Another invite lost in the mail

I was going to blog this morning about the Times's story that Dr. Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian double agent who killed 8 U.S. operatives in a suicide bomb attack last week, was reportedly motivated by his anger at Israel's pummeling of Gaza last year (you know, the war that President Bush didn't try to prevent, that President-elect Obama didn't talk about, and that the U.S. Congress apparently thinks was just fine.) Talk about blowback. But Phil Weiss and Glenn Greenwald are on the case, and you can just read them instead of me.

Instead, I want to share an invitation I was forwarded by a friend (for some inexplicable reason, I didn't get one myself). The email invited him to attend "Spotlight Iran," a special workshop sponsored by The Israel Project. Here's what it said:

From: The Israel Project [info@theisraelproject.org]
Sent: Tuesday, January 05, 2010 5:11 PM
Subject: You Are Invited to an Iran Conference in Washington, DC

Please join us for a community-wide grass-roots advocacy training program:
Israel Advocacy Training Institute: Spotlight Iran

Don't miss this hands-on training institute for Israel activists with special briefings by high level American and Israeli officials on the vital issues of Iran and grass roots advocacy. Gain new tools and learn how to effectively and efficiently make use of your time and resources to advocate for Israel in the halls of government, pages of newspaper print, radio airwaves, and internet sites of the new media.

Sunday, January 17, 12 noon- 4:30 p.m.
Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy
13300 Arctic Avenue, Rockville, MD

Plenary featuring:
-Dan Arbell, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Israel
-Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi, President of The Israel Project

Workshop Sessions featuring:
*Congressional and Legislative Advocacy with AIPAC Mid-Atlantic Political Director Arie Lipnik and Congressional Legislative Assistants
*Online Advocacy: Blogging, Twitter and Social Media with "Press Guru" and Jewish Communications Expert Aaron Keyak
*How to Get Published and Write a Letter to the Editor with journalist and Reuters Editor Alan Elsner
*Israel Advocacy in the Synagogue with Rabbi Jonah Layman of Shaare Tefilah Congregation and President of Congregation B'nai Tzedek Helane Goldstein
*Advocacy and Radio strategy with Former White House Radio Director Richard Strauss
*Understanding Christian Perspectives on Israel: The Keys to Effective Advocacy with Ethan Felson and Josh Protas, Vice President and Washington Director of the JCPA
*Special Teen Track Workshops

Book signing featuring authors: Ilan Berman, Alan Elsner,
Michael Ledeen and Jonathan Schanzer

$18 standard track ? $10 teen track (includes lunch)

[followed by the usual contact info for those seeking additional information]

A few quick comments:

First, if anyone still doubts that groups in the Israel lobby work hard to shape public discourse about Middle East affairs...well, time to cast those doubts aside. Apart from hyping the threat from Iran, the clear purpose of this workshop is to train people on how to write op-eds, twitter posts, blogs, etc., that can push TIP's supposedly "pro-Israel" agenda.(Needless to say, its agenda on Iran is about pushing the United States to do whatever it takes to keep Iran from mastering the full fuel cycle, including the use of force.)

Second, there's nothing wrong with a group of Americans getting together to push their policy views; that's how our system of government works. This is in principle no different than Cuban-Americans organizing to preserve the misguided embargo on Castro's regime, NRA members meeting to figure out new ways to thwart gun control, farmers organizing to push for more crop subsidies, tea partyers getting together to sound off on their pet peeves, or birthers meeting to spread more goofy notions about Obama's heritage. Just good old-fashioned American interest group politics in all its glory. 

But notice that this event advertises an AIPAC representative, an Israeli diplomat and apparently several unnamed congressional legislative assistants. The latter are supposed to be public servants; we understand that they will be the objects of a lobbying groups efforts but here they seem to be actively helping one. Given the prominent role given to an official representative of a foreign government and the participation of several congressional aides, this event does seem to blur the line between being a purely domestic lobbying group and being something else. Isn't it a bit over-the-line to have an officially accredited diplomat give the plenary address to a workshop whose declared purpose is to teach Americans how to advocate on behalf of that same diplomat's country?

Third, my main point is to be clear about who is pushing for war with Iran and who isn't.  The Israel Project and other like-minded groups want the U.S. to confront Iran, and the main reason they want this is to protect Israel from what they believe (mistakenly, in my view) is a dire threat.  (I think Iran's activities are a legitimate concern, but not the apocalyptic danger that many Israelis seem to think.) They are entirely within their rights to hold those views, however, and to work within the American political system to try to advance their hard line agenda. If they want to organize seminars to build support for that position, and train people on how to advocate for it, fine by me.  And if other folks with similar views and agendas want to chime in, that's ok too. 

And let's be clear about one other thing. War with Iran is not a project that is backed by all Jewish-Americans, or only by Jewish-Americans. The same was true about the war in Iraq, which was dreamed up by the neocons and backed by key groups in the Israel lobby, but not by many American Jews. Indeed, by the time the United States went to war in 2003, surveys showed that American Jews were less supportive of war with Iraq than the U.S. population as a whole. 

But as in the run-up to Iraq, many of the most persistent advocates of a "kinetic response" to Iran are individuals or organization in the Israel lobby (including those bizarrely bellicose Christian Zionists), and as this invitation suggests, they aren't being especially bashful about making their policy preferences known. So if the United States does end up at war with Iran in the not-too-distant future, and if it turns out to leave us worse off than before, I hope these same people won't spend the aftermath denying that they had anything to do with it, or accusing people who discuss their role of being somehow bigoted.


