Tuesday, October 30, 2007

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I think the reviews are in

I haven't read The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. However, after the original contretemps, the initial reviews of the book, and the subsequent reviews in the Economist, New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Nation, I was getting a sense that the book wasn't all that good.

And this was before I got to Walter Russell Mead's review of the book in Foreign Affairs -- which clarifies exactly the extent to which Mearsheimer and Walt have failed in their task:

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt claim that they want The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy "to foster a more clear-eyed and candid discussion of this subject." Unfortunately, that is not going to happen. "The Israel Lobby" will harden and freeze positions rather than open them up. It will delay rather than hasten the development of new U.S. policies in the Middle East. It will confuse the policy debate not just in the United States but throughout the world as well, while giving aid and comfort to anti-Semites wherever they are found. All of this is deeply contrary to the intentions of the authors; written in haste, the book will be repented at leisure....

Walt and Mearsheimer's belief that the United States needs to find ways to bridge the gap between its current policies and the national aspirations of Palestinians and other Arabs is correct. But Mearsheimer and Walt have too simplistic and sunny a view of the United States' alternatives in the Middle East -- a fault they share with the "neoconservatives," who serve as the book's bÍtes noires. Overcoming the challenges of U.S. policy in the Middle East will not be nearly as easy as Mearsheimer and Walt think, and the route they propose is unlikely to reach the destination they seek, even if some of their concerns about the United States' current stance in the region are legitimate.

The book's problems start very early and run very deep. Mearsheimer and Walt outline the case they plan to make on page 14: "The United States provides Israel with extraordinary material aid and diplomatic support, the lobby is the principal reason for that support, and this uncritical and unconditional support is not in the national interest." Note the slippage. The "extraordinary" support of the first clause quietly mutates into the "uncritical and unconditional" support of the last. "Extraordinary" is hardly the same thing as "uncritical and unconditional," but the authors proceed as if it were. They claim the clarity and authority of rigorous logic, but their methods are loose and rhetorical. This singularly unhappy marriage -- between the pretensions of serious political analysis and the standards of the casual op-ed -- both undercuts the case they wish to make and gives much of the book a disagreeably disingenuous tone.

Rarely in professional literature does one encounter such a gap between aspiration and performance as there is in The Israel Lobby.

The obvious question is, why did they fail? See Jacob Levy on this point.

Last year, I wrote the following:

I think we're at the point where it is time to recognize that it will be impossible to have anything close to a high-minded debate on this topic when the starting point is "The Israel Lobby" essay. Don't get me wrong -- besides the fact that Mearsheimer and Walt badly defined their independent variable, miscoded one alternative explanation, omitted several other causal variables, poorly operationalized their dependent variable, and failed to fact-check some of their assertions, it's a bang-up essay. With this foundation, however, any debate is guaranteed to topple into the mire of anti-Semitic accusations, Godwin's Law, and typing in ALL CAPS.
In writing the book as a follow-up to the article, Mearsheimer and Walt had that rarest of opportunities -- a chance to correct the errors of omission and commission they committed in their original formulation.

It's a genuine shame that they did not.

posted by Dan on 10.30.07 at 11:07 PM



posted by: zarathustra on 10.30.07 at 11:07 PM [permalink]

Mearsheimer & Walt's essay (and subsequent book) certainly has methodological shortcomings. The whole enterprise seems far more flippant than it should, given the gravity of the subject matter. Yet, I can't help but wonder if the various refutations of their methodology are just veils for vitriol. In this post, for example, we have Drezner (of course), then Levy, and then Levy's link to Goldstein... dare I suggest that the tribe is getting defensive here? Isn't all this hand-waving and nitpicking just distracting us from that one bit of insight M&W may have gotten right, that there really is something to this idea of an overly influential "Israel lobby"? Perhaps some collective self-reflection would be beneficial.

(Apologies for the previous comment; I wanted to make sure that I was able to post comments, since I've been denied that privilege in the past.)

posted by: zarathustra on 10.30.07 at 11:07 PM [permalink]

Unlike Dan, I have read the book. The very first thing that should be said is that they are no fans of the Arabs either. They are strictly American nationalists. Even, in their final chapter they explicitly call for dividing and conquering the Arab world. Just to be clear about that.

Then, as for comments of Mr. Russell Mead, he is pushing it with his criticism. For example, who is he trying to kid by making a distinction between "extraordinary" and "uncritical and unconditional"? The fact is that the entire book makes perfectly clear that the support is all three, extraordinary, uncritical and unconditional. so he basically pointed out absolutely nothing by making the assertion he does. Further, what Mr. Russell Mead fails to understand is that their book is not aimed at people who are already partisans of Israel, as he is, but at people who honestly don't know much about it. Of course, someone like Mr. Russell Mead or Drezner, who already believe that Israel is a light unto nations will be offended when they are shown that emperor has no clothes. But Walt and Mearsheimer wrote the book obviously looking for a fight. They are clearly on a mission, and it comes out in every sentence. Also, they have been subjected to an unrelenting level of attack for their book, and never for it's substance. So it only makes sense that they want to beat the point home. And especially because Israel is such a criminal state. If someone wrote a book about Zimbabwe, I am sure it would be angry. Israel is more criminal than that, and deserves all the anger that W&M express in the book.

