March 25, 2006

Israel Lobby

While it hasn't gotten a great deal of press, the recent "working paper" from the Kennedy School on the The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy has sparked a lot of outrage.

It's truly remarkable what these two professors wrote and considered "scholarship". It's the kind of stuff that makes conservatives think that the Academy is irredeemably screwed up.

Alan Dershowitz is not happy about it at all, as you'd expect, and claims to have traced certain out-of-context quotes back to anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi hate sites.

Frankly, my biggest problem with the paper, which I finally got around to reading some of, is how bad it is. Just really, really shoddy work. I can't believe anyone would call this scholarship and think they could get away with it:

U.S. foreign policy shapes events in every corner of the globe. Nowhere is this truer than in the Middle East, a region of recurring instability and enormous strategic importance. Most recently, the Bush Administrationís attempt to transform the region into a community of democracies has helped produce a resilient insurgency in Iraq, a sharp rise in world oil prices, and terrorist bombings in Madrid, London, and Amman. With so much at stake for so many, all countries need to understand the forces that drive U.S. Middle East policy.
Gosh, that starts off well-balanced. At this point, they've convinced me that they really are seeking the truth and not just spouting propaganda.
Instead, the overall thrust of U.S. policy in the region is due almost entirely to U.S. domestic politics, and especially to the activities of the "Israel Lobby." Other special interest groups have managed to skew U.S. foreign policy in directions they favored, but no lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially identical.1
Really? I thought it was Halliburton and the House of Saud that drove our policies. Go figure. Gotta love that first footnote:
1Indeed, the mere existence of the Lobby suggests that unconditional support for Israel is not in the American national interest. If it was, one would not need an organized special interest group to bring it about. But because Israel is a strategic and moral liability, it takes relentless political pressure to keep U.S. support intact.
What kind of logic is that? Are you telling me that this is the kind of model of public action that qualifies as political science these days? I didn't realize that current scholarship started from the premise that there is some uncontested "real" American national interest? But there must be, because the "mere existence" of the Isreal lobby proves it's at odds with pro-Israeli positions. Do you like the rhetorical slight-of-hand that introduces, at the last minute, the straw man of "unconditional support" that is supposedly given to Israel? And if we're starting (in footnote 1!) with the fact that Israel is a strategic and moral liability, then why do we need the paper at all?

They then make a one-sided case that Israel is a strategic liability – but if I toted up the costs of any one of our alliances, while ignoring the benefits, I'm pretty sure I could end up with a negative balance too. As Dan Drezner points out, they completely skipped over incidents (like the Iraqi nuclear program at Osirak or intelligence sharing) where the alliance was an asset.

Anyway, I could beat my head against the wall, trying to debunk each assertion in the paper, but it's not worth it. It's clear from the first three pages that it's an ideologically driven hatchet job and not scholarship. I really hope serious political scientists (and Harvard and Chicago) distance themselves from this kind of work product fairly quickly. Posted by richard at March 25, 2006 04:55 PM


I read the first several pages of it, but it just doesn't seem worth reading. It's always easy to gather evidence, anectdotes, and out-of-context quotes to support any thesis. What makes something scholarship is an objective look at, and analysis of, all the relevant evidence. It sad, but I guess not terribly surprising, that Harvard would produce something like this, but one of the reasons I came to the University of Chicago instead was that I beleived they were more open-minded and dedicated to scholarship. I hope I wasn't wrong.

I think this is the last we should write of this. Debate on our support of Israel is welcome, but I hate to give credibility to this bunk by discussing it any further.

Posted by: Mike F. at March 26, 2006 04:10 PM

Out of curiousity, how do you feel about the "Isreal lobby" and its impact on US foreign policy?

Posted by: Mike W at March 26, 2006 05:27 PM

I only briefly perused the working paper, and I didn't find it terribly "academic" or well-written. I'm pleased that to this point we haven't got ourselves into the question of whether it's right or good for an academic to state a controversial position, and that we've instead focused on whether the article is well-supported and meets what we would presume to be the exacting standards of the academy.

That is, if this paper were written in a more objective tone, mustered significant documentary evidence and paused to account for and consider countervailing evidence — I'd like to think we'd all be okay with it, whatever it concluded.

I worry that the right wages a continuing war on judges and universities, because they don't like what those judges decide or what those universities' professors argue. And yes, so these two guys wrote a crappy screed-like article. We should say so. It just bugs me that this will be seized upon as "just another example of what goes on at universities," just as Kelo gets ripped as "just another example" of why we need to destroy the Supreme Court.

Guys like Cheney love to argue that the media only picks out the bad stories from Iraq to report. Well, there are a lot of well-written and well-researched judicial decisions, theses, and journal articles out there, and what bums me out about this is that it's become another occasion to smear the academy.

Don't get me wrong, Richard — I don't think you're deploying the article toward that purpose. But I don't doubt that others' efforts to do so brought the article to your attention in the first place.

When you've got time, check out some of the other working papers at the KSG website. Some are better than others, of course, but for the most part, they demonstrate people thinking, and not seething.

Posted by: Phutatorius at March 27, 2006 02:59 PM

Just a quick point that although I think that shoddy scholarship is the problem with this paper, you can't help but think that equally shoddy stuff that espoused a position that wasn't as dear to the hearts of the left would be laughed off stage.

In other words, while I agree that we don't want viewpoint discrimination and that scholars need to be able to have unpopular points of view as long as they're doing substantive work, this situation (like the Ward Churchill brewhaha) says something about the blind eye that can be turned to bad work when it suits a particular viewpoint.

I want a critical academy that respects substantive work and rejects empty screeds no matter which side of the aisle they're shouted from.

Posted by: richard at March 27, 2006 07:33 PM

Mike W., the "Isreal Lobby"...? Obviously, I question its "mere existence".

Posted by: richard at March 27, 2006 07:35 PM

The difference is that a university might let leftist academic nonsense slip by, whereas the Republican Party lets rightist academic nonsense become foreign policy.

Nice pun-catch with "Isreal." Cracked me up.

Posted by: Phutatorius at March 27, 2006 11:15 PM

Oh, and just for the record, I haven't heard a word about this on campus. It bugs the hell out of me, but no one here seems to care either way. There was a big "Save Tookie" booth at Hutch Commons, but no one's up in arms about shoddy scholarship.

Posted by: Mike F. at March 29, 2006 07:41 PM