Mearsheimer, Walt and the Erudite Hysteria of David Remnick


First, an illustrative anecdote: A little over a year ago, Iraq’s prime minister Nuri al-Maliki arrived in Washington and addressed Congress. The event was supposed to be a booster for the elected Iraqi leadership, showing U.S. support for the new government. But at the time, Israel was pummeling Beirut in response to Hizballah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers, so U.S. legislators naively tried — and failed — to get Maliki to condemn Hizballah. And, revealing the extent to which Washington is encased in a bubble when it comes to matters involving Israel in the Middle East, Senators Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid and Dick Durbin wrote Maliki a letter saying the following: “Your failure to condemn Hezbollah’s aggression and recognize Israel’s right to defend itself raise serious questions about whether Iraq under your leadership can play a constructive role in resolving the current crisis and bringing stability to the Middle East.”

To cut bluntly to the chase, there is scarcely a single politician in the Arab world willing to endorse Washington’s definitions of the problems or the solutions when it comes to Israel’s impact on the region — and that even among the autocrats with whom the U.S. prefers to work, much less that rare breed that Maliki represents, i.e. a democratically elected leader. It is the U.S. leadership that is in denial about what is needed to create security in the region.

Indeed, the grownups in Washington know this better than anyone. In response to the same crisis in Lebanon, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft wrote:

Hezbollah is not the source of the problem; it is a derivative of the cause, which is the tragic conflict over Palestine that began in 1948.

The eastern shore of the Mediterranean is in turmoil from end to end, a repetition of continuing conflicts in one part or another since the abortive attempts of the United Nations to create separate Israeli and Palestinian states in 1948.

But nobody in power listens to Brent Scowcroft any more. Washington’s Israel bubble so detaches it from an objective view of the Middle East that Howard Dean’s 2003 call for the U.S. to adopt an “even-handed” position between Israel and the Palestinians has longsince entered the U.S. political playbook as an example of foot-in-mouth campaigning. (See my earlier entry on how well Barack Obama has learned this lesson.)

Like the tech-bubble and real estate-bubble, Washington’s “Israel bubble” is unhealthy and dangerous — in fact, it not only jeopardizes U.S. interests throughout the region and beyond (by serving as Exhibit A for any anti-American element anywhere in the Islamic world to win the political contest with America’s friends), but it is also exceedingly bad for Israel: Particularly over the past decade, the U.S. has essentially enabled Israeli behavior so self-destructive that it may have already precluded any chance of it being able to live at peace with its neighbors.

It is the lancing of this Israel bubble — in the best interests of the United States, the Arab world, and Israel’s own prospects for peaceful coexistence with its neighbors — that John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt have dedicated themselves, first in last year’s London Review of Books essay and now in a new book, titled “The Israel Lobby.”

They argue, firstly, that the absolute bias hardwired into U.S. policy towards Israel is neither a rational foreign policy for the U.S. or even particularly helpful to Israel. And they further make the case that this policy has been maintained and extended with increasingly destructive effect by the interventions and activities of a network of groupings they broadly define as the Israel lobby, which actively puts Israel positions (rather than American ones) at the forefront of U.S. policy (on issues ranging from the Palestinians to Iran), and which uses its considerable reach in the political process in Washington to ensure that challenging the U.S. bias towards Israel, as Dean did, is considered political suicide for a politician with presidential ambitions.

Their book is a comprehensive scholarly work, but its purpose is unashamedly political. The book has a number of weaknesses — I find its analytical approach often static and institutional; insufficiently dynamic and, dare I say it, insufficiently dialectical. On the nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship in last summer’s disastrous war in Lebanon, for example, I disagree with their denial of responsibility on Washington’s part — the original impulse to take some form of action may have come from the Israeli leadership, but as I made clear at the time, it was hard to avoid the suspicion that the scale and objectives of the operation became defined by Washington, and they were plainly goals for which Israel had not prepared its forces.

Also, the process of skewing U.S. bias towards Israel may reveal the machinations of a lobby, but they have also become deeply-entrenched tropes in U.S. political and civil society — tropes which now function quite independently of the lobby’s interventions.

But regardless of a number of specific instances that I might analyse somewhat differently, I have no quarrel with its central argument that U.S. policy on Israel and its neighbors is grotesquely biased in favor not only of Israel, but of Israel’s most self-destructive impulses. As such, it is a policy dangerous to U.S. interests and ultimately to those of Israel itself. This biased is maintained and policed in substantial part by an aggressive lobbying effort by an elaborate pro-Israel political infrastructure. Despite its analytical weaknesses, it is a refreshingly candid and courageous (given the all too common fate of those who tackle this taboo — just take a look at the important logging of this stuff at Muzzlewatch) embrace of what has long been the “third rail” of American foreign policy, insisting that a debate be conducted where none has been tolerated until now.

