Robert Kaplan on John Mearsheimer (With a Fallows Guest Appearance)

James Fallows has an interesting post about Robert Kaplan's sympathetic Atlantic profile of John Mearsheimer, the University of Chicago academic whose interests include advancing  "realist" foreign policy theories; making lists of bad Jews; and endorsing books by neo-Nazis.

Much of the profile concerns Mearsheimer's belief that the U.S. is heading toward confrontation with China. Kaplan endorses the view; Fallows calls it nonsense (politely, of course):

"(Kaplan)  also explains why Mearsheimer believes a strategic/military confrontation between the US and China truly is inevitable -- and why he, Kaplan, mainly shares this view. I mainly disagree with both of them, and the basis of our disagreement touches on another important theme of the article.

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.

You can read the whole of Fallows' post here. I don't know enough about China to weigh in on one side or another, but I do trust Fallows on these matters.

On the matter of the main cause of Mearsheimer's international celebrity, the book he co-wrote with Harvard's Stephen Walt, "The Israel Lobby,"  I think Jim's approach is overly benign. Here is what he has to say about Kaplan's treatment of this tendentious, Jew-baiting book:

Kaplan engages the merits of the Mearsheimer-Walt argument more deeply, and in a fairer and calmer frame of mind, than most other treatments of the book. He doesn't agree with all of it, but he comes down thus:

[Mearsheimer and Walt argue that] 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).

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?

I would like to highlight just one of Kaplan's statements re: Mearsheimer, from this passage from his article:

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.

I will put aside Kaplan's inability to reach his own conclusions about Mearsheimer's intentions and prejudices (is Kaplan among the "many others" who think Mearsheimer and Walt provided "potent ammunition for anti-Semites"? Does he himself think Mearsheimer's endorsement of a neo-Nazi's anti-Jewish screed is evidence of an "unhealthy obsession with Israel and Jewishness on Mearsheimer's part"? His readers would like to know.).

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.