Still More On Walt!

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THE PLANK MARCH 6, 2009

Still More On Walt!

James Fallows' case for Chas Freeman is much better than the "anything that's bad for the Israel lobby must be good" rationales I've seen. Yet it still leaves me unconvinced. Fallows argues that Freeman, while not the kind of person you'd want running U.S. foreign policy, is a useful "contrarian" to have around. But Freeman isn't a contrarian so much as a man with extremely rigid views that run contrary to what most people believe. If the administration was leaning towward curring favor with some particularly odious regime that offered a potential economic benefit to the United States, Freeman wouldn't take a contrary position, he'd be all for it. I think Fallows is reflecting the unspoken sense that "realism" is the absence of ideology, rather than (as I argued in this op-ed) a distinct ideological perspective that can be taken to rigid extremes, as Freeman seems to take it.

Fallows also asks, "would you rather have had more of this
sensibility, or less, applied to U.S. policy in recent years?" In recent years, more. But the administration in recent years was rather extreme in both its neoconservatism and its lack of internal dissent such that having an extremist of the opposite bent would have been useful. Likewise, you could make a case that Richard Perle would be a useful fellow to have around the Obama administration, but his role in the Bush administration was a net negative.

Meanwhile, Matthew Yglesias defends Stephen Walt's habit of refusing to engage the arguments of Freeman's critics and instead simply tar them as Israel-firsters:

the habit of turning around and acting indignant when people point out
that what’s motivating this fight is Freeman’s views on Israel is
really pretty silly. When you hear that indicted former AIPAC director
Steve Rosen, The New Republic, Commentary, Eli Lake,
and Chuck Schumer are spearheading opposition to something you don’t
say to yourself “they must be concerned about the human rights
situation in China!” This is an organization dedicated to human rights in China and this
is a good government group, and they don’t seem very interested one way
or another in Freeman. You don’t need to read the minds of the
individual members of the anti-Freeman coalition, or question the
sincerity of any individual person’s statements on any particular
issue, to see that Israel is what’s driving and uniting the coalition
as a whole.

Actually, people who are mainly interested in Taiwan are concerned about Freeman. So are people who care about human rights:

"A capacity to make moral distinctions may not be a prerequisite for
being a good intelligence analyst," Tom Malinowski [of Human Rights Watch] said. "But for such
a high-profile appointment, it would still be wise for President Obama
to weigh the message sent by choosing someone who has so consistently
defended and worked for the clenched fists the president so eloquently
challenged in his inaugural address." 

Does Human Rights Watch count as an organization that genuinely cares about human rights, or is it, too, a beard for the Israel lobby?

The problem with making arguments primarily about motives is that it creates a stupid and poisonous public dialogue. Yglesias, without specifically citing it, is responding to my argument against Stephen Walt, the co-author of "The Israel Lobby." So let me explain what happened here, because there's something larger going on. Walt wrote an over-the-top blog post insisting that Freeman was being "smeared" without linking to the arguments made by the alleged smearers or even saying what Freeman was being smeared as. Indeed, my op-ed explicitly argued that Freeman's Israel views are not the cental issue, so Walt simply told his readers that my op-ed made the opposite case. When I pointed this out, Walt asserted that everybody knows what these people really care about.

Of course that assumption isn't true. Foreign policy idealists tend to believe in the value of supporting democracies versus dictatorships, and opposing genocide, even if this doesn't advance narrow economic or foreign policy interests. Realists disagree, which is fine. But the problem is that some realists not only disagree, but have defined the entire idealist worldview as being about Israel. In fact, foreign policy idealists have spent a lot of time defending, say, Taiwan. Not as much time as defending Israel, but of course Taiwan's citizens aren't actually under military attack from China the way Israel's have been from Hamas and Hezbollah. Now, it's true that a lot of Jews are idealists, and that foreign policy idealism is a good justification for the U.S.-Israel alliance. I'd argue that Jewish history before 1948 has more to do with Jewish belief in an ideology that elevates moral considerations over power politics and rejects the notions that a state can deal with its internal population as it sees fit.

And even if you suppose this entire world view is merely a construct to justify support for Israel, there are arguments to be dealt with. Walt refuses to defend Freeman on his ties to Saudi Arabia and extreme defense of China, thinking he can wave it all away by shouting "Israel-lover!" at the critics in the hopes that this will rally liberals to Freeman's side. The method of Walt's argument is vastly more distrurbing than the substance. Walt is arguing that any Jewish-American who does not roughly share his views on Israel (which, of course, disqualifies the vast majority) is presumptively acting out of dual loyalty, is probably coordinating their actions in secret, and should thus be dismissed out of hand. I think Walt has come to this conclusion on the basis of his foreign policy worldview rather than out of animus against Jewish people. But it's a paranoid analysis whose consequence is to make the debate about Israel much more stupid and mired in attacks on motive.

You can see why Jews who do share Walt's beliefs about Israel policy find his methods useful -- it disqualifies a vast swath of their ideological rivals from the conversation, and it elevates their role, as the special minority of good Jews who are able to see past the blinders of their ethnicity.Yet what Walt's promoting is an ugly and deeply illiberal form of discourse. Yes, there are people who shout "anti-Semite" at any criticism of Israel, but this doesn't justify errors of the opposite extreme.

--Jonathan Chait

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posted in: the plank, politics, religion, social issues, person career, chas freeman, stephen walt

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