November 21, 2018

An Open Letter to Harvard’s Stephen Walt

At an Aug. 28 Washington forum hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Stephen Walt of Harvard University’s Kennedy Center and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago expanded on their paper “The Israel Lobby,” first published as a faculty working research paper at Harvard.
That paper charged supporters of Israel with undue influence on American policy. At the forum, the two accused Israel of working in concert with the U.S. government to find a pretext for war with Hezbollah.

Reports of the forum prompted Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, a former student of Walt’s, to pen this letter to his one-time mentor.

Dear Steve:

I’ve been meaning to write you since I read your and John Mearsheimer’s paper, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” Coincidentally (or,
perhaps in your view, not coincidentally), I read your paper on the plane on the way back from a policy conference in Israel this spring. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We met when I was an undergraduate in the mid-1980s at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. You were an up-and-coming assistant professor of politics, a devotee of Berkeley professor Ken Waltz’s realist school of international politics. I looked to you as one of my intellectual and career mentors. We were both influenced by Mearsheimer, who at the time had published important work on the balance of conventional forces in Europe.

As you may recall, I focused on superpower arms control. You looked over my shoulder for my junior paper on SALT I and for my senior thesis on verification policy (to this day, I wish I had taken your advice and written instead about former U.S. negotiator Paul Nitze).

When I left Princeton, you recommended MIT’s political science Ph.D. program to me — and me to them. While I deferred my entry there (and later opted for law school instead), you and I spent countless hours together in Washington, D.C., during your sabbatical engaged in a running critique of the Reagan administration’s ideologically driven foreign policy initiatives.

If I had to distill the many lessons you taught me about international political analysis over the years, they would come down to this — be rational. Focus on interests, not ideology. Be logical, and don’t be swayed by partisanship, emotions or hidden agendas.

It was thus with great dismay that I read your and professor Mearsheimer’s paper. It has by now been well explored and debunked elsewhere. For example, Dennis Ross has explained the paper’s many foreign policy misconceptions (“The Mind-Set Matters,” Foreign Policy, July/August 2006), while Eliot Cohen has explained how the paper’s “obsessive beliefs about Jews” are consistent with anti-Semitism (“Yes, It’s Anti-Semitic,” Washington Post, April 5, 2006). I will only add that the paper came as a tremendous disappointment to this former student, because you and professor Mearsheimer so clearly neglected the lessons you taught me about academic rigor.

To take just one example, you suggest that radical Islamic terrorists would be less likely to attack the United States if we reduced our level of support for Israel. This fundamentally misapprehends the causes and goals of global jihadism. As Lawrence Wright demonstrates in “The Looming Tower,” terrorists such as Osama Bin-Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were radicalized principally in reaction to moderate Arab governments, such as Egypt. Indeed, these religiously motivated terrorists’ main goal is to institute strict Islamic governments in the nations where Islam currently and previously flourished, establishing a caliphate stretching from China to Spain.

Do these terrorists also wish to destroy Israel? Sure. Is U.S. support for Israel the reason we find ourselves in their cross-hairs? Far from it — indeed, Bin-Laden and Al-Zawahiri largely ignored the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years, due to the Palestinians’ track record (until recently) of secular leadership.

Yet on account of my respect for you, I was still considering filing all of these academic differences under the category of “let’s agree to disagree” — until last month, when you made it personal.

According to the Washington Post, you and professor Mearsheimer headlined an event last month sponsored by a Muslim group with a spotty record for objectivity. The Post noted that you singled out Jewish administration officials for having “attachments” that drive their views on American foreign policy.
Steve, I want you to understand what a tremendous insult this is. With your strong personal encouragement, I have gone on to a career in our nation’s service. In 20 years, I have served in each of the three branches of the federal government, at times in sensitive positions, and have twice been elected locally. I have continued my focus on national security issues and now devote much of my efforts to homeland security and local preparedness.

Do I, as an American Jew, have to look over my shoulder at you the rest of my career, wondering when the day will come when you question my loyalty? When will I say or do something that you will determine emanates from my “attachments” and not from the skill sets you helped me develop?

Steve, just what academic rigor do you employ before leveling charges of disloyalty against fellow Americans?

And then I reached the penultimate line of the Post article: “Before leaving for an interview with Al Jazeera, Mearsheimer accepted a button proclaiming ‘Walt & Mearsheimer Rock. Fight the Israel Lobby.'”

Steve, I will proudly continue my public and intellectual pursuits in the manner you taught me two decades ago. Please let me know when you are again ready to practice what you used to preach.

Jack Weiss is a Los Angeles city councilman.