Washington Babylon — August 16, 2007, 1:57 pm

A Balancing Act at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

If you haven’t heard, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has canceled a talk scheduled for next month by Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, co-authors of the now-famous study “The Israel Lobby.” Walt (of Harvard) and Mearsheimer (of the University of Chicago) were to discuss their upcoming book, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” but the Council caved, apparently in response to critics who wanted an opponent of the two men to share the stage with them to provide “balance.”

The website muzzzlewatch.com writes that the cancellation “has got to be a major embarrassment” for the Council, as it would appear to violate the group’s stated mission and purpose: to be a “ leading independent, nonpartisan organization committed to influencing the discourse on global issues through contributions to opinion and policy formation, leadership dialogue, and public learning.” (Also see this post on the cancellation)

I had a number of problems with the Walt/Mearsheimer paper (see one of the best critiques here at Angry Arab) but this sort of censorship is pathetic.

The New York Times was the first major paper to cover the story today; below is the full text of a letter that Walt and Mearsheimer sent to Council board members after their talk was canceled. They note approvingly that a number of speakers have previously addressed the Council without an opponent being on stage. That includes Michael Oren, an Israeli-American author, who gave the keynote address at AIPAC’s annual conference last spring.

August 5, 2007

We are writing to bring to your attention a troubling
incident involving the Chicago Council on Global
Affairs. We do so reluctantly, as we have both
enjoyed our prior associations with the Council and we
have great respect for its aims and accomplishments.
Nonetheless, we felt this was an episode that should
not pass without comment.

On September 4, 2007, our book The Israel Lobby and
U.S. Foreign Policy
will be published by Farrar,
Straus & Giroux, one of the most highly respected
publishers in the United States. Through our
publisher, the Council issued an invitation for both
of us to speak at a session on September 27, 2007. We
were delighted to accept, as each of us had spoken at
the Council on several occasions in the past and knew
we would attract a diverse and well-informed audience
that would engage us in a lively and productive
discussion.

On July 19, while discussing the details of our visit
with Sharon Houtkamp, who was handling the
arrangements at the Council, we learned that the
Council had already received a number of
communications protesting our appearance. We were not
particularly surprised by this news, as we had seen a
similar pattern of behavior after our original article
on “The Israel Lobby” appeared in the London Review of
Books in March 2006. We were still looking forward to
the event, however, especially because it gave us an
opportunity to engage these issues in an open forum.

Then, on July 24, Council President Marshall Bouton
phoned one of us (Mearsheimer) and informed him that
he was cancelling the event. He said he felt
“extremely uncomfortable making this call” and that
his decision did not reflect his personal views on the
subject of our book. Instead, he explained that his
decision was based on the need “to protect the
institution.” He said that he had a serious
“political problem,” because there were individuals
who would be angry if he gave us a venue to speak, and
that this would have serious negative consequences for
the Council. “This one is so hot,” Marshall
maintained, that he could not present it at a Council
session unless someone from “the other side”—such as
Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League—was on
stage with us. At the very least, he needed to
present “contending viewpoints.” But he said it was
too late to try to change the format, as the fall
schedule was being finalized and there would not be
sufficient time to arrange an alternate date. He
showed little interest in doing anything with us in
2008 or beyond.

Several comments are in order regarding this
situation.

First, since the publication of our original article
on the Israel lobby, we have appeared either singly or
together at a number of different venues, including
Brown University, the Council on Foreign Relations,
Columbia University, Cornell University, Emerson
College, the Great Hall at Cooper Union, Georgetown
University, the National Press Club, the Nieman
Fellows Program at Harvard University, the University
of Montana, the Jewish Community Center in Newton,
Massachusetts, and Congregation Kam Isaiah Israel in
Chicago. In all but one of these venues we appeared
on our own, i.e., without someone from the “other
side.” As one would expect, we often faced vigorous
questions from members of the audience, which
invariably included individuals who disagreed in
fundamental ways with some of our arguments.
Nevertheless, the back-and-forth at each of these
events was always civil, and quite a few participants
said that they benefited from listening to us and to
our interlocutors.

