Lame ‘Atlantic’ Apologies for Mearsheimer
Essay celebrates realism but fails to deal with real problems
The new Atlantic has an article by Robert D. Kaplan sure to rile up the shtetlsphere. It is an ode to the man whom Kaplan considers the most underrated theorist of foreign policy in the United States: John J. Mearsheimer. The University of Chicago political scientist’s analysis of the world situation—particularly China’s interest in extending its hegemony throughout its hemisphere, and his belief that the United States can do only so much to check that—is, Kaplan contends, correct and ought to be heeded by political leaders.
Of course, for many, Mearsheimer is not known most for his magisterial 2001 study The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, so mellifluously praised by Kaplan. He is known, rather, as the author, with Stephen Walt, of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, a book that, like the London Review of Books essay they originally published, alleged that the pro-Israel lobby has exerted a uniquely nefarious influence on U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The book was roundly criticized for shoddy scholarship, while critiques of its substance ranged from charges of carelessness to willful misunderstanding to borderline-anti-Semitism. At the same time, on the left the book was welcomed, and several years later it seems undeniable that the book succeeded in re-shaping the conversation about U.S. policy toward Israel. More recently, Mearsheimer favorably blurbed a book by Gilad Atzmon, a Holocaust revisionist, and then defended the blurb. And let’s not forget the time Mearsheimer listed who the good and bad Jews are.
Kaplan allows an anonymous historian [who turns out to be Dan Drezner, who isn't a historian: sorry for the error, although it's weird that Kaplan anonymizes him] to trash The Israel Lobby as “piss-poor, monocausal social science.” He allows that it “negatively distorts key episodes in Israel’s history” and calls it “tedious.” But other than that (and with the credibility mustered by a reference to time served with the Israel Defense Forces), he goes pretty easy on it.
Kaplan’s explanation for the blurb, meanwhile, verges close to apologetics: “Last fall,” Kaplan writes,
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.
From the focus on Mearsheimer’s effect on his critics (as opposed to what he actually did) to the weasel language (“was considered evidence”), this is crap. Anyway, some might argue that the paramount tragedy of such “controversies” is that they lend mainstream credibility to gutter rhetoric.
But the biggest flaw of Kaplan’s piece is its incoherence. For I am misrepresenting the essay if I don’t note that the discussion of the lobby book and the blurb take up only small parts of it. The article is about Kaplan’s grand theory of foreign relations, which has little to do with Israel, the Holocaust, or anti-Semitism. It is the work of one staunch realist celebrating another staunch realist (and of one staunch realist wallowing in another staunch realist’s self-pity: “This is the tragic essence of international politics,” Kaplan quotes Mearsheimer, “it provides the basis for realism, and people hate people like me, who point this out!”). While you may disagree with Kaplan and Mearsheimer’s realism, the ideology is ably presented and persuasively argued. No question there.
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, Kaplan treats it, at best, as aberrant, and, at worse, as a meaningless distraction. (He doesn’t even mention Mearsheimer’s list-making.)
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.
Why John J. Mearsheimer Is Right (About Some Things) [The Atlantic]
Related: The Israel Lobby [LRB]
Mearsheimer Continues to Defend the Jewish Author Gilad Atzmon [Adam Holland]