Stephen Walt, the “Israel Lobby” paper, and Academic Freedom


I am going to obscure the names in the vignette I’m about to share to protect folks who don’t deserve harrassment.
Once I had a brilliant young fellow at the New America Foundation, now a prominent national journalist, who wrote about the subject of “hero inflation” in America. He wrote an op-ed which appeared in the Boston Globe that stated that the firemen who died in the 9/11 attacks in New York were not really heroes in the true sense of the term.
In a nanosecond, this young, charismatic writer was invited on to Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox. O’Reilly didn’t demolish him overtly; he did it in a grand-fatherly way grinning through the interview that he couldn’t believe that this young writer was sticking to his guns.
But for those rubbed the wrong way by this story, know that there were many who agreed with you. I was in Tokyo when the piece appeared and literally had hundreds of emails from fire brigades in my in box — preparing to protest at the New America Foundation’s offices. I was able to secure someone who was heading the fire brigade email campaign and make a case to him about intellectual freedom that seemed to make sense to him — and he told his troops to stand down.
I empathized with those who felt the writer had been insensitve and in some ways wrong. My own father died while active duty in the U.S. Air Force and had many friends who were firefighters, one in Bayonne, NJ — very near to the New York action. They are heroes in my book — but nonetheless, I got what this young writer was trying to say.
The bigger point is that any institution that doesn’t take risks isn’t worth its existence. And in any risk-taking environment, there will be flops and successes. Embrace the flops, the miscasts, the mistakes. It’s part of succeeding next time.
I looked at the article as both a flop, of sorts, but also — on a different level — as a successful example of creative, out of the box thinking that was supposed to be going on at the New America Foundation — and this writer deserved to be protected, supported, given some counseling on “framing”, but immediatley launched out again to be a constructive provocateur in the public policy world. If we had censored him, or censored any other of our staff, our organization would have lost one of the key points of differentiation in a very crowded marketplace of Washington, DC think tanks.
Somehow, the fire brigades appreciated the honest response, got the “risk-taking” metaphor offered them, and seemed to be OK that we would chat with and counsel the writer — but that he would not be fired.
Now John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt — both distinguished, globally respected public intellectuals — the former at the University of Chicago and the latter at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government — are under serious pressure and attack from some quarters for a controversial study that they have done on the Israel lobby in America.
I am not meaning to suggest that their paper is either a flop or great success — yet. But their paper does provoke — about that there is no disagreement.
I remember when Pat Choate‘s book, Agents of Influence, came out documenting in great detail Japan’s heavy investment in Washington’s lobbying machinery. The book was just as controversial — and Choate had a very hard time getting speaking gigs at Japan-related public affairs organizations in the United States. I ran the Japan America Society of Southern California at the time and organized the first event for Pat Choate at such a US-Japan outfit in the U.S.
Interestingly, Choate provided a roster of other nations and their lobbyists in D.C. in the appendix of his book.
Those of you who have it around, take a look at it. Israel is not in the list.
Why you might ask? Pat Choate’s perfectly understandable response to me was that he had enough grief with the Japan dimensions of the book as it was.
I have not yet had the time to fully digest the Walt/Mearsheimer paper. My friend and colleague “Daniel Levy has, and Justin Raimondo has as of this morning.
There are other critiques out there, and I encourage those interested to look at all of them, but also read the paper itself so that the lens through which you decide to read the Walt/Mearshemer article is more your own than someone else’s.
Richard Beeston at The Australian has reported that:

It has confirmed that Stephen Walt, the co-author of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, will be stepping down in June as academic dean of the prestigious John F. Kennedy School of Government to become an ordinary professor.

Justin Raimondo has taken the above reference and asserted that Stephen Walt has paid the price of his “academic deanship” at the Kennedy School for the piece:

The reaction to the Harvard University study by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” has been fury by the Lobby and its partisans — and a demotion for Walt, who, it was announced shortly after the paper’s release, would be stepping down from his post as dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government. As the New York Sun reports (via the Harvard Crimson):
“Yesterday’s issue of The New York Sun reported that an ‘observer’ familiar with Harvard said that the University had received calls from ‘pro-Israel donors’ concerned about the KSG paper. One of the calls, the source told The Sun, was from Robert Belfer, a former Enron director who endowed Walt’s professorship when he donated $7.5 million to the Kennedy School’s Center for Science and International Affairs in 1997. ‘Since the furor, Bob Belfer has called expressing his deep concerns and asked that Stephen not use his professorship title in publicity related to the article,’ the source told The Sun.”

And since Raimondo’s piece went up — my email inbox has been packed by people saying that something must be done to rally in support of Stephen Walt. Perhaps, but people need to be careful.
I communicate with Stephen Walt semi-regularly and share many of his views about American foreign policy, but I have not communicated with him today about this news that he is being demoted from his position as “Academic Dean” allegedly because of the provocative paper he has co-authored.
Now, I have just received the following communication sent by the Dean of the Kennedy School suggesting that there is no connection between Walt’s stepping down as academic dean at the natural end of his term and this “Israel Lobby” paper.
The Dean writes:

