The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
WRM in Ha’aretz

Friday afternoon I was up in the rolling Dutchess County hunt country around Bard College meeting with students about their senior projects when a reporter from the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz called. We chatted for a while, and today I see that the reporter, Chemi Shalev, is running a story based on the interview on his blog.  You can read it all here.

As someone who both writes for the press and gets interviewed by the press, I have to say that the experience is sometimes a little weird. The kind of journalism I do is mostly commentary; I’m not usually trying to make news or advance a story. When daily newspaper journalists interview me, especially on topical issues, their perspective is often different.  In the Ha’aretz interview, it felt as if the reporter wanted me to say something critical of either Prime Minister Netanyahu or Aipac or President Obama because that, in the Israeli context, might be news: American Expert Blasts Israeli PM or whatever.

That’s not really what I want to do; if you read the interview carefully you may be able to see how the reporter is trying to nail me down and how I keep trying — not always successfully — to avoid something that would look like I’m either attacking or defending either a person like Prime Minister Netanyahu or an institution like Aipac.  In fact I think they both are sometimes right and sometimes wrong; they are also both very often misunderstood so that they get both praised and blamed for the wrong things.

In general, I track a little to the left of the Netanyahu government on issues like settlements; while I understand both the Zionist and national security reasons for the settlement movement, on balance I think the settlements (and especially the more remote and ideologically driven ones) are a minus for Israel rather than a plus. I also think that America’s interests are better served when Israel shows more flexibility at the bargaining table than Prime Minister Netanyahu often displays. Those are my personal views, and they haven’t changed much since the 1980s. They make a lot of sense to me from an American point of view; perhaps if I were an Israeli, I’d think differently.

What I wanted to say about the two leaders, and what I hope came through in the interview is this: President Obama had been poorly advised and made some bad calls in 2011; he seems to have learned from that experience and managed Netanyahu’s most recent visit much more effectively. Netanyahu also seems to understand that his goal isn’t scoring points against President Obama in some kind of contest. With both leaders having a better idea how to proceed, the 2012 visit went much more smoothly and more business got done than a year ago.

More generally, I tried to make the point that the Israeli goal isn’t and shouldn’t be to manipulate US political rivalries to bring “pro-Israel” Republicans to power.  First, I doubt very much that Israel could achieve such a thing. Second, not just in Israel US relations but in any international relationship, you want to have strong relations with all the major political forces in another country. It’s a strategic defeat for Israel if the Israeli alliance becomes a party question in the US, just as the US doesn’t want our foreign allies to be torn domestically over relations with the US. This is simple IR 101, it’s not a criticism of anybody in Israel or the US. The Republicans might want to make Israel a partisan issue in the US as a way of suggesting that the Democrats are anti-Israel and therefore weak, pro-Arab and un-American, but that is something no smart Israeli diplomat would want to touch.

It’s complicated to write opinion journalism in your own country; it’s even harder when it spills over into other countries.  I’m not particularly partisan in American politics; I remain registered as a Democrat but much of what Democrats do doesn’t enthuse me and since I’m not interested in becoming deputy assistant undersecretary or even Grand Poohbah in some future administration I see no reason to assume a partisanship that I don’t feel.

When it comes to other countries, I am even less interested in taking stands. I have no idea how I would vote in an Israeli election, for example. I don’t follow the ins and outs of Israeli domestic politics well enough to know whose tax policies or water policies or housing policies I would support. In French politics, I have no idea whether I’d vote for Sarkozy or Hollande in the upcoming election; again, what I’m interested in about French politics as an American bears only a tangential relationship to the things that matter most about France to the French.

