We will get, in due time, to Steve Walt’s noteworthy appearance at the “Committee for the Republic” — a Washington club comprised largely of dissenters from Bush’s foreign policy. Walt would be the most popular speaker the club has had since its formation some three years ago — and as result there would be no dinner so more chairs could be packed in. The unspoken subtext of the controversial Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel lobby” paper is that the “realist” Wasp establishment no longer runs American foreign policy, and if it did, America would have a more rational and even-handed attitude toward matters Mideast.
I pretty much agree with this view, but the interesting question is how and why it happened. My theory, which I hope to write about at length someday, is that it is linked to a decline of Wasp public spiritedness and a concomitant withdrawal to the pleasures of money and private life, epitomized most especially by the golf club.
So the Wasp golf obsession is part of the story of Wasp decline. To illustrate, I offer myself as an example. Instead of working yesterday, thinking of ways to advance the ball in the world of ideas, I went up to Woodmont Country Club in Rockville to watch sectional qualifying — 40 or so golfers vie for four spots in the U.S. Open, to be played at Winged Foot next week. (This is the event, held in about a dozen sites around the country, that Michelle Wie was also doing in New Jersey — she made the front page of the Times.)
I was happy to watch Carlos Franco in the morning — one of his playing partners, an amateur from West Virginia, shot a pretty embarrassing 87; the poor guy will carry the sad memory for the rest of his life — and Joey Sindelar shoot a spectacular 66 in the afternoon. Sindelar is friendly, late-40s, chatty, carries about 30 extra pounds, and hits long and straight. In sectional qualifying, there are no ropes, few spectators, and you can essentially walk along with the players and caddies. Joey needed at least one birdie in the last five (of 36) holes to make the cut; on Woodmont North’s #5, his 32nd hole, a 510-yard downhill and then uphill par five with a water hazard in the driver landing area, he reached the green with two one irons. I heard him discussing with second shot with his caddy, one iron or three wood, and the caddy told him to hit the one hard. He didn’t quite get all of it, complained all during the ball flight, and then broke into a big grin when the ball finally trickled onto the green. Few pros carry one irons anymore — they’ve been replaced by easier to hit hybrids — and in all my years of watching golf I’ve never heard of one being used twice in the same hole. (Old golf joke: you’re safe with a one iron if lightning strikes because not even God can hit a one iron.) This was my all-time favorite golf-spectating experience. Sindelar made the cut and will be playing at Winged Foot next week. I’ll be rooting for him.
That diversion perhaps illustrates in microcosm something about the senescence of the old establishment. For truth to tell, good as Steve Walt was yesterday evening, my main memories this morning are about Sindelar’s play.
At any rate, “the lobby” had, I think, hoped that Walt and Mearsheimer’s piece could buried under a pile of smears and abuse — it was clever of the New York Sun to ask David Duke’s opinion of it, so anyone who wanted to treat it as tainted could mention that, and it took up a lot of rhetorical space that might have been given to the merits of the actual piece. But praise be to the liberal establishment and the Left because after Phil Weiss in The Nation, Tony Judt in the New York Times, and Michael Massing in the New York Review of Books had treated the piece favorably, it essentially gave permission to the rest of the country (or that part interested in foreign policy ideas) to discuss it. Walt makes an excellent presentation, glib and precise, extremely moderate in his demeanor. At the Committee for the Republic he had a friendly audience, and it is testament to how much he and Mearsheimer have moved the ball that there is an “establishment” audience for something like this, a subject that might have been mere dinner table conversation five or ten years ago.
Walt is unsparing of George W. Bush, who has adopted Caligula’s foreign policy of not caring if they hate us so long as they fear us. He explained that his main intention was to start a discussion — it is seldom pointed out that though Israel is a rich country, we give it $500 per Israeli in aid a year, that the U.S. would have stopped the settlements long ago if the lobby was weaker, and that Israel would have been better off for it. I recall that former Kennedy and Johnson foreign policy aide George Ball made these points about 20 years ago when there were far fewer Israeli West Bank settlements and caused some ripples in the foreign-policy establishment but no further resonance. That is, of course, the problem: you may get a majority of foreign policy experts to agree that the Israel lobby distorts American policies, but there is no political follow through. Walt says that the guiding “moral” reason Americans might change their policies is self-interest — we would be a safer and more prosperous country with a more intelligent Mideast policy. But as one veteran writer for The Nation pointed out to me after the event, self-interest is likely to be defined by the people who give the biggest campaign contributions.
Walt radiates a kind of middle-of-the-road nice-guyness, and it is hard to dispute his view that if the United States had, in the aftermath of 9/11, devoted as much energy and resources to bringing about an Israeli-Palestinian settlement as it had to invading Iraq, its position in the world would be vastly better than it is now. This seems so obvious — and yet, sadly, it is really difficult to imagine any American government that would have taken that advice — not just Bush but anyone with a plausible chance of being president. Walt acknowledged that he would “whiff on three pitches” a question of how to expand the Mideast policy debate beyond the readers of the foreign-policy magazines. I certainly don’t know either. I once worked for a presidential candidate (my colleague Pat Buchanan) who had great communication skills and was very much committed to doing this, and, well, we know how that turned out.
For my part, it is more frustrating than satisfying to hear Steve Walt speak with subtlety and brilliance before an audience of 300 or so establishment Washingtonians. Walt and his co-author John Mearsheimer need bigger, younger audiences. They need to go on college speaking tours. They need to expand their paper into a book. (I have heard much speculation about whether any mainstream publisher will actually take the risk of signing up the authors of the most widely discussed magazine article in the past ten years, and a friend who is a book review editor at a big establishment publication thinks probably not.) They need to get on TV. But they are academics, believers that a well-modulated essay will slip into the cultural stream and actually change things. Perhaps so, but the change won’t come soon enough or dramatically enough.
Scott McConnell, editor of the American Conservative.