Sunday, March 26, 2006

Scholarship, Antisemitism, and the Harvard Study

As someone who nearly attended the Kennedy School, but decided to go to Israel instead, I am unusually fascinated by the flak surrounding the Walt/Mearsheimer study, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," which has been making the rounds of the blogosphere during the past week (the paper is available at
with a revised version at Much of the flak that surrounds the paper has to do with the inevitable issues of antisemitism, free speech, and so forth. But it seems to me that there is a prior question about the role of scholarship and especially "public policy" programs, of which the Kennedy School is a prime example, in policy discourse.

The Kennedy School is, well, a strange animal. (My wife went to KSG, so I know something about it despite my untimely departure.) Modelled in large degree on the Harvard Business School, the Kennedy School was based on the idea that something called public policy could be taught as a distinct subject, in much the same way as law or business or (for that matter) ordinary academic disciplines. This approach works adequately well for, say, the design of a new power plant or retirement program, where the costs and benefits can be quantified with some precision and quantitative analysis applied to achieving the optimal solution. It works rather less well for abortion or homosexuality as well as for foreign policy, where ideology plays a larger role and it tends to be much more difficult to quantify the costs and benefits at stake (there was supposedly a KSG professor who figured out how much a human life was worth, but that wasn't the school's proudest moment). You can apply all sorts of models to the decision whether to bomb Iran, but if you believe the mullahs are going to hit Tel Aviv or New York on Day One, you're probably going to want to take action, even if a lot of statistical models tell you that that is somehow an "acceptable" risk.

Which brings me to the Israel study. As I read it, the arguments of this study are as follows:

1. U.S. support for Israel, of which the authors appear to include the Iraq War as an example, is well out of proportion to the size and strategic significance of Israel as measured by traditional, quantitave methods. (How exactly the Iraq War helps Israel has never been clear to me, but lets leave that aside for the moment.)

2. There is a powerful lobby for Israel consisting of primarily although not exclusively Jewish individuals and organizations who aggressively reward politicians, bureaucrats and academics that support Israeli policy and punish those who oppose it.

3. In the absence of alternate explanations, #2 above must be taken to account for #1 above, with grave implications for American Middle East policy and the future of American democracy.

Most of the discussion of the piece so far concerns item #2, i.e., the supposed stregth and ferocity of the pro-Israel lobby, and there are indeed some serious problems here. One is that the authors us the term "Israel lobby" without ever really defining it very precisely, so that the paper has a weird circular quality (why is there a pro-Israel policy? Because of the Israel lobby. How do we know that there is a strong Israel lobby? Because there is a pro-Israel policy.) The authors also never really explain why, if such a small percentage of the population is capable of manipulating opinion so effectively, their tactics are not borrowed by other, competing groups.

But the bigger problem seems to me to involve item #3, that is, the supposed absence of alternate explanations which throws the authors back on the Israel lobby as the only possible reason for American support. This is what lawyers call an "everything but the therefore" problem, that is, an argument that makes two distinct propositions but fails adequately to account for the link between them. This problem, it seems to me, relates directly to the author's failure to take ideology seriously, and to understand its implications for foreign policy.

All lobbies try to promote their client's interests, and all use more or less the same tactics. The reason that the Israel lobby has had disproportionate success is because the product it is selling has, by and large, proved more attractive than anything its opponents have on offer. There are numerous reasons for this, including the continuing identification of many Christians (and not merely evangelicals) with Israel; the western orientation of that country, which means that it will tend to state its positions in ways that are more consonant with American values than will its Arab neighbors; and, most significant, the behavior of the Arabs themselves, which has unfortunately tended to confirm negative stereotypes rather than refute them as one would wish to be the case. In this respect the 911 attacks, albeit the work of a relatively small number of people, surely did more to advance Israel's cause than years of propaganda by any lobby could possibly achieve. The authors argue that these arguments are no longer persuasive, but don't seem to accept that others might feel differently; in particular they are nearly deaf to the nonquantifiable, culture- and values-based arguments so important to many other observers. Their work thus proceeds inexorably on to its preordained conclusion.

In short it seems to be that the fault with Walt and Mearsheimer is not they are mean-spirited or antisemitic--at least, I have no reason to assume that they are--but that they have failed adequately to account for the role of idealism/ideology in political decisions. This is an old flaw in Kennedy School-type policy analysis, but one that probably won't go away anytime soon. Because something is not easily quantifiable does not mean that it isn't important: a lesson too easily forgotten.

What then about the issue of antisemitism? As noted I have no reason to think the authors are motivated by an anti-Jewish spirit; for all I know they could be Jewish, or part Jewish, themselves. The problem is that, by attributing vastly disproportionate power to Jews and ignoring or denying other more credible explanations for events--and specifically by denying that Jews could influence people by moral or ethical example rather than by self-interested political intrigue--they are wittingly or unwittingly recreating the historic accusations of a Jewish "conspiracy" to infiltrate or control activities that ought rightly be managed by others. Particularly disturbing is the notion that an amorphous "Israel lobby" permeates institutions (the Congress, the Administration, and so forth) where the actual Jewish presence is either small or nonexistant: an almost impossible charge to refute, and uncomfortably similar to previous allegations against international Jewry, Jewish "cosmopolitans," and the like. At a minimum, it seems to me, Walt and Mearsheimer owe a more systematic explanation of how such a small group became so allegedly powerful, and why alternate explanations for American foreign policy (ideology, common political goals, and so forth) are not in the end more convincing. In the absence of this they may be guilty of nothing more than shoddy and incomplete thinking. But that is sometimes all that it takes.


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