Writing in Tablet, Weekly Standard editor and neoconservative Lee Smith sounds an alarm about the rising influence of realism in Obama’s foreign policy. He goes about this rather creatively. He claims, with literary-historical license but no grounding in actual fact, that Harvard Professor Stephen Walt has become this generation’s Mr. X, the George Kennan figure who can produce a strategy that makes sense of the chaos of international events and provides a guide for how the United States should act. Many have aspired to be the new Kennan—Richard Haas, Fareed Zakaria, Anne Marie Slaughter he mentions—but Walt has somehow succeeded.
One must note here that Walt, along with his co-author John Mearsheimer, plays a unique role in neoconservative demonology. They are the top professors who produced a beautifully researched and written argument claiming that the United States’ Mideast policy was tilted askew by the Israel lobby, to the detriment of American interests. When I wrote an essay praising The Israel Lobby, one neoconservative intellectual—an author who had been a friend for 20 years (and who was relatively tolerant of my opposition to the Iraq War) asked me how I could “praise such filth.” For this man who had fought every ideological battle imaginable both as a communist and an anti-communist, America’s special relationship with Israel merited its own special pedestal, beyond the politics of Right and Left. It couldn’t be questioned.
So perhaps by invoking Walt, Lee Smith may be using a kind of code, warning a pro-Israel Jewish audience—Tablet, I’m sure, has readers of many faiths and tendencies who find it interesting, as I do, but it is a Jewish interest webzine—that Obama may sound pro-Israel but his real views are tinged by hostility. (During the 2008 campaign, Obama took pains to denounce the argument of The Israel Lobby, while making clear he had not and would not read the scary book.)
What is the evidence, if any, for Smith’s claim about Walt’s influence? First he summarizes some of Walt’s ideas, mainly that the United States would do better to be an offshore balancer in the Mideast (rather as it was during the Cold War) than to maintain an visible and intrusive presence tied to its “special relationship” with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Walt also favors diplomacy to ramp down the hostility with Iran. And lo and behold, Smith discovers, citing an interview Obama gave to David Remnick in the New Yorker, Obama believes the same thing! Obama tells Remnick he favors a kind of equilibrium in the Persian Gulf, where the Sunni and Shi’ite countries balance each other out. Surely, Smith reasons, that’s more than a coincidence.
My reactions to Lee Smith’s claim are twofold: “Would that it were true!” and then, “Maybe, there’s something to this.” Steve Walt has no connection to the Obama White House, but he does have a blog at Foreign Policy and writes fairly incisive pieces about foreign policy on at least a weekly basis. I doubt the gap between Walt’s clarity of thought and persuasiveness of prose and that of his peers is as marked as that between George Kennan’s voice in 1946 and ’47 and others trying to make sense of American foreign policy at that time. But Walt is pretty compelling. Perhaps people in the White House read him. I hope so.
As further evidence of this imagined but not impossible connection, Lee Smith notes that Obama, apparently indifferent to the special relationship with Israel, has defeated or tried to sideline AIPAC on several issues. But Obama’s readiness to differ, from time to time, with AIPAC was not instigated by Steve Walt or John Mearsheimer. It likely existed when Obama was a University of Chicago law professor (and, later, an opponent of the Iraq War) and has subsequently been buttressed by countless voices from within the Jewish community—from J Street, to Peter Beinart, to the 58 prominent signers of a letter to New York mayor Bill de Blasio who said that AIPAC didn’t speak for them, to Jewish Voice for Peace, to a growing international feeling that unconditional support for right-wing Zionism does not reflect the best values of America or the West. At most, Walt and Mearsheimer provided an important international relations “realist” complement to a broader rising cultural sentiment.
Smith closes by inviting us to rue the consequences of Obama’s new realism. “Now let’s see how our new policy in the Middle East turns out for us and the people who live there,” he writes. Indeed, let’s see. But here Smith might also reflect upon that the reason Obama and others might be inclined to read and listen to Steve Walt, or others like him, or indeed why Obama was elected to begin with. It’s because a previous president took the counsel of Lee Smith and and his neoconservative allies, invaded Iraq, destroyed much of the country, displaced a million Iraqis, and left thousands of Americans dead or maimed for life, at a price tag which will in the end cost American taxpayers well more than a trillion dollars. We did see how that turned out. If we weren’t willing to try something different, we’d be crazy.