Two Elephants in the Room

by , August 31, 2006

It’s funny how the "debate" over Israel’s role in the making of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is playing out, now that John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have let the cat out of the bag. Their critics have yet to confront the cogent arguments laid out in their seminal paper "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," and now they have yet another excuse for not confronting the facts. The two scholars recently spoke under the auspices of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and even Reason magazine’s David Weigel – normally a rational critic of the War Party – is tut-tutting:

"Dana Milbank (via Glenn) offers up the most brutal take on John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt that I’ve yet seen, and the hook is their choice of partners to promote their work: CAIR.

Yesterday, at the invitation of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), they held a forum at the National Press Club to expand on their allegations about the Israel lobby. Blurring the line between academics and activism, they accepted a button proclaiming ‘Fight the Israel Lobby’ and won cheers from the Muslim group for their denunciation of Israel and its friends in the United States.

"The button read: ‘Walt & Mearsheimer Rock. Fight the Israel Lobby.’ And this is embarrassing:

As evidence that the American public does not agree with the Israel lobby, the political scientist cited a USA Today-Gallup poll showing that 38 percent of Americans disapproved of Israel’s military campaign. He neglected to mention that 50 percent approved, and that Americans blamed Hezbollah, Iran, Syria and Lebanon far more than Israel for the conflict.

"Feel free to kick me off the Serious Person Roll Call, but I had initially thought there was merit in the discussion Mearsheimer and Walt were trying to kickstart. They faced a serious hurdle in that discussion of Israel, like immigration, is dominanted [sic] by fringe voices, and they were going to be lumped in with that fringe immediately whether or not they liked it. If, as Milbank finds, they do like it, that’s too bad."

Milbank, "brutal"? Oh please – the Washington political gossip columnist’s sneering "review" of the distinguished scholars’ performance consists of noting that Mearsheimer pronounced two congressmen’s names incorrectly (a big no-no in D.C., where politicians are akin to rock stars) – and the same tired, old accusations of anti-Semitism if anyone looks cross-eyed at the Lobby or its partisans. Oh, but you see, Mearsheimer is claiming to be an "expert" on how policy gets made in Washington, therefore not getting two congressmen’s names right effectively debunks everything he has to say. And that is what passes for "logic" among the Washington cognoscenti.

When House members held impromptu hearings on the lies that lured us into war with Iraq, Milbank snarked: how dare the peoples’ representatives think they can indulge in "make-believe," as if they actually had anything to say about American foreign policy! Similarly, when two distinguished scholars dare to examine who and what is really the decisive influence when it come to U.S. policymaking, Milbank is right there, manning the barricades, ready with foul accusations of "bigotry" – because, you see, the two professors mentioned Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, the two chief intellectual architects of the administration’s pro-Israel foreign policy stance, by name. It’s the latest form of political correctness, Washington-style: you can’t mention anyone with a Jewish name when criticizing our policy toward Israel. Go after Don Rumsfeld, or the president himself – but not anyone with an "itz" at the end of his surname.

But of course Rumsfeld wasn’t particularly pro-Israel as the IDF endangered U.S. troops in Iraq by going after Hezbollah on a pretext of extraordinary flimsiness. Indeed, he was uncharacteristically silent on the subject. And the president, as we all know, is not exactly a policy wonk: he approves the policies, but doesn’t make them or (competently) rationalize them. Feith and Wolfowitz were instrumental in formulating the case for war with Iraq, and the others mentioned by Mearsheimer and WaltDavid Wurmser and Elliott Abrams – do hold positions that impact specifically on our policy in the Middle East, with the former a special adviser to Dick Cheney for Middle East affairs and the latter holding a similar position on the NSC. Why not name them?

Another ridiculous and supposedly self-evident "rule": don’t associate with CAIR, or, indeed, with any Arab-American or Muslim organization. It’s okay, of course, to appear under the auspices of AIPAC – whose top official and a cohort have been indicted for committing espionage against the U.S. – or any of the other numerous (and unregistered) lobbyists for the state of Israel, but Arabs… no. It just isn’t, uh, kosher. Why? Weigel doesn’t tell us. It just is: it’s something anyone on the "Serious Person Roll Call" (of which Weigel assumes he’s a member) knows in his or her gut. (I guess, based on this same standard, the president of the United States is also to be stricken from the Serious Person Roll Call.)

Weigel avers that he "initially" thought that the points raised by Mearsheimer and Walt were worthy of a serious debate, but apparently their association with CAIR has caused him to reconsider. CAIR, you see, belongs to "the fringe" – unlike a magazine that not only advocates drug legalization but positively drools over the widespread use of crystal meth. C’mon, Reasonoids – it’s bad enough you’re running Michael Young, a resident of Beirut and a self-proclaimed "expert" on the Middle East, whose recent articles on Lebanon could all be entitled "Israel, Thanks for Bombing Us!" Do you really have to join in the chorus of catcalls directed at two respected scholars whose only "crime" is speaking truth to the power of the Lobby?

