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Will the real John Mearsheimer please stand up?


John Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, is the coauthor of a by-now very controversial study charging that the “Israel lobby” has distorted the foreign policy of the United States in favor of Israel, and to the detriment of U.S. interests. The bill of indictment, for that is how it is written, charges that the lobby had a “critical” role in arranging the Iraq war, and even that it caused the United States to be targeted on 9/11.

In the study, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, written with Harvard Kennedy School Professor (and Academic Dean) Stephen Walt, the authors point the finger directly at supporters of Israel, and take care to note that the Bush administration ranks include:

... fervently pro Israel individuals like Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, I. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and David Wurmser. As we shall see, these officials consistently pushed for policies favored by Israel and backed by organizations in the Lobby.

Going into more detail, the authors explain that:

Like virtually all the neoconservatives, Feith is deeply committed to Israel. He also has long standing ties to the Likud Party. He wrote articles in the 1990s supporting the settlements and arguing that Israel should retain the occupied territories... Wolfowitz is equally committed to Israel. The Forward once described him as “the most hawkishly pro Israel voice in the Administration,” and selected him in 2002 as the first among fifty notables who “have consciously pursued Jewish activism.” At about the same time, JINSA gave Wolfowitz its Henry M. Jackson Distinguished Service Award for promoting a strong partnership between Israel and the United States, and the Jerusalem Post, describing him as “devoutly pro Israel,” named him “Man of the Year” in 2003.

Walt and Mearsheimer focus especially on an alleged pro-Israel role in the decision to topple Saddam Hussein’s Iraq:

Pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the U.S. decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was a critical element. Some Americans believe that this was a “war for oil,” but there is hardly any direct evidence to support this claim. Instead, the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure.

So their point could not be more clear: The United States went to war in Iraq largely in the interests of Israel, and thanks largely to the influence of pro-Israel administration officials, most of whom are Jewish and are tied to Israel’s Likud party.

It couldn’t be more striking then, to read Professor Mearsheimer stating in late December of 2004 almost exactly the opposite concerning the origins of the Iraq war. Interviewed on a website called American Amnesia, Prof. Mearsheimer stated clearly that administration officials went to war in good faith, expecting “in their heart of hearts” to find WMD and ties between Osama bin Laden and Saddam:

A number of [Bush administration officials] who were in favor of the war believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that he was joined at the hip with Osama Bin Laden. At the same time, I think that they were aware that we had no hard evidence to support either one of those contentions; but in their heart of hearts they believed that both suppositions would be proven true once we were in Iraq and gained access to the evidence. I believe that people like Vice-President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, were shocked that we found no WMD and no evidence of cooperation between Saddam and Bin Laden. I think that they expected to find that evidence.

So according to Mearsheimer, Wolfowitz and the other senior administration officials were actually acting in the interests of the United States rather than of Israel. The good professor continued:

What you often discovered when debating proponents of the war was that if they admitted that Saddam might not be an imminent threat, they would invariably fall back on the argument that this is actually the ideal time to attack him because he is not especially dangerous at the moment. Why wait until he is armed and a serious threat to the United States? Let's get him when he is weak and vulnerable.

Note that according to Mearsheimer, for these supporters of the war it wasn’t Israel that was the issue, but rather that Saddam could well become “a serious threat to the United States.”

And in a long answer, Mearsheimer specifically attributed Wolfowitz’s support for the war not to any concern for Israel, but rather to his belief in the transformative power of democracy:

I think that Wolfowitz, who was the war’s principle architect, believes very strongly that the most powerful political ideology on the face of the earth is democracy and that every individual is hard-wired with a potent democratic impulse inside him or her. The only thing that prevents that democratic impulse from manifesting itself is the presence of a tyrant or an authoritarian regime like Saddam’s. Thus, I think he believed that once we decapitated the regime in Iraq, we would not have to worry much about what the replacement regime looked like, because that democratic impulse, once unleashed, would produce a democratic form of government that would not only be friendly to the United States, but would allow us to leave Iraq quickly and painlessly. I think that the model that Wolfowitz and other neo-conservatives had in mind was Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They believed that once Saddam was gone, once we got rid of the Ayatollahs in Iran, once we got rid of the Ba’athists in Syria, democracy would take hold in those places, because it is such a powerful and attractive ideology.

