Dear Stephen Walt: It’s Not Always About Israel

Stephen Walt’s latest post on the Middle East focuses, as usual, on Israel. Walt appropriately criticizes the media for not exploring, or even understanding, the real dynamics of the anger and violent activity taking place across much of the Middle East.

He rightly notes—in reaction to a particularly egregious piece on NBC—that conspiracy theories (of the US and Israel seeking to control the region) are not the main motivator of what’s happening. (He might have added that the media has not done a particularly good job here from the beginning—including figuring out who actually made the offending movie.)

Walt then writes:

But by attributing Arab and Muslim anger solely to these ideas, [NBC reporter] Engel’s report paints a picture of the United States (and by implication, Israel) as wholly blameless.

Now first, I’m not aware that Israel has been the focus of any of the protests; I may be wrong, but the only flag I’ve seen burned and stepped on is the Stars and Stripes, not the Star of David.

Walt continues that

In [Engel’s] telling, the U.S. has had nothing but good intentions for the past century, but the intended beneficiaries of our generosity don’t get it solely because they’ve been misled by their leaders.

The next sentence in the crux:

In short, Operation Cast Lead never happened, Lebanon wasn’t invaded in 1982 or bombed relentlessly for a month in 2006…

Only after specifically singling out Israel does he then turn back to his original reference point, the United States, by discussing Washington’s bad policies toward the Middle East (which includes Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, as though the US has the ability to control Israel’s own actions), and ending with this: “Americans do themselves no favors by ignoring our own contribution to the region’s ills.”

To summarize, here is Walt’s logic: American reporters don’t understand the Arab and Muslim worlds in the Middle East because they don’t account for America’s ill-informed and destructive policies in the region; and the top three bits of evidence are Israel’s wars against Arab states and organizations.

The problems with this commentary are obvious. Two others that stand out are: blaming Israel for all the violence, without any note of context; and focusing solely on Washington’s missteps in the region without accounting for local actors’ own actions, motivations, and responsibilities (and thus depriving them of agency). This includes the sheer uncertainty and instability in newly emerging systems; the weakness of new governments as they seek to balance domestic political forces with international responsibilities; the competition between different Islamist groups and between Islamists and non-Islamists; the existence of militant and al-Qaeda elements with an interest in attacking American targets; and the cultural norms and expectations of Middle Eastern societies. Walt might have spent at least one sentence noting these as potential factors, rather than just pointing to the US as the cause of the problem.

Walt’s seminal book, The Origins of Alliances (1987), used evidence from the Middle East as case studies for his argument that states balance or bandwagon (form alliances) against threats rather than against power. Among the criticisms directed at his argument was that his examples were not evidence of actual alliances—many lasted only a very short period, did not include firm commitments by member-states to each other, and shifted so rapidly from powerful and threatening to weaker and less-threatening states that “alliance” simply could not apply.

Walt’s understanding of the Middle East was narrow; and it has only narrowed further since his turn toward the “Israel lobby.”

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