The Australian Financial Review today ran an article from last month’s Atlantic by Robert Kaplan, which was originally published under the headling ‘Why John J. Mearsheimer Is Right (About Some Things)’ but republished as ‘Great Power Politics’. As revealed by the headline, the piece largely praises University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, focusing on his self-dubbed “offensive realist” take on China. Mearsheimer, however, is a rather dubious acadamic, particularly because of his record of fomenting arguably antisemitic ideas in mainstream discourse, but also for his generally biased and factually questionable material.
Kaplan does acknowledge Mearsheimer’s most notorious work, the much maligned 2006 essay and 2007 book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, that he co-authored with Harvard professor Steven Walt, as well as his recent endorsement of the abhorrent Gil Atzmon. Kaplan, however, glosses-over these controversies as “tragedies” that threaten to “obscure” his otherwise important work:
Mearsheimer certainly triggered a bloodbath with a 2006 article that became a 2007 book written with the Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt and dedicated to Huntington, The Israel Lobby and U.S.Foreign Policy, which alleges that groups supportive of Israel have pivotally undermined American foreign-policy interests, especially in the run-up to the Iraq War. Some critics, like the Johns Hopkins University professor Eliot Cohen, accused Mearsheimer and Walt outright of anti-Semitism, noting that their opinions had won the endorsement of the white supremacist David Duke. Many others accused them of providing potent ammunition for anti-Semites. A former Chicago colleague of Mearsheimer’s labeled the book “piss-poor, monocausal social science.”
Last fall, Mearsheimer reenergized his critics by favorably blurbing a book on Jewish identity that many commentators denounced as grotesquely anti-Semitic. The blurb became a blot on Mearsheimer’s judgment, given the book’s author’s revolting commentary elsewhere, and was considered evidence of an unhealthy obsession with Israel and Jewishness on Mearsheimer’s part.
The real tragedy of such controversies, as lamentable as they are, is that they threaten to obscure the urgent and enduring message of Mearsheimer’s life’s work, which topples conventional foreign-policy shibboleths and provides an unblinking guide to the course the United States should follow in the coming decades.
A rather pointed response comes from Kaplan’s fellow Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg:
To write that Kaplan engages the “merits” of the Mearsheimer-Walt argument is to suggest that it has merit. Kaplan whitewashes the content of the book, and its message; Mearsheimer and Walt advance the Mel Gibson theory of foreign affairs, which is to say, the Jews cause all wars. They blame Jews for bringing anti-Semitism on themselves; they fundamentally misunderstand the nature of lobbying; they hold Israel to an absurd double-standard, and so on. I’m not going to rehearse the litany of their sins at length; for more in-depth (and devastating) critiques of their thesis (not of their “footnotes,” as Kaplan would have it), please go here, or here, or here, or here, or here or here, or here , or here, or here, or here, or here or here. Or why not visit them all?
…My issue is with Kaplan’s statement that “the real tragedy of such controversies” is that they divert attention from Mearsheimer’s work. No. No, no, no. The real tragedy is that the University of Chicago provides a national platform for a man who scapegoats and demonizes Jews.
Credit where no credit is due
Kaplan later attempts to rationalise Mearsheimer’s questionable views on Israel and place them into the broader context of the “realism” that Kaplan so venerates. Reading Kaplan’s words, it is difficult to reconcile his conclusions with the facts that he presents (emphasis added):
Whereas [Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics] is a theory, The Israel Lobby is a polemic, a tightly organized marshalling of fact and argument that does not necessarily delegitimize Israel, but does delegitimize the American-Israeli special relationship. Lobby lacks the commanding, albeit cruel, objectivity that Mearsheimer evinces in Tragedy. It negatively distorts key episodes in Israel’s history-beginning with its founding-and in effect denies Israel the license that Mearsheimer grants other countries, including China, to act as good offensive realists … Meanwhile, the motivations of America’s political leaders at the time-the putative targets of the lobby’s pressure, and thus the ones best able to assess the lobby’s strength-go largely unexplored.
… Nevertheless, The Israel Lobby contains a fundamental analytic truth that is undeniable: the United States and Israel, like most states, have some different interests that inevitably push up against any enduring special relationship, especially because their security situations are so vastly different … “The fact that Israel is a democracy is important,” Mearsheimer tells me. “But it is not sufficient to justify the terms of the special relationship. We should treat Israel as a normal country, like we treat Britain or Japan.”
Kaplan notes that Mearsheimer “denies Israel the license that [he] grants other countries”, only to quote him one paragraph later saying that “we should treat Israel as a normal country”; yet Kaplan does not so much as observe this gaping contradiction. Even more worrying is that Kaplan ultimately agrees with Mearsheimer’s core thesis and praises him for making an impact (emphasis added):
What particularly exasperates Mearsheimer and Walt is the lack of conditionality in the special relationship … [they] repeatedly say in their book that they believe the U.S. should militarily defend Israel if it is in mortal danger, but that the Israelis must be much more cooperative in light of all the aid they get. But, as they also argue, the reason the Israelis are not more cooperative is that in the final analysis, they don’t have to be-which, in turn, is because of the pro-Israel lobby … I see nothing wrong or illegitimate about this core argument. And no amount of nitpicking by their critics of The Israel Lobby‘s 100 pages of endnotes can detract from it. I say this as someone who is a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces and who supported the Iraq War (a position I have come to deeply regret). Say what you will about The Israel Lobby, but … “It changed the debate on Israel, even if it did not change the policy.”