And, its significance may be measured in part by the response it has elicted. Not so much the predictable fulminations of Abe Foxman in his prebuttal of Mearsheimer and Walt, The Deadliest Lies, or the manic chatter of Haaretz’s resident arbiter of all things Hebrew Nationalist in America, Shmuel Rosner — all of that may be par for the course. But M&W share with Jimmy Carter that ability to call forth a rather unfortunate habit among sections of America’s liberal punditocracy, in which sharp and fundamental criticisms of Israel must be discredited and squashed, even at the cost of the cool reason for which the pundits in question are usually known. To put it unkindly, when Israel is under the spotlight, many liberal commentators feel compelled to embarrass themselves in its defense.

I noticed this phenomenon last year when Jimmy Carter made the entirely valid comparison between Israel’s West Bank regime and the apartheid system that prevailed in South Africa until 1994. That prompted Michael Kinsley — a well-known and generally smart liberal pundit — to denounce Carter’s comparison in an op-ed that only served to show how little he knew about either the Middle East or apartheid South Africa. Clearly, though, the idea that Israel was committing crimes equivalent to apartheid clearly made Kinsley so uncomfortable that he felt compelled to blurt out something — anything, really, to negate Carter, and make the discomfort he caused go away. (I critiqued his lame response to Carter in an earlier post.)

This phenomenon is reflective of a trend that has been confirmed to me anecdotally dozens of times, both in the U.S. and at home in South Africa, where some Jewish liberals of faultlessly progressive politics on every other issue turn into raving tribal belligerents of the Ariel Sharon hue when the conversation turns to Israel. We’ve all seen it, dozens of times, I’m sure — although I’m pleased to say I know a lot more whose politics are consistent, and are not prone to being possessed by Zionist Mr. Hydes.

David Remnick is not among them, unfortunately. In response to Mearsheimer and Walt, New Yorker editor Remnick offers a fresh specimen of the denial pathology.

What is most strking about his piece, however, is that it is more of a kvetch, designed to discredit M&W in the eyes of New Yorker readers, than a serious engagement with their argument. For example, Remnick notes that M&W are realists, i.e. they make their case for a foreign policy based on national interests. Remnick writes:

“There is a strong moral case for supporting Israel’s existence,” [M&W] write, but they deny that Israel is of critical strategic value to the United States. The disappearance of Israel, in their view, would jeopardize neither America’s geopolitical interests nor its core values. Such is their “realism.”

The latter line seems to be dropped in with a note of bitter irony, as if it somehow damns the authors, who repeatedly make clear their belief that the U.S. should support Israel where it’s right to exist is threatened, but note that its existence is not actually under threat, right now — instead, the U.S. is being called upon to underwrite its brutal occupation policies. But the argument that Israel’s disappearance would not substantially harm U.S. national interests is a perfectly legitimate one in the realist framework, bereft of emotion: Israel safeguards no vital national interests of the United States, and is more of a liability than an asset in the broad U.S. strategic approach to the Middle East. Those who argue that Israel has value as a U.S. ally can point only to tactical advantages, e.g. Israel’s intelligence services can better infiltrate radical groups than can their American allies. No doubt. But on the strategic plane, such advantages are negated by the fact that by unconditionally backing Israel and its regime of occupation over the Palestinians, it becomes virtually impossible for any Arab leader to openly associate with U.S. goals.

It was precisely this recognition of Israel’s limited strategic value to the U.S. in a post-Cold War world that led Yitzhak Rabin, a longtime hawk, to embrace the Oslo deal presented to him by Shimon Peres. Like the leaders of apartheid South Africa in the late 80s, Rabin had come to recognize (particularly in the era of the first Bush administration) that Israel could no longer count on unconditional U.S. backing given Washington’s interests elsewhere in the region. As a result, it was compelled to seek an accomodation with the Palestinian national leadership. Of course, this was an exceedingly good thing. Unfortunately, Rabin needn’t have worried, because the changing domestic political atmosphere in the U.S. — the success of the Israel lobby beyond its wildest dreams, particularly as a result of the backing of perhaps its latterly most important constituent, the Evangelical Christian Zionists, had meant that Israel could count on U.S. backing regardless of its behavior in relation to the Palestinians. M&W are simply pointing out that this does not accord with an accurate reading of U.S. national interests.

