jimsleeper.com » Can There Be Sagacity Without Sincerity?

Can There Be Sagacity Without Sincerity?

By Jim Sleeper – October 27, 2010, 8:57PM

Glad though I was last summer (and am now) to see ex- war hawk Peter Beinart indict much of American Jewish leadership for corrupting the American republic and Israeli democracy out of misplaced enthusiasm for bad Israeli strategies, I’ve always found Beinart’s conversion a bit less than convincing.

In Bookforum, I argued in May that Beinart’s The Icarus Syndrome, which surveys U.S. foreign-policy hubris across a century, and his criticisms in the New York Review of Books of American-Jewish Israel lobbying, sounded like testimonies in a conversion that was a little too opportune. It felt to me as if Beinart were trying to escape Beltway liberals’ disapproval more than as if he were undertaking any deep reckoning with himself or the foreign-policy history he schematically surveyed.

But it was one thing for me to say it; it’s quite another for The New York Review of Books itself, where Beinart made his criticisms of the American Israel lobby, to publish a review saying the same things. The NYRB has a clubby reputation as “The New York Review of Each Others’ Books.” But not this time, and that’s noteworthy.

You need a subscription to read Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s review online, and you need to register (for free) to read mine in Bookforum. Suffice it to say that I do credit Beinart for taking sound positions but that I share (and anticipated by several months) Wheatcroft’s judgment that “[F]or all [Beinart’s] apparent new-found realism, he ends his book on a jarring note” of American self-congratulation that recapitulates the hubris whose dire consequences “he has just spent nearly four hundred pages describing….”

In other words, too much of Beinart’s book sounds like Beltway-speak — a barometer of some stirrings inside the Beltway, perhaps, but not a reckoning as wise and consistently prescient as William Pfaff’s half a century of writing about American foreign policy, including his new The Irony of Manifest Destiny, which Wheatcroft reviews in the same NYRB essay.

None of my criticism excuses attempts by some defensive Jewish organizations and leaders to misrepresent the important arguments Beinart is making now. It does mean that, sooner or later, for the sake of honest discussion, he’ll have to know — and explain more convincingly than he has — why he spent so many years saying the opposite of what he’s saying now and assailing those who were already saying it.