Back when I was the Kissinger fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, this was a much bigger problem. People overseas (especially in countries without a well developed think tank culture) often assumed that somebody from such a well known and well funded organization was speaking at least semi-officially. I got into the habit of walking on eggshells when it came to talking about foreign leaders and foreign politics and when, as I usually do a couple of times a year, I go on lecture tours for the State Department, I try to be very careful about taking sides in other peoples’ disputes. (I’ve been doing these tours since Bill Clinton was in the White House, and stepped up the commitment after 9/11. It’s not a partisan program and I try to help foreigners understand American politics and policy rather than telling them what I think is right or wrong about the administration in power.  These days, I tell them to look on the blog if they want to know my personal opinions.)

So an interview like this is a tricky thing for me; I’m more comfortable when reporters are seeking me out to give them historical or political background about events rather than making snap judgments about who is right, who is wrong, and who is to blame. But Israel is a very political place and this is an unusually fraught time there, so I understand why Chemi asked the questions he did. Ha’aretz is generally considered to be an anti-Netanyahu paper; that made the whole dance a little trickier.

Making things worse is that to the (very) limited extent my name has been dragged into Israeli politics, Prime Minister Netanyahu started it.  He is reported to have read from one of my blog posts (this one) at a cabinet meeting following his 2011 trip to Washington; that means that any criticisms I would have of him now might be especially tasty for his d0mestic critics. I wasn’t interesting in supporting him then; I am not interested in attacking him now.

Someday maybe I will perfect the art of compressing incredibly complex ideas into elegant sound bites so that my responses to newspaper interviews will be gnomic and paradoxical: like Yoda talking to Luke Skywalker or the Buddha addressing his disciples. Henry Kissinger seems particularly good at this, but the oracle at Delphi nailed it better than anyone before or since. “Let Athens trust in her wooden walls.” “If you go to war, a great empire will be destroyed.”

Until I get in closer touch with my inner oracle, I’ll continue to give interviews from time to time, but hope that people who really want to know what I think — in all its frustrating ambivalence or, as the French and John Kerry would put it, nuance — will follow me here at the blog or check out my books and my articles.

Published on March 11, 2012 12:20 pm
  • Michael Foley

    It’s nice to read political opinion that is informative, intelligent and non- self- serving…..

  • Anthony

    “U.S. President Barack Obama is capable of ordering a military attack on Iran, but the U.S. would probably prefer to yield to Israel if it was convinced that it (Israel) could get the job done” (Ha’aretz – Chemi Shalev).

    WRM, your quote is lead paragraph in Chemi’s article and thus sets tone for implicit point of view. Nevertheless, realism posits that it makes good sense for States to selfishly pursue their own interest (power) vis-a-vis other States. Now given West of Eden’s interpretation, it remains to be seen if realpolitik follows national security interests…

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    “I also think that America’s interests are better served when Israel shows more flexibility at the bargaining table”

    Just what kind of flexibility would you like to see? In terms of a final offer that goes beyond Oslo?

    Or are you thinking more in terms of the way Israel administers the West Bank, treats its Arab citizens, fails to reign in outrageous behavior on the part of ultra-orthodox settlers in the West Bank, and other “interim” issues?

  • Ph D student

    With all due respect professor, your knowledge of Israel and the conflict seems too minimal. Last years we were assigned the following piece. As long as it is, I would suggest to read both of its parts as well as the appendixes:

    http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13600826.2011.577031

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @PhD student: One characteristic of grad students is to suppose that those who disagree with them are ignorant, and that ignorance can be cured by reading some particularly significant long article “as well as the appendixes.” It’s almost always a mistake to think that way, and graduate students in particular should beware of assuming that those with different points of view know less than they do. Perhaps your remark that I am ignorant was intended charitably — you think I am pigheaded and were being polite by referring to a lack of information rather than a character flaw. If so, I thank you for the gesture. Enjoy your studies.

  • Mark Berlind

    I’ve become an avid reader/follower of Prof Mead’s work over the past year, and this is my first post.