Further, the previous poster is correct in pointing out that the vast majority of the attacks against this book are people trying to cover their own ass for various reasons (sometimes because they are Jewish, other times because they know Israel can not be morally defended when people have information on how cruel, violent and criminal it is). I just want to second the point that it is pathetic that no one is discussing their ideas, but instead taking pot shots at their methodology. Mr. Russell Mead is especially guilty of this (assuming his the article is represented by the parts of it Drezner posted), and obviously so, when he blows off their argument as insignificant without engaging them by saying "even if some of their concerns about the United States' current stance in the region are legitimate." As though "their concerns" are not important and not what the book is about. NOW WHO IS INTELLECTUALLY HONEST?

Lastly, I personally didn't like the book that much because it reads just like a human rights report. It is just line after line of Israel's crimes. Israel is a criminal state, so it is clearly easy to fill many volumes with such writing, but i didn't find it very interesting. But i do think it was very important of them to do, there are many people who actually believe the pie in the sky bullsh%t about Israel being "the only democracy in the Middle East" or that don't know Israel is simply a third-rate colonial outpost...

posted by: Joe M. on 10.30.07 at 11:07 PM [permalink]

we have Drezner (of course), then Levy, and then Levy's link to Goldstein... dare I suggest that the tribe is getting defensive here?

Now it's a problem that the reporter for the Chronicle for Higher Education-- who wrote a very newsy piece with lots of quotations from Mearsheimer, Walt, and their defenders-- has a Jewish name? Lovely!

I've taken a hard line against the "intellectual aid and comfort to anti-Semites means responsibility for them or, ultimately, is anti-Semitism itself" position; authors aren't responsible for their fan bases, and scholars need to be able to pursue uncomfortable lines of inquiry even if that gives aid and comfort to unpleasant people. But blog comment threads sure don't bring out the... least anti-Semitic of enthusiasts for the book.

posted by: Jacob T. Levy on 10.30.07 at 11:07 PM [permalink]


posted by: Troll on 10.30.07 at 11:07 PM [permalink]

Right, so, Walt & Mearsheimer, flawed article, flawed book. Does it mean the entire premise of their argument is without merit (as many reviewers seem to argue) or merely that their presentation of said argument is poorly executed. More generally, does the oft-repeated opinion that the latter indicates the former hold water? I'm not so sure.

posted by: Troll on 10.30.07 at 11:07 PM [permalink]

"all this hand-waving"

Amazing, inferring Jewishy hand-gestures through blog posts. Well done, anti-Zionist-but-not-anti-Semitic comment-leaver # 10 billion.

posted by: Phoebe on 10.30.07 at 11:07 PM [permalink]

Why is it a shame? Has AIPAC or any other Jewish organization ever blocked peace between the Palestinians and Israelis? The answer is no. Dan, you are in favor of gay marriage? Do you think islamic extremists should be able to dictate our social policies? The answer is no.

Why then should they be able to dictate our foreign policy and who the U.S. chooses to be friends with? The U.S. ended up giving large amounts of aid to Israel to compensate them for the Camp David Accords. This was done at the behest of Jimmy Carter, arguably the most anti-Israel President.

We can have a honest debate about whether at this time, Israel deserves so much aid (as well as Egypt) but to claim that Israel dictates U.S. foreign policy is stupid and naive.

Moreover, peace will come when Palestinians recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state and not just arm of imperialism that they can destroy (Hamas) or make a temporary peace in order to destroy later (Arafat's plan). Israelis have never been the primary obstacle to peace and neither has pro-Israeli organizations in the United States, the Palestinians have.

Walt and Mearsheimer miss the point and the genuine shame is that foreign policy experts thought this was a topic worthy of a book to begin with.

posted by: Ian on 10.30.07 at 11:07 PM [permalink]

It seems to me that AIPAC's lobbying activities are no different than any other lobbying group. Those who object to AIPAC's activities are probably not comfortable with any citizen participation in foreign policy, feeling that foreign policy should be left to the elites (guys like JF Dulles and Dean Acheson and their academic acolytes).

posted by: bob abrams on 10.30.07 at 11:07 PM [permalink]

You gotta love Joe M. Never misses a chance to call Israel a "criminal" state. In his warped little mind shooting unguided rockets and mortar rounds at civilians is obviously NOT a war crime.

Joey, Joey when are you going to strap on that suicide belt and head for Tel Aviv? If you are so positive that Israelis are all criminals to do NOTHING except spit out hatred means YOU - JOE M. - are ALSO morally culpable for their crimes.

Joe M. you are going to Hell.

Where, no doubt, you will enjoy the warm physical company of your hero, Yasir Arafat.

You should remember that eternity is a really, really long time. You have very little time to repair that broken moral compass of yours.

posted by: anon on 10.30.07 at 11:07 PM [permalink]

Whatever the real or imagined or ginned up faults of their original article or book, I don't see how anybody can deny that M&W make a convincing case that AIPAC is qualitatively and quantitatively different from other foreign policy lobbies.

Moreover, AIPAC hardly represents 'the citizenry'. It represents a small segment of the citizenry. Indeed, standard public choice logic applies -- a small, highly interested segment of the population (as M&W show, a good portion of which are the Christian Zionists) is driving policy. If that logic is a okay to apply to trade barriers, why not to foreign policy?

posted by: Mitchell Young on 10.30.07 at 11:07 PM [permalink]

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