The problem with judging a blog by its commenters (updated)

Even though I am on vacation with my family this week, I was planning to blog today about the Washington Post's stunning series on the extraordinary expansion of America's intelligence apparatus since 9/11. It is outstanding investigative journalism, and its authors -- Dana Priest and William Arkin -- deserve enormous kudos. I'll share my thoughts on this matter later this week.

Instead of writing today about quality journalism, I unfortunately have to write about an article that fits squarely at the other end of the journalism spectrum. I refer here to the nasty column in Tablet magazine by Lee Smith, denouncing Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Philip Weiss, Jim Lobe and me for being "career Jew-baiters" and serving as facilitators of anti-Semitism.

As one might expect, the piece is long on invective and innuendo but almost completely devoid of meaningful evidence. Its only real value is to once again demonstrate the usual tactics that many of the so-called defenders of Israel employ against anyone who is critical either of Israel's actions or of America's special relationship with Israel.

The first thing to observe about Smith's screed is that even though he accuses me and my fellow bloggers of being anti-Semites and "Jew-baiters," his article contains not a scintilla of evidence that Sullivan, Greenwald, Weiss, or I have written or said anything that is remotely anti-Semitic, much less that involves "Jew-baiting." There's an obvious reason for this omission: None of us has ever written or said anything that supports Smith's outrageous charges.

Smith therefore has to resort to a new and bizarre form of "guilt-by-association." He attacks the four of us-and me in particular-by looking at some of the anonymous reader comments that appear in response to some of our posts. He finds that a few of those individuals who comment make some extreme statements, which he uses to argue that we are deliberately fostering anti-Semitism on our blogs. In other words, we must be anti-Semites because a handful of people whom we don't even know -- because their identities are secret -- are commenting on our posts. (It's not clear how this applies to Sullivan, by the way, because his blog doesn't have a comments thread.)

The problems with this line of argument should be obvious. First, people of all persuasions write in to disagree -- sometimes vehemently -- with my views on Middle East policy, and that includes individuals who defend Israel down the line. So, one could just as easily use the comments thread to argue that I am providing a platform for pro-Israel hasbara. Second, any website that deals with Middle East subjects, especially Israel, will inevitably attract some wing-nuts. Just take a look at the comments on New York Times or Washington Post pieces dealing with Israel, or even better, check out the "talk-backs" in the Jerusalem Post or Ha'aretz. There is virtually no difference between what you will find at those sites and what you will find on the Greenwald, Weiss, and Walt sites. Does Smith also believe that Ha'aretz and the Jerusalem Post are "mainstreaming hate?" Third, if we judge bloggers not by what they write but by what some of their readers write in response, we would be giving opponents of those bloggers an easy way to discredit them. If you don't like what a particular blogger says, write an anonymous comment praising him or her, add some bigoted statements of your own, and then send Smith an anonymous email and tell him to check out the comments thread. Voila! Lastly, if we take freedom-of-speech seriously (and I do) we have to be tolerant of discourse that we personally find offensive and sometimes even hateful. I am confident that the vast majority of people who read my blog can tell the difference between what I write under my own name and what anyone else says about what I have written, even if Smith cannot.

Smith's other source of "evidence" against me and my fellow bloggers is a handful of outlandish quotations from the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, who has made some of those same bogus charges against me in the past. Goldberg, in case you didn't know, is a journalist whose intense passion for Israel led him to emigrate there and enlist in the IDF, where he served as a prison guard. I have no problem with that, as Americans are allowed to hold dual citizenship; but it does help you understand why he is quick to attack anyone who criticizes Israel. Objectivity about the Middle East is not his strong suit.

He was also a vocal advocate of invading Iraq in 2003, and wrote a long-since discredited article about Saddam Hussein's supposed links to al Qaeda. This embarrassing error gives you some idea of the reliability of his expertise about the Middle East. He also wrote a comically overwrought review of my book with John Mearsheimer on the Israel lobby in the New Republic that began by comparing us to Osama bin Laden, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Father Coughlin, and managed to misrepresent our views on nearly every page. I seem to have become a favorite punching bag of his, given that he has repeatedly accused me on his own blog of being a "Jew-baiter." Of course, he never offers a shred of evidence to support that ludicrous (and truth be told, obscene) charge.

