What do you know: Commentary summer intern, Adam Hirst, opens his Yale course catalogue, finds Mearsheimer & Walt’s “The Israel Lobby” (London Review of Books version) in a course syllabus and decides to blog about it – unfavorably, of course. The Israel Lobby does not belong in PoliSci 169, “Classics of International Relations,” Hirst contends, or in the course unit “Contemporary Realism.” First, The Israel Lobby isn’t a classic. Second, it isn’t realist. Third, there are more noteworthy realist texts that the professor should have chosen. Commentary readers will doubtless infer from Hirst’s post that left-wing Yale academics are busy glorifying the hated Walt & Mearsheimer duo.
Of course, neither Hirst nor anyone else has any clue why the professor, Bruce Russett, included The Israel Lobby in the syllabus. As it turns out, however, there is no reason to believe that the he thinks of “The Israel Lobby” as a classic or even as realist. A leading exponent of “democratic peace theory,” Russett is in fact one of Mearsheimer’s fiercest critics. (See their exchange here.) Rather than celebrate Mearsheimer, Russett may be including The Israel Lobby as an excuse launch into a withering critique of Mearsheimer’s work.
The actual syllabus for “Classics of International Relations,” which Hirst, with whom I have shared a cocktail or two at alumni functions, kindly sent me, supports this interpretation. Russett writes of one of his own books, published in 2001, that it “is too soon [to consider it] to be a classic.” (A reasonable judgment.) The essay version of “The Israel Lobby” was published just three years ago. Evidently, Russett is implying that it is not a classic either.
As for whether it is a contribution to “realism,” Mearsheimer and Walt have expressly acknowledged that The Israel Lobby is inconsistent with realism. Realism, they observe (for example here), doesn’t explain everything; in particular, it does not predict what particular follies an overwhelmingly powerful state such as the United States will choose to indulge in. A major IR theorist himself, Russett is surely aware that The Israel Lobby is not an example of realism. Likewise, Russett is surely aware that works by Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan – not to mention Mearsheimer’s own Tragedy of Great Power Politics – are better candidates as “classics” of contemporary realism.
Why then did Russett include The Israel Lobby at all? Russett writes in the syllabus that “we will try to situate each writer and work in its [sic] own political and social context.” Who knows what that means. Possibly, Russett hopes that students will learn to expose the great IR theorists as mere products of their time, with particular biases, blindspots and partisan agenda. If so – and there’s no way of knowing — perhaps he intends an uncharitable deconstruction of Walt & Mearsheimer. The reason, in other words, that his syllabus suddenly abandons the likes of Hobbes and Clausewitz in favor of The Israel Lobby is that Russett is planning a gratuitous trashing of Walt & Mearsheimer.
That explanation, however, doesn’t fit Commentary‘s narrative that sinister Ivy League academics are preaching Israel-hatred. Finding items to reinforce that narrative, no matter how implausible, is what interning at Commentary is all about.