The Israel Lobby And Its Critics

Of Walt and Mearsheimer, Daniel Larison writes:

Without refighting the battles over The Israel Lobby all over again, I'll say this much. Whatever the flaws of the essay, it was far from "lousy," and the book addressed and fixed many of the flaws in the original essay. It is true that the book did not take into account the role of other Near Eastern governments and their lobbies (from my perspective, more attention to the complementary influence of pro-Turkish and pro-Israel lobbies would have made their claims stronger), but if you want to talk about farragoes of oversimplification and half-truths I could recommend any one of a dozen reviews and columns that misrepresented and distorted the claims of the authors in the sloppiest and most tendentious ways. The reception of the essay and the book was irrational in the extreme, and did more to validate main parts of their thesis than anything they could have written or demonstrated.

The "lousiness" question is a subjective one, obviously, where Daniel and I will have to agree to disagree. As for the rebuttals to the book - well, yes, many of them achieved the same level of oversimplification that The Israel Lobby achieved, albeit usually at a more manageable length and with fewer appeals to scholarly authority. But there's a danger in taking the near-universal criticism that Walt and Mearsheimer earned as evidence that their thesis was essentially correct: Sometimes you get near-universally drubbed because the world has gone wildly wrong, but more often it's because you have. In this vein, I would recommend the reviews the book received from Leslie Gelb in the Times Book Review, from Walter Russell Mead in Foreign Affairs, and especially (given his politics) from Daniel Lazare in The Nation - all of them essentially respectful and non-hysterical, and all of them deeply, deeply critical.

The best defense of Walt and Mearsheimer is that they were engaging in deliberately polemical effort, with no regard for evenhandedness or nuance, because only a polemical treatment of the topic could provide an appropriate corrective to the one-sidedness of the broader American media conversation about Israel. But for two men who take themselves seriously as scholars, this doesn't seem like much a defense to me, not least because their polemical style - and the extent to which it did, in fact, echo tropes of classical anti-Semitism, however innocently or unintentionally - had the predictable effect of undercutting the non-polemical aspects of their argument, and preventing precisely the sort of serious debate they claimed to be interested in having.