Having critiqued foreign policy realism rather harshly late last year, I might normally be sympathetic to Ross’ complaint about it, but if his indictment against realists over the last 10-20 years is that most of them failed to distinguish themselves on the major questions of the day Walt and Mearsheimer make for unlikely examples of what he’s talking about. Unlike Chuck Hagel, Profs. Walt and Mearsheimer actually did oppose the invasion of Iraq, and they did so publicly when most of their colleagues took far more muddled stances, actually supported the invasion or kept quiet. On the short list of foreign policy realists who have distinguished themselves, these two would have to be among them. Even Hagel, whose claim to the title “unserious” has far less to do with his thinking on foreign policy than it does with his political theatrics, had more foresight and understanding of the matter than most of his Republican colleagues in Washington put together. The frustrating thing about Hagel is that he saw all the reasons why the war was a mistake, articulated many of the problems the U.S. might encounter and then voted for the war anyway. It is because he failed to follow through and show some independence when the right desperately needed more of it that Hagel should be criticized. Meanwhile, the legions of presumably “serious” people marched merrily along repeating the absurd case for the invasion with little reflection.

Without refighting the battles over The Israel Lobby all over again, I’ll say this much. Whatever the flaws of the essay, it was far from “lousy,” and the book addressed and fixed many of the flaws in the original essay. It is true that the book did not take into account the role of other Near Eastern governments and their lobbies (from my perspective, more attention to the complementary influence of pro-Turkish and pro-Israel lobbies would have made their claims stronger), but if you want to talk about farragoes of oversimplification and half-truths I could recommend any one of a dozen reviews and columns that misrepresented and distorted the claims of the authors in the sloppiest and most tendentious ways. The reception of the essay and the book was irrational in the extreme, and did more to validate main parts of their thesis than anything they could have written or demonstrated. No one could have observed the debate, or almost complete lack thereof, during the summer of 2006 during the bombing of Lebanon and still seriously believe that their thesis did not correctly describe, however imperfectly, the state of U.S. policy debate concerning Israel and its neighbors. As lopsided as the debate still is, Walt and Mearsheimer did manage to make it less so with their book and the arguments it provoked, which is one reason why the discussion of the conflict in Gaza is slightly better than the discussion of the war in Lebanon.

To take Prof. Walt’s thought experiment seriously for a moment, if Israel had lost in 1967 and the positions of Israelis and Palestinians were essentially reversed it is unlikely that Washington would pay that much attention to the Palestinian state or to the Israeli refugees. If we were going to push this counterfactual to its logical conclusions, the close U.S.-Israel relationship would never have formed in the wake of the ’67 war, as there would then be no anti-Soviet, Cold War rationale for allying with Israel, and there would never have been an occasion for Nixon to order the massive airlift of supplies and military hardware to help fend off the the ’73 attack. (Would LBJ have done the same thing a few years earlier? That is far from certain.) Washington’s view of a religious fundamentalist resistance movement struggling against Palestinian occupation would depend entirely on whether or not Palestine became a U.S. or Soviet proxy. If counterfactual Palestine tilted to Moscow, the refugees in Gaza would be considered freedom-fighters in much the same way that the mujahideen were later labeled this way, and if Palestine tilted toward Washington they would be derided as zealots and criminals. This is not hard to fathom–the KLA was officially listed as a terrorist organization until it became expedient to say that they were not, and Mujahideen-e-Khalq was not considered a terrorist group when its patron, Hussein, was still on our good side, after which time it magically became a terrorist group again. Conversely, SCIRI (now ISCI) was an evil terrorist agent of Tehran, but became rather more acceptable when Hussein was an official enemy; Da’wa likewise was considered and really was a terrorist group responsible for American deaths, and now its leader is our good friend and ally Nouri al-Maliki. There is some legitimate question whether the East Turkestan Islamic Movement is the violent Islamic movement Beijing portrays it to be, or whether it is a Uighur religious and cultural movement that Beijing wants to suppress as part of their colonization policy, but to satisfy Beijing we list it as a terrorist group.

Perhaps that is not how Prof. Walt imagined his thought experiment working out, but that is the more basic point of the experiment that Ross seems to have missed: groups are often enough labeled or not labeled as terrorists for very contingent and arbitrary reasons driven by other policy priorities. In reality, Hamas is genuinely a terrorist group because it uses the tactics and justifications that terrorists use: it targets civilians with violence to achieve its political goals, and insofar as it permits Islamic Jihad and Al-Aqsa to continue to do this from territory it controls it continues to do so. That being said, there have been more than a few groups that deserve this label that have not been so labeled, and some that have been labeled that do not necessarily deserve it. The more interesting question, it seems to me, is this: even if Palestinian militants targeted only military targets, is there any doubt that Washington would regard them as terrorists?