John Mearsheimer: Often in Error, Never in Doubt

Professor John Mearsheimer, since co-authoring The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, has written extensively about Israel’s military and diplomatic history, often displaying a surprising unfamiliarity with basic facts that are well-known to specialists in the field.

What’s worse, Mearsheimer and his co-author Stephen Walt also seemingly shy away from the basic research that is the stock-in-trade of most historians and political scientists. For example, in writing about the alleged power of the “Israel Lobby” to coerce and influence U.S. policymakers, there is no evidence that they actually talked to any actual U.S. policymakers, whether serving or retired. Walt and Mearsheimer seem strangely uninterested in whether these policymakers believe that they were forced by the “Lobby” to pursue policies at variance with U.S. interests.

And when they do try to deal with facts, the historical examples they cite often actually contradict their claims, and show the U.S. (quite reasonably, since this is what countries usually do) pursuing its own interests with little regard for the policies favored by Israel.

A case in point can be found in Mearsheimer’s speech this summer titled “Israel’s Nukes Harm US National Interests.” To support the claim of his title, Mearsheimer offers his version of the 1973 war (which was provoked by simultaneous attacks against Israel by Egypt and Syria). Here’s the clip:

Here’s the transcript for this part of Mearsheimer’s speech:

… what happened during the 1973 war. During that conflict, the Israelis looked like they were in dire straits for the first few days. And they wanted the United States to immediately resupply them. The Nixon administration said “no” because the Nixon administration judged quite correctly that once the Israelis recovered from the initial surprise that they would do very well. And therefore the US government did not want to give the Israelis at that point more arms. The Israelis then threatened to pull the nuclear weapons out, and began talking about using nuclear weapons. That, not surprisingly, spooked the Americans who immediately began resupplying the Israelis even though they did not what to do that.

That’s a form of nuclear coercion.

Is this really what happened? Mearsheimer begins on the right track, but to see exactly where and how he goes crucially wrong, let’s look at each of his claims in detail:

1. It is true that after the first day of fighting the Israelis began to realize that, contrary to initial reports from the field, they were being pushed back on all fronts, and that the pace of their losses was unsustainable.

2. Because ammunition use on both sides was far higher than anticipated, the Israelis did ask the U.S. for resupply, but Mearsheimer omits that the Syrians and Egyptians also asked for – and received – massive resupply from the Soviet Union.

3. Did the Nixon administration say “No” to Israel’s request because it “judged quite correctly that once the Israelis recovered from the initial surprise that they would do very well?”

The answer is that here Mearsheimer could not be more wrong, and in a crucial way, for the facts entirely undermine his basic claim that U.S. policy has been materially distorted by the “Israel Lobby.”

First of all, the United States never said no to the Israeli arms requests; on the contrary, the U.S. agreed “in principle” to make up Israel’s losses. But the U.S. intentionally delayed sending arms to Israel after the war started, engaging in what the late Harvard professor Nadav Safran termed “dilatory maneuvers.” This was because the U.S. policy aim, contrary to Mearsheimer’s assertion that it expected Israel to do very well, was to ensure that Israel not “do very well.” Indeed, as explained by Safran, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wanted to ensure that Israel would not win any big victory:

From the moment the war broke out, Kissinger, who presided entirely over American policy … at a time when the President was completely absorbed in the Watergate affair, wanted the fighting stopped after Israel reversed the initial Arab gains but before it inflicted a total defeat on its enemies… A total Israeli victory raised, in his view, the spectre of chaos, leftist coups, and Soviet intervention in the Arab countries on the one hand, and additional Israeli conquests and the foreclosure of any chance of settlement on the other; whereas if Israel could he held to a limited military success – enough to persuade the Arabs of the futility of the military option, but not enough to suggest to Israel that it might dictate terms – then the chances of a settlement would be substantially improved …(Israel: The Embattled Ally, p 478)

Kissinger, while allowing some resupply of ammunition to Israel, intentionally delayed the resupply of crucial weapons despite the fact that just two days into the war, on October 8, the Soviets began a massive resupply by sea of their Arab allies, and the next day urged other Arab countries to join the fighting. In particular, the Soviets arranged for Iraq to immediately transfer to Syria 500 tanks, with the promise that they would supply the Iraqis with replacements. On October 10th the Soviets began a further massive resupply to Egypt and Syria, this time by air, and also placed three airborne divisions on alert.

From the Israeli point of vie w the situation was becoming grim: There was the massive Soviet resupply of the Arab side, Soviet success in bringing other Arab countries into the fray, the so far empty U.S. promises to resupply Israel, the devastating costs of even the limited Israeli success on the northern front against the Syrians, and the costly failures in the south to rollback the Egyptian bridgehead. All of this led the Israelis to signal separately to President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger that the situation was becoming grave and that it would have to defend itself with all means at its disposal. Referring to the note from Israel’s Ambassador Dinitz to Kissinger, Safran wrote:

Dinitz reiterated his country’s case and needs, complained bitterly about the runaround given to its arms request, and concluded with the ominous warning: “If a massive airlift to Israel does not start immediately, then I will know that the United States is reneging on its promises and policies, and we will have to draw very serious conclusions from all this.” …

Suddenly, on October 12, 1973, the scenario of an Israel feeling on the verge of destruction resorting in despair to nuclear weapons, hitherto so hypothetical, assumed a grim reality. The secretary of state, whose policy had been inspired by the desire to preserve detente and by fear of the chaotic consequences of a total Israeli victory, did not need much pondering to imagine the catastrophic consequences of Israel’s taking that road.

The Israeli messages also alerted the secretary of state that while trying to prevent an Israeli total victory, he may have brought Israel to the verge of defeat, and that while seeking to protect detente he may have allowed the Soviets to exploit it to their advantage. Quite apart from the nightmare of the nuclear issue, the principal aims he had set for himself at the outset of the war appeared to be near defeat. (p 483; emphasis added)

That is, contrary to Mearsheimer, Israel’s veiled reference to going nuclear was not “nuclear coercion” to force a change in U.S. policies, rather it brought home to the U.S. that its plan of trying to limit the scale of an expected Israeli victory had backfired and had played into Soviet hands, and that therefore an immediate change of course was in order, which is exactly what happened. It is also worth noting that the communication in question occured a full six days into the war, not, as Mearsheimer states “at that point,” meaning right after the beginning of the war.

Kissinger ended up playing all sides against themselves, brilliantly succeeding at maintaining relations with Israel and the Soviets, while creating an opening to the Egyptians, who in the following years switched from the Soviet to the American camp, a major coup for the United States. Again quoting Safran:

The net outcome of the hectic developments in the three days since the October 22 cease-fire resolution was an extraordinary success for Kissinger’s diplomacy. Whether he had planned matters that way or not, Israel was able to improve its military position a great deal and was grateful to Kissinger, even though he had barred it from complete victory. The Egyptians saw him as the one who saved them from total defeat, even though he had helped place Israel in a position to put them under such threat. Finally, although these additional gains were scored at the expense of the Soviets, the structure of detente remained essentially intact. (p 495)

The real history of this episode is therefore a stark counterexample to the Walt/ Mearsheimer claim of a powerful Israeli lobby bending the U.S. to its will. On the contrary, during the 1973 war the U.S. successfully pursued its own interests, despite the steep cost this exacted from its ally Israel.

That is, in bringing up this incident, Professor Mearsheimer has once again unintentionally refuted his own case (for example, see here, here and here).

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