The Nation on The Lobby

April 28, 2006

In News

by Philip Weiss

Intellectuals can only dream of having the impact that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have had this spring. Within hours of their publishing a critique of the Israel lobby in The London Review of Books for March 23, the article was zinging around the world, soon to show up on the front pages of newspapers and stir heated discussion on cable-TV shows. Virtually overnight, two balding professors in their 50s had become public intellectuals, ducking hundreds of e-mails, phone messages and challenges to debate.

Titled “The Israel Lobby,” the piece argued that a wide-ranging
coalition that includes neoconservatives, Christian Zionists,
leading journalists and of course the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee, or AIPAC, exerts a “stranglehold” on Middle East policy and
public debate on the issue. While supporting the moral cause for the
existence of Israel, the authors said there was neither a strategic nor
a moral interest in America’s siding so strongly with post-occupation
Israel. Many Americans thought the Iraq War was about oil, but “the war
was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure.”

The shock waves from the article continue to resonate. The initial
response was outrage from Israel supporters, some likening the authors
to neo-Nazis. The Anti-Defamation League called the paper “a classical
conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish
power and Jewish control.” University of Chicago Professor Daniel
Drezner called it “piss-poor, monocausal social science.” Harvard
Law Professor Alan Dershowitz said the men had “destroyed their
professional reputations.” Even left-leaning critics
dismissed the piece as inflammatory and wrong. As time passed (and the
Ku Klux Klan remained dormant), a more rational debate began. The New
York Times, having first downplayed the article, printed a long op-ed
historian Tony Judt saying that out of fear, the mainstream media were
failing to face important ideas the article had put forward. And Col.
Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, praised it at
the Middle East Institute for conveying “blinding flashes of the
obvious,” ideas “that were whispered in corners rather than said out
loud at cocktail parties where someone else could hear you.”

While criticisms of the lobby have circulated widely for years and been
published at the periphery, the Mearsheimer-Walt paper stands out
because it was so frontal and pointed, and because it was published
online by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where Walt is a
professor and outgoing academic dean. “It was inevitably going to
take someone from Harvard [to get this discussed],” says Phyllis
a writer on Middle East issues at the Institute for Policy Studies.

What’s more, the article appeared when public pessimism over the Iraq
War was reaching new highs. “The paper was important as a political
intervention because the authors are squarely in the mainstream of
academic life,” says Norman Finkelstein, a professor of political
science at DePaul University dedicated to bringing the issue of
Palestinian suffering under the occupation to Americans’ attention.
reason they’re getting a hearing now is because of the Iraq debacle.”
Bennis and Finkelstein, both left-wing critics of Israel, have
criticisms of the paper’s findings. Partly this reflects the paper’s
origins: Though it was printed in a left-leaning English journal, it
written by theorists of a school associated with the center/right:
realism, which holds that the world is a dangerous neighborhood, that
good intentions don’t mean very much and that the key to order is a
balance of power among armed states. For realists, issues like human
rights and how states treat minorities are so much idealistic fluff.

Given the paper’s parentage, the ferment over it raises political
questions. How did these ideas get to center stage? And what do they
suggest about the character of the antiwar intelligentsia?

Let’s begin with the personalities. The more forceful member of the duo
(and the one who would talk to me), Mearsheimer, 58, is by nature an
outsider. Though he spent ten years of his youth in the military,
graduating from West Point, he wasn’t much for tents and guns even as
latched on to David Halberstam’s book The Best and the Brightest
it explained a horrible war. Out of pure intellectual curiosity
Mearsheimer, who had become an officer in the Air Force, enrolled in
graduate school classes at the University of Southern California. Today
he is a realist powerhouse at the University of Chicago, publishing
titles as Conventional Deterrence. Like Mearsheimer, Walt, 50, grew up
in privilege, but he is a courtly and soft-spoken achiever. Stanford,
Berkeley and Princeton figured in his progress to Harvard. “I think
Steve enjoyed moving into institutional roles,” says one academic.
“Steve likes a good argument, but unlike John he can be polite. John
enjoys the image of the bomb thrower.”

