Why John J. Mearsheimer Is Right (About Some Things)

“A disgrace” and “anti-Semite” were two of the (more printable) barbs launched last fall at John Mearsheimer, a renowned political scientist at the University of Chicago. But Mearsheimer’s infamous views on Israel—in the latest case, his endorsement of a book on Jewish identity that many denounced as anti-Semitic—should not distract us from the importance of his life’s work: a bracing argument in favor of the doctrine of “offensive realism,” which can enable the United States to avert decline and prepare for the unprecedented challenge posed by a rising China.

Mearsheimer denies that he co-wrote the book to explain away the contradictions that the U.S.-Israel relationship poses to his larger theory. He wrote it, he says, because the special relationship is a major feature of U.S. foreign policy in its own right. He might also have said that the Israel lobby is an example of how domestic politics do intrude in foreign policy; thus, his theory of offensive realism is less an explanation of events than an aspiration for how states should behave. He has said elsewhere that the lobby is an “anomaly” in American history. An anomaly is certainly what his book about it is.

Whereas Tragedy 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. He and Walt equate U.S. support for Israel with Soviet support for Cuba, thereby equating a pulsating democracy with a semi-failed authoritarian state. And while Tragedy is rich in explication, Lobby is merely tedious, pummeling the reader with lists of names of people and organizations whom the authors group together as advancing the American-Israeli special relationship and the Iraq War, but who, in fact, often have had profound disagreements among themselves. 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. This failure to establish a link between the lobby and White House decision making undermines the book. As the Middle East expert Dennis Ross has suggested, had Al Gore been elected president in 2000, he probably would not have invaded Iraq, even though he had much closer ties to prominent Jews and others in the lobby than did Bush.

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. To start with, the United States is a continent-size country protected by oceans, while Israel is a small country half a world away, surrounded by enemy states. Because the geographical situations of the U.S. and Israel are so dissimilar, their geopolitical interests can never completely overlap in the way that Israel’s most fervent supporters contend. (Iran’s nuclear program is a far more acute threat to Israel than it is to the United States.) “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.”

What particularly exasperates Mearsheimer and Walt is the lack of conditionality in the special relationship. They admit that making American support for Israel “more conditional would not remove all sources of friction” between Arab countries and the United States; nor do they deny “the presence of genuine anti-Semitism in various Arab countries.” But they cannot condone a situation in which the U.S. has, over the decades, given Israel more than $180 billion in economic and military assistance, “the bulk of it comprising direct grants rather than loans,” and yet can barely achieve modest negotiating goals such as getting Israel to stop expanding West Bank settlements for 90 days, let alone dismantle them, even though the Palestinians have been willing at times to make major concessions. (And the U.S. has been willing to throw in major sweeteners in the form of advanced military hardware.) Mearsheimer and Walt 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. Thus, in the spirit of Huntington, the authors distill a complicated situation down to a single, powerful cause.

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 as Justine Rosenthal—who is a former editor of The National Interest, a leading foreign-policy journal, and is now with Newsweek—told me, “It changed the debate on Israel, even if it did not change the policy.” She added: “John is one of the clearest logical thinkers I know, who hammers his points home well.” Indeed, if you put Lobby together with Tragedy, you have the beginnings of a prudent grand strategy for America: invest less in one part of the world and more in another, events permitting. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently proposed that the United States should attempt to pivot away from the Middle East toward the Asia-Pacific region, a realization that Mearsheimer came to years ago.

On several occasions, Mearsheimer and Walt approvingly bring up the Middle East policy of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, which was more evenhanded vis-à-vis Israel and the Arab states: without being hostile, it lacked the effusive warmth that more-recent American presidents have demonstrated toward the Jewish state. When I say to Mearsheimer, “That’s the kind of American policy you and Walt really want in the Middle East, isn’t it?” he responds: “That’s exactly right. Eisenhower came down like a ton of bricks on Britain, France, and Israel—U.S. allies, all three—to force them to withdraw from Sinai in 1956. Imagine,” he goes on, “if we had Eisenhower in the post-’67 period, or now.” Mearsheimer’s argument is that Eisenhower would have quickly forced Israel out of the occupied territories, and all parties concerned—Israel especially—would have benefited over the long run. No doubt, decades of occupation have fueled hatred of Israel among Egyptians, Jordanians, and others. Given that Israel’s electoral system helps assure weak governments—which are beholden in varying degrees to small right-wing parties opposed to substantial territorial withdrawal—perhaps the only chance Israel has of not becoming an apartheid society is if an American president finds the gumption to adopt an Eisenhower-esque approach and force Israel to withdraw from significant portions of the West Bank, wrangling Palestinian concessions in the process. “You don’t have to trust me, Steve Walt, or Jimmy Carter, just listen to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert,” whose November 28, 2007, statement Mearsheimer quotes to me:

If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African–style struggle for equal voting rights … then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.

Moreover, the revolt against calcified central authority in the Middle East, while in the long run beneficial to the emergence of more-liberal regimes, may in the short and middle term yield more-chaotic and more-populist ones, which will create more rather than fewer security problems for Israel. The cost to Israel of its unwillingness to make territorial concessions will grow rather than diminish.

Even as Mearsheimer is attacked, whenever he publishes something—a recent book on why diplomats are forced to lie, or a recent essay decrying both liberal and neoconservative imperialism—he breaks new ground. A collection of his critics’ academic essays published in 2010, History and Neorealism, takes aim at Mearsheimer’s theories in Tragedy. Some of the criticism is scathing, proving that Mearsheimer is the political-science world’s enfant terrible much more because of Tragedy than because of The Israel Lobby. (The essayists attack his theory for its lack of historical subtlety, but here, too, like Huntington, Mearsheimer is setting the terms of the debate.) Despite the media controversy that surrounded The Israel Lobby, his latest book, Why Leaders Lie (2011), attracted generous jacket blurbs from academic eminences such as the Princeton professor Robert O. Keohane and former editors of both Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. Within media ranks, The Israel Lobby has delegitimized Mearsheimer. Inside the service academy where I taught for two years, in the think-tank world where I work, and in various government circles with which I am acquainted, Mearsheimer is quietly held in higher regard because of familiarity with his other books, but the controversy (and its echoes last fall) has surely hurt him.

Mearsheimer, who is not modest, believes it is a reliance on theory that invigorates his thinking. Returning to his principal passion, China, he tells me: “I have people all the time telling me that they’ve just returned from China and met with all these Chinese who want a peaceful relationship. I tell them that these Chinese will not be in power in 20 or 30 years, when circumstances may be very different. Because we cannot know the future, all we have to rely upon is theory. If a theory can explain the past in many instances, as my theory of offensive realism can, it might be able to say something useful about the future.” And it is likely to be China’s future, rather than Israel’s, that will ultimately determine Mearsheimer’s reputation. If China implodes from a socioeconomic crisis, or evolves in some other way that eliminates its potential as a threat, Mearsheimer’s theory will be in serious trouble because of its dismissal of domestic politics. But if China goes on to become a great military power, reshaping the balance of forces in Asia, then Mearsheimer’s Tragedy will live on as a classic.

Why John J. Mearsheimer Is Right*

*about some things

*about some things
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Robert D. Kaplan is an Atlantic national correspondent and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. His most recent book is Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power.

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