06 October 2007

The Inevitable Mearsheimer and Walt Post

So, since the book came out earlier this year, since I am the Hobokenite who nominally studies such things, and moreover since I've been reading the extended version of the LRB article of the same title for class, I think it falls on me to give some sort of comment. And I must (perhaps shamefacedly) admit that I'm spurred to do this by Mearsheimer's appearance on the Colbert Report.

Caveat: I haven't read The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy in book form, but since this isn't a review in any real sense I think that's all right - call it commentary on commentary instead. Warning: this post will inevitably become excessively long.

The argument should be pretty familiar and can be stated in a sentence: United States foreign policy since 1967 has been influenced by a collection of pro-Israel lobby groups and individuals in directions that actually run contrary to national interests. It's not so much this essential argument that has generated controversy, but Mearsheimer and Walt's approach to making it - though to the extent that it has drawn unnecessary vitriol, those reactions have in a funny way simply fulfilled the authors' prophecy that their work would raise charges of antisemitism and all other sorts of hoopla.

Of course, controversy generates sales and run-of-the-mill academic titles don't tend to yield profits, so we can understand that Mearsheimer and Walt are doing something slightly different from the norm to justify their $750,000 advance. All of this to say: we oughtn't read The Israel Lobby as a regular academic tract (and thus should give it the benefit of the doubt in terms of academic rigour, cogency of argument, etc.).

From The New Republic, Jeffrey Goldberg launches an assault on Mearsheimer and Walt's work. Many of the substantive points Goldberg raises are fair ones: the most common criticisms of The Israel Lobby have been about poor research and misreadings of history. But lax scholarship (if the allegation is correct) does not translate into the accusation of antisemitism that Goldberg not-so-implicitly brings on the authors' argument:

Mearsheimer and Walt have set themselves a similar goal [to Joseph Kennedy's cowing of Jewish Hollywood executives]: to convince non-Jews that their Jewish fellow citizens do not have their best interests at heart, and, further, to harass or to rattle or to embarrass American Jews into silence. Their book is not an act of scholarship, but an act of intimidation.
Commending Goldberg's attack, TNR's Jeffrey Herf implicitly compares The Israel Lobby to those "Judeocentric" conspiracy theories that helped shape Nazi antisemitism.

These particular charges hinge largely on reading Mearsheimer and Walt's focus on the Israel lobby as an attack on Jews - which prima facie seems unlikely, since that is the very thing that the authors would be trying assiduously to avoid. Of course there will be a degree of straw-manning in situations like this, but still I'm partially surprised by these kinds of attacks, especially since there seem to be a lot of legitimate substantive grounds on which to refute the argument. I think that those familiar with the longstanding and still-dominant Realist paradigm in International Relations can't have read The Israel Lobby (italicized or in quotes) in the same light that these reviewers have.

Mearsheimer and Walt, in their academic work (and as far as I can judge) view the world in the power-politics terms employed by their scholarly camp. There are important differences between the two, but undoubtedly their common theoretical framework questions the usefulness and advisability of an array of foreign policy choices that do not increase the United States' security or power (the Vietnam War was a favorite target of Realists). The United States' Middle East policy fits that bill, according to the authors, since the degree to which America supports Israel, the "dual containment" of Iraq and Iran from 1991 to 2003, and the 2003 war in Iraq have worked against America's security needs and strategic interests. (I should add in the way of explanation that many Realists don't share the popular view that the Iraq war was about strategic resources like oil.) What, then, could be driving the United States to engage in such unwise activities? Mearsheimer and Walt look to American domestic politics - admittedly not their primary subfield of expertise - and think they've found an answer: the Israel lobby.

There are of course problems in the argument (beyond the huge problems that have led many to conclude that the work is just bad social science) and here is where the authors' fiercest detractors must find their ammunition. First, they set out to show that supporting Israel does not benefit American national security. Especially since the end of the Cold War (or, as Realists should really argue, far before the end of the Cold War) this assertion seems like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, the authors suggest that support for Israel contributed to the motives for the terrorist attacks in 2001, and that the Israel lobby is partially responsible for America's misadventure in Iraq. Of course these suggestions, if true, would be powerful evidence for Mearsheimer and Walt's argument, but since they cannot be shown to be true (or false, for that matter) they are sure to draw attacks. It would be much better to make the more limited argument that American acquiescence to or support of Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza helps the recruitment efforts of terrorist groups and to show directly that AIPAC lobbied for the Iraq war - and leave it at that.

Second - and more seriously, I think - Mearsheimer and Walt attempt to show not only that America doesn't have a security interest in unconditionally backing Israel, but that it also doesn't have a moral motivation to do so. Consequently, they have to make the case for the moral equivalence of Israel and its Palestinian and Arab neighbors/subjects. They do this by drawing on Israeli history, making the familiar but obviously controversial claim that Israel's actions as a state have been no better than the actions of its (once or present) enemies. Because their history is contested - and often shaky - and the subject matter very sensitive, this line of reasoning was sure to draw fire. What is more, they didn't have to follow it.

Mearsheimer and Walt's work unfortunately mixes normative and explanatory claims in a way that would be sure to generate the criticism I've cited. To show that the influence of the Israel lobby explains misguided U.S. foreign policy, they think (rightly) that they have to show that national security is not served by this policy, and (wrongly) that they must show that the United States doesn't actually have a moral reason for backing Israel's actions. Walt and Mearsheimer might have shown that the United States is not morally justified in backing Israel, but that doesn't mean that moral justifications don't explain U.S. policy. One can believe, falsely, that one is doing the right thing - and that false belief can be the cause of action. What they have accomplished is to argue that the U.S. ought not back Israel on moral grounds - but Realists going back to Machiavelli would have been able to make that claim without even looking at Israel's (im)moral policies. As Realists, their claim should be simply that moral reasons are improper reasons, and that the country should tend to its security and strategic interests (and so should not unquestioningly back Israel).

In this case, justificatory or moral reasoning can't be separated from the supposed other cause of American policy - the Israel lobby. What sets a state's "moral compass"? Some possible answers include: philosophical tradition, custom, and in a democracy the beliefs of citizens and elites. Or put another way, all sorts of forces - including domestic forces like lobby groups - help construct a state's identity in its external relations. In this light, the Israel lobby and its influence can't be separated from the question of whether America has been acting on moral grounds in its support of Israel: of course it has, and part of what has defined its moral reasoning has been the interaction of domestic interests, including the Israel lobby.

The normative current in Realism has never claimed that states should allow moral considerations to lead to action contrary to security interests - and that's what Mearsheimer and Walt should have stuck to as good Realists. But of course, that argument's not going to sell books. And moreover, it's a pretty bad argument that runs so contrary to what we know about how states act that it would be the Realists that look like they have their heads in the sky, hoping for a world of pure, security-seeking rational actors that they will never see. (Rodger Payne makes this point more convincingly and less facetiously than I do.)

But maybe the confusion generated when scholars engage in more popularly accessible projects such as Mearsheimer and Walt have done is best shown in these lines from Goldberg's review:
When did it become legitimate in American political science to explain complicated phenomena by single causes? Not even the blizzard of footnotes at the end of their book can disguise the fact that it is an exercise in simplification.
That quote is a criticism, by the way.

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