John Mearsheimer: the man who knew too little

Yesterday, another blogger turned up a telling tidbit about University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, the co-author (with Stephen Walt) of “The Israel Lobby.” A couple of years back, he signed the most ludicrous anti-Israel petition of them all.

In late 2002 and early 2003, a group of far-out professors of Middle Eastern studies peddled a petition warning that Israel might ethnically cleanse Palestinians under the cover of an Iraq war. “We urge our government to communicate clearly to the government of Israel that the expulsion of people according to race, religion or nationality would constitute crimes against humanity and will not be tolerated.” This is what I wrote at the time (December 2002):

The claim that Israel is plotting the mass explusion of Palestinians is one more lunatic-fringe conspiracy theory, hatched by Palestinian propagandists who want “international protection” as the wage for their two disastrous years of insurrection. Unfortunately for them, Israel has done nothing that constitutes a “crime against humanity,” and so Palestinians have had to fabricate one that never happened (Jenin) and cry wolf over another one that won’t happen (forced “transfer”). Let me not put too fine a point on it: anyone signing this letter, effectively condemning Israel in advance for something it has no intention of doing, is either an ignoramus or a propagandist.

About a thousand academics did sign the letter, including Noam Chomsky and Edward Said. The expulsion obviously never took place, and I revisited the petition after the war. I wrote that the signatories “are now collectively in the moral position of owing apologies to the Israeli people and the Israeli government–of Ariel Sharon.”

Not only did Mearsheimer sign the petition; he defended it to the Chicago Maroon, the campus newspaper. “The precedent is there [to expel Palestinians], and it behooves us to make sure it does not happen again,” he said. “Expulsion of the Palestinians is often discussed [in Israel] as a solution to this conflict between democracy and demography.” Only someone entirely ignorant of contemporary Israeli politics and the U.S.-Israeli relationship could have uttered these words. Indeed, to believe them, you would have had to have slept through the Kuwait war, when Israel scrupulously sat on its hands in deference to the United States. Anyone who thought Israel would or could have done otherwise in 2003, is someone who’ll believe anything about Israel.

In “The Israel Lobby,” the authors do believe anything. But it’s interesting that the new essay entirely omits the expulsion of Palestinians as one of Israel’s reasons for supporting the Iraq war. I don’t expect the likes of Mearsheimer to make apologies, but it would have been a great opportunity to explain why he got it completely wrong, since it’s not a fine point for someone who purports to be a rigorous thinker. Alas, Mearsheimer seems to have conveniently forgotten it, along with all the other evidence that doesn’t conform to his (and Walt’s) thesis.

In an interview that knows no rival for sheer egosim, Mearsheimer has said this: “I think what my parents taught me was to be very honest, to be what they used to call a ‘truth-teller.'” And this, again: “West Point taught me to tell the truth. It placed a very high emphasis on saying things that might go against the conventional wisdom, that people might not want to hear, just because it was the truth.” But to tell the truth, one must first discern it. When it comes to Israel, Professor John J. Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science, member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and high priest of the “realist” cult, just doesn’t know enough to tell the truth. He might have suspected that from his earlier mistake. Now he’s learning the lesson–the hard way.