It is telling that Kaplan does not dwell for long on how exactly The Israel Lobby “changed the debate”. Tablet writer Adam Kirsch noticed this and decided to fill in the gap that Kaplan left, giving a sobering critique of the way in which popular discourse on Israel has shifted since Walt and Mearsheimer released their poisonous thoughts on the matter:
But if The Israel Lobby has not changed American politics, it has had an insidious effect on the way people talk and think about Israel, and about the whole question of Jewish power. The first time I had this suspicion was when reading, of all things, a biography of H.G. Wells. In H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life, published in the U.K. in 2010, Michael Sherborne describes how Wells’ contempt for Nazism went along with a dislike for Judaism and Zionism, which he voiced in deliberately offensive terms even as Nazi persecution of Jews reached its peak. “To take on simultaneously the Nazis … and the Jewish lobby may have been foolhardy,” Sherborne writes apropos of Wells in 1938.
There’s no way to prove that Sherborne’s “Jewish lobby” is the intellectual descendant of Walt and Mearsheimer’s “Israel lobby,” but the inference seems like a strong one. Wells, the term suggests, was not attacking Jews, a group that in the Europe of the 1930s was conspicuous for its absolute powerlessness in the face of the evolving Nazi genocide. Instead, he was bravely standing up to a powerful “lobby,” an organization designed to punish critics of the Jews, and whose influence was on a par somehow with that of the Nazis.
Also in Tablet, Marc Tracy has pointed out Kaplan’s failure to discredit Mearsheimer despite his clear scholarly failings.
Yet Kaplan’s paean to a Grand Theory of Everything utterly fails to explain how the lobby book and the blurb fit into that Grand Theory, which make it seem something less than grand. Kaplan half-heartedly attempts to cram The Israel Lobby into Mearsheimer’s broader thinking, asserting that it “reads as an appendix to The Tragedy of Great Power Politics-almost a case study of how great powers should not act.” But such a reading contradicts Kaplan’s own admission that The Israel Lobby distorted the truth and held Israel to a double standard. As for the blurb [in praise of Atzmon], Kaplan treats it, at best, as aberrant, and, at worse, as a meaningless distraction … Mearsheimer may have written The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, but he also wrote the blurb, and defended it, and a fully honest essay would have reckoned with this. It would not have reported that the blurb “became a blot on Mearsheimer’s judgment”-it would have actually used the blurb to further blot Mearsheimer’s judgment. Instead, Kaplan’s essay must be regarded as another instance of monocausal and pretty piss-poor social science.
Is “offensive realism” even that realistic?
Putting aside all of this for one moment, even Mearsheimer’s theories on China are not looked on particularly glowingly by many of his scholarly contemporaries. For instance, James Fallows, another Atlantic writer, believes that Mearsheimer refused to actually study China and is guided instead by his ideological stance on “global forces” (emphasis added):
In an article of my own in next month’s issue, and in my forthcoming book, I argue that China has too many things going on, and going wrong, within its own borders to have the time, energy, skill, or ambition for much of an “expansionist” world effort. From the outside, it looks like an unstoppable juggernaut. From inside, especially from the perspective of those trying to run it, it looks like a rambling wreck that narrowly avoids one disaster after another. The thrust of Mearsheimer’s argument is that such internal complications simply don’t matter: the sheer increase in China’s power will bring disruption with it. I am saying: if you knew more about China, you would be less worried, especially about military confrontations. He is saying: “knowing” about China is a distraction. What matters are the implacable forces.
Naturally, I think this view is wrong, or at least too mechanistic; and that while we need to think constantly and seriously about China, a “showdown” would be a result of miscalculation or recklessness on either side, rather than of unstoppable tectonic pressures. On the other hand, I completely endorse Mearsheimer’s (and Kaplan’s) view that we should have been paying more attention to China, and been less bogged down in the Middle East, through the past decade. But his case is certainly worth considering, and Bob Kaplan lays it out very well. I expect that we’ll also hear from Jeffrey Goldberg soon about the other part of the article, about the Mearsheimer-Walt book.
Tufts political science professor Daniel Drezner has also noted that Mearsheimer has displayed a tendancy to manipulate basic facts and to “assert” his views rather than “argue” them.
It is clear, therefore, that while there is still a debate over Mearsheimer’s views on China, he is a well-documented polemicist and he unashamedly promotes antisemitic dialogue. Someone with these views and this record does not make a positive contribution to the public debate. As noted above, the true tragedy is that he is still being given such a prominent podium for his prejudicial contentions.