John Mearsheimer, a leading US scholar on international relations, has strong views on political issues from the Middle East to Iraq but until now, the establishment has been slow to listen. He spoke to Antony Loewenstein
During this year’s Iranian uprising, which followed the disputed presidential election result, Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy secretary of defence during the Bush administration, wrote in the Washington Post: ‘It would be a cruel irony if, in an effort to avoid imposing democracy, the United States were to tip the scale toward dictators who impose their will on people struggling for freedom.’
Leading American blogger and journalist Andrew Sullivan was incredulous. ‘The architect of one of the greatest mistakes in the history of American foreign policy gets to lecture Obama on Iran,’ he fumed. ‘The neoconservative movement refuses to acknowledge error and refuses to take responsibility for the past.’
John Mearsheimer, who had met Wolfowitz a few times before the 2003 Iraq invasion, was not as surprised.
‘Wolfowitz was remarkably idealistic about how easy it would be to topple Saddam and bring democracy to Iraq,’ Mearsheimer said. ‘I think he was foolish in the extreme but his motives were good and he did believe that we would succeed easily. Virtually all neocons believed that America should deal with Iraq first, then Iran and Syria.’
Mearsheimer, unlike Wolfowitz and fellow neoconservatives, knows something about warfare. Before he became a professor of political science and a leading scholar on international relations, Mearsheimer graduated from West Point military academy in 1970 and served five years as an officer in the US Air Force. Today, in foreign policy circles, he is known for his ‘offensive realist’ position, which, according to him, means he argues against human nature being a determinant in global affairs. Rather, he argues that security competition among great powers is the reason behind chaos in the international system.
Mearsheimer, whose book on offensive realism, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, acknowledged in a 2002 interview that ‘there is not much place for human rights and values in the realist story. Realists basically believe that states are interested in gaining power’.
With the death of Samuel Huntington last year, Mearsheimer’s prominence in the field is virtually undisputed. Huntington, the author of the controversial Clash of Civilisations, was a spur to Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s even more controversial book, The Israel Lobby and US Policy. Walt, from Harvard University, explained in the magazine Foreign Policy, that although both of them often disagreed with Huntington, ‘some of his own writings contain similar warnings about the distorting influence that ethnic groups could have on US foreign policy’.
It was this last work that catapulted the conservative academic Mearsheimer to bestseller status. The US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg has called Mearsheimer ‘Sheikh Hassan Mearsheimer’, in reference to the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Critics have labelled him an anti–Semite, a Jew–hater and an Israel basher but Palestinian, Jewish and peace activists have saluted him for daring to write about the power of the Likudniks in the US administration. Mearsheimer says the book caused a storm principally because he and Walt were two establishment figures with authority in the academic and public policy world. ‘It wasn’t so much what we said but who said it.’
The anti–Semite label will not go away, even though Mearsheimer is on the record as consistently supporting a two–state solution for Israel and Palestine, the official position of both President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
‘[It’s] a position I share with Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak,’ he said. ‘Both of them have said in the last year that if there is no two–state solution, Israel will end up in a South African–style situation. I think one could make an argument that Israel is already an apartheid state. This would be a disaster for Israel and I don’t understand for the life of me why Benjamin Netanyahu and his hawkish allies in Israel and the US don’t understand that the two–state solution is the best outcome for Israel.’
In the end, Mearsheimer says, it is virtually impossible to have a serious foreign policy debate in the US these days because the boundaries of discussion are so narrow, especially about Israel.
His comments about China over the years have also caused displeasure. He has criticised the US’s relationship with the world’s most populous nation, worried that short–term policy decisions are undermining Washington’s super–power status. Mearsheimer argues that by openly trading with China and therefore helping its economy, the US is aiding Beijing’s rapid rise. He has prescribed a containment policy against China not unlike the one used against the Soviet Union. In short, Mearsheimer does not see China rising peacefully.
