Does it seem implausible that one might actually feel sympathy for a professor at the University of Chicago? So I would have thought; but as John Mearsheimer got the waterboard treatment from Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross last night at New York’s Cooper Union, there was something undeniably poignant in his situation. Mearsheimer, an earnest, polite, owlish gent, had the bemused air of a man trying to reason with a pair of rabid Dobermans.
The occasion was a "debate," hosted by the London Review of Books, on the question, "The Israel Lobby: Does it have too much influence on US foreign policy?"
Noam Chomsky observes somewhere that "debates are one of the most irrational institutions that humans have devised," because they "demand irrationality" on the part of the combatants. He neglected to add that they also often bring out the worst in the spectators. And when the subject is Israel, and the debate takes place in New York, where this topic usually evokes irrationality on a titanic scale — well, the ensuing spectacle is likely to delight a misanthrope’s heart.
My high misanthropic hopes were greatly reinforced, while we waited for the program to start, by my immediate neighbors, who were solemnly, and approvingly, discussing the ideas of that mighty thinker, Thomas Friedman. Aha, I thought, mentally rubbing my hands, this is going to be good.
The prosecution team consisted of professors Mearsheimer, Rashid Khalidi from Columbia, and Tony Judt, from NYU. Appearing for the defense were Israel lobbyists Indyk and Ross, both of whom also served Israel’s cause as prominent members of the Clinton administration. They were joined by redundant Israeli labor party politician Shlomo Ben-Ami. (Why, you ask, was a former Israeli cabinet minister invited to discuss a question of American politics? That’s a very good question, and I wish you had been there to ask it at the time.)
The debate was "moderated" by Ann-Marie Slaughter, who is dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs at Princeton. (The name of this institution always makes me laugh — as who should say, the Henry VIII School of Women’s Studies, or the Lester Maddox Institute for Racial Amity.)
The beleaguered Mearsheimer, of course, is one of the authors, with Stephen Walt, of the succès-de-scandale paper "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy," which created quite a stir when it appeared last spring. The sound of carpet-chewing from Alan Dershowitz’s Cambridge house reportedly gave many Harvard faculty a week’s worth of sleepless nights.
What became known as the "Mearsheimer-Walt thesis" is, to paraphrase bluntly the authors’ careful formulations, that the Israel lobby has been successful in "distorting" American foreign policy in Israel’s interest. In particular, Mearsheimer and Walt argue, we would not have had an Iraq war without the Lobby’s contribution. These are, to say the least, fighting words.
Indyk and Ross showed up in fighting trim, and Slaughter threw them a slow soft one in her first question: Was the Mearsheimer-Walt paper anti-Semitic?
Well, more or less, yes, was the predictable answer from Israel’s defense bench. Mearsheimer, said the imposing, silver-maned Indyk, postulates a sinister "cabal" (he must have used this word a hundred times over the next two hours) that includes "anyone who has a good word to say about Israel." With regard to the Iraq war, Indyk’s trump card was that the Israel lobby couldn’t have made that happen, since the Israel lobby really wanted to go after — Iran! Mearsheimer, who has presumably heard this sort of thing quite a lot lately, watched Indyk with an unblinking, curious, naturalist’s gaze, as though he had discovered a new subspecies of E. Coli.
But there was a slightly tired, perfunctory, pro-forma quality about Indyk’s obligatory insults and falsehoods. None of the defenders seemed to have his heart in it, really — and the audience, to their credit and my surprise, wasn’t buying it, either. The defense team had to say these things — that’s how the game is played — but their threadbare invective evoked groans and hisses from the groundlings, and in any case, the trio had other, more important, fish to fry.
The other fish in question, it appears, is that all these guys would very much like to be back in office. And on this point, sadly, they seemed to have much of the audience with them.
Judt, and Mearsheimer, and Khalidi, don’t have this problem. They all have tenure at good universities — or, in Khalidi’s case, at a university that suburban parents still think is a good one. They get published, and people cite them. They’re at the pinnacle of their profession, and only death or Alzheimer’s can knock them off it. But Indyk, and Ross, and the Woody-Allenish Ben-Ami, wielded state power once, and now they don’t. They’re on the outside looking in, and would love to have their helicopter rides, and their bodyguards, and their sense of importance back again.
