Let me begin by conveying what is the most appalling thing about the Mearsheimer-Walt work and the controversy it has generated. They wrote a paper and an article in the London Review of Books this past spring. Based on the firestorm it caused, they got an advance of three quarters of a million dollars from Farrar Straus and Giroux to expand their arguments in book-length form. I have been peddling a book proposal with a sample chapter on many of the same issues they are dealing with. And I can’t get to first base with any publishers. That alone is deeply offensive to me.
My take on their work is summed up in a letter I wrote to The Nation, in response to one of their writers, Philip Weiss, who quoted me as complaining about the sloppy scholarship and glib generalizations in the Mearsheimer-Walt report [reproduced below, in part]:
...I told my friend Philip Weiss that America would benefit from candid conversations about the pro-Israel lobby in the public sphere. But I also said that if academics are going to venture into this explosive territory, they should be very careful to get their facts straight and avoid using simplistic generalizations to sum up very complex events and trends. Mearsheimer and Walt did neither.
As an activist for Israel's peace camp who has been skirmishing with the conventional Israel lobby for decades, I would have welcomed an informed, scrupulously documented and honest critique of that lobby by two distinguished scholars. What I read was an elaborate attack ad that was riddled with so many inaccuracies, omissions and unsubstantiated assertions that, as Michelle Goldberg put it in Salon, it seemed expressly designed to elicit exactly the [hostile] reaction it has received. The power of the Israel lobby is something that deserves a full and fearless airing, but this paper could make such an airing less, not more, likely.”
....These scholars had an opportunity to give people who are inhibited about criticizing Israel and its lobbyists some lucid arguments and facts to help them overcome those inhibitions. They blew it....
Here is how Walt and Mearsheimer explain America’s Middle East Policy: First, they show why support for Israel is not and has never been in America’s strategic interests. Next, they explain that there are few moral justifications for American support for Israel, because much of Israeli policy has been immoral. So here is their money quote: “If neither strategic nor moral arguments can account for America’s support for Israel, how are we best to explain it? The explanation lies in the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby.”
That kind of reductionism is so simplistic it is almost bizarre.... These are two of the country’s leading political scientists. They must know that people in their field have identified all kinds of influences that go into the sausage-making process of American foreign policy: the influence of bureaucrats and the bureaucratic process, domestic politics, the group-think that settles into any organization.
The classic study of this kind of interplay is Essence of Decision by Graham Allison, which analyzes the different factors involved in the Kennedy Administration’s decisions during the Cuban missile crisis. Stephen Walt has said it was the first book he read in graduate school. You wouldn’t know it from his paper on the Israel lobby.
To Mearsheimer and Walt, apparently, America’s Middle East policy is a function of a massive Israel lobby and Jewish money, nothing more. In their work, they don’t go into the nuts and bolts of how decisions are made. They just show some of the way this lobby operates. And they assume the lobby is the main reason why American policy has been so disastrous.
To understand why that makes no sense, all we need to do is remember that one of most supportive Presidents Israel has ever had was Richard Nixon. Besides being an outright anti-Semite, he didn’t care at all about the Jewish vote. A very small percentage of his campaign contributions came from Jews, like Max Fisher. According to Kissinger’s memoirs, Nixon used to brag about how the Jewish lobby had no influence on him.
And yet Nixon was responsible for a massive increase in military and financial aid to Israel. He’s the one who established the ties between the military-industrial complexes of both countries that exist today. Why? Because he believed Israel was a bulwark against Communism, not because of Israel’s lobby. So one reason why Mearsheimer and Walt caused such a furor is that they ignored all the complexities and nuances, all the reasons why foreign policy decisions have been made that had nothing to do with the Israel lobby.
Another reason, as I noted, was sloppy scholarship. If you’re going to make a case for Jewish influence in an academic paper, you damn well better have your facts straight. These guys were incredibly careless. To be continued.