Mearsheimer Was Frequent Contributor to NYT Op-Ed Page for a Decade. Then He Stepped on Third Rail

US Politics
on 22 Comments

After doing an item yesterday on Kenneth Pollack’s incredible
endurance as an expert in the op-ed pages of the NY Times even after being
dead wrong about Iraq, I went on the Times site and typed in the name
"John Mearsheimer."

The realist scholar at U of Chicago used to be a Times regular.
Starting in the late ’80s, the most important newspaper in the world granted
him status as a sober expert on foreign relations. Quoted in articles,
he was also a frequent contributor to the Op-Ed page, publishing pieces
about partition in the Balkans, in favor of India’s nuclear power as a deterrent (twice on that subject; here: India Needs the Bomb), and pushing the Gulf War in ’91. (I forgot about that). After Sept. 11, he held forth on the Afghan war. (He was also a presence in the letters column, here condemning antisemitic comments by a scholar with a Nazi past.)

Then in ’03 Mearsheimer and Harvard prof Stephen Walt published an Op-Ed
in the Times against the Iraq war, in which they argued that the war
party had only produced "slender threads" of evidence to support
preemptive war. The two clairvoyants went on:

In addition to the lives
lost, toppling Saddam Hussein would cost at least $50 billion to $100
billion, at a time when our economy is sluggish and huge budget
deficits are predicted for years. Because the United States would have
to occupy Iraq for years, the actual cost of this war would most likely
be much larger. And because most of the world thinks war is a mistake,
we would get little help from other countries.

then: poof, Mearsheimer hasn’t been on the Op-Ed page since. By my
count, he had about 10 Op-Eds in the decade before that Iraq war piece. (I assume some of these were solicited by the Times.) He has had none since. And this in the prime of his career, doing his most important work.

There are two factors at work here. Being against the Iraq war has
hurt a lot of people’s careers; we’re still waiting for our Debacle
Dividend, a payoff for having good judgment, but it hasn’t come, maybe because all the powerful folks who
supported the war don’t want to be reminded of their error (and cause dweebs like me like to rub it in). And of course
Mearsheimer wrote The Israel Lobby. Is the Times part of the lobby? Yes
and no. The lobby must be understood as a Mississippi River of
pro-Israel orthodoxy which pervades political culture– from the
Clintonites to every elected official in New York to the neocon
financiers of thinktanks. Taking on the lobby is the equivalent right
now in media culture of throwing in with the Roswell crowd; the Times
finds you dangerous, even as it supplies straw and ale and stables for
Iraq war supporters Bill Keller, Thomas Friedman, David Brooks and Bill

I’m not crying for Mearsheimer. He’s a big boy and knew what he was
doing. But it is interesting to consider that the Israel lobby works in
part through the destruction of status. Mearsheimer had elite status
prior to his Iraq argument and Israel lobby book; he has been deprived of (some
of) it since. Again I point to his being censored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, in its lineup of important speakers on an uncertain world.

The damage here isn’t so much to an honest man, it’s to the
political discourse. Consider Mearsheimer’s argument for India getting the bomb. I’d never seen that before, and I’m probably against him on this
one. But the vehemence of his belief in Indian nukes makes his argument
in The Israel Lobby that Iranian nukes won’t be the end of the world
both personally consistent and more compelling intellectually–he sure
is a realist. Think about it: He was allowed to hold forth from the
most prestigious soapbox in the land when India wanted nukes, but not now, when Iran wants them.
Our journalism is broken.

22 Responses

  1. Chris
    March 31, 2008, 11:23 pm

    This is a very insightful observation Philip.

  2. Rowan Berkeley
    March 31, 2008, 11:56 pm

    Phil, I wonder whether you are familiar with the work of Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler? Their method of analysis is 'institutional' (as in Thorstein Veblen) but their results are fully compatible with a number of marxian views. The main point, however, is that in their view it is the differential profit of what they call the 'petrodollar-weapondollar combine' at the expense of other sectors of the economy that drives the wars, so you should expect the op-eds to follow the profitable sectors.
    link to

  3. MRW.
    April 1, 2008, 12:10 am

    I agree with Chris above. Very Insightful. And while the following may seem unattached to what you wrote above, it isn't. I was immediately struck by what I read in this week's Nieman Watchdog by Phil Meyer on the occasion of his retirement:

    "Searching for information on the Internet involves something like transaction costs because we have so many varied sources to evaluate. We need somebody we trust to organize them for us. That can be the task of the new journalism.

