Feiler Faster

I was asked recently to wade into the debate over The Israel Lobby, the controversial book about the influence of the Christian- and Jewish- fueled Washington lobby the supports the State of Israel (and is also said to have fueled the war in Iraq and is said to be fueling the heavy-breathing around Iran). As part of my preparation, I read a wonderful article just out in the Chronicle of Higher Education that explores the motivations behind the book and what many critics have decried as its questionable scholarship. This is especially surprising, the piece suggests, considering that the two are giants in the world of “realist foreign policy,” in which the exercise of power is considered an integral part of international affairs and a particular lobbying group not all that important. Here’s how the article summarizes the book.

In essence, Mearsheimer and Walt argue that America’s uncritical and uncompromising support of Israel is not in America’s interests. It stimulates the spread of anti-American sentiment in the Muslim and Arab worlds and fuels terrorism. They charge the Israel lobby — a coalition of individuals and groups, some of them Jewish, some evangelical Christian — with playing a key role in pushing for the invasion of Iraq as well as driving a policy of confrontation with Syria and Iran.
But the most troublesome characteristic of the Israel lobby’s influence, according to Mearsheimer and Walt, is the fact that its existence goes largely unremarked on in the American media. They claim that is the result of the lobby’s successful efforts to stifle and marginalize serious discussion about Israel in America.

The two authors readily admit that the Israel Lobby is an exception to their previous theories of international relations. But that hasn’t stopped critics. As a scholar at Stanford reports in the piece. “I am deeply puzzled that they have applied their considerable intellectual talents to such an execrable exercise.”
So why do it? The Chronicle: “The theory enjoying the most credence holds that their crusading zeal against the Israel lobby is fueled by lingering resentment from the period leading up to the invasion of Iraq, when Mearsheimer and Walt were high-profile critics of the Bush administration’s policy of militarized regime change.”

Spend some time talking with Mearsheimer and Walt, and it immediately becomes apparent that they are animated by a rather exalted belief in the critical role scholars should play in a democratic society. They use phrases like “speak truth to power” without a hint of irony or self-consciousness. “The reason we have great universities and tenured professors at those universities is to allow those individuals to enter into the marketplace of ideas and engage powerful policy makers,” says Mearsheimer. A few weeks later, he adds, “At the high end of the academic enterprise, you should be asking important questions and providing answers to those questions that challenge the conventional wisdom.”

Newt Gingrich shut down the U.S. government in part because he was offended President Clinton asked him to get off the back of the plane. Great sins come from minor personal affronts. (The Chronicle relates the story of a NYT Oped by the authors before the Iraq war that went ignored.) Could being shuned by the Jewish Establishment be part of the motivation for The Israel Lobby?

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