The fact that Goldberg's ravings are the best ammunition Smith has shows you that he has no case.

What is really going on here? Smith's article is just another illustration of what has become a familiar and depressing story here in the United States. Anyone who writes or says something that is critical of Israeli policy, who questions the wisdom of the special relationship, or who talks about the negative influence of the Israel lobby, is almost certain to smeared, usually by being labeled either an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew. It is as predictable as the sun rising in the east each morning.

It doesn't matter how often you remind people that lobbying on behalf of a foreign country is a legitimate political activity in the American political system, how often you emphasize that you support Israel's existence, or how often you denounce genuine anti-Semitism. Nor does it matter how carefully you document your claims.

People like Smith (and Goldberg) will simply ignore all of that and instead come up with bizarre arguments designed to portray you as a virulent and dangerous bigot. Of course, the purpose of this smearing is two-fold: to deter others from speaking out in public, and to discourage those who have spoken out from doing so again. And when someone cannot be silenced, the goal is to marginalize them so that they cannot influence the discourse about Israel and Middle East politics in meaningful ways.

Why do they use such ugly tactics? The answer is simple: the case they are defending is so weak that they cannot rely on facts, logic, and claims of justice to win the day. To be perfectly clear, I am not talking about the case for Israel's existence inside its pre-1967 borders, which I wholeheartedly support. Rather, I am talking about the case for defending many of Israel's policies, including its actions in the Occupied Territories, and its recent wars against Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2008-2009). I am talking about the case for giving Israel unconditional and uncritical backing no matter what it does, which is not in either America's or Israel's interest. Those cases cannot stand up to scrutiny, which is why Smith and Goldberg have to rely on name-calling and character assassination instead of facts, logic, and rational discussion.

One final point is in order about the lobby's efforts to marginalize individuals who criticize Israel. Smith's attack is obviously designed to try to convince the people who run Foreign Policy to drop me from its site. Why else would Smith make a pointed reference to the "owners of the Washington Post" and to the "advertising staff" there?

The fact is that the blogosphere has succeeded in opening up a freewheeling and informative discourse about Israel and Middle East politics that is still largely absent from the mainstream media. Subjects relating to Israel that were taboo not too long ago are now being openly discussed on the internet, and by writers who have a large audience. This is a major headache for the lobby, which is used to the relatively easy task of policing the mainstream media. But rest assured that "pro-Israel" forces are hard at work trying to figure out how to silence the likes of Greenwald, Sullivan, Weiss, and me. Smith and Goldberg are part of that effort.

In any case, I am flattered to be included with Messrs. Weiss, Sullivan, Greenwald and Lobe.  I don't agree with everything they write and I'm sure that's their view of my work as well, but they are courageous and intelligent writers who have done much to expand our understanding of a range of vital issues, which is more than one can say of our attacker. To be smeared by the likes of Mr. Smith is a badge of honor, and it tells me that I must be doing something right.

 UPDATE:  In my original post on this topic, I neglected to include Jim Lobe and his associates, who were also targeted in Smith's hatchet job.  Jim is a terrific journalist who has done important work on the neoconservative movement (among other topics), and I am pleased to be his friend.   I've corrected the omission in the above post, and I recommend the work that he and his associates put up at LobeLog.  My apologies to them for the omission.  


Stephen M. Walt

Why realists don't go for bombs and bullets

By David M. Edelstein

Thanks to Steve Walt for inviting me to contribute to his blog while he is away on vacation. I have been a regular reader of Steve's blog since it launched, and for my first post, I wanted to pick up on a motif that I have seen running through Steve's posts: Will realists ever again support the use of military force by the United States?