    So far, it seems from my old-guy perspective, new technology has been employed mainly to give us clever new ways to do the hunting, gathering and delivery of information. And I worry that journalism education will spend so much time on the new tools that we’ll short-change our students – and, by extension, society – in the value-added part. Piling up facts and putting them in clever packages isn’t enough. We need to supply the interpretive framework, too.

    Traditional journalism goes after events. But behind every event there is a pattern. And behind the pattern there is structure. (This concept is from Peter Senge in his management book, The Fifth Dimension: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.) Citizens, to be enlightened need to know more about public affairs than just the events. They must understand at those higher conceptual levels, the patterns and the structures. Event-centered coverage of public meetings and press conferences won’t do that.

    The current Columbia Journalism Review has a good example. Dean Starkman writes that business reporters were so preoccupied with financial performance, strategies, and profiling corporate leaders that they missed, for the most part, the big story of the credit squeeze on the middle class. They saw the events but not the pattern."
    link to

    The best thing about your writing of the Lobby and the Israel/Palestine debacle and its participants is that you go after the patterns and you're getting better and better at it.

  4. Ana
    April 1, 2008, 12:59 am

    Professor Mearsheimer is a ROCK STAR! and
    the N.Y. Times is becoming more like the National Enquirer. Newspaper editors worry about why we don't buy/read/advertise in their papers and then keep on printing their propaganda! Have they no shame?

  5. syvanen
    April 1, 2008, 2:59 am

    Nice piece of research Phil but it just goes to show that you are too optimistic that the times they are a changin. Speaking of nothing is changing, another 600 houses have just been approved for development in the west bank :
    link to

  6. Richard Witty
    April 1, 2008, 4:09 am

    The other element though is of the quality of London Review article.

    It was polemic, and at a time when polemic was the WRONG approach for a scholar touching a nerve.

    An experimental procedure without functional controls and ignoring peer review.

    The euphemism "third rail" is now commonly understood as a virtue, by definition an act of courage, rather than an act requiring a far far higher bar of care and attention for the danger, the predictable scientific danger.

    If they concluded that they had to do it, they had to do it right.

    As Sword said, they are both still tenured professors now. Their "sacrifice" was in reputation only, and only in certain regards.

    What work are they doing now?

  7. Jim Haygood
    April 1, 2008, 6:49 am


    Well done, Phil! The statistics showing Mearsheimer's abrupt airbrushing out of the Slimes after treading across a forbidden ideological bright line are damning. Shades of Pravda!

    Today's Slimes brings a fresh provocation: a philippic by Steven Erlanger about "Hamas's insults to Jews." It's instructive to trace the provenance of this article. Yesterday, Drudge Report linked a video titled "Child Stabs President Bush To Death on Hamas TV Puppet Show." The dialogue translation was supplied by the pro-Israel organization MEMRI:

    link to

    Today, Erlanger explicitly acknowledges MEMRI in his article, along with Itamar Marcus of Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli group. Gee, Steven, maybe you should tip your hat to Matt Drudge for the story idea while you're at it. LOL!

    The accuracy of Erlanger's screed can be judged by the sixth paragraph, which begins, "Since Hamas took over Gaza last June, routing Fatah, Hamas sermons and media reports preaching violence and hatred have become more pervasive, extreme and sophisticated." Here is the familiar technique of extinguishing the antecedents. No mention is made of Hamas's January 2006 election victory, which Israel and the U.S. intervened to nullify. A warped picture is painted of crazed radicals who spew hate because their hateful religion teaches them to.

    Oh well, at least the Erlanger article meets Richard Witty's lofty standards for quality and "peer review," one presumes. Among NYC subway workers, those who have touched the third rail and lived proudly claim membership in the exclusive "Club 600" (referring to the DC voltage). Welcome to Club 600, Dr. Mearsheimer!

  8. Richard Witty
    April 1, 2008, 8:20 am

    The Times has compartments. It gives a certain number of line inches to polemicists, a certain number to centrist or realist foreign policy analysts, etc.

    Mearsheimer doesn't fit the boxes anymore.

    They don't know whether to give him the polemic 4000 words, or the "realist" 4000 words.

    Its a pain to be typecast.

    Its probably NOT censorship, probably NOT organized exclusion, definitely contreversy.

    More like sword falling, not bad enough to lose one's job, like writing a book inferring that the "much" of holocaust reparations are fraudulent, or that Hezbollah "should" beat Israel militarily.

