from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Grading Mearsheimer

January 27, 2014

Blog Post

When I was at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I enrolled in a seminar on the revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe with Professor Michael Mandelbaum.  The Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and Czecholsolvakia were not quite my thing, but the course was an interesting diversion from the Middle East and it was topical (this was 1994).  When Mandelbaum—who is now a friend and mentor—returned my first paper, he scratched along the bottom of the last page, “Your conclusions are surely correct, but you make a series of dubious assertions along the way.”  I had the same reaction when I read John J. Mearsheimer’s recent contribution to The National Interest, “America Unhinged.”

Without spoiling the plot for those who intend to read the piece, Mearsheimer argues that because the United States is so strong and that its margin for error so great, nothing constrains the country’s national security elites from pursuing a reckless foreign policy.  Despite this strength and apparently wide margin for error, this misguided foreign policy—based on the idea of American exceptionalism—has serious consequences: for Washington’s standing in the world, for the U.S. economy, for the young men and women who have fought two misbegotten wars in the Middle East, and for a liberal-democratic system.  Mearsheimer prefers an approach to the world that focuses solely on securing America’s interests—the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, ensuring that China that does not dominate Asia and the pacific, and preventing another great power from establishing hegemony over Europe .  Everything else is an unnecessary distraction that, given Washington’s penchant for neo-conservatism and liberal interventionism, just gets the United States into trouble.

Before I go on let’s stipulate that Mearsheimer is a polarizing figure.  Let’s also stipulate that he is one of the most important theorists of international politics of the last three decades or more.  Long before he collaborated with Stephen M. Walt on The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, he wrote such influential works as “The False Promise of International Institutions” and The Tragedy of Great Power Politics among many other significant works.  Mearsheimer has a reputation for being tough, arrogant, and unapologetic about both, yet all his graduate students whom I know, former or present, would lay down in traffic for him.  I read The Israel Lobby and the article that preceded it.  Mearsheimer and Walt got some facts wrong, but in the main I shrugged.  I liked J.J. Goldberg’s far more complex and nuanced look at pro-Israel groups in his book, Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment better.  I do not think that Mearsheimer and Walt are anti-Semites, though they are willfully blind and thus insensitive to the dilemmas of Jewish identity in the diaspora and the fraught relationship that American Jews have with Israel.

Whether you like Mearsheimer or you hate him, there is no denying that he is always interesting, which is why I read his work.  He writes to make people think, even if what he says makes them uncomfortable. That is what academics and public intellectuals are supposed to do, yet their arguments are also supposed to be grounded in reality.  Not so with good portions of "America Unhinged" and its description of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, especially Egypt and Syria.  It is true that much of the American foreign policy establishment believes Egypt and Syria are of strategic importance, but there is far less agreement than Mearsheimer asserts that there are “compelling moral reasons for U.S. involvement in Syria,” even less agreement that Washington can “affect Egyptian and Syrian politics in significant and positive ways” and thus no agreement that unless the United States fixes the problems of these countries great harm will come to American interests.  For Mearsheimer, these issues are settled and they have produced once again a reckless and aggressive policy in the Middle East.

I could be wrong, but it seems clear from the newspapers of record, the leading foreign policy journals, opinion magazines, a seemingly endless number of meetings between the analytic community and government officials, and the roster of Congressional hearings that where Mearsheimer imagines a consensus, there is actually a heated and bruising debate.  Washington these days is hardly reminiscent of 2002 when the “cakewalk consensus” carried the country merrily and irresponsibly into the invasion of Iraq.

Not only is Mearsheimer making dubious assertions about this alleged consensus, but his article is also at variance with the facts of Washington’s Egypt and Syria policies.  There has been a lot of criticism of the way the United States has approached Egypt since the January 25, 2011 uprising that brought Hosni Mubarak down, but few would argue that Washington has sought to “micromanage Egypt’s transition,” as Mearsheimer claims.  Even fewer—with the possible exception of various spokesmen for the Muslim Brotherhood—would make the claim that the Obama administration “facilitated” the July 3 coup d’etat.  Instead, Washington has essentially surfed the news cycles and accommodated itself to outcomes that Egyptians produced entirely on their own—the fall of Mubarak, the election of Morsi, and the return of the military.  It seems clear that the White House recognizes that it cannot affect the outcome of Egyptian politics, so it is essentially doing what Mearsheimer prescribes—standing aside and letting the Egyptians work it out for themselves. Not a bad idea, overall. Of course, Washington has a number of residual security interests in Egypt, which is why the annual aid package will continue to flow in some form or another. Yet in case Mearsheimer did not notice, the Obama administration has decided to ratchet back American efforts to promote democracy and good governance in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East much to the significant dismay of a variety of non-governmental organizations and activists close to these issues.  It was in all the papers.

On Syria, Mearsheimer makes the rather startling claim that, “By backing the campaign against Assad, the Obama administration has helped turn Syria into a haven for terrorist groups.”  The president and his two secretaries of state have said that Assad must go.  Washington has delivered some non-lethal aid to rebel groups and devoted about $5 billion to help care for Syrian refugees, but other than that, the administration has studiously avoided getting involved in Syria.  Perhaps Mearsheimer missed it, but throughout much of 2012, the Turks encouraged, cajoled, and begged the United States to support a more robust effort against Assad.  The Saudis have grown so frustrated with Washington’s desire to avoid Syria’s civil war that they have very publicly threatened a breach in the bilateral relationship.  Other actors—the Qataris, al Qaeda-linked groups, Hizballah, and Iran—all understood that there would be no American action in Syria and thus pursued their agendas there with impunity.  Mearsheimer may believe that American support for an end to the Assad regime created the situation we now observe in Syria, but that is giving way too much credit to empty American rhetoric.

There was, of course, that moment in late August and early September 2013 when the Obama administration threatened an “incredibly small” military intervention in Syria.  This was to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons, but even then the White House was hardly enthusiastic, throwing the issue to Congress in order to avoid having to order up airstrikes in Syria.  When it became clear that the United States would not take military action, interventionists in Washington, Ankara, Riyadh, Paris and elsewhere were apoplectic.  You have to give credit where credit is due, however.  Mearsheimer is correct in the sense that American involvement in Syria would likely not have made a difference and there was even a good chance that U.S. intervention would have made things worse—points the Pentagon has been making since the first calls for intervention in Syria were heard in early 2012.

“America Unhinged” would have been a more successful piece had Mearsheimer stuck with the issues he seems to know best: Iraq and Afghanistan.  I understand the desire to be topical, but his effort to shoehorn Egypt and Syria into cases of reckless American foreign policy undermines what is otherwise an important argument about the very real costs of foreign policy adventurism. Like my paper for Mandelbaum, Mearsheimer earns a B/B- for this essay.