RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When two prominent American professors decided to research the U.S. relationship with Israel, their conclusions set off an intellectual and political firestorm.
John Mearsheimer, at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, at Harvard, published their latest research last month on a Harvard website and in the London Review of Books. It's an extensive work. The authors call it The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.
NPR's Deborah Amos reports that in the weeks since it was published, the uproar hasn't stopped.
DEBORAH AMOS reporting:
If there were a Cliff Notes version of the Walt-Mearsheimer paper, the key points would be these: U.S. support for Israel has been unwavering, but it is inconsistent with American interests.
The professors ask, "Why has the U.S. been willing to set aside its own security to advance the interest of another state?" Their answer is what they call the "unmatched power of the Israeli lobby." The authors state the lobby includes Americans in the Clinton administration, more in the Bush administration, along with Christian evangelicals, the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee, even editors at prominent American newspapers.
The professors' paper has set off a bitter and growing controversy with name-calling and worse. Mearsheimer and Walt said they expected criticism, but are surprised the attacks have become so personal. Both men say they will no longer comment publicly on their research and declined NPR's request for an interview.
A chorus of critics have charged the research is filled with sloppy scholarship and outright bigotry. Eliot Cohen is a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Professor ELIOT COHEN (Professor, School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University): The substance of the article was indeed anti-Semitic, and that was a controversial assertion and I'll stand by it.
AMOS: For Cohen, this was an attack on American Jews.
Professor COHEN: This was not an article about what America's policy should be in the Middle East. What it was, was fundamentally, I thought, an attack on the loyalty of American Jews.
AMOS: Cohen aired his views in The Washington Post.
Prof. COHEN: I resented it particularly bitterly because I've got a son who's a soldier and who's in Baghdad dodging bombs for our country. And to have anybody impugn my loyalty is just outrageous.
AMOS: Harvard University and the University of Chicago support Mearsheimer and Walt's right to publish. A classic case of academic freedoms, say University officials, although Harvard's Kennedy School removed its logo from the essay's cover page online.
The Kennedy School invited Harvard faculty to comment on the paper. Among the many responses was a fiery, 40-page critique by law professor Alan Dershowitz, comparing the study to the protocols of the elders of Zion, an historic anti-Semitic slur.
But there've been more substantive debates about some of the paper's most controversial claims. For example, quote, "The U.S. has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel." And on Iraq, the authors say, quote, "Pressure from Israel and the lobby was not the only factor behind the decision to attack Iraq, but it was critical."
Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, says the paper does have flaws. But he's assigned it to his University students for discussion.
Professor LARRY WILKERSON (Professor of Government, William and Mary): I think it contains a lot of the blinding--of what I call blinding flashes of the obvious; but, that said, blinding flashes of the obvious that people whispered in corners rather than said out loud at cocktail parties where someone else could hear you.
AMOS: Now, those whispers have become a full-throated shouting match. So, what will students learn?
Mr. NED WALKER (President, Middle East Institute): I went through the whole paper and I got something like 30-some odd points of contention. I think there's a lot of holes in this paper.
AMOS: Ned Walker, president of the Middle East Institute, a former U.S. ambassador in Egypt and Israel, says the analysis is flawed on the terrorism threat. It's not support for Israel that motivated Osama bin Laden to target the U.S., says Walker. Rather, it was U.S. support for the Saudi government. Walker bristles at the notion he, or any U.S. diplomat, put Israel ahead of U.S. interests.
Mr. WALKER: You know, I've lived through all the history that the two gentlemen were talking about, and I didn't recognize it. Not from the way they described it. And I was in government all this time.
AMOS: But Michael Scheuer says Mearsheimer and Walt are basically right. He's a former official at the Central Intelligence Agency, now a terrorism analyst at CBS News.
On an anti-war website, Scheuer wrote that every government tries to influence public opinion. Mearsheimer and Walt have described one of the most successful campaigns in the U.S., says Scheuer.
Mr. MICHAEL SCHEUER (Terrorism Analyst, CBS News): They should be credited for the courage they have had to actually present a paper on this subject. I hope they move on and do the Saudi lobby, which is probably more dangerous to the United States than the Israeli lobby.
AMOS: Mearsheimer and Walt are not experts on the Middle East. They are prominent foreign policy analysts and theorists: A-list scholars. They specialize in explaining how international politics works, which is why their latest research paper has gotten so much attention, including a debate in Europe and the Israeli media.
Paul Findley, a former Republican Congressman from Illinois, says the debate is long overdue.
Mr. PAUL FINDLEY (Former Republican Congressman, Illinois): You can't imagine how pleased I was. I think I can pose as a foremost expert on the lobby for Israel, because I was the target for about three years--the last three years I was in Congress.
AMOS: A target, says Findley, because he is a fierce critic of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. Findley's own lobby group has published a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for the Israeli lobby to be brought under control.
Mr. FINDLEY: The American people ought to know the facts about it. And I think the airing will be good for Israel and good for America.
AMOS: An airing too heated, too acrimonious to shed much light, says Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs Magazine.
Mr. GIDEON ROSE(Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs magazine): Unfortunately, Mearsheimer and Walt stated their case so strongly and over-broadly, that its produced the foreign policy equivalent of a cable TV shout-fest, in which they charge dual loyalty, essentially, and others charge anti-Semitism, and nobody gets educated about the actual issues involved.
AMOS: If the intention was to kick off a debate, it certainly has; a raging debate. As a check on Google shows, there are hundreds of postings. The only ones not talking are Professors Mearsheimer and Walt, who said to NPR, quote, "We certainly look forward to debating this issue. But at this time, we'd prefer to debate in print, and not on the air."
Deborah Amos, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: You can read the original paper that set off the debate, and some of the heated responses it evoked, at npr.org.