  9. Rowan Berkeley
    April 1, 2008, 9:03 am

    I once described the so-called "Jewish Task Force" as a 'third rail', because I imagined that only some fearsome form of protektsia could keep that filthy site online.

  10. Jim Haygood
    April 1, 2008, 9:53 am


    "Its probably NOT censorship, probably NOT organized exclusion."

    Maybe not, Richard. Maybe it's just intelligent positioning to serve the readership. Quoting from the book "Jewish Power" by J.J. Goldberg (now editor-in-chief at the Forward):

    "A.M. Rosenthal as executive editor [was] the first Jew to hold the paper's top editorial position. Every executive editor since then has been Jewish as well.

    "For organized Jews, the Times exudes an almost religious quality. It is looked upon as a sort of community bulletin board, the sole vehicle through which to reach the Jewish public. Advertisements in the New York Times are the standard way Jewish groups announce their existence and voice their protests.

    "Times excutives acknowledge that the paper covers Israel and other Jewish issues more closely than other newspapers. They say this is not because the paper is a "Jewish newspaper," but because its readers are interested. Reader surveys have shown that Jews make up as much as one third of the Times's readership."


    Nothing wrong with the Times telling its readers what they want to hear. But I wish they wouldn't pose as an objective "newspaper of record." I think of them more as an overblown emigre journal.

  11. Chuck
    April 1, 2008, 10:01 am

    Anyone who uses "imply" and "infer" interchangebly is in need of peer review.

    What Mearsheimer and Walt's published in the LRB was hardly polemic. If anything, they have gone way to easy on a lobby which is equal parts dishonest and disloyal. Do rats nesting in a basement likewise find being spotlighted by a large latern to be polemic? Perhaps if the lamp is sufficiently brightened they will find another basement.

  12. samuel burke
    April 1, 2008, 10:18 am

    excellent description of "the lobby" as a pervasive mindset built on lies that have morphed into myths that have dug their roots deep into the american psychie.

  13. Richard Witty
    April 1, 2008, 10:21 am

    The term "polemic" has meaning. Its a discernible style of presentation.

    One characteristic of polemic though is to put one's head down, and plough through any perspective that is not consistent with the thesis.

    A scholarly investigation would highlight perspectives that conflict with the thesis, and respectfully examine those differences.

    It was a magazine article and a popular book insufficiently adopting the academic criteria of credibility, but sold on their credibility as academics.

  14. Chuck
    April 1, 2008, 10:53 am

    "Polemic" is a label, same as "anti-semitic." When applied without explanation or substance it becomes an attack, without substantive meaning, a base design to shut people up. Of course The Lobby's STFU approach has been the primary method of stifling M & W.

    Had you read Mearsheimer and Walt more carefully, you would be able to identify many instances where they did in fact highlight discourse which conflicted with their thesis. Rarely or never do we see The Lobby's media highlight discourse which contradicts statements by politicans and their Court Jews(ie Ann Lewis) as to America's obligations to serve Israel. But then absent double standards the Israeli Lobby has no standards.

  15. Richard Witty
    April 1, 2008, 11:22 am

    I read the magazine article thoroughly, and the book completely, though less attentively.

    Not every word in the book was polemic. It was possible for the converted to read it, and claim "this section is not offensive or careless". They are academics after all, and have some sense of responsibility for fact checking, documentation of sources, etc.

    The tone of the article though was to browbeat, to dismiss respectful and responsible criticism.

    The topic was sensitive. To approach it with a sledge-hammer maybe shook the bed, but it also unnecessarily offended and generalized, and in doing so served ill.

    Phil is hoping that it more shook people into awareness, than fed fascist propaganda or lowered the bar of intellectual debate on Israel/Palestine. The jury is out.

    Ironically, if the book is successful at shaking the bed, widely read, then the likelihood that it feeds fear more than informs, is high. If its just a temporary phenomena, then maybe the level of fear-mongering and resulting prejudice will stay low.

  16. Rowan Berkeley
    April 1, 2008, 11:40 am

    I've got the Walt and Mearsheimer book, and I have read through it. I certainly didn't find it polemical at all.

  17. the Sword of Gideon
    April 1, 2008, 2:12 pm

    Actually Haygood, I like the NY Post and the Sun myself. The NY times is so fucking biased in favor of the Palestinians it's absurd. And for you and the rest of the storm troopers to rattle on about this is equally absurd.