Asked what advice he would give to our Mandarin–speaking prime minister on China, he said, ‘Prime Minister Rudd and his successors should make it clear to Beijing that Australia wants to live in peace with a powerful China, but that means China will have to put limits on its ambitions. And if it does not, an intense security competition will occur in Asia and that will not be good for either Australia or China.
‘If China continues to grow economically at a rapid pace, it will surely build a much more formidable military capability than it has now, and it will probably try to dominate Asia the way that the United States dominates the Western hemisphere. Of course, it would not be in Australia’s interest to allow China or any other country to become a regional hegemon.’
What about Prime Minister Rudd’s proposed Asia–Pacific community as a way of heading off China’s regional ambition and securing long–term US interest in the region?
‘I don’t think there is any need to bind the United States more closely to Asia,’ he said. ‘Most Americans, and certainly their leaders, think that the United States has a moral and strategic responsibility to run the world, which means that Washington is going to be deeply involved in Asia — as well as other places around the globe — for a long time to come.
‘This certainly has some benefits for Australia, but it has a downside as well, since Washington sometimes pursues boneheaded policies, as evidenced by what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq. One should be careful what he or she wishes for with regard to the United States, because what you get is not always an unalloyed good.’
These days, the normally conservative Mearsheimer calls himself a radical, one who is largely out of step with many colleagues on the role of government and US military force. He is resigned to the fact that he is unlikely ever to be appointed to a senior government position; criticising Israel ruined those opportunities.
‘There is a belief in the policy politic I don’t share, that America is the indispensable nation and has a moral and strategic responsibility to go into the Middle East and re–order the region. The idea that the US could transform the Mid–East into a sea of democracies at the point of a rifle is harebrained. It’s a radical strategy, not conservative. The Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal often get very excited over exporting the American way of life with a gun.’
Mearsheimer remembers a golden age of intellectual life in the US that no longer exists. Now, he says, professional think tanks with strong political agendas have profoundly changed the landscape. He sees overly aggressive positions being pushed by a narrow intellectual base. ‘I am somewhat reluctant to call people who work at think tanks intellectuals because they’re heavily politicised and mainly interested in a particular agenda,’ he said.
In the years of Ronald Reagan, Mearsheimer argues, the conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation were not interested in policy debates. ‘They wanted a solely conservative agenda,’ he said. The American Enterprise Institute, as the mouthpiece of the neoconservative movement in the Bush years, did the same.
Mearsheimer, who has been teaching political science at the University of Chicago since 1982, laments that over time, intellectuals in the academy have had less impact on public life. ‘This is the function of two factors,’ he said. ‘One, with increasing professionalism, intellectuals find themselves talking more and more to each other and to students than to the general public. Second, when the Cold War first started, the US had very little intellectual capital in Washington, so what happened in the academic world had more impact on the policy world. It’s no accident that some of the first national security advisors were from the academic world, such as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski.’
As a leading opponent of the war, Mearsheimer rarely appears in its pages. It is depressing, he says, adding that those who were right about Iraq remain largely unpublished in the US mainstream media today while the neocons and their backers continue to pollute op-ed pages across the country.
Things are changing, though, in the age of Obama. The number of invitations to events has increased in the last six months, Mearsheimer says. Still, he is sceptical that Obama will reel in real change. He believes in the policy continuity at the top of the US political class — that while the faces may change, the policies do not.
‘America has a long history of supporting terrorist groups when leaders thought it was in America’s national interest,’ he said. President Obama has continued this long–standing policy in Africa and Central Asia.
‘You can’t underestimate the liberal, imperialistic streak inside the elite foreign policy establishment,’ he said. ‘Many liberal Democrats supported the war, along with neocons. Obama opposed the war but he does not have a single foreign policy adviser at the higher levels that opposed it. Think of Richard Holbrooke, Hillary Clinton and Dennis Ross.
‘There is consensus in this country on what foreign policy should be. It’s no accident that Obama kept Robert Gates on as Secretary of Defence as he’s as comfortable serving Bush as Obama. It’s equally hard to see differences between Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, as they’re trying to do similar things in similar ways.’
Antony Loewenstein is a journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution.