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Lame ‘Atlantic’ Apologies for Mearsheimer

Essay celebrates realism but fails to deal with real problems

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Professor John J. Mearsheimer.(Wikipedia)

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]

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Bill Pearlman says:

Interesting that Mearsheimer is a German name. A “kraut” is a “kraut”

Spinoza says:

Damn Marc, you hit it out of the park with this one.

Kaplan is a great travel writer but he’s fallen too in love with his grand theory…

David B. says:

Bill,
worse he is German-Irish, say no more.
Mheimer is a theorist, and Kaplan goes into some detail in his essay how there are those academics who go into think tanks and DC from mainly east coast academia and then there is Chicago Uni which has always stuck to it’s academics who remain in academia.
One thing which strikes, be it Chomsky, Butler or many more left and far left anti-Zionists is that they live in a theoretical bubble. I have heard Judith Butler say things about Israel which she, frankly pulled out of her androgenesque bottom.
I like to think that it is the academics privilege to lean out of the window just a little more than most people. After all they do not live in the real world and do not need to live with the consequences of their words.
Kaplan also points to some of Mheimers weaknesses namely, his lack of detail in his theories. The social reality which not even he can foretell regarding his China theory, or what will happen with 300 million Arabs within the next 30 years, or three weeks.
The left wing bias in much of academia is stunning and often crude. The European penchant for all things socialist or communist during the cold war rang damp and hollow once academics ( love the word ) had access to the archives in East Berlin, Sofia etc.. The Arabs of course allow no access to their archives. That is why dick heads like Mheimer and his side kicks Chomsky and Butler continue to fart into the hurricane of history while the man at the wall in Berlin is machine gunned in the back. Or Moshe Dayan has to make ‘that call’ which will make or break the nation his is defending. These people will have to live with the consequences of their actions. Mheimer just signs another book at a book sale in the Uni book shop. When he kicks the bucket he will have left behind a pile of paper. Not much more.

Michael says:

What a totally marvelous takedown. Far better and more astute than Kaplan’s piece.

patrick says:

So it is OK to disparage Germans generally, Irish are just as bad.
This is just disgraceful reputation smearing to discredit rational arguments. You are using the language of nazis and can’t see the paradox!!

Phillip Baram says:

Whatever merit M’s theory re China’s hegemonic intentions holds, it is seriously undermined by his “cherchez le juif” obsession. His visceral belief, which may well be due to old German and Irish prejudices, that Jews are by definiton pushy and parochial and in Washington have now become the tail that wags the dog makes him blind to all the other lobbies and special interest group which try to influence foreign policy. It also makes him blind to the very precarious, vulnerable existence of Israel which Jewish lobbyists legitmately seek to convey and which, fortunately, Congress understands and empathizes with.

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Lame ‘Atlantic’ Apologies for Mearsheimer

Essay celebrates realism but fails to deal with real problems

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