Once Upon a Time, Stephen Walt Was a Rigorous Scholar

I know this because I took college and graduate school courses with him—and with John Mearsheimer—before Walt decamped for Harvard. Of course, this was back before both Walt and Mearsheimer decided to go crazy, so a lot has changed since then, but back in the day, I admired their scholarship and their intellectual seriousness regarding foreign policy, national security, and international relations.

I don’t know what has happened in the interim, but Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s reasoning skills have become remarkably slipshod. The latest example can be found here; Walt believes that, because there were a lot of mentions of both Israel and the threat Iran may pose to Israel during the Hagel confirmation hearings, his and Mearsheimer’s theories regarding the Israel lobby have been borne out.

It may be that the references to Israel during the Hagel hearings were due to the Israel lobby’s alleged “almost unchallenged hold on Congress,” its supposed ability to stifle “[o]pen debate about U.S. policy toward Israel,” or the possibility that “[i]f public discourse about Israel can be shaped so that most American have generally positive impressions of the Jewish state, then politicians will have even more reason to follow the lobby’s lead.”

Or, it may be that the references were due to the fact that Chuck Hagel said some pretty controversial things about Israel, and that got the attention of the senators on the Armed Services Committee. If Hagel hadn’t said controversial things about Israel, there may well not have been all that many references to Israel during the hearings. Likewise, if Hagel hadn’t said some controversial things regarding Iran, there may not have been all that many references to Iran during the confirmation hearings. In short, I am putting forth the fairly unremarkable contention that controversy regarding a particular subject matter serves to drive discussion regarding that particular subject matter. There is nothing magical about Israel that causes any kind of monomaniacal focus on the country or on our relationship with it.

To be sure, there is no way to determine how the confirmation hearings would have gone in some alternative universe in which Hagel did not make controversial comments regarding Israel or Iran. But I would not be surprised in the least that if he didn’t make such comments, there would have been few references to Israel or to Iran’s relationship with Israel.

John Kerry, who is now our Secretary of State, did not make Hagelian comments regarding Israel or Iran. I have searched in vain for a transcript of his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but I would be shocked if Israel or Iran’s relationship with Israel came up all that much during those hearings. I would be similarly shocked if they would have come up all that much if Kerry were nominated to be the Secretary of Defense and all else remained equal when he went before the Senate Armed Services Committee for confirmation hearings.

As we know, Susan Rice is infamous not for any comments that she has made regarding Israel or Iran’s relationship with Israel, but rather for her comments regarding the attack on our consulate in Benghazi. I am willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that if she were nominated to be Secretary of State, there would have been at least 166 references to the attacks during her confirmation hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Similarly, if either Hagel, Kerry, or Rice said something controversial about Afghanistan, China, or Venezuela, and then got nominated for some major cabinet post, there likely would have been well over a hundred references to Afghanistan, China or Venezuela during their confirmation hearings. 

My theories may be wrong, but I think that they are plausible and defensible, and they are certainly worth considering as alternatives to Walt’s flat declaration that the tone and tenor of the Hagel hearings prove that Walt and Mearsheimer were right all along about the Israel lobby. Just as I am willing to concede that Walt may have been right in what he wrote before putting out an alternative theory (even though I don’t believe he is right), Walt should have conceded that factors other than the ones that he and Mearsheimer identified might have helped shape the Hagel hearings into what they became. The old Stephen Walt would have considered alternative theories and ideas, even if they undercut the ones that he believed. Too bad the new Stephen Walt is too busy being a hater to show the kind of open-mindedness he used to be known and respected for.

Oh, and of course, Walt makes no reference to the fact that Hagel was terrible during his confirmation hearings. You’d expect a serious scholar—especially one who supports Hagel’s nomination as Walt does—to at least grapple with the fact that Hagel bombed before the committee, but again, Walt appears to have long ago given up the role of being a serious scholar. Speaking of scholarship, it is worth noting that the paper authored by Walt and Mearsheimer on the Israel lobby—which their now-infamous book is based on—is the product of incredibly bad social science. See also Benny Morris, who makes clear that Walt and Mearsheimer are as bad at history as they are at social science. Walt and Mearsheimer “relied heavily” on Morris’s historical scholarship in putting together their paper on the Israel lobby; thus, Morris’s evisceration of their work is especially devastating.

I should point out that the lack of rigor regarding Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s work regarding Israel and the Israel lobby does not denote a lack of rigor regarding realism as an explainer of past and present nation-state behavior, and/or as a predictor of future nation-state behavior. I classify myself as a classical realist irrespective of what Walt and Mearsheimer—who still claim to be realists themselves—say or do, and there is no reason why realism as a theory ought to be indicted along with Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s poor scholarship regarding Israel and the Israel lobby.

Indeed, as I have argued before, the degree of attention that Walt and Mearsheimer pay to the Israel lobby and its alleged ability to shape foreign policy indicates a significant departure on their parts from the tenets of realism; while realists do pay attention to the nature of the political systems of nation-states–and while they concede that domestic factors can influence nation-state behavior somewhat–they believe that nation-state interests are largely independent of domestic factors and considerations, and it is those interests that drive nation-state behavior.

Walt and Mearsheimer clearly believe that, when it comes to Israel and the Middle East in general, the Israel lobby is the main driver behind the formulation and implementation of American policy. Regarding this issue, at least, it is impossible to call them realists anymore. Maybe if they stuck to realism, their theories and arguments regarding American policy towards Israel and the Middle East would make more sense and would be more defensible.