Notice especially that Mearsheimer says that he believed that Wolfowitz expected the new, post-Saddam Iraq would be “friendly to the United States” – with no mention of Israel.

Questioned as to whether Wolfowitz might have been lying about the reasons for going to war, Professor Mearsheimer responded with a firm “No”:

No, I don't think this particular issue involves myth making or lying or deception or anything like that. One could call it self-deception. Wolfowitz had a particular view of international politics that he honestly believed in and that he was adept at articulating and defending. Nevertheless, I thought before the war, and I certainly think now, that his theory of international politics is deeply flawed.

So Wolfowitz acted in good faith, in the interests of the U.S., and based on perceptions that “he honestly believed in.”

In contrast to the Harvard paper, Mearsheimer in the interview also noted that not just neo-conservatives supported going to war against Saddam’s regime, but also those he considered genuine liberals, who supported the war for idealist reasons:

I do not think that there was a good realist case for attacking Iraq, which is why almost all the realists opposed the war. I could actually make an idealist case for going to war against Saddam. And you want to remember that the support for this war came from both the left and the right. There were many liberals who supported this war, like Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is the Dean of the Wilson School at Princeton, and Michael Ignatieff, an influential human rights advocate who teaches at Harvard. They favored the war, as did other liberals like Joseph Nye and Ashton Carter.

And while in the Harvard paper Mearsheimer scoffed at the threat to the United States from nuclear-armed rogue states or terror groups, in the interview he took a very different view. Here, first, is the passage from the Harvard paper:

Neither America nor Israel could be blackmailed by a nuclear armed rogue, because the blackmailer could not carry out the threat without receiving overwhelming retaliation. The danger of a “nuclear handoff” to terrorists is equally remote, because a rogue state could not be sure the transfer would be undetected or that it would not be blamed and punished afterward.

But in the interview Mearsheimer said the opposite:

... at the same time, [Bush] made hard-nosed realist arguments for the war. For example, he talked constantly about the threat from WMD and terrorism. He talked about rogue states like Iraq and Iran using WMD to blackmail the United States. He talked about those states giving WMD to terrorists, who would surely use them against us. So there was both a realist and idealist logic at play in Bush’s mind, which is what allowed him to think that his behavior was morally as well as strategically correct.

So, according to Mearsheimer, the chance that rogue states might pass WMD to terrorists is not “remote,” and the belief that they “would surely use them against us,” far from being alarmist fantasy, is actually “hard-nosed” realism.

How then to explain these sharp contradictions in Professor Mearsheimer’s stated views? How to explain that, despite the interview being specifically about the decision to go to war in Iraq, nowhere in it is there so much as a mention of Israel?

Did Professor Mearsheimer, in the interim, come upon some evidence that turned his thinking around on this question? If so, there is no evidence of any such “smoking gun” in the Walt/Mearsheimer paper – on the contrary, they present their charges against Israel as commonplace and familiar: “the facts recounted here are not in serious dispute among scholars” and “readers may reject our conclusions, of course, but the evidence on which they rest is not controversial.”

Is the explanation that the Harvard study was more Walt than Mearsheimer? Perhaps, but that’s not to say that Professor Mearsheimer in the past was at all well-disposed towards Israel, or even neutral on the subject. Before the start of the Iraq war, for example, he signed onto an absurd and embarrasing “Letter Against Expulsion of the Palestinians,” which charged that Israel was quite likely planning to use the distraction of the Iraq war to expel Palestinians and possibly Israeli Arabs as well. According to the letter, signed also by such luminaries as Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, the “fog of war” could be :

exploited by the Israeli government to commit further crimes against the Palestinian people, up to full-fledged ethnic cleansing… Escalating racist demagoguery concerning the Palestinian citizens of Israel may indicate the scope of the crimes that are possibly being contemplated.

But even the wacky, anti-Israel views required to agree to such nonsense still can’t explain how a “hard-headed realist” like Mearsheimer coauthored a paper on the “Israel Lobby” that so contradicted views he had strongly expressed just 15 months earlier, especially since the Harvard paper was long in the making.

The bottom line is that Professor Mearsheimer, who has been virtually silent since publication of the Harvard paper, owes his readers an explanation.


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