May 5, 2006

WSJ editorial board member slams Mearsheimer in CFI talk

On his first return since graduating from the College in 1995, The Wall Street Journal'’s Bret Stephens expressed disappointment that his goal was to expose a celebrated professor as a “"discredit to the University of Chicago and academia.”"

Stephens’'s remarks came in response to U of C political science professor John Mearsheimer’'s recently published paper “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” written with Stephen Walt, the academic dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

“"From the Mearsheimer view, I am probably just a half step away from Ariel Sharon,"” said Stephens, a member of The Wall Street Journal’'s editorial board and former editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post.

The Chicago Friends of Israel (CFI) sponsored Stephens'’s speech, entitled, “"Meet the Israel Lobby,"” Wednesday night in Social Sciences 122.

Mearsheimer and Walt’'s article, published this past March in the London Review of Books, asserts that a group of American individuals and corporations sympathetic to Israel shapes U.S. foreign policy. Mearsheimer named The Wall Street Journal’'s editorial board as one of many editorial boards of major newspapers with a “pro-Israel bias.”

The article has garnered extensive criticism, including accusations of anti-Semitism.

“"[Mearsheimer'’s paper] is a facsimile of anti-Semitic trope,”" Stephens said. “"It is demagogic, bigoted, and factually incorrect.”"

“"The only silence in this debate is theirs,”" Stephens said, noting that Mearsheimer refused CFI'’s invitation as well as other calls for him to defend his work publicly. However, the May 11 issue of the London Review of Books will feature a letter from Mearsheimer and Walt addressing the criticism; it is now available online.

'“We wrote ‘The Israel Lobby’ in order to begin a discussion of a subject that had become difficult to address openly in the United States,”" Mearsheimer and Walt wrote in the letter. “"We knew it was likely to generate a strong reaction, and we are not surprised that some of our critics have chosen to attack our characters or misrepresent our arguments.”"

Robert Pape, a political science professor at the U of C, echoed their sentiment in a previous interview with the Maroon.

"“I have been amazed at the charges of anti-Semitism leveled at [the authors] regarding this article, not only because they are philo-Semites of the first order, but also because this is what they predicted would happen in their piece,”" Pape said.

Stephens challenged Mearsheimer’'s argument that this amorphous group promotes Israel to the detriment of America. He decried the idea that this conglomeration of media, public interest groups, and politicians are responsible for such decisions as the war in Iraq.

“'As much as I would like to take credit as the brain in the head and the tongue in the mouth [of President Bush], I cannot,"” Stephens said.

Stephens justified his accusation by saying that Mearsheimer'’s conflation of "“identity with agenda”" is “bigotry.”

"“Steve Walt and I are fully aware of the history of anti-Semitism,"” Mearsheimer said in an e-mail interview. '“Thus, we went out of our way to make it clear that we were not talking about a conspiracy, but were instead arguing that pro-Israel forces are engaged in interest-group politics, which is perfectly legitimate.”"

Stephens also challenged Mearsheimer'’s contention that competing organizations are working together. He said he was astonished to see the argument that The Wall Street Journal was allied with The New York Times.

Stephens spoke of factual errors in Mearsheimer’'s article regarding, among other things, Israel’'s acceptance of a Palestinian state at its inception. Benny Morris, a prominent historian of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who was cited as a reference in Mearsheimer’'s paper, recently published a rejoinder in The New Republic pointing out factual inaccuracies in the author's’ paper.

Blasting Mearsheimer for a "lack of “scrupulous research,"” Stephens commented that as a professor, Mearsheimer should have plenty of time to complete careful research.

"Mearsheimer chose instead to “capitalize on ignorance and bad will of readers,"” Stephens said.

Stephens explained that although addressing Mearsheimer'’s article might be "“falsely underscoring its importance"” and would risk “"puffing Mearsheimer'’s reputation and vanity,"” he had to respond.

Citing the advent of the Internet as providing "“readily available information and readily available misinformation,"” Stephens explained that he had chosen to speak in order to confront what he saw as untruths.

“"Lies that are un-rebutted tend to accumulate,”" Stephens said. "“Then at a certain point they slip into history.”"

Reflecting on the event, Mearsheimer said he and co-author Walt have taken the appropriate steps to address the criticisms leveled against them, including the letter in the London Review of Books.

“'We actually look forward to debating our critics, but we want to make sure that those debates don'’t turn into food fights, which is why I declined to debate Mr. Stephens,"” Mearsheimer said.