So the burden of their song, last night, was that the Lobby is not the problem. Rather — they sang, in close three-part harmony — rather, the problem is that we have these awful Republicans in power here in the US, and the awful Likudniks — now wearing a centrist smiley-face — in power back in the Promised Land. Want to make things better? Throw the rascals out, and put us back in.
The rodentine Ross put it most crassly: "If Al Gore had been president, we would not have had an Iraq war." The crowd, I’m sorry to say, loved it. Ben-Ami took up the same tune and modulated into a slightly different key: "One thing that doesn’t exist in your analysis," he thundered, "is Israel!" — a line which, depressingly, may have nudged the applause-meter up to its maximum for the evening. "Israel’s behavior is the responsibility of its elected leaders!" More applause, and sage murmurs of "he’s very intelligent!" from my neighbors in the peanut gallery.
The defense team indignantly rejected the idea that a US administration should ever "force" Israel to do anything — while strenously claiming, in the next breath, that Bill Clinton, to his everlasting credit, had put the screws to Israel in a way that made Torquemada look like a bleeding-heart. So… if you have a problem with the Israel lobby, then your best bet is to elect a Democrat. Now there is an original idea.
If you’ve read Clayton Swisher’s remarkable book, The Truth About Camp David, then the picture that Indyk and Ross and Ben-Ami were painting of an assertive Clinton holding Israel’s feet to the fire will look a little strange. In fact, last night was something of a reunion for Indyk and Ross and Ben-Ami, who were all participants in the Clinton "peace process" — and all working for the same side, though Indyk and Ross held US passports and Ben-Ami an Israeli one. As Aaron Miller, Ross’ former deputy from that period, famously observed later, "far too often, we functioned in this process, for want of a better word, as Israel’s lawyer."
But the rewriting of history, and the retrospective rose-tinting of Democratic and Labor administrations, is a favorite liberal game, and the Manhattan congregation largely approved. Indyk, Ross and Ben-Ami were able to put over the virtuoso turn of denying, in one breath, that the Israel lobby has any power, and promising, in the next breath, to neutralize that power if they could only get back into their helicopters.
They have a point, of course. Neither Israel nor its Lobby are monoliths. The Likudniks are now in the ascendant in both, and our tuneful trio are, relatively speaking, sidelined. There are different ideas about tactics and strategy, priorities and alliances, among different elements at both ends of the Washington-Jerusalem axis.
But of course — as Mearsheimer came close to saying, at one point — the best proof of the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis was sitting in front of us all night, in the form of Ross and Indyk themselves. These two have spent their careers alternating between organizations like AIPAC and WINEP on the one hand, and guarding the Middle East henhouse in government on the other. The twists and turns of tactics and diplomacy, as one faction replaces another, don’t conceal an underlying, essential continuity.
If I weren’t such a misanthrope, I might be tempted to say that nevertheless, the glass is half full. Twenty years ago, such a discussion, in this venue, would have been unthinkable; any attempt to raise the topic at all would have been shouted down by a coalition of JDL thugs from Brooklyn, and tough little old ex-Communist ladies from the Upper West Side. Twenty years ago, you would not have seen Establishment figures like Mearsheimer and Walt saying such things. Twenty years ago, a New York audience would have received Indyk’s cheap demagogy with thunderous applause rather than groans and boos.
So the times they are a-changin’. But we still have a ways to go. If I correctly assessed the temper of last night’s crowd, they mostly still want to find a way to divide the baby — to support and vindicate Israel, but without all these awful wars and walls. They would like to cajole the Palestinians into playing nice — without giving them anything that Israel might want. They would like to bring Iran to heel, without putting any boots on the ground, if I may borrow the buzzword-du-jour.
In other words, I fear most of them want Bill Clinton back. And when I contemplate that idea, the glass looks a lot more than half empty.
MICHAEL J. SMITH lives in New York City. When his busy social schedule permits, he works at undermining the Democratic Party on his blog, stopmebeforeivoteagain.org.