- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
There was a lot I didn’t like about the Chas Freeman debacle, but the thing I did not like most was the degree to which it offered apparent support to the “theories” of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.
Freeman’s own response to his lynching-by-blog cited the Israel lobby in language so full of anger that you can easily tell it was written in the heat of the moment. For those who would argue this proves he was too intemperate for the job, please. He was publicly pilloried, his exceptional career negated by arguments that were for the most part lies and distortions. He had been unable to respond publicly to them for weeks. Frustration built up. And frankly it is easy to see how and why he may have concluded that his downfall was proof of the existence of the Israel lobby. Personally, I have really been struggling with that issue for the past few days myself, wondering whether it was time to acknowledge that perhaps Walt was right.
Walt, needless to say, did a little victory dance as well, offering commentary that was supposedly focused on the injustice done to Freeman but which really was a smug “I told you so” laden with a list of co-conspirators with names so Jewish that I could hardly read it without cringing. He added his obligatory “some of my best friends are Jewish” sentence listing some Jewish supporters of Freeman and threw in his tired old “I am the one who is a real friend of Israel” trope saying, as he always does, “I really have the best interests of that country at heart and if they would only listen to me they would be much better off.”
Freeman, I can forgive. He had every reason to be angry. Walt, not now, not ever, because whatever the pale intellectual merits of his hackneyed argument may be, he and Mearsheimer know full well that their prominence on this issue has come not because they have had a single new insight but rather because they were willing and one can only believe inclined to play to a crowd whose “views” were fueled by prejudice and worse. They may not be anti-Semites themselves but they made a cynical decision to cash in on anti-Semitism by offering to dress up old hatreds in the dowdy Brooks Brothers suits of the Kennedy School and the University of Chicago. They did what the most desperate members of academia do, they signed up to be rent-a-validators, akin to expert witnesses who support the defense of felons with specious theories served up on fancy diplomas. They would argue that they were daring to speak truth to power. In reality they were giving one crowd in particular precisely what it wanted to hear.
Believe me I don’t lightly come to the ultimate conclusion that this incident should not change my view of their work. I was appalled by the mob mentality generated by the blog debate on the Freeman nomination. It produced some serious misgivings on my part regarding even being involved in the blogosphere because so much of what passes for discourse in this world is undistilled opinion and emotion designed to bind and stir up like-minded audiences. The rest is more like grafitti than thoughtful commentary, designed to leave a wannabe commentator’s mark on the side of a passing issue.
There is no doubt that a small group of virulent supporters of Israel were at the heart of the movement to undo Freeman. This group was very effective in getting its message out and in mobilizing some in the government such as Speaker Pelosi and Senator Schumer to become their advocates. That in this instance, this small group acted to lobby on behalf of what they viewed as the interests of both Israel and the United States cannot be denied. But here is where the Walt argument starts to break down for me. The implication is that because these people had an interest in Israel, they put that interest before that of the United States, and I know for a fact that many of the people listed by Walt as Freeman’s attackers certainly do not. Walt self-servingly implies that because some argue for strong U.S. support for Israel that means they are not putting America’s interests first — whereas it is also possible (and I think for the most part true) that these people feel that it is precisely because they put U.S. interests first that they end up advocating a close relationship with our most dependable ally in the Middle East.
You want to debate whether Israel is a good ally? Fine. I’m ok with that. It even seems like a reasonable thing to do on an on-going basis as far as I am concerned.
My problem comes with the implication that those who support Israel are necessarily twisted by dual loyalties into positions that undermine the interests of the United States whereas those whose position is essentially to step back from America’s historically strong support for Israel are “realists” who somehow have the best interests of the U.S. at heart…that somehow Walt & Co. are better Americans.
That’s the insidious heart of this. (Although there is almost something comical about arguing that it is “realist” to bank on the benefits that will accrue from better relations with Arab regimes that are notoriously willing to say one thing publicly today and do something entirely different later on and which are, in a number of case, at serious risk of being toppled. This is precisely the brand of “realism” that led to our successful support of the Shah, Pinochet, Marcos, Suharto, and a host of other leaders who have permanently tarnished America’s reputation in the world. )
Furthermore, of course, there are several other problems with the Walt argument that remain even after the events surrounding Freeman’s appointment. First, is related to an earlier point: The implication that when the U.S. government supports Israel it’s because of the actions of this lobby and not because it is actually in the interests of the United States to support Israel. There is the notion that support for Israel comes from a monolithic group rather than one that is not only ethnically, geographically, economically, and otherwise diverse but one that holds a variety of nuanced views on a host of issues regarding Israel and the Middle East.
There is also the idea that somehow this group is so powerful that it is dictating policy rather than trying to influence it like every other lobbying group in Washington, that somehow it is privileged or more successful among interest groups. More successful than the farm lobby in winning government appropriations? Hardly. And our farm subsidies because they are so hugely distortionary to trade are a source of tensions in a host of relations worldwide. More effective than a Cuba lobby that has gotten the United States to support a ridiculous, failed policy for 50 years? Not. (We allow more open exchange with North Korea than we do with Cuba, an impoverished, literally crumbling nation with no strategic significance whatsoever.) More inclined to put cultural considerations first than any of this country’s national or ethnic special interest groups? Come on. Why, why, why, you have to ask yourself would you want to single out this lobby for special criticism? And why, if your purpose was to argue for a different U.S. policy in the Middle East, would you choose to focus your efforts on attacking the people who support an opposing view rather than on the merits of the policy you advocated? What makes the idea of this particular lobby more sinister than all those farmers or Cubans or African-Americans or gays or union members or Arabs or Taiwanese or Christians?
No, there is only one reason to argue that the Israel lobby is somehow special or of special significance. It is to suggest that American policy in the Middle East is being driven by the interests of an especially unsavory group of ultra-powerful people who are masters at manipulating Washington. And we know who they are right? Well, actually, we do…it’s the oil companies. But therein lies my point. The “Israel Lobby” is a distraction, a distortion and a vessel in which to carry and by which to explain and even excuse the hatreds and prejudices of a small group. It distorts reality, implies coordination where there is none, implies consensus across a group of people with widely divergent views, misinterprets the actions of a few as a plan of the many, overstates the influence of those it argues are involved, indicts the motives associated with a whole class of ideas enabling them to be dismissed before they are fairly considered, and seeks to argue that normal behavior in a democracy is somehow sinister for one group when it is healthy for others. Further, it tars opponents as members of a lowly lobby while reserving the intellectual and moral high ground for the views of Walt & Co. — “you lobby, we are patriots.”
Did a small group of misinformed, intellectually intolerant individuals stir up a wave of criticism of Chas Freeman that distorted his record to the point that it was impossible for him to assume the role for which he was nominated? Yes. Are many associated with historical support for Israel? Yes. In so doing did they lead to a great disservice being done to Freeman and to the U.S. government? Also yes. But is it fair to say that they represented the views of the broad spectrum of people who support a strong U.S. relationship with Israel? No. Is it fair to say that all were part of an orchestrated attack? No. Further, while I hate what happened, as Americans we must defend the right of the Freeman opponents to lay out their views…and many of those concerns, the ones based on facts, were perfectly legitimate to raise. The problem is when political leaders cave to the sentiments of the electronic mob. In so doing, it is they and not the critics of the choice who debase the process and rob the government of the diversity of perspectives it needs. The actions and arguments of some members the anti-Freeman crowd disgusted me. But it was in the capitulation to them that the greatest disservice was done.
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