Mearsheimer and Walt in retreat

Israel Lobby” authors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have published a rejoinder to their critics in the current issue of the London Review of Books. The careful reader will detect tactical retreats in nearly every paragraph. On the two points over which I challenged Mearsheimer in person three weeks ago in Princeton (while he and Walt were preparing their response), the retreats appear to be total.

The first has to do with the alleged role of Israel in pushing for the Iraq war. The original paper devoted an entire section to the authors’ claim that Israel used the Lobby to conduct a campaign in favor of war. Mearsheimer and Walt: “Pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was critical.” At the Princeton conference, I provided a body of counter-evidence, which pointed to Israel’s dissent from the U.S. preoccupation with Iraq, and its fear that much-stronger Iran would benefit from the Iraq distraction. Evidence for this dissent even surfaced in leading U.S. papers in the year before the war, in articles that Mearsheimer and Walt failed to cite.

Here, then, is the reformulated Mearsheimer/Walt position: “[T]he lobby, by itself, could not convince either the Clinton or the Bush administration to invade Iraq. Nevertheless, there is abundant evidence that the neo-conservatives and other groups within the lobby played a central role in making the case for war.” Let’s count the retreats. First, Israel is no longer cited as pushing for war. Second, the lobby (with a lower-case “L” this time) is disaggregated into “groups,” and in any case takes second place to the neo-conservatives. Third, the role played by the “groups within the lobby” is now merely “central,” not “critical.” By my reading, the authors have backed down from at least half of their original claim about the origins of the Iraq war.

In the Princeton meet, I also argued that U.S. support for Israel had done nothing to damage that most central of all U.S. interests in the Middle East: access to Arab oil. My argument in short: it hasn’t affected the price or the delivery of a single barrel since the U.S. stepped up its support for Israel after 1973. It’s a point that Walt and Mearsheimer now concede in their latest statement: “Oil is clearly an important concern for US policymakers, but with the exception of episodes like the 1973 Opec oil embargo, the US commitment to Israel has yet to threaten access to oil.”

This is no minor concession. If support for Israel did contradict access to Arab oil, it would have been much more difficult to maintain and expand it. A year ago last January, Mearsheimer and Walt both signed a statement organized by the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. It enumerated two “major national security objectives” in the Middle East: winning the war on terror and “ensuring continued access to Persian Gulf oil.” The statement made this assertion:

The Israeli-Palestinian stalemate also threatens the West’s continued access to the lifeblood of our economy: inexpensive Middle Eastern oil reserves. Recall that it was the Arab-Israeli conflict that first led the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to wield the oil weapon against Western countries thought to be too supportive of Israel. While economic self-interest makes it highly likely that all but the most militant Arab states will continue to sell oil to the rest of the world, the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict hinders the trade of an essential resource with an element of political tension that undermines U.S. interests.

This statement almost seems to contradict itself. But its core claim that the Israeli-Palestinian “stalemate” threatens access to oil is entirely specious . It was the 1973 war (between Israel and two Arab states, not the Palestinians) that last led OPEC to wield the oil weapon, more than thirty years ago. It hasn’t been wielded again. Three major showdowns between Israel and the Palestinians since then (Lebanon war and two intifadas) haven’t “hinder[ed] the trade” of oil in any way. Mearsheimer and Walt now admit as much, and it’s important to have that on the record. (Have a look at the other academic luminaries who signed that statement, and wonder how they could be so cavalier with their signatures.)

I’m going to make a prediction here: Mearsheimer and Walt will continue to back up from claims made in their original paper, not because of pressure but because they got in way over their heads on substance, and now they know it. They will continue to duel straw men, merely to cover the withdrawal or sacrifice of many of their main pieces. In doing so, they will lose the support of the extremists who earlier rushed to embrace them for their courage. They will thus have succeeded in enraging one half of their readers, and disappointing the other half. And they would advise Washington on strategy…

Noted: The bizarre petition launched by Juan Cole back on April 28, ostensibly in support of Mearsheimer and Walt against charges of antisemitism, has petered out well short of its extremely modest goal of 2,000 signatures. There are about 1,300 signatories at the moment, and only a handful sign on each day. It would be hard to compose a list of more obscure academics, ex-academics, stray students and alumni, and simple wannabes. The premise of the petition that the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations has some duty to police expression by Jews is absurd. I wonder whether Cole even consulted Mearsheimer and Walt before launching the petition. If not, he did them a disservice and owes them an apology.