Go here for the C-SPAN broadcast that has the Amen Corner in a lather, wherein the courageous duo points out that, once again, in Lebanon, the U.S. is ignoring its own clear interests in order to pursue a policy to make the Middle East safe for Israel. Milbank addresses none of their arguments – that support for Israel, given unconditionally by the president and both Houses of Congress, undermines the war against al-Qaeda & Co., and is unjust, to boot – and instead notes that Mearsheimer was "white-knuckled" as he "gripped the lecturn." Oh, really – white-knucked, eh? How damning. Don’t all anti-Semites get "white-knuckled" as they declaim passages from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? And, by the way, doesn’t David Duke have white knuckles, too? Aha! Gotcha!

It’s pathetic, really, to witness the coordinated assault on Messrs. Mearsheimer and Walt – the sheer pettiness of the attacks betrays the Lobby’s nervousness at confronting the arguments of this formidable duo. Mearsheimer, the dean of American foreign policy "realists," and Walt, former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a distinguished member of the faculty, are not easily brushed aside, so the Lobby resorts to a smear campaign – and the reflexive anti-Arab, anti-Muslim bias that is a prerequisite for admission to the Serious Person Roll Call. Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds – another Serious Person, whom Weigel addresses by his first name (what a chummy little club!) – is torn between describing Mearsheimer and Walt as "idiots" or "anti-Semites."

This is the same Glenn Reynolds, a law professor for a third-rate university, who smeared Pope John Paul II as a "defender of pedophiles" for voicing concern for the rights of Palestinians, among His Holiness’ other crimes – and whose predictions have been notable for their utter wrongness. What better qualification for being one of Howie Kurtz’s "reliable sources"?

Mearsheimer and Walt are making headlines and talking sense to the American people: Milbank attacks this as "blurring the line between" academia and activism, and claims that their intervention in the public debate somehow reflects poorly on their scholarship. Of course, when pro-Israel academics do the same, they are merely fulfilling their role as "public intellectuals." That’s another one of those rules that everyone on the Serious Person Roll Call knows without ever having to be told.

What scares the Lobby, however, is that the American people are slowly but surely waking up. Contra Milbank – who claims that half the American people approved of Israel’s Lebanese blitzkrieg – this is indeed reflected in the polls, which show that most Americans hold both Israel and Hezbollah equally responsible (there’s more of that dreaded "moral equivalence," which puts the state terrorism of the IDF on the same plane as Hezbollah’s privatized variety).

As for the USA Today/Gallup poll cited by Milbank, showing half of Americans took Israel’s side: that was taken in July. A few weeks of pictures showing children bombed to bits by the Israelis acting in "self-defense," and that has been whittled away to the point where, in spite of the endless barrage of pro-Israel propaganda, Americans are saying that the Israelis have gone too far. An August ABC/Washington Post poll shows 50 percent disapprove of Bush’s handling of the Lebanese crisis, which has amounted, in essence, to unconditional support for Israel’s brazen aggression. While the Europeans and the UN demand that Israel cease its blockade of Lebanon, the U.S. takes the Israeli position – which is, it will go on until Hezbollah crawls on its knees to the IDF, disarms, and commits collective suicide. Americans look at this and say, what’s up with that? Why are we kowtowing to Israel and letting them go on a rampage through Lebanon, killing civilians and destroying the infrastructure that U.S. taxpayers will doubtless wind up paying for? Why?

There’s just one answer: The power of the Lobby. U.S. foreign policy has been hijacked, and there’s no chance it will ever be recovered unless and until the American people wake from their prolonged slumber. If that semi-miraculous event occurs, intellectual historians will no doubt credit Mearsheimer and Walt for breaking the Great Taboo.

As the War Party ramps up its propaganda campaign in support of an attack on Iran – a conflict that would sink the world economy, as well as our hopes of ever getting out of the Middle East without incurring huge losses, both human and financial – it is clear that the Amen Corner is unabashedly agitating on behalf of Israeli interests. After all, America is not threatened by Iran: even if they get nukes, there is no way they’ll be aiming them at Washington, or even have the capacity to do so. Tel Aviv, as everyone knows, is their real target: but the Israelis assume that if they just act as if they’re the 51st state, that will make it so.

And they may be right – but then let’s have it all out in the open. Let’s have a rational discussion of just how Israel both helps and hinders our interests in the Middle East, and weigh both factors in the balance: in short, let’s subject the Israelis to the same test as the British, the French, the Italians, and all the rest. Mearsheimer and Walt have done so, and found Israel wanting – and that, in today’s political atmosphere, is a "hate crime," one that is likely to take one off the Serious Person Roll Call.

Well, then, so be it. I’m glad to leave that Roll Call to the unbearably pretentious and the Washington cocktail party circuit. As Professor Mearsheimer put it in an interview with Mother Jones magazine:

"The Israel lobby and its influence has been a taboo subject for too long. It is very important for the national interest that this matter be discussed at length and in a serious way in the media and on Capitol Hill. Too much is at stake to continue treating the lobby and Israel like two elephants in the room."

Read more by Justin Raimondo