Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Today in the Chronicle

One of the better pieces that's been written surveying the controversy around and aftermath of Walt and Mearsheimer's "Israel Lobby" work: "'Waltheimer' on the Hot Seat" by Evan Goldstein.

It includes the following.
That explanation has not satisfied Walt and Mearsheimer's critics, who insist there must be a more-compelling explanation for why two scholars with deeply entrenched intellectual inclinations would push such an argument at this juncture in their careers. And so a parlor game of sorts is under way within the discipline to explain what many find so inexplicable. 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.

In addition to writing a major article in Foreign Policy decrying the 2003 invasion of Iraq as an "unnecessary war," they published a flurry of op-eds and led the effort to place an open letter in The New York Times with the headline "War With Iraq Is Not in America's National Interest." Yet by all accounts, those efforts barely made a ripple in the broader public conversation. "I think this flummoxed the living hell out of them," says Daniel W. Drezner, an associate professor of international politics at Tufts University. "I think it was inconceivable to them that no one listened."

When asked about that analysis, Mearsheimer concedes that the debate over Iraq policy was "very frustrating." As he rehashes that period, it is evident that he continues to be irritated by the uncivilized terms on which he feels the debate was conducted. "Critics of the war were called all sorts of names — you were called soft on terrorism, you were called an appeaser, you were accused of not being very smart," he says. But both he and Walt emphatically reject the suggestion that Iraq is at the root of their recent work on the Israel lobby.

And Iraq does seem to be only part of the story. 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."

It's not at all clear to me that the last paragraph contradicts the Iraq thesis (a thesis I've discussed before). Indeed, I think it emphasizes that thesis. The exalted view of the role (apparently only tenured) professors at great universities should play in a democratic society would only aggravate the sense of frustration that policymakers and the public didn't listen to them in 2002-03. The more sure you are that you're an authority and ought to be listened to, the more baffling and irritating you'll find it when you're not-- and, sometimes, the more you'll go looking for some extraordinary explanation for the anomalous situation that your wisdom wasn't listened to.

Now Walt and Mearsheimer were right to think they were right about the war. But they also seem to be struck with a certain sense of entitlement-- that when they speak truth to power, power will sit up and listen, because they are who they are, and they're right. The failure of power to do so seems to them inexplicable in normal terms. They spoke, loudly, in the run-up to the war; they perceive themselves to have been silenced, because their authority wasn't heeded. And so they went looking for a silencer, and convinced themselves they had found one. And their view that they're still being silenced seems impervious to money, fame, or the prominence of their national and international platform from which to speak.

A couple of other things struck me.
This month, Mearsheimer and Walt depart for Europe, where they will address audiences in Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, and Britain. In London alone, they have events scheduled at the London School of Economics and Political Science, the University of London, and the House of Lords.

I am for some reason terribly amused at the thought of the bien-pensants of Europe turning out to cheer authors whose stated concern is that the United States should pursue its own national security interest more effectively. In any other context, would an American IR realist receive the reception they may well receive? And I wonder whether either the authors or the audiences will notice that oddity if it arises, and what they will tell themselves about it.

Also: on Colbert, Mearsheimer spun the project as one of just looking at a lobbying group among other lobbying groups, as ordinary as the NRA or the AARP. We already know this isn't right; one would study the NRA by studying the NRA, but they study The Israel Lobby by studying AIPAC, and American Jews in the media, and neoconservatives in government, and Jews in think tanks, and Jews in academia... and the fundamentalst Christians who believe odd things about Israel's destiny. But the gap between "just another lobbying group" and the work is exposed here:

Mearsheimer and Walt are quick to acknowledge that realist theory fails to explain the outsize influence of the Israel lobby. "All theories face anomalies," Mearsheimer reasons. "There are always going to be cases that contradict a particular theory; this is true of all social-science theories." With a mixture of defensiveness and reassurance, he adds, "And this case is an anomaly."

He's right that there are always outliers, of course. And funny things sometimes happen when people turn to the study of outliers. If one's own theory doesn't explain the outlier, then one might want to learn some new theories if the outlier is particularly important, rather than engaging in a standardless, disciplineless, methodless inquiry about what makes this Lobby different from all other lobbies. (As I've noted before, there are political scientists who study the effects of domestic lobbying on US foreign policy-making, some of whom have found that AIPAC is decisively important and others of whom have not, and none of whom have been called anti-Semitic for their troubles. But qua realists, M&W aren't in that intellectual business.) But, even if one doesn't, there's something especially odd about then going in front of a general audience, putting on a "who, me?" face, and denying that you're treating the Israel Lobby as anything out of the ordinary.