After article was rejected and publishers yawned, Walt and Mearsheimer dropped ‘The Israel Lobby’ in 2005

The authors of The Israel Lobby went on Chicago radio station WBEZ last week to reflect on their achievement after ten years. No, not 60 Minutes. Not The New York Times. Not MSNBC. But WBEZ radio.

It is a great interview by Jerome McDonnell about a stupendous achievement. As I wrote ten years ago, this book is up there with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, as a bombshell that will help transform society.

Below are some choice bits from the interview.

Publication ruined both men’s chances to serve in government or in university administration. Mearsheimer:

I had no interest whatsoever in a government position. But I did think that when we wrote the piece, that it would mean that we would never get a high level government position. Even medium level government position. It would also make it almost impossible for us to get any meaningful administrative job in the academic world.

Mearsheimer was then 59 years old and in Chicago. But Steve Walt was a sprightly 50 and on I-95, on the Harvard springboard to presidential elbows. The book forever changed his horizon:

I was academic dean in the Kennedy School. I think it’s fair to say that both universities did stand by us in the sense that they didn’t put any formal censure on us. There were various ways of what you might call informal marginalization at least for a while, because the leaderships in both universities were very nervous about the fallout. Universities don’t really like controversy very much.

I did understand that this was probably going to eliminate any possibility of government service in my case, which is  something I do regret, because it’s something I would have appreciated, had that opportunity presented itself at some point down the road.

Walt went on to say that they had to do it. “If we weren’t willing to do that, then hardly anybody else would be. We couldn’t lose our jobs. We didn’t necessarily need government employment to pay the mortgage.”

The two men actually gave up on the article and book years before it was published because doors kept closing. Here is some of the history.

Mearsheimer spoke about the idea first at the American Political Science Association meetings in Boston in 2002; and a friend said the Atlantic wanted to commission an article on that very subject. The Atlantic magazine assigned Walt and Mearsheimer in 2002. Then it got cold feet and killed the piece in early 2005. At that time, Walt said, the two scholars thought that no other outlet in the United States would publish it, but they could flesh it out as a “short book,” so they consulted a “number” of publishers and a couple of literary agents.

We got what you would call polite interest but nothing you could call enthusiasm. At one point we basically decided to drop the project entirely.

Jesus H. Christ.

After that, though, an editor who had a copy of the piece showed it to a scholar at UCLA who reached out to Mearsheimer and said the London Review of Books might be interested. The LRB version was eventually published in March 2006, and “provoked an immediate firestorm,” Walt said.

Ironically once it provoked that firestorm, suddenly publishers and literary agents recognized that there was a product people were interested in and suddenly they were contacting us and offering us book contracts.

Mearshimer said it was the internet that published that piece as much as the LRB:

The internet was indispensable for making this article available to people all over the world. If this had been published in the London Review of Books in 1985 or 1990 when there was no internet, hardly anybody would have taken notice. But in the age of the internet, this article just ricocheted all over the world very, very quickly.

Rashid Khalidi at Columbia University told me that the morning after the piece had hit the internet, 14 different people had sent him a link for the piece. It was such a big bombshell.

Now here is the sad conclusion. Mearsheimer:

I don’t think we– or anyone else– has  had much influence on policy. I think the lobby is still as powerful as ever. It’s now more out in the open, and that’s not necessarily a good thing for a lobby, but it’s still remarkably effective. This is why you saw all those Republicans falling all over themselves in the 2016 Republican primaries to say how devoted they were to Israel, because they understand that you don’t want to cross the lobby.

Or to put that another way: This interview was not on 60 Minutes, MSNBC, or the New York Times!

The authors deal with the fact that the lobby failed on the Iran deal. They never said that the lobby could not be defeated; but that delivering a defeat would require spending a lot of political capital, as President Obama did. And P.S. the lobby isn’t finished with the Iran deal!


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