Mearsheimer was hawkish about Israel until the 1990s, when he began to
read Israel’s “New Historians,” a group of Israeli scholars and
journalists (among them Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim and Tom Segev) who
showed that Israel’s founders had been at times ruthless toward
Palestinians. Mearsheimer’s former student Michael Desch, a professor
Texas A&M, recalls the epiphany: “For a lot of us, who didn’t know
lot about the Israel/Palestine conflict beyond the conventional wisdom
and Leon Uris’s Exodus, we saw a cold war ally; and the moral issue and
the common democracy reinforced a strong pro-Israel bent.” Then Desch
rode to a conference with two left-wing Jewish academics familiar
with the New Historians. “My initial reaction was the same as John’s:
This is crazy. [They argued that] the Israelis weren’t the victims of
the ’48 war to destroy the country. Ben-Gurion had real doubts about
partition. Jordan and Israel talked about dividing up the West Bank
together. All those things were heretical. They seemed to be coming
way, way out in left field. Then we started reading [them], and it
completely changed the way we looked at these things.” Mearsheimer says
he had been blinded by Uris’s novel. “The New Historians’ work was a
great revelation to me. Not only do they provide an abundance of
evidence to back up their stories about how Israel was really created,
but their stories make perfect sense. There is no way that waves of
European Jews moving into a land filled with Palestinians are going to
create a Jewish state without breaking a lot of Palestinian heads….
It’s just not possible.”

September 11 was a catalytic event for the realists. Mearsheimer
and Walt came to see the close US alliance with Israel as damaging
American relations with other states. American policy toward the
Palestinians was serving to foster terrorism, Walt wrote in a book
called Taming American Power. And you weren’t allowed to discuss it.
Walt spoke of the chilling effect of the Israel lobby (on a University
of California, Berkeley, TV show called Conversations With History
last fall): “Right now, this has become a subject that you can barely
talk about without people immediately trying to silence you,
immediately trying to discredit you in various ways, such that no American politicians will touch this, which is quite remarkable when you
consider how much Americans argue about every other controversial political issue. To me, this is a national security priority for us, and we ought to be having an open debate on it, not one where only one side is being heard from.”

For his part, Mearsheimer saw the lobby’s power in an episode in the
spring of 2002, when Bush called on Ariel Sharon to withdraw troops
from Palestinian towns on the West Bank. Sharon shrugged him off, and Bush caved. Mearsheimer says by e-mail: “At the American Political Science Association convention in the late summer of 2002, I was talking to a friend about the US-Israel relationship. We shared similar views, and agreed that lots of others thought the same way. I said to him over the course of a dinner that I found it quite amazing that despite widespread recognition of the lobby’s influence, no one could write about it and get it published in the United States. He told me that he thought that was not the case, because he had a friend at The Atlantic who was looking for just such an article.”

The Atlantic had long hoped to assign a piece that would look
systematically at where Israel and America shared interests and where
those interests conflicted, so as to examine the lobby’s impact. The
magazine duly commissioned an article in late 2002 by Mearsheimer and Walt, whom Mearsheimer had brought in. “No way I would have done it alone,” Mearsheimer says. “You needed two people of significant stature to withstand the firestorm that would invariably come
with the publication of the piece.”

Mearsheimer and Walt had plenty of ideological company. After 9/11,
many other realists were questioning American policy in the Mideast. Stephen Van Evera, an international relations professor at MIT, began writing papers showing that the American failure to deal fairly with the
Israel/Palestine conflict was fostering support for Al Qaeda across the
Muslim world. Robert Pape, a professor down the hall from Mearsheimer at Chicago, published a book, Dying to Win, showing that suicide bombers were not religiously motivated but were acting pragmatically against occupiers.

The writer Anatol Lieven says he reluctantly took on the issue after
9/11 as a matter of “duty”–when the Carnegie Endowment, where he was a senior associate, asked him to. “I knew bloody well it would bring
horrible unpopularity…. All my personal loyalties are the other way.
I’ve literally dozens of Jewish friends; I have no Palestinian
Lieven says he was a regular at the Aspen Institute till he brought up
the issue. “I got kicked out of Aspen…. In early 2002 they held a
conference on relations with the Muslim world. For two days nobody
mentioned Israel. Finally, I said, ‘Look, this is a Soviet-style
Whatever you think about this issue, the entire Muslim world is
about it.’ I have never been asked back.” In 2004 Lieven published a
book, America Right or Wrong, in which he argued that the United States
had subordinated its interests to a tiny militarized state, Israel.
Attacked as an anti-Semite, Lieven says he became a pariah among many
colleagues at the Carnegie Endowment, which he left for the fledgling
New America Foundation.

