worry about offending close Jewish friends or colleagues, concerns over possible adverse professional consequences, or the general inhibitions associated with the Jewish power/leading to anti-Semitism/leading to the Holocaust nexus.* The result was that critical analysis of the special relationship was shoved to the margins of American political discourse. The discussions may have been richer and more involved on the Marxist and anti-imperialist Left than on the quasi-isolationist Old Right, but in neither case did they much influence the political mainstream. Even in the wake of the Iraq disaster, with the looming prospect of more American wars in the Middle East, Israel’s role was alluded at most in passing, but seldom really pursued.
The evasions could be almost comical.
In the second issue of The American Conservative, in the fall of 2002, we published an outstanding 8000 word essay by Paul Schroeder, a distinguished diplomatic historian, who argued that Americans had a great stake in preserving an international system which inhibited preventive wars of the sort Washington was preparing to wage against Iraq. After being granted 8000 words, Schroeder added some footnotes, the fourth of which stated, inter alia, “It is common for great powers to try to fight wars by proxy, getting smaller powers to fight for their interests. This would be the first instance I know where a great power (in fact, a superpower) would do the fighting as the proxy of a small client state.”
To Schroeder’s consternation, this footnote was the only item from his argument mentioned a few months later in a Washington Post oped, where it was cited amongst other examples of the supposed anti-semitism of Iraq war critics who had deigned to notice that the push for war was connected to Israel.
Five years ago, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard stepped directly into these bogs of understatement, circumlocution and the relegation of major points to footnotes. Here are some of the points the two made in the first pages of their paper:
For the past several decades, however, and especially since the Six Day War in 1967, the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering U.S. support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracy throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized U.S. security…
More importantly, saying that Israel and the United States are united by a shared terrorist threat has the causal relationship backwards: rather, the United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel, not the other way around…
This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the United States been willing to set aside its own security in order to advance the interests of another state?
In the essay that followed, the two backed up these and other equally forceful assertions with tightly-argued, factually-based paragraphs and extensive footnotes. They were not, of course, the first pioneers in pursuing this subject from an establishment vantage point: on at least two occasions, the Israel subject had been addressed by Americans of comparable eminence. George W. Ball, probably the wisest figure to hold high positions in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, had late in life co-authored with his son an important book on America’s “entangling alliance” with Israel —a book whose antecedent was in an article written for Foreign Affairs in the late 1970’s, proposing that America “save Israel from itself” by stopping its incipient campaign to colonize the West Bank. A few years earlier, Senator William Fulbright, probably the leading foreign policy intellectual among Americans who held elective office in the postwar era, bemoaned the Israel lobby’s influence, and pushed for an American security guarantee for Israel within the 1967 borders.
Both Fulbright and Ball came to the subject at the close of long careers. In contrast Mearsheimer and Walt published their paper during their professional primes. Their argument had none of that “Now I can finally say it” quality; instead the authors arrived with every intent of carrying their argument forward. They had tenure at two of the country’s top universities. They had reached the top of a profession which rewards clear writing and thinking, and possessed the argumentative eloquence that comes from years of lecturing before the nation’s brightest students. They were political moderates—whose careers had placed them squarely in the “vital center” of American academic foreign policy discourse. They were fully prepared to go larger, and in eighteen months turned the paper into a best-selling book.
Of course it mattered somewhat that the Israel lobby used every tool at its disposal to smear the authors and bury their argument. Every journal and newspaper that had ever felt the need to stress its “pro-Israel” credentials published a negative review of the book. (The Israel Lobby received generally far more favorable reviews in Europe and, in fact, in Israel.) But the sheer volume and intensity of the attacks on the paper may have been self-defeating. By April 2006, it seemed that everyone with an interest in foreign policy had read the article and was eager to talk about it. (I would note that in that month I went on a trip with a church group to Syria, Israel, and the occupied West Bank, on a schedule that included five or six meetings a day for ten days. Excepting the purely religious figures, it is no exaggeration to say that every single Arab intellectual, government or NGO official we met with mentioned the Mearsheimer and Walt paper. It was also the very first topic raised by Owen Harries, the very wise retired editor of The National Interest, at a private dinner I gave in his honor when he was visiting from Australia that May. )
Like the original essay, the book itself was a blend of precise analysis and exact documentation. As a resource it is unparalleled. If someone confidently asserts that Israel and its backers had nothing whatever to do with encouraging the United States to invade Iraq ( a “canard” is the usual dismissal phrase), one can find in The Israel Lobby five or six pages of quotes from television appearances and op-eds by leading Israeli political and military figures, who utilized their untrammeled media access to convey their war-mongering points to the American public. The same holds true for dozens of other subtopics of their broader subject: precise generalizations, supported by facts, authoritatively and contextually presented in a rhetoric that neither overheats nor backs down.
There are several different frames of reference in which to discuss Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States. One potentially critical new front is now being opened by some Jewish liberals, who charge that Israel’s longstanding occupation policies contravene Jewish values. But important as this argument is, it initiates a debate in which the vast majority of Americans have no standing to participate.
This underscores the achievement, and the yet unrealized potential, of Mearsheimer and Walt’s essay and book. As international relations scholars and centrist “realists,” the two examined the American relationship with Israel through the prism of American national interests and values—or at least the non-racist and democratic values America has aspired to for most of the past century. They found the Israel relationship deficient on both counts. In doing so they not only wrote a milestone paper and book— what political work in the past decade comes close to The Israel Lobby in importance? They provided the tens of millions in the vast American political center with a vocabulary and a conceptual frame to discuss a subject of critical importance to them. Non-Jews especially, for the reasons discussed above, desperately needed such a vocabulary, for without it they were all but mute. No matter that this potential remains, as yet, relatively underutilized: it is still there, ready to be deployed. In the long run, this may prove the greatest contribution of the two scholars, one which far surpass what the book has achieved thus far.
*These inhibitions included the fear of offending other non-Jews. My wife, whose father was a UN official with extensive responsibilities for Middle East peacekeeping, grew up with a far more critical attitude towards Israel than I had. It was not until my own (previously neoconservative) views began to change in the mid 90’s, fifteen years into our marriage, that she acknowledged to me some of her pro-Palestinian sympathies.