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The “Peculiar Fantasies” of Mearsheimer and Walt

A decade or two from now, how will the scholarship of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt be remembered? Their new book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy–an expanded version of their original notorious essay in the London Review of Books–is circulating and beginning to garner reviews. It is always perilous to speculate about the future of reputations, but some handwriting is becoming visible on the wall.

“Slowly, deliberately and dispassionately,” writes William Grimes in the New York Times today, the two authors “lay out the case for a ruthlessly realistic Middle East policy that would make Israel nothing more than one of many countries in the region.” Many of the arguments in support of this proposition, notes Grimes, “are familiar ones.” And it is therefore “a little odd” that Mearsheimer and Walt “generate such heat.”

But Grimes need not be puzzled–or perhaps he is only affecting to be puzzled. For in the conclusion of his own review one can find a compelling explanation for the “heat.” It is worth quoting in full:

[Their] general tone of hostility to Israel grates on the nerves . . . along with an unignorable impression that hardheaded political realism can be subject to its own peculiar fantasies. Israel is not simply one country among many, for example, just as Britain is not. Americans feel strong ties of history, religion, culture and, yes, sentiment, that the authors recognize, but only in an airy, abstract way.

They also seem to feel that, with Israel and its lobby pushed to the side, the desert will bloom with flowers. A peace deal with Syria would surely follow, with a resultant end to hostile activity by Hizballah and Hamas. Next would come a Palestinian state, depriving al Qaeda of its principal recruiting tool. (The authors wave away the idea that Islamic terrorism thrives for other reasons.) Well, yes, Iran does seem to be a problem, but the authors argue that no one should be particularly bothered by an Iran with nuclear weapons. And on and on.

Grimes lands a number of blows, then. Harder ones, that will explore the nature and origins of the “peculiar fantasies” that propel the Mearsheimer-Walt brand of realism, are no doubt in the works. In the end, my guess is that the duo will be remembered not as scholars at all but, I argued last fall in the pages of COMMENTARY, as the continuators of a tradition started by Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Father Coughlin, which they have wrapped in scholarly garb.



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