Yet another on this path was the political philosopher Francis
a neoconservative-turned-realist. In 2004 he attended Charles
Krauthammer’s speech at the American Enterprise Institute about
spreading democracy and was shocked by the many positive effects
Krauthammer saw in the Iraq War. Fukuyama attacked this militaristic
thinking in an article in The National Interest. He wrote with sympathy
of the Palestinians and said the neoconservatives confused American and
Israeli interests. “Are we like Israel, locked in a remorseless
with a large part of the Arab and Muslim world, with few avenues open
us for dealing with them other than an iron fist?… I believe that
there are real problems in transposing one situation to the other.”
Krauthammer responded in personal terms, all but accusing Fukuyama of
anti-Semitism. “The remarkable thing about the debate was how oblique
Frank’s reference to the issue was and how batshit Krauthammer and the
other neoconservatives went,” says Mike Desch. “It is important to them
to keep this a third rail in American politics. They understood that
even an elliptical reference would open the door, and they immediately
all jumped on Frank to make the point, ‘Don’t go there.'” It seems to
have worked. The soft-spoken Fukuyama left out the critique of the
neocon identification with Israel in his recent book, America at the

“We understood there would be a significant price to pay,” Mearsheimer
says. “We both went into this understanding full well that our
chances of ever being appointed to a high-level administrative position
at a university or policy-making position in Washington would be
greatly damaged.” They turned their piece in to The Atlantic two
years ago. The magazine sought revisions, and they submitted a new
in early 2005, which was rejected. “[We] decided not to publish the
article they wrote,” managing editor Cullen Murphy wrote to me, adding
that The Atlantic’s policy is not to discuss editorial decisions with
people other than the authors.

“I believe they got cold feet,” Mearsheimer says. “They said they
thought the piece was a terrible–they thought the piece was terribly
written. That was their explanation. Beyond that I know nothing. I
be curious to know what really happened.” The writing as such can’t
been the issue for the magazine; editors are paid to rewrite pieces.
understanding I got from a source close to the magazine is that The
Atlantic had wanted a piece of an analytical character. It got the
analysis, topped off with a strong argument.

That might have been the end of it. The authors “nosed around,”
Mearsheimer says, looking for another US publisher, then gave up,
concluding that the piece could not be published as an article or book
in “a mainstream outlet” in the United States. Half a year passed. Then
a scholar Mearsheimer will not identify called to say that a staffer at
The Atlantic had passed along the piece, which he found “magisterial.”
The scholar put the authors in touch with Mary-Kay Wilmers, the London
Review of Books editor, and last fall she contracted to publish the

“John, who I think is a little bit more hardheaded politically and
intellectually, expected what came,” Desch says. “Steve was more
confident that facts and logic would carry the day, and from some
conversations I’ve had he was clearly shellshocked. He was in an
position at Harvard.” Desch adds that when the New York Sun linked the
authors to white supremacist David Duke, who praised the article, “it
came as a real kick in the stomach.” Some measure of Walt’s exposure is
financial. Bernard Steinberg, director of Harvard’s Hillel center,
brought this issue up unprompted to me: “I talked to someone in
Harvard development and asked what the fallout had been, and he
said, ‘It’s been seismic.'”

Something in Mearsheimer’s spirit would seem to be fulfilled in
upsetting people by expressing ideas that he deeply believes. “When you
write about this subject and you’re critical of Israeli policy or
critical of the US-Israel relationship, you are invariably going to be
called an anti-Semite,” he says. When I said he had autonomy as a
professor to enjoy “free discourse” in this country, he said, “What
discourse in the United States? What free discourse are you talking
about?” Mearsheimer’s friend Van Evera criticizes him for allowing his
legitimate anger over being shut out of the discourse to affect the
of the article. But Mearsheimer was expressing his sharp personality;
and doesn’t passion give life to an argument?

The authors have gotten support from hundreds of e-mails,
three-quarters of which congratulate them, Mearsheimer says. Foreign-service officers in Washington who are frightened by the neoconservative program are said to be excitedly passing the article around. The European left has also welcomed the paper, saying that these issues must be discussed. And even in Israel the article has had a respectful reading, with a writer in Ha’aretz saying it was a “wake-up call” to Americans about the relationship.

Many liberals and leftists have signaled their discomfort with the
paper. Daniel Fleshler, a longtime board member of Americans for
Peace Now, says the issue of Jewish influence is “so incendiary and so
complicated that I don’t know how anyone can talk about this in the
public sphere. I know that’s a problem. But there’s not enough space in
any article you write to do this in a way that doesn’t cause more
rancor. And so much of this paper was glib and poorly researched.” In
Salon Michelle Goldberg wrote that the authors had “blundered forth”
into the argument in “clumsy and crude” ways, for instance failing to
distinguish between Jewish Likudniks and Jewish support of Democrats in
Congress. Noam Chomsky wrote that the authors had ignored the
forces in the American economy pushing for war, what he calls “the
tight state-corporate linkage.” Norman Finkelstein makes a similar
distinction. “I’m glad they did it,” he says of the publication, but he
argues that while the pro-Israel lobby controls public debate on the
issue, and even Congress, the lobby can’t be shown to decide the “elite
opinion” that creates policy in the Mideast.