    Something really struck me about the Ha’aretz piece: Going back to yesterday’s typically cogent analysis of the fall of Detroit, WRM says with pointed clarity that “When American cities embraced the high cost, high regulation statist model two generations or so ago, they were often the richest and most dynamic places in the country. Increasingly “progressive” policies, with higher wages for unionized teachers, bigger bureaucracies enforcing tighter regulations, more “planning” by qualified technocrats and more government services and benefits to improve the quality of residents’ lives were supposed to take the American city into a new golden age. It’s hard to think of many social experiments that have more disastrously failed.”

    Today, in contrast and somewhat to my surprise in light of your consistently deft skewering of the Blue Model, we learn that you’re a registered Democrat (albeit “not a particularly partisan one”).

    Which raises the question of why?? I know painfully well what Bozos the Republicans are all too often (I personally register with neither side), but I’m genuinely curious to know what remains of the policies pursued by Democrats that would cause WRM to retain even residual loyalty to them; from everything I can see, except at the margins on a few social issues, those policies are pushing the country every-more relentlessly into decline, and WRM’s well-founded optimism regarding America’s ability to overcome those policies will only be rewarded if our politics trend in a more conservative, flexible, smaller-government direction.

    Respectfully submitted idea for a future WRM post: reasons to remain even nominally Democrat-leaning in the context of the unraveling of the Blue Model.

  • Kris

    Tsk, one can tell you are more of an academic than a journalist; I have rarely seen such an egregious case of burying the lede. The big headline should have been: “WRM gets Haaretz to print pro-Netanyahu material!” This is a miracle of quasi-Biblical proportions. Your interviewer’s undoubted fate will strike terror even in the hearts of your cowering interns.

    ut I am disappointed at the absence of “red-headed stepchild.”

    “the Israeli goal isn’t and shouldn’t be to manipulate US political rivalries to bring ‘pro-Israel’ Republicans to power”

    Besides IR 101, there is also the fact that US Jews are (still) very much Democrat.

    Regarding Iran, Israel could be tempted to make a quasi-desultory attack on Iran (or more likely, be less worried about the odds of success of an attack), with the specific intention of getting Iran to retaliate against American targets and thus draw the US in. Now this could get me resentful as an American, but then, if Iran is so foolhardy and unable to constrain itself, that just strengthens the arguments of the Bomb Iran crowd.

  • Kris

    Alternate headline: “Walter ‘Balaam’ Mead”

  • http://thepencilofnature.net Lorenz Gude

    Netanyahu on Charlie Rose once told a story about getting the size of the public and private sectors right as the key to economic success. It involved a race between a small man trying to carry a large man on his back as a metaphor for what happens when the public sector gets too large. It seems to me that the way the US has handled the financial crisis is basically working – and as many of my leftist friends have said the response of the Bush administration and the Obama administration was very consistent. I think both administrations worked hard to save the banking system and it has worked pretty well in that it has kept the economy going. Europe has not fixed its banking and indeed may pull the US down in the long term. I think the stimulus has been more dubious, but as much as I agree with the Tea party that the size of the public sector has to shrink it seems obvious to me you just can’t restructure the economy overnight without massive disruption. An odd example. I noticed last year on I95 in South Florida that there were 5 kinds of police cars on the road in a 15 mile stretch. I’m sure they were all doing something, but I am not sure we can afford it. It will take time to unwind that sort of thing that has built up during more prosperous times in a way that doesn’t cause chaos. But it can be done. I had a friend who served in the Royal Navy in WW2 and they discovered that they were launching only one plane in the time the US Navy could launch four. Once the American trainers got going he quickly noticed that most of his previous training had been in how to tie critical knots upon which the victory at Trafalger had depended.

  • Mr. Neal

    I wish all commentatores were as serious and cautious as Prof. Mead….

  • Jim.

    @Lorenz Gude:

    “as much as I agree with the Tea party that the size of the public sector has to shrink it seems obvious to me you just can’t restructure the economy overnight without massive disruption.”

    Good point. On the other hand, by now there has been some time for people to prepare for the inevitable cuts.

    Those cuts need to start becoming reality, before the debts become any more overwhelming.