Followers of this blog will by now have little doubt about how Walt felt about the Iraq War or how he views the prospects for U.S. success in Afghanistan. In fact, throughout the history of his blog, I can only recall one case in which Walt advocated the use of U.S. military force (and I think the realist credentials in that case are rather dubious).

There is a common perception in the field of political science that realists are war-mongering Neanderthals anxious to use military force at the drop of a hat. Attend any meeting (if you must) of the American Political Science Association or the International Studies Association, and one will find realists derided as the "bombs and bullets guys" as if we were all direct descendants of Curtis LeMay. What is notable about this -- and what has been notable about Steve's blog -- is just how infrequently realists have supported the use of American military force. Take the U.S. interventions of the post-Cold War period: Panama, the Gulf War, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Of those interventions, Afghanistan was the only one that received anything close to strong support from most realists. Others, most notably the Iraq War, received vehement opposition from the vast majority of realists. Even in the case of Afghanistan, realists expressed trepidation about the prospects for ultimate success despite early victories. 

Go back to the Cold War, and realists like Kenneth Waltz and Hans Morgenthau were famously opposed to the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Lest one think this is an academic phenomenon, realist policymakers like Brent Scowcroft were equally critical of the Bush administration's actions in Iraq, and George F. Kennan was skeptical of the U.S. interventions in both Korea and Vietnam. Today, should anyone dare to suggest the use of military force in new contexts such as Iran, they are summarily dismissed by prominent realists. Not a single (self-proclaimed or attributed) realist I know of has advocated the use of military force against Iran in response to its apparent development of nuclear weapons, and most are adamantly opposed to it.

From one perspective, this opposition is surprising. It is realists, after all, who so value material power, in particular military capabilities. It is not difficult to understand why so many would assume that realists are anxious to use military force because realists are anxious to focus on military capabilities as a primary explanatory variable for international politics. 

But it is precisely because realists have spent so much time studying military force that they are also so reluctant to use military force. Though realists themselves are divided on the question, many have concluded that the use of military force is often counterproductive, inviting balancing coalitions that simply make life more difficult. Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, using military force to reorder societies is very difficult and unlikely to succeed except in uncommon circumstances.

At a deeper level, realists also understand that the most potent use of military force is the threat of the use of military force. Perhaps the greatest contribution of Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling to the field of strategic studies is the understanding that military force is at its coercive best when it is credibly threatened in a way that either deters or compels another actor. Realists have taken this to heart. Realists have spilled more ink in recent decades on questions of how to coerce an adversary without using overwhelming military force than on how to use that military force most effectively. The writing that has been done on the use of military focuses on how to use military force to coerce without having to resort to sheer destruction.

Finally, there is a personal element of this that should not be underestimated. The most prominent realists today came of age as scholars either during or immediately after the Vietnam War. For many of them -- as with so many Americans -- the war had a searing effect, rendering them exceedingly cautious about the use of U.S. military force in the far corners of the globe. Political science tells itself a useful myth about the foundational importance of deductive theory, but personal experience colors scholars in a way that is hard to ignore.

So this is why realists today are typically anything but warmongers. They are prudential in the use of force and more eager to try to coerce without employing military force than to overwhelm by using it. If all this is true, though, it prompts a number of significant questions for further debate and discussion. Have realists been too timid in their views of the utility of military force? Are there other contexts, perhaps short of conquest and occupation, in which military force becomes a "wasting asset" if it is not used to further a country's interests? At its core, realism proclaims that states act to maximize (often ill-defined) national interests. If military force promises the best way to achieve some, if not all, of those interests, then why do realists remain so gun shy, and under what conditions might realists again endorse the use of abundant American military force overseas? And if the answers to these questions are hard to locate, then how effective a coercive instrument can the enormous U.S. military continue to be? Would the threat of U.S. force ultimately lose its credibility if the military were never actually used?

David M. Edelstein will be, as of August 1, an associate professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University. He is also a core faculty member in Georgetown's Center for Peace and Security Studies and Security Studies Program. He is the author of Occupational Hazards: Success and Failure in Military Occupation.

Warrick Page/Getty Images