Stephen M. Walt

Happy Anniversary

This week marks the one-year anniversary of FP's on-line re-launch, and thus the one-year anniversary of this blog. So I thought I'd offer a few reflections on what the experience has been like, and what I've learned from it.

I was of course flattered when FP invited me to contribute, but I agreed to do so with some trepidation. I'd done a lot of writing by this point, including for some popular venues, but I had usually found it difficult to write op-eds and short pieces of commentary and therefore hadn't done a lot of it. The only way to attract readers is to provide a fairly constant stream of commentary (i.e., nobody comes back if you only post once a month), and I was worried that I'd find it hard to keep the words and ideas flowing.  

Thankfully, that hasn't been a big problem. Although there have been a few slow days where I was less than fully inspired (you may have noticed), its more often the case that I don't have time to post on all the topics that I'd like to discuss. One result is that my respect for those who write a biweekly column in the mainstream media has gone down; it would be a luxury to write only twice a week. Given that most of them aren't teaching classes, chairing committees, or writing letters of recommendation, what do all those big-time columnists do with their time?

I quickly discovered that there is a big difference between blogging and academic scholarship, and one has to approach them with a completely different mental attitude. In academic writing, the overriding imperative is to make things as perfect as you can (even though perfection is impossible), and to take as much time as you have to refine and bolster an argument. When academics write a scholarly book or article, it typically goes through a dozen or so drafts, gets presented and criticized at conferences and seminars, and gets circulated to colleagues for additional feedback. And in some cases (e.g., our book on the Israel lobby), we hired two professional fact checkers to go over every line and then spent an entire week with our editor proofing and fine-tuning.

Needless to say, that's not how the blogosphere works. I sometimes spend a fair bit of time researching what I write here, and I occasionally run a piece past a colleague to get their advice, but there is a premium on being timely and analytically sharp, and you rarely have time to sit, sift, ponder, and deliberate. That means bloggers are by definition writing things that are more provisional. If we're honest, we all have to admit that we're going to get a few big things wrong, or offer opinions that we subsequently conclude are mistaken. I'm reasonably happy with most of what I've posted in the past year, but I confess to a sense of trepidation every time I hit "publish." Advice to would-be bloggers: Bring a sense of humility, but also a thick skin.

Of course, that same sense of immediacy is one of the most gratifying things about having a blog. Instead of writing an op-ed and sending it in to some newspaper, and then waiting for days until some editor rules up or down, I just hit "publish" and it appears. Writing a more-or-less daily commentary forces me to stay more closely in touch with world events, and it has made it imperative to develop new sources and new methods for tracking what others have to say about issues I'm interested in.

Indeed, given the concerns I've sometimes expressed about the "cult of irrelevance" in academe, I've come to believe that blogging ought to be actively encouraged in the academic world. I'm not saying that all political scientists, historians, or economists ought to start their own blogs, but we shouldn't penalize scholars who do engage in this activity and we might even consider rewarding it, the same way we should reward scholars who care enough about public service to use their talents and training working in the public or NGO sector. It would be good for the IR field if academic scholars were expected to write a few blog posts every now and then, if only for the purpose of self-examination. If the typical academic had to write a blog for two weeks, they might discover they had nothing to say to their fellow citizens, couldn't say it clearly, or that nobody cared. That experience might even lead a few of my fellow academics to scratch their heads and ask if they were investing their research time appropriately, which would be all to the good. 

What's been the best part so far? First and foremost, I've appreciated the opportunity to participate more actively in the public debate on key topics like U.S. foreign policy, the AfPak dilemma, the ongoing drama in the Middle East, etc.). At the same time, I've also enjoyed exploring more fanciful topics (movies, pop music, sports, novels, holidays), as well as the chance to wander into areas I simply didn't know that much about. Knowing that I had to "feed the beast" each morning has encouraged me to read more widely and keep a notebook of ideas (a useful diversion during boring faculty meetings), and I've found that intellectual spur to be very satisfying.

And as I had hoped, writing this blog has forced me to connect more with the blogosphere itself, which I see as a revolutionary development in mankind's collective conversation.  I remain in awe of many of my fellow bloggers -- there are simply far too many for me to mention them all -- and I wish I had more time to wander the net and search out nuggets of insight that aren't likely to make into more conventional formats (at least not yet). I've also appreciated the supportive emails I've received from lots of readers, and even smiled at some of the snarky comments from some who seem less-than-enthralled (if not downright hostile).  Forgive me if I don't read them all or respond; I am trying to retain some semblance of a normal life.

The downside? Obvious: it's a big time-sink, and I'm still trying to figure out how to write my next book while doing this gig. Writing a solo blog can have a certain treadmill-like quality to it, and there have been a few mornings where I approach my laptop with a sense of obligation rather than zest. And there are those cringe-worthy moments when I realize I've made an obvious mistake; thankfully, there haven't been too many of those.

But on the whole, it's been a fun ride and I'm looking forward to Year 2. If peace breaks out, expect to read more about arts and music and less about fear, greed, stupidity, corruption and other enduring features of world politics. But don't hold your breath.

Theresa Thompson/flickr