Remnick notes that M&W “are right to describe the moral violation in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. (In this, most Israelis and most American Jews agree with them.)” But then he complains that they reveal a nefarious agenda in blaming Israel for all ills in its relationship with the Palestinians, and the Arab more broadly.

The narrative rightly points out the destructiveness of the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and America’s reluctance to do much to curtail them, but there is scant mention of Palestinian violence or diplomatic bungling, only a recitation of the claim that, in 2000, Israel offered “a disarmed set of Bantustans under de-facto Israeli control.” (Strange that, at the time, the Saudi Prince Bandar told Yasir Arafat, “If we lose this opportunity, it is not going to be a tragedy. This is going to be a crime.”)

But while Remnick may satisfy his liberal conscience by conceding the idea that the occupation is bad, what he’s not answering is M&W’s case that it is bizarre to the point of inexplicable that the U.S. no longer bothers to even threaten to take steps to restrain Israel from this “moral violation.” U.S. support for Israel is unconditional, settlements and all. The sad fact, for the likes of Remnick, is that the occupation is not some aberration on Israel’s part; there really is no longer any real distinction, in practice on the ground, between Israel and its occupation of the lands it captured in 1967. As Henry Siegman recently explained in an excellent piece in the London Review of Books, Israel quite simply has no inclination to withdraw from the occupied territories, and its ideas of a “peace process” are essentially limited to the pursuit of Palestinian surrender.

As for evoking the authority of Prince Bandar, oy. Remnick himself had suggested that debate on U.S. Middle East policy was welcome, and that it should include questions such as “whether we should be supplying arms to the Saudis.” Uh, Dave, those deals are typically negotiated by Bandar. And by the way, since when did this Bush-Cheney acolyte become a voice of Arab authority? How many Arab leaders were willing to publicly endorse the deal offered at Camp David? (Bandar himself wouldn’t, you can be sure. And nor would Mahmoud Abbas.)

Remnick is entirely correct that most American Jews would agree with M&W about the occupation, but that simply underlines a point they make throughout the book — that the positions and interventions of the Israel lobby are not representative of mainstream American Jewish opinion; they’re way to the right of it. It’s not a “Jewish lobby,” it’s a lobby of people — many of them Evangelical Christians — supporting the positions of the hardline nationalist right in Israel.

Remnick also attempts the rather silly argument that U.S. support for Israel has little impact on the appeal of Osama bin Laden and other radicals in the Arab world, because Bin Laden’s objective is to overthrow Arab autocracies backed by the U.S. Yes, of course it is, but the point is that Bin Laden hardly needs to break a sweat in “proving” American malfeasance to any Muslim audience — he simply needs to point for Washington’s unswerving support of Israel, and the argument is over. And that precludes U.S. allies in the Arab world from attaining any popular legitimacy.

While denying that M&W are anti-Semites, Remnick nonetheless questions the bona fides of their intervention. His message to his readers is, don’t worry about what these guys are saying, they’re just grinding an axe. Wink. “Taming the influence of lobbies, if that is what Mearsheimer and Walt desire, is a matter of reforming the lobbying and campaign-finance laws,” but he suggests that, intead, the authors are a product of a polarized political moment, reducing all ills to a single cause — the Israel lobby. But Remnick hasn’t honestly engaged with their arguments aside from clucking over the settlements: Does Remnick agree, for example, that the U.S. should leave Israel no choice but to withdraw its West Bank settlements, by threatening to cut off the spigot if it doesn’t stop and reverse its colonization of the West Bank? Should the U.S. not use its considerable power over Israel to march it back to its 1967 borders? That, really, is what’s at issue here.

Remnick’s own Israel bubble has been taking a bit of a battering of late: Just three weeks ago, he found himelf compelled to write a subtle smear of Avrum Burg, largely attributing the former Knesset speaker’s renunciation of Zionism to his supposed personality defects! Plainly, Remnick has little appetite for engaging with Burg’s notion that, as he put it, he had always considered himself a human being, a Jew and a Zionist until he began to recognize that his Zionism negated the other two aspects of his identity.

Burg, like Mearsheimer and Walt, had clearly made Remnick uncomfortable. But he’s substantially correct in challenging the M&W idea that the lobby is singularly responsible for policing America’s public discourse on Israel. After all, nobody asked Remnick to write these pieces. Nor did anyone tell Kinsley to try and shoot down Jimmy Carter’s apartheid argument. Just as important as challenging the Israel lobby is drawing attention to the deep-rooted tropes of knee-jerk defensiveness in sections of the liberal-Jewish intelligentsia that allows them to avert their eyes and cling to fantasy when Israel is an agent of oppression.

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