One problem with this argument is that in insisting on the primacy of
corporate decision-making, it diminishes the realm of political culture
and shows a real dullness about how ideas percolate in Washington.
tanks, the idea factories that help produce policy, used to have a
firmly WASPish character. But as Walt and Mearsheimer show, hawkishly
pro-Israel forces have established a “commanding presence” at such
organizations over much of the spectrum, from the Brookings Institution
in the center to the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage
Foundation on the right. After Bush’s 2000 victory, Dick Cheney made
sure that his neoconservative friends were posted throughout the
Administration, and after 9/11 their militaristic ideas swept the
government like a fever. In a fearful time, their utter distrust of
and Muslim culture seemed to the Bushies to explain the world. “You
an alliance between neocons and aggressive nationalists that goes back
thirty years. Their ideas have bled into one another,” says Jim Lobe of
Inter Press Service. “And neoconservatives put Israel at the absolute
center of their worldview.” One of the tenets of neocon belief was that
the road to peace in Israel/Palestine led through Baghdad: Give Israel
greater sense of security and you can solve the Palestinian issue
That has been the government policy.

Lieven says, “It’s self-evidently true that other interests and
ambitions are involved in the war with Iraq…. Oil is very
much–imperial ambitions are very much there.” But, he adds, “it is
crazy to suggest on the one hand that the neoconservatives had a great
influence on the Bush Administration and to say that it didn’t play out
in terms of a hard interest for Israel. If you think the neocons were
not running the whole show but had a definite impact, then you can’t
possibly suggest that Israeli interests were not involved.”

The liberal intelligentsia have failed in their responsibility on
specifically this question. Because they maintain a nostalgic view of
the Establishment as a Christian stronghold in which pro-Israel Jews
have limited power, or because they like to make George Bush and the
Christian end-timers and the oilmen the only bad guys in a debacle, or
because they are afraid of pogroms resulting from talking about Jewish
power, they have peeled away from addressing the neocons’
Israel-centered view of foreign relations. “It seems that the American
left is also claimed by the Israel lobby,” Wilmers, LRB’s (Jewish)
editor, says with dismay. Certainly the old antiwar base of the
Democratic Party has been fractured, with concerns about Israel’s
security driving the wedge. In the 2004 primaries, Howard Dean was
forced to correct himself after–horrors–calling for a more
evenhanded policy in the Middle East. The New Yorker’s courageous
opposition to the Vietnam War was replaced this time around by
muted support for the Iraq War. Tom Friedman spoke for many
liberals when he said on Slate that bombs in Israeli pizza parlors made
him support aggression in Iraq. Meantime, out of fear of Dershowitz, or
respect for him, the liberal/mainstream media have declined to look
the lobby’s powers, leaving it to two brave professors. The extensive
quibbling on the left over the Mearsheimer-Walt paper has often seemed
defensive, mistrustful of Americans’ ability to listen to these ideas
lest they cast Israel aside.

Mearsheimer and Walt at times were simplistic and shrill. But it may
have required such rhetoric to break through the cinder block and get
attention for their ideas. Democracy depends on free exchange, and free
exchange means not always having to be careful. Lieven says we have
in another system the phenomenon of intellectuals strenuously
an article that could not even be published in their own country: the
Soviet Union. “If somebody like me, an absolute down-the-line centrist
on this issue–my position on Israel/Palestine is identical to that of
the Blair government–has so much difficulty publishing, it’s a sign of
how extremely limited and ethically rotten the media debate is in this

Realist ideas are resonating now because the utopian ideas that drove
the war are so frightening and demoralizing. Indeed, Fukuyama has moved
toward what he calls Wilsonian realism. Lieven is about to come out
a book (co-edited with a right-winger from the Heritage Foundation) on
ethical realism. These ideas are appealing because they offer a better
way of explaining a dangerous world than the idea that our bombs are
good bombs and that Muslims only respect force. Left-wingers and
liberals who find themselves alienated from the country’s warmongering leadership have to acknowledge the potential in these ideas to forge a
coalition of outs. But the price of effecting such a
realignment is high: It means separating from the Israel lobby
(or reforming it!) and trusting that a fairer American policy in the
Middle East will not mean abandoning Israel.