Walt and Mearsheimer Misinterpreted

I believe Stephen D. Fried’s account of the addresses made by Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer (“Why the U.S. and Israel Are Strong Allies,” Oct. 23, 2007) misrepresents all the points they actually made in the CIS STARR Forum on Oct. 3. In fact, his report was so substantially different from my recollection of their speeches that I had to doublecheck the names of the speakers to make sure that the article was actually referring to the same event as I had attended. When I further reviewed the video of the event (available online at http://web.mit.edu/cis/starr.html) to see if there were comments that I had missed, I was surprised to find out how explicitly the speakers had discussed and denied some of the viewpoints Fried ascribes to them.

Let me give a brief outline of what Walt and Mearsheimer actually stated in the STARR Forum. They first presented evidence for the existence of an influential interest group that lobbies in favor of certain U.S. policies towards the Middle East. They described most of the efforts made by such groups as “legitimate forms of political engagement” and rejected the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories which take the role of these groups to an unreasonable extreme. Nevertheless, they expressed concern about the difficulty of openly discussing and questioning these policies in the American political sphere. They went on to argue that many of these policies have a negative impact, and tried to provide evidence for their claim.

Mr. Fried, on the other hand, starts by summarizing Walt and Mearsheimer’s position as simply an argument “that support of Israel is not an American interest.” This is worse than a mis-interpretation — it’s simply not true. Walt and Mearsheimer were absolutely clear that their criticism is toward the “unconditional” or “one-sided” nature of U.S. support for Israel. They are not against supporting Israel as a general principle, but rather, criticize the unilateral way in which the U.S. has implemented this support.

By analogy, supporting a friend does not require that you agree with every single thing that your friend does — and only a completely black-and-white view of friendship would take nuanced disagreement as a blanket denial of support for your friend.

Fried then goes on to describe Walt and Mearsheimer’s thesis as: “Israel’s security is ultimately not of immediate concern to the United States.” This statement is an even more extreme distortion of their views. One of Walt and Mearsheimer’s criticisms of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is that America’s unconditional support, in the long run, has not been in Israel’s own interest. How can one reconcile that with the claim that they reject the importance of Israel’s interest in the eyes of US? Walt and Mearsheimer explicitly stated in their address that “US should come to Israel’s aid if its survival is ever in jeopardy.”

Nevertheless, Fried insists on implying that Walt and Mearsheimer would not care to save Jewish lives in historical situations such as those of Auschwitz 1944 or Sudan 1984. He elaborates on this point and calls them neo-realists who believe that “America’s national interests supercede any moral imperative or ethical conscience.” He even extrapolates their viewpoints so far as to assume that they are against U.S. intervention in Darfur, trying to stir up moral outrage. I would expect someone as concerned with moral issues as Fried to be more aware of the ethical implications of making ungrounded accusations.

I cannot help seeing Fried’s column as unfair, if not outright offensive. While I commend Mr. Fried’s passion for the American ideals of “democracy, free-market economy, free press, and Western-styled civil rights,” I also believe that our faith in specific values should not impede us from genuinely listening to other people’s ideas and evaluating them without a priori judgment.

If we cannot practice such an attitude in an academic environment, it is hard to expect the public to do so in the outside world. In particular, when it comes to such a controversial and sensitive subject, where emotional biases can easily overcome analytical arguments, we should be more cautious — it is so easy to form negative ideas about people without even learning what they have to say. Walt and Mearsheimer’s talk, like many other such events on campus, can be starting points for constructive and educational discussions here at MIT, as long as we make sincere efforts toward that end.

Danial Lashkari is a graduate student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.