Ezra Klein makes the obvious, but apparently still necessary point:
Walt and Mearsheimer, by contrast, are arguing that there exists a powerful political lobby, ranked second in multiple surveys of Congressmen and staffers, that exerts disproportionate power over American policy towards Israel, in much the way AARP, the NRA, or the Cuban Lobby does on their issues. This Lobby, they argue, does not represent the expressed opinions of most Jews, and it includes a large constituency of Christian Zionists. That is not anti-Semitism. You may disagree with it, but it is not an attack on the shared characteristics of Jews. And it is disgusting and cheapening to pretend otherwise because marginalizing the authors as anti-semitic is more effective than arguing back their viewpoint.
What’s most bizarre about the polemical response to the book is that, if the critics of the book are largely right about the many egregious exaggerations, mistakes and oversights Mearsheimer and Walt have made, there should be no need to resort to these tactics. If the argument were as weak as critics simply assume it to be, the denunciations for alleged prejudice would be as redundant as they have been frequent.
As I’ve said before, I think the authors do overreach when they downplay the influence of the Saudis and oil interests, but the existence of these other interests by no means proves their larger arguments wrong. On the contrary, evidence of significant influence from other lobbies makes claims about the role of pro-Israel groups in shaping policy that much more reasonable. If others have shaped policy, then surely a “loose coalition” of some very influential groups, including one of the most effective lobbies of all, will be quite successful as well. The claims the authors make may be in need of qualification, but citing the influence of these other lobbies comes nowhere near refuting their position. Dan McCarthy drives this point home:
But it doesn’t follow that if the Saudis have tremendous, and probably detrimental, influence on American foreign policy in the Middle East, the Israelis must not have similar influence. The Saudi and Israeli lobbies disagree on much–though certainly not everything–but the one does not negate the other.
Those who are critical of the book are very big fans of Leslie Gelb’s review, which some seem to take as a definitive smackdown. Those who stop to read the mighty Gelb review discover that it does nothing of the sort, and instead unwittingly backs up much of what the book argues. As Dan McCarthy puts it:
Actually, Gelb is not comparing the Israeli lobby to the Cuban lobby–he’s comparing the claims made by Mearsheimer and Walt to Fidel Castro’s contention that the U.S. can’t really be a democracy because a small number of Cuban expatriates shapes our policy toward Havana. Trouble is, Castro has a valid point, and Leslie Gelb, of all people, knows it.
I share Klein’s frustration that it hasn’t been possible to have a real discussion of the merits (and flaws) of the book. (There are rare moments when the occasional critic makes a partly substantive argument, but this tends to merge with the general wave of irrational hostility that the book’s release has provoked and get lost in the noise.) A proper discussion about the book hasn’t been possible because the entire “debate” has turned into a clash between polemicists denouncing the authors and distorting their words and the rest of us attempting simply to defend the principle that the authors hold a legitimate point of view that ought not to be demonised.