Second, the Council has recently welcomed speakers who
do represent a “contending viewpoint,” and they have
appeared on their own. Consider the case of Michael
Oren, an Israeli-American author, who appeared at the
Council on February 8, 2007, to talk about “The Middle
East and the United States: A Long and Complicated
Relationship.” Oren has a different view of U.S.
Middle East policy than we do; indeed, he gave a
keynote address at AIPAC’s annual policy conference
this past spring that directly challenged our
perspective. We believe it was entirely appropriate
for the Council to have invited him to speak, and
without having a representative from an opposing group
there to debate him. The Council has also welcomed a
number of other speakers on this general topic in
recent years, such as Dennis Ross, Max Boot and Rashid
Khalidi, and none of their appearances included
someone representing a “contending view.”

One might argue that our views are too controversial
to be presented on their own. However, they are seen
as controversial only because some of the groups and
individuals that we criticized in our original article
have misrepresented what we said or leveled
unjustified charges at us personally—such as the
baseless claim that we (or our views) are
anti-Semitic. The purpose of these charges, of
course, is to discourage respected organizations like
the Council from giving us an audience, or to create
conditions where they feel compelled to include
“contending views” in order to preserve “balance” and
to insulate themselves from external criticism.

In fact, our views are not extreme. Our book does not
question Israel’s right to exist and does not portray
pro-Israel groups in the United States as some sort of
conspiracy to “control” U.S. foreign policy. Rather,
it describes these groups and individuals—both Jewish
and gentile—as simply an effective special interest
group whose activities are not substantially different
from groups like the NRA, the farm lobby, the AARP, or
other ethnic lobbies. Its activities, in other words,
are as American as apple pie, although we argue that
its influence has helped produce policies that are not
in the U.S. national interest. We also suggest that
these policies have been unintentionally harmful to
Israel as well, and that a different course of action
would be better for both countries. It is not obvious
to us why such views could not be included in the
Council’s schedule.

Although we find it somewhat unseemly to refer to our
own careers, it is perhaps worth noting that we are
both well-established figures with solid mainstream
credentials. We are fortunate to occupy chaired
professorships at distinguished universities, and to
have been elected members of the American Academy of
Arts and Sciences. We have both held important
leadership positions at Chicago or Harvard, each of us
serves on the editorial boards of several leading
foreign policy journals (such as Foreign Affairs and
Foreign Policy), and we have both done consulting work
for U.S. government agencies. Given our backgrounds,
the idea that it would be inappropriate for us to
appear on our own at a Council session seems
far-fetched.

Finally, and most importantly, we believe that the
decision to cancel our appearance is antithetical to
the principle of open discussion that underpins
American democracy, and that is so essential for
maximizing the prospects that our country pursues a
wise foreign policy. In essence, we believe this is a
case in which a handful of people who disagree with
our views have used their influence to intimidate
Marshall into rescinding the Council’s invitation to
us, so as to insure that interested members will not
hear what we have to say about Israeli policy, the
U.S. relationship with Israel, and the lobby itself.
This is not the way we are supposed to address
important issues of public policy in the United
States, and it is surely not the way the Council
normally conducts its business. This is undoubtedly
why Marshall, who is a very smart and decent man, felt
so uncomfortable calling us to say that the event had
been cancelled. He knew this decision was contrary to
everything that the Council is supposed to represent.

The Chicago Council is obviously under no obligation
to grant us a venue, and we are not writing in an
attempt to reverse this decision. But given the
importance of the issues that are raised in our book,
we are genuinely disappointed that we will not have
the benefit of open exchange with the Council’s
members, including those who might want to challenge
our arguments or conclusions. The United States and
its allies—including Israel—face many challenging
problems in the Middle East, and our country will not
be able to address them intelligently if we cannot
have an open and civilized discussion about U.S.
interests in the region, and the various factors that
shape American policy there. Regrettably, the
decision to cancel our appearance has made that
much-needed conversation more difficult.

Sincerely,

John J. Mearsheimer
R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science
University of Chicago

Stephen M. Walt
Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs
Harvard University

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