    I do like the subtle analogy of rats in the basement. You must of got that from your personal copy of the "eternal Jew"
    One of the big film hits of the 3rd Reich.

  18. Richard Witty
    April 1, 2008, 3:11 pm

    You didn't get my clarity of speaking of the article as polemic, as distinct from the book.

    The book is now an afterthought, relative to Mearsheimer's credibility with the establised press.

  19. Rowan Berkeley
    April 1, 2008, 3:18 pm

    I have the article too, in various pdf versions, and I suppose you are right to insist that it is polemical, by definition, by its role as an article, this is a sort of genre issue.

  20. MM
    April 1, 2008, 4:12 pm

    Chuck you do play WWII dress-up like Giddy does, right?

    "The tone of the article though was to browbeat, to dismiss respectful and responsible criticism."

    Richard, maybe you should examine this statement of yours for possible traces of egoism?

    Is the entirety of American politics and political discourse, including even academic foreign policy scholars, required to play along with your fantasyland version of zionism then and now?

    They cited data in their arguments; you never do. Don't you at least feel like illustrating for us exactly the kind of shoddy scholarship you are imagining M&W to have done?

    "The topic was sensitive. To approach it with a sledge-hammer maybe shook the bed, but it also unnecessarily offended and generalized, and in doing so served ill."

    A sledge-hammer!?!?!? Are you joking?

    Approaching it with a sledge-hammer is doing what I am doing: saying zionism is racist, and must be replaced; saying no, the zionist landgrab of Palestine is not grand-fathered-in to the colonial era just because it started in the 1890s, no, it is a genocide, being conducted in real-time and slow-motion, with the obvious intent to continue the growth of zionism at all costs, specifically at the expense of the collective livelihoods of nearly a million current-day Palestinians, and many thousands of Palestinian and zionist immigrant lives lost.

    Did Mearsheimer or Walt level that sort of criticism at the zionist movement?

    Nope, that kind of attitude gets you AND your Reverend sent straight to the back of the bus, here in this land of the First Amendment (meaning: Jewish political money).

    No, Walt and Mearsheimer, respectacle academics, actually bent over backwards to LEGITIMIZE the Jewish supremacist state, offering very middle-of-the-road rhetoric, remeniscent of the two-state pollution, performing essentially a massive comb-over on zionism's baldly racist scalp. Their posture was completely in favor of the continuation of zionism, the continuation of no right of return or even a discussion of compensation for the historically acknowledged Nakba, but the cessation overtly racist and violent policies, and American unconditional support thereof.

    And this was some mighty sledgehammer? Why?

    Could it be that in the process, they criticized a powerful nexus of essentially racist Jabotinskian influence in the modern day American political structure and media, all of which came with extensive citation, and to which many liberal zionists have largely given a pass?

    Well, for talking about this network of influence which must never be mentioned, they are smeared, the blue-eyed Teuts, polemicists not real scholars–and most liberal zionists go right along. (Not our brave Phil–I salute you, Mr. Weiss.)

    One can only deduce that liberal zionists are still primarily concerned with the continued, if slightly more humane-appearing, growth of zionism.

    An earnest question, Richard: Do you realize that when it comes to zionism/Israel, you've got a bit of a "glass jaw"?

    Followup: You are aware that political conversation is not exactly meant to be performed as a delicate ballet, nor some gymnastic contortionist spectacle, right?

    In the world of political conversation in the U.S., and world-wide, on the internet, do you really feel entitled to prohibit certain discourse because your warm, happy image of zionism "as a good in the world" is simply too beautiful and delicate to be disturbed by facts and reason?

    Are you even aware of any of the exceptionalism and egoism your arguments rest on, Richard?

  21. Joel
    April 3, 2008, 2:33 am

    The NYTimes a c t u a l motto is "All the news we see fit to print." OK?

  22. hass
    August 28, 2008, 12:11 pm

    You're buying into the assumption that "Iran wants them" (nukes) on what basis?

    If a country wanted nukes, would they offer to place additional restrictions on their nuclear program in EXCESS of their NPT obligations, such as to open their nuclear program to foreign participation and thus ensure that it can't even hypothetically be used to secretly make nukes?

    Would they offer to enforce IAEA-monitored limits on their enrichment, to ensure that they only produce Low-Enriched Uranium which CANNOT be used to make bombs?

    Iran has made these and many other offers (see link to and the Iranians have explained that nukes would NOT help them anyway — and yet you simply assume that they want nukes? Why?

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