31 March 2006
To Members of the Kennedy School Community:
Many of you may be aware that Steve Walt and University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer have written a paper titled “The Israel Lobby,” which appeared in the London Review of Books. Steve also posted a somewhat longer and more academic version of the piece as a working paper on the Kennedy School web site. The paper has generated a great deal of controversy and significant coverage in the press around the world.
Throughout this episode, I have sought to be driven by one principle above all others: maintain academic freedom for our scholars and our school. Such freedom is one of the most fundamental tenets of universities. I believe we all have a responsibility to stand up for that freedom, and I will fight hard to preserve it here at the Kennedy School. In the long tradition of the University, faculty members are free to publish and speak out on any important issue; others can and will respond vigorously.
Kennedy School faculty members have the right to post working papers in order to facilitate discussion by scholars and others. These papers must be academic in form, with appropriate use of footnotes and sourcing. The school does not make judgments about the content of working papers before posting. Academic work is best judged in the serious give and take of intellectual and scholarly debate. That debate is already underway with this paper, and some members of our faculty have spoken out on the issue. The significance of all work must be judged in the marketplace of ideas, not by the administration of the school.
Some have asked whether Steve’s status as academic dean has any impact on this issue. We expect and hope that academic deans will carry on a rich intellectual life as Steve has, and as his predecessors did. Although some in the media have made much of his administrative position to raise the profile of this story and add to the controversy, Steve was clearly writing as an individual professor, not in any official capacity here at the school. His academic dean title did not appear in the credits. And even though everyone here at the school has known for many months that Steve’s term as academic dean was coming to an end this summer, some media, in spite of our strong efforts, have chosen to portray the timing as significant. That is flat wrong and unfair.
There have been numerous false reports that this paper was written by two Harvard authors and that it was somehow an official document vetted and published by Harvard University. In part at Steve’s suggestion and with the goal of pushing the discussion back into the realm of scholarly debate, the school strengthened its disclaimer and removed the logo from the cover page to clarify that this was not an official Kennedy school document. It is in absolutely no way a judgment about the paper, and the goal was to put the focus where it belongs: on the ideas expressed by two well-known international relations scholars.
Recently Alan Dershowitz of the Harvard Law School sent a request we had never received before. He had written a direct response to the paper and wished the courtesy of having it posted on our web site as well. After discussing this situation with Joe Nye and others, I concluded that this request should also be evaluated in the context of academic freedom and vigorous open debate. We are, after all, one university. Thus under appropriate circumstances, I have agreed to let faculty from other schools at Harvard post responses to any Kennedy School faculty working paper. These will be available in a special Harvard response section, which will make clear that they are not the work of Kennedy School authors. I put my faith in the value of the free and open exchange of ideas.
I know that many of you have strong feelings about this recent work and perhaps about how the school has or has not handled the situation. These issues will be widely discussed — evidence of the very academic freedom and vigorous response that is so fundamental to our work. Still we must try not to let our ideas and reactions divide us or distract us from our larger mission. It is far too important a time in the world to allow that to happen. We must work together as one community and one school. And we will do that best with free, open, and energetic debate.
David T. Ellwood

So, terminated by disguise? or just coincidental?
To put this in some kind of context, consider the case of our current President and his father’s national security advisor, General Brent Scowcroft.
Brent Scowcroft was not asked back by President G.W. Bush to serve another term as Chairman of the President’s Federal Intelligence Oversight Board when his term expired on December 31, 2004. At a New Year’s luncheon at Zbigniew Brzezinski’s home, Scowcroft reportedly told those assembled that “The President fired me.”
I asked Scowcroft about the PFIAB “firing” on January 6, 2005, and he theatrically declined to comment, but his meaning was clear — and everyone in the room knew it.
Here is the exchange from the above linked transcript:

Steve Clemons to Brent Scowcroft:
There is a lot of interest about your role, or the end of your role, on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Any comments on health of institution?
Brent Scowcroft:
No (said dramatically; laughter from crowd)

Scowcroft felt he had been fired by President Bush because of criticisms of the Bush administration’s management of U.S. foreign policy.
Now, Stephen Walt should be making clear whether he “feels” fired from his position, or “demoted” as Justin Raimondo framed it. Perhaps yes — or perhaps no.
But what is important in this debate — no matter how strongly Walt and Mearsheimer’s advocates and critics want to plead their cases — is that it is critically important to not send signals that America’s leading universities are bastions of thought control and censorship.
If Walt was planning to step down under normal conditions — and not be renewed — then the Kennedy School Dean’s letter is very fair….but it’s also important not just to send a communication to students and faculty at the Kennedy School but to do something to stand by the right of Stephen Walt to think and publish his work.
When the Toyota-funded “Japan Chair” was established many years ago at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, I wrote an op-ed asking whether that Toyota Japan Chair at CSIS would ever “consider” hiring Chalmers Johnson — one of the leading authorities on Japan in the U.S. but also the then-acknowledged “godfather of revisionists” on Japan.
I wasn’t asking CSIS to hire Johnson — but to keep institutions safe, the hiring of a Chalmers Johnson acolyte needed to be considered. If the answer was no, then the financing of the CSIS chair was not worth the sacrifice of moral and intellectual integrity that it would entail.
Let’s hope that in its Deanships and its various Chairs, the Kennedy School does not go down that road.
More on the substance of the Mearsheimer/Walt paper another time — but in the mean time — people need to sort out what is real from what is not.
And I hope that this piece finds itself to Stephen Walt who will send me a note on whether he feels “fired” or not for